The Spiral Staircase, A Memoir by Karen Armstrong

Before I went to visit and spend two months in Bethlehem, Palestine some years ago, I wanted to read something about the history of the area, not a religious book, but something historical that went beyond the recent familiar history since the British abandoned those residing in these lands to their fate. I wanted to understand the wider context of how people came to be living here and what they’d had to endure to survive.

I chose to read Karen Armstrong’s A History of Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths and read it while in situ. It was a history of multitudes of power shifts and massacres and when I finished it, I said to my husband (born in Bethlehem), somewhat in awe, “Congratulations, you survived,” and I wondered who these people really were, who had survived such a long, brutal history and come to be living in these towns of Jerusalem and Bethlehem today. One thing was for sure, they were survivors and most likely had traces of every people who had ever passed along the pilgrim trail within them.

Recently I was recommended a couple more Karen Armstrong books A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and The Great Transformation as background to the conditioning that underpins much of humanity’s belief system of the past millenia, however I decided to add to this collection by first reading her memoir The Spiral Staircase, about her life after leaving the convent, where she spent seven years leading up to her becoming the well renowned author she is today.

I wasn’t interested in her life as a nun, or the details of her leaving the convent, I was interested in how she had used what she learned in rejecting her faith to inspire her towards immersing herself in the history and identifying that catalyst of humanity’s desire to embrace organised religion.

This memoir thus starts as she is trying to finish her university education and doctoral thesis, then her foray into becoming the partial carer of an autistic child, her teaching, her involvement with Channel 4 and the BBC in producing a series of programs on St Paul and then the crusades, and finally launching herself into a writing career when it appeared all other options were closed to her.

Every venture she went into, except the writing career, followed a similar trajectory, where she did the thing she’d convinced herself was what she should be doing, only to eventually lose hope, which became the turning point, or the spiral in the staircase, where she changed direction, it always seemed dramatic and quite often was, however my perspective on those turning points is that they were a course correction, she went along a path for as long at it had something to teach her and then she’d be literally thrown out of it – this kind of thing usually happens when we know we need to change a circumstance but we do nothing, and seven years in the convent had conditioned her to ignore any kind of inner guidance or intuition, making these changes when they did occur seem more dramatic than they might have been, had she transitioned earlier.

Boarding School

I loved reading about her journey and couldn’t help but remember the nuns from my secondary school education, apart from a couple who taught they were elusive figures on the periphery of our lives, we lived on the same premises, for us a boarding school, for them in a separate wing, it was more like a retirement home, they were very, very old and the only time we saw them was in the chapel on Sundays.

They were shadows of whoever they had been and we had no real interaction with them, except the ancient, tough 90 something Sister Conway who still worked in the scullery plunging her gnarled, arthritic hands into boiling hot water as if it were tepid, while we waited for the cutlery to cool before lifting it to dry.

Karen Armstrong took years to undo the conditioning of seven years in the convent and even then likely will never do so completely. An intellectual unsuited to academia, she eventually finds her place studying the great religious and spiritual practices looking for common threads, she’s less interested in differences than in commonalities.

As she researches and learns how to use empathy and compassion to inhabit the minds of those she seeks to understands, she comes closer to a spiritual experience than anything she experienced as a Christian. She has let go of God as objective fact and of belief as being a necessity, discovering instead ‘practice’ and compassion to be the one significant practice of all the faiths that succeeds in managing the ego sufficiently to create peace and harmony.

I enjoyed her honest, though often self deprecating account of this period in her life and particularly loved what she experienced when she visited Jerusalem, the cross cultural encounters and being told to drop the small talk and niceties:

“Karen! You are not in England now. There is no need to be a polite English lady here in Israel. We are not formal people. There is no point to speak if there is nothing to say.”

It becomes even more humorous when she is invited to do the same:

“Do not be a polite English lady. If you think I am unreasonable, tell me to get lost, to shut up- whatever you like!”

at which she surprises herself in doing after a particularly charged day when tensions were high and Joel had snapped at her rudely. His response is excellent, he is proud of her!

The other amusing experience in reading my second hand copy of this book, was the presence of the previous reader in the margins, who not happy to have merely marked up the pages, shared her thoughts more vociferously, clearly not nearly as impressed as I was with the work, deciding to rant and share snippets of her own experiences, which were mostly entertaining, often annoying, and ultimately unwelcome! Here are some of them, since no one else will have had this reading experience!

page 123 After speaking about how her years as a nun had broken something in her, and affected her eating habits, Karen Armstrong writes:

“And I did not want to nourish myself. What was the point of feeding my body, when my mind and heart had been irreparably broken?”

