If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

If Beale Street Could Talk is the first work by James Baldwin that I have read. It was the first work he wrote after he moved to St Paul de Vence in the south of France, where he would pass the last 17 years of his life.

He also wrote his first two novels at the beginning of his literary career, Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room, along with his best-known collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son during a nine-year period he lived in Paris.

When Jordan Elgrably of The Paris Review asked why he left the United States said:

I was broke. I got to Paris with forty dollars in my pocket, but I had to get out of New York. My reflexes were tormented by the plight of other people. Reading had taken me away for long periods at a time, yet I still had to deal with the streets and the authorities and the cold. My luck was running out. I was going to go to jail, I was going to kill somebody or be killed. My best friend had committed suicide two years earlier, jumping off the George Washington Bridge.

He found it increasingly difficult to be a witness to life in America so perhaps France provided him the distance from which to write. With Beale Street he was able to immerse in a love story, bringing out the emotional bonds that keep a family together, that give them something extra, to not just survive, but overcome the harsh, unjust realities of everyday life in America for black people.

The novel revolves around childhood sweethearts, 19-year-old Tish and 22-year-old Fonny. We meet them as she visits him in prison.

I don’t know why people always look down when they talk through a telephone, but they always do. You have to remember to look up at the person you’re talking to.

I always remember now, because he’s in jail and I love his eyes and every time I see him I’m afraid I’ll never see him again. So I pick up the phone as soon as I’m there and I keep looking up at him.

Interspersed with the regular visits, are flash-backs to childhood and the moment their friendship evolved to something deeper. Fonny takes Tish to his basement pad where he has set up a woodwork studio, his deepest passion is sculpting wood and stone, he wants to show her and for her to understand its importance to him.

After asking her to marry him, they’d looked for loft space together, they were planning a future together, when suddenly robbed of it by a false accusation.  His alibi’s are discredited and he sinks into despair, but for her visits.

Though heartbroken, she is emboldened by her family, by the adamant support of her sister, who finds them a good lawyer, her mother, who travels to Porto Rico to confront the accuser, and her father, who works extra shifts to raise funds for Fonny’s bail.

It is the words, actions and support of the family that keep everyone from falling apart, they are a stalwart to Fonny especially, as his family crack under the pressure of a mother converted to a conservative faith prone to judgement and disappointment, more concerned about her own reputation than the innocence of her son.

It is interesting that Baldwin chose to narrate the novel from Tish’s perspective, and though it may have provoked criticism, it is perhaps one injustice that he sought to right – allowing the voice of a young black woman to rise and be heard.

Sharon, her mother, was a fabulous character. So in touch with her deepest roots, she is able to appease her daughter when she fearfully shares news of her pregnancy:

‘Tish’, she said, ‘when we was first brought here, the white man he didn’t give us no preachers to say words over us before we had our babies. And you and Fonny be together right now, married or not, wasn’t, wasn’t for that same damn white man. So let me tell you what you got to do. You got to think about that baby. You got to hold onto that baby, don’t care what else happens or doesn’t happen. You got to do that. Can’t nobody else do that for you. And the rest of us, well, we going to hold on to you. And we going to get Fonny out. Don’t you worry. I know it’s hard – but don’t you worry. And that baby be the best thing that ever happened to Fonny. He needs that baby. It going to give a whole lot of courage.’

Right there, the mother reinforces stability in their lives and I can’t help but be aware of the contrast, having just read the memoir An Affair With My Mother of a baby conceived within a culture that shame(s)d its daughters for pregnancy outside of wedlock, destroying lives, dividing families, creating unnecessary drama. This action and steadfast support by Sharon is a protest against the inherent culture and inherited religious beliefs, over which love and the family bond will prevail. It is a powerful matriarchal triumph, one that reaches far back in ancestral memory.

So the family encounter difficult circumstances and yet their ability to be there for each other sees them though and even Fonny is swept up in this wave of support, nourished by it, even though he has moments of sliding into darkness, as is human. By contrast, his family is fragmented, the mother and daughters reject the offer of unity offered by Joseph and Sharon, the father Frank gets it and tries to support them, to be part of this newly extended family, but without the strength of an unconditional bond within his own, he is left vulnerable.

James Baldwin in France

I think Baldwin succeeds if it was his intention to write about the powerful effect of love and family, in their ability to carry each other through difficult times, when they refuse to resort to blame (of themselves or others) or judgement, when they hold each other up and decide to be a force together and not give in to destructive tendencies.

I’ve just seen the film at our local cinema. It’s challenging to watch to a film you are still reflecting on reading.

