So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ, tr. Modupé Bodé-Thomas

An excellent Sunday afternoon read and pertinent to much that is being written and read in the media under the banner of the silencing of women today.

This short, articulate novella is a conversation, in the form of a lengthy letter from a widow to her best friend, whom she hasn’t seen for some years, but who is arriving tomorrow. It is set in Senegal, was originally written and published in French in 1980 and in English in 1981, the year in which the author died tragically of a long illness.

Our recent widow is reflecting on the emotional fallout of her husband’s death, how she is unable to detach from memories of better times in the past, during those 25 years where she was happily married and the only wife of her husband, thoughts interrupted by the more bitter, heart-breaking recent years where she was abandoned by him for the best friend of her daughter, a young woman, who traded the magic of youth for the allure of shiny things (with the exception of his silver-grey streaks, which he in turn trades in for the black dye of those in denial of the ageing process).

With his death, she must sit beside this young wife, have her inside her home for the funeral, in accordance with tradition. She is irritated by this necessity.

Was it madness, weakness, irresistible love? What inner confusion led Modou Fall to marry Binetou?
To overcome my bitterness, I think of human destiny. Each life has its share of heroism, an obscure heroism, born of abdication, of renunciation and acceptance under the merciless whip of fate.

By turn she expresses shock, outrage, anger, resentment, pity until her thoughts turn with compassion towards those she must continue to aid, her children; to those who have supported her, her friends; including this endearing one about to arrive; she thinks too of the burden of responsibility of all women.

And to think that I loved this man passionately, to think that I gave him thirty years of my life, to think that twelve times over I carried his child. The addition of a rival to my life was not enough for him. In loving someone else, he burned his past, both morally and materially. He dared to commit such an act of disavowal.
And yet, what didn’t he do to make me his wife!

It is a lament, a paradox of feelings, a resentment of tradition, a wonder at those like her more liberated and courageous friend, who in protest at her own unfair treatment (a disapproving mother-in-law interferes – reminding me of Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay with Me), took the road less travelled, taking her four sons, arming herself with renewed higher education and an enviable career abroad.

It is a testament to the plight of women everywhere, who live in sufferance to the old ways of patriarchy, whose articulate social conscience has little outlet except through their children, whose ability to contribute so much more is worn down by the age-old roles they  continue to play, which render other qualities less effective when under utilised.

I am not indifferent to the irreversible currents of the women’s liberation that are lashing the world. This commotion that is shaking up every aspect of our lives reveals and illustrates our abilities.
My heart rejoices every time a woman emerges from the shadows. I know that the field of our gains is unstable, the retention of conquests difficult: social constraints are ever-present, and male egoism resists.
Instruments for some, baits for others, respected or despised, often muzzled, all women have almost the same fate, which religions or unjust legislation have sealed.

Ultimately, she posits, it is only love that can heal, that can engender peace and harmony and the success of family is born of the couple’s harmony, as the nation depends inevitably on the family.

I remain persuaded of the inevitable and necessary complementarity of man and woman.
Love, imperfect as it may be in its content and expression, remains the natural link between these two beings.

Mariama Bâ (April 17, 1929 – August 17, 1981) was a Senegalese author and feminist, who wrote in French. Born in Dakar to an educated and well-off family, her father was Minister of Health, her grandfather a translator in the occupying French regime. After the premature death of her mother, she was largely raised in the traditional manner by her maternal grandparents.

She was a novelist, teacher and feminist, active from 1979 to 1981 in Senegal, West Africa. Bâ’s source of determination and commitment to the feminist cause stemmed from her background, her parents’ life, her schooling and subsequent experiences as a wife, mother and friend.

Her contribution is considered important in modern African studies as she was among the first to illustrate the disadvantaged position of women in African society. She believed in her mission to expose and critique the rationalisations employed to justify established power structures. Bâ’s work focused on the grandmother, the mother, the sister, the daughter, the cousin and the friend, how they deserve the title “mother of Africa”, and how important they are for  society.

It’s an excellent short read and an excellent account from the inside of a polygamous society, highlighting the important role women already have and the greater one they could embrace if men and women were to give greater respect to the couple, the family, or at least to exit it with greater respect than this model implies.

