Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L.McFadden

I’ve been aware of Bernice McFadden’s name as a writer I might enjoy, so when I saw her latest novel Praise Song for the Butterflies chosen as the monthly read by the Literary Fiction by People of Colour group on Goodreads, I decided to read along in February, to benefit from the opportunity to engage with other readers and to see their questions being answered by the author, about some of the choices she made while writing the book.

Interested in the inspiration for writing a novel, this one intrigued me; Bernice McFadden visited Ghana in 2007 and while she was there met two women who told her about a rehabilitation centre and a tradition referred to as trokosi, which they explained and suggested she write a book about, an idea she initially laughed at, but after researching the practice, a story began to emerge that she eventually pursued.

The novel is set in a fictional nation of Ukemby (avoiding comparison with the geography and customs of a specific African country), the first two pages provide a brief history of this fictional land, with its recent colonialist history, new schools, a period of outlawing African God worship or speaking local languages and their subsequent independence, freeing people to  openly practice older customs and traditions.

Shrine  slavery was one of the  traditions that ascended from the darkness back into the light.

A slim 3 page chapter entitled AFTER New York City 2009,  sets the reader on edge wondering what happened to lead to that collision of events, as the first provocative sentence opens with:

On the morning of the day she killed him, the sun sat high and white in a sky washed clean of clouds by an early-morning downpour.

From there we move into BEFORE, Port Masi, Ukemby  1978 – 1985. The novel gripped me from its opening pages and made me not want to do anything but stay with young Abeo as if to hasten her escape from the wretched situation superstition put her in.

We know from the blurb that she is going to be sacrificed by her father, under pressure from his mother, to atone for a curse believed to have been passed down from their ancestors.  Until that moment, it seems impossible, given the early success and education of her parents, I read those initial pages, wondering what it could be that changed the good fortune of this happy family.

When Aunt Serafine comes to visit from New York, the family take a trip across the border to Ghana, and visit the slave castle. After debating whether or not it is appropriate to take young Abeo, her mother relents and she joins them. A sense of foreboding lurks as they descend into the dark interior of the castle, her imagination running rife.

What struck fear into her young heart  was the history that lay beyond the wooden panels and brass hardware. Morris had revived history and little Abeo was finding it hard to distinguish between the now and what had been.  Morris reached for the door handle and Abeo’s breath caught in her throat.  She ordered her eyes to close, but they refused, and so she  braced herself for the vision of the ship bobbing on the ocean, its deck teeming with shackled cargo.

Elmina, Slave Castle, Ghana

It’s when things go wrong, when the family’s luck changes and the son comes under the undue influence of his mother (I recall this similarly in Ayobami Adebayo’s excellent Stay With Me ) that relationships get tested, families risk disintegrating and wives become disempowered.

When Abeo’s family falls on hard times, her father, in his desperation begins to doubt himself and the system that should bring justice. Instead he is lead to follow the old ways, thinking it will bring him peace of mind. In an impulsive moment, seized by and giving in to terror, he does the unthinkable, delivering his daughter to a religious shrine.

It was 1985; Abeo was nine years, seven months and three days old.

I worried the story was going to depict brutality, especially after recently reading House of Stone, where Novuyo Rosa Tshuma exposes the reader to the graphic horror of Gukurahundi, in newly independent Zimbabwe, however I was relieved to discover that McFadden spares us the terror if not the cruelty, we imagine what happened, though thankfully there’s no visceral portrayal. One reader asked why she chose to spare readers this, suggesting her method was more like leading a reader by the hand to the truth rather than holding them by the head to something too awful to take in.

In my earlier works I was much more graphic with my descriptions of horrific events. I think pulling back from that had much to do with me seeing so much violence against Black people on the news and social media platforms. Subjecting my character, myself or the reader didn’t seem to serve anyone involved.

Interested in the title, I looked up ‘Praise Song’ and learned it is one of the most widely used poetic forms in African literature; described as ‘a series of laudatory epithets applied to gods, men, animals, plants, and towns that capture the essence of the object being praised’.

It becomes a form of metaphor, the butterfly a symbol of transformation and rebirth;  in the novel Duma, the oldest of the priest’s sons rips a newspaper to shreds, intending to ignore what has been read inside it, the pieces are picked up by a gust of wind, catching the girls’ eyes, seen as butterflies. Though an illusion, it signifies a turning point, a sign of hope, of liberation, they are experiencing life in one form and soon will transform.

