Every Light in the House Burnin’ by Andrea Levy

Sadly the wonderful author Andrea Levy, well-known for her Orange Prize winning novel Small Island (2004), passed away on February 14, 2019. I remember reading it when I lived in London and the joy of a new literary prize that highlighted exactly the kind of stories and authors I liked to read. Her fifth novel The Long Song (2010) was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. It was turned into a 3 part television adaptation, screened in Dec 2018.

 

Andrea Levy’s debut novel Every Light in the House Burnin’ reads like an intimate portrayal of family life, so much so that it felt like reading about the author’s childhood, clearly she drew from it. Capturing the essence of family life from perceived childhood injustices that many will recognise, to the humorous anecdotes a clash of cultures brings, when children are raised in a different country to their parents, she immerses into family life and reimagines those poignant moments that shaped her. From the Guardian Obituary, her family description reads like an addendum to the novel.

Her father, Winston Levy, travelled to Britain on the Empire Windrush in 1948, and was joined six months later by his wife, Amy (nee Ridguard), who had been trained as a schoolteacher in Kingston, Jamaica. Both parents were of mixed race. Her father’s Jewish father emigrated to Jamaica after the first world war and converted to Christianity, and her mother was descended from William Ridsguard, a white plantation attorney who had a child with his black housekeeper. Both parents came to England expecting greater opportunities, but found that their qualifications were rejected.

The novel is a portrait of a family in London, the children of Jamaican immigrants, narrated from the point of view of the youngest child Angela (referred to also as Anne), it brings to life moments in their family life that impacted them all, through carefully realised characters, to the beginning of the decline, just after her father’s retirement.

In one scene Anne is left with her father during their holiday at the beach, her mother and other siblings have gone out. Her father has spent most of the holiday lying on the couch, not at all tempted by the sandy beaches or the sea, but Anne is persistent. Reluctantly he agrees.

I smiled as I watched my Dad haul himself from the sofa. I waited for fifteen minutes before my Dad emerged from his bedroom. He was dressed in his grey suit. The only sign that he was about to take part in a leisure activity and not have a day at work was that he was not wearing a tie and had the top button of his shirt undone.

The challenges have only just begun. Anne wants to sit in the sun, an idea her father rejects, suggesting a secluded spot further back, where the ice cream hut has created the only shade on the beach. Initially he relents to sit in her spot, but refuses to join her in the water, too cold. After her swim, as she lies down to enjoy the warmth of the sun, a shadow looms over her.

‘You shouldn’t sit in the sun too long. You want to turn red like those English people – you shouldn’t sit in the sun’
‘Everybody else’ –
‘Cha’, my dad insisted before I had time to finish. ‘We’re not like everybody else.’

The story turns towards their encounter with the father’s decline and the navigation of the NHS health service, a lack of knowledge, the pain and difficulties encountered as a result, resolved only when the daughter pushes and insists on their behalf. Alternate moments of perseverance and giving up, driven by a need, pushed back by intimidation and shame. Here, Anne offers to visit the Doctor to ask for stronger pain medication.

‘But,’ my mum began, ‘but you can’t just go and see him. He’s a busy man. He might not see you.’ Her voice said ‘go’ and ‘don’t go’ at the same time.

Aspects of the past come to light later on, were they secrets, those things family members never talked about, which end up buried and become secret-like. When an Aunt visits telling them how things are back home in Jamaica and asks about their newfound life in England, the land of opportunity, things not said are loud in their omission. If there was regret, it’s been long-buried, replaced by silence and resignation, not to be discussed.

There are many light and humorous moments, interspersed with the reality of the struggle the family has in fitting in, within a culture where there are expectations about how to do things and underlying racism or indifference toward outsiders. They do their best to integrate, to pass on their stoic values to their children, who only realise as they become adults how difficult it had been for them.

I knew this society better than my parents. My parents’ strategy was to keep as quiet as possible in the hope that no one would know they had sneaked into this country. They wanted to be no bother at all. But I had grown up in its English ways. I could confront it, rail against it, fight it, because it was mine – a birthright.

It was a beautiful beginning to her literary career, a fictional novel that paid tribute to her parent’s and siblings lives, that demonstrates the empathy Levy had for her characters and the pure gift of storytelling that would take her on to deserved critical acclaim. Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

Click Here to Buy One of Andrea Levy’s Novels via Book Depository (free shipping)

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

If Beale Street Could Talk is the first work by James Baldwin that I have read. It was the first work he wrote after he moved to St Paul de Vence in the south of France, where he would pass the last 17 years of his life.

