Songs From the Violet Café by Fiona Kidman

Dame Fiona Kidman is one of New Zealand’s most prolific and highly acclaimed authors. Her work has recently been brought back to light, published in the UK by Gallic Books.

In 2016, I read her excellent novel on the life of the NZ aviator and Queen of the Skies, Jean Batten, The Infinite Air and later the same year picked up a copy of the historical fiction novel The Captive Wife, a tale of the first European woman to settle in the South Island of New Zealand, a whaler’s wife who underwent a dramatic ordeal, that Kidman imagines between the pages of her compelling novel.

Songs From the Violet Café novel begins and ends with chapters set in 2002, with independent events that take place on the same night, near each other. In Part One, an old boat laden with personal items, private notes and other paraphernalia is set alight and pushed out onto the lake, providing a spectacle for the family and their friends gathered for the occasion.

One puts in a bundle of letters; her sly smile and the nod of appreciation from the other women tell him that they are love letters. Another adds a calendar for what she says was a very bad year, someone else a stained quilt, another some yellowed school books. His wife’s best friend whispers to her son that it’s his last year’s school reports and he need never see them again.

The last Part sees nearly all the characters who worked in the Violet Café during 1963-64 on the same shores of that stretch of water, Lake Rotorua in New Zealand. They have come together again, all these years later, to commemorate the life of their patron, Violet Trench, owner.

In Part Two, it is 1943 and a boat rows across the lake with a woman and a young child. The woman is Violet and she is bringing a boy across to her first employer Hugo, a man whose wife she helped nurse through her last days before death. Now Hugo is married to Ming, a Chinese immigrant who also lost her husband, he has helped her raise her two sons and the one they have together.

‘Tell her,’ said Ming through her son, ‘that children are without price here. They are not for trade. ‘ She took the money Violet had given her earlier, and laid it on the table beside the unwashed plates.
The woman’s hand flew to her mouth. ‘I can’t take him back.’ she said.
The two little boys had thrown their arms around each other, nuzzling with tender blind-eyed butting as they shifted in their sleep.
‘The boy stays,’ Ming said, ‘but we do not buy.’

In Part Three we meet all the girls who will come under Violet’s wing, it’s 1963 and we encounter the girls through their mother’s, beginning with Jessie. About to turn eighteen, she is living in Wellington with her mother, stepfather and half-siblings, it is the day before she will leave her law studies and family behind, boarding a bus for a random northern destination, which happens to be Rotorua. Searching for food she will stumble across the café and be taken in by Violet.

Everything her mother did had a cost. Jessie didn’t know why she hadn’t seen this before. But now she understood in an instant that this was how it had always been, ever since her mother married Jock. If it hadn’t been for her, perhaps her mother might have married better the second time around. Jock, she could see, was the price her mother paid for being alone and having a child, for not always living as a war widow.

We meet Sybil and her daughter Marianne, whom Jessie shares a room with at a boarding house for a while, discovering the strange relationship this pair have, the mother sabotaging her daughter’s attempt to create a stable life for herself. Marianne also works at the café.

We meet Belle, a pastor’s daughter, who is to be married to Wallace. He’s saving for a deposit on their house and he and Belle’s father decide Belle needs a job to contribute to household expenses.

Hal and Wallace went to see the woman who ran the café. The woman was all lip and very impudent in Hal’s opinion, although Wallace rather liked her. I make the rules, she told them, and Belle will obey what I say when she comes to work at the Violet Café; she could worry about their rules when she went home. They waited for her to show them around but she didn’t, just waiting for their answer with a take it or leave it look in her eye.

There’s Ruth and Hester, the daughter she had at forty-six years of age.

A girl of quality, her mother believed. She expected her to go far. Hester would win scholarships and go to university, she too would stay clear-skinned and virginal. Instead, Hester grew more quiet and shy as one year followed another. When she was fifteen her frothy brown hair became mysteriously streaked with grey, as if she was already old.

Part Four are the years they all work in the café, where the lives of these young women under the tutelage of Violet come together, where friendships are forged, romances flourish and temptations indulged. Their relations and futures culminate in one eventful night, which will change the trajectory for nearly all of them, their coming-of-age period reaches a climatic point, from which they each will embark on the adult lives that will claim them.

Nobody called out or said goodnight or goodbye. Inside the café the phone was ringing but nobody answered it.