Duma folded the newspaper and looked directly into his father’s milky eyes. “It means the government has outlawed what we do here, . It means no more trokosi.

Abeo glanced up and for one fleeting moment her spirit soared. Indeed, at that distance, the bits of newspaper did appear to be a cluster of white butterflies. Abeo watched until the air went still and the false butterflies dropped out of sight.

It was 1998 and Abeo was twenty-two years old, eight months and seventeen days old.

The characters are well depicted, the surroundings set the reader’s imagination alight, we’re taken on a journey, introduced to a terrifying ritual that morphs into another form of traditional domination, however there are shining lights, hope has been gifted a role to play and Abeo has been permitted to interact with it.

I loved the natural, gifted storytelling of this novel, the historical exploration and psychological insight and in particular that she was able to create a scenario that showed us what a healing transformation might look like in the form of resilience.

Bernice McFadden is the author of nine critically acclaimed novels including Sugar, Loving Donovan, Nowhere is a Place, The Warmest December, Gathering of Waters and The Book of Harlan (winner of American Book Award and NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, Fiction). A four-time Hurston/Wright Legacy Award finalist, I’ll definitely be reading more of her work.

This is a story of survival and triumph.  I want people to understand that their circumstances don’t always, and shouldn’t always, define their entire lives.

Further Reading

Ancestral Roots:  Bernice L. McFadden sings an enslaved black woman’s song, Interview by Evette Dione

“The interest is not the fact of slavery, the interest is what happens internally, emotionally, psychologically, when you are in fact enslaved and what you do in order to transcend that circumstance.” Toni Morrison

Have you read any novels by Bernice McFadden? Do you have a favourite?

Queenie Malone’s Paradise Hotel by Ruth Hogan

I was looking for a light, uplifting read after a bit of a stressful period in January; I had enjoyed The Keeper of Lost Things, and seeing Ruth Hogan had a new novel coming out, decided it would be the one.

It’s described as a novel of mothers and daughters, families, secrets and the power of friendship. It’s set in Brighton and begins as Tilda returns to clear out her mother’s flat after her death. That precipitates a number of memories of her childhood, which we learn about in the alternate narrative by Tilly, her child self, whose story is told from the moment her father has disappeared, the beginning of her obsession with matches and our realisation that some of the characters she sees and interacts with can’t be seen by others.

As an adult, Tilda is wary of people, not certain who to trust and not entirely comfortable with who she is. While clearing out her mother’s home, she comes across a box containing diaries, which may finally explain some of the mysteries surrounding her childhood, in particular her absent father and the reason her mother sent her away from the only place she ever really felt at home and loved, Queenie’s Paradise Hotel in Brighton.

It’s in Part Two that we discover who Queenie is and the role of the Paradise Hotel, it is here we are introduced to an eclectic cast of characters, almost pity we didn’t meet them earlier on, as they provide much of the entertainment, colour and humor in the novel.

It’s an entertaining read, a dual narrative of Tilly and her grown up self Tilda, where one attempts to fill in the gaps of the other, so we spend half the novel not quite knowing what happened to Tilly, her father, her mother, why they had to move, and who Queenie was.

Eventually the mysteries are resolved and there is also a love interest, though the character development of Daniel is the weakest of the cast. One of the more endearing characters is Eli, the dog. It’s not difficult to know who the inspiration for this was, as Ruth Hogan revealed in an interview:

I believe in ghosts. When my first dog died, I know that his spirit stayed with me for so long as I needed him. I also know how ridiculous that sounds, but you’ll just have to take my word for it. My family background is Irish on my dad’s side, and he says that my writing, love for tea and potatoes, and believing in ghosts is his legacy.

I found it hard to be as drawn into this novel as her previous work due to the child narrator, there was something too naive about her that made her more of a construct and less of an authentic character for this reader.

I liked the premise of the story, and the exploration of a character that was herself afraid of showing her authentic self to people because of her differences. It made me wonder how many people really do go through life like this, having experiences outside of what is perceived and accepted as being normal while they are young, whether it’s hearing voices, seeing things others don’t, or just possessing knowledgeable beyond their years, and how it stunts their growth to have that denied or suppressed, told it’s wrong, or worse medicated or locked up for it. It’s what made the Paradise Hotel so special and had the potential to have made this an even more poignant read.

