Maria in the Moon by Louise Beech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

My review of her debut novel How To Be Brave

My review of her second novel The Mountain in My Shoe

Vintage 1954 by Antoine Laurain (France) tr. Jane Aitken, Emily Boyce

Another satisfying light read full of laughs from Antoine Laurain. It’s so rare that a book actually makes me laugh out loud, but this one did, quite a few times.

It’s far-fetched, but knowing he writes an uplifting tale and creates such fun characters makes me want to read everything he writes.

Here, its 2017 and we meet a Parisian man named Hubert who lives in a building that has been in his family for generations, though now he owns only the apartment he lives in. His wife and daughters are away, he had just attended the management committee meeting for residents and on entering his cellar afterwards discovered a dusty 1954 Vintage Beaujolais.

Accidentally locking himself in, he is rescued by Bob from Milwaukee, who’s rented Madame Renaud’s apartment on AirBnB, an activity forbidden by the committee (say you’re the American cousin if anyone asks) so in a gesture of appreciation Hubert invites Bob and two tenants Julien (a cocktail waiter at Harry’s Bar) and Magalie (a restorer of antique ceramics) to join him to open the bottle.

1954 was a special year and the novel has already taken us to the Saint Antoine vineyards in the Beaujolais wine region, just north of Lyon where the grapes may have been infused with a touch of magic from a low flying unidentified object.

Monsieur Pierre Chauveau (Julien’s great grandfather) gave a witness statement on 16 September 1954, describing what he had seen. His unusual testimony was classified by the police as follows:

Report of an unidentified flying object by one Pierre Chauveau, a wine grower residing in Charmally-les-Vignes.

Though mocked locally, the police weren’t as surprised, by the end of 1954 more than 1,000 witness statements and over 500 reports of UFO sightings had been received by the police across the country. No explanation for this phenomenon was ever found and gradually the number of reported sightings fell back to normal levels – between fifty and one hundred a year.

One evening shortly after, he consumed a bottle of the 1954 Beaujolais, gave some to his dog (as was his habit), went out for a walk and they were never seen again.

The morning after the four in Paris drink the vintage wine, they wake up in 1954.

Hubert loosened his tie and walked rapidly back home, trying as best he could to make sense of the morning’s events. Unless it was a dream, Salvador Dalí was staying at the Hotel Meurice, all the buses were vintage, street sellers had reverted to using hand-drawn carts and the large moustachioed man surveying his building work whom he’d greeted as he left this morning was none other than Monsieur Bouvuer himself, the founder of the charcuterie of that name. The charcuterie that had opened in 1954. Hubert stopped. 1954. The same year as the wine.

As they head out into their day, we too are taken back in time and see the city and people’s habits as they were back in the 1950’s. Bob, who had never been to Paris took the longest time to realise he was no longer in 2017.

The four of them have various interesting encounters, Hubert with a long lost relative whose charred diary he finds in the apartment he left empty for 24 years, Julien meets the original Harry MacElhone, founder of the bar he works in and Magalie seeks out her now thirty-one-year old grandmother Odette.

They meet up at Harry’s to discuss their situation and to come up with a plan on how to get themselves back to their present, which will lead them on another adventure to the wine region of Beaujolais.

It’s an entertaining ride, as they journey across old Paris bringing back to life a few memorable characters and places in Paris of a bygone era.

Along the way, we encounter Jean Gabin, Edith Piaf, Salvador Dali, Robert Doisneau, Marcel Aymé, Jacques Prévert, Hubert de Givenchy, Audrey Hepburn, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, the duke of Windsor and the infamous Scotsman of the winebar where the Bloody Mary was said to be invented, Harry MacElhone.

In a blog post Millésime 54 Antoine Laurain briefly mentions that readers will come across these characters in his book and if you click through you’ll see a collection of portraits of some of them.

Le Baiser de l’hotel de ville (The Kiss), 1950
© Robert Doisneau

These encounters reminded me of Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris, except here, Antoine Laurain pays tribute to more renowned French celebrity characters of Paris, and its the 1950’s not the 1920’s, inviting the reader to discover who they were and where they used to hang out.

In an interview, Laurain explained that the idea of writing a story where his characters travelled back to the 1950’s came to him long ago, before he wrote The President’s Hat. He adored the work of Doisneau and Brassaï, but he needed a way to bring them back to era. The wine became the way and that surge in UFO sightings that actually occurred in 1954, his point of departure.

