Homegoing by Yaa Ngasi

homegoing-yaa-gyasiAstonishing, a work of art, an interwoven tapestry of stories that weave across the generations to create something so beautiful, so heartfelt, the thing that connects them is so strong, even when it isn’t known by its characters, somehow Yaa Ngasi conveys that to the reader, so that by the end when something quite magical happens, there is a feeling of grieving for all that has passed and of relief that something new has been found.

I love, love, loved this novel and I am in awe of its structure and storytelling, the authenticity of the stories, the three-dimensional characters, the inheritance and reinvention of trauma, and the rounding of all those stories into the healing return. I never saw that ending coming and the build up of sadness from the stories of the last few characters made the last story all the more moving, I couldn’t stop the tears rolling down my face.

How to give it justice in a review, it is so much more than story, we are so much more than our own personal experience and the place(s) we have lived.

Just as Han Kang, the South Korean author of the novel Human Acts wrote in consideration of two fundamental questions about humanity, Yaa Gyasi tells us in an article for the New York Times (referenced below) that she too began to write with a vague but important question that she put at the top of her blank screen: What does it mean to be black in America?

She further explains her inspiration in an article for the Observer (also below)

I began Homegoing in 2009 after a trip to Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle [where slaves were incarcerated]. The tour guide told us that British soldiers who lived and worked in the castle often married local women – something I didn’t know. I wanted to juxtapose two women – a soldier’s wife with a slave. I thought the novel would be traditionally structured, set in the present, with flashbacks to the 18th century. But the longer I worked, the more interested I became in being able to watch time as it moved, watch slavery and colonialism and their effects – I wanted to see the through-line.

Homegoing begins with the image of a partial family tree, with two strands and the novel will follow just one family member down each strand, the first two characters who begin these family lines are the daughters of Maame, Effia and Esi.

Effia, whom the villagers said was a baby born of the fire, believed she would marry the village chief, but would be married to a British slave trader and live upstairs in the Cape Coast Castle.

‘The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound. It moved quickly, tearing a path for days. It lived off the air; it slept in caves and hid in trees; it burned, up and through, unconcerned with what wreckage it left behind, until it reached an Asante village. There, it disappeared, becoming one with the night.’

Effia’s father, Cobbe would lose his crop of yams that night, a precious crop known to sustain families far and wide and with it, through his mind would flit a premonition that would reverberate through subsequent generations:

He knew then that the memory of the fire that burned, then fled, would haunt him, his children, and his children’s children for as long as the line continued.’

Cape Coast Castle (a slave trading castle), Ghana

Cape Coast Castle (a slave trading castle), Ghana

Esi, whose father was a Big Man, in expressing her empathy for their house girl, would precipitate events that lead her to be captured and chained in the dungeons beneath that same castle, awaiting the slave trading ships that would transport them to their slave masters in America.

‘They took them out into the light. The scent of ocean water hit her nose. The taste of salt clung to her throat. The soldiers marched them down to an open door that led to sand and water, and they all began to walk out on to it.’

In these first two chapters of Effia and Esi, the recurring twin symbols of fire and water are introduced, something that each generation subconsciously carries with them and passes on, they will reappear through fears, dreams, experiences, a kind of deep primal scar they don’t even know requires healing, its origins so far back, so removed from anything that can be easily articulated.

Fire (yang) is like the curse of the slave trade, raging through the lives of each generation, even when they appear to have escaped it, as with Kojo’s story, a baby passed to the arms of a woman who helped slaves escape, whose parents are captured, but he will live freely, only to have one member of the family cruelly snatched, perpetuating the cycle yet again, orphaning another child, who must start over and scrape together a life from nothing.

‘They didn’t now about Jo’s fear of people in uniform, didn’t know what it was like to lie silent and barely breathing under the floorboards of a Quaker house, listening to the sound of a catcher’s boot heel stomp above you. Jo had worked so hard so his children wouldn’t have to inherit his fear, but now he wished they had just the tiniest morsel of it.’

Water (yin) to me is the endless expanse, the rootlessness, floating on the surface, feet never able to get a grip, efforts floundering. This symbol is carried throughout Essi’s family line, a cast of characters whose wheels are turning, who work hard, but suffer one setback after another.

The novel is structured around one chapter for each character, alternately between the twin sides of the family, the narrative perspective changing to focus on the new generation, through whom we learn something of what happened to the character in the previous generation, who’ve we left two chapters ago. Importantly, because Yaa Gyasi decides not to write in the present with flashbacks, but writes from the perspective of each character in their present, the novel never falters, it doesn’t suffer from the idling effect of flashbacks, it keeps up the pace by putting the reader at the centre of the drama in every chapter. We must live all of it.

