If I Had Two Lives by Abbigail Rosewood

If I Had Two Lives is a story of a child who spends her childhood in Vietnam, her early adulthood in America then makes a return visit to her homeland to confront aspects of her past she wishes to resolve.

In Part One she is escorted by her solider to a secretive military camp where her mother has spent the last four years, she is seven years old and has been separated from her mother for four years.

The mother is distant, busy, under suspicion, she is an energy consultant, the girl tries to please her, get her attention. She struggles to connect with her in the way her heart yearns, becoming overly attentive to trying to please her in a way that children who aren’t able to  take having parents there for them for granted might react.

Whenever she has to travel anywhere she is accompanied by this same solider. She clings to him even though he discourages it. She befriends a motherless little girl she finds playing a game stacking bricks, their time together establishes some of the few memories of childhood they will retain, both haunted by the last time they see each other.

There is a strange, unsafe vibe around the little girl’s father. She develops a desire to hurt something, after killing a fish with her bare hands, her angst morphs into thoughtless cruelty towards the little girl. Suddenly her time there is over, she is again escorted, this time across the China border onto a plane to America.

Years later, I understood that Mother had made sure nobody saw me enter the camp and nobody saw me leave; that the erasure of my records in Vietnam would be complete when I boarded the plane…I told myself that once I got to the US, I would turn around, take a different plane back to Vietnam, go get the little girl so we could leave the camp together for good.  We’d talked about escaping together so many times that being forced to go without her was unthinkable.

In Part Two the girl has been sent to America, her mother having promised (unfulfilled) to follow her there, drifting from the homes of relatives to friends, she outwears her welcome with them all and becomes isolated, alone. Haunted by the memories of her youth, she follows a stranger home because he reminds her of her solider. She befriends a young woman who reminds her of the little girl. Her life is laced with illusion, faces that morph into those who have haunted her past. She is not the only one with a past, living with the effects of trauma and her attempts to reconnect expose her to the nightmares of others, also trying to remember or forget.

“Try telling them some other tales that don’t fit their presumptions. Vietnam” – he dropped his cigarette and crushed it with the toe of his shoe. “Is a war, not a country. Anything besides is irrelevant.”

Meeting both these strangers changes the course of her life dramatically and will push her to confront her past, revisit her home country and look for what she has lost. And to make amends.

More and more I resembled my own mother as I with-held facts and became an accomplice in helping my daughters obscure their origins.

It’s a hard book to describe and one that is disturbing in parts to read, laced with a sadness for a girl that it seems was unwanted, although she was given opportunities, just not love or affection, in turn her own life seems without purpose and missing something that can be felt not described. Her return will provide her a different perspective and bring her closer to understanding her mother and her intention for her daughter, realising she has something of that in her as well.

“When you leave the old country at an age not young enough to get adopted into the new and not old enough to know how to reject it, you become this mutant thing: between borders, between languages, between memories.” He pressed his temples. “If you ask me, I think it’s easier to reinvent than to retrace. You’re not the only one, you know. Look at this city and its faces. You’re not the only one with an ungraspable history.”

I’m not sure I could say I enjoyed it, but it was thought-provoking and made me wonder about the inspiration and experience behind writing it and of the number of sad lives being lived by others, neither from one place nor another, without families, trying to make sense of the world. And of effects of unhealed trauma and displacement.

“If I had two lives to live, I would have done it differently,” she said. “Anything worth having requires your sacrifice, even your personal happiness.”

More than storytelling, despite being fiction, this novel is about what happens to those who leave their homeland, a victim in ways to what they have left, how some are able to manage their past experience, using it to try to improve the situation for others, while others remain a victim to forces and feelings they find difficult to live with, causing them to inflict pain on others or when it gets too much, on themselves, without seeming to, or unable to care who gets hurt in the process.

I am reminded of Cambodian author Vaddey Ratner whose family were evicted from their homeland, she uses fiction in her novel In The Shadow of the Banyan to express memories born of her childhood experience, and although it was traumatic, she was determined to take what was a sad chapter in her country’s history and show us something of its beauty and culture.

