Homegoing by Yaa Ngasi

homegoing-yaa-gyasiAstonishing, a work of art, an interwoven tapestry of stories that weave across the generations to create something so beautiful, so heartfelt, the thing that connects them is so strong, even when it isn’t known by its characters, somehow Yaa Ngasi conveys that to the reader, so that by the end when something quite magical happens, there is a feeling of grieving for all that has passed and of relief that something new has been found.

I love, love, loved this novel and I am in awe of its structure and storytelling, the authenticity of the stories, the three-dimensional characters, the inheritance and reinvention of trauma, and the rounding of all those stories into the healing return. I never saw that ending coming and the build up of sadness from the stories of the last few characters made the last story all the more moving, I couldn’t stop the tears rolling down my face.

How to give it justice in a review, it is so much more than story, we are so much more than our own personal experience and the place(s) we have lived.

Just as Han Kang, the South Korean author of the novel Human Acts wrote in consideration of two fundamental questions about humanity, Yaa Gyasi tells us in an article for the New York Times (referenced below) that she too began to write with a vague but important question that she put at the top of her blank screen: What does it mean to be black in America?

She further explains her inspiration in an article for the Observer (also below)

I began Homegoing in 2009 after a trip to Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle [where slaves were incarcerated]. The tour guide told us that British soldiers who lived and worked in the castle often married local women – something I didn’t know. I wanted to juxtapose two women – a soldier’s wife with a slave. I thought the novel would be traditionally structured, set in the present, with flashbacks to the 18th century. But the longer I worked, the more interested I became in being able to watch time as it moved, watch slavery and colonialism and their effects – I wanted to see the through-line.

Homegoing begins with the image of a partial family tree, with two strands and the novel will follow just one family member down each strand, the first two characters who begin these family lines are the daughters of Maame, Effia and Esi.

Effia, whom the villagers said was a baby born of the fire, believed she would marry the village chief, but would be married to a British slave trader and live upstairs in the Cape Coast Castle.

‘The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound. It moved quickly, tearing a path for days. It lived off the air; it slept in caves and hid in trees; it burned, up and through, unconcerned with what wreckage it left behind, until it reached an Asante village. There, it disappeared, becoming one with the night.’

Effia’s father, Cobbe would lose his crop of yams that night, a precious crop known to sustain families far and wide and with it, through his mind would flit a premonition that would reverberate through subsequent generations:

He knew then that the memory of the fire that burned, then fled, would haunt him, his children, and his children’s children for as long as the line continued.’

Cape Coast Castle (a slave trading castle), Ghana

Cape Coast Castle (a slave trading castle), Ghana

Esi, whose father was a Big Man, in expressing her empathy for their house girl, would precipitate events that lead her to be captured and chained in the dungeons beneath that same castle, awaiting the slave trading ships that would transport them to their slave masters in America.

‘They took them out into the light. The scent of ocean water hit her nose. The taste of salt clung to her throat. The soldiers marched them down to an open door that led to sand and water, and they all began to walk out on to it.’

In these first two chapters of Effia and Esi, the recurring twin symbols of fire and water are introduced, something that each generation subconsciously carries with them and passes on, they will reappear through fears, dreams, experiences, a kind of deep primal scar they don’t even know requires healing, its origins so far back, so removed from anything that can be easily articulated.

Fire (yang) is like the curse of the slave trade, raging through the lives of each generation, even when they appear to have escaped it, as with Kojo’s story, a baby passed to the arms of a woman who helped slaves escape, whose parents are captured, but he will live freely, only to have one member of the family cruelly snatched, perpetuating the cycle yet again, orphaning another child, who must start over and scrape together a life from nothing.

‘They didn’t now about Jo’s fear of people in uniform, didn’t know what it was like to lie silent and barely breathing under the floorboards of a Quaker house, listening to the sound of a catcher’s boot heel stomp above you. Jo had worked so hard so his children wouldn’t have to inherit his fear, but now he wished they had just the tiniest morsel of it.’

Water (yin) to me is the endless expanse, the rootlessness, floating on the surface, feet never able to get a grip, efforts floundering. This symbol is carried throughout Essi’s family line, a cast of characters whose wheels are turning, who work hard, but suffer one setback after another.