Thought provoking and well intended, even if it didn’t quite reach the same level of satisfaction for me as her earlier work, her love of Brighton, the pier, which she describes as her happy place, is evocative and endearing.

I love the simple pleasures of a traditional British seaside resort, like walking on wooden piers, eating vinegar-soaked chips out of newspaper, riding on the carousel horses and paddling in chilly waves. And I particularly like to do these things in winter, when the crowds have gone home. Ruth Hogan

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

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House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (2018) Zimbabwe

Bukhosi, 17 years old, has gone missing. His father, Abed, and his mother, Agnes, cling to the hope that he has run away rather than been murdered by government thugs, but only the lodger seems to have any idea. Zamani has lived in the spare room for years now. Quiet, polite, well-read and well-heeled, he’s almost part of the family – but almost isn’t quite good enough for Zamani.

Cajoling, coaxing and coercing Abed and Agnes into revealing their sometimes tender, often brutal life stories, Zamani aims to steep himself in borrowed family history, so that he can fully inherit and inhabit its uncertain future.

House of Stone is a novel in three parts, Book One centres around Zamani’s determination to befriend his landlord Abed, accompanying him in his misery as he searches for his son, applying subtle, manipulative, and ultimately devastating pressure on him, prising Abed’s family history open, in order to find a way in. In Book Two his focus is on converting Mama Agnes and the final slim Book Three are a series of revelations.

We know from the opening pages that Zamani and Bukhosi were together when he disappeared, along with their friend and mentor Dumo, though nothing of what we know is ever shared with Abed and Agnes.

I’m the one who’s survived and he’s the one who’s disappeared, thanks to those mad antics of his. Poof! Like a spoko. He too was gobbled up by one of those police vans the day of the Mthwakzi rally, and has not been regurgitated since.

Like Bukhosi, I doubt I’ll ever see Dumo again. It was he who taught me that a man could remake himself by remaking his past. So when Abednego said I was like a son to him and that he would, from then on, call me his surrogate son, I felt a swell of pride and the prick of opportunity. Perhaps, as my surrogate father’s son, I can be blessed with sole familial affection and, in this way, finally powder away the horrors of my own murky hi-story bequeathed to me by parents I never knew.

As he draws the personal and family history out of Abed and Agnes, we traverse 50 tumultuous years in the region, years Abed would prefer not to remember, they contain his happiest and most traumatic memories, as the country witnesses the death of colonial Rhodesia and the bloody birth of modern Zimbabwe.

It’s a discomforting read, the author doesn’t hold back with the detail, some scenes come at you so quickly, you don’t have time to look away. In that respect I remembered the visceral detail of a novel I couldn’t finish, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Somehow, despite those scenes, I was able to continue with this book, but I was put into a state of literary vigilance for much of it, which wasn’t always comfortable. Humanity showed itself to be unpredictable and despicable in its newfound possession of unregulated power. It was a bittersweet victory that saw the introduction of a despot leader and made an entire population feel unsafe.

One of the periods we are taken back to was the Gukurahundi, (a series of massacres of Ndebele civilians carried out by the Zimbabwe National Army from early 1983 to late 1987. It derives from a Shona language term which loosely translates to “the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains”). I hadn’t heard of this term, and in the novel the younger generation hadn’t either. Zamani pressures Abed to tell him:

Isn’t this the hi-story Bukhosi always wanted to know, before he went missing? For which he got a beating whenever he asked our father ‘Baba, what happened in the ’80s, what was the Gukurahundi?

That was the Gukurahundi, Bukhosi. It was the lead rain of our new country, Zimbabwe, sent to wash away us, the chaff. It was the state-sponsored murder of twenty thousand of your kin. How was our father to tell you that? How was he to tell you that within that number were the only two people he ever really loved?

On reading this, I was compelled to look it up, it’s not a story you want to linger on, nor are they images you want to see. You don’t have to read far to learn that none of the perpetrators have been held accountable for the atrocities committed. Those implicated include many who became or are now senior political figures in the Zimbabwean government.

In an interview, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma when asked about setting her novel amidst the backdrop of this massacre, said:

“We speak about the Liberation War all the time. But when it comes to the genocide, it is always a matter of shutting it down,” she says, adding that by not addressing the psychological, social and communal issues, by not acknowledging people have died, healing cannot begin.