Vintage 1954 is an invitation to the reader’s imagination to join Laurain’s adventure in 50’s Paris, to discover the vineyards of the Beaujolais region, and is as pleasurable, if not more than the wine itself.

A full-bodied, sweet novella, with depth, elegance, it is expressive, connected, ultimately one of finesse.

Further Reading

Interview Q&A with Antoine Laurain by Gallic Books – Wine and time travel with Antoine Laurain

The Book Trail Vintage 1954 – a few of the book locations in Paris mapped out with explanations (also links to locations in his previous books)

The President’s Hat (reviewed here)

The Red Notebook (reviewed here)

Smoking Kills (reviewed here)

Buy a Copy of Vintage 1954 via Book Depository

Gardens in the Dunes by Leslie Marmon Silko

2019 is becoming my year of reading Silko, this now is the second novel I’ve read after Ceremony and I loved it as much, in some ways perhaps more, given the journey it takes the reader on. It follows on from two other books I read, reviews linked here, her excellent memoir The Turquoise Ledge and a slim collection of letters between Silko and the Pulitzer prize winning poet James Wright, The Delicacy and Strength of Lace.

While Ceremony was the coming of age of a young man set over a short period of time, Garden in the Dunes is more of a historical novel, set in the late 1800’s, tracing the lives of two native American sisters, Indigo and Sister Salt and at various times, their Grandmother and the newlywed white woman Hattie who provides refuge for Indigo for a period of time after she escapes the boarding school she has been imprisoned within.

Hattie and her husband Edward take Indigo with them to Europe for the summer, where she experiences differences in their way of life, but also finds something in the old world that she connects with. Archeological art in Bath, sculptures in a garden in Lucca from pre-Christian Europe create a link with American Indian symbolism through Indigo’s observations and experiences.

Along the way, as she had learned in the dunes, she collects seeds (the old ways) and flower bulbs (a new interest) for replanting when she returns home. She represents the connection to the past and also the future, learning new skills that will improve, add to their lifestyle.

Silko traces the transcultural histories and significances of sacred snakes and their feminine symbolism, unsurprising given her own close relationship to those that dwell beneath her own home in Tuscon. The final scene in the novel is fittingly given over to the return of a snake, a lasting metaphoric image of generational continuance and survival.

The novel rests in numerous locations where the girls live and must adapt, but their spiritual home and the place they always wish to return to, the place where their Sand Lizard people come from are the gardens in the dunes, inland from the river, where there is a natural spring and if enough rain, plentiful opportunity to grow what they need to survive.

Sister Salt remembers everything. The morning the soldiers  and the Indian police came to arrest the Messiah, Grandma Fleet told Sister Salt to run. Run! Run get your little sister! You girls go back to the old gardens! Sister Salt was big and strong. She carried Indigo piggyback whenever her little sister got tired. Indigo doesn’t remember much about that morning except for the shouts and screams.

When the girls are with their Grandmother and return to the gardens they have a purpose, they learn when and how to plant, to prepare food, to stock it, to identify edible plants, they are natural foragers. When they are removed from their natural home, they have to find other ways to survive.

Sherman Institute, Riverside, California

At times it has been necessary to flee, when there is insufficient rain or when pursued by authorities, who effectively kidnap Indian children, separating them from their families and way of life to put them into institutions, forcing another form of education on them, removing their connection to their culture.

The authorities judged Sister Salt to be too much older than the others to be sent away to Indian boarding school. There was hope the little ones might be educated away from their blankets. But this one? Chances were she’d be a troublemaker and might urge the young ones to attempt escape. Orders were for Sister Salt to remain in custody of the Indian agency at Parker while Indigo was sent to the Sherman Institute in Riverside, California.

American Indian Girls in a state run Laundry

Sister Salt is sent to work in an Indian laundry in the vicinity of water dam projects of the Southwest; she and twin sisters she befriends decide to set up their own laundry service, living near one of the dam construction sites, becoming knowledgeable of the needs of the men working there, finding protection and collaboration with the chef Big Candy, the girls surviving together, supporting each other.

Throughout the novel, the men are involved in moneymaking projects, whether it’s Edward collecting orchid samples, his companions seeking rubber plant specimens, the men at the dam with their side interests in illegal gambling, brewing beer and the laundry.