The irony of the structure is that we read an entire family history and see how the events of the past affect the future, how patterns repeat, how fears are carried forward, how strong feelings are connected to roots and origins, we see it, while they experience the loss, the frustration, the inability to comprehend that it is not just the actions of one life that affect that life’s outcome.

This book is like a legacy, a long legacy that revolves between the sadness of loss and the human struggle to move forward, to survive, to do better, to improve. And also a legacy of the feeling of not belonging that is carried within those who have been uprooted, who no longer belong to one place or another, who if they are lucky might find someone to whom they can ignite or perhaps even extinguish that yearning ‘to belong’.

‘We can’t go back to something we ain’t never been to in the first place. It ain’t ours anymore. This is.’ She swept her hand in front of her, as though she were trying to catch all of Harlem in it, all of New York, all of America.’

And in writing this novel, Yaa Gyasi perhaps achieves something of what her final character Marcus is unable to articulate to Marjorie as to why his research feels futile, spurning his grandmother’s suggestion that he perhaps had the gift of visions, trying to find answers in a more tangible way, through research and study.

“What is the point Marcus?”
She stopped walking. For all they knew, they were standing on top of what used to be a coal mine for all the black convicts who had been conscripted to work there. It was one thing to research something, another thing entirely to have lived it. To have felt it. How could he explain to Marjorie that what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, and he, and everyone else, existed in it – not apart from it, but inside it.

Yes, she achieves it through literature, through fiction. And this is literature at its most powerful and best.

This novel is going to win awards in 2017, undoubtedly.

*****

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana in 1989 and raised in the US, moving around in early childhood but living in Huntsville, Alabama from the age of 10. She is the daughter of a francophone African literature professor and a nurse and completed her MFA at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, University of Iowa. She wrote this, her debut novel at the age of 26.

Further Reading

New York Times, Sunday Review – Opinion, June 18, 2016 – I’m Ghanaian-American. Am I Black?

Review, The Observer, January 8, 2017 – Yaa Gyasi: ‘Slavery is on people’s minds. It affects us still’

 

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Homegoing via BookDepository

The Good People by Hannah Kent

good-people

Some of you may know of the author Hannah Kent, whose debut novel Burial Rites, set in Iceland, became a popular bestseller. I never did get around to reading it, though I would still like to, and it was for that reason I was intrigued to pick up this, her second historical novel, set in Ireland during the early 1800’s.

The Good People centres around the lives of three Irish country women, Nora, who has recently become a widow in the same year her daughter passed away, Mary, the teenage housemaid she employs to help her take care of a 4-year-old cripple, the grandson her son-in-law left with her; and Nance, an ageing spinster who lives in a mud shack on the edge of the forest, the one with “the knowledge” whom certain members of the community go to when the remedies of the doctor and the priest yield no cure.

Nora has not consulted Nance before, though her husband Martin had. She is wary of others and their superstitions so keeps the boy hidden from their prying eyes, lest they connect his condition to the string of bad luck in the community, for there are some saying he has ‘the fairy in him’, that he was a changeling, as if possessed.

changeling-pj-lynch

‘A Changeling’ by illustrator & Ireland’s laureate for children’s literature, PJ Lynch – http://www.pjlynchgallery.com

In Irish folklore, people believed that fairies (Irish fairies appear to be a lot more sinister than the Disney kind) could entice or abduct a child away, leaving a malformed substitute (fairy) in its place, recognisable due to its ugly appearance, ill-health, bad temper and old world look of knowledge in their eyes. There were a number of ‘cures’ that might be applied to ‘sweep’ out the fairy and restore the child.

The novel follows the events that occur during the time Mary stays with Nora, as the widow increasingly begins to doubt the child is her grandson and treats “it” as if he were a changeling and Nance’s ways are denounced by the new priest.

‘I have been told you make it your trade to cry at burials.’

‘What is the harm in that?’

‘Your sorrow is artificial, Nance. Rather than comfort those who are afflicted, you live upon their dead.’

Nance shook her head. ‘I do not, Father. That’s not it at all. I feel their sorrow. I give voice to the grief of others when they have not a voice for it themselves.’

The novel immerses the reader deep into the folklore of 19th century Ireland, portraying many of its characters and the community around them as believers of those ancient ways, practitioners of protective rituals, despite the existence of more rational medicines and beliefs.