House of Stone “dzimba dza mabwe” or “Zimbabwe” in Shona comes from her personal quest to learn more about that dark spot in modern Zimbabwean history, the ethnic cleansing/genocide carried out against the Ndebele people in the early 1980s after the liberation struggle. The strengths of her characters come from an immersion into reading first hand personal accounts of people who survived that period, works that are not available in Zimbabwe, that she was able to access from the Iowa University library when she was studying her MFA.

Interested in the question of whether it is possible for a person, or a nation to rewrite itself, it will become the central motive of her flawed protagonist Zamani and finds that present day Zimbabwe has some parallels. Since the political coup that recently ousted Robert Mugabe, a new President has announced to the population that the past is dead.

When Tshuma began asking questions about the Gukurahundi of her immediate family, including her mother and Uncle, they were visibly upset – people continue to be haunted, they haven’t found closure for the dead, nor been able to process their experiences to heal from them.

I was reminded of the experience of reading Han Kang’s Human Acts, a powerful novel that centered around the little known Gwangju massacre in South Korea in 1980, that she discovered by accident and became haunted by. It left her with pressing questions she explored through the novel.

Despite the traumatic events that haunt or affect every character, the plot of House of Stone moves swiftly with its well fleshed out characters, sense of mystery, its rage, outrage and her own brand of wit – including the hypocritical Reverend who Zamani doesn’t trust.

Did that Reverend Nobody really think he could take me on? Did he really think he could come out as the hero in all of this, mooching off my hard work, destroying my relations with my surrogate family.

It’s an accomplished novel that confronts harsh truths and pursues questions about the reinvention of a nation and the individual. A gifted storyteller who has been able to weave the essence of those personal narratives into richly formed characters that goes some way towards acknowledging a history no-one will talk about. Bereft of redemption, a feeling that pervades the narrative and one that seems to hold many in its grip today worldwide.

The interview below provides an interesting addition to the reading experience, exploring the fictitious and the personal – in particular given that some of the perpetrators of those traumatic events still hold positions of power today.

Further Reading/Listening:

rFi The World And All Its Voices: Honoring those who lived through Zimbabwe’s Gukurahundi in Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s novel, House of Stone

Review:  Lisa Hill of ANZLitLovers

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The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi tr. Luke Leafgren

Slightly surreal, nostalgic and deeply philosophic portrayal of a neighbourhood in Baghdad, of a childhood and early youth lived under the shadow of war, shared by a girl, (our unnamed narrator) who refuses to depict her childhood through the lens of suffering and devastation.

She shares their humanity, their connections, their hopes, and when she comes close to anything that might be traumatic, lifts off into dreams and the imagination, into other realms, soothed by the souls of the departed, the wisdom of her intuition creating metaphors and fantasy in her mind, an alternative way of seeing the world.

Her resilience isn’t defiant, it’s like a hardy shrub that wants to bloom even in the harshest environment and finds refuge in the imagination. One of her recurring dreams that she enters is the idea that they are living on a ship, one evening the Captain tries to answer her many questions. The fantasy world she creates when she closes her eyes, whether she is sleeping or awake, helps her cope, keeping childhood a place of both safety and wonder.

Listen my dear. The ship is an idea in your head and I am an idea in the head of the ship. Small ideas usually have delicate wings and when they lose their value on the earth, they fly up into space. The world we live in is just an idea made by the imagination of an inventive creator, and when he found it to be complicated, he began explaining it by means of other, smaller ideas…

We are prisoners of our imaginations, and our experiences in the world of reality consist only of ideas.
And don’t tell anyone, because people only believe things that come independently to their minds. Yet they don’t know where the mind is to be found.

She doesn’t understand the captains words, but knew he was telling her the truth.

Sometimes there are things we do not understand, and we know their meaning, not through words but rather, the meaning is already inside us before others talk to us about it. Some meanings exist inside us but are sleeping. Then words that we understand come and wake us up.

Memories are narrated through her friendship with Nadia, the girl she meets and sleeps next to in the air raid shelter in 1991, they tell each other stories and comfort each other in what is the beginning of a long and deep friendship that sustains them through the things that bring discontent, the sanctions, another war, the threat of separation.