By Part Six it is 1980 and Jessie is in Phnom Penh working as a foreign correspondent. She has left New Zealand and is based in London, but spends most of time working in conflict zones, travelling from place to place following the scent of a story. She has left her past behind her, but will cross paths with some of those people she knew from the days at the Violet Café, learning more about what happened on that last night. The shadow of Violet still hangs over her and she find herself drawn once more into her realm, under her instruction.

It is an evocative novel, which brings that era of a small lakeside NZ town alive, showing how the young women of the time were almost stifled under the expectations of their mothers, and found a place of respite in the café run by the unorthodox matriarch Violet. For some, it wasn’t enough of a distance to rid themselves of guilt, they would leave, going far from home, far from their cultures, creating new personas to remove all trace of the past, one that despite their attempts, never really left them.

Another of Fiona Kidman’s books has recently been published in the UK, a companion novel which delves deeper into the life of Jessie’s mother Irene, from the time of her becoming a war widow to her marriage to Jock and the lives of her children, spanning the years from 1952 to 2015. You can read a review of it by Susan, over at A Life In Books.

Note: Thank you kindly to Gallic Books for providing a review copy.

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Women’s Prize for Fiction long list 2018 #WomensPrize

The annual Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced at midnight last night, on International Women’s Day.

No longer the Baileys Prize, this year there are three sponsors, including Bailey’s and the prize will simply be referred to as the Women’s Prize for fiction. The wider sponsorship aims to ‘build on the successes of the past and will also see the commercial possibilities to connect with a global audience’ while championing women’s creativity, celebrating excellence and keeping women’s voices centre stage.

“What is striking about the list, apart from the wealth of talent, is that women writers refuse to be pigeon-holed. We have searing social realism, adventure, comedy, poetic truths, ingenious plots and unforgettable characters. Women of the world are a literary force to be reckoned with.” Sarah Sands, Chair of Judges.

This year, I have already read three from the list, I’ll link to my reviews at the end. The long listed books follow, with extracts via the Women’s Prize:

 

H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker – a post – post apocalyptic Alice in Wonderland, of “daring narrative ingenuity”

Imagine a perfect world where everything is known, where everything is open, where there can be no doubt, no hatred, no poverty, no greed. Imagine a System which both nurtures and protects. A Community which nourishes and sustains. An infinite world. A world without sickness, without death. A world without God. A world without fear. Could you…might you be happy there?

The Idiot by Elif Batuman – portrait of the artist as a young woman, inventing herself, awakening

Selin, a tall, highly strung Turkish-American from New Jersey turns up at Harvard and finds herself dangerously overwhelmed by the challenges and possibilities of adulthood. She studies linguistics and literature, teaches ESL and spends a lot of time thinking about what language – and languages – can do.  Throughout her journeys, Selin ponders profound questions about how culture and language shape who we are, how difficult it is to be a writer, and how baffling love is.

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon – a poignant perspective of community life &  the vulnerability of age

84-year-old Florence has fallen in her flat at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. As she waits to be rescued, Florence wonders if a terrible secret from her past is about to come to light; and, if the charming new resident is who he claims to be, why does he look exactly like a man who died sixty years ago whom she fears? Florence, Elsie and Jack set to and unravel the mystery, getting them out of the home and out of their minds, that linger in the past.

Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig – a novel of love and war, colonialism and ethnicity, and the ties of blood

Based of the lives of the author’s mother and grandparents, Miss Burma tells the story of modern-day Burma through the eyes of one family struggling to find love, justice, and meaning during a time of war and political repression.

 

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan – historical novel with a hint of noir thriller, set in the Depression

Anna Kerrigan, nearly twelve years old, accompanies her father to visit Dexter Styles, a man who, she gleans, is crucial to the survival of her father and her family. She is mesmerised by the sea beyond the house and by some charged mystery between the two men. Years later, her father has disappeared, the country is at war. Anna works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where women are allowed to hold jobs that once belonged to men, now soldiers abroad. She becomes the first female diver, the most dangerous and exclusive of occupations, repairing ships that will help America win the war. One evening at a nightclub, she meets Dexter Styles again and begins to unravel the complexity of her father’s life, and the reasons he might have vanished.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar – spell-binding story of curiosity and obsession

One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid.

As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee shops, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel. Its arrival spins him out of his ordinary existence and through the doors of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on….and a courtesan of great accomplishment. This meeting will steer their lives on a dangerous new course.