He also wrote his first two novels at the beginning of his literary career, Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room, along with his best-known collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son during a nine-year period he lived in Paris.

When Jordan Elgrably of The Paris Review asked why he left the United States said:

I was broke. I got to Paris with forty dollars in my pocket, but I had to get out of New York. My reflexes were tormented by the plight of other people. Reading had taken me away for long periods at a time, yet I still had to deal with the streets and the authorities and the cold. My luck was running out. I was going to go to jail, I was going to kill somebody or be killed. My best friend had committed suicide two years earlier, jumping off the George Washington Bridge.

He found it increasingly difficult to be a witness to life in America so perhaps France provided him the distance from which to write. With Beale Street he was able to immerse in a love story, bringing out the emotional bonds that keep a family together, that give them something extra, to not just survive, but overcome the harsh, unjust realities of everyday life in America for black people.

The novel revolves around childhood sweethearts, 19-year-old Tish and 22-year-old Fonny. We meet them as she visits him in prison.

I don’t know why people always look down when they talk through a telephone, but they always do. You have to remember to look up at the person you’re talking to.

I always remember now, because he’s in jail and I love his eyes and every time I see him I’m afraid I’ll never see him again. So I pick up the phone as soon as I’m there and I keep looking up at him.

Interspersed with the regular visits, are flash-backs to childhood and the moment their friendship evolved to something deeper. Fonny takes Tish to his basement pad where he has set up a woodwork studio, his deepest passion is sculpting wood and stone, he wants to show her and for her to understand its importance to him.

After asking her to marry him, they’d looked for loft space together, they were planning a future together, when suddenly robbed of it by a false accusation.  His alibi’s are discredited and he sinks into despair, but for her visits.

Though heartbroken, she is emboldened by her family, by the adamant support of her sister, who finds them a good lawyer, her mother, who travels to Porto Rico to confront the accuser, and her father, who works extra shifts to raise funds for Fonny’s bail.

It is the words, actions and support of the family that keep everyone from falling apart, they are a stalwart to Fonny especially, as his family crack under the pressure of a mother converted to a conservative faith prone to judgement and disappointment, more concerned about her own reputation than the innocence of her son.

It is interesting that Baldwin chose to narrate the novel from Tish’s perspective, and though it may have provoked criticism, it is perhaps one injustice that he sought to right – allowing the voice of a young black woman to rise and be heard.

Sharon, her mother, was a fabulous character. So in touch with her deepest roots, she is able to appease her daughter when she fearfully shares news of her pregnancy:

‘Tish’, she said, ‘when we was first brought here, the white man he didn’t give us no preachers to say words over us before we had our babies. And you and Fonny be together right now, married or not, wasn’t, wasn’t for that same damn white man. So let me tell you what you got to do. You got to think about that baby. You got to hold onto that baby, don’t care what else happens or doesn’t happen. You got to do that. Can’t nobody else do that for you. And the rest of us, well, we going to hold on to you. And we going to get Fonny out. Don’t you worry. I know it’s hard – but don’t you worry. And that baby be the best thing that ever happened to Fonny. He needs that baby. It going to give a whole lot of courage.’

Right there, the mother reinforces stability in their lives and I can’t help but be aware of the contrast, having just read the memoir An Affair With My Mother of a baby conceived within a culture that shame(s)d its daughters for pregnancy outside of wedlock, destroying lives, dividing families, creating unnecessary drama. This action and steadfast support by Sharon is a protest against the inherent culture and inherited religious beliefs, over which love and the family bond will prevail. It is a powerful matriarchal triumph, one that reaches far back in ancestral memory.

So the family encounter difficult circumstances and yet their ability to be there for each other sees them though and even Fonny is swept up in this wave of support, nourished by it, even though he has moments of sliding into darkness, as is human. By contrast, his family is fragmented, the mother and daughters reject the offer of unity offered by Joseph and Sharon, the father Frank gets it and tries to support them, to be part of this newly extended family, but without the strength of an unconditional bond within his own, he is left vulnerable.

James Baldwin in France

I think Baldwin succeeds if it was his intention to write about the powerful effect of love and family, in their ability to carry each other through difficult times, when they refuse to resort to blame (of themselves or others) or judgement, when they hold each other up and decide to be a force together and not give in to destructive tendencies.

I’ve just seen the film at our local cinema. It’s challenging to watch to a film you are still reflecting on reading.