We get to know the families who live and have lived in this neighbourhood, watching them grow and evolve, sharing those moments when they grow out of girlhood and begin to blossom. We are drawn into their lives until the black Chevrolet arrives and one by one they depart for elsewhere.

News from the outside and their fates isn’t shared by the usual channels, instead it comes in the form of a stranger entering the neighbourhood, a fortune teller. He warns them:

‘None of you have a future in this place. Sooner or later this ship will sink with all of you on board.’

One of the women dismisses him as a spy, but he has sown a seed of fear in them and the slow exodus begins. Uncle Shawkat becomes protector of abandoned homes, keeping away unwanted racketeers, writing names of the departed on the doors, the dates they lived there and the words, This House is Not for Sale.

It’s an unusual novel in its determination to not resort to pessimism, despite the suffering and loss that is around them, it clings to its memories of childhood and growing up, of friendship and budding love, of mother’s sitting around listening to the stories of the soothsayer, with only rare glimpses at the politics of their discontent.

Nadia and I were born during the war with Iran. We got to know each other during Desert Storm. We grew up in the years of the sanctions and the second Gulf War. George Bush and his son George W. Bush, took turns firing missiles and illegal weapons at our childhood, while Bill Clinton and that old woman Madeleine Albright were satisfied with starving us. And when we grew up, hell sat in wait for us.

It is a lament for days gone by, remembered by the young not the old, who know their children will grow up in other lands, other cultures, with little knowledge of their forebears, of their ways, their neighbourhood, the friendships that shaped them.

We are the last teardrop aboard the ship, the last smile, the last sigh, the mast footstep on its ageing pavement. We are the last people to line their eyes with its dust. We are the ones who will tell its full story. We will tell it to neighbours’ children born in foreign countries, to their grandchildren not yet born – we, the witnesses of everything that happened.

Shahad Al Rawi
Source: Kareem El Deeb

It’s a beautifully written, poetic novel that won the hearts of readers in Edinburgh clearly, giving a unique insight into a culture, as lived by its children, its families, the lives impacted by foreign politics that no-one cares to share, the loss, not just in terms of human lives, but in an ancient, peaceful way of living that is no more.

Shahad Al Rawi was born in Baghdad and left there with her family for Syria. She now lives in Dubai and is currently pursuing a PhD in Anthropology. The Baghdad Clock is her debut novel, it won the Edinburgh First Book Award and was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

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N.B. Thank you to the publisher One World Publications for providing a copy of the book.

Teethmarks on My Tongue by Eileen Battersby

Eileen Battersby (1958-2018) was a renowned literary critic and reviewer, my favourite, probably the only one I knew by name, reputation and avidly followed. It wasn’t just for her excellent reviews, it was because she read so much further outside of the English language and culture than any other, and because she might as easily refer back to ancient myths and classics as she would to contemporary translations in her far-reaching analysis and commentary on literature.

Sadly, tragically, two days before Christmas, at the age of 60, she died following a freak road accident in Ireland, a terrible loss to her family, friends and all those who’d come to respect and enjoy her thoughts on literature. As the author John Banville wrote,

“she was a champion of the overlooked and undervalued…a shining light in the world of letters”

Her last two reviews for The Guardian linked below, a testament to that diversity, were novels by writers from elsewhere, one of them also a translation; Tommy Wieringa’s (one of the most important Dutch literary writers of the last decade) novella, The Death of Murat Idrissi (translated by Sam Garrett) and rising literary star, Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma’s latest An Orchestra of Minorities.

Having so recently separated from the Irish Times she was at the beginning of a new era, she’d begun writing reviews for the FT, one of her last the English translation of Walter Kempowski’s Homeland and the LARB (Los Angeles Review of Books), and was working on a literary Western, a genre it is said she was fascinated by.

No doubt she was wary of putting her own writing out there to be judged, just as many authors she interviewed had been wary of her unforgiving yet erudite turn of phrase. When Teethmarks on My Tongue was first launched in Ireland in 2016, Prof. Jennny Williams praised Battersby’s literary criticism, which had an international impact, acknowledging:

It was a special author who could cross the “shark-infested waters” between being a literary critic and a novelist.

Battersby was awarded honorary membership of the Irish Translators and Interpreters (ITIA) group in 2016 for her work raising awareness of translated novels and of translation in general, which plays an essential role in ensuring access to the work of novelists in other languages.

