The Long Song by Andrea Levy

As you may know, Andrea Levy sadly passed away in February 2019 at the tender age of 62. She was a British author of Jamaican origin who became well-known when her fourth novel Small Island ( 2004) was awarded the Woman’s Prize for Fiction (then known as the Orange Prize).

Her novels explore the experiences of those connected British/Jamaican histories, gaining inspiration from her own family and heritage.  Every Light in the House Burnin’ (1994), is an intimate portrayal of family life that felt like I was reading about the author’s childhood, depicting the challenges faced by a Jamaican family in 1960s London. Semi-autobiographical, it was clearly inspired by experiences she’d had, growing up the daughter of immigrants in London.

In The Long Song, she delves deeper into her heritage, into the lives of slaves on a plantation in Jamaica, telling it through the voice of July, who we meet as she is birthed and follow as fate intervenes and snatches her from her mother, placing her in the main house, where she becomes the maid to the sister of the owner.

Levy wanted to get inside the world of her character in a way she hadn’t seen done before. To imagine those voices that hadn’t been able to record their perspectives and feelings, especially the women. To imagine what they were really thinking, how they would have been feeling, the emotions that were not safe for them to express, that we might imagine by reading between the lines of the slanted narratives that do exist.

What I wanted to explore isn’t in our history books. I wanted to put back in the voices of everyday life for black Jamaicans that are so silent in the record…When the time you are writing about is two hundred years ago, there’s no one to interview and so the individual  view has to come from the writer’s imagination.

Much of the research she encountered were accounts of perspectives that didn’t at all fit with what she sought to show, planters accounts “of negroes child-like ways” and their wives equally misconceived notions on their “defects of character”.

And what an astounding novel results, a natural development of the author’s work as she  claimed her ancestry and woke to who she was and where parts of her family had come from.

I loved it. It’s unique, she narrates from both the inside and the outside, being in the story and looking back on the story of the life of a girl named July, the daughter of a black slave and a white overseer on a plantation in Jamaica. It is at times crass, confronting and yet slightly tongue in cheek, daring you to continue reading through the discomfort.

Miss July narrates the story as a grandmother looking back at her life, committing it to paper at the request of her son, who every evening reads it and comments. She writes her account of that in the third person, interrupting it in the first person to complain about the demands of her son, or to clarify something she wants the reader to know. She’s having a conversation with you as you read, and I found it entertaining.

Now, reader, no matter what you may have heard Caroline Mortimer declare as the next act in this story, for she gave her  own fulsome account of that day to the militia, several magistrates, lawyers and indeed anyone who ever graced her dinner table, this that I am about to tell you, is the truth of what occurred next within that bed chamber. So not doubt me, for remember my witness still lies beneath the bed.

She removes the blinkers, stepping inside her characters showing them warts and all, making this uncomfortable reading at times, yet perhaps more realistic than most. For even those who have been depicted as well intended (white saviour narratives) were a product of their time and of white privilege.

Little writing or testimony has emerged that was not filtered at the time through a white understanding or serving a white narrative – whether it be the apologists for slavery and the West Indian planter classes, or their opponents, the abolitionists.

She shares the story with great humour and frequent distaste. No one is immune to her stripping characters bare and showing their true selves. So there’s no indulging flights of fancy, happy endings or gratuitous violence, although there is perhaps one character who manages to rise above the rest, but he was abandoned at birth so he deserves to shine a little brighter.

It’s sad to think her storytelling days have ended, but the three works I’ve read are a brilliant encapsulation of seeing through the lens of a life imagined and lived, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants living in Britain, who came to know and imagine the history and potential lives of her ancestors.

The Long Song was awarded the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction, and was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. It was also adapted by the BBC into a TV series.

Buy a Copy of The Long Song via Book Depository

Maria in the Moon by Louise Beech

Maria in the Moon intrigued from the moment I looked at its beautiful cover and read the title, wondering what the significance of it was. This tender novel hooked me from its opening pages and never let go until I heard that chant ‘maria in the moon’ and understood.

We meet Catherine-Maria as she is recalling her beloved Nanny Eve who chose her name and used to call her in a sing-song voice, we read about the Virgin Mary statue passed down from mother to daughter, and become aware of a memory block in childhood.