‘That’s right. Lights. Coming from here the fairies do be, down by the Piper’s Grave,’ Peter continued. Now I might not have the full of my eyes, but I swear I saw a glowing by that whitethorn. You mark my words, there’ll be another death in this family before long.’ His voice dropped to a whisper. ‘First the daughter passes, and now the husband. I tell you, death likes three in company. And if the Good People had a hand in it… well.’

The old ways brush up against the new and culminate in a challenge of one versus the other through the justice system.

Clearly, an extraordinarily well-researched novel, based on certain real events, it succeeds in creating an authentic sense of place, inside the very primitive home of Nora imbued with a strong sense of dread that this is not going to end well. We are shown how things came to be for all three characters and the reactions of the community around them, quick to fear and to judge.

Whitethorn, Faerie Tree, said to guard the entrance to the faerie realm

Whitethorn, Faerie Tree, said to guard the entrance to the faerie realm

What it really excels at, is to make the reader wonder what is real and what is not, after the rejection of the doctor and the priest, we understand how the maid and the widow want desperately to believe in the knowledge of Nance and her alternative “cure”, providing a fascinating insight into a cultural folklore that had much of its community in its grip (and some say does still).

Despite this authenticity, I found it lagged in the mid-section, as Nance’s back story was filled in, causing me to lose interest in picking the book up for a while. It picked up again as the author returned to moving the plot forward. It’s a book, that despite its flaws is likely to generate interesting discussions, of those ancient rituals and beliefs and the cases that became well-known, of cures gone wrong.

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

(Excerpt from ‘The Stolen Child’ by W.B Yeats)

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

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

swimming-lessonsSwimming Lessons is an evocative, thought-provoking novel that begins with an intriguing mystery, evolving into melancholy as the events before and during Ingrid’s marriage, the wife of Gil and mother of two young girls who disappeared 12 years before, are revealed.

The novel begins with Gil standing inside a second hand bookstore, having found a scrap of paper within a books’ pages, moving closer to the window to try and read it. The letter is dated 2 July 1992;  his attention is diverted when he glances out the window and sees a woman in a coat who he believes is Ingrid, who had been missing, presumed drowned for twelve years now.

When chapter two begins with a letter addressed to Gil from his wife dated one month earlier, on 2nd June 1992, a quick scan ahead reveals the novels pattern, alternate chapters, one set in the present around Gil and his daughters Flora and Nan, the other a chronological revelation of the letters his wife wrote to him over that month before she disappeared, each letter placed inside one of the many books that sat on the shelves of their seaside, island home. Twelve years later, he appears to have just (or finally) discovered one of these letters within the pages of a book in the local second hand bookshop. An extraordinary and brilliant concept, it opens the novel with the maximum intrigue and desire to know what went on between these two.

Dear Gil, Of course I couldn’t write the story of a marriage in one letter. It was always going to to take longer. After I finished my first letter I meant to send it straight away. I found an envelope from an old electricity bill in the kitchen table drawer, and thought I’d walk to the postbox as the sun came up before I could change my mind. But perched on the arm of the sofa in the dark with the pen in my hand there was a noise from the girl’s room (the squeak of bedsprings, the creak of the door), and without thinking I grabbed a book from the nearest shelf, shoved the letter inside and pushed it back into place.

swimmingAfter Gil’s sighting, events bring the family together, highlighting their similarities and differences, exposing various family secrets and lies and all the while, each letter like a dripping tap, one by one revealing more of the relationship between Ingrid, the young Norwegian university student and Gil, her literature professor and the very different path her life would take once their lives intertwined.

The letter’s are her story of a marriage, told to him (and the reader) as if he were an outsider, much of the dialogue she recounts is written in the form of conversations they had as she recalls them. She reminds him how they met, portraying herself throughout as a passive participant, her rare challenges of his behaviour ineffectual. Her rebellion or escape, an activity she indulged often, was to abandon the home, walk to the sea, strip and swim out as far as possible, becoming at one with the sea, giving in to its allure.

Ingrid’s story focuses on the marriage, without straying into her past, her home country, her own ambitions or desires. Those omissions create a presence that is never mentioned, that weigh on the reader, who on reading begins to feel the futility of her existence, she is isolated, without friends or family and struggling as a mother, she has forsaken all on a whim, fulfilling desires of a man whose star is in decline, while hers will be extinguished before it has a chance.

allure-of-the-sea

Image from film The Whale Rider based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera

She survives as long as she does thanks to the pull, the allure of the sea, the pull to the sea is as strong as any bond she with any of the people around her, and just as she is sometimes abandoned by Gil for the city, so she abandons the home for the pull of the sea.