Though Californian by birth she came to Ireland with her family as a teenager and stayed, studying English literature at University College Dublin, working many years for the Irish Times, living most of her adult life in Ireland. She was known for her love of animals, especially horses and dogs, a significant feature in her novel and her long, engaging telephone conversations, always delighted to share her literary thoughts to a willing listener.

Review

Teethmarks on My Tongue is a coming-of-age story about teenage Helen, the only child of a wealthy Southern family, who in the opening pages witnesses her mother’s death broadcast on television, shot by a mentally ill lover.  Living on an esteemed property in Richmond, Virginia, she passes her free time in the company of horses or immersing herself in her intellectual passion, the science of astronomy, the solar system.

Father and daughter though shocked, are relatively unmoved by this death, their lack of empathy makes for bizarre reading, they seem somewhat removed from reality, making me wonder if is it supposed to be satire, particularly as the story around the murderer quickly becomes farcical and the media’s indifferent treatment of the family seems almost pointed, given the author’s years of proximity to that profession, I do wonder.

I imagine the reporters busy at their desks, yanking and pulling at the stuff of people’s lives. Making up stories that exaggerated the wrung-out facts and then just ruthlessly leaving the truth for dead, along with the raw and tender feelings of those who had been left behind.

In Part 2, now 18, she departs for Europe alone. Her father, a vet and breeder, sold the horse she called Galileo to a French buyer, reminding her it had never been hers. He denied she was a scientist, saying her interest was the history of science not quite the same as being a physicist. She lived among them, had access to everything, but the valuable animal was denied her and so too it seemed her association with science. Galileo was sent to France, and so she sends herself there too, depriving her father of them both.

I wanted to show Father that I was not content with simply taking whatever I wanted as it had apparently seemed to him. No, it was vital to prove, to him and to me, that I was capable of rational thought and had revised my old notion of who I was, now that Father had destroyed all of that for me.

In Paris she indulges her love of art, spending hours observing paintings, has a ghastly experience with an older man and is catapulted into the next experience by her foolish, misguided courage. Rescuing a stray dog she names Hector sets her on a mission to find a job in the countryside. Finally, an animal she can care for and own, despite the complications he brings to her uncertain future.

Mother always maintained that my “gray matter” as she called it would compensate for my physical shortcomings, my peculiar eyes … I am sure she had never meant to hurt my feelings and instead had given me a kind of confidence; no a resilience. That is what I had in abundance, resilience, very useful when balancing my standard issue face and ill-matched eyes, and, hopefully the dreams Father had belittled but which I would salvage.

In Part 3 she is working on a horse farm in the Loire valley with Hector in tow, riding horses to earn her keep, trying to figure out the characters who live there, blind to the relationships between people, somewhat aloof. We too are blind and slow to realise these connections, limited to seeing through her dual-coloured eyes that discover too late the reality.

It’s a voyage through late youth, and through the unknown countries and cultures of France and Germany (with the exception of their art, of which she has significant intellectual knowledge and insight), the novel and its main character observe well, comfortable analysing experiences yet it lacks emotional depth, things happen which surprise the reader because Helen doesn’t exhibit much emotion except in relation to Hector; human connections are stilted, surprising; she figures things out rather than feels them.

On realising she may be loved, or in love with one of the employees, Mathieu:

Delightful as it all was, a part of me still felt wary. It’s in my nature, always was; the doubts along with my stupid habit of putting everything said or done of any significance under the imaginary microscope in my mind.

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

The cryptic title finally appears near the end and I wonder if it might be a metaphor for the author writing a book, since she was more renowned for her criticism than her creativity.

In the novel it is ‘Wanderer above the sea of Fog’, a painting by Caspar David Friedrich she seeks, the German Romantic painter of loneliness; she follows a trail of his works from Paris to Hamburg to Berlin.

“Had I missed out on seeing the picture I would have sobbed, bitten down hard, teethmarks on my tongue, and then would have devised an alternative plan.”

While reminiscing on the paintings she views, we see how well informed and sensitive she is to finding solace and understanding through art, even if lacking it in life, it is here she seems able to reach inside and feel. When she finally locates the painting, she wonders:

What was going through the mind of the wanderer as he gazed out over the abyss? His life, his future … eternity, or was he just realising how far he had climbed?