The novel is structured around one chapter for each character, alternately between the twin sides of the family, the narrative perspective changing to focus on the new generation, through whom we learn something of what happened to the character in the previous generation, who’ve we left two chapters ago. Importantly, because Yaa Gyasi decides not to write in the present with flashbacks, but writes from the perspective of each character in their present, the novel never falters, it doesn’t suffer from the idling effect of flashbacks, it keeps up the pace by putting the reader at the centre of the drama in every chapter. We must live all of it.

The irony of the structure is that we read an entire family history and see how the events of the past affect the future, how patterns repeat, how fears are carried forward, how strong feelings are connected to roots and origins, we see it, while they experience the loss, the frustration, the inability to comprehend that it is not just the actions of one life that affect that life’s outcome.

This book is like a legacy, a long legacy that revolves between the sadness of loss and the human struggle to move forward, to survive, to do better, to improve. And also a legacy of the feeling of not belonging that is carried within those who have been uprooted, who no longer belong to one place or another, who if they are lucky might find someone to whom they can ignite or perhaps even extinguish that yearning ‘to belong’.

‘We can’t go back to something we ain’t never been to in the first place. It ain’t ours anymore. This is.’ She swept her hand in front of her, as though she were trying to catch all of Harlem in it, all of New York, all of America.’

And in writing this novel, Yaa Gyasi perhaps achieves something of what her final character Marcus is unable to articulate to Marjorie as to why his research feels futile, spurning his grandmother’s suggestion that he perhaps had the gift of visions, trying to find answers in a more tangible way, through research and study.

“What is the point Marcus?”
She stopped walking. For all they knew, they were standing on top of what used to be a coal mine for all the black convicts who had been conscripted to work there. It was one thing to research something, another thing entirely to have lived it. To have felt it. How could he explain to Marjorie that what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, and he, and everyone else, existed in it – not apart from it, but inside it.

Yes, she achieves it through literature, through fiction. And this is literature at its most powerful and best.

This novel is going to win awards in 2017, undoubtedly.

*****

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana in 1989 and raised in the US, moving around in early childhood but living in Huntsville, Alabama from the age of 10. She is the daughter of a francophone African literature professor and a nurse and completed her MFA at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, University of Iowa. She wrote this, her debut novel at the age of 26.

Further Reading

New York Times, Sunday Review – Opinion, June 18, 2016 – I’m Ghanaian-American. Am I Black?

Review, The Observer, January 8, 2017 – Yaa Gyasi: ‘Slavery is on people’s minds. It affects us still’

 

Click Here to Buy A Copy of

Homegoing via BookDepository

The Good People by Hannah Kent

good-people

Some of you may know of the author Hannah Kent, whose debut novel Burial Rites, set in Iceland, became a popular bestseller. I never did get around to reading it, though I would still like to, and it was for that reason I was intrigued to pick up this, her second historical novel, set in Ireland during the early 1800’s.

The Good People centres around the lives of three Irish country women, Nora, who has recently become a widow in the same year her daughter passed away, Mary, the teenage housemaid she employs to help her take care of a 4-year-old cripple, the grandson her son-in-law left with her; and Nance, an ageing spinster who lives in a mud shack on the edge of the forest, the one with “the knowledge” whom certain members of the community go to when the remedies of the doctor and the priest yield no cure.

Nora has not consulted Nance before, though her husband Martin had. She is wary of others and their superstitions so keeps the boy hidden from their prying eyes, lest they connect his condition to the string of bad luck in the community, for there are some saying he has ‘the fairy in him’, that he was a changeling, as if possessed.

changeling-pj-lynch

‘A Changeling’ by illustrator & Ireland’s laureate for children’s literature, PJ Lynch – http://www.pjlynchgallery.com

In Irish folklore, people believed that fairies (Irish fairies appear to be a lot more sinister than the Disney kind) could entice or abduct a child away, leaving a malformed substitute (fairy) in its place, recognisable due to its ugly appearance, ill-health, bad temper and old world look of knowledge in their eyes. There were a number of ‘cures’ that might be applied to ‘sweep’ out the fairy and restore the child.

The novel follows the events that occur during the time Mary stays with Nora, as the widow increasingly begins to doubt the child is her grandson and treats “it” as if he were a changeling and Nance’s ways are denounced by the new priest.

‘I have been told you make it your trade to cry at burials.’

‘What is the harm in that?’

‘Your sorrow is artificial, Nance. Rather than comfort those who are afflicted, you live upon their dead.’

Nance shook her head. ‘I do not, Father. That’s not it at all. I feel their sorrow. I give voice to the grief of others when they have not a voice for it themselves.’

