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 Whispering Muse by Sjón tr. Victoria Cribb

Whispering MuseThe Whispering Muse by Icelandic poet, songwriter and novelist Sjón, known for his collaborations with Björk and winner of the Nordic Council Literary Prize (equivalent of the Man Booker Prize) for this novel, was the first book I chose to read for the New year.

I chose it because it’s by an Icelandic author and because it delves into the realm of myth and fable, Alberto Manguel called it:

“an extraordinary, powerful fable – a marvel.”

I loved this gem of a book, which demanded much more from the reader wanting true fulfilment, than the mere 143 pages it was written on.

It is an invitation to embark on the adventures of The Argonauts, as told by the second mate Caeneus, who while voyaging on a ship in 1949 narrates his previous adventures on the ship Argo under Captain Jason in their quest for the Golden Fleece.

“Before embarking on his tales the mate had the habit of drawing a rotten chip of wood from his pocket and holding it to his right ear like a telephone receiver. He would listen to the chip for a minute or two, closing his eyes as if asleep, while under his eyelids his pupils quivered to and fro.”

Not being familiar with the epic poem written by Apollonius of Rhodes, (Hellenistic poet, 3rd century BC) I diverged off course to familiarise myself with its plot, and some of the named characters mentioned, as the book is full of mythological literary references that make a pleasant and fulfilling divergence in its reading, not least of which we learn why Caeneus has much respect for wood, though more is revealed on its significance later.

Set in 1949 as an elderly, eccentric Icelandic man is invited by the father of one of the fans of his work on Nordic culture and fish consumption, to embark on a voyage at sea from Copenhagen to the Black Sea, he recounts his journey as he sees it, while learning about the grand voyage of Caeneus and his many transformations.

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The sources quoted on the last page provide a link to the ancient sparks that ignited the imagination of Sjón. Familiarity with The Argonauts, Medea, Hypsipyle and Metamorphoses would benefit, but the story is equally accessible with superficial knowledge of those stories.

Entertaining, intriguing, intellectually stimulating and fun, what more could one ask for from a book read on the 1st day of the new year 2016.

I scribbled more notes in the margin than I have every done before and I’m still wondering whether the old man might have had a mild dementia, as the latter part of the book has him witnessing some strange, unaccounted for events. Nothing is ever as it seems and a reader’s imagination can contribute as much to the story as one wishes.

“I was thinking: could the voice you detect in the humming of the wood be your own voice? Like the poet who obstinately believes that he is writing about the world but is in reality only telling yet another story about himself?”

The Bees by Laline Paull

I came across this book The Bees by Laline Paull during the Literary Bloghop giveaway. Deb from The Book Stop was offering it as one of her giveaways and I was intrigued by the premise as it is narrated from the point of view of Flora 717, a worker bee!

Bees2The story begins with Flora’s awakening as she becomes conscious of her surroundings and who she is and what she is capable of doing. For not all bees are born equal in The Hive. Flora is a sanitation bee, one of the lowest kin and perceived by others as the most ugly, neither are they capable of speech. Except Flora. She has characteristics that are not like her kin and is fortunate being a mutant bee that she has been allowed to live.

The majority of the bees in the hive are female, except the Drones, the only male bees and the only kin who don’t work. The bee kins have names like Clover, Sage,  Thistle. They mutter a mantra ACCEPT OBEY SERVE around the more senior sisters and priestesses, they do Devotions, are punished with Kindness, communicate what they have learned on the outside in the Dance Hall, including information about the dangers of the Myriad.

“The golden fragrance drew Flora on, until to her shock she realised she had passed unscathed through the scent-gates on the staircase to the highest level of the hive.”

Their talents and work include cleaning the hive, feeding the newborns with Flow, a substance some bees are able to regurgitate, foraging to collect nectar and pollen, working in the Patisserie, grooming the Drones and tending to the Queen.

Bee Castes

The bees possess a collective consciousness and through it they can receive information from the Hive Mind and Energy and Love from their Queen; their thoughts are able to be read by others through their antennae, unless they close them down, which Flora begins to do increasingly as she crosses boundaries and experiences thoughts she knows could endanger her life and others, should any of the  kin-sisters read them.