And my interlocutor writes:

“as I was after the divorce”

Armstrong mentions that she isn’t going to write about her failed love relationships, seeing no reason to dwell on episodes that didn’t develop into anything significant and writes:

“Just as I was prevented from becoming an academic, so too I have never been able to achieve a normal domestic existence, and this, like my epilepsy, had also ensured that I remained an outsider in a society in which coupledom is the norm”

to which my interlocutor responds:

“oh do stop feeling sorry for yourself!”

and even adds later on

“perhaps you are just unloveable”

which is a mild example of the kind of comportment (at different levels of societal power clearly) that nevertheless can lead to disharmony, conflict, war even, for if there is a conclusion to what Karen Armstrong has learned, it is a lesson she gifts to her readers, known as Hillel’s Golden Rule that all great leaders have taught, Confucius proclaimed it 500 years before him, Buddha and Jesus taught it, it is the bedrock of the Koran:

“Do not do to others as you would not have done unto you”

As one of her advisors Hyam Maccoby said

“It takes more discipline to refrain from doing/saying harm to others than to be a do-gooder and project your needs and desires onto other people.”

The Ballroom by Anna Hope

ballroomThe Ballroom is Anna Hope’s second novel and one inspired in part by a family connection. I review it in full at Bookbrowse.

A woman who works in a dark, stuffy, factory, one who has been working in hard labour since she a child, is seized by a desperate need to see the sky and smashes a blackened window one day on impulse.

This is how we meet Ella Fay, just before she is committed to an asylum, a place where not only those who genuinely require care, but those who are at the mercy of the powerful (men, husbands, employers), often find themselves.

Picture: Mark Davis

It is here Ella meets John, a more fortunate patient who works outdoors, he and Ella meet briefly when she tries to escape being held and subsequently on Fridays in the ballroom, the only time selected men and women are allowed to meet.

John is being observed by Dr Charles Fuller, who desires to make a contribution to his field, he closely follows the developments of the Eugenics movement, a group who support improvement of the human race through the prevention of the feeble-minded from reproducing. Uncertain which side of the debate he is on, he tests his theories through observations of the patients, until an unfortunate incident swings his position wildly towards one extreme.

Picture: Mark Davis

Tension mounts as Ella and John begin to correspond and grow closer to each other and as Dr Fuller’s plans grow closer to fruition, endangering all that might be.

It is an interesting and gripping novel of the experience of two patients who feel more normal to the reader than the man in charge of them, creating a certain tension as we wonder what will happen to them, as they grow to need each other.

The novel is based in part or at least inspired by the authors own great-great grandfather, also an Irishman, who she discovered was committed to the West Riding Pauper Lunatic asylum in the same era on account of his melancholia, caused by the constant threat of poverty; sadly he passed away there.

It provides a disturbing highlight on the British eugenics movement, at its height at the time, supported by a number of high-profile intellectuals and politicians including Winston Churchill.

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

Click Here To Buy a copy of The Ballroom via Book Depository

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The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

To the Bright EdgeEowyn Ivey was the author of my favourite book of 2012 and one of my all time favourite reads, her debut novel The Snow Child an extraordinary, accomplished work about a childless couple who leave the close-knit support of their child-filled families to try to make a success of ‘homesteading’ in the Alaska wilderness.

I’m not the only one who long-awaited the next thing she would write, a book that was first mentioned a couple of years ago, with the suggested title Shadow of the Wolverine and which would eventually be published in 2016 as To the Bright Edge of the World.

I reviewed this title for Bookbrowse, that review (not the same as my comments below) and an article I wrote about Lieutenant Henry Tureman Allen, can be viewed by members by clicking the link.

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Set in 1885, Ivey’s new book was inspired by real events, and in particular by the adventures of the little known Lieutenant Henry Tureman Allen, an Alaskan Explorer and Decorated US Major General and his Report of an Expedition to the Copper, Tananá, and Kóyukuk Rivers.

The author also cites for inspiration Bram Stoker’s Dracula (first-person voices, use of documents and tremendous suspense), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (for its humanity in the face of terror and its time frame) and William Vollmann’s mythological fantasy The Ice-Shirt from the Seven Dream series.