Swimming Lessons is an incredibly accomplished novel with well drawn characters, including that of ‘the marriage,’ perhaps the chief protagonist itself, as the letters reveal more of ‘the marriage’ than of Ingrid herself.

It is something of an homage to books, readers and writing as they are all given important roles in providing clues and holding secrets of this marriage.

It is a book that invites discussion and would be a provocative novel for a bookclub, there is so much that invites discussion and would likely bring out quite different points of view.

Intriguingly, my copy of the book also had something old slipped between the covers, not a letter, but an old black and white photograph of ‘The Lake’, Alexander Park, yet another intrigue within the intrigue, I’m still wondering where that came from and whose handwriting is on the back and what story that photo could talk, if it could give up more than just a still, lifeless image.

Highly Recommended.

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Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera

In 2016 I read Nayomi Munaweera’s second novel What Lies Between Us and it was one of my Top Reads of 2016, a novel of a young woman trying to adjust to a new life in a new country, though still haunted by both the beauty and deeply buried tragedy of her past, her childhood in Sri Lanka.

thousand-mirrorsIsland of a Thousand Mirrors similarly evokes the childhoods and family life of two families living in the same house. The house is owned by the matriarch Sylvia Sumethra and her husband The Judge, who are Sinhala people (an Indo-Aryan ethnic group originally from northern India, now native to and forming the majority (75%) of the population of Sri Lanka, mostly Buddhist) and upstairs they rent to an extended Tamil family (a culturally and linguistically distinct ethnic group native to Sri Lanka, mostly Hindu).

It is a time when they live side by side in relative peace, although there are prejudices and intolerances at the adult level, attitudes that are initially not understood by children. Multiple generations of children will grow up and some of them will be capable of bridging those differences, until violence, heartache and tragedy taint them.

Sylvia’s daughter Visaka grows up in the house and develops a fearful crush on the son of the family upstairs, later when she is married and gives birth to one of our narrators, her daughter Yasodhara too will befriend Shiva, the next generation son of the same family living upstairs.

Her father Nishan is a twin, the lighter skinned one, his sister Mala, despaired of by her mother Beatrice when she was young, perceived as being unlikely to marry, to be rejected because of her skin tone, finds love without the interference of her family, something of a scandal.

There is silence and then the familiar smack of Beatrice Muriel’s palm against her forehead. “A love marriage,” she says. In her opinion, love marriages border on the indecent. They signify a breakdown of propriety, a giving in to the base instincts exhibited by the lower castes and foreigners. She believes marriages are too important to be relegated to the randomness of chance meetings and hormonal longings. They must be conducted with precision, calculated by experts, negotiated by a vast network of relations who will verify the usual things: no insanity in the family, evidence of wealth and fertility, the presence of benevolent stars.

An old photograph reminds Yasodara of the moment she was forced to recognise the age-old prejudices that infiltrate families, that perpetuated the myth that she and her friend Shiva were different.

We had been talking in our own shared language, that particular blur of Sinhala, Tamil and English much like what our mothers used in the early days, when suddenly my grandmother, her attention telescoped on us, pins him like an insect. Her iced voice, incredulous, “Are you teaching my granddaughter Tamil?” Her hand smashing hard across his cheek. He rips his hand from mine, turns to run. The camera in my father’s hand clicks shut.

When violence enters the town and the soldiers come knocking, their world turns upside down, and both families leave. Yasodara and her family will move to America and start over.

In Part Two we meet Saraswathi, the eldest daughter of a Tamil family in the northern war zone of Sri Lanka. Her family have already lost two brothers to war, and they live in fear of losing a third or worse, something terrible happening to the girls. Sara and her sister are still in school, she hopes to become a teacher, but there are white van abductions, despicable acts of violence and lynchings which put stress on the family. There is pressure to join the Tamil Tigers, a militant group fighting for independence.

There are roofless, bombed-out houses with bullet-splattered walls and empty, eyeless rooms everywhere. I hate these houses, they look like dead bodies or like mad people, laughing through their openmouthed doorways. I want to know what this place looked like before, when all the houses were whole, when people lived in them and cared about them and grew vegetables in front of them, flowers even.

Nayomi Munaweera by Nathanael F. Trimboli

Nayomi Munaweera by Nathanael F. Trimboli

Munaweera writes exquisitely of the island of Sri Lanka, in lyrical prose that takes the reader inside the family experiences, evoking all the senses, the aroma of the cuisine, the fear and excitement of young, forbidden love, the pain of heartbreak, the palpable tension as sisters walk to school, sometimes witnessing images that will stain their minds and revisit their dreams for years.