“Flora tucked her antennae sleek down her back as she advanced her speed. Never again would she leave her channels open in the hive, for any bee to grab and read. Sister Teasel was old and  could no longer work efficiently – but Flora’s wings beat with a new strength. She felt she could fly a hundred leagues  to serve her hive, and the sky streamed with all the scents rising from the wet earth – including mesmerisingly delicious nectar. Flora locked onto it.”

There are threats both within the Hive and outside.  The beehive is like a cult, its members know their place, their role and their boundaries, however everywhere there are risks and dangers both outside and more dangerously, within. ACCEPT, OBEY, SERVE. They live in a symbiotic relationship that ensures the safe function and progression of the hive. When something threatens that relationship, their safe haven is no longer assured.

Laline Paull has channelled an incredible and yet what read like a totally credible life and universe within a beehive, from the perspective of Flora 717. I know little about the bee world, but the environment the author creates is fascinating, intriguing and imaginative with references to monarchy, spiritual devotion, universal instinct and power. It also contains a subtle environmental reference, one that will be recognised by nature lovers everywhere, without compromising the essence of great storytelling.

Labyrinthe of Knossos, Crete

Labyrinth of Knossos, Crete

Intrigued by the book, I was also interested to learn that Laline Paull was inspired by a Bronze Age Minoan Palace.

“The Cretan Minoan civilization dates from 1700BC, and was very sophisticated and sexually egalitarian, if not biased towards women. It was an inspiration for translating a real beehive into a fictional landscape.” Laline Paull

This description of the Labyrinth at Knossos, the largest of the Minoan palaces, gives you an idea of the influence on Flora’s world.

“Knossos is the largest of the Minoan palaces, and like others it is an agglomeration of rooms clustered around a long, rectangular central court. Only the ruins of its foundations have survived, but these reveal a vast interconnected complex of small corridors, staircases and private rooms containing residential quarters, workshops, administrative areas and many different cult centres.” Christopher Berg, Amazeing Art: Wonders of the Ancient World

The Bees is an utterly captivating read and a masterful feat of the imagination, Laline Paull has the reader on a knife-edge, knowing the dangers Flora 717 faces, yet her discretions feel necessary and we will her to continue, to survive and overcome all the challenges she faces.

I started it slowly and have since read others did find it is a slow start, however once into it, I could not put it down, it has been one of the best and most original reads of 2014 for me.

Arctic Dreams – Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape by Barry Lopez

“Sometimes we need a story more than food to stay alive.”

Barry Lopez

Valorie Hallorin

This quote sits on the home page of one my favourite blogs, Books Can Save A Life and it is also where I came across the non-fiction writer Barry Lopez. Not just in this quote, but in her reviews of a number of his collections, reading about Barry Lopez makes me want to read every book he has written.

From the essays I review below, it may appear he is a nature writer, but he can not be categorised so easily, he  writes about humanity and could I am sure turn his pen towards any subject and make it an engaging read.

About This Life

Valories shares this quote from her review of About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory and the following conversation gives us a flavour of the diversity of his observations and subsequent learnings about life.

In the introduction to his essay collection About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, Barry Lopez tells of meeting a man on a plane who asked what words of advice he could pass on to his teen-age daughter, who wanted to be a writer. This is what Lopez said:

She must read, and her choices should be whatever she is drawn to.

She should read the classics, too, but she’ll have to work harder to find stories of heroism, love, and our noblest values that are written by women.

Second, she must “become someone” and “speak to us from within those beliefs.”

Third, he advised that she “separate herself from the familiar.” After exploring other places and meeting a diversity of people, she’ll know why she loves the familiar and share this knowledge through her writing.

Arctic dreamsHowever, it was her review Arctic Dreams – gathering words that had me chasing up this book, because it was not only a powerful book of nature essays, but as she says, it is a source of “the most dazzling and poetic passages about the natural world you’ll ever encounter.”