But one day she stopped singing.
She stopped calling me the long, pretty name she’d chosen when I arrived.
I try now to remember why, but I just can’t.
I think it was winter; I think the sun no longer had the strength to kiss our heads.
I know I’d accidentally smashed the Virgin Mary.

Something stopped all the singing in their house and when she tries to remember all she sees are the shattered porcelain pieces of Pure Mary spread across the floor.

The story is set in Hull 2007, after their wettest summer on record, when 8,000 homes and 1,300 businesses were flooded.

Catherine has had to move out of her home into temporary accommodation and decides to volunteer at the local Flood Crisis helpline, an occupation she already has experience in. Here she remembers her first call at a Crisis Centre.

I’d learned well on the course; I was non-judgemental, patient, gentle. My first caller was a fifty-year-old man who’d been married for thirty years, but had always been desperately in love with his friend Jim.
‘What should I do?’ he’d asked.
It wasn’t for me to tell him, only to listen, ask the right questions, and let him figure out his own feelings. I was shaking when the call ended but felt empowered.

Going to work at the Flood Crisis Centre, taking calls and getting to know others who volunteer to do this kind of work through this novel was fascinating and felt real, it reminded me of reading Eleanor Oliphant and her work environment and interactions, there is a similar feeling of closeness to the characters and an awareness of the character’s underlying solitude, as expressed in this quote from Olivia Laing’s book, The Lonely City:

“…loneliness is hallmarked by an intense desire to bring the experience to a close; something which cannot be achieved by getting out more, but only by developing intimate connections. This is far easier said than done, especially for people whose loneliness arises from a state of loss or exile or prejudice, who have reason to fear or mistrust as well as long for the society of others.”

Her first shift at the Flood Crisis Helpline runs smoothly, and she begins to develop a close connection with her mentor Christopher, however something about this new experience triggers an awakening of her childhood memories, and more disturbingly brings back a recurring dream.

Over the weeks that follow, from the Sunday lunches with her extended family, her conversations with work colleagues and her flatmate Fern, she gains clarity around her own personal mystery and in a dramatic denouement confronts her past and puts a few ghosts plaguing her mind to rest.

Maria in the Moon is one of those books you want to get back to every chance you can, it was gripping until the end, and even the quiet and mundane parts I found riveting. I loved going to work with Catherine and listening to her handling calls, the characters were well formed and contributed to a deeper understanding of the dynamics surrounding her, but also raised questions.

There came a time – and I’m not sure when it was – that I fell out of love with her. Maybe it was after Dad died. She changed. But so did I. Where she had treated me well (but a little coolly) during his lifetime, she now grew impatient, was less willing to talk. Perhaps it was during my forgotten ninth year that I stopped trying to please her and no longer wanted to copy her elegant style. Instead, I did all I could do to oppose and annoy and argue.

I wanted to know more, to ask her how she coped growing up without knowing her Mum, her attachment to Mother (stepmother); there’s an unselfish compassion within her, masking the ache of losing both parents at a young age and her response to it is to stay close to the family she’s been left with, despite the friction, claiming it as her own.

With Louise Beech, there is always depth, there are layers to unfold, there are stories beneath stories. I have my own personal story of a mystical experience while reading her debut novel How to Be Brave (review linked below) and I learned that Maria in the Moon has also inspired a story song, created by singer Carrie Martin, you can read more about its creative inspiration here at Louise Beech – Making Magic With Words.

What more can I say, I’ll read everything Louise Beech writes, she’s entertaining and an inspiring author who writes from the heart and one who’s open to the magic and the mystical.

Buy a Copy of One of Louise Beech’s novels here

Further Reading

My review of her debut novel How To Be Brave

My review of her second novel The Mountain in My Shoe

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

A fascinating read, an insight into a unique way of life by women known as ‘haenyeo‘ on the coastal, volcanic island of Jeju, in South Korea and a well-researched, thought-provoking work of historical fiction.

The novel is structured into chapters of time periods in four parts (Part 1 Friendship 1938, Part II Love 1944-1946, Part III Fear 1947-1949, Part IV Blame 1961), interspersed with chapters that cover four days in 2008, when a family of four from America come to Jeju Island and encounter a now aged Young-Sook, asking questions she turns away from.