 

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Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restless unburied souls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Purchase a copy via Book Depository

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

A Victorian era historical novel (London 1893) set over a single year, that follows the footsteps of the young widow Cora Seaborne, in the months following the premature of her husband, a cruel man who’d become indifferent to her, but one who’d been her companion from such a young age, he’d moulded her into what he could tolerate.

She begins to shed the layers of that stifled London life, both physically and mentally, taking her son Francis and their companion Martha to Colchester, swapping gowns and stays for a man’s tweed coat and trousers. She steps out each day taking herself on long walks in search of anything unusual and in particular remnants and fossilised objects unearthed after a recent earthquake and subsequent landslides.

In London, she had befriended Dr Luke Garret, affectionately referred to as the Imp on account of his size. He is at the forefront of medicine at the time, something of a maverick surgeon, fascinated by the potential of yet unproven surgical procedures, assisted by his friend and colleague Spencer. He is fond of Cora and their friendship continues after the death of her husband.

Katherine and Charles Ambrose, frequent visitors to Essex, unwittingly encouraged Cora’s interest in the region and in fossil remains, through various introductions, one of whom recounts to her the life and work of Mary Anning, the English fossil collector and paleontologist, whose discoveries included the first ichthyosaur skeleton. Mary Anning is the protagonist of Lisa Chevalier’s excellent novel Remarkable Creatures.

Meeting her again in Colchester, the Ambrose’s introduce Cora to the Reverend William Ransome and his wife Stella and a unique friendship develops.

Much of the novel is narrated through letters between Cora and these new friends she’s made since her widowhood and one of the subjects that arises is talk of a creature, said to have reappeared since the land was disturbed by the quake, one they’ve dubbed the Essex Serpent. Local beggar Taylor fills her in on the details of the earthquake and the sleeping legend it has awakened.

‘It had come eight years back, by his reckoning, at eight minutes past nine precisely. It had been as fair an April morning as any could remember, which later was counted a blessing, since most were out-of-doors. The Essex earth had bucked as if trying to shake off all its towns and villages; for twenty seconds, no more, a series of convulsions that paused once as if a breath were being drawn and then began again. Out in the estuaries of the Colne and the Blackwater, the sea had gathered into foaming waves which ransacked the shore and reduced every vessel on the water to splinters.’

Cora is delighted to think that modest little Essex, with its Paleozoic rock beneath their feet, laid down five hundred million years before, shrugging its shoulders, creating waves and toppling church steeples and fantasizes about finding her own ichthyosaur.

Taylor feeds her mind with tales of a creature from 1669, when it was believed a serpent came out of the Essex waters into the birch woods and commons.

‘Those were the years of the Essex serpent, be it scale and sinew, or wood and canvas, , or little but the ravings of madmen; children were kept from the banks of the river and fishermen wished for a better trade! Then it was gone as soon as it came, and for night on two hundred years we had neither hide nor hair of it ’til the quake came and something was shook loose down there under the water – something was set free! A great creeping thing, as they tell it, more dragon than serpent, as content on land as in water, that suns its wings on a fair day.’

Away from the responsibilities and expectations of womanhood and motherhood, long walks reawaken Cora’s naturalist and philosophical interests.

‘It struck her that everything under that white sky was made of the same substance – not quite animal, but not merely earth: where branches had sheared from their trunks they left bright wounds, and she would not have been surprised to see severed stumps of oak and elm pulse as she passed. Laughing, she imagined herself part of it, and leaning against a trunk in earshot of a chattering thrush held up her arm, and wondered if she might see vivid green lichen stippling the skin between her fingers.

Had it always been here – this marvellous black earth in which she sank to her ankles, this coral coloured fungus frilling the branches at her feet? Had birds always sung? Had the rain always this light touch, as if she might inhabit it?’

As Cora pursues fossils and sea creatures, her companion Martha uses the opportunity of having contact with influential men to push her social activism, intent on bringing to light the plight of the working class housing conditions, dire accommodations and landlords who continue to raise rents, not to mention hypocritical attitudes.

‘She spread open the pages and showed him a map on which the poorest of London’s housing was overlaid with plans for new developments. They would be sanitary , she said, and spacious: children would have green spaces to play in and tenants would be free from landlord caprice. But (she flicked contemptuously at the paper) to qualify for housing, tenants must demonstrate good character. ‘They’re expects to live better than you or I ever did to deserve a roof over their children’s heads: must never be drunk or a nuisance to neighbours, or gamble, and God forbid too many children by too many fathers, and had too often. You, Spencer – with your estate and pedigree – you can drink yourself wretched on claret and port and no-one begrudges you any of your homes; but spend what little you have on cheap beer and the dogs and you’ve not enough moral standing to sleep in a dry bed.’

