The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart tr. Barbara Bray #WITMonth

Bridge of BeyondAbsolutely brilliant, astonishing, loved it, one of my Top Reads of 2016 for sure.

Originally published in 1972 as Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle, The Bridge of Beyond is acknowledged as one of the masterpieces of Caribbean literature. It was republished in English in 2013 as an NYRB Classic, with an introduction by Jamaica Kincaid, beautifully translated by Barbara Bray, described as ‘an intoxicating tale of love and wonder, mothers and daughters, spiritual values and the grim legacy of slavery’.

Telumee is the last in a line of proud Lougandor women on the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe. It is a novel best left to speak for itself, as the many quotes from the novel that follow here illustrate, a work infused throughout with a vital and vibrant female energy, a force that empowers them to forge ahead, no matter the circumstances, one that will permeate the reader, instilling courage and awe at the language that creates this positive, intoxicating feeling.

In the first part we learn about her people, her mother Victory,

“a laundress, wearing out her wrists on flat stones in the rivers, and her linen emerged like new from under the heavy waxed irons”

her father, his life cut short in a fatal stabbing,

“Angebert, had led a reserved and silent existence, effacing himself so completely
that no one ever knew who it was died that day. Sometimes I wonder about him, ask myself what anyone so kind and gentle was doing in this world at all.”

the man who pulled her mother out of her grief, and out of her daughter’s life,

“The fact is that a mere nothing, a thought, a whim, a particle of dust can change the course of a life. If Haut-Colbi had not stopped in the village my little story would have been different.”

and her grandmother Toussine, ‘Queen Without a Name’, to whom her mother sent her to live.

“My mother’s reverence for Toussine was such I came to regard her as some mythical being not of this world, so that for me she was legendary even while still alive.”

Simone Schwarz-Bart

Simone Schwarz-Bart

Telumee narrates the story of her life, in small details, in melodic, incantatory prose that lures the reader in, consuming her story with great pleasure. Every change of home, village, or great journey takes them across the Bridge of Beyond, a symbol of change and the unknown, the other side.

As she passes through various stages of life, she is guided but never pressured by her grandmother, remembering her stories, her songs, her advice.

“My little ember”, she’d whisper, “if you ever get on a horse, keep good hold of the reins so that it’s not the horse that rides you.” And as I clung to her, breathing in her nutmeg smell, Queen Without a Name would sigh, caress me, and go on, distinctly, as if to engrave the words on my mind: “Behind one pain, there is another. Sorrow is a wave without end. But the horse mustn’t ride you, you must ride it.”

She will fall in love, leave to work in the kitchen of wealthy white family, build her own home, experience both profound happiness and the depths of despair, brush up against madness and find its cure, and always the reassuring presence of her grandmother.

“Sometimes old thoughts arose in me, shooting up like whirls of dust raised from the road by a herd of wild horses galloping by. The Grandmother to try to whistle up a wind for me, saying we should soon be going away, for the air in Fond-Zombi didn’t agree with my lungs now.”

As Jamaica Kincaid articulates well in the introduction, The Bridge of Beyond is not a conventional novel, and it never tries to be. It is a fluid, unveiling of a life, and a way of life, lived somewhere between a past that is not forgotten, that time of slavery lamented in the songs and felt in the bones, and a present that is a struggle and a joy to live, alongside nature, the landscape, the community and their traditions.

The cultural traditions and historical events from which this work of art springs cannot be contained in a strict linear narrative. In fact, such a device might even lend a veneer of inevitability to them. For the narrative that began with a search for fresh water on an island one Sunday morning has no end – it circles back on itself, it begins again, it staggers sideways, it never lurches forward to a conclusion in which the world where it began is suddenly transformed into an ideal, new world. Schwarz-Bart’s prose awakens the senses and enlarges the imagination; it makes me anxious for my own sanity and yet at the same time certain of it; her sentences, rooted in Creole experience and filled with surprising insights and proverbs, resonate in my head and heart.” Jamaica Kincaid

It is one of the best books I have read in a long time, coming from a place of love and appreciation that reaches far back, acknowledging the gifts of all, that make up who we are. Outstanding.

Simone and André Schwarz-Bart

Simone and André Schwarz-Bart

Simone Schwarz-Bart was born in France(her parents were from Guadeloupe) in 1938, her father a solider, her mother a teacher. When war broke out, she and her mother returned to Guadeloupe. She studied in Paris, where she met her future husband, the writer André Schwarz-Bart.