It is narrated firstly through the letters and diary entries of the fictional Lieutenant Allen Forrestor (based on Henry Allen) and his younger wife Sophie, as he makes a commissioned expedition through harsh US owned Alaskan territory up the fictitious Wolverine River, with a small team accompanying him.

His wife Sophie writes him letters and keeps a journal of her time while he is away, so she can share how she spent her time. Sophie is both a woman of her time and ahead of her time, she knows what is expected of her, but has married a man who she hopes accepts she has a mind and a curiosity of her own, a part of her that shall not be tamed.

She takes up photography, learning how to mix chemicals and process plates and spends hours observing birdlife, in some of the most exquisite passages, as she patiently waits to capture a singular event, that might express that moment of pure magic she does not have the words to define, but can recognise instantly in an image, rare though it may be.

allen-team

The Team Who Inspired the Novel

In contemporary time, we also read letters between a descendant of Allen Forrestor named Walter Forrester, who has sent the Colonel’s journals, papers and other items for safekeeping to Josh, the exhibitions curator of the Alpine Historical Museum in Alaska, hoping to convince him to safeguard the documents and artefacts, given they are some of the earliest, firsthand descriptions of those northern lands before colonisation, while still inhabited by native Midnooskies (a Russian word for “people of the Copper River”) and Wolverine River Indians (Ahtna and Eyak tribes).

While it is a novel, the journey upriver was inspired by the expedition of Lieutenant Henry T. Allen (1859 – 1930), a true account Eowyn Ivey came across when the bookshop she worked for acquired a rare copy of Allen’s Report of their Expedition to the Copper, Tanana, and Koyukuk Rivers in the Territory of Alaska.

Ivey took the book home for an evening, staying up late to read it, sharing passages with her husband and was completely fascinated by this piece of Alaskan history she had never heard of before, despite growing up and living all her life there.

In 1885, Allen and two men trekked up the Copper River into completely unmapped territory and encountered Native Alaskans who had never seen white people. The men nearly died many times from starvation and exposure, but eventually they made it through the mountains, down the Yukon River and to Saint Michael.

Though inspired by the Colonel’s expedition, the novel is influenced by other encounters and ancient beliefs she became aware of over time, and it was then the idea for the novel developed:

And at some point it struck me—what if a landscape actively reflected the beliefs of its people? And when these military men ventured into Alaska, what if they had encountered those beliefs as living, breathing, tangible forces?

030412_2011_TheSnowChil1.jpgAnd in a style true to Eowyn Ivey and familiar from her novel The Snow Child (inspired by both a fairy tale and her own life), The Bright Edge of the World might be described she says, as “documentary meets mythology” where certain things the men encounter, they will fail to be able to explain, despite the fact that they all witnessed them. They are things the natives accept and speak of openly, but that these men have no words to describe and are somewhat reluctant to mention.

It is a novel that charts out the recent history of this relatively untamed wilderness and while recognising the beauty and simplicity of a way of life before armies, prospectors and settlers would change it forever, also looks back and recognises that if it were not for those who went first and documented what they found, little of that way of life would be known about and be able to be appreciated today.

The Colonel’s diaries, like the writings of Meriwether Lewis and Captain Cook, are a kind of cursed treasure.

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Author, Eowyn Ivey

To the Bright Edge of the World is a wonderful introduction to a little known expedition that opened up further the Alaskan frontiers and a delightful story of a well matched couple, who manage to combine their love of nature and the outdoors with the way they live their lives.

Eowyn Ivey manages to inform and entertain in this worthy follow-up to the magical Snow Child, a novel that was always going to be a tough act to follow.

Click Here to Buy a Copy of To The Bright Edge of the World

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy), thank you to the publisher for providing a copy via NetGalley.

A Golden Age (Bangladesh #1) by Tahmima Anam

A Golden AgeDear Husband,
I lost our children today.

What an opening line. Tahmima Anam’s A Golden Age plunges you right into the twin events that form the basis of Rehana’s character as a parent, fiercely protective and determined to have them near her.

Dear Husband,
Our children are no longer our children.

The death of her husband and her fight to keep her children, when her dead husband’s brother and his childless wife claim they could take better care of them.

The first chapter begins with that day in 1959 when the court gives custody to her brother and sister-in-law, who live in Lahore, (West Pakistan) over 1000 miles and an expensive flight away from Dhaka (East Pakistan).