In a recent interview, Director Barry Jenkins talked about Baldwin’s work:

I chose Beale Street because I felt the novel, more than any of his other works, represented the perfect blend of Baldwin’s dual obsessions with romance and social critique, as sensual a depiction of love as it is a biting observation of systemic injustice.

I thought the movie was a beautiful and moving depiction of the story, although my big takeaways from the book about that family bond, (especially the mother to the daughter) weren’t as strong in the film. Some of the most important lines I’d noted (and went back to check) were taken from the mother and given to the father, which surprised me, as it shifted the dynamic and removed what for me had been a significant and empowering statement coming from the mother (supported by the father). Passing those lines to the father risked putting the mother back into a supporting role, and lessened the matriarchal force Baldwin imbued her with.

The other significant moment in the book for me, which I’m not sure comes across in the film with quite the same impact, is a moment near the end where there is a change in Fonny, observed here by Tish, which you’ll have to read to find out more:

“- something quite strange, altogether wonderful, happens in him…”

All the more reason, even if you’ve seen the film, to get a copy of the book! And all that said, I’d recommend both without hesitation.

Buy a Copy of Beale Street via Book Depository

Have you read James Baldwin? Do you have a favourite?

Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L.McFadden

I’ve been aware of Bernice McFadden’s name as a writer I might enjoy, so when I saw her latest novel Praise Song for the Butterflies chosen as the monthly read by the Literary Fiction by People of Colour group on Goodreads, I decided to read along in February, to benefit from the opportunity to engage with other readers and to see their questions being answered by the author, about some of the choices she made while writing the book.

Interested in the inspiration for writing a novel, this one intrigued me; Bernice McFadden visited Ghana in 2007 and while she was there met two women who told her about a rehabilitation centre and a tradition referred to as trokosi, which they explained and suggested she write a book about, an idea she initially laughed at, but after researching the practice, a story began to emerge that she eventually pursued.

The novel is set in a fictional nation of Ukemby (avoiding comparison with the geography and customs of a specific African country), the first two pages provide a brief history of this fictional land, with its recent colonialist history, new schools, a period of outlawing African God worship or speaking local languages and their subsequent independence, freeing people to  openly practice older customs and traditions.

Shrine  slavery was one of the  traditions that ascended from the darkness back into the light.

A slim 3 page chapter entitled AFTER New York City 2009,  sets the reader on edge wondering what happened to lead to that collision of events, as the first provocative sentence opens with:

On the morning of the day she killed him, the sun sat high and white in a sky washed clean of clouds by an early-morning downpour.

From there we move into BEFORE, Port Masi, Ukemby  1978 – 1985. The novel gripped me from its opening pages and made me not want to do anything but stay with young Abeo as if to hasten her escape from the wretched situation superstition put her in.

We know from the blurb that she is going to be sacrificed by her father, under pressure from his mother, to atone for a curse believed to have been passed down from their ancestors.  Until that moment, it seems impossible, given the early success and education of her parents, I read those initial pages, wondering what it could be that changed the good fortune of this happy family.

When Aunt Serafine comes to visit from New York, the family take a trip across the border to Ghana, and visit the slave castle. After debating whether or not it is appropriate to take young Abeo, her mother relents and she joins them. A sense of foreboding lurks as they descend into the dark interior of the castle, her imagination running rife.

What struck fear into her young heart  was the history that lay beyond the wooden panels and brass hardware. Morris had revived history and little Abeo was finding it hard to distinguish between the now and what had been.  Morris reached for the door handle and Abeo’s breath caught in her throat.  She ordered her eyes to close, but they refused, and so she  braced herself for the vision of the ship bobbing on the ocean, its deck teeming with shackled cargo.

Elmina, Slave Castle, Ghana

It’s when things go wrong, when the family’s luck changes and the son comes under the undue influence of his mother (I recall this similarly in Ayobami Adebayo’s excellent Stay With Me ) that relationships get tested, families risk disintegrating and wives become disempowered.

When Abeo’s family falls on hard times, her father, in his desperation begins to doubt himself and the system that should bring justice. Instead he is lead to follow the old ways, thinking it will bring him peace of mind. In an impulsive moment, seized by and giving in to terror, he does the unthinkable, delivering his daughter to a religious shrine.

It was 1985; Abeo was nine years, seven months and three days old.

I worried the story was going to depict brutality, especially after recently reading House of Stone, where Novuyo Rosa Tshuma exposes the reader to the graphic horror of Gukurahundi, in newly independent Zimbabwe, however I was relieved to discover that McFadden spares us the terror if not the cruelty, we imagine what happened, though thankfully there’s no visceral portrayal. One reader asked why she chose to spare readers this, suggesting her method was more like leading a reader by the hand to the truth rather than holding them by the head to something too awful to take in.