The novel provides a snapshot of the era, with its significant scientific progress and discoveries, its social issues among the classes and between the sexes, medical progress and the conflict between men of science and men of the cloth.

For the most part I enjoyed it immensely, however, if I were to fault it, I thought the seesawing between relentless soul-searching and denial on the part of the Reverend and Cora, in coming to terms with their relationship became a little tedious. It made the second half of the novel drag a little and I notice that all the passages I noted come from the first 200 pages. However the acute sense of place and era and that traversing of issues of the time within the framework of of an engaging story make it all worthwhile.

Autumn by Ali Smith

I have finally read a novel by Ali Smith and enjoyed it, though it is distracting to explain why with so many exuberant accolades and comments all over it saying how brilliant it is, I wish I could just read without the expectation this over abundance of blurbs brings. She is clearly the darling of British literary media and publishing, however all the superlatives are a little over the top in my opinion.

Autumn is the first in a series of books she has said she will write, named after the seasons. Winter has just come out and I’ve read some good reviews that suggest it is as good as, and some say even better than Autumn.

Autumn moves back and forth in time and is mostly narrated through the relationship of Elisabeth and her mother’s neighbour Daniel. For her homework, Elisabeth should interview a neighbour and ask certain questions, her mother doesn’t approve and suggests she makes it up. She does. A few days later the mother invites the neighbour to read what her daughter had written. This moment signals the beginning of what will become a special relationship between Daniel, a foreign octogenarian and the teenage Elisabeth.

As the novel opens Daniel appears to be hallucinating and while doing so philosophises about death. Elisabeth is 32 and a junior lecturer in London on a zero hours contract.  She is visiting Daniel Gluck in a home. Every aspect of life is in its Autumn.

In the background the country is changing, attitudes are changing, apathy is being replaced by protest. Seasons change as they always do, legacy’s are lost and forgotten, occasionally revived, survive.

“It’s all right to forget, you know” he said. “It’s good to. In fact, we have to forget things sometimes. Forgetting it is important.  We do it on purpose. It means we get a bit of a rest. Are you listening? We have to forget. Or we’d never sleep, ever again.”

The narrative skips back to her childhood and then forward twenty years to Daniel in the care facility. He is now 101 years old, Elisabeth visits him and reads to him, he is always asleep, but she talks to him anyway and remembers the things they used to talk about when she was young.

She hasn’t visited her mother for years, but now while she visits Daniel, she spends time with her mother, they are related but alien to each other. They don’t try to make each other understand. Something in Daniel nourishes Elisabeth and helps her to grow, to question, and eventually to understand.

Today he looks like a Roman senator, his sleeping head noble, his eyes shut and blank as a statue, his eyebrows mere moments of frost.

It is a privilege to watch someone sleep, Elizabeth tells herself. It is a privilege to be able to witness someone both here and not here. To be included in someone’s absence, it is an honour, and it asks quiet. It asks respect.

No. It is awful.

It is fucking awful.

It is awful to be on the literal other side of his eyes.

“Mr Gluck,” she says.

Pauline Boty by Lewis Morley, Sept 1963

Daniel describes images to Elisabeth, which years later she recognises, a painting by the British Pop artist Pauline Boty, introducing an element of mystery and intrigue to do with an old scandal and the premature deaths of two young women. We’re not give much detail, and I’m assuming most of us will never have heard of Pauline Boty or Christine Keeler, women whose art and stories were quickly forgotten, denied even.

It’s a cryptic read that enters into subjects, into the lives of a small group of characters without providing all the detail, enough to entice the reader, to hint at the depth of a connection and leaves it before we can entirely understand, we too must imagine, join the dots, make of it what we will, catch the leaves before the fall, but not worry if we don’t, they’ll come around again next season.

 

Top Reads of 2017

In 2017 I anticipated that I wouldn’t read as much as I had read in previous years, due to giving my reading time over to some personal studies and the reading that would accompany them and to the social visits I had from many of the men in my family, brother, Uncle, Fathers. As a result, less of my writing appeared here in Word by Word and more of it found its way in the old-fashioned long form between the pages of journals that I keep.