What will be the cost of their ambitions? And will they be able to escape the destructive power mermaids are said to possess?

Sight by Jessie Greengrass – existential reflections of a pregnant woman

In Sight, a woman recounts her progress to motherhood, while remembering the death of her own mother, and the childhood summers she spent with her psychoanalyst grandmother.

Woven among these personal recollections are significant events in medical history: Wilhelm Rontgen’s discovery of the X-ray and his production of an image of his wife’s hand; Sigmund Freud’s development of psychoanalysis and the work that he did with his daughter, Anna; John Hunter’s attempts to set surgery on a scientific footing and his work, as a collaborator with his brother William and the artist Jan van Rymsdyk, on the anatomy of pregnant bodies.

What emerges is the realisation that while the search for understanding might not lead us to an absolute truth, it is an end in itself.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – uplifting story of an out-of-the-ordinary heroine

Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend. Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything. One simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself. Now she must learn to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted – while searching for the courage to face the dark corners she’s avoided all her life. Change can be good. Change can be bad. But surely anything is better than…fine?

 

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy – fierce and courageous dissection of what love meant, means and will come to mean when trust is undermined by violence

Seduced by politics, poetry and an enduring dream of building a better world together, a young woman falls in love with a university professor. Marrying him and moving to a rain-washed coastal town, she swiftly learns that what for her is a bond of love is for him a contract of ownership. As he sets about bullying her into his ideal of an obedient wife, and devouring her ambition of being a writer in the process, she begins to push back – a resistance he resolves to break with violence and rape.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley – a novel about family, and a beautiful meditation on landscape

Daniel is heading north. He is looking for someone. The simplicity of his early life with Daddy and Cathy has turned sour and fearful. They lived apart in the house that Daddy built for them with his bare hands. They foraged and hunted. When they were younger, Daniel and Cathy had gone to school. But they were not like the other children then, and they were even less like them now. Sometimes Daddy disappeared, and would return with a rage in his eyes. But when he was at home he was at peace. He told them that the little copse in Elmet was theirs alone. But that wasn’t true. Local men, greedy and watchful, began to circle like vultures. All the while, the terrible violence in Daddy grew.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy – an aching love story and a decisive remonstration

Over a journey of many years, the story spools outwards from the cramped neighbourhoods of Old Delhi to the burgeoning new metropolis and beyond, to the Valley of Kashmir and the forests of Central India, where war is peace and peace is war, and where, from time to time, ‘normalcy’ is declared.

Anjum, who used to be Aftab, unrolls a threadbare carpet in a city graveyard that she calls home. A baby appears quite suddenly on a pavement, a little after midnight, in a crib of litter. The enigmatic S. Tilottama is as much of a presence as she is an absence in the lives of the three men who loved her.

It is told in a whisper, in a shout, through tears and sometimes with a laugh. Its heroes are people who have been broken by the world they live in and then rescued, mended by love-and by hope. They are as steely as they are fragile, and they never surrender.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt – a murder, an intimate story of a volatile household, a family devoid of love

Just after 11am on 4th August 1892, the bodies of Andrew and Abby Borden are discovered. He’s found on the sitting room sofa, she upstairs on the bedroom floor, both murdered with an axe.

It is younger daughter Lizzie who is first on the scene, so it is Lizzie who the police first question, but there are others in the household with stories to tell: older sister Emma, Irish maid Bridget, the girls’ Uncle John, and a boy who knows more than anyone realises.

 

A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert – portrait of the Nazis’ arrival in Ukraine as they move towards the final solution

Early on a grey November morning in 1941, only weeks after the German invasion, a small Ukrainian town is overrun by the SS. Penned in with his fellow Jews, under threat of transportation, Ephraim anxiously awaits word of his two sons, missing since daybreak. Come in search of her lover to fetch him home again, away from the invaders, Yasia confronts new and harsh truths about those closest to her. Here to avoid a war he considers criminal, German engineer Otto Pohl is faced with an even greater crime unfolding behind the lines, and no one but himself to turn to. And in the midst of it all is Yankel, a boy who must throw his chances of surviving to strangers.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – a contemporary retelling of the classic Antigone, the idealism of youth in dangerous times

Isma is free. After years spent raising her twin siblings in the wake of their mother’s death, she resumes a dream long deferred – studying in America. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London, or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of his own dream – to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew.