The story follows the life of an elder daughter Young-sook, whose mother is the chief of their local collective of ‘haenyeo‘, women divers who harvest seafood (sea cucumber, urchins, abalone, octopus) all year round from the sea floor; they can stay underwater for sustained periods of time without breathing apparatus, wearing cotton garments that don’t protect them from the cold yet they don’t suffer hypothermia. As they rise to the surface, they emit a whistling noise ‘sumbisori’ an ancient technique to expel carbon dioxide from the lungs while also letting the other women know where they are.

The biggest risk is inattention, whether it’s abalone clamping down on a knife or a dangerous current sweeping them away (thus they always work in pairs). Before they enter the sea and when they return to land, they huddle around a fire in a seafront, stone enclosure called a ‘bulteok‘, share information, gossip, give advice and receive orders before going into the sea. Bulteok function as spaces for community life, changing of clothes by haenyeo, protection from weather, work activities such as repairs and storing their catch between dives and training.

In the 1960s, at their apex, there were 23,000 haenyeo women on Jeju, according to the island’s Haenyeo Museum. But now, only 4,300 haenyeo remain; many experts believe this generation will be the last, as young people flee to cities and pollution destroys the haenyeo’s place of work: the fragile aquatic ecosystem of the Strait. As of 2017, Jeju was home to only 67 haenyeo under the age of 50. In 2016, UNESCO awarded the divers a Cultural Heritage of Humanity designation.

A Typical Stone Bulteok Enclosure

They practice a form of Shamanism paying their respects to a Goddess, who helps them hold their breath and keeps them safe from danger. At certain times of the year, they hold ceremonies in honour of the goddess of the winds, launching mini straw boats out to sea, making sacrificial gifts of rice and other foods.

Although the Japanese had outlawed Shamanism, Shaman Kim, our spiritual leader and guide, our divine wise one, continued to perform funerals and rites for lost souls in secret. She was known to hold rituals to for grandmothers when their eyesight began to fade, mothers whose sons were in the military, and women who had bad luck, such as three pigs dying in a row. She was our conduit between the human world and the spirit world. She had the ability to go into trances to speak to the dead or missing, and then transmit their messages to friends, family, and even enemies.

Though the islanders live a simple life, they suffer the consequence of being a resting place for occupying forces, initially when the story opens, it is the Japanese military who occupy the island and create a bad feeling.

Young-sook’s best friend Mi-ja is an orphan, her mother died in childbirth and her father was believed to be a collaborator because he worked for the Japanese. She suffers from ‘guilt by association’, the villagers say she will be unlikely to find a good match in marriage despite her good looks. Young-sook’s mother teaches her to become a ‘haenyeo‘ and the two girls become firm friends.

A matrifocal society, it is the women/mothers who are the head of the household, who go to work, to sea, and the men who stay with the children and look after the home, or in some cases leave for the mainland to do factory work. When the girls are around 20 years old (in the 1940’s), they do ‘leaving-home water-work’ off the coast of Vladivostock. Apart from moving to Japan to do factory work, the only other legitimate way to leave the island was to work as haenyeo, diving from boats in other countries. The girls left for nine months at a time. They signed a contract for five years work.

During that time, the world – and not just our island – was shaken. For decades Japan had been a stable – if wholly hated – power on Jeju.

Back on their island, men and boys were being rounded up and conscripted into the Japanese army, sometimes without being given the chance to notify their families. At the end of WWII the Japanese occupying forces are replaced by American forces, and the country conducts it’s own elections, but people are preventing from voting and the incoming political party is mistrusting and treats people badly. Guilt by association leads them to kill indiscriminately, to burn villages, thus people leave in fear. The occupying forces don’t intervene.

This mid-section of the novel is subsumed by the changing political situation and the dire effect on the local population, nearly all of whom lose members of their family. Young-Sook’s family suffer severe tragedy, creating a deep resentment, causing her to abandon her friendship with Mi-ja.

We know that Mi-ja has an unhappy marriage, that she has one son, but with Young-sook’s unforgiving distance from her friend, the narrative around her life is full of gaps, we are witness only to Young-sook’s view, Mi-ja’s story is pieced together in patches until the end.

Rich in detail of the past and of the lives of Young-sook’s family, the story challenges the protagonist and the reader through the revelations of the interspersed four day narrative, when Clara, the young American great-grand-daughter of Mi-ja seeks out Young-sook. These short chapters drip feed the reader with insights into Mi-ja’s family after she left Jeju and bring the story to it’s thought-provoking conclusion.