However, I did still manage to read 48 books from 21 countries (10 in translation) including Sri Lanka, Trinidad, Turkey, Ireland, Nigeria, Ghana, Palestine, Italy, Canada, Scotland, Pakistan, France, South Africa, Guadeloupe, Greece, Spain, Mauritius, Australia and of course the UK and the US.

Outstanding Read of 2017

The one stand out novel for me came very early in the year, in February and I knew as soon as I finished it, that it was likely to be my outstanding novel of 2017.

This novel came out with a lot of fanfare and so I was a little dubious to begin with, novels that arrive with great expectations have a tendency to disappoint avid literary readers, so I read with intrigue what other reviewers had to say. Some loved it, others saw it as a collection of stories, and then my very dear Aunt, who totally knows what kind of books I love sent it to me for my birthday. Of course I dove right in.

Here is what I had to say in my review:

“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.”

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana, but lived most of her life in the US. After revisiting Ghana, she began writing her novel by asking herself what it meant to be black in America today and through the lives and descendants of two sisters, her narrative will arrive eventually in the modern day. Here’s what she was trying to do and in my opinion totally succeeds. Read my review here.

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.

Top Reads 2017

Here in no particular order are a few books that have stayed with me long after I read them and the year has passed.

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan is a slim novella, the third book by this young Irish writer and his best in my opinion.

The story is told in a way that pulls you inside the book and makes you feel it happening. Incredibly the author writes from the first person perspective of Melody, a 33-year-old woman who discovers she is pregnant to a young Traveller, a turning point that disrupts the confined world she has created and had been living in.

He has such penetrative powers of observation, that create a sense of foreboding and intrigue, it’s a book you’ll likely read in one sitting and then wonder in awe, how he did that. Just brilliant.

You can read my full review here.

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar was published by Gallic Books new imprint Aardvark Bureau, I’ve loved all the books they’ve brought out under this imprint and Salt Creek might just be the best so far. It’s an historical novel, inspired by the events of the authors family, who immigrated to Australia from Britain, portraying one family trying to find success in farming in a harsh, unforgiving environment of South Australia.

This too is a book that gets under your skin, especially as a woman reading about the lives of other women and children (particularly daughters) who are at the mercy of the dreams and aspirations of men, men who have little empathy for how disruptive and out of the comfort zone, this life might be for a woman, and ironically, on the contrary, how quickly young children adapt, how easy it is for them to integrate and thus cross societal taboos when it comes to mixing with indigenous populations. It’s a novel richly populated with colonial issues of the time, that make you wish at times, that it could have a fantasy element, where it all might end differently.

Read my full review of Salt Creek here.

The Complete Claudine by Colette (translated by Antonia White) was my One Summer Chunkster for 2017, a French classic, relatively little known outside France among general readers, but an author who should be more widely read, especially by young adult readers, as it charts the young Claudine’s journey through her last year in school, then her adventures in Paris with her father, through marriage and into maturity.

The book includes an excellent introduction by Judith Thurman, which I devoted a full post to, as she was such a fascinating woman, so far ahead of the era in which she lived, being such a free spirit, determined to experience love, to live her artistic desires and be financially independent, wild and adorable!

Below are the links to the introductory piece and the four books that are contained in this one volume.

Sidonie Gabrielle Colette by Leopold Reutlinger

A brilliant choice for my one fat summer book of the year.

The Complete Claudine – An Introduction

Claudine at School

Claudine in Paris

Claudine Married

Claudine and Annie

Two Old Women by Velma Wallis is a quirky fable-like book I read about and was intrigued by, recommended by a fellow reader. It is an Alaskan legend of betrayal, courage and survival, one which features, as the title suggests, two old women.

This is one of those stories, like Najaf Mazari’s excellent collection The Honey Thief, handed down in the oral tradition from generation to generation and now finally, thankfully, someone has captured it in print, so it can endure and be discovered by an even wider audience than originally intended.

I loved it because it teaches us the value of paying attention to our (women) elders, who possess much wisdom, something that if ignored wastes away and can even be forgotten by those who possess it. Let not our elders sit too quietly, lest they believe they have creaky bones and limp minds! Read my full review here.

My Story by Jo Malone is one of the six memoirs I read in 2017 and the one that was the most intriguing and personal to me, not because I’m a fan of her perfumes, but because I too have a love of the aromas of plants, flowers, resins, herbs and like to create remedies from essential oils and mix them with other plant oils to use therapeutically.