 It isn’t so much the story of the Khmer Rouge experience, of genocide, or even of loss and tragedy. What I wanted to articulate is something more universal, more indicative, I believe, of the human experience our struggle to hang onto life, our desire to live, even in the most awful circumstances. – Vaddey Ratner

Abbigail N. Rosewood was born in Vietnam, where she lived until the age of twelve.

This novel was born out of the aching pleasure of rearranging memories, reinventing the past – a personal need to solve my childhood’s mysteries, figure out how I arrived here, and to give myself the emotional conclusions that real life doesn’t afford.

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

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

A popular book in 2017, it won the Costa Book Award and has gone on to become a bestseller and will become a film starring Reese Witherspoon (who acquired the film rights), an incredible success for the debut novel of Gail Honeyman. To be honest, it hadn’t been on my radar, however when a friend lent me her copy, insisting I read it and a rainy day beckoned, I turned the page…

The book begins with an interesting 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.”

Eleanor Oliphant has been in the same office job in Glasgow, Scotland for almost eight years, she’s in her late twenties, intelligent, observant and diligent, she likes and needs routine and copes fine with her lack of social engagement, lack of friends, lack of family – with the exception of a weekly conversation with her mother on Wednesdays – and seems not to feel anything even when she overhears her colleagues speaking unkindly behind her back.

So used to her self imposed isolation and predictable life is she, that she seems shocked when a new employee Raymond from IT, whom she calls when her computer freezes one morning, initiates conversation with her outside the office, speaking to her as if she might be just like the others.

In this introduction to Eleanor, we aren’t sure of her, though her obvious intelligence and comfort in routine, he slight air of superiority despite the comments of her colleagues, suggest some kind of cognitive difference and her lack of a filter or self-censoring ability make her abject honesty a cause of surprise to some. Her habit of consuming vast amounts of vodka at home alone at the weekend, suggest something more dire lurks in her past.

Over the course of the novel, more of her early life is revealed and we learn that she has been through some kind of childhood trauma, which might explain some of her behaviours. This really sets up what for me was the main question, was this a case of nature, nurture (lack of) or trauma or a combination of them all. Honeyman leaves it to the reader to decide, but regardless of what influences made Eleanor the way she is, she is ripe for transformation. And she seems to have realised it herself, albeit, lead by a new obsession.

For, at the same time, and from the opening pages, she believes she may have met the perfect man, or is about to meet him, she obsesses about this man and builds him into her image of perfection, as had been defined by her absent mother, and prepares to improve herself physically in preparation of meeting him.

Meanwhile, through Raymond, her actual social connections begin to widen and they awaken something familiar in her, feelings that go with being invited to be part of a community, small acts of kindness, of inclusiveness, and Raymond helps her navigate these interactions, as might a friend.

It is a well written, engaging and thought provoking read, partly because of what is not known and slowly revealed, but the dialogue gives the story pace and there are plenty of new activities and social interactions Eleanor participates in, providing the space for her to grow and develop within.

“I wondered how it would feel to perform such simple deeds for other people. I couldn’t remember. I had done such things in the past, tried to be kind, tried to take care, I knew I had, but that was before. I tried, and I had failed, and all was lost to me afterwards. I had no one to blame but myself.”

I did find the character of Eleanor a little difficult to believe in, the long years of solitude followed by a relatively sudden transformation seem to occur too easily and quickly, however if I were to suspend judgement on the authenticity of the character and the speed of her life change, which wasn’t hard to do, then it becomes a kind of coming-of-age novel about a young woman overcoming a traumatic past and demonstrates (a little too conveniently) the healing that can come from genuine friendship and being part of a family and community and a functional workplace (if there is such a thing).

The introduction of a therapist also allows for the conversations that explore the difference between the fulfillment of physical needs and emotional needs, neatly tying things up and rounding off Eleanor’s late education and self development.

And while it’s not exactly a romance, there are elements of the ambiguity of her friendship with Raymond that certainly are likely to make this a popular film.

An entertaining, light read, that leaves you with more than a few questions.

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