The dam project diverted water to Los Angeles and made Indian lands less productive, initially it provided employment, but slowly the people realise what it is taking away from them, their land, their homes, their riverside livelihoods. Those with profit making motives have little or no concern for the destruction and loss caused in their wake. But they too risk falling victim to their own kind, Silko doesn’t miss the opportunity to make them suffer the consequences of their own greed.

Most native tribes did not adhere to the European view of land as property. For most Indians, land was communal, and its resources were to be protected and shared. This was in direct contradiction to European notions of land as individual property.

Ancient Minoan Snake Goddess

It’s far-reaching in its geographic span and themes, which through adept storytelling are repeated via the behaviours of characters. Women stick together, collaborate, survive and when not separated from each other, begin to thrive, though they remain wary of those from other tribes or cultures. Exploitation, greed and corruption are everywhere, interfering in the way people try to live their lives, imposing their ways, trying to keep people(s) separate or making them conform to a perceived way of being.

Indigo never loses the essence of who she is, despite being groomed and dressed like a white American to accompany Hattie and her prospector/explorer husband and being taken far away to Europe, her heart is like a magnet, she never ceases thinking of her intention to find her sister and mother.

Fortunately, Hattie is a sensitive and intelligent woman, who though the child brings out a maternal response and desire, promises to help her find them when they return. Hattie’s father was a free thinker who encouraged her higher education giving her access to libraries of friends to pursue her studies. She is sympathetic to their ways, but will also confront barriers when trying to cross over in her efforts to support them.

It’s a brilliant depiction of so many issues around origins and identity and the ways people survive and thrive, in particular women. We witness their attempts, how they are thwarted, see them compromise and discover that being with other women provides them with a force, even when they are from different tribes or cultures, sometimes that is a necessary element to their survival, to learn from other women, from other experiences, to share what they know.

Despite being a relatively long read (477 pages), it felt like it could have gone on, some threads leave the reader wondering what happened next, endings come about a little quickly. It could easily have been more than one book.

The final page and the closing sentences are beautifully given over to nature, to a demonstration that though we may grieve at what is passing, nature will always ensure that new life prevails, that something will survive from the ruin. That hope can manifest, though it may not be what we expect.

“Nearly all human cultures plant gardens, and the garden itself has ancient religious connections. For a long time, I’ve been interested in pre-Christian European beliefs, and the pagan devotions to sacred groves of trees and sacred springs. My German translator gave me a fascinating book on the archaeology of Old Europe, and in it I discovered ancient artifacts that showed that the Old European cultures once revered snakes, just as we Pueblo Indian people still do. So I decided to take all these elements – orchids, gladiolus, ancient gardens, Victorian gardens, Native American gardens, Old European figures of Snake-bird Goddesses – and write a novel about two young sisters at the turn of the century.” – Leslie Marmon Silko, Gardens in the Dunes (1999)

“I suppose at the core of my writing is the attempt to identify what it is to be a half- breed or mixed-blooded person; what it is to grow up neither white nor fully traditional Indian. It is for this reason that I hesitate to say that I am representative of Indian poets or Indian people. I am only one human being, one Laguna woman.”  – Leslie Marmon Silko, Laguna Woman (1974)

Buy a Copy of Gardens in the Dunes via Book Depository

Women’s Prize for Fiction Winner 2019 – An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 winner was announced on June 5 and the prize this year went to American author Tayari Jones for her novel An American Marriage, published by One World, who brought us my favourite book of 2018 Kintu by Ugandan author Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.  Renowned for publishing:

“emotionally engaging stories with strong narratives and distinctive voices. In addition to being beautifully written, our novels introduce the reader to a different culture or an interesting historical period/event, and deeply explore the human condition in all its vagaries. We aim to publish novels that matter, that stay with you long after the last page is turned”

Professor Kate Williams, Chair of Judges, said:

“This is an exquisitely intimate portrait of a marriage shattered by racial injustice. It is a story of love, loss and loyalty, the resilience of the human spirit painted on a big political canvas – that shines a light on today’s America. We all loved this brilliant book.”

Tayari Jones is the author of four novels, including Silver Sparrow, The Untelling, and Leaving Atlanta. The book was named as a favourite by both Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama; Oprah is in talks to make it into a film.

An American Marriage examines a wrongfully incarcerated man and examines how he, his wife, and their families deal with the fallout. The premise made me remember reading James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk earlier this year, a novella that explores a similar situation and was also released as a film in 2019.