The novel immerses the reader deep into the folklore of 19th century Ireland, portraying many of its characters and the community around them as believers of those ancient ways, practitioners of protective rituals, despite the existence of more rational medicines and beliefs.

‘That’s right. Lights. Coming from here the fairies do be, down by the Piper’s Grave,’ Peter continued. Now I might not have the full of my eyes, but I swear I saw a glowing by that whitethorn. You mark my words, there’ll be another death in this family before long.’ His voice dropped to a whisper. ‘First the daughter passes, and now the husband. I tell you, death likes three in company. And if the Good People had a hand in it… well.’

The old ways brush up against the new and culminate in a challenge of one versus the other through the justice system.

Clearly, an extraordinarily well-researched novel, based on certain real events, it succeeds in creating an authentic sense of place, inside the very primitive home of Nora imbued with a strong sense of dread that this is not going to end well. We are shown how things came to be for all three characters and the reactions of the community around them, quick to fear and to judge.

Whitethorn, Faerie Tree, said to guard the entrance to the faerie realm

Whitethorn, Faerie Tree, said to guard the entrance to the faerie realm

What it really excels at, is to make the reader wonder what is real and what is not, after the rejection of the doctor and the priest, we understand how the maid and the widow want desperately to believe in the knowledge of Nance and her alternative “cure”, providing a fascinating insight into a cultural folklore that had much of its community in its grip (and some say does still).

Despite this authenticity, I found it lagged in the mid-section, as Nance’s back story was filled in, causing me to lose interest in picking the book up for a while. It picked up again as the author returned to moving the plot forward. It’s a book, that despite its flaws is likely to generate interesting discussions, of those ancient rituals and beliefs and the cases that became well-known, of cures gone wrong.

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

(Excerpt from ‘The Stolen Child’ by W.B Yeats)

 Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

The Ballroom by Anna Hope

ballroomThe Ballroom is Anna Hope’s second novel and one inspired in part by a family connection. I review it in full at Bookbrowse.

A woman who works in a dark, stuffy, factory, one who has been working in hard labour since she a child, is seized by a desperate need to see the sky and smashes a blackened window one day on impulse.

This is how we meet Ella Fay, just before she is committed to an asylum, a place where not only those who genuinely require care, but those who are at the mercy of the powerful (men, husbands, employers), often find themselves.

Picture: Mark Davis

It is here Ella meets John, a more fortunate patient who works outdoors, he and Ella meet briefly when she tries to escape being held and subsequently on Fridays in the ballroom, the only time selected men and women are allowed to meet.

John is being observed by Dr Charles Fuller, who desires to make a contribution to his field, he closely follows the developments of the Eugenics movement, a group who support improvement of the human race through the prevention of the feeble-minded from reproducing. Uncertain which side of the debate he is on, he tests his theories through observations of the patients, until an unfortunate incident swings his position wildly towards one extreme.

Picture: Mark Davis

Tension mounts as Ella and John begin to correspond and grow closer to each other and as Dr Fuller’s plans grow closer to fruition, endangering all that might be.

It is an interesting and gripping novel of the experience of two patients who feel more normal to the reader than the man in charge of them, creating a certain tension as we wonder what will happen to them, as they grow to need each other.

The novel is based in part or at least inspired by the authors own great-great grandfather, also an Irishman, who she discovered was committed to the West Riding Pauper Lunatic asylum in the same era on account of his melancholia, caused by the constant threat of poverty; sadly he passed away there.

It provides a disturbing highlight on the British eugenics movement, at its height at the time, supported by a number of high-profile intellectuals and politicians including Winston Churchill.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Click Here To Buy a copy of The Ballroom via Book Depository

the-ballroom2

The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

To the Bright EdgeEowyn Ivey was the author of my favourite book of 2012 and one of my all time favourite reads, her debut novel The Snow Child an extraordinary, accomplished work about a childless couple who leave the close-knit support of their child-filled families to try to make a success of ‘homesteading’ in the Alaska wilderness.

I’m not the only one who long-awaited the next thing she would write, a book that was first mentioned a couple of years ago, with the suggested title Shadow of the Wolverine and which would eventually be published in 2016 as To the Bright Edge of the World.

I reviewed this title for Bookbrowse, that review (not the same as my comments below) and an article I wrote about Lieutenant Henry Tureman Allen, can be viewed by members by clicking the link.