They collaborating on more than one work of literature, including a six-volume encyclopaedia Hommage à la femme noire, (In Praise of Black Women), to honour the black heroines who were missing in the official historiography.

Click to Buy The Bridge of Beyond via Book Depository

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The Bones of Grace (Bangladesh #3) by Tahmima Anam

Tahmima Anam’s The Bones of Grace can easily be read as a standalone novel, however its central character Zubaida Haque, is the third generation of the family we met in her earlier novels.  

A Golden Age was set mostly in 1971 during the Bangladesh War of Independence when the territory split from West Pakistan and was seen from the perspective of  Rehana, widow and mother of Maya and Sohail, actively involved in the events that transpired during that time.

The Good Muslim was set in the years directly after independence and the impact on the family, seen mostly from Maya’s perspective.

In the Bones of Grace, life is lived far from the effects of war, by a generation looking for meaning in less noble and more personal pursuits. Zubaida is educated abroad and more interested in the fossils of the Ambulocetus ‘walking whale’ and the implications on evolutionary belief than the politics of her own country. She is unsure – but follows it anyway – of the path leading her towards marrying her long-term boyfriend, whom her family approve of, after a brief encounter with Elijah, a man she met at a classical concert in Cambridge.

Bones GraceThe novel is predominantly a second person narrative addressed to Elijah, long after she has lost him, narrating the events of their meeting, her pursuit of the dinosaur fossils straight after meeting him, her return to Dhaka and then her escape from her family to Chittagong, to work alongside a female film-maker interviewing workers on the ship graveyards, beaches where enormous liners are dismantled and parts recycled.

The narrative also gives voice to Anwar, a man she meets in Chittagong who in narrating to the two women the events of his life that brought him there, reveals a connection to Zubaida’s past, a history that haunts her and perhaps goes someway towards explaining her confused behaviour.

It is a novel of profound and often neurotic reflections, as we only ever hear Zubaida’s version of events, in a lament to her lost lover, whom we don’t spend enough time with to sympathise or consider what his perspective might have been, her address to him might well be actually to herself, for its purposes appears more to be an attempt to find and understand herself, requiring her to be far from everyone to do so.

It’s a worthy follow-up to the first two novels, written in quite a different style, which demonstrates the growth and confidence of the writer. I read the three books back to back and enjoyed them all, though I would say that the first novel was the more powerful, perhaps not surprising as it was inspired in part by many of the events lived through by Anam’s grandmother.

I reviewed this book for BookBrowse,  if you click on the link you can read their latest reviews.

Click to Buy a Copy of The Bones of Grace via Book Depository

The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen tr. John Irons #WITMonth

This is a tragedy about a woman who yearns for love but ends up in a painfully destructive conflict with her sister. It is also a story about loneliness – both geographical and psychological. Facing the prospect of a life without love, we fall back into isolating delusions at exactly the moment when we need to connect.

Mieke Ziervogel, Peirene Press

Looking Glass SistersTwo sisters have lived in the same house all their lives, their parents long gone and they can barely tolerate each other. They are bound together in one sense due to the practical disability of the younger sister, but also through the inherent sense of duty and responsibility of the first-born.

At times like these, in the dark, maybe with a candle lit, a sudden, intense feeling overcomes me that Ragna and I are one body, completely inseparable. We have gradually let go of parts of ourselves in favour of the other. Over the years, through conflicts and confrontations, we have shaped, kneaded and formed ourselves into a lopsided, distorted yet complete organism. Ragna has the body and I have the soul. She puts on the firewood, I do the thinking. She makes the tea, I read and write.

They manage with their hostile acceptance of each other until the new neighbour Johan begins to visit and competes for the attention of the able, caring, repressed Ragna, a potential disruptive threat to her invalid sister and to the way things in their household have been for a long time.

Days and weeks go by, I glide into a soothing rhythm of calm everydayness. It is an illusion, I know that, for beneath the dependable surface conspiracies smoulder, along with my sister’s hot-tempered desire for her own life.

Narrated from the perspective of the crippled sister in a stream of consciousness style, its intense, frustrating and laced with a sense of foreboding as the third character, Johan, arrives and either in her imagination or in reality – we are never quite sure – convinces the sister to make plans to change their circumstances.

Can it be that I, the sick one, have given rise to impatience in Ragna because of my exaggerated gestures and unreasonable demands? Can it be that I, the helpless one, have bred the anger in her by making myself more pathetic than I am? And can it be that I, in my struggle to gain the inviolable position of victim, have forged and fashioned Ragna the violator?