A quintessential Romantic artwork, it was a reaction against pre-revolutionary European values of logic, rationality and order, as writers, artists and musicians turned towards emotion, imagination, and the sublime for inspiration. To nature. Battersby’s protagonist ponders her own life’s meaning as she hovers between those two perspectives and leads us towards the novel’s shocking denouement.

It’s a novel that makes you think because of that aspect of her character that is missing, still evolving, nowhere is that more alarming than with its surprising ending, as she reaches the end of another phase of her journey, as much in her head, if not more, than when she began.

In this respect, it’s almost the anti-thesis of the hero’s journey, an anti-myth, suggesting that sometimes humans don’t learn from their experiences, don’t evolve, they become more entrenched in their own way of being, of perceiving and then life comes along and slaps them.

Further Reading

Remembering Eileen Battersby by Neil Belton, Editor in chief, Head of Zeus

Remembering Eileen Battersby, by Susan Curtis, LARB (Los Angeles Review of Books)

The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa – review

An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma review – a stunning leap forwards

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Nothing But Dust by Sandrine Collette (France) tr. Alison Anderson

As soon as I saw the cover of Sandrine Collette’s Nothing But Dust I wanted to read this book. I didn’t know what genre it was, but it was published by Europa Editions; all the books they choose to publish that I have read have been excellent.

From the description, a family of four boys working a farm after their father’s departure, ruled by a tyrannical mother, lived out on an arid, lonely Patagonian steppe, mounting family tensions…

And comparisons like these:

Reminiscent of Coetzee’s Disgrace, Chatwin’s In Patagonia, the Dust Bowl novels of Steinbeck, the writing of Cormac McCarthy, and the southern gothic of William Faulkner, Nothing But Dust is a gripping, unsentimental, ultimately majestic story about life in one the most inhospitable places on Earth.

Now I haven’t read Chatwin or Faulkner, and I don’t often agree with book comparisons, however reading this book did remind me of Cormac McCarthy’s excellent Border Trilogy, in particular his coming of age novel All the Pretty Horses, which I loved.

We know how tough and relentless life is, and is going to continue to be from the opening pages as the elder twin brothers carry out their favourite cruel tricks on the youngest brother Raphael; they’re fearful of the mother, but know she won’t intervene, her ideas on how to raise boys doesn’t include protecting or consoling them. Young Raphael becomes the son the reader will sympathise with and wish things for, throughout this thrilling novel.

Because he was the youngest, his brothers had gotten into the habit of chasing him around the house on horseback when their mother wasn’t watching. As soon as the twins had grown strong enough to grab him by the collar and lift him up at a gallop from astride their criollos, it became their favourite pastime.

It’s a novel of survival, not just the physical hard work, the long days but the need of the two younger brothers to always be on alert, Steban they call the half-wit, silenced by what he has seen, not trusting anyone, his allegiances drift knowing he is unable to stand up to any of them.

He realises that for as long as he can remember, he has always been flanked by anxiety. The apprehension of the next blow, the insults. And everything else.

We become immersed in this life on a sheep farm with The Mother, her four sons, a dog named Three and the Criollos they ride, on the arid, infertile steppe they live on in Patagonia. All they’ve known and grown up with is harsh and menacing, reliably so; all they know is work, for her.

There are evenings when she reminds herself that she came from a family of wretches with neither land nor fortune, and that everything seemed to point to a future of working herself to the bone in the service of others, and she grumbles and ruminates, finds a thousand things wrong with the steppe she’s been left with – well, that was the least she was owed, after all the misery she endured year after year. There is no room for gratitude in the mother’s life: what she has, she deserves.

When The Mother makes her first mistake, it opens a crack in her tight-fisted way of ruling the way they live, a slipway through which things might be different, we are lead out of the plateau towards the forest, towards the light with a deft, atmospheric thrill and underlying dread.

When Raphael must track down two missing horses, he is lead out of the steppe towards lands that are unfamiliar, encountering new terrain. While Sandrine Collette has demonstrated a talent for creating unforgettable characters, here she excels in depicting the landscape as it changes from the dry, dusty, harshness of the plateau to the lush, fertile, freedom of the forest.

The change of landscape leaves him stunned; all he has ever known is the treeless steppe. He looks up at the magnificent boughs, the changing hues of entire regions where the rain has ventured…

Goes and sits down.