In a recent interview, Director Barry Jenkins talked about Baldwin’s work:

I chose Beale Street because I felt the novel, more than any of his other works, represented the perfect blend of Baldwin’s dual obsessions with romance and social critique, as sensual a depiction of love as it is a biting observation of systemic injustice.

I thought the movie was a beautiful and moving depiction of the story, although my big takeaways from the book about that family bond, (especially the mother to the daughter) weren’t as strong in the film. Some of the most important lines I’d noted (and went back to check) were taken from the mother and given to the father, which surprised me, as it shifted the dynamic and removed what for me had been a significant and empowering statement coming from the mother (supported by the father). Passing those lines to the father risked putting the mother back into a supporting role, and lessened the matriarchal force Baldwin imbued her with.

The other significant moment in the book for me, which I’m not sure comes across in the film with quite the same impact, is a moment near the end where there is a change in Fonny, observed here by Tish, which you’ll have to read to find out more:

“- something quite strange, altogether wonderful, happens in him…”

All the more reason, even if you’ve seen the film, to get a copy of the book! And all that said, I’d recommend both without hesitation.

Buy a Copy of Beale Street via Book Depository

Have you read James Baldwin? Do you have a favourite?

An Affair with My Mother by Caitriona Palmer

It seems a strange title for a book, until we understand it is a memoir of adoption, of secrecy, of a love denied, forbidden. And the woman writing it, comes to realise, how very similar the continued secrecy surrounding spending time with her birth mother is, to conducting an illicit affair. So she calls it that. It’s like an unwritten 13th commandment: Thou shalt not have any relation whatsoever with thy illegitimate child.

It’s set in Ireland, a country reluctant to let go of old ways, still in throe to a traditional family culture that shamed, blamed and punished young women for being the life-bearers they are – insisting they follow a code of moral behaviour documented by a system of domination, upheld by the church, supported by the state – a system that bore no consequence on men – young or old – who were equally responsible for the predicament of women.

“If there is anger in this book it is anger at the profound and despicable sexual double standard in Ireland. Men walked away without ever having to confront their role in these relationships.”

Eventually women in Ireland were given access to a means of preventing unwanted pregnancy, though not until Feb 20, 1985 when the Irish government defied the powerful Catholic Church, seen until this day as lacking compassion, in approving the sale of contraception, and more recently in a 2018 referendum, repealing its abortion ban (outlawed in 1861 with possible life imprisonment), acknowledged as a dramatic reversal of the Catholic church’s domination of Irish society.

For years, Ireland created and implemented what is referred to as an architecture of containment, institutions such as the Magdalen laundries (also referred to as asylums) removed morally questionable women from their homes (young women who became pregnant outside of marriage, or whose male family members complained about their behavior). They removed their children if they were pregnant then put them to work, washing ‘the nation’s dirty laundry’, thanks to lucrative state contracts provided to the institutions to fulfill. The last Magdalene laundries closed in Dublin in 1996 and the truth of what happened to those unmarried mothers continues to be investigated through the CLANN project.

Book Review

Caitriona Palmer was born in Dublin, raised in a caring family with two children of their own, the parents adopting after a miscarriage and recommendation Mary (the mother) should have a hysterectomy. If they wanted another child, adoption would be the only path.

She had a happy childhood and grew up in a very happy home, defiantly happy in fact, she would tell people early on she was adopted, almost proud of it she said, in her mind it had had no impact on her life, it didn’t change her or make her who she was, however she was constantly shadowed by a consistent ache, something she refused to confront or admit had anything to do with being separated from her biological mother at birth.

The book opens as Caitriona is about to meet her birth mother Sarah (not her real name) for the first time, a highly anticipated event, and yet as it unfolds, and she hears someone walk up the steps, about to fulfill a desire she has initiated, she becomes filled with dread and as the woman rushes towards her, repeating her name:

I said nothing. I felt nothing.

‘I’ll leave you both to it then,’ I heard Catherine say.

‘Don’t go’, I wanted to scream at her. ‘Please don’t go. Stay. Stay here with me, please. Don’t leave me alone with this woman.’

It is the beginning of the many conflicted feelings she will encounter within herself as that aspect of herself she was born into awakens as an emotional itch deep inside her she can neither locate or explain, at a time in her life when outwardly, living life as the person she was raised to be, she couldn’t have been happier. She was 26 years old, working in a dream job for Physicians for Human Rights in the US, in love and happy.  She put her anxiety down to problems with her expiring student visa, though when her employer found a solution by transferring her to Bosnia, it didn’t heal the anxiety, if anything it made it worse.