In my earlier works I was much more graphic with my descriptions of horrific events. I think pulling back from that had much to do with me seeing so much violence against Black people on the news and social media platforms. Subjecting my character, myself or the reader didn’t seem to serve anyone involved.

Interested in the title, I looked up ‘Praise Song’ and learned it is one of the most widely used poetic forms in African literature; described as ‘a series of laudatory epithets applied to gods, men, animals, plants, and towns that capture the essence of the object being praised’.

It becomes a form of metaphor, the butterfly a symbol of transformation and rebirth;  in the novel Duma, the oldest of the priest’s sons rips a newspaper to shreds, intending to ignore what has been read inside it, the pieces are picked up by a gust of wind, catching the girls’ eyes, seen as butterflies. Though an illusion, it signifies a turning point, a sign of hope, of liberation, they are experiencing life in one form and soon will transform.

Duma folded the newspaper and looked directly into his father’s milky eyes. “It means the government has outlawed what we do here, . It means no more trokosi.

Abeo glanced up and for one fleeting moment her spirit soared. Indeed, at that distance, the bits of newspaper did appear to be a cluster of white butterflies. Abeo watched until the air went still and the false butterflies dropped out of sight.

It was 1998 and Abeo was twenty-two years old, eight months and seventeen days old.

The characters are well depicted, the surroundings set the reader’s imagination alight, we’re taken on a journey, introduced to a terrifying ritual that morphs into another form of traditional domination, however there are shining lights, hope has been gifted a role to play and Abeo has been permitted to interact with it.

I loved the natural, gifted storytelling of this novel, the historical exploration and psychological insight and in particular that she was able to create a scenario that showed us what a healing transformation might look like in the form of resilience.

Bernice McFadden is the author of nine critically acclaimed novels including Sugar, Loving Donovan, Nowhere is a Place, The Warmest December, Gathering of Waters and The Book of Harlan (winner of American Book Award and NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, Fiction). A four-time Hurston/Wright Legacy Award finalist, I’ll definitely be reading more of her work.

This is a story of survival and triumph.  I want people to understand that their circumstances don’t always, and shouldn’t always, define their entire lives.

Further Reading

Ancestral Roots:  Bernice L. McFadden sings an enslaved black woman’s song, Interview by Evette Dione

“The interest is not the fact of slavery, the interest is what happens internally, emotionally, psychologically, when you are in fact enslaved and what you do in order to transcend that circumstance.” Toni Morrison

Have you read any novels by Bernice McFadden? Do you have a favourite?

House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (2018) Zimbabwe

Bukhosi, 17 years old, has gone missing. His father, Abed, and his mother, Agnes, cling to the hope that he has run away rather than been murdered by government thugs, but only the lodger seems to have any idea. Zamani has lived in the spare room for years now. Quiet, polite, well-read and well-heeled, he’s almost part of the family – but almost isn’t quite good enough for Zamani.

Cajoling, coaxing and coercing Abed and Agnes into revealing their sometimes tender, often brutal life stories, Zamani aims to steep himself in borrowed family history, so that he can fully inherit and inhabit its uncertain future.

House of Stone is a novel in three parts, Book One centres around Zamani’s determination to befriend his landlord Abed, accompanying him in his misery as he searches for his son, applying subtle, manipulative, and ultimately devastating pressure on him, prising Abed’s family history open, in order to find a way in. In Book Two his focus is on converting Mama Agnes and the final slim Book Three are a series of revelations.

We know from the opening pages that Zamani and Bukhosi were together when he disappeared, along with their friend and mentor Dumo, though nothing of what we know is ever shared with Abed and Agnes.

I’m the one who’s survived and he’s the one who’s disappeared, thanks to those mad antics of his. Poof! Like a spoko. He too was gobbled up by one of those police vans the day of the Mthwakzi rally, and has not been regurgitated since.

Like Bukhosi, I doubt I’ll ever see Dumo again. It was he who taught me that a man could remake himself by remaking his past. So when Abednego said I was like a son to him and that he would, from then on, call me his surrogate son, I felt a swell of pride and the prick of opportunity. Perhaps, as my surrogate father’s son, I can be blessed with sole familial affection and, in this way, finally powder away the horrors of my own murky hi-story bequeathed to me by parents I never knew.

As he draws the personal and family history out of Abed and Agnes, we traverse 50 tumultuous years in the region, years Abed would prefer not to remember, they contain his happiest and most traumatic memories, as the country witnesses the death of colonial Rhodesia and the bloody birth of modern Zimbabwe.