Then Eamonn enters the sisters’ lives. Handsome and privileged, he inhabits a London worlds away from theirs. As the son of a powerful British Muslim politician, Eamonn has his own birthright to live up to – or defy. The fates of these two families are inextricably, devastatingly entwined in this searing novel that asks: what sacrifices will we make in the name of love?

The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal – a moving story of love and loss, overcoming grief

Mona is a young Irish girl in the big city, with the thrill of a new job and a room of her own in a busy boarding house. A dollmaker, she lovingly crafts handmade dolls that she sells to collectors around the world, and provides bereavement counselling for mothers who have suffered stillbirths, miscarriages and cot deaths. On her first night out in 1970s Birmingham, she meets William, a charming Irish boy with an easy smile and an open face. They embark upon a passionate affair, a whirlwind marriage – before a sudden tragedy tears them apart.

Decades later, Mona pieces together the memories of the years that separate them. But can she ever learn to love again?

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward – a portrait of a family, of hope, struggle and ugly truths

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.

***

It’s an interesting list, with lots of familiar names to me, and many titles that I’ve seen reviewed by Eric at Lonesome Reader, who keeps up with reading and reviewing most of the new fiction coming out in the UK. I’m surprised not to see Ali Smith’s Winter there, nor Elizabeth Strout and disappointed not to see Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu, which I’m going to write more about soon.

I’m in the middle of reading the excellent and humorous Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon, the writing and her poignant depictions of characters are excellent. There are many on here I want to read, Sight was picked by Eric as his book likely to win the Man Booker this year and he’s pretty accurate with predictions, so I’d better read that, I’ve seen much written about When I Hit You, it’s one of those books I know is a mini masterpiece, but such a heartbreaking, soul-destroying subject to read about – still, I may have to read it now.

So which from the list are you interested in reading? Or disappointed not to see there?

Further Reading:

My Review of Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

My Review of Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesymn Ward

My review of Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

My review of When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy

Click Here to Buy A Book Now via BookDepository

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

I had a feeling John Boyne may have put his heart and soul into this book, though I had little idea how so. The blurb is intentionally vague, we know Cyril has been adopted and that the book is about his struggle with coming to terms with his identity.

The last novel of his that I read was The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, a moving story set during WW2, seen through the innocent eyes of Bruno, the eight-year-old son of the commandant at a German concentration camp.

In The Heart’s Invisible Furies, a title taken from a quote by Hannah Arendt, the German-born American political theorist:

“A line came into my mind, something that Hannah Arendt once said about the poet Auden: that life had manifested the heart’s invisible furies on his face.”

we meet 16-year-old Catherine Goggin, sitting quietly in church in a small Irish village of Goleen in County Cork, as she is about to be denounced and humiliated in front of the entire congregation, then thrown out of, not only the church, but her home and the village, for bringing shame on the community.

The story is narrated through the voice of her not-yet born son, the boy that we come to know as Cyril Avery; he will be adopted and raised by Charles and Maude Avery, after Catherine travels to Dublin and takes up employment in the tea room of the Dáil Éireann (House of Representatives), where she is given a chance by the manageress, and eventually becoming that herself.

The book is divided into different parts, each covering a significant chunk of Cyril’s life, initially in Ireland, then a period in Amsterdam, time in New York and finally coming back to Ireland.

Cyril finds it extremely difficult within his family, his school and his culture to be himself. Through his inability to be and express himself, we see how oppressive a culture can be against anything or anyone who dares to step outside the acceptable norm,  highlighting the extreme hypocrisy that therefore must exist, as humans by their very nature are not clones of each other, they are born and exist in more than just binary variations.

Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, Parish of Goleen, West Cork

In this first part, as Cyril is growing up, John Boyne makes something of a parody of his life, in particular in relation to his adoptive parents, who continually insist on reminding him that he is not a real Avery, and Cyril himself, so used to hearing this, will correct every person who uses the word mother or father, by inserting the word ‘adoptive’ to be sure they too understand.

“I always called them Charles and Maude, never ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’. This was on Charles’s insistence as I wasn’t a real Avery. It didn’t bother me particularly but I know it made other people uncomfortable and once, in school, when I referred to them thus, a priest punched me around the ears and told me off for being modern.”

The first time we read this, it seems sad, but the continual repetition makes it comic, and it is a tool that Boyne uses, perhaps to soften the effect of what must have been quite a soul-searching book to write, as he reaches deep into his own life experiences to create the life of Cyril.