Through the forced changes political events put on the families, we become witness to the struggle to adapt, in some the nostalgia for the past will lead them back there, in others, it is as if it never was, they have banished nostalgia and reminiscing from their minds and will do all they can to keep it from their children, not realising that they too will grow up and question their parents origins and be curious to know that part of themselves that provokes questions by others, highlighting the obvious, gaping hole in their identity.

I knew it would be good, it is a prize winning novel and deservedly so, it is endearing, evocative and sensual, touching on both the best of humanity and it’s most despicable, unpalatable horrors and the effect that exposure to those horrors can have on the innocent.

Brilliant. Highly Recommended.

Buy one of Nayomi Munaweera’s Books at Book Depository

10 Books I’m Looking Forward to Reading in 2017, Mirrors, Blooms, Wonder, War, Not Nothing

I’m not really into making reading lists, but I do make lots of reading piles of books I think I might read next, which often then get changed, as I’ll read a great review of a book I have on the shelf and be convinced I have to read it sooner, now it’s come to my attention.

So here are five books on my pile at the moment and five waiting on my kindle to start the year with, though don’t be surprised if you find me reading and reviewing something entirely different!

Five From The Shelf

2017-reads

thousand-mirrorsIsland of a Thousand Mirrors, Nayomi Munaweera (Sri Lanka) – Last year I read her second novel What Lies Between Us and it made my top 5 fiction reads and this one is her debut which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Dublin Impac Prize and won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia. It’s about two families on either side of the conflict during the long civil war, told though the eyes of the eldest daughter of each family.

cereusCereus Blooms at Night, Shani Mootoo (Trinidad) – Part of my fascination with reading stories by women from the Caribbean culture, this one came to my attention last year and is said to be a fascinating narrative propelled by vivdly drawn characters, set on a fictional island, a mystery about a reclusive old woman accused of murder.

sense-of-wonderA Sense of Wonder, The World’s Best Writers on the Sacred, the Profane, & the Ordinary, edited by Brian Doyle– a beautiful Christmas gift from a dear friend containing an anthology of powerful stories, essays and reflections from some of the world’s best writers including Pico Iyer, Mary Oliver, Barry Lopez, Helen Garner, Cynthia Ozick

foundlings-warThe Founding’s War, Michel Déon (France) #RIP – the French writer who lived in Ireland, with over 50 novels, plays and essays published, just passed away Dec 28 at the age of 97 years. Having read his novel The Foundling Boy, translated into English by Gallic Books, I’m going to read the sequel A Foundling’s War as a tribute to his lifetime of considerable achievement.

do-not-sayDo Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien (Canada/China) – no need to say much about this one, shortlisted for the Man Booker 2016 and I would say it was The People’s Choice, the book most people loved most from the list and one I picked to read when the longlist came out. Secrets from the revolution, a pianist and a composer, intimate and political.

5 on the Kindle

three-daughters-of-eveThree Daughters of Eve, Elif Shafak (Turkey) – I’ve been a fan of Rumi scholar Elif Shafak since she wrote The Forty Rules of Love and have since read The Bastard of IstanbulHonour and her essay The Happiness of Blond People – A Personal Meditation on the Dangers of Identity so I’m looking forward to her latest which she says tackles the confusion of Turkey, faith and God from Turkey to Oxford and back.

exit-westExit West, Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan) – literary novel of new love in a time of war which causes them to immigrate when the world is in crisis – by a renowned author, with a couple of rave reviews, time to get on the band wagon, a timely novel.

the-good-peopleThe Good People, Hannah Kent (Australia/Ireland) – well I missed Burial Rites, her debut historical novel set in Iceland, about a woman who was executed, so I’m going for her second novel, this one set in Country Kerry, Ireland in 1825 in a time of traditions and superstitions surrounding those born a little different, and women who are vilified for having anything to do with them. I hope it’s as good as her debut!

breaking-connectionsBreaking Connections, Albert Wendt (Samoa) – Reading around the world brings me down under to leading Pacific writer Albert Wendt’s new novel by the excellent Huia Publishers. A group whose members refer to themselves as the Tribe, mainly Polynesian grow up together, rise from poverty and become successful professionals, bound by love and fierce loyalty. When one of them is killed, they face an ensuing crisis.

train-to-pakistanTrain to PakistanKhushwant Singh (Pakistan/India) – a classic set in the partition, that was recommended me to me last year after reading Where The River Parts by Radhika Swarup.