It’s is a heart-breaking story of island women maintaining a unique tradition and way of life that has made them into unique humans, able to sustain the sea elements like no other and it is also a story of islanders at the mercy of inhumane political and military powers and policies, punished for expressing their opposition, for any form of protest and implicating everyone in their families if they do. It is a wonderful discovery and celebration of female partnership, collaboration and spiritual practice that has survived despite many setbacks, and a lesson in the necessity of forgiveness, and the sad consequence of stubbornly refusing it.

“To understand everything is to forgive.”

Highly Recommended.

 Further Information:

Haenyeo – a day in the life of a 12 year old Korean girl, learning to dive as a haenyeo on the island of Jeju.

Buy a Copy of The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

via BookDepository

La Tresse (The Braid) by Laetitia Colombani (France)

This novel La Tresse by Laetitia Colombani was a birthday gift from a friend, at the time I was given it, it wasn’t available in English, however it has since been translated and published in 2019, available under the title The Braid.

It tells the stories of three women living different lives in three countries, each facing a monumental change, each determined to confront that change in their own way, once they overcome the obstacle that stands in their way, and the discrimination that exists in their society, that causes some not to support their efforts.

It’s written in simple language and has the air of a story being told, almost one I can imagine listening to, or watching on film, rather than being lived in the moment.

There is little description, little of the mundane, there is a superficiality to it – almost fable-like, they don’t seem like real lives, there’s an element of cliché in what they each represent. There is a symmetry to the stories, a correlation that creeps up on the reader as we become aware of the pattern that makes these three situations similar and the ‘tresse’ that will create a connection between them.

India – we meet Smita, a young mother from the lowest caste, who is determined that her daughter will not follow in her footsteps, in the disgusting job she and her mother before her have had to do, she has a plan to enable her daughter to obtain an education, that confronts the expectations of her caste.

Sicilie – Guilia left school at 16 to work in her father’s atelier, as he lies unconscious in hospital she discovers he was hiding something from them and it is she who must save the day – through an arranged marriage as her mother suggests – or by stepping up and being courageous, helped by an outsider the community doesn’t accept.

Canada – Sarah is an ambitious lawyer and mother, her private life exists behind a wall of her own making, one she attributes her success to, a wall that comes crumbling down when an illness breaks through it and exposes her.

All three women take on their respective challenges despite the discrimination and obstacles and each will find solace in something unexpected.

I hesitated to read this for some time, just because it was in French, but I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to read and how little I had to look up new vocabulary. I enjoyed it when I did as I discovered new words and scribbled them in pencil in the margins. And then how I come across those words in the external world, resulting in me thinking I really would enjoy to read more of these works that are available in French but not yet in English.

Despite the satisfactory linguistic journey, I’m not sure it is a book I would have picked up normally. It touches on subjects that warrant further exploration, that are a little too conveniently side-stepped or imagined to be easily resolved, which left a quiet discomfort in accepting the outcomes proposed. The author chooses not to delve into the significant issues raised and instead provides this three pronged tale that ties things up a little too neatly at the end.

Any one of these stories could have been developed, their issues explored to raise awareness and encourage discussion; ignoring them feels like a mild form of cultural appropriation. I tried to find out whether the author had a personal connection to any one of the cultures she uses in the novel, but apart from visiting the countries, there doesn’t appear to be.

Yesterday I was in Marseille and visited a number of fabulous exhibitions in the MuCem (Museum of Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean) and was inspired by what I encountered there to wish to read more French books, like Frères Migrants by Patrick Chamoiseau, La pesanteur et la grâce by Simone Weil though they may challenge my comprehension. It is a city with a rich history and a wonderful cultural offering that I shall explore more. Perhaps I may try to share some of that here.

Buy a Copy of Laetitia Colombani’s book in French or English

 

Crooked Grow the Trees by Carmel Hanes

Crooked Grow the Trees is an engaging, insightful and well-informed read that I remain in awe of since I finished reading it. I bought it not long after an online group conversation on Goodreads with Carmel Hanes about Bernice L. McFadden’s Praise Song for the Butterflies.

Since our connection is a little story in itself, I will share the comments that lead to my discovery that she had written a book and my desire to read it.