The novel then jumps forward and is set in 1971, in Dhaka, the year of its war of independence, when East separated from West Pakistan and became Bangladesh (when you look at the area on a map, they are geographically separate, with no common border, India lies between them).

East West Pakistan 1971

In 1971, Rehana’s children, Maya and Sohail are university students and back living with their mother after she discovered a way of becoming financially independent without having to remarry. Despite her efforts to protect them, she is unable to stop them becoming involved in the events of the revolution, her son joining a guerrilla group of freedom fighters and her daughter leaving for Calcutta to write press releases and work in nearby refugee camps.

He’ll never make a good husband, she heard Mrs Chowdhury say. Too much politics.

The comment had stung because it was probably true. Lately the children had little time for anything but the struggle. It had started when Sohail entered the university. Ever since ’48, the Pakistani authorities had ruled the eastern wing of the country like a colony. First they tried to force everyone to speak Urdu instead of Bengali. They took the jute money from Bengal and spent it on factories in Karachi and Islamabad. One general after another made promises they had no intention of keeping. The Dhaka university students had been involved in the protests from the very beginning, so it was no surprise Sohail had got caught up, Maya too. Even Rehana could see the logic: what sense did it make to have a country in two halves, posed on either side of India like a pair of horns?

Rather than lose her children again, Rehana supports them and their cause, finding herself on the opposite side of a conflict to her disapproving family who live in West Pakistan.

As she recited the pickle recipe to herself, Rehana wondered what her sisters would make of her at this very moment. Guerillas at Shona. Sewing kathas on the rooftop. Her daughter at rifle practice. The thought of their shocked faces made her want to laugh.She imagined the letter she would write. Dear sisters, she would say. Our countries are at war; yours and mine. We are on different sides now. I am making pickles for the war effort. You see how much I belong here and not to you.

Anam follows the lives of one family and their close neighbours, illustrating how the historical events of that year affected people and changed them. It is loosely based on a similar story told to the author by her grandmother who had been a young widow for ten years already, when the war arrived.

When I first sat down to write A Golden Age, I imagined a war novel on an epic scale. I imagined battle scenes, political rallies, and the grand sweep of history. But after having interviewed more than a hundred survivors of the Bangladesh War for Independence, I realised it was the very small details that always stayed in my mind- the guerilla fighters who exchanged shirts before they went into battle, the women who sewed their best silk saris into blankets for the refugees. I realised I wanted to write a novel about how ordinary people are transformed by war, and once I discovered this, I turned to the story of my maternal grandmother, Mushela Islam, and how she became a revolutionary.

It’s a fabulous and compelling novel of a family disrupted by war, thrown into the dangers of standing up for what they believe is right, influenced by love, betrayed by jealousies and of a young generation’s desire to be part of the establishment of independence for the country they love.

It is also the first novel in the Bangladesh trilogy, the story continues in the books I will be reading next The Good Muslim and the recently published The Bones of Grace.

Tahmima Anam was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, but grew up in Paris, Bangkok and New York. She earned a Ph.D. in Social Anthropology from Harvard University and a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway in London. A Golden Age won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book and was the first of a planned trilogy she hoped would teach people about her native country and the vicious power of war.

In 2013 she was included in the Granta list of 20 best young writers and her follow-up novel The Good Muslim was nominated for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize.

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Buddha in the AtticBuddha in the Attic is a unique novella told in the first person plural “we”,  narrating the story of a group of young women brought from Japan to San Francisco as “picture brides” nearly a century ago.

In eight chapters, that read like a rhythmical chant, it traces the brides’ lives, beginning at the point of departure after leaving their predictable village lives, to the much-anticipated, though often frightening, boat journey and their arrival in San Francisco.

Some of us were so dizzy we could not even walk, and lay in our berths in a dull stupor, unable to remember our own names, not to mention those of our new husbands. Remind me one more time, I am Mrs. Who?

It recounts their first nights as new wives, the hard manual labour in new fields, cleaning house for white women, their struggles to master the language and understand the culture, to experiences in childbirth, as mothers, raising children who will lose their heritage and history, though continue to be marked by it, with the terrifying arrival of war and it damning label of them as the enemy.

At night we sat in our kitchens with our husbands as they pored over the day’s papers, scrutinizing every line, every word, for clues to our fate. We discussed the latest rumours. I hear they’re putting us into work camps to grow food for the troops.