Knowing Jo Malone to be a high-end luxury brand, I had little idea that she came from such fascinating and humble beginnings and was a woman of such incredible perseverance. As I say below, I loved it!

“I absolutely loved this book, from it’s at times heartbreaking accounts of struggle in childhood, to the discovery of her passion, the development of her creativity and the strong work ethic that carried her forward, to finding the perfect mate and the journey they would go on together.”

Read my full review here.

Worthy Mentions

I could go on, but rather I will just say that I also really enjoyed the excellent debut novel Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo, Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller was an accomplished evocative novel, Nayomi Munaweera’s Island of a Thousand Mirrors was as exquisite, heart-breaking and lyrical as I expected after her brilliant What Lies Between Us I’d read in 2016.

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso and The Story of the Cannibal Woman by Maryse Condé were a brilliant pair to read together, both placing a black Caribbean woman in South Africa while observing her relations with others around her, in a post-apartheid era. And personally I thought Zadie Smith’s depiction of female friendship in Swing Time easily rivalled Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, with her poignant insights and ever-present mastery of that sense of place and community, particularly in London. And though it didn’t reach the heights of Homegoing for me, Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing also left an equally strong impression:

“how living through Chairman Mao’s and the subsequent communist regime imprinted its effect on people’s behaviours forcing them to change, leaving its trace in their DNA which was passed on to subsequent generations, who despite living far from where those events took place, continue to live with a feeling they can’t explain, but which affects the way they live, or half-live, as something crucial to living a fulfilled life is missing. “

So did any of these books make your top reads for 2017? If not, what was your one Outstanding Read of the Year?

Happy Reading!

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Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

I’ve been meaning to read this novel for some time, I remember when it was first published it was widely read by  bloggers, it won a National Book Award in the US and it is covered in esteemed comments from reviews within many well-known media titles.

“Beautifully written … A powerful depiction of grinding poverty, where somehow, amid the deprivation, the flame of filial affection survives and a genuine spirit of community is able to triumph over everything the system and nature can throw at it.” DAILY MAIL

I decided to read it now before her new novel comes out in November, Sing Unburied Sing (already on the short list for the 2017 National Book Award for fiction) and because with all the hurricanes and storms acting out currently, a novel set in the twelve days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, seemed timely.

It’s a novel about a family struggling to stay together under already challenging circumstances, about to become even more trying with a grade 5 hurricane heading their way. It is set (as is the new novel) in a fictional, rural coastal town named Bois Sauvage, Mississippi.  Interestingly, the French edition of the novel is called Bois Sauvage, meaning Wild Wood, the author playing with the world savage and salvage, connected to the theme of survival.

It’s narrated from the point of view of fifteen year old Esch, the only girl in the family, their mother died after the long and difficult birth of Junior when she was eight years old. The children have adapted to living without their mother, though Esch is vulnerable in this all male environment which attracts other males, despite the protection of her brothers. She is becoming a woman, without another to guide her, and men who don’t know how to. Her only female reference is within the romantic tragic classic she is reading, referred to often throughout the text, the tragic anti-heroine Medea. Esch too is blinded by love and fearful of its outcome.

“In Mythology, I am still reading about Medea and the quest for the Golden Fleece. Here is someone I recognize. When Medea falls in love with Jason, it grabs me by my throat. I can see her. Medea sneaks Jason things to help him: ointments to make him invincible, secrets in rocks. She has magic, could bend the natural to the unnatural. But even with all her power, Jason bends her like a young pine in a hard wind; he makes her double in two. I know her.”

The father is an alcoholic and although that seems dire, the children are familiar with his habits and behaviours and seem to manage to keep out of his way when they need to and to care for him when he is a danger to himself.

For most of the novel the father is unable to do anything, he is either absent, asleep or suffering from an accident that  further reduces his ability to manage his role as father. Despite this, he pays attention to the preparations for the hurricane and even if he can’t do things himself, he doesn’t give up giving instructions to his children, the one thing he won’t fail at is to keep them safe.

The other main narrative concerns the plight of one of the son’s Skeetah’s prize pit bull China, who has given birth to pups that are extremely valuable, though nothing is more valuable to him than her, he rarely leaves her side, except to get food or medicine for her or her pups. It is a struggle for him to care for them all and the approaching hurricane will test his loyalty.