At the age of seven, he meets Julian, the son of a lawyer who is helping his father stay out of prison for tax evasion, they will become best friends.

But for all that we had, for all the luxury to which we were accustomed, we were both denied love, and this deficiency would be scorched into our future lives like an ill-considered tattoo inscribed on the buttocks after a drunken night out, leading each of us inevitably towards isolation and disaster.

Leinster House, where Dáil Éireann Irish parliment sits

While the novel focuses on Cyril’s attempts to survive in a world hostile to his natural inclinations, his experiences highlight the struggle that so many people encounter, unable to live their lives openly and honestly without the fear of rejection and violence.

Boyne peels back the layers of Irish inclinations and attitudes in the 20th century and shows how destructive this closed mindedness is on the lives of anyone who crosses an imaginary line of acceptable ‘being’. The contrast with how Cyril is able to live his life in the Netherlands, shown through the carefree Bastiaan, who has known no such bigotry in his life experience is revealing.

It’s hard to say too much about the novel without giving away spoilers, except to say that this astonishing novel is a courageous, honest attempt to show how the way we conform to society and culture’s expectations, against our own nature’s can be so harmful to so many and it makes us wonder how life might be, if we lived in a more utopian world, where tolerance reigned supreme.

Boyne admits the comic form isn’t one he’s indulged in before and he has deliberately avoided writing anything personal in his novels until now.

“Perhaps Cyril Avery is everyone I might have been, that I am, that I amn’t, and that I might be yet. The desire to fall in love and to share one’s life with someone is neither a homosexual nor a heterosexual conceit. It’s human. We’re all suckers for a pretty face or a kind heart. What else can we do but keep hoping that the right person will show up?” John Boyne

Petit Pays by Gaël Faye

Once I got into the rhythm of this, which is to say, reading in French, and getting past the need to look up too many new words, I couldn’t put this down, by the time I found my reading rhythm, the lives of Gabriel (Gaby) and his sister Ana, his parents, his friends had their claws in me and I had to know what was going to happen next.

I heard about this book initially via a French friend who retired here, but spent most of her married life living in a number of African countries. She introduced the book to me, as having been written by the son of friends. I was intrigued, it wasn’t too long – and then it began to win a lot of prizes! I suspected it might get translated, but decided not to wait.

Gaël Faye, like the protagonist of the book, is the son of a French father and Rwandan mother and the historical facts which run alongside this narrative coincide with what he would have experienced, born in Bujumbura in Burundi and similarly fleeing the country to live in exile when civil war broke out in 1993 at the same time as the genocide in Rwanda against the Tutsi in 1994.

The book starts with Gaby reflecting on a conversation with his father, a turning point in his understanding of the ethnic origin of his people, of the difference between the Hutu, and the Tutsi. He is trying to understand the motivation for the ethnic violence that caused his mother to flee her country of origin.

His father is French, his mother Tutsi from Rwanda, they live in the small country bordering Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo, called Burundi. It boasts the second deepest lake in the world, Lake Tanganyika, which occupies a large portion of the country’s border and is part of the African Great Lakes region.

An italicised chapter depicts Gaby in France on his 33rd birthday, unable to reach his sister Ana, falling into what has become an annual day of melancholy, he remembers his exceptional 11th birthday, his parents and friends. And thus begins the novel, back to Burundi when he is 10 years old, remembering those last days of his parents marriage, replaying scenes that may have contributed to the demise of their relationship and many that contribute to his homesickness today.

Conversations highlight the cultural differences between his parents, disputes provoke them to raise age-old issues, two people, neither of whom are really at home where they are, whose references come from elsewhere, who yearn for different things, Yvonne dreams of Paris, Michel is content with his piece of paradise in Burundi; his business, their beautiful home, domestic servants, the climate, the lake, the mountains, he refers to her dream of Paris and Europe as if it is a fantasy, far from the paradise she imagines.

For Gaby and Ana, Bujumbura is home, it is where they belong. Each day unfolds according to the same routine, as the domestics arrive, the gate is opened, they prepare for school, are driven, there is a change as Gaby begins college and new friendships develop. His close friends live in the same alleyway, the twins, Gino, Armand.  And Francis who they conflict with. They like to hang out in an abandoned Combi, talking, laughing, planning things.