It’s a discomforting read, the author doesn’t hold back with the detail, some scenes come at you so quickly, you don’t have time to look away. In that respect I remembered the visceral detail of a novel I couldn’t finish, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Somehow, despite those scenes, I was able to continue with this book, but I was put into a state of literary vigilance for much of it, which wasn’t always comfortable. Humanity showed itself to be unpredictable and despicable in its newfound possession of unregulated power. It was a bittersweet victory that saw the introduction of a despot leader and made an entire population feel unsafe.

One of the periods we are taken back to was the Gukurahundi, (a series of massacres of Ndebele civilians carried out by the Zimbabwe National Army from early 1983 to late 1987. It derives from a Shona language term which loosely translates to “the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains”). I hadn’t heard of this term, and in the novel the younger generation hadn’t either. Zamani pressures Abed to tell him:

Isn’t this the hi-story Bukhosi always wanted to know, before he went missing? For which he got a beating whenever he asked our father ‘Baba, what happened in the ’80s, what was the Gukurahundi?

That was the Gukurahundi, Bukhosi. It was the lead rain of our new country, Zimbabwe, sent to wash away us, the chaff. It was the state-sponsored murder of twenty thousand of your kin. How was our father to tell you that? How was he to tell you that within that number were the only two people he ever really loved?

On reading this, I was compelled to look it up, it’s not a story you want to linger on, nor are they images you want to see. You don’t have to read far to learn that none of the perpetrators have been held accountable for the atrocities committed. Those implicated include many who became or are now senior political figures in the Zimbabwean government.

In an interview, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma when asked about setting her novel amidst the backdrop of this massacre, said:

“We speak about the Liberation War all the time. But when it comes to the genocide, it is always a matter of shutting it down,” she says, adding that by not addressing the psychological, social and communal issues, by not acknowledging people have died, healing cannot begin.

House of Stone “dzimba dza mabwe” or “Zimbabwe” in Shona comes from her personal quest to learn more about that dark spot in modern Zimbabwean history, the ethnic cleansing/genocide carried out against the Ndebele people in the early 1980s after the liberation struggle. The strengths of her characters come from an immersion into reading first hand personal accounts of people who survived that period, works that are not available in Zimbabwe, that she was able to access from the Iowa University library when she was studying her MFA.

Interested in the question of whether it is possible for a person, or a nation to rewrite itself, it will become the central motive of her flawed protagonist Zamani and finds that present day Zimbabwe has some parallels. Since the political coup that recently ousted Robert Mugabe, a new President has announced to the population that the past is dead.

When Tshuma began asking questions about the Gukurahundi of her immediate family, including her mother and Uncle, they were visibly upset – people continue to be haunted, they haven’t found closure for the dead, nor been able to process their experiences to heal from them.

I was reminded of the experience of reading Han Kang’s Human Acts, a powerful novel that centered around the little known Gwangju massacre in South Korea in 1980, that she discovered by accident and became haunted by. It left her with pressing questions she explored through the novel.

Despite the traumatic events that haunt or affect every character, the plot of House of Stone moves swiftly with its well fleshed out characters, sense of mystery, its rage, outrage and her own brand of wit – including the hypocritical Reverend who Zamani doesn’t trust.

Did that Reverend Nobody really think he could take me on? Did he really think he could come out as the hero in all of this, mooching off my hard work, destroying my relations with my surrogate family.

It’s an accomplished novel that confronts harsh truths and pursues questions about the reinvention of a nation and the individual. A gifted storyteller who has been able to weave the essence of those personal narratives into richly formed characters that goes some way towards acknowledging a history no-one will talk about. Bereft of redemption, a feeling that pervades the narrative and one that seems to hold many in its grip today worldwide.

The interview below provides an interesting addition to the reading experience, exploring the fictitious and the personal – in particular given that some of the perpetrators of those traumatic events still hold positions of power today.

Further Reading/Listening:

rFi The World And All Its Voices: Honoring those who lived through Zimbabwe’s Gukurahundi in Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s novel, House of Stone

Review:  Lisa Hill of ANZLitLovers

Buy a Copy via Book Depository

Teethmarks on My Tongue by Eileen Battersby

Eileen Battersby (1958-2018) was a renowned literary critic and reviewer, my favourite, probably the only one I knew by name, reputation and avidly followed. It wasn’t just for her excellent reviews, it was because she read so much further outside of the English language and culture than any other, and because she might as easily refer back to ancient myths and classics as she would to contemporary translations in her far-reaching analysis and commentary on literature.

Sadly, tragically, two days before Christmas, at the age of 60, she died following a freak road accident in Ireland, a terrible loss to her family, friends and all those who’d come to respect and enjoy her thoughts on literature. As the author John Banville wrote,

“she was a champion of the overlooked and undervalued…a shining light in the world of letters”

Her last two reviews for The Guardian linked below, a testament to that diversity, were novels by writers from elsewhere, one of them also a translation; Tommy Wieringa’s (one of the most important Dutch literary writers of the last decade) novella, The Death of Murat Idrissi (translated by Sam Garrett) and rising literary star, Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma’s latest An Orchestra of Minorities.