Asked about what inspired her to write the novel, Tayari Jones mentions overhearing a couple talking. Intrigued by the complexity and intensity of their conversation and the issues it raised, she went home and began to write what would become this award wining novel.

I was in a shopping mall, and I heard a couple arguing. They were in love and in trouble. She said, “Roy you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.”  And he shot back, “This wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.”

While in London, Tayari Jones also shared four books that impacted her as a writer and as a reader.

  • Patricia Highsmith’s Stranger on a Train – a book that taught her that you do not have to sacrifice great writing for a great plot. Highsmith can take the murder plot, turn it on its head, break your heart, mend it again and leave you wanting more.
  • The Oddyssey by Homer – a complicated epic tale she first encountered in a children’s version, reacquainted with and brought vividly to life more recently in Emily Wilson’s new translation, a story that closely influenced her novel.
  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe – at 13 she lived in Zaria, in the north of Nigeria and studied this classic novella in her literature class, the first time she’d seen a book contextualize an entire group of people. It provided an understanding of history and of literature and its way of explaining to us who we were. The iconic characters, she has never forgotten, nor the effect they had on every person in the class.
  • Toni Morrison’s The Beloved – “the Queen of letters” this novel is simply put the greatest novel of my lifetime, this book explained the way the past influences the future. Our stories are a generational legacy, a story of how to integrate our past into a deeper understanding of who we are. I think of my life as before and after Beloved. Beloved contextualized me as a Black American. It taught me how literature can explain our modern world to ourselves.

Have you read An American Marriage or any of the books Tayari Jones is inspired by?

Buy a Copy of An American Marriage via Book Depository

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Drawing Lessons by Patricia Sands

Seven years ago I read The Bridge Club by Patricia Sands, which I loved. Her ability to immerse the reader into the emotional lives of her characters is thoroughly engaging and insightful and the stories of those women characters and the event that brings them all together to share parts of their history together has long stayed with me.

Her latest novel, Drawing Lessons offers something a little different, in that this time the main character, 62 year old Arianna, leaves her Toronto home, family and troubles behind, somewhat reluctantly, but with the blessings and encouragement of those she’s left behind, to try and heal a little from the heartbreak of what she has left behind her.

It is an interesting an provocative premise. Her husband has been diagnosed with a debilitating form of dementia and her family have encouraged her to go on a two week artist’s retreat just outside Arles, the same countryside and landscape that inspired Van Gogh to produce over 300 works of art in the frenzied sixteen months he spent there, until driven out by the locals.

“In his letters to his brother Theo, he said drawing helped him combat his depression. He knew, as we do, that working en plein air, we are able to capture light and images more quickly and from that create our interpretation.”

Arianna hasn’t painted for a long time and is wracked by guilt at leaving. Slowly she will find her way, through the surroundings and with the eclectic band of artists that have come together to reaquaint with their inner muse. And then there is the strange allure of the man from the Carmargue.

The beautiful cover art couldn’t be more appropriate to today, it being May and everywhere you go at the moment, the poppies are in full bloom.

Living in this area and knowing how much the author loves the south of France and how much of her writing is informed by her own experiences of living a few months of every year here, I wasn’t surprised to feel how immersed in the area this book made me feel. She really does capture something of the essence of being in this region of Provence, in the landscape and the town of Arles, adding something of the fantasy of a mysterious artist, horseman, the romance element. Not to mention the markets and the collection and preparation of the food.

“Winding past olive groves, beside vineyards, and through fields dotted with poppies and other wildflowers, from time to time they’d comment on the pastoral beauty. They could imagine artists through the centuries setting up easels along the way.”

It’s a timely read if you’re interested in Van Gogh, as this year there was the film At Eternity’s Gate that came out and he is also the subject of the new show running from March 2019 – January 2020 at Carrieres de Lumières in Les Baux de Provence, a truly spectacular and original depiction of works of art, set to music, displayed on the inner walls of an old stone quarry.

If you haven’t been here and have an interest in open air painting, it’s a read that transports you to the Provençal landscape, ignites the imagination and all the senses and is likely to make you wish to indulge in a visit to the region yourself.

And although her upcoming tour is now sold out, if you want to imagine what it might be like to visit the area and visualise the area where this story takes place, check out the itinerary of The Memories Tour 2019, run by Patricia and co-host Deborah Bine, The Barefoot Blogger and visit Patricia’s blog, or sign up to her newsletter on France related writing news and tips on visiting the south of France and the culture.