Claustrophobic, at times surreal, it fits perfectly with the Peirene Press Close Encounters theme, which comprised the three novellas below.

Chance Encounter Series

Peirene Press publish three books a year in a themed series. Their 6th series ‘Chance Encounters’ comprised three books that explored different aspects of interpersonal relationships and the importance of the Other in our development as individuals and our understanding of ourselves.

10 Great Books That Transport You Around the World #BookLoversDay

Yesterday it was International Cat Day and today it’s BookLovers Day, well any day will do to celebrate reading, so since it’s summer and I’m not going away this year, here are some easy travelling locations to visit by book, all great reads. Click on the title to read my review

10 Books That Transport You Around the World

Snowy Alaska – The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

Northern England – The Drowning of Arthur Braxton by Caroline Smailes

Coastal Italy – The Enchanted April by Elisabeth von Arnim

Spanish Pyrenees – The Yellow Rain by Julio Llamazares tr. by Margaret Jull Costa

France – The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain

Turkey – Portrait of a Turkish Family by Irfan Orga

Afghanistan – The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari (as narrated to Robert Hillman)

Ethiopia – Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

 

Cuba – Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia

Vietnam – Ru by Kim Thuy

New Zealand – Hummingbird by James George

And since I’ve already read all of these, today I’m choosing to go to Guadeloupe and will begin reading The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart,

“A masterpiece of Caribbean literature – an intoxicating tale of love and wonder, mothers and daughters, spiritual values and the grim legacy of slavery on the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe.”

Happy Reading!

Bridge of Beyond

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The Blue Satin Nightgown by Karin Crilly #memoir

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Mary Oliver, Poet

Outdoor MassageA few years ago a lady who had recently moved here to Aix-en-Provence contacted me in relation to Flairesse, my aromatherapy therapeutic massage business. She became a regular client and over time I got to know her well, discovering a mutual interest in culture, books and writing. She had a strong passion for travel, the lives of others and the excitement of discovery, which was the name of a blog she’d set up to keep a record of her adventures while living in France.

I learned that she was writing a book, which had initially been planned to be a collection of a dozen or so stories she had related to her clients over the years, (she had been a Marriage and Family Counsellor for 30 years in Southern California) these stories had been her way to illustrate a particular teaching, something she had found that people absorbed more easily through storytelling than being given the lesson directly.

However, and given her adventurous spirit, it came as no surprise to me, once she sat down to write it, she realised that looking back and recounting the past, the stories she had spent 30 years narrating, no longer excited her, so she decided to change direction and push her focus forward, towards the unknown lifescape before her and share this grand adventure she had embarked on, three years after her retirement, at the unstoppable age of seventy-eight.

Every month, I would hear how the book was progressing and I’d also hear about Karin’s latest travels, culinary adventures, her move to a quieter apartment, her daily five Tibetans rites of rejuvenation ritual, and always that infectious laugh and sense of fun she had about life. I lent her a few writing books and then suggested she might like to enter The Good Life France writing competition, 1,000 words about France – about memories, a favourite place, or something you love about France.

good lifeExcited about the opportunity to put her writing skills to the test, Karin took the first chapter of her book, moulded it as much as she could to meet the criteria, sent it to me to look over and to make recommendations on how to whittle it down further without losing any of the content and then sent it off! We came up with the title ‘Scattered Dreams’ and a few weeks later heard the fantastic news, a confirmation if ever any was needed of how realistic this dream was in coming to fruition, that she had won first prize! She was now published and on her way to fulfilling that goal of becoming an inspirational author.

And so, today I am delighted to be able to introduce you now to published author Karin Crilly, and the book that made its first chapter appearance in The Good Life France where it was so fabulously awarded the recognition it deserved – The Blue Satin Nightgown, My French Makeover at Age 78.

I had to share this photo which Karin sent me one night as I was scribbling notes over one of her chapters in the book, (after that first success, I read all her manuscript and tried to concentrate on making notes for feedback, which was difficult, as her stories were so entertaining and often had me open-mouthed in surprise).

She’d told me she was going to an Elton John concert earlier in the evening and then later this picture arrived, showing her accepting a lift home from Xavier – the husband of her friend Marie-Paule, a couple who became like family to her –  it so depicts the excitement and sense of adventure Karin was always up for and no wonder her book is so full of laughs and the pure delight of living life to the full.