Valorie is “into words” and does Lexicon Practice, inspired by the author of The Writer’s Portable Mentor, Pricilla Long. Lexicon Practice involves compiling new words encountered in books into a notebook, noting the original sentence and creating a new one. It inspires our vocabulary which may otherwise degenerate into those overused phrases we read every day in various media. And Barry Lopez exposes us to an abundance of wonderful new words!

Arctic Dreams was originally published in 1986 and won the US National Book Award for non-fiction. It is a compilation of around 10 essays, which can be read separately, each one focusing on a different subject, as Lopez focuses on the inhabitants, visitors and four-legged, two-winged migrants of a frozen territory in the North.

Reading his work is a little like being mesmerised by a compelling narrator in a nature documentary, for it is not just the images of the animals and the landscape that are interesting, but his recounting philosophical thoughts of our interaction with nature and  local populations, whether they are polar bears, seals or Arctic peoples.

Narwhal

The Narwhal

I don’t think I have ever highlighted so many passages in one book, as I have in Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, it is a privilege to walk in his footsteps, to figuratively look over his shoulder and see inside a compassionate mind as he whispers words onto the page of this incredible collection of observations of natural life.

I recognise that change that can come over us, when we spend long enough in an environment completely foreign to our norm, long enough that our behaviour starts to change, something primal occurs and so it is no surprise to me when Lopez mentions that on his evening walks, he starts bowing to the birds he encounters. This ritual will inspire his own questions into how humanity imagines the landscapes they are in and how in turn the land shapes the imaginations of the people who dwell within it. And so he journeys into the unknown to find out.

“I took to bowing on these evening walks. I would bow slightly with my hands in my pockets, towards the birds and the evidence of life in their nests – because of their fecundity, unexpected in this remote region, and because of the serene arctic light that came down over the land like breath, like breathing.”

muskox

Musk-oxen

And so I find myself immersed in chapters that expound on characteristics and behaviour of musk-oxen, polar bears, the narwhal, the influence and importance of ice and light, the great migrations and more.

“Watching the animals come and go, and feeling the land swell up to meet them and then feeling it grow still at their departure, I came to think of the migrations as breath, as the land breathing. In spring a great inhalation of light and animals. The long-bated breath of summer. And an exhalation that propelled them all south in the fall.”

Barry Lopez has a unique voice, on the page and in person. Even you never read his words in a book, listen to him here speaking for less than two minutes about the gift of story in our lives.

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

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

IshiguroI find Kazuo Ishiguro unpredictable, which could be why I am always intrigued to read his work, I loved his recent collection of short stories Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, yet I could not finish and had to abandon The Unconsoled and sadly I feel ambivalent about Never Let Me Go, though I do want to see how it was put to film.

It is not a book to share much about the plot, as virtually anything said might spoil the reading experience, but it is effectively a coming of age story centred around the character of Kathy, from her teenage into young adult years, from the last year she and others lived in a boarding school until the early days of her first job as a carer.  She looks back and analyses that time in an effort to understand the significance of minor details and events in their lives and her friendships with Ruth and Tommy.

I think my ambivalence stems from what seemed like restraint from delving into the depths of the characters, which could be a consequence of both the plot and the narrative form, however in my opinion, this constituted a weakness and I remained far too conscious of this lack all the way through reading. The repetitive nature of the narrative style also contributed to this and I found it annoying, it was a tool that could have intrigued, but when it didn’t succeed to do that for this reader, it became frustrating.

It is telling that I did not highlight any paragraphs or phrases as I read and that it took two weeks to read it. As you can see from the photo above, taken at the airport in Marseille, I finally finished it during a two-hour flight!

Just Dive In - My early morning dip at Sausset-les-Pins this summer

Just Dive In – My early morning dip at Sausset-les-Pins this summer

However, do not let me put you off. I recommend if you are a fan of Ishiguro that you just dive in and read it without referring to any reviews and remember that the majority of readers who have already read this book, rate it highly. I am an anomaly. I am looking forward to his next work and still have fond memories of that short story collection and am reassured in the knowledge that he is capable of work that is much more my kind of thing.