Buy a Copy of Drawing Lessons via Book Depository.

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

Having recently read Leslie Marmon Silko’s memoir The Turquoise Ledge (2010), I know well how deeply connected she is to the Arizona desert, its landscape, wildlife and climate. To read in the preface to her most well-known and celebrated novel Ceremony, that in 1979 she moved with her husband and two sons to Alaska, I’m not surprised she had difficulty coping, a deeply rooted woman out of place. The lack of sunlight caused her a terrible lethargy and depression. Once she began writing this novel, the depression lifted.

The novel was my refuge, my magic vehicle back to the Southwest land of sandstone mesas, blue sky and sun. As I described the sandstone spring, the spiders, water bugs, swallows and rattlesnakes, I remade the place in words; I was no longer on a dark rainy island thousands of miles away.

She wasn’t just  homesick for the place, she missed the people and the storytelling, so she awakened them by writing them into the novel, narrating a kind of prose poem using powerful mythological women like Corn Woman, Changing Woman, Serpent Women and Thought Woman (the spider), who with her sisters created all life by thinking it into being.  It is she who is thinking this story, the author narrates it.

Ts’itstsi’nako, Thought-Woman,
is sitting in her room
and whatever she thinks about
appears.

This fable-like story frames the novel, interrupting it throughout to remind us of how things were, of the distractions, the suffering and regret, the need to make amends, the value of setting a challenge, going on a quest, the need to make sacrifices and bring back what is necessary for forgiveness and healing to occur.

And in the belly of this story
the rituals and the ceremony
are still growing.

It wasn’t until I had read the novel through that I began to understand the connection between the Pueblo myth and the story, first we encounter it, then we begin to make sense of it. At times while reading, I was on the edge of understanding, informed a little by what I I know of shamanic stories, rituals, signs and traditions, there were many  references I’d encountered from reading Alfredo Villoldo’s Wisdom, Power and Grace of the Earthkeepers.

The story focuses on the character Tayo, a young man whose very existence reminds some of his family members of things they detest. When they look at him they remember. He is always trying to make amends, to win approval, yet he seems destined to disappoint.  He is of mixed blood, stuck in a place where he seems not to be able to inhabit either culture he is connected to, and yet there are expectations of him, both imposed from outside and from within.

“They are afraid Tayo. They feel something happening, they can see something happening around them, and it scares them. Indians or Mexicans or whites – most people are afraid of change. They think that if their children have the same colour of skin, the same colour of eyes, that nothing is changing.” She laughed softly. “They are fools. They blame us, the ones who look different? That way they don’t have to think about what has happened inside themselves.”

He has recently returned from war, traumatized, he is suffering and struggling to find peace, trying to avoid the temptation of oblivion that other young veterans have fallen for. He has nightmares and hallucinates. His grandmother makes a suggestion:

“That boy needs a medicine man. Otherwise, he will have to go away. Look at him.”

The title Ceremony refers to the healing ceremonies based on the ancient stories of the Diné and Pueblo people. The ceremony that Tayo goes through reminds me of the hero’s journey, ultimately he has to leave and go on a quest, which he does, he meets someone from whom he learns things, he fulfills the challenge he set himself and then returns.

At this point the novel I wasn’t thinking in those terms and the ending is quite terrifying, until I reflect that this is indeed all part of the ceremony, and the biggest test of all comes at the end when he must embrace and use all those aspects of himself, the wisdom of all the cultures running through his veins.

He cried the relief he felt at finally seeing the pattern, the way all the stories fit together – the old stories, the war stories, their stories – to become the story that was still being told. He was not crazy; he had never been crazy. He had only seen and heard the world as it always was: no boundaries, only transitions through all distance and time.

It felt almost like an initiation to read this novel, waiting for its meaning to awaken as I read, I loved it and can’t wait to read more of her work, her ability to write the modern story that demonstrates the power of the mythological stories that get handed down through generations is brilliant. It reminds me of the retellings of the Greek myths that are currently popular, bringing the learnings of storytelling into contemporary situations, teaching us their wisdom, showing how their message never ages, the necessity for each person to live through it to understand it.

What She Said:
The only cure
I know
is a good ceremony,
that’s what she said.

A brilliant and gifted storyteller, highly recommended.

Buy a copy of Ceremony via BookDepository