My comment on Praise Song for the Butterflies read:

Without resorting to a happy ever after cliche, I enjoyed the possibility that the experience of trauma didn’t have to equate to continual suffering, that one’s personal narrative does not have to continue to be that which happened in the past, that it is possible to change, to move on, to find community in another place, to rebuild, to have hope. Perhaps that is what happiness really is, a space where hope can grow, might exist, not necessarily the fulfillment of, but the idea, the expression.

to which Carmel replied:

What an eloquent and delightful summary of what happiness might be. “Hope” being the magnet that pulls one through life’s bitter shavings. Thanks for sharing that perspective….I love it.

What a beautiful, illustrative metaphor of hope being the magnet, pulling one through life’s shavings. I was enamoured by the ease with which her turn of phrase became a metaphor and wondered what else she had been reading, only to learn she was a published author, described as follows:

She hid among the likeable misfit toys she worked with in public schools and detention centers during a thirty year career as a school psychologist. The indelible imprint they left on her insisted on expression in this debut novel, exposing the struggles we all have to overcome early influences.

Well that combination of the spontaneous metaphor, a career of working with misfits and the promise of insights into dealing with young people who had been the victim of trauma was enough to make me curious. And what a find it was!

Review

Crooked Grow the Trees is an intriguing title, one I imagine refers to the impact traumatic events have on the growth and development of young minds, some children are unable metaphorically to grow as straight and tall as they ought to, depending on their influences and experiences during childhood.

The novel is a dual narrative between Sophia’s professional life dealing with the boys in the detention centre and her personal life, which has brought her siblings together as their father awaits death, awakening a past she has long buried.

The brilliant cover art depicts the main protagonist Sophia and her brother Marcus, whose way of being in the world has been significantly affected by memories and perspectives of childhood, in particular in relation to their father, the dark element seen in the base of the trunk. Nevertheless, they are survivors, they have used their experience to forge their way ahead (even if they face opposite directions), each attempting to consciously eradicate while subconsciously using to good effect, that which left a mark on them.

Navigating the complex relationship with her father had been like walking through an emotional minefield.  Explosion after explosion had blown so many parts off the relationship there was nothing recognizable left but a spongy mass of raw nerves and charred intentions.

Unfortunately that resulted in them having opposite views in many areas of life, a source of friction that kept them apart, rarely seeing each other, until now circumstances force them to be together again.

They had little in common other than shared ancestry. Marcus held strong opinions that bordered on bigotry, while Sophia was inclined to see people as complex and multi-dimensional, not categorizing as quickly as her brother. They were on different sides of the political divide and rarely agreed on how to solve the social and financial issues the country faced.

What seems like an irredeemable divide proves challenging when it comes to dealing with their father’s affairs, Marcus is inconsolable and Sophia wants to understand why he acted the way he did. Hanes cleverly puts the siblings in a room where unknown elements of their parents lives are revealed, they are able to talk about, clarify and recalibrate events from the past, in a way that helps them understand each other better, healing some of the latent trauma.

A foundational brick in her self-view had been flawed. Years of experience wrapped around this inner core, tendrils of assumptions and beliefs, unraveled as the core foundered. How do you reframe a lifetime of feelings? How do you rewrite decades of misunderstanding?

Similarly in the workplace, when there is disruption, she comes into conflict with the position of staff who take a more punitive approach to dealing with the young. Uninterested in investigating what happened, or any extenuating circumstances, some advocate for severe punishment.

I don’t care what the excuses might be; they simply have to follow the rules regardless of what is happening. WE are in charge not them. The more they get away with these take-it-in-my-own-hands decisions the more at risk we are, not to mention their families and the community when they finally do make it out of here.

Sophia and her colleague appeal for a different approach:

“I think it’s important to understand what led to their decisions and reactions in order to best support them and teach them,” countered Dr Blain. “One cannot separate their actions from their histories, and change only happens when we understand what drives them so we can help them understand that as well. That is our mission, not simply to punish them for wrong actions. We can only gain that understanding through investigating all angles and hear what each person has to say.”

It’s a captivating read, enriched by experience that succeeds in presenting multiple moral viewpoints, forcing the reader to indulge and reflect on all perspectives and attitudes in the various conflicts. The conversations with each of the boys and the situations they respond to are brilliantly depicted, the dilemma feels real, the reader desperately wants them to succeed in being transformed.

Crooked Grow the Trees shows relationships healing through understanding and how those with opposite views can find common ground and forgiveness when memories and events that formed them are shared and discusses. Sadly, it is often not the case that the cause is known or shared or that people have the chance to heal from those traumas that damage them.