On connaissait tous les recoins de l’impasse et on voulait y rester pour la vie entière, tous les cinq, ensemble.

(We know all the nooks of the alley and we would like to stay there the rest of our lives, all five of us, together.)

J’ai beau chercher, je ne me souviens pas du moment ou l’on s’est mis à penser différemment. A considérer que, dorévenant il y aurait nous d’un côté et, de l’autre, des ennemis, comme Francis.

(I looked hard, I don’t remember the moment when we began to think differently. To consider that, from now on, there would be us on one side and on the other, enemies, like Francis.)

Slowly unsettling news penetrates their utopia, Yvonne is worried for her Aunt and four children who never left Rwanda and for her nephew Pacifique who decides to return there to fight. They begin to listen more often to the radio for news, adults start making confidential telephone calls behind closed doors.

Despite the unsettled times, they plan a visit to Rwanda for a family marriage, excitement and tension mount and while they make the event, the changing atmosphere forces them to return in haste.

The book continues to follow the daily life revolving around Gaby, the highs of the adventures with his friends, despite the unease that pervades their township, the lows of news from Rwanda and a fear that the divisions that have become violent will trickle across to Burundi.

The news of a coup d’etat arrives when the radio plays classic music nonstop, it is a sign, one that has happened before, in November 1966 it was a Schubert piano sonata, in 1987 Chopin. Now, it’s Wagner they hear.

Ce jour-là, le 21 October 1993, nous avons eu droit au Crépsucule des dieux de Wagner.

Attitudes change and begin to take effect in the playground and in the neighbourhood. Gaby befriends an elderly neighbour, a widow with large bookshelves, he seeks respite between the pages of a newfound love, literature.

The story is told through scenes viewed from the perspective of Gaby, we slowly understand the beauty and stability of his life and how that is slowly dismantled and it is no wonder, miles away and many years in the future, something in him yearns for that lost youth.

It is beautifully told, a simple story to follow, with many beautiful descriptive passages, even though we know that this time will be short-lived. It opens our eyes to the tensions that escalate into hatred and violence with little sense, the many victims and the many wounded by loss, destroyed by it.

The ending is not really an ending, it could be said there is more than one ending and perhaps there may even be another book. I found it incredibly moving and was amazed to be so moved in a language that is not my own. An incredible feat of writing, a wonderful talent.

Winner of five French literary prizes including the sought after Prix Goncourt des lycéens, it is due to be translated into English in June 2018 under the title Small Country by Hogarth Press.

As you can see from the photo above Gaël Faye is also a singer, rapper, composer and poet. Unfortunately that concert above is already sold out. However, there is a beautiful song, also named Petit Pays, which gives you a glimpse of that small country he is nostalgic for and the wonderful musical talent he possesses.

A top read, highly recommended.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

In 2017, I read Jesmyn Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones, it was hurricane season in the US, and the news was full of the fearful anticipation of the destruction they would bring and we were already seeing how many small islands in the Caribbean had been devastated.

Salvage the Bones was set during the period just before and during Hurricane Katrina, one that would claim lives and livelihoods, wreaking havoc on New Orleans and the surrounding area. The family within which that story was set were already suffering poverty and the loss of the mother; they had little, yet what they had meant so much, creating a foreboding sense of much being at stake, it was thrilling and terrifying reading. You can read my review of it here.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is set in the same Southern US community,  putting us amidst a struggling mixed race family, a young black woman Leonie, who fell in love with Michael from a racist white family implicated in a tragedy that affected her family. In its telling, it traverses love,  grief, terminal illness, addiction, prejudice, dysfunctional parenting, hope and survival, the effect this mix has on everyone touched by it, the painful and the poignant.

Leonie falls so quickly for Michael, she is blind to the bind she must endure, that of premature motherhood when she has barely experienced or indulged sufficiently the early infatuation of young love. As a result, she is forever seeking those moments, she is trapped in hedonistic romanticism, she has eyes only for Michael and is unable to embrace, and often rejects motherhood – or as her mother feared, perhaps she never had a maternal instinct at all.

 …from the first moment I saw him walking across the grass to where I sat in the shadow of the school sign, he saw me. Saw past skin the colour of unmilked coffee, eyes black, lips the colour of plums, and saw me. Saw the walking wound I was, and came to be my balm.