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Set in 1885, Ivey’s new book was inspired by real events, and in particular by the adventures of the little known Lieutenant Henry Tureman Allen, an Alaskan Explorer and Decorated US Major General and his Report of an Expedition to the Copper, Tananá, and Kóyukuk Rivers.

The author also cites for inspiration Bram Stoker’s Dracula (first-person voices, use of documents and tremendous suspense), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (for its humanity in the face of terror and its time frame) and William Vollmann’s mythological fantasy The Ice-Shirt from the Seven Dream series.

It is narrated firstly through the letters and diary entries of the fictional Lieutenant Allen Forrestor (based on Henry Allen) and his younger wife Sophie, as he makes a commissioned expedition through harsh US owned Alaskan territory up the fictitious Wolverine River, with a small team accompanying him.

His wife Sophie writes him letters and keeps a journal of her time while he is away, so she can share how she spent her time. Sophie is both a woman of her time and ahead of her time, she knows what is expected of her, but has married a man who she hopes accepts she has a mind and a curiosity of her own, a part of her that shall not be tamed.

She takes up photography, learning how to mix chemicals and process plates and spends hours observing birdlife, in some of the most exquisite passages, as she patiently waits to capture a singular event, that might express that moment of pure magic she does not have the words to define, but can recognise instantly in an image, rare though it may be.

allen-team

The Team Who Inspired the Novel

In contemporary time, we also read letters between a descendant of Allen Forrestor named Walter Forrester, who has sent the Colonel’s journals, papers and other items for safekeeping to Josh, the exhibitions curator of the Alpine Historical Museum in Alaska, hoping to convince him to safeguard the documents and artefacts, given they are some of the earliest, firsthand descriptions of those northern lands before colonisation, while still inhabited by native Midnooskies (a Russian word for “people of the Copper River”) and Wolverine River Indians (Ahtna and Eyak tribes).

While it is a novel, the journey upriver was inspired by the expedition of Lieutenant Henry T. Allen (1859 – 1930), a true account Eowyn Ivey came across when the bookshop she worked for acquired a rare copy of Allen’s Report of their Expedition to the Copper, Tanana, and Koyukuk Rivers in the Territory of Alaska.

Ivey took the book home for an evening, staying up late to read it, sharing passages with her husband and was completely fascinated by this piece of Alaskan history she had never heard of before, despite growing up and living all her life there.

In 1885, Allen and two men trekked up the Copper River into completely unmapped territory and encountered Native Alaskans who had never seen white people. The men nearly died many times from starvation and exposure, but eventually they made it through the mountains, down the Yukon River and to Saint Michael.

Though inspired by the Colonel’s expedition, the novel is influenced by other encounters and ancient beliefs she became aware of over time, and it was then the idea for the novel developed:

And at some point it struck me—what if a landscape actively reflected the beliefs of its people? And when these military men ventured into Alaska, what if they had encountered those beliefs as living, breathing, tangible forces?

030412_2011_TheSnowChil1.jpgAnd in a style true to Eowyn Ivey and familiar from her novel The Snow Child (inspired by both a fairy tale and her own life), The Bright Edge of the World might be described she says, as “documentary meets mythology” where certain things the men encounter, they will fail to be able to explain, despite the fact that they all witnessed them. They are things the natives accept and speak of openly, but that these men have no words to describe and are somewhat reluctant to mention.

It is a novel that charts out the recent history of this relatively untamed wilderness and while recognising the beauty and simplicity of a way of life before armies, prospectors and settlers would change it forever, also looks back and recognises that if it were not for those who went first and documented what they found, little of that way of life would be known about and be able to be appreciated today.

The Colonel’s diaries, like the writings of Meriwether Lewis and Captain Cook, are a kind of cursed treasure.

eowyn-ivey

Author, Eowyn Ivey

To the Bright Edge of the World is a wonderful introduction to a little known expedition that opened up further the Alaskan frontiers and a delightful story of a well matched couple, who manage to combine their love of nature and the outdoors with the way they live their lives.

Eowyn Ivey manages to inform and entertain in this worthy follow-up to the magical Snow Child, a novel that was always going to be a tough act to follow.

Click Here to Buy a Copy of To The Bright Edge of the World

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy), thank you to the publisher for providing a copy via NetGalley.

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Annie Proulx’s second novel The Shipping News (1993) won both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for fiction. Her short story Brokeback Mountain from the collection Close Range was made into a powerful film, directed by Ang Lee.