Julie Otsuka has created a unique and original way to narrate the collective story of these Japanese mail order brides and their many experiences around common themes, we imagine the narrator as one of them, though we do not know which of the experiences are hers, as she balances them equally, one beside the other, in repetitive, elegiac prose.

This collective storytelling in effect brings our perception of them together, creating a sense of community, despite the suffering. It s as if, through sharing their experiences in these paragraphs, they become stronger, better able to cope, the author bringing them together. The “we” narrative unites them, we read and feel for them as a group, as if they are together. Otsuka brings them together in a lyrical expression of tasks, sufferings, looks, sighs, memories.

Apart from the initial boat ride over the seas from Japan to the US, there is little joy, they discover they are the lowest of low in the pecking order, equivalent to slaves, seen as quiet and submissive, hard workers.  Some take it in their stride, others will fall by the wayside.

They admired us for our strong backs and nimble hands/ Our stamina. Our discipline. Our docile dispositions. Our unusual ability to tolerate the heat, which on summer days in the melon fields of Brawley could reach 120 degrees. They said that our short stature made us ideally suited for work that required stooping low to the ground. Wherever they put us they were pleased. We had all the virtues of the Chinese – we were hardworking, we were patient, we were unfailingly polite – but none of their vices – we didn’t gamble or smoke opium, we didn’t brawl, we never spat. We were faster than the Filipinos and less arrogant than the Hindus. We were more disciplined than the Koreans. We were soberer than the Mexicans. We were cheaper to feed than the Okies ad Arkies, both the light and the dark. A Japanese can live on a teaspoonful of rice a day. We were the best breed of worker they had ever hired in their lives.

041812_1115_HotelontheC2.gifAnd as if it couldn’t get any worse, war happens, and they discover they are the enemy, they are regarded suspiciously and in time sent away.

This part is narrated by “them”, the communities within which they have existed alongside, though never really been a part of, certainly not appreciated – at least not until the Orkies and Arkies move in, who are not quiet and hard-working like the Japanese.

It is a soulful lament, a long sad narrative of a life of toil and disappointment that is endured, a disappearance that is unwarranted, a tribute to those who dreamed of a better life, who travelled across an ocean believing they would find it only to be betrayed bitterly.

041812_1115_HotelontheC1.jpgIt reminded me, not in style, but in subject of Jamie Ford’s The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, a story of childhood friends in Seattle, second generation immigrants caught up in the brutal reality of being perceived as untrustworthy, having the skin of an enemy.

Their plows weighed more than we did, and were difficult to use, and their horses were twice the size of our horses back home in Japan. We could not harness them without climbing up on orange crates, or standing on stools, and the first time we shouted out to them to move they just stood there snorting and pawing at the ground. Were they deaf? Were they dumb? Or were they just being stubborn? “These are American horse,” our husbands explained. “They don’t understand Japanese.” And so we learned our first words of horse English. “Giddyap” was what you said to make the horse go forward, and “Back” was what you said to make it back up. “Easy” was what you said to make it slow down, and “Whoa” was what you said to make it stop. And after fifty years in America these would be the only words of English some of us could still remember by heart.

Julie Otsuka speaks here (in English) about the inspiration behind Buddha in the Attic, which won the French Prix Femina Etranger 2012 translated as Certaines n’avaient jamais vu la mer for the French edition.

Human Acts by Han Kang tr. Deborah Smith

Han Kang AuthorHuman Acts is the author Han Kang’s attempt to make some kind of peace with the knowledge and images of the Gwangju massacre in South Korea in 1980.

Her family had left that city just one year before, she was 10 years old when the 10 day uprising occurred, but she became aware of it through the overheard, whispered conversations of her family and the silence that surrounded them speaking of the home where they used to live. She learned three young people from that household had lost their lives, one, a boy Dong-Ho probably shared the same room she had lived in for many more years than the short time he had.

What made the events sear into her mind and perhaps permanently affect her psyche, was the forbidden photo book that was given to her family, books circulated secretly to let survivors know what had really happened, a book her parents tried to hide, one she sought out, opening its covers to images she would forever be haunted by.

At night, though, when all the grown-ups were all sitting in the kitchen and I knew I’d be safe…I crept into the main room in search of that book. I scanned every spine until finally I got to the top shelf; I still remember the moment when my gaze fell upon the mutilated face of a young woman, her features slashed through with a bayonet. Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke. Something that, until then, I hadn’t even realised was there.