In all, the strongest feeling I am left with in reflecting on this novel is the effect of the mother and of the attempt by nearly all in this situation to act like her. The children prepare food and Esch’s thoughts often linger to nurturing thoughts, a sense that magnifies as her body begins to respond to the life she carries within it.

Although the mother is never present, her memory is held strong by Esch and fiercely through Skeetah, in his protection of China and her pups, Junior clammers for attention and affection, never having known her. They hold strong to how she made them feel and recognise that after the devastation, they can salvage what’s left and continue.

Medea is both the maiden and the mother, tender and vulnerable to love, fierce in her protection, loyal to her siblings and devastating in her revenge, she is the storm. She is the anti-thesis to the mother Esch remembers, but important for her survival, a warning against falling too far, while recognising how destabilising the emotions can be. Ward isn’t trying to recreate a version of Medea’s story, she uses it as reference, one that causes Esch to contemplate what is happening around her, even if it doesn’t always modify her behaviour, the emotions are too strong. Ultimately Medea will guide her.

As Esch, Randall and Junior walk through the debris after the hurricane has passed Esch picks up a piece of coloured glass, marbled blue and white and another that is red and a pink brick stone, remnants in the aftermath. Their friend Big Henry reminds her that he too will be there for them and it is a poignant moment for Esch, who squeezes the remnants tight in her hand:

“I will tie the glass and stone with string, hang the shards above my bed, so that they will flash in the dark and tell the story of Katrina, the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land. She left us to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.”

Though it took me a while to read it, this is a book that stays with you, that continues to work on the reader long after the water has receded. It is a lament to the lone motherless adolescent and her siblings, to the courage of victims of natures destructive forces, to the ability of survivors to regroup, find solidarity, to continue, to the destabilising highs and lows of young love. And to universal themes and heroines of the classics, the stories we turn to, that ask and answer life’s questions, challenge us, inspire us. I’m looking forward to reading her next book.

Have you read any of Jesmyn Ward’s works?

Man Booker Prize 2017 Winner #GeorgeSaunders

Yesterday the winner of the Man Booker 2017 was announced, and the prize went to:

Of the shortlisted titles, I’d only read one Exit West and I keep promising to finally read a book by Ali Smith,but that hasn’t happened yet. I was a little intrigued by Lincoln in the Bardo, but put off by the hype and an air of assuredness in the media of it winning; it was the British bookies favourite and although it is his first full length novel, he is an accomplished, bestselling author in the US.

Having listened to Baroness Young speak about how they came to their decision in this video, I am back in ‘intrigue’ mode and thinking, I really would like to know this one from the inside. It’s worth listening to the video, as she also mentions the obstacles some readers might encounter, an admirable admission, as not all award winning literary fiction is as accessible to the reader as one might imagine.

Comments below are extracted from the Man Booker website:

Lola, Baroness Young, 2017 Chair of judges, comments:

‘The form and style of this utterly original novel, reveals a witty, intelligent, and deeply moving narrative. This tale of the haunting and haunted souls in the afterlife of Abraham Lincoln’s young son paradoxically creates a vivid and lively evocation of the characters that populate this other world. Lincoln in the Bardo is both rooted in, and plays with history, and explores the meaning and experience of empathy.’

Lincoln in the Bardo focuses on a single night in the life of Abraham Lincoln: an actual moment in 1862 when the body of his 11-year-old son was laid to rest in a Washington cemetery.

Strangely and brilliantly, Saunders activates this graveyard with the spirits of its dead. The Independent described the novel as ‘completely beguiling’, praising Saunders for concocting a ‘narrative like no other: a magical, mystery tour of the bardo – the “intermediate” or transitional state between one’s death and one’s next birth, according to Tibetan Buddhism.’

Meanwhile, the Guardian wrote that, ‘the short story master’s first novel is a tale of great formal daring…[it] stands head and shoulders above most contemporary fiction, showing a writer who is expanding his universe outwards, and who clearly has many more pleasures to offer his readers.’

Saunders told TIME magazine that he didn’t really want to write about Lincoln,

‘but was so captivated by this story I’d heard years ago about him entering his son’s crypt. I thought of the book as a way of trying to instil the same reaction I’d had all those years ago.’

So have you read this novel, or if not, are you tempted by it? Did you have another favourite to win?