She and her 13-year-old son Jojo and toddler Kayla, live with her parents, as Michael is in jail. Leonie gets word he is to be released and takes the children on a nightmare road trip to pick him up. Throughout most of the story Kayla is unwell, she is always in the arms of her brother, it is he that calms and reassures her.

When Leonie puts herself in danger, the apparition of her brother ‘Given’ appears. He is her conscience. He is not the only apparition hanging around the family. Jojo sees a boy who calls himself Richie, and Kayla can see him too. He wants Jojo to ask his grandfather to tell him the rest of the story he has partially told about him, of this boy Richie.

Restless unburied souls.

I want to tell the boy in the car this. Want to tell him how his pop tried to save me again and again, but he couldn’t.

The novel is narrated from three different points of view, Jojo, his mother Leonie and briefly the spectre of the young man  Richie. Jojo is the most reliable and frequent narrator, even while he does have visions of this ghost-like figure. He is the quiet observer of everything, he adapts, he is responsible, he knows they are better off with his grandfather, he is loyal to his mother. He needs to take care of his sister, he has become both parents.

“Sometimes, late at night, when I’m listening to Pop search the dark, and Kayla’s snoring beside me, I think I understand Leonie. I think I now something about what she feels. That maybe I know a little bit about why she left after Mam died, why she slapped me, why she ran. I feel it in me, too. An itching in my hands. A kicking in my feet. A fluttering in the middle of my chest. An unsettling. Deeper. It turns me awake every time I feel myself slipping. It tosses me like a ball through the air. Around three a.m., it lets me drop, and I sleep.”

He accepts the presence of the ghost-like boy Richie, he is aware that it has some need to be fulfilled, though he is wary due to the role he has assumed, to protect his sister. Is it because their grandmother is dying that these restless souls are hanging around? It becomes one of the questions readers will ask themselves, and I found it interesting that I at no point interpreted this as a psychological problem for those who were able to see or sense these apparitions, they were like a puzzle to be solved, or a problem to be ignored, the fact that Jojo hears Richie validated their presence, while Leonie’s visions are easily attributed to her altered state.

Leonie is like a little girl lost, she has some awareness of what she should be doing, but little ability to push herself to do it. Her grief over her brother, her disappointment at her ability to have a connection with Michael’s racist family, her disappointment in herself lead to apathy, to knowing, but lacking the will to act on her better judgement, of which we see glimmers. She isn’t horrid or badly intentioned, she is seeking escape and Michael both reminds her of her pain and is where, and with whom she wishes to bury herself, to flee it.

There is a reference to her novel Salvage The Bones, as the family return from their road trip, they pass a young couple walking a dog, it is the brother and sister, Skeetah and Eschelle, from the neighbourhood, protagonists of that earlier novel. I was curious to know if the dog was related to China, an unresolved thread left hanging from her earlier novel. I was delighted to encounter them.

In many ways Salvage The Bones was the more straight forward story, Esch (in Salvage) and Jojo (in Sing) are similar characters, coming-of-age and surviving a dysfunctional family.  Jojo has the stability and wisdom of his grandfather to ground him, and the care of his sister prevents him from becoming too focused on his own situation. There is hope. However, the supernatural element, which is a lot more than a mere splash of magic realism, makes this a more complex narrative that stretches the reader’s imagination much further to make sense of what is happening, a reminder of dangers, of threats, of the precariousness of young, black lives.

It’s challenging to spend the week there, navigating the lives of this family that seems to have little hope and while Jojo seems to be a sensible child, his interactions with the dead suggest life will continue to challenge him.

It reminded me a little of the magical presence used by some Caribbean authors I enjoy, where ancestors often bring a message or wisdom to the one who is able to sense their presence.

It’s a book that is often uncomfortable to read, but challenges the reader to think deeper than what they encounter on the surface, to ponder the meaning of some of those scenes, especially the end. I think it is a book that is all the more enjoyable for the thoughts it provokes on finishing it, for the discussion it invites you to have with other readers, and this for me is where its brilliance lies, it normalises the mystical, using it to make the reader think beyond the actual events of the story, to question how the lives of others continue to impact the lives of their descendants.

It demonstrates the effect on the young of the tragedies of the past and the need for resolution, for those unburied,  restless souls to be freed from their pain, so that the living can be free of and unencumbered by it too.

Both Jesmyn Ward’s books Salvage the Bones (2011) and Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017) won the prestigious National Book Award in the US, an award that always highlights excellent fiction and nonfiction being published in the US and they have just announced this year that they will now include a fifth National Book Award for translated works of fiction and nonfiction published in the U.S.