If he was at the farm he would never do this, but solitude and freedom propel him.

As the mother exhibits weakness, loosening her indomitable control over the boys, the rage of the elder twin begins to rise. It is that Lord of the Flies moment, that human impulse towards savagery no longer contained by the mother’s warped rules supposed to keep it in check. The mother and the elder son embrace that savagery and as long as they are in unison, they rule. The younger sons represent civilisation, violence is not their instrument. They observe, learn, they seek a different way.

It’s a fantastic, compelling novel of the human condition, in an original setting and family dynamic. Thought provoking, atmospheric, charged with tension, it will stay with you long after reading.

Highly Recommended.

N.B. Thank you to Europa Editions for providing me with a review copy.

***

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Just Like February by Deborah Batterman

What is February? A wonderful metaphor for the unpredictable, of opposites, a reminder to live without expectation while also appreciating ritual and traditional when it is gifted.

“It was the only way I could make sense of something that seemed so arbitrary to me. I soon began noticing things I’d never noticed in February. A sudden whiff of early spring one day, followed by a snowstorm the next. A certain restlessness in the air.”

Just Like February by Deborah Batterman is a novel that is immersed in nostalgia for the past, for the innocence of childhood and the reluctant awakening of the adolescent, of the fragility of love, the need for forgiveness, the pain of judgement.

When it opens Rachel is 5 years old, remembering the on again, off again nature of her parents commitment to getting married. She finds solace in her Uncle Jake, when he is around and through his postcards and letters, as he voyages around.

There is a longing in her that only Jake can appease, however there is mystery around him that is slow to be revealed though often hinted at throughout the text, a reminder in the way of it being written of traditional attitudes of skirting subjects, keeping up appearances, of that lurker, denial.

Once it becomes clear to the reader what’s happening to Jake, I couldn’t help but think of similar decisions that were made by the producers in consultation with band members of the rock group Queen (amid plenty of controversy), in the extraordinary film Bohemian Rhapsody a wonderful tribute to their creative music making and to their lost lead singer Freddie Mercury.

They highlighted family tension as well as tenderness, an unrequited love that endured despite all the pain, creativity born out of frustration and conflict. It was not necessary to over indulge the audience with the misery of the slippery slope, that temporary gratification, hedonism lured him into. It was hinted at, respectfully.

“I didn’t want to write an AIDS movie, to be honest with you. And then, I just looked the period – It’s sort of where he rejects [his bandmates] and comes back to them. It’s sort of like a family movie. It’s sort of like ‘I hate my family, I want to be independent, and then I come back’.” Screenwriter, Peter Morgan

And so too I wonder about the stories behind the story, what would this story be if Jake had been the protagonist, or if Rachel had been more forthcoming earlier on. In a way the novel experiences that secrecy of the eighties, for despite what it says in the blurb, it doesn’t confront the issue of AIDS, it waits until nearly the end before revealing it, thereby creating in the reading experience that same feeling of something being held back, not addressed.

John Boyne also does this exceptionally well through his character Cyril Avery in The Heart’s Invisible Furies. And ultimately though it took years in the making, with a change of cast and direction, Rami Malek, the Egyptian-American actor that took on the role of Freddie, gets to the truth of his character when he reflects:

“I think if you don’t celebrate his life, and his struggles, and how complicated he was, and how transformative he was – and wallow instead in the sadness of what he endured and his ultimate death – then that could be a disservice to the profound, vibrant, radiant nature of such an indelible human being.”

It’s a novel that makes you want to peel back the layers and find out why, the reason perhaps he avoided those family gatherings that are known to get to the heart of issues, when families can no longer keep up appearances and combust. I could feel myself wanting to leave that table. Just like February.

Marie Antoinette silk slippers

Knowing others is intelligence;

knowing yourself is true wisdom.

Mastering others is strength;

mastering yourself is true power.

Tao Te Ching: The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way

I have also read and reviewed Deborah Batterman’s excellent collection of short stories Shoes Hair Nails which the author sent me after I forwarded her a picture of a pair of Marie Antoinette silk slippers that were put up for auction on the 100 anniversary of her execution.

Further Reading

Independent Article: Bohemian Rhapsody: How the new Queen biopic almost never happened

N.B. This book was provided to me kindly by the publisher.