The Blue Satin Nightgown is an enchanting, easy reading memoir of Karin’s two years based here in the small town of Aix-en-Provence, taking us through both the trials and delights of her attempt to integrate into French culture, finding an apartment, discovering the markets, learning French cuisine – though she is already an excellent cook, and shares some new and favourite recipes throughout the book.

She attracts men without trying and there are many entertaining chapters of close encounters and demonstrations of what we might refer to as, the French culture’s ‘art of seduction‘, a term that doesn’t have the same meaning in English, more of a natural charm that often surpasses the boundaries of the Anglo-American experience and is practised by young and old.

One of the endearing aspects of Karin’s writing and of her character is her ability to look at herself and see how she reacts in certain situations, to talk to herself as if she were one of her own clients. She brings a natural and gracious wisdom to the page and often thought back to wonder how her late husband Bill, to whom she dedicated the book, would have responded to what she had experienced and often asked herself what lesson she needed to learn. She finds wisdom not just in her own encounters, but by maintaining a strong and positive link to her loved one, a memory that never held her back, one she found a way to help push her forward and kept at her side, without ever succumbing to grief or self-pity.

Karin is not just an inspiration to those in their seventies or those who have lost a life partner, she is an inspiration to all of us, who have ever thought about doing something a little adventurous or extraordinary.

When my husband died from complications of Parkinson’s disease, I wondered if I could still be extraordinary. I had expended so much energy being his caregiver for eighteen years, the last five years of which demanded my entire being. After grieving for several years, I retired from thirty years of counselling. I needed to reinvent my life. I believed what I have always known: that the true self is presented  with ideas that it is capable of fulfilling.

When I received the call at age seventy-eight, I remembered my clients and my advice to them.  And I said YES!

Karin Crilly, Introduction, The Blue Satin Nightgown

Buy a copy of Karin’s The Blue Satin Nightgown via Book Depository here (affiliate link)

or Buy a Kindle E- book version here

*****

Aix

The Door by Magda Szabó tr. Len Rix #WITMonth

The DoorThe Door is an overwrought, neurotic narrative by “the lady writer”, (possibly Szabó’s alter-ego, as there are similarities) describing her 20 year relationship with Emerence, the older lady who interviews her prospective employer to see if she’ll consider accepting the cleaning job on offer.

The writer and her husband have recently had a ban on publication lifted from them (for political reasons) and anticipate requiring help around the house as they get back to work. Despite having little respect for intellectuals and only for those who do manual work, in her own time Emerence decides to accept them.

No formal agreement dictated the number of hours Emerence spent in our house, or the precise times of her arrival. We might conceivably see nothing of her all day. Then, at eleven at night, she would appear, not in the inner rooms, but in the kitchen or the pantry, which she would scrub until dawn.

Are they dependent on one another or do they despise each other? Is Emerence an altruistic soul, or a cunning manipulator? Is the lady writer narcissistic or consumed with guilt pursuing her idle occupation while the older woman takes on more and more work?

I stood there gazing after her, wondering why she still stuck with me when I was so very different from her. I had no idea what she liked about me. I said earlier that I still rather young,  and I hadn’t thought it through, how irrational, how unpredictable is the attraction between people, how fatal its current. And yet I was well versed in Greek literature,  which portrayed nothing but  the passions: death and love and friendship, their hands joined together around a glittering axe.

The entire novel hovers with each event between opposing emotional states as they appear to get the measure of the other only for the behaviour to completely change. Emerence will do anything and everything for everyone, she is loved by all, but has never opened the door to her home to a soul, her charges make it to her porch and no further. No one knows anything about her private life and she shuts down anyone who dares to pry.

Dressmakers ribcageLater, only very much later, in one of the most surreal moments I have ever experienced, I wandered amidst the ruin of Emerence’s life, and discovered, there in her garden, standing on the lawn, the faceless dressmaker’s dummy designed for my mother’s exquisite figure. Just before they sprinkled it with petrol and set fire to it, I caught sight of Emerence’s ikonstasis. We were all there, pinned to the fabric over the dolls’ ribcage: the Grossman family, my husband, Viola, the Lieutenant Colonel, the nephew, the baker, the lawyer’s son, and herself, the young Emerence, with radiant golden hair, in her maid’s uniform and little crested cap, holding a baby in her arms.

Seen through the prism of the writer, we observe Emerence only through her eyes, often confused, sometimes suspicious, frequently neurotic. She bears the hallmarks of an unreliable narrator.