 

 

Plenty to choose from there, I hope you are looking forward to some exciting reads to start the new year as well.

Let me know what you’re looking forward to!

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Top Reads 2016

In 2016, I read 55 books, just over my ongoing intention, to read a book a week.

I managed to read books by authors from 26 different countries and 19 of them, just over a third, were translations. My absolute favourite book of the year, was written by an author from Guadeloupe, translated from French into English, and 3 of my top 5 fiction reads were translated.

Outstanding Read of 2016
Bridge of Beyond

The book that has stayed with me, that I loved above all else was Simone Schwarz- Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond, a novel that touched on the lives of three generations of women from the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe, narrated by the granddaughter Telumee as she grows up on the island, learning from experience and the traditions of her culture, guided by the wisdom of her grandmother Toussine, ‘Queen Without a Name’. A masterpiece of Caribbean literature, “an unforgettable hymn to the resilience and power of women,” translated from French, republished as a New York Review of Books (NYRB) classic.

Top 5 Fiction Reads

Human ActsHuman Acts, Han Kang (South Korea) tr. Deborah Smith

As much a work of art as novel, Human Acts is an attempt to understand a despicable act of humanity through story telling, Han Kang was one of the most thought provoking authors of 2016 for me, equally incredible was her novel The Vegetarian, which won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.

What Lies Between UsWhat Lies Between Us, Nayomi Munaweera (Sri Lanka)

Like The Bridge of Beyond, Munaweera’s work is evocative of place and she brings a childhood in the gardens of Sri Lanka alive. A woman remembers her past from behind the walls of a cell, and as she reveals her upbringing and the changes that brought her family to live in America, we wonder what went terribly wrong, that caused her to lose everything. And best book cover!

zoraTheir Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston (USA)

I finally read this great American classic and it was absolutely fantastic, another story that touches on multiple generations of women and how the lives of each affects the other, as they all wish a different life for the future generation. Janie is determined to live her life differently, but some lessons have to be lived thought and not told. The prose is astounding, melodic and the whole reading experience one I’ll never forget.

FirdausWoman at Point Zero, Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt) tr. Sherif Hetata

An internationally renowned feminist writer, activist, physician, psychiatrist and prolific writer, I’d been wanting to read her for some time and during August, reading books by Women authors in translation #WITMonth was the perfect opportunity. And what a novel! Inspired by real events, after she was given the opportunity to interview a woman who had been been imprisoned for killing a man and due to be executed, she retells this story of Firdous, too beautiful and poor to pass through life unscathed, who finds the desire to lift herself and others out of oppression and will pay the ultimate price. Haunting, beautiful, a must read author and book!

Days of AbandonmentDays of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante (Italy) tr. Ann Goldstein

The year wouldn’t be complete without Elena Ferrante, the reclusive Italian author whose identity was outed this year, although I didn’t read any of the reports, preferring she remain as unknown to me now as before. Days of Abandonment was published before her popular tetrology which began with My Brilliant Friend and is a compelling, searing account of one woman’s descent into semi madness following abandonment by her husband, in the days where the hurt prevents her from seeing things objectively and her rationality leaves her. It’s full of tension, as she has two young children and Ferrante uses her incredible talent to make the reader live through the entire uncomfortable experience of this roller coaster ride of temporary insanity.

Top Non Fiction Reads

Memoir

Brother Im DyingBrother I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti)

A beautiful memoir of her father and his brother, alternating between Haiti and America, it is a tribute to a special relationship and an insight into the sacrifices people make to better the lives of others, whether its family or their community. I’ve read her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory she is a wonderful writer with a gift for compassionate storytelling.

why-be-happyWhy Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson (UK)

Wow, this is the adoption memoir that tops all others, a literary tour de force, an entertaining, horrifying account of a young girl’s childhood, survived by a strong passion for life and literature that gets her through some tough moments and develops an iron will to pursue the joy that appeals so much more than the conformity her mother sought. Brilliant.

woman-on-the-edgeA Woman on the Edge of Time by Jeremy Gavron (UK)

Less a memoir of the son, than one of his obsession to understand why his mother, when she appeared to have everything a young woman would ever want, decided to end it all. Having never asked questions about his mother’s suicide, Jeremy Gavron, now a father of two girls becomes obsessed with knowing who she was and what pressures lead her to her end. Early 1960’s insight.