I find myself rereading my comment above, seeing how it resonates here too.

Perhaps that is what happiness really is, a space where hope can grow, might exist, not necessarily the fulfillment of, but the idea, the expression.

Buy a Copy of Crooked Grow the Trees via BookDepository

Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina (Russia) tr. Lisa Hayden

Last year my favourite read Kintu, by Ugandan author Jennifer Nansubuga Nakumbi was published by OneWorld Publications. This year, I enjoyed another of their award winning titles The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al-Rawi (Iraq) (tr. Luke Leafgren) and now I am adding to that list, this wonderful historical fiction epic, Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina (Russia) translated by Lisa Hayden.

The Russian Gulag – Labour Camps

April 2019 is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Gulags in Russia. Gulag is an acronym for Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, or Main Camp Administration, they were a system of forced labour camp, a kind of re-education in a prison-like environment.

The Gulag was first established in 1919, and by 1921 the Gulag system had 84 camps. But it wasn’t until Stalin’s rule that the prison population reached significant numbers. From 1929 until Stalin’s death, the Gulag went through a period of rapid expansion.

At its height, the Gulag network included hundreds of labor camps that held anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 people each. Conditions at the Gulag were brutal: Prisoners could be required to work up to 14 hours a day, often in extreme weather. Many died of starvation, disease or exhaustion— others were simply executed. The atrocities of the Gulag system have had a long-lasting impact that still permeates Russian society today.

Kulaks and Dekulakization

The first people to be interned in these camps were known as kulaks (literal translation – fist, as in tight-fisted) meaning affluent peasants – originally the term referred to independent farmers in the Russian Empire who emerged from the peasantry and became wealthy, but the definition broadened in 1918 to include any peasant who resisted handing over their grain to authorities and under Joseph Stalin’s leadership it came to refer to peasants with a couple of cows or five or six acres more than their neighbors and eventually any intellectual who offended him.

Portrayed as class enemies of the USSR, the process of re-education was dekulakization the campaign of political repressions, including arrests, deportations, and executions of millions of prosperous peasants and their families. It is these people, decreed kulaks in the 1930’s, that are the subject of this novel.

Book Review – Zuleikha

As soon as I read premise of this novel, I wanted to get it, one of my favourite books The Industry of Souls by Martin Booth was set in a Russian gulag, though these are very different books. And there is nothing quite like being swept away by those wonderful character-lead novels such as Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and Tolstoy’s, Anna Karenina and the provocative poetry of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin that have entertained us and demonstrated important aspects of creating characters in literature, and who could forget one of the highest grossing films of all time, Doctor Zhivago.

While we may not quite reach the heights of the masters, we are offered a refreshing and unique perspective in this compelling novel about a Tartar Muslim woman named Zuleikha, whose independent farmer husband has been accused of not having collectivised his property, resulting in her being sent away to be dekulakized.

They encounter the Red Army and their leader Comrade Ignatov as they return from hiding provisions, a meeting that will forever be etched in the minds of both Zuleikha and Ignatov, the latter becoming an equally important protagonist in the novel, which charts the journey and evolution of both characters.

They travel the same paths in opposite roles, one of the ironies of the novel to see how imprisonment in many ways improves the life of Zuleika, and control of the camp significantly diminishes the life of her captor.  Effectively she is rescued from a tyrannical husband and mother-in-law, having been married off at the age of fifteen (he 30 years her senior) where she was little more than a slave in their household, having also given birth and lost all her babies in that period.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Unlike some gulag stories, the people in this novel who are sent to be dekulakized are not sent to an existing facility. They spend months on a long train journey, where many will die, some escape, getting to know each other and then just as winter sets in they’re put on a barge, travel up a river and are dumped there. In order to survive, they must build shelter and find food, so their fate also extends to the leader who oversees them, Ignatov.

Although Zuleikha arrives in an emaciated state, she soon attains strong motivation to remain healthy, she finds solace in her role in the kitchen and ultimately strength in her eventual role as a hunter, venturing into the forest every day to set traps and capture wildlife to keep them all from starving.

Whereas Ignatov, who has enjoyed relative freedom and even privilege in his previous role, riding across the country rounding up suspected kulaks, is unhappy with orders to take on the role of Commandant to accompany these people to an unknown destination. His transformation is more of a decline from his lofty position of power, he loses faith and no longer commands the same respect he had, even for himself.