Asked why she felt motivated to write this book – which begins with the immediate after-effects of the massacre, the very real logistical management of the bodies, the bereaved, mass memorial rituals and the burials and goes on to enter the after death consciousness of one the victims, seeing things from outside his body – she responded that the experience of seeing those images left her scared, afraid of human cruelty, struggling to embrace human beings.

It left her with the two internal questions below, they became her motivation to enter into the experience and try to write her way out of it, spurred on by the events surrounding the 1980 massacre in her birthplace of Gwangju and then the more recent social cleansing that took place in the Yongsan area of Seoul in 2009:

1. How can human beings be so violent?
2. How could people do something against extreme violence?

Human ActsHuman Acts, which seems to me to be an interesting play on words, is divided into six chapters (or Acts), each from the perspective of a different character affected by the massacre and using a variety of narrative voices.

The opening chapter entitled The Boy, 1980 introduces us to Dong-Ho, but seen from outside himself, written in the second person singular narrative voice ‘You’. It is after the initial violence in the square and something has driven this boy, initially searching for the body of his friend who he witnessed being shot on the first day, to volunteer and help out, confronting him in a visceral way with so much more death and tragedy than he had escaped from on the day itself.

We meet the shadow of his friend in the second chapter, as he exits his body, but is unable to escape it, he tries to understand what is happening around him and observes his shattered body and others as they arrive, until something happens that will release him whereupon he senses the death of those close to him, his friend and his sister.

How long do souls linger by the side of their bodies?

Do they really flutter away like some kind of bird? Is that what trembles at the edge of the candle flame?

In another chapter, we learn one of the volunteers from the first chapter is an editor, we meet her again five years later in a short, violent episode, that is revealed in the seven days of healing that follow. Devastatingly brilliant, it delves into the cost of censorship and the risk of being anywhere near it.

She had no faith in humanity. The look in someone’s eyes, the beliefs they espoused, the eloquence with which they did so, were, she knew, no guarantee of anything. She knew that the only life left to her was one hemmed in by niggling doubts and cold questions.

The following chapters skip years, but never the prolonged effect of what happened, the events never leave those scarred by them. The narrative works its way back to the origins of the uprising, to the factory girl, the hard-working, little educated group of young women trying to improve their lot, to obtain fair wages and equal rights. They become bolder when they meet in groups and speak of protesting, they educate themselves and each other and feel part of something, a movement and a feeling they wish to express publicly, with the naive assumption they won’t be arrested or killed.

It brings us back to humanity’s tendency to group, to find common interests, to progress as a team with common interests, to support each other and to the tendency of those in power to feel angry, threatened and violent towards those who have an equal ability to amass support, regardless of the merits of their cause.

Deborah Smith’s translation with all the narrative changes and structural vagaries works so well, it’s only the names and the occasional script that remind us that this was a work written in a language, so very different in its structure and ability than English, a challenge Smith was very much aware of, but overcame in this stunning result. I can only imagine how it must feel to read it in the original language.

Han Kang so immersed herself in these stories and events, that it is as if we are reading the experience of a holocaust survivor, a torture sufferer; we know only a little of what it must be like to live with the memory and the reluctance to want to share it, the heavy price that some pay when they do.

Despite the suffering and proximity to events, I was riveted by this novel all the way through, reading it slowly, endeavouring to expand my awareness to try to comprehend where the artist is taking us, to try to receive the answers too to those questions that have haunted her for so long.

I was constantly racking my brains.

Because I wanted to understand.

Somehow or other, I needed to make sense of what I’d experienced.

I remember Primo Levi’s book If This is A Man: The Truce, a memoir, and his words, which could easily have been a guide for Han Kang herself, in the way she has approached this incredibly moving, heart-shattering novel. It seems a fitting note on which to conclude this review, to recall his words and his intention in setting things down on paper.

052812_1909_IfThisisaMa1.jpgI believe in reason and in discussion as supreme instruments of progress, and therefore I repress hatred even within myself: I prefer justice. Precisely for this reason, when describing the tragic world of Auschwitz, I have deliberately assumed the calm, sober language of the witness, neither the lamenting tones of the victim nor the irate voice of someone who seeks revenge. I thought that my account would be all the more credible and useful the more it appeared objective and the less it sounded overly emotional; only in this way does a witness in matters of justice perform his task, which is that of preparing the ground for the judge. The judges are my readers.

Primo Levi

 

Further Reading

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Note: This book was kindly provided by the publisher Portobello Books.