Having so recently separated from the Irish Times she was at the beginning of a new era, she’d begun writing reviews for the FT, one of her last the English translation of Walter Kempowski’s Homeland and the LARB (Los Angeles Review of Books), and was working on a literary Western, a genre it is said she was fascinated by.

No doubt she was wary of putting her own writing out there to be judged, just as many authors she interviewed had been wary of her unforgiving yet erudite turn of phrase. When Teethmarks on My Tongue was first launched in Ireland in 2016, Prof. Jennny Williams praised Battersby’s literary criticism, which had an international impact, acknowledging:

It was a special author who could cross the “shark-infested waters” between being a literary critic and a novelist.

Battersby was awarded honorary membership of the Irish Translators and Interpreters (ITIA) group in 2016 for her work raising awareness of translated novels and of translation in general, which plays an essential role in ensuring access to the work of novelists in other languages.

Though Californian by birth she came to Ireland with her family as a teenager and stayed, studying English literature at University College Dublin, working many years for the Irish Times, living most of her adult life in Ireland. She was known for her love of animals, especially horses and dogs, a significant feature in her novel and her long, engaging telephone conversations, always delighted to share her literary thoughts to a willing listener.

Review

Teethmarks on My Tongue is a coming-of-age story about teenage Helen, the only child of a wealthy Southern family, who in the opening pages witnesses her mother’s death broadcast on television, shot by a mentally ill lover.  Living on an esteemed property in Richmond, Virginia, she passes her free time in the company of horses or immersing herself in her intellectual passion, the science of astronomy, the solar system.

Father and daughter though shocked, are relatively unmoved by this death, their lack of empathy makes for bizarre reading, they seem somewhat removed from reality, making me wonder if is it supposed to be satire, particularly as the story around the murderer quickly becomes farcical and the media’s indifferent treatment of the family seems almost pointed, given the author’s years of proximity to that profession, I do wonder.

I imagine the reporters busy at their desks, yanking and pulling at the stuff of people’s lives. Making up stories that exaggerated the wrung-out facts and then just ruthlessly leaving the truth for dead, along with the raw and tender feelings of those who had been left behind.

In Part 2, now 18, she departs for Europe alone. Her father, a vet and breeder, sold the horse she called Galileo to a French buyer, reminding her it had never been hers. He denied she was a scientist, saying her interest was the history of science not quite the same as being a physicist. She lived among them, had access to everything, but the valuable animal was denied her and so too it seemed her association with science. Galileo was sent to France, and so she sends herself there too, depriving her father of them both.

I wanted to show Father that I was not content with simply taking whatever I wanted as it had apparently seemed to him. No, it was vital to prove, to him and to me, that I was capable of rational thought and had revised my old notion of who I was, now that Father had destroyed all of that for me.

In Paris she indulges her love of art, spending hours observing paintings, has a ghastly experience with an older man and is catapulted into the next experience by her foolish, misguided courage. Rescuing a stray dog she names Hector sets her on a mission to find a job in the countryside. Finally, an animal she can care for and own, despite the complications he brings to her uncertain future.

Mother always maintained that my “gray matter” as she called it would compensate for my physical shortcomings, my peculiar eyes … I am sure she had never meant to hurt my feelings and instead had given me a kind of confidence; no a resilience. That is what I had in abundance, resilience, very useful when balancing my standard issue face and ill-matched eyes, and, hopefully the dreams Father had belittled but which I would salvage.

In Part 3 she is working on a horse farm in the Loire valley with Hector in tow, riding horses to earn her keep, trying to figure out the characters who live there, blind to the relationships between people, somewhat aloof. We too are blind and slow to realise these connections, limited to seeing through her dual-coloured eyes that discover too late the reality.

It’s a voyage through late youth, and through the unknown countries and cultures of France and Germany (with the exception of their art, of which she has significant intellectual knowledge and insight), the novel and its main character observe well, comfortable analysing experiences yet it lacks emotional depth, things happen which surprise the reader because Helen doesn’t exhibit much emotion except in relation to Hector; human connections are stilted, surprising; she figures things out rather than feels them.

On realising she may be loved, or in love with one of the employees, Mathieu:

Delightful as it all was, a part of me still felt wary. It’s in my nature, always was; the doubts along with my stupid habit of putting everything said or done of any significance under the imaginary microscope in my mind.

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

The cryptic title finally appears near the end and I wonder if it might be a metaphor for the author writing a book, since she was more renowned for her criticism than her creativity.