On the cover of the book and mentioned throughout the text, are Zuleikha’s intense green eyes, other versions of the novel are entitled “Zuleikha Opens her Eyes“, this transformation of character through having her eyes opened is one of the themes of the novel, she sees beauty as well as suffering, she will experience true love and profound heartbreak. It’s about a woman who comes out from having been defined and used by men, into finding new strength and her own role. It is a form of emancipation, albeit it a preliminary one.

Yusef runs away from Zulaikha

One aspect of the novel I haven’t seen discussed anywhere is the significance of the names, Zuleikha and Yuzuf. I had a sense that those names somehow went together and I discovered an epic poem of the same name written in 1483 AD by the Sufi poet Jami.

It is an allegorical poem about the pursuit of love and of God, which also covers the allure and the suppression of love, the suffering of slavery and in aspects of this poem, I find aspects of three characters in the novel, Zuleikha, Ignatov and Yuzuf and I end my review with an ambiguous extract that may refer to a lover or a son, from the poem that reminds me of the closing pages of the novel.

The novel is unique in that it is written (and translated) by a woman who makes a young woman the centre of such an epic story, in part inspired by the actual memories of her own grandmother. She hasn’t set out to recreate the dire, conditions and cruelty of the camps, we witness a tale of survival, and through the eyes of a woman who already had a dire life, despite being the wife of an affluent peasant.

Guzel Yakhina’s grandmother was arrested in the 1930’s, taken by horseback to Kazan and then on a long railway journey (over 2,000 miles) to Siberia. She was exiled from the age of 7 until 17 years, returning to her native village in 1947. It was these formative childhood years that were in a large part responsible for her formidable character.

Upon her death at the age of 85 years, the author realised the importance of her early life and thus began her research and determination to understand how her grandmother operated, bringing her back in part through the inspired creation of the extraordinary character Zuleikha.

“I realised it would be impossible to remember the things she said as her stories were not recorded,” Yakhina says. “There was a feeling of guilt.”

A thought-provoking, interesting story and reflection, not at all brutal or hard to read, the author writes with compassion for her characters and brings out something very different from what we have come to expect from stories set in prison-like environments.

Highly Recommended.

 Zuleikha and Yusuf – extract from the epic poem

“The one sole wish of my heart,” she replied,
“Is still to be near thee, to sit by thy side;
To have thee by day in my happy sight,
And to lay my cheek on thy foot at night;
To lie in the shade of the cypress and sip
The sugar that lies on thy ruby lip;
To my wounded heart this soft balm to lay;
For naught beyond this can I wish or pray.
The streams of thy love will new life bestow
On the dry thirsty field where its sweet waters flow.”

Jami, Sufi poet (tr. Charles Francis Horne)

Further Reading

Review: Check out Lisa Hill’s review at ANZLitLovers

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N.B. Thank you to OneWorld Publications for providing me with an advance reader’s copy of this novel.

The Turquoise Ledge (2010) by Leslie Marmon Silko

I loved this book. I chose it because I wanted to visit the natural landscape of Tucson through the eyes and insights of a lyrical nature writer.  I was also looking for the perfect birthday present for someone who knows that landscape well, to transport them back there, reignite something without having to travel.

And of course, being curious I had to read it first, it was far too big a temptation and we are the kind of friends you can do that with, indulge the gift before giving it – and I know I give something of myself by doing this, the pages ear-marked where I was stopped, moved, given pause for thought. I know how those traces of the previous reader intrigue, they add mystery where usually there is none.

Leslie Marmon Silko was born in Albuquerque in 1948 into a family of Laguna, Cherokee, Mexican and Anglo ancestry.

She wanted to be a visual artist, but rebelled against perspective and realism, so pursued an English major initially,  published a bestselling novel Ceremony, and after a misdiagnosed ectopic pregnancy, experienced a life-changing moment, leaving her old life, marriage, teaching behind and moved to Tucson in 1978 just two months after surgery.

In The Turquoise Ledge, she pieces together this colourful, magical yet natural, narrative of thirty years living in the Tucson Mountains, on the edge of Saguaro National Park, in a ramshackle house, equally inhabited by creatures of the desert, a pandemonium of parrots and her pack of mastiffs, who like her, develop immunity to certain venomous dangers and survive the extreme climate. The desert terrain and all its wonderful beings, including the weather won her heart and it shows on every page.