She is now 80 years old and has just published the novel Barkskins, a historical family saga that follows the descendants of two Frenchmen who arrive in the King’s newly claimed territory of New France (an area that today is made up of parts of Canada, the US and two islands that remain under French control).

BarkskinsProulx hasn’t published a novel since 2002 and has spent the last ten years researching, studying, writing about and travelling to visit trees and forests of the world. Her novel has at its heart, the theme of deforestation and uses the two families to illustrate her thinking, that there is no greater protector or more harmonious dweller of a lands natural resources than those who are native to the area.

One of the characters Rene Sel, marries a native Indian woman, the other Charles Duquet, marries the daughter of a Dutch shipping magnate and from then on their destinies and the generations that follow, will navigate different paths, one family struggling to survive and to retain their identity and ways, the other creating a family empire, intent on finding a renewable resource to ensure the business continues to grow and expand.

Again Duquet saw the great weakness of the trade – surplus or scarcity. Beaver might disappear from over trapping or disease or for no discernible reason. Or the Indians took too many. He now regarded tales of immense profits in the fur trade as fables. He wanted great and permanent wealth, wealth for a hundred years. He wanted a fortune to pass on to his sons. He wanted his name on buildings. He was surprised to discover in himself a wish for children, a wish to establish a family name. The name Duquet would change from a curse to an honor.

Rene and his children learn from his Mi’kmaq wife, their mother Mari, who was a repository of answers to their many questions, for her people had ‘examined the world with boundless imagination for many generations’ already.

Over the months and years he learned from her. His relationship to Mari became a marriage of intelligences as well as bodies. They stood opposed on the nature of the forest. To Mari it was a living entity, as vital as the waterways, filled with the gifts of medicine, food, shelter, tool material, which everyone discovered and remembered. One lived with it in harmony and gratitude. She believed the interminable chopping of every tree for the foolish purpose of “clearing the land” was bad.

Parts of the novel are riveting and in particular, Proulx inhabits in an engaging manner, the characters of Charles Duquet and one of his descendants Lavinia Duke, who becomes the head of the family empire and is as ruthless as the men who became before her. It is she who Proulx sends to New Zealand in search of the enchanted kauri forests.

Yes. They have trees. Especially do they have certain ‘kauri’ trees, which experts describe as the most perfect trees on the earth, truly enormous trees that rise high with all the branches clustered conveniently at the top. The wood of these trees is without blemish, light, odourless, of a delightful golden colour, easy to carve and work, strong and long-wearing.

However, at just over 700 pages and spanning 300 years and multiple generations, it is a challenge to keep the characters in mind and as a result some make more of an impression than others, which both quickens and inevitably often slows the pace of reading, a necessary compromise perhaps when illustrating such a significant era of history through the narrative form of fiction.

It is a book of a writer’s indulgence, this is Proulx doing what pleases her; a trained historian spending her time indulging a subject that fascinates and rouses her interest which is also a major concern to her. Her book is a wake-up call, even if its lessons sadly, have been learned much too late.

“Nobody can visit the big trees again; the huge forests do not exist. The understorey has gone, and the smaller plants and animals – the ecosystem has been damaged. Change is right with us, and you can get frightened.” Annie Proulx – The Observer, 5 June 2016

I reviewed this book for Bookbrowse and also wrote an article Beyond the Book on the territory of New France, where it is currently Editor’s Pick and available to read by clicking on the link below:

Read Claire’s Review and Article at Bookbrowse

To buy a copy of the book via Book Depository, click on the link below:

Buy Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

 

 

The Infinite Air by Fiona Kidman #JeanBatten Queen of the Skies

Infinite AirThe Infinite Air is a novel that brings together much that is known about the international aviation legend Jean Batten and through research, letters, radio excerpts brings her character and personality to life, in a more understanding and compassionate way than some of the more judgemental depictions of her in the past, views that hastened to depict her as a gold-digger, due to her adept success at raising the necessary funds to support her desire to break long haul aviation records.

She was New Zealand’s most famous aviator, celebrated around the world in the 1930’s, as she attempted record-breaking solo flights from England to Australia and back, one of the few who survived such daring escapades, though sadly she would die in relative obscurity in Majorca, Spain buried in a pauper’s grave, without anyone from her native New Zealand, aware of the loss of this great female legend.