In the novel it is ‘Wanderer above the sea of Fog’, a painting by Caspar David Friedrich she seeks, the German Romantic painter of loneliness; she follows a trail of his works from Paris to Hamburg to Berlin.

“Had I missed out on seeing the picture I would have sobbed, bitten down hard, teethmarks on my tongue, and then would have devised an alternative plan.”

While reminiscing on the paintings she views, we see how well informed and sensitive she is to finding solace and understanding through art, even if lacking it in life, it is here she seems able to reach inside and feel. When she finally locates the painting, she wonders:

What was going through the mind of the wanderer as he gazed out over the abyss? His life, his future … eternity, or was he just realising how far he had climbed?

A quintessential Romantic artwork, it was a reaction against pre-revolutionary European values of logic, rationality and order, as writers, artists and musicians turned towards emotion, imagination, and the sublime for inspiration. To nature. Battersby’s protagonist ponders her own life’s meaning as she hovers between those two perspectives and leads us towards the novel’s shocking denouement.

It’s a novel that makes you think because of that aspect of her character that is missing, still evolving, nowhere is that more alarming than with its surprising ending, as she reaches the end of another phase of her journey, as much in her head, if not more, than when she began.

In this respect, it’s almost the anti-thesis of the hero’s journey, an anti-myth, suggesting that sometimes humans don’t learn from their experiences, don’t evolve, they become more entrenched in their own way of being, of perceiving and then life comes along and slaps them.

Further Reading

Remembering Eileen Battersby by Neil Belton, Editor in chief, Head of Zeus

Remembering Eileen Battersby, by Susan Curtis, LARB (Los Angeles Review of Books)

The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa – review

An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma review – a stunning leap forwards

Buy a Copy via BookDepository

Nothing But Dust by Sandrine Collette (France) tr. Alison Anderson

As soon as I saw the cover of Sandrine Collette’s Nothing But Dust I wanted to read this book. I didn’t know what genre it was, but it was published by Europa Editions; all the books they choose to publish that I have read have been excellent.

From the description, a family of four boys working a farm after their father’s departure, ruled by a tyrannical mother, lived out on an arid, lonely Patagonian steppe, mounting family tensions…

And comparisons like these:

Reminiscent of Coetzee’s Disgrace, Chatwin’s In Patagonia, the Dust Bowl novels of Steinbeck, the writing of Cormac McCarthy, and the southern gothic of William Faulkner, Nothing But Dust is a gripping, unsentimental, ultimately majestic story about life in one the most inhospitable places on Earth.

Now I haven’t read Chatwin or Faulkner, and I don’t often agree with book comparisons, however reading this book did remind me of Cormac McCarthy’s excellent Border Trilogy, in particular his coming of age novel All the Pretty Horses, which I loved.

We know how tough and relentless life is, and is going to continue to be from the opening pages as the elder twin brothers carry out their favourite cruel tricks on the youngest brother Raphael; they’re fearful of the mother, but know she won’t intervene, her ideas on how to raise boys doesn’t include protecting or consoling them. Young Raphael becomes the son the reader will sympathise with and wish things for, throughout this thrilling novel.

Because he was the youngest, his brothers had gotten into the habit of chasing him around the house on horseback when their mother wasn’t watching. As soon as the twins had grown strong enough to grab him by the collar and lift him up at a gallop from astride their criollos, it became their favourite pastime.

It’s a novel of survival, not just the physical hard work, the long days but the need of the two younger brothers to always be on alert, Steban they call the half-wit, silenced by what he has seen, not trusting anyone, his allegiances drift knowing he is unable to stand up to any of them.

He realises that for as long as he can remember, he has always been flanked by anxiety. The apprehension of the next blow, the insults. And everything else.

We become immersed in this life on a sheep farm with The Mother, her four sons, a dog named Three and the Criollos they ride, on the arid, infertile steppe they live on in Patagonia. All they’ve known and grown up with is harsh and menacing, reliably so; all they know is work, for her.

There are evenings when she reminds herself that she came from a family of wretches with neither land nor fortune, and that everything seemed to point to a future of working herself to the bone in the service of others, and she grumbles and ruminates, finds a thousand things wrong with the steppe she’s been left with – well, that was the least she was owed, after all the misery she endured year after year. There is no room for gratitude in the mother’s life: what she has, she deserves.

When The Mother makes her first mistake, it opens a crack in her tight-fisted way of ruling the way they live, a slipway through which things might be different, we are lead out of the plateau towards the forest, towards the light with a deft, atmospheric thrill and underlying dread.