Episode 10: The Move Down Under and a Shocking Diagnosis

Thinking that a move would give us more family time and offer a less stressful lifestyle, we left London behind and travelled half way around the planet to New Zealand, where most of my family still live today. I had been away for many years and hadn’t expected to return, however now that I was back, everything looked and felt familiar and it wasn’t long before we had moved into a house in the city and I had found a full-time job.

Not quite that large an island, Allia’s interpretation of somewhere very far away.
Putting New Zealand on the Map!

Initially we spent time staying at my parent’s home on the sheep farm they had lived for twenty years. It was wonderful to be there with Allia, for her to spend time around her grandparents and for them to get to know and love her.

Being a long way from the nearest town and a very windy road to get in and out, the forced isolation was a little more difficult for my husband to endure, but he was fascinated by the workings of the farm and in particular the shearing shed when it was in full working motion. Not so for me, years of spending school holidays working in that intense, stinking, hot and competitive environment (shearers get paid per sheep shorn, not by the hour) sweeping away wool, dags (sheep shit) and the occasional maggot were something I felt no nostalgia for at all.

It seemed to be good timing to have returned at this time as my mother was unwell, so I was able to go with her to her appointments and provide support. Good timing was an under-statement; she had lost a lot of weight and was having problems with her balance. She was only 59-years-old but seemed to have entered what looked like old age in an awful hurry.

Of course it wasn’t old age. By the time it was understood that it also wasn’t asthma or some diet related weight loss and she had been for a follow-up MRI scan, we found ourselves sitting in an office, opposite an oncologist who mumbled something that sounded like “three weeks”.

“Excuse me”, what did you say? I blurted out.

“The cancer is in the lungs, but it has spread to the kidneys and other organs and those lumps in the neck and brain are tumours. In the state that your mother is in now, I would say that three weeks is being optimistic.”

“But isn’t there anything we can do?”

“Yes, we can start chemotherapy to try to slow down the rapid advance of the cancer and the radiation treatment should be able to remove those tumours so you should actually start feeling better and get your balance back” he said looking at my mother.

We were both stunned. I wanted to protest and say hey that’s not fair, you can’t wait all this time knowing something isn’t quite right, you know it was more than three weeks that we have been worrying about this and we survived that, only to hand out a three-week life card as if you are prescribing community service. This is an unfair sentence being handed out for absolutely no crime!

Completely and utterly helpless, we sat and listened to what would happen in the next few days. I don’t recall much of what he said, but I remember my mother turning to me with that familiar, uncompromising look in her eye and saying, “I’m going to fight this.”

Yes, she would fight death as she had fought life; like every other great challenge that had faced her, she never gave up without a fight. But I looked at the thin frame of a woman she had become and knew that this was a fight she was not going to win. Not this time.

Next Up: in A Silent Education: Our Quiet Challenge in Provence

Episode 11: Adapting to a New Rhythm and Creating Lasting Memories

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Episode 8: Ten Months of Bliss and Facing a Return to Work

Once over that initial hurdle, Allia blossomed and apart from that long scar, there was nothing to indicate there had ever been a problem. She was a happy, contented baby who loved to smile and engage with those around her, especially the band of eight and nine-year-old girls who lived in our apartment building and were frequent visitors.

For the first ten months I was able to stay at home with her, working a little, practicing aromatherapy, however I knew it was going to be necessary to find another full-time job, living in London demands it, all the more so when there is an extra mouth to feed.

Until this precious little girl came into my life, I never really questioned working long hours or weekends and I had thrived on the opportunity to travel with work. Now, I couldn’t think of anything worse – to leave this child behind, absolutely not, she had extinguished my desire to seek out the unknown, I found myself dreaming of safer pastures, the more familiar.

For the first time in eight years of living in London, the city that I thought had become my second home, I thought the unthinkable – maybe it was time to return to New Zealand?

P.S. This is what Allia came up with when I said this episode was about us having 10 months of fun times hanging out together, going to the park etc, I just love this picture, although my husband says that first one isn’t true! But her imagination is brilliant. Enjoy.

Next Up: in A Silent Education: Our Quiet Challenge in Provence

Episode 9: She Speaks the Language of Birds

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