Fiona Kidman brings the story back to Jean Batten’s birth in Rotorua, New Zealand in September 1909 and the symbolic reference and future inspiration of a photograph her mother pinned above her cot in 1910 of the French aviator, Louis Blériot, the first man to fly the English Channel. It was an image lodged early in her young mind and the seed of a passion that would consume her totally as a young adult.

Louis Blériot pre-takeoff 1909

Louis Blériot pre-takeoff 1909

Jean Batten was the only daughter of the family with two older brothers, one she was close to in childhood, though the disintegration of the family, when her mother could no longer support her husband’s infidelities, created a distance between between the siblings as well as the parents. She would eventually lose contact with her family and country (except the constant companion and guidance of her mother) when she moved permanently to live in Europe.

As a child and a young adult she did well in school and was passionate about dance and played classical piano. Although her mother had financial difficulties after separating from her husband, she did her best to keep her daughter in a good school and to pursue those interests. Jean excelled at all activities but there was only one that she dreamed of to the point of obsession and would become her sole purpose for the short period she was able to pursue it.

She was on her way to becoming a successful concert pianist (a career her father supported), though she nurtured that flame of interest in aviation, when her true passion was ignited by news of  Charles Lindbergh’s solo non-stop crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. In 1929, she travelled with her mother to Australia and met, flew with and developed a friendship with the aviator Charles Kingsford Smith. From that moment on she became obsessed with wanting to fly and create world records, encouraged by her mother.

In early 1930, she sold her piano to fund a passage to England where she joined a London Aeroplane Club, obtained her pilot’s licence and set about quickly to challenge the record for a solo flight from England to Australia, first set by the English pilot Amy Johnson. She made friends and attracted suitors at the Club and through her connections, managed to acquire herself an aircraft, an astonishing feat given how she and her mother struggled to maintain the social status they aspired towards. They were not wealthy, they were equally determined and driven by Jean’s ambition to succeed.

Jean Batten, 1934

Jean Batten, 1934

Jean Batten was renowned for her navigation skills and was a confident flyer, something that might be said about most aviators attempting solo records at the time, they had to prepare well, and to be prepared to take great risks to fly with the knowledge that if anything went wrong, death or luck were the likely outcomes.

In her first two attempts at the record Batten got into trouble. The first flight she became caught in a sandstorm over the desert in Iraq, landed and slept under the wing. She continued on but experienced engine failure and crash landed near Karachi, wrecking the plane.

Her next attempt, after obtaining the sponsorship of Charles Wakefield of Castrol Oil, who funded a second-hand gypsy moth, after landing in Marseille to refuel she was warned not to continue due to the weather, but was determined to continue, the authorities refused to help her start the engine, then forbade her to depart without signing an indemnity making her fully responsible for the consequences.

It was an attitude she became used to confronting – she didn’t hesitate to sign it and took off into the headwind of a blustery storm with limited visibility, heading for Rome. Her engine spluttering, out of fuel, she was preparing to crash in the sea when the lights of the city appeared, enabling her to navigate her way to a semi-successful crash landing, one that clipped her wings which would require replacing and in ten days she was back in England setting off for her third and ultimately successful attempt.

Dame Fiona Kidman, the New Zealand author of more than 20 novels has chosen to fictionlise the story of Jean Batten’s life, in order to bring out more of her character and the early years of her life that contributed to her passion. For a young woman who did not come from a wealthy family, who was not married, though she was engaged a few times, her successes were and extraordinary accomplishment, that were marred only by the onset of World War 2 when her plane was confiscated and perhaps even more so by certain tragedies that touched her life and dramatically altered its course.

The novel pays a fitting tribute to this lost heroine of the skies and sees past that ‘driven’ aspect of her character that is too often portrayed as a negative characteristic in a woman, particularly of that era she lived in.

Dame Fiona Kidman will be appearing at the Belfast Book Fest on Saturday June 11 and at New Zealand night at Foyles Charing Cross London on June 14, 2016:

A short documentary created after the discovery of the passing of the legendary Jean Batten:

Jean Batten : The Garbo of the Skies – Documentary 1988

Every flyer who ventures across oceans to distant lands is a potential explorer; in his or her breast burns the same fire that urged the adventurers of old to set forth in their sailing-ships for foreign lands. Riding through the air on silver wings instead of sailing the seas with white wings, he must steer his own course, for the air is uncharted, and he must therefore explore for himself the strange eddies and currents of the ever-changing sky in its many moods.