There, a small team of forensic scientists was overseeing the exhumation of hundreds of mass graves left after the war and attempting to determine the fate of over 7,500 missing men and boys from the UN safe haven of Srebrenica, which had been overrun by Serb forces four years earlier.

After a day when she and a small team broke into an abandoned hospital in search of records, the source of her own anxiety presented itself to her.

In that moment, filling our arms with the dusty paperwork, I felt a sliver of illumination. Driving back to Tuzla later that afternoon, our pilfered medical dossiers on our laps, the mood in the car jovial, I returned again to that moment, massaging the memory, trying to knead to the surface the revelation lurking beneath. What was I doing helping to search for the files of dead strangers when it was plainly obvious that I needed to search for own?

Though there could be no comparison between her loss and that of these families, it was this extreme situation that revealed her own source of anxiety and set her on a path to do something she had denied she would ever do.

She embarks on her search and despite the difficulties many encounter in Ireland, where Irish adoptees have no automatic right to access their adoption files, birth certificate, health, heritage or history information she manages to access information about her birth relatively easily. The agency traces her birth mother and facilitates that first and many subsequent meetings.

Despite the initial shock, they develop a close relationship, but with one significant and ultimately destructive condition, that she remain a secret, for her birth mother continued to harbour great shame and was terrified of the impact this knowledge might have on her current life.

By the close of that year, I had come to detest the power imbalance in our relationship, seeing myself as the cause of Sarah’s shame and paranoia, her sadness and regret. I hated being invisible to her husband, evidently a good man who adored her, and to her three children, half-siblings that I longed to meet.

Palmer digs deep into the history of adoption in Ireland, armed with journalistic skills (now a freelance journalist in Washington DC) she researches archives and interviews her parents and birth mother as if subjects of a news story, to get to the heart of this institution that wrenched families apart and caused such fear and trauma in young Irish women, leaving emotional scars many of them would have all their lives.

Feminism might have been on the march, but the women in Sarah’s world … had conspired to punish her for stepping out of line. ‘If you want to get people to behave, show what happens to those who don’t,’ an Irish historian once said to me about Ireland’s culture of female surveillance and the institutionalization of unmarried mothers. ‘Make them feel part of that punishment.’ Her Aunt’s verdict – “Nobody will ever look at you again. You’re finished.” – echoed constantly in Sarah’s mind.

One couple she researched, were married with more children, but didn’t want to know the child they had parented and given away before marriage.

“What is that? How can this legacy of shame even prevent a couple from accepting their own biological child? Why can they not open the door?

“This book was meant to answer that. But I don’t know why Ireland has let so many people down. I was meant to grow up and be grateful and never want to look at my past. Because things worked out well; I was given a wonderful family and have done well; that’s meant to be enough.”

For an adoptee or a birth mother, it’s both insightful and an extremely painful read, especially given the author’s own awakening from that happy dreamy childhood and early adult life that held no place for her unknown genetic history, or for any other familial bond or connection. She couldn’t recognise what she hadn’t known or experienced and because her adoption was something known, it seemed as if this life could be lived without consequence. In a recent interview post publication, Palmer describes this:

What I didn’t understand was that that primary loss impacted me, it did change me, I’m still grieving her. Despite my wonderful happy life, amazing husband and children… I’m internally grieving, this woman, this ghost, that’s a love that I’ll never regain in a way, memoir is an attempt to grasp at that.

I wanted people to know you can grow up happily adopted and still have this hole, I always feel like there is a hole deep down inside of me that I can’t quite fill, in spite of the abundance of love that surrounds me, this primary loss is profound.

It’s a story that doesn’t end on the last page, and will leave readers like me, curious to know what impact this book had on the relationship. The podcast below, brings us up to date with where things are at since the book was published, including mention of the hundreds of letters that Caitriona has received, the many people who have had similar experiences, heartened to learn that their experience brought solace to some, in their ability to share with her their stories.

Asked, given what has transpired, would she still do what she did, she responds:

I would have done the same, as it was approached ethically and with love – but I wouldn’t allow it to remain a secret so long, the weight of a secret… every human being wants this sense of belonging and yet we are expected to express gratitude and get along, we are a part of each of those things and that’s a beautiful thing…

The big gap in all this, and for this entire process, is the lack of facility for healing, for giving adoptive parents, birth parents and the children affected by adoption, resources to help them understand what they might go through and if they do, how to manage that, how to heal from that, live with that, recognise the characteristics that come with having lived though such trauma.

The world we live in today is a long way from being accomplished at providing that, and some countries are no doubt better than others, hopefully it is coming, it doesn’t take too much digging if one can find tools of well-being that might bring about individual change and healing.