The Blue Satin NightgownThe Blue Satin Nightgown by Karin Crilly (US)

A reading highlight of the year for me, I’ve seen Karin’s book go through many stages leading to publication this year, in my review you’ll read how I was involved a little in its development. I knew it would be a success, as we sipped champagne together in Aix after she won the Good Life in France short story competition for the first chapter, Scattered Dreams. Last seen, Karin and her friend Judy were in China continuing their adventures, which age will never hamper and there’s a mysterious new man appearing in her recent Facebook posts, suggesting she may be writing a sequel perhaps?

Soul Food

This year, in particular after the harrowing experience accompanying my 14-year-old daughter through back surgery to correct a curvature of the spine, I read a few books by authors published by Hay House, whose radio show I often  listen to. I’m already a fan and follower of Colette Baron-Reid and her book Uncharted came out this year, and through her I discovered, listened to and read What if This is Heaven by Anita Moorjani, Making Life Easy by Christiane Northrup and I’m still slow reading a few others. During challenging times, these authors are a soothing balm, reminding us of much we may already know, offering an alternative perspective on how we see things and tips for remaining grounded and healthy in body, mind and spirit.

Special Mentions

how-to-be-braveUnforgettable Reading Experience Ever: How to Be Brave, Louise Beech(UK)

I couldn’t let the year pass without mentioning the extraordinary reading experience of Louise Beech’s How to Be Brave. I read this book while I was in the hospital with my daughter and it was surreal, a captivating, incredible story, based partly on true events, both those of the author and her daughter, who are both coming to terms with a recent diagnosis of Type1 diabetes and a retelling of her grandfather’s epic journey lost at sea, after their ship was destroyed.

Bonjour TristesseBest Translations: Bonjour Tristesse(France) & The Whispering Muse (Iceland)

Two fabulous novellas, from Iceland, Sjón’s The Whispering Muse was my first read of the year for 2016 and I loved it, it’s a kind of parody of The Argonauts and had me looking up references to the Greek classic and enjoying both the story and its connections.

Bonjour Tristesse is an excellent, slim summer read, of a young woman’s regret, a heady summer on the French Riviera, engaging as she has a deft ability to portray her minds workings and see herself interacting with the others, aware of her own manipulative ability and yet unable to stop herself. Brilliant.

GeorgiaBest Fictional Biography: Georgia, A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe, Dawn Tripp (US)

I love the work of the artist Georgia O’Keeffe, she’s probably my favourite artist in fact. And she was an incredible woman, who lived a long time and had an intriguing relationship with her husband, who discovered her as one of his protege, the photographer and gallery owner Alfred Steiglitz. Dawn Tripp has done an outstanding job of researching her life, bringing to this novel, insights from new material available and succeeds in doing what hasn’t really been done before, channelling the voice of the artist, providing a perspective that is loyal to the artist and how she may have thought.

Brief HistoryBiggest, Most Satisfying Challenge: A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James (Jamaica)

Written a large part in Jamaican patois, with a wide array of characters, this 700+ page book won the Man Booker Prize in 2015 and was my summer chunkster for 2016. I gave it 5 stars for sheer effort, even though it’s not really my style of book, I tend to prefer the stories by women writers from around the Caribbean, Marlon James is perhaps too modern for me, he moves his story out of generational tradition and into the cold, dark, masculine front lines of survival, jealousy and ambition in a trigger happy, drug induced frightening world that is far from sleepy villages I prefer to inhabit.

Biggest Disappointment: The Fox Was Ever the Hunter, Herta Muller (Romania)(DNF)

It wasn’t on my reading list and I should have listened to my instinct, but since I was reading books by women in translation and I’d been sent this by the publisher (unsolicited), and it was a novel by a Nobel Prize winning author I attempted it. Impossible. Incomprehensible. Stop. Prize winning authors and books should be looked at like any other book I tell myself, forget about what a committee of 18 Swedish writers, linguists, literary scholars, historians and a prominent jurist with life tenure think, they are not you.

Well that’s it for 2016, another great reading year!

What was your outstanding read for 2016?

 

The Captive Wife by Fiona Kidman

Fiona Kidman is a New Zealand novelist, poet and script writer, whose most recent novel The Infinite Air a novel of the life of the aviator Jean Batten, I reviewed earlier this year.

Although she has published over 20 books, she is relatively little known outside Australia and New Zealand, however recently her novels have begun to be published in the UK by Gallic Books, who translate a number of excellent French authors into English, and now with their new imprint Aardvark Bureau, are bringing novels originally written in English, but from countries outside the UK and US, their aim to bring an eclectic selection of the best writing from around the world.

aardvarkOne of my favourite reads from 2015 was the Aardvark published novel The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr and in early 2017, they will publish Fiona Kidman’s novel Songs From the Violet Café.