The book is divided into five parts entitled Ancestors, Rattlesnakes, Star Beings, Turquoise and Lord Chapulin although there are elements of all those things throughout the text, as they are all integrated and woven into the life she lives, the habitat she dwells within and the landscape she walks over, studies and is a part of.

Though it is memoir, the author recognises that some aspects of memory are remembered vividly and others, even recent memories involve and invoke imagination. She has learned to tap into her subconscious, searching for truths not facts; she is a writer, a poet and an artist. Though she uses words, she is creating a self-portrait.

“We learn to ignore the discrepancies between our memory of an event and a sister’s memory. We can’t be certain of anything.

Fortunately my subconscious remembers everything I need. Whatever I can’t recall, later comes back to me as I write fiction. I make myself a fictional character so I can write about myself.”

She recalls interactions with family members and elders from her childhood, those often defining moments when a child observes more than just an event but is absorbing a cultural influence, hearing a people’s myths and songs, observing family superstitions.

Though she never spoke the Laguna language after the age of five that her great-grandmother A’mooh had spoken and wonders why that was, her great Aunts would ensure she knew of the hummah-hah stories, traditional Laguna stories that reveal the Laguna spiritual outlook toward animals, plants and spirit beings, a viewpoint that had become at odds with her great grandmother’s staunch conversion to the Presbyterian church.

I never felt alone or afraid up there in the hills. The hummah-hah stories described the conversations coyotes, crows and buzzards used to have with human beings. I was fascinated with the notion that long ago humans and animals used to freely converse. As I got older I realised the clouds and winds and rivers also have their ways of communication; I became interested in what these entities had to say. My imagination became engaged in discovering what can be known without words.

In these now forty years that have passed since she came to live here, the effect of bulldozers and the urban sprawl of Tucson have destroyed acres and acres of pristine desert habitat and left some species in danger of extinction and others to seek refuge elsewhere.

The old ranch house and the sheds and outbuildings are home to pack rats and deer mice accompanied by gopher snakes, racer snakes and rattlesnakes that eat them. So in the beginning, I got to know the snakes and pack rats because we were neighbours. I began to keep notes on my encounters.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So many encounters, that by the time you finish reading this section, you too may be converted to considering if not accepting that we should all live in closer proximity to our reptilian brethren. Silko and the snakes become familiar, she learns how to be around them and they learn that she is not a danger. In one of the most symbiotic relationships I have ever read about, this woman and these creatures live in this space together, her in the house, them under it and many anecdotes of those fascinating encounters that she handles with such poise and reverence.

Over time the rattlesnakes will get to know you and your pets. They learn human and dog behaviour and seem to understand the timing of our daily routines; they try to avoid encounters with us at all cost. A few times I’ve been very early or very late with my outdoor chores and I’ve surprised snakes that didn’t expect me at that time of day.

And then there is the heat, I learn that as the heat expands the air molecules they are thinner and less buoyant, no longer able to carry the particles of dust. The seasons are rain and no rain. When the temperature exceeds 112°F/44°C, the air smells of wood and bark just before they burst into flame.

The heat boils the sky to a deep blue. No traces of clouds, only the deepening blue as the air becomes crystal clear. The angle of the Sun causes the light to have the luminescence of a blue flame. The Sun is seated in the north corner of Time.

Photo by Yigithan Bal on Pexels.com

We learn about the unique geology of the Tucson Mountains that explains the formations, rocks and stones that appear on her walks in the arroyo (dry creek bed) her fascination with turquoise, with the Nahua people, the Nahuatl language and Tlaloc, the Nahua God of Rain, to whom she occasionally chants her own original rain prayer. And Lord Chapulin, who you’ll meet if you decide to read this, a living creature and the subject of one of her portrait paintings.

This book took me on a voyage to a place I’ve never been that seemed like another planet, Earth and yet not like the corners of Earth I’ve known. I wonder how someone can live in the heat of the desert like this (without air conditioning) and keep animals, or live alongside wildlife and observe them the way she does, in tune with the ancestors, the star beings, the rattlesnakes, rain chants and an ancient language she predicts is going to make a comeback.

I was enchanted by her endearing tales, her lyrical observations, nuggets of natural and peoples’ history, her love of the local environment and I hope the man with the machine desecrating the arroyo reads her book and stops being such an idiot.

Highly Recommended.

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