When Raphael must track down two missing horses, he is lead out of the steppe towards lands that are unfamiliar, encountering new terrain. While Sandrine Collette has demonstrated a talent for creating unforgettable characters, here she excels in depicting the landscape as it changes from the dry, dusty, harshness of the plateau to the lush, fertile, freedom of the forest.

The change of landscape leaves him stunned; all he has ever known is the treeless steppe. He looks up at the magnificent boughs, the changing hues of entire regions where the rain has ventured…

Goes and sits down.

If he was at the farm he would never do this, but solitude and freedom propel him.

As the mother exhibits weakness, loosening her indomitable control over the boys, the rage of the elder twin begins to rise. It is that Lord of the Flies moment, that human impulse towards savagery no longer contained by the mother’s warped rules supposed to keep it in check. The mother and the elder son embrace that savagery and as long as they are in unison, they rule. The younger sons represent civilisation, violence is not their instrument. They observe, learn, they seek a different way.

It’s a fantastic, compelling novel of the human condition, in an original setting and family dynamic. Thought provoking, atmospheric, charged with tension, it will stay with you long after reading.

Highly Recommended.

N.B. Thank you to Europa Editions for providing me with a review copy.

***

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Top Reads of 2018

Top Reads of 2018

A Few Reading Statistics

Goodreads Statistics

In 2018 I read 47 books, just under one book a week. Three quarters of them were by women authors and 25% by men. 76% of the books were fiction and 24% non-fiction (poetry, essays, memoir, spiritual).

I like literature from around the world, I read authors from 18 different countries, including Argentina, Taiwan, Uganda, Senegal, India, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Germany, Sweden, Japan, Burundi, NZ, Australia and Ireland.

Despite this apparent diversity, half the books I read were by British or American authors, an imbalance I hope to address through more conscious reading in 2019.

It requires more of an effort to find books from other countries that fit my reading inclination, but I will continue to have that as my lead reading intention.  I read 12 books translated from other languages (23%) and I read one in the original French language. 80% of the books I read were physical books and 20% were e-books.

Although I read so many books from the US/UK, as I consider those stories that stood out for me, I find they are predominantly narratives from elsewhere recounting tales of experience and perspective other than the anglo-american one.

Outstanding Read of 2018

Again, my outstanding read of the year came early in the year, one of the most underrated novels of the year, that should have been given more attention, in my opinion.

The historical novel Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is set in 1700’s Buganda ( the largest of the traditional kingdoms in present-day Uganda, comprising all of Uganda’s Central Region, including the capital Kampala) and modern Uganda.

Kintu is a family name, the thread that runs through the six parts that make up the story, beginning with a curse put on the family name and following it throughout the years and generations. It is a combination of excellent storytelling and insight into a culture, its beliefs and traditions. Here’s an excerpt from my review:

It’s brilliant. We traverse through the lives of these families, witness their growth, development, sadness’s and joys, weaving threads of their connections together, that will eventually intersect and come to be understood and embraced by all as the clan is brought together to try to resolve the burden of the long-held curse that had cast its long shadow over this clan for so many generations.

Top Reads 2018

In no particular order here are the other books that made a significant impression and have stayed with me throughout the year, click on the title to read my review, or the book cover image to purchase a copy:

Petit Pays by Gaël Faye  was the one book I read in it’s original language (French) but which I classify as coming from the Republic of Burundi, where the story takes place. It’s a short novel with a significant impact, that has since been translated into English as Small Country’. It is the story told from the perspective of an 11 year old boy, the son of a French father and Rwandan mother in the year of his life when everything changed. It’s a novel of cultural differences, of being an outsider, of trying to belong, of understanding the motivations and fears of people, of life at the intersection of those things, of having to choose sides. From my review:

It is beautifully told, a simple story to follow, with many beautiful, descriptive passages, even though we know that this time will be short-lived. It opens our eyes to the tensions that escalate into hatred and violence with little sense, the many victims and the many wounded by loss, destroyed by it.

So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ, tr. Modupé Bodé-Thomas was the shortest novel I read, and the only epistolary novel, but it was one that had a significant impact, as timeless classics are warrant to do. It’s a brilliant and unforgettable story narrated through a letter by a middle age Senegalese widow writing to her friend who is about to visit. It contains more than she is able to say face to face, an uninterrupted discourse, as letters always must be, the recipient forced to read until the end, the narrator never interrupted, the message allowed to gain momentum and arrive at it’s intended conclusion.

Throughout the narrative she expresses shock, outrage, anger, resentment, pity until her thoughts turn with compassion towards those she must continue to aid, her children and to those who have supported her, including the friend due to arrive, who chose a different path when she was confronted with similar issues to that which the widow is now facing. It’s absolutely brilliant, highly recommended. From my review:

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.