Listen below to Jesmyn reading her acceptance speech and speaking to those who question why they should read her books, about the universality of the stories she writes.

“As a lifelong reader, I fell in love with classic “odyssey” novels early on—especially As I Lay Dying, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Yet I always felt somehow outside these books. This novel responds to that tradition, reflecting the realities of being black and poor in the South, the realities of my people and my community. …My characters face the terrible consequences of racism and poverty wherever they go, but they also have an incredible, tender, transformative love for each other. I wanted to acknowledge all of the forces that work against us and our ability to survive despite all.” Jesmyn Ward

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

Purchase a copy via Book Depository

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

Loved it, this is my kind of popular summer read, it brought to mind the recent Alaskan classic I read and enjoyed immensely Two Old Women: An Alaskan Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival by Velma Wallis and another that I didn’t enjoy so much A Man Called Ove.

It’s a story of octogenarian women Hortensia and Marion who are neighbours in a suburb in Cape Town, South Africa. Marion is a white woman, born there, who has lived through political change, though not learned much from it, rather she has tried to keep as much distance as she possibly can from ever having to confront her deeply embedded, never dealt with ancestral shame.

Hortensia is a black woman, whose parents left Barbados for London, where she grew up and was educated, becoming a successful textile designer, and marrying an Englishman, with whom she moved to Nigeria and eventually (not sure why) to retire in South Africa.

Both women have had similarly successful professional lives, both run their own businesses, Marion as an architect, though the birth of her children brought her independence to an earlier close than Hortensia.

Now they are neighbours, on the same street committee and keep each other in check – they represent to the other things about themselves they would never admit, shame or hurt them, rather they take their bitterness out on each other, assuming the other wasn’t capable of understanding their perspective.

Here Marion contemplates her particular shame:
What Hortensia didn’t seem to understand was that sometimes we have to honour our ancestors and side with them. This meant we justified what was horrible and turned away from what needed scrutiny. This life of ignoring the obvious required a certain amount of stamina. The alternative to this was to set on a path to make rubbish of what had gone before us. This approach – of principles – activism and struggle – required stamina too. All the same, she’d chosen the other one.

While grumpy old Ove was just plain annoying and unpleasant to spend a whole book with, these two are actually good company, they have interesting back stories, that are drip fed throughout the narrative, they’re funny and although they are going to learn something when their lives inevitably come closer than they would have wished for, there’s not that sense of over the top, moral victory, I liked that while they overcome something by the end, they don’t change too much.

 

I picked this book up when it was long listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017 and while it didn’t make the short list, it definitely made my list of authors to continue to watch out for and read.

Yewande Omotoso was also born in Barbados, grew up in Nigeria and moved to South Africa where she writes and runs her own architectural practice. This is her second novel. Her debut novel Bom Boy was shortlisted for the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize.

Reading in #Translation, A Literary Revolution #WITMonth

Sometimes it’s interesting to pause and look back at a reading journey and observe the reading milestones that helped deliver us to where our preferences are today. As many of you who’ve been reading Word by Word for a while will know, I like to read around the world, across cultures and that has led me to read more literature in translation.

It has become easier to find more diverse literature than in the past, thanks to the wonderful community of readers/bloggers who write with passion about books and to initiatives like the annual August ‘Women in Translation’ #WITMonth, also lead by a passionate blogger, Meytal Radzinski who blogs at Biblibio.

Tilted Axis Press was founded in 2015 by Deborah Smith, translator of Korean literature, while she was completing a PhD in contemporary Korean literature. She translated both of Han Kang’s excellent books, which I’ve read and reviewed here, the incredible Human Acts (my personal favourite) and last years Man Booker International Prize winner The Vegetarian. They are a small, not for profit publisher of works that might not otherwise appear in English, books with

“artistic originality, radical vision, the sense that here is something new”

Recently they asked me for my thoughts on  reading literature in translation, and published my response on their website, which I’ve linked here. It also includes a list of some of my favourite novels in translation and some of the excellent bloggers I rely on to keep me informed. Click on the link below to read the article.

My Thoughts on

Reading in Translation, A Literary Revolution

I hope you enjoy it and find a good book to read in translation during August. Do you have a recent favourite book that you’ve read in translation to recommend? Please let me know in the comments below.