It is a slow developing relationship and narrative that entwines these two women’s lives together, creating a delicate trust, the implications of which lead to its tragic denouement.

It’s a compelling, unsettling read, there is a sense of foreboding as the protagonist often jumps forward and provides brief glimpses as to what is coming, building tension and the sense of some kind of catastrophic event or revelation that awaits them all.

Magda SzabóMagda Szabó was born in 1917 in Debrecen, Hungary, her father a member of the City Council, and her mother a teacher.

In 1949 she was awarded the prestigious Hungarian literary Baumgarten Prize, given to “Hungarian authors with serious endeavour whether in literature or in science who are exempt of any religious, racial or social prejudices and serve only ideal aims…”

The prize was withdrawn from her for political reasons the same day it was awarded. She was dismissed from her job at the Ministry and during the establishment of Stalinist rule from 1949 to 1956, the government did not allow her works to be published.

In 2003, the French translation of ‘The Door’ won France’s Prix Femina Étranger.

She died in 2007, at the age of ninety and was one of Hungary’s best-known writers, although very few of her works have been published in English. The ‘Door’ however, was translated in more than 40 languages and published in 64 countries.

Reading Women Writers in Translation

This is my third read in August for #WITMonth, reading Women in Translation.  Have you read anything by Magda Szabó?

Further Reading

New Yorker Article, April 29, 2016 – The Hungarian Despair of Magda Szabó’s “The Door” by Cynthia Zarin

Guardian Review – Labours of love, A thinly veiled self-portrait emerges from Magda Szabó’s The Door by Elena Seymenliyska

Buy a copy of Magda Szabó’s The Door via Book Depository

The Vegetarian by Han Kang tr. Deborah Smith #WITMonth

A novel in three acts that centre around the middle sister whose behaviour goes relatively unnoticed by those around her until she decides to become vegetarian, because “I had a dream“.

I’m already under the spell of Han Kang, having read Human Acts earlier this year, an extraordinary and unique book and I find The Vegetarian equally compelling, perhaps even more disturbing, a visceral, disturbing depiction of the fragility of the mind and the strange mechanisms, illusions we attach to in order to cope. It won the Man Booker International Prize 2016 and I’m reading it as part of #WITMonth, reading women in translation.

The Vegetarian reminded me of the distressing yet refined style and experience of reading Yoko Ogawa’s novel of interlinked stories Revenge and the shock and compulsion of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but really it is in a league of its own, a remarkable literary expression of the effect of people, our external environment and of our internal methods of coping, questions Han Kang poses through the situations she puts these characters into and our observations of what then happens.

The book is structured into three parts:

I. The Vegetarian – right from the beginning Kang draws up the husband and wife (Yeong-hye) characters with such precision, skill and intrigue, I was completely hooked from those initial pages. Their uneventful life changes suddenly with her decision to become vegetarian, bringing out the worst in everyone.

Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her…However, if there wasn’t any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to get married.

II. Mongolian Mark – this is a reference to a kind of birthmark that disappears post adolescence, it becomes the cause of an infatuation by Yeong-hye’s narcissistic brother-in-law, the obsessive video artist who is inspired to create what he perceives will be his greatest work, if he can convince his sister-in-law to become the subject of his oeuvre, and balance the fine line between art and pornography.

‘Will the dreams stop now?’ she muttered, her voice barely audible.

III. Flaming Trees Yeong-hye is in a psychiatric hospital, her sister her only visitor, the visits and the realisations she is having take their toll on her as she begins to understand her sisters descent from being human into believing that she is like or wishes to become a tree, that all she needs is sunlight and moisture, slowly depriving her human form of sustenance.

This pain and insomnia which, unbeknownst to others, now has In-hye in its grip – might Yeong-hye have passed through this same phase herself, a long time ago and more quickly than most people? Might Yeong-hye’s current condition be the natural progression from what her sister has recently been experiencing? Perhaps, at some point, Yeong-hye had simply let fall the slender thread which had kept her connected with everyday life.

It’s a sad tale of a woman’s descent into madness and how it affects those around her and has the reader wondering if this was brought about by the effect of attitudes and behaviour towards this one woman or whether this was something that was in her all along, something that is in everyone and under certain terrible circumstances can degenerate a sensitive human being into such a state.

Not one to let the reader off so easily Han Kang explores all avenues and leaves the reader continuing to ponder the same questions that perhaps inspired her to create this extraordinary, award-winning novel.

Click Here to Buy a Copy of The Vegetarian via Book Depository

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