Mend the Living or The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal, different titles and translators for the UK and US editions, I read the UK version translated from French by Jessica Moore. This is an extraordinary and original novel that follows a young man’s heart from its healthy teenage introduction through to its successful transplant into a patient waiting for a donor. Rather than focus on the medical procedure, it highlights all the characters involved and connected to the journey of this heart, from the parents of the boy, to the female intern, demonstrating the changing perspectives of all those touched by these sets of events.  From my review:

This is one of those novels that unleashes the mind and sends it off in all kinds of directions, thinking about the impact events have on so many lives, the different callings people have, the incredible developments in medical science, how little we really know and yet how some do seem to know intuitively and can act in ways that restores our faith in humanity.

Disoriental by Négar Djavadi tr. Tina Kover was another translated work of fiction I read in August during #WIT(Women in Translation) month. Translated from French where the author now lives, it is a dual narrative, set in present day France, where a woman sits in a fertility clinic thinking back over her life, both in the present (daughter of parents exiled from their native country and culture Iran) and the past, her own childhood, what she remembers of the circumstances that lead them away from their home and right back to her great-grandfather and his harem of 52 wives.

Spanning a changing, turbulent time in Iranian history, it travels the highs and lows, for while the passionate intellectual freely expresses their opinion and brings no harm, they can continue to live within their culture, family, an active part of society. But when freedom of expression endangers the individual, the sacrifices that must be made stifle and silence them and doesn’t necessarily ensure their safety. Life in exile, without connections to friends, family and like-minded neighbours, reduces them to shadows of their former existence, unable to truly be themselves, to be seen, in a foreign culture. From my review:

I absolutely loved it, I liked the slow drip revelation of what this young woman’s life had become, having been severed from her country and community of origin and the colourful, abundant richness of the family history and culture, which while separate from her life today, existed somewhere deep in her psyche, in her genes, and in those non-genetic aspects we inherit from previous generations even without knowledge of what has passed.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne is a book I bought for my brother last Christmas, so I decided to read it myself early in the New Year, so we could discuss it. It was on a lot of top reads lists for 2017, and deservedly so. It’s the story of the life of Cyril, from the circumstances of his birth and adoption in conservative Ireland through four periods of his life, including time in Amsterdam and New York before his return to Ireland. Cyril encounters many challenges in his life, many of them as a result of failing to live up to perceived societal expectations. From my review:

Boyne peels back the layers of Irish inclinations and attitudes in the 20th century and shows how destructive this closed mindedness is on the lives of anyone who crosses an imaginary line of acceptable ‘being’. This astonishing novel is a courageous, honest attempt to show how the way we conform to society and culture’s expectations, against our own nature’s can be so harmful to so many and it makes us wonder how life might be, if we lived in a more utopian world, where tolerance reigned supreme.

Little by Edward Carey is another outstanding and original work of historical fiction and a book that left a deep impression, not just for the excellent storytelling and illustrations, but because it tells the story of a woman everyone had heard of yet knew nothing about, she was a trailblazer extraordinaire. Her name as most of us know it today is an illusion, for it tells nothing of the full life she lived before she became Madame Tussaud.

It is the story of the incredible life and survival of a servant girl Anne Marie Grosholt who lost her parents at a very young age and through a series of serendipitious connections, came to be apprenticed to a Swiss medical wax sculptor, whose popularity lead him to flee to Paris, where he resided with the widow of a tailor, another set of skills the young servant girl would acquire, before a chance encounter resulted in her spending eleven years in the palace of Versailles as tutor (Maitresse de Cire) to the princess, until her confidence and boredom combined to get her in trouble, banished back to the widow and her master.

The novel tracks her life and beside it the growing unrest in Paris, as the people rebel against those who ‘have’, against those who ‘rule’, and a frenzy of imprisonments and executions pervade the city, where no one is safe from denunciation and possible death. These stories and the historical references bring the novel alive, in animated prose that explores the noble alongside the grim and ghoulish, for the public of the time desired to see and know it all.

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife    This is an incredible work of creativity, a writer working through the post-trauma of domestic violence, living through and escaping an abusive marriage, using her writing to narrate the story of her marriage, seeing it as if she is playing a role in a drama. I avoided this title for a while until it was nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 and started to receive enticing reviews. It is a ‘tour de force’ and well worth overcoming any inhibitions you might have about reading it.

And in some ways, that is how I think of it: it is easier to imagine this life in which I’m trapped as a film;  it is easier when I imagine myself as a character. It makes everything around me seem less frightening; my experiences at a remove. Less painful, less permanent. Here, long before I ever faced a camera, I became an actress.

The Four Insights – Wisdom, Power and Grace of