The Captive Wife isn’t a recent novel, just one I had on the shelf, it was originally published in 2005 and I was reminded of it after reading Jeremy Gavron’s memoir, A Woman on the Edge of Time, as his mother, who is the subject of his memoir, also wrote a book called The Captive Wife, though quite a different volume to Fiona Kidman’s.

The Captive Wife is set in the 1830’s, spanning ten years from 1832 -1843 and is based around the lives of two women, one the young Betty Guard and the other her school teacher Adeline Malcolm, whom Betty takes as her confidant, to share what exactly happened to her and her children, when they were taken captive on the shores of New Zealand, during one of their frequent visits.

In narrating her story, we come to know the circumstances of these women and their men and how they came to be living in Sydney, where much of the story is based.  The man Betty is betrothed to Captain John (Jacky) Guard, arrived on one of the convict transport ships, a petty criminal, but one whose fortunes have changed as he gets involved in seafaring and whaling.

Miss Malcolm had been a teacher and is now a governess to two children, her situation somewhat precarious since the death of her mistress and her employer’s disapproval of her connection with the so-called captive wife, Betty Guard, whom rumour has it, was not as captive as many would have them believe.

te-rauparahaJacky Guard takes Betty to New Zealand as his wife and they set up home in a bay that is handy for their whaling activities and where it is easy to trade with the native Maori population. Jacky trades with, though doesn’t trust the Maori Rangatira (chief), Te Rauparaha. He is able to negotiate with him, but fears he may have disrespected some of their taboo beliefs. There are constant challenges to their attempt to settle on this land, each time they return to Sydney, their home and belongings are often burned on their return.

Sometimes the whalers invade the villages and fraternise or do worse with the local women and it is through one of these misunderstandings that their lives come under threat and the young Betty is taken captive with her two children.

The novel is based on real events and is compellingly told, as two cultures clash and one way of life is gradually imposed upon another, although the perspective is more oriented towards the colonists, as much of the narrative is told through entries in Jacky Guard’s journal and in the oral narrative of his wife to her ex school teacher.

It is only through Betty’s eyes that we see and experience something of the Maori way of life and their reaction to the arrival of these whalers and traders and the devastation they introduce with what they bring. Betty stays long enough with the tribe to begin to see the value in their ways and it is this sympathy that is subsequently seen as suspicious, as a betrayal not just to her so-called husband, but to the colonial masters.

Betty’s experiences are those of a young woman, though it is as if she has lived much more than her years. Her story is told to Miss Malcolm, who though much older is as much a captive herself, in her spinsterhood and in her inability to communicate her own hidden desire, which Betty’s story forces her to confront.

elizabeth-guardIn real life Betty Guard (born Elizabeth Parker in Parramatta, Sydney) made her first voyage with Captain Jacky Guard when she was either 12 or 15 years old, and he 23 years older than her. She is said to have been the first woman of European descent to settle in the South Island of New Zealand and her son John, the first Pakeha child born in the South Island.

She and her family were captured at one point, her husband released with orders to return with a ransom. Her ordeal was later described in a somewhat lurid report in the Sydney Herald of 17 November 1834. It was four months before a rescue mission was  dispatched to bring them back. She and her family eventually settled in Kakapo Bay, where she is buried and where some of their descendants continue to live today.

The Captive Wife is an intriguing story and although a part of me wishes someone would write a novel from the perspective of the indigenous people, at least this gives us an alternative insight, by giving a significant portion of the narrative to the women who lived through these times, rather than referring to them in the footnotes, as was normally the case, as ‘the woman’.

Fiona Kidman in an interview with Kelly Ana Morey of ANZL, the Academy of New Zealand Literature had this to say about communicating with her characters, during the writing process:

I tend to live inside my characters for a long time when I’m thinking about a book. They go with me wherever I go, and sit beside me in the car. This is true, I’m talking to them all the time. And what is happening is that for the most part I’m thinking about how I would have responded to their situations had I been in them.

This was particularly true of Betty Guard, about whom very little was known – and I take some credit for uncovering her true origins and giving her to her descendants – generally, in historical references she was a footnote and referred to as ‘the woman’. I loved giving her a full-blooded persona and thinking myself into the pa sites where she was taken, and discovering both captivity and a wild freedom of the self.

Buy a book by Fiona Kidman

Kakapo Bay

Kakapo Bay