Further Reading/Listening

Caitríona – I’m Still Grieving Her – Podcast – on building a relationship with her birth mother, the heartbreak of being kept a secret and the high cost she’s paid for sharing her story

The State has a duty to tell adoptees the truth Caitríona Palmer: Shadowy adoption system is the last obstacle to a modern Ireland – June 2018

CLANN: IRELAND’S UNMARRIED MOTHERS AND THEIR CHILDREN – establishing the truth of what happened to unmarried mothers and their children in 20th century Ireland, providing free legal assistance

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.

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

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

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

Donal Ryan is the Irish author many of us remember for his debut The Spinning Heart, long listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2013 (won that year by Eleanor Catton’s, The Luminaries) and noted for perseverance in pursuing his dream to become a published author – his manuscript was rejected 47 times – before becoming a word of mouth sensation and setting him firmly on the track he knew he was destined for.

Since then he has published The Thing About December and A Slanting of the Sun: Stories and now this riveting novel, which was easily a five star read for me. I liked his debut, but this I loved and did not want to put down.

Similar in style to his earlier work, in which he zooms in on the minutiae of life and thoughts of a character(s) in the wake of a pivotal event, here he focuses on one character, Melody, a thirty-three-year woman, whose marriage has become like a habit she wants to kick, but rather than seek help to heal the cracks, she gives in to an impulse and finds herself pregnant to her 17-year-old private student, Martin Toppy, from a Traveller community.

Courageously, Ryan assumes the first person narrative voice of a pregnant woman, the first chapter labelled week twelve, finishing with Post-partum, though this is not a woman obsessed with what is going on inside her body, it’s a woman in the throes of needing to build a nest.  Alone with her thoughts, she thinks back over how she came to be where she is now, interrupted often by memories of her best friend Breedie.

“I’d look at Breedie’s long bare arms, and long legs, and I’d feel a fizzing mixture of admiration and love and terrible envy, that she could make my mother smile and wish she had a daughter like a swan.”

Into this isolation comes another Traveller, partially rejected by her family and community, whom Melody befriends and becomes attached to, picking up her teaching with Mary, where she left off with Martin. Here’s their encounter when they first meet:

You can come into town with me now, if you want.

I can’t. There’d be murder. I’m been watched every single second.

Why did your sisters leave you out?

I’m a shame to the family.

And she told me a story, and I listened, and I didn’t interrupt her once. Her name is Mary Crothery, and she’s nineteen years old.

The language, their way of speaking, the dialogue is raw, visceral and puts the reader right inside the story, it easily evokes a sense of place, you can sense the attitude of the characters around Melody as soon as they rap their knuckles on the door. Mostly they’re angry, except her father, he’s sad and in fear of disappointing him further, Melody stays away from where she’d be most welcome.

“Thinking now about the way I thought about things then, about how I let my mother’s anger towards him seep into me, I feel a desperate need to apologise, to mitigate the hurt I must have caused him as I drew away from him, as I let my perfect love for him be sullied, and eroded, and disintegrated, by the coldness of a woman I didn’t even really like, but whom I wanted more than anything to be like.”

The weeks pass leading to a crisis point as Melody’s life and that of the Traveller community intersects, highlighting family grudges, betrayals, their battles for redemption and overcoming guilt.

Irish Travellers

It is interesting that Donal Ryan chose to highlight characters from within the Irish Traveller community, as 2017 was a significant year in terms of identity for them. There are estimated to be between 29,000 – 40,000 Travellers in Ireland, representing 0.6% of the population. Recent DNA research has proven they are as genetically different from the settled Irish as they are from the Spanish and that this difference may have emerged up to 12 generations ago, as far back as 1657.

Irish Travellers, sometimes pejoratively referred to as tinkers or gypsies are a traditionally itinerant ethnic group who maintain a set of traditions, who after years of lobbying, finally gained recognition of their ethnic status from the government. It is seen as a momentous victory for the thousands of Traveller children who have long suffered from  exclusion and discrimination.

It’s an engaging story, beautifully rendered and while it doesn’t promise to address all the issues it raises, it does what for me the best novels do, puts the readers in the shoes of another in an attempt to see things from multiple perspectives.

Highly Recommended!

Further Reading

Article in Irish Times, Travellers as ‘genetically different’ from settled Irish as Spanish

Article in Irish Times, Historic Recognition of Ethnic Status for Irish Travellers

Buy a Copy of All We Shall Know via Book Depository