Jean Batten

 

To Purchase This Book Click Here:  The Infinite Air by Fiona Kidman

Note: The book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher Aardvark Bureau, an imprint of Gallic Books.

February by Lisa Moore

FebruaryFebruary is a novel constructed around a real and tragic historical event that occurred in Newfoundland, Canada just over thirty years ago, a tragedy that remains deeply felt in the area today. All Newfoundlanders of a certain age, remember where they were on the night the Ocean Ranger sank, a technological wonder that was supposed to be unsinkable, one that if safety procedures had been followed, indeed, may not have done so.

The book was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2010. The cover doesn’t tell us much about the scope of this novel, I expect it represents the protagonist Helen, at about the age she must have been, in her 30’s when she learned she had lost her husband at sea.

From Wikipedia:

Ocean Ranger was a semi-submersible mobile offshore drilling unit that sank in Canadian waters on 15 February 1982. It was drilling an exploration well on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, 267 kilometres (166 mi) east of St. John’s, Newfoundland, for Mobil Oil of Canada, Ltd. with 84 crew members on board when it disappeared. There were no survivors.

OceanRanger

‘Ocean Ranger Oil Rig’ – Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

It was the day after Valentine’s Day, Helen, received a card from her husband Cal, a day or so later. Cal’s mother phoned the Coast guard and shouted at them, saying they’d got it wrong. If the men were dead the company would have informed the families.

Helen knows in her heart it is true, but she needs the body of her husband. Her father-in-law convinces her that she doesn’t want to remember him that way.

‘There were people who went on hoping for months. They said there must be some island out there, and that’s where the survivors were. There was no island. Everybody knew there was no island. It was impossible. People who knew the coast like the back of their hand. But they thought an island might exist that they hadn’t noticed before.’

At night she dreams of him and believes he wishes her to join him.

‘How awful. Death has made him selfish.

Forget the children. This is what he means. Forget yourself. Come with me. Don’t you want to know what happened?

She feels as though she is betraying him by staying. It is relentless and exhausting, every time she says no him, she forgets him a little more.

The novel moves between the 1970’s when she and Cal were married to October, November 2008, the present, when Helen awaits the arrival of her son John, who has called from Tasmania, Australia to tell her he is going to become a father.

Helen is kept busy running her own dressmaking business and at the insistence of her sister Louise, is having her floors replaced by Barry. She doesn’t want the job to end, she becomes used to his presence, his ignorance of her. It makes her desire him.

John’s story also moves between 2008 and the mid 90’s when he makes a career change, becoming an engineer for the same industry that took the life of his father. He has had a high risk job and never wanted to become a father. The novel gives more space to John and the mother of his soon to be born child, Jane, while giving little space to the two daughters, who appear on the fringes, are not close to their mother, nor developed with much depth.

‘John has avoided being a father all his adult life. It has taken stealth and some underhandedness. It has taken clarity of purpose when the moment called for dreamy abandon. He has practised withdrawal. He has kept what he wants, what he actually wants for his life, in the centre of his thoughts, even while in the throes of orgasm. He’s kept a tight fist on the reins of himself.’

February is a brilliantly constructed  and thought-provoking vision of one woman’s grief in the wake of her husband’s death, leaving her pregnant and with three children to raise. It illustrates the way this event and the memories it triggers, return in waves from that point forward, that death is not really death, it is a form of ever-present, albeit fading memory.

While never overly melancholic, Helen’s recollections and reconstructions of what may have happened to her husband in those last minutes, her studying of the manuals to understand how to resolve the problem that caused the sinking, reminded me of Joan Didion’s study and reliving of her own husband’s death in The Year of Magical Thinking (2005).

However life continues on and around Helen and those quotidian narratives reminded me of the work of Anne Tyler as we see-saw between the practical elements of daily life and the introspection of a death that stays with someone their entire life and in those still moments, returns as potently, as if it were yesterday.

Moore lost her father a few years before the Ocean Ranger sank, she was 16 and her sister 12, giving her first hand experience of how grief works it way through a family, how it makes and shapes the lives of those left behind, an experience that enriches the novel and brings it alive, makes it feel authentic.

Quietly compelling, highly recommended.

‘I think the most important thing I’ve learned about grief – and coming through it – is that you don’t forget the person you’ve lost. Rather, the memories become sharper, gather new meaning, and are richer over time. The absent become more present, not less so, as time goes on.’ Lisa Moore, extract from an interview with Bookgroup.info