 

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

Secret Chord

In 2012, Geraldine Brook’s wrote a fascinating book Caleb’s Crossing (review here), about Bethia, the fictional daughter of a Minister and two Wôpanâak tribe members, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk and Joel Iacoombs, all inhabitants of the 200sqkm island of Noepe, (Martha’s Vineyard). Caleb and Joe were the first Native Americans to attend Harvard College, their story so fascinating, it left this reader wanting to know more about them.

So I was looking forward to Geraldine Brook’s next book, for when she inhabits certain characters, her stories can really carry you away while teaching you something of the historical era they inhabit. And here it is, her next book:

The Secret Chord is an imagined narrative of the biblical figure King David, told mostly from the perspective of a shepherd boy whose father David has had murdered in front of the lad; one who becomes his near constant companion, the prophet Natan. He can foresee the future though isn’t always able to share what he knows will unfold. For this he has few friends, no loves and is a dispassionate observer of events.

‘I have had a great length of days, and been many things. A reluctant warrior. A servant, a counselor. Sometimes, perhaps, his friend. And this, also, have I been: a hollow reed through which the breath of truth sounded its discordant notes.’

David is the youngest of a large family of brothers, rejected by his father and siblings over a perceived betrayal that occurs between his parents. His father can’t bear the sight of him and banishes him to the hills where he is easier to forget. He is recalled some years later when his Uncle Shaul, calls for all his nephews to appear before him, wishing to identify and anoint the one he believes will become the future King. It is a turning point for young David, as will be his encounter with the giant Goliath.

David_Playing_the_Harp_1670_Jan_de_Bray

David Playing the Harp, 1670 Jan de Bray

Sadly, his early years of solitude don’t prevent him from becoming another seeker of power and prowess through murder, mayhem and the sublimation of women.

Lover of Yonatan, David marries his sister Michal, both children of Shaul. Killed in battle,  the father intervenes and marries his daughter off to another man, David is not yet King, he is exiled for a while during this period, he seems to forget Michal, who eventually falls in love with the man forced upon her and will have children with him, only to be summoned by David when he becomes King, as if she would then welcome him. He is unforgiving when he discovers that is not the case.

There will be many more wives and children, and little tolerance for criticism of his protege, whose lives run unchecked by discipline or ressect. David also errs when he observes the wife of his loyal warrior Uriah the Hittite, Batsheva, and calls for her, thus provoking a prophecy the King uttered himself in response to a tale Natan told him of a man who suffered a grave injustice, trying to illustrate how wrong he had been in his behaviour. Upon hearing the story of a rich man who stole a poor man’s favourite ewe to slaughter and serve to a guest, David shouts:

‘That man deserves to die! Tell me his name! I’ll see to it that he pays for that lamb four times over, because he was greedy and had no pity.’

‘His name?’ I said quietly. ‘You really want to know who he is, that greedy, pitiless man? That man who has everything?’

‘As the Name lives, so do.’

‘That man is you.’

Statue King David by Nicolas Cordier

Statue King David by Nicolas Cordier

And so the four deathly, dishonourable events that follow are seen in that context of retribution for what happened to Uriah. A daughter raped and dishonoured by her older brother, a revenge killing one brother against the other, a banishment and betrayal by the son leading to his death. The sole light in all this darkness being the son born to Batsheva named Shlomo who after a vision of the boy’s promising future, one he keeps to himself, comes under Natan’s protectorate, inheriting none of the destructive qualities of his

I have to admit, I almost put this down after reaching halfway, the first half was so full of battles, murder, horror, the callousness of men who seek power, who kill or appropriate anything and everything they want or which stands in their way, ruthlessly dispatching the innocent, acquiring wives and concubines like commodities, and without the balance that can be created in a narrative that observes things from the perspective of the main character or one of his great loves.

The second half is redeemed through the character of Shlomo, the youngest son, who shares none of the attributes of his siblings or father and to spend time on his story provides the reader a little reprieve from the rest.

Of course there are novels based on history and legend full of violence, however I believe this novel failed for me due to the choice of narrative perspective. It may have been a missed opportunity not to have shown us the perspective from one of the characters who had something to gain or lose, a character who was emotionally invested in an outcome, male or female – a perspective the reader might try to comprehend or empathise with. Rather, we must observe from the outside, through a character who abandoned his own grieving mother to follow the murderer of his father, one who will develop no close relationships, save David. Instead of being enraptured by it, I was just constantly sickened by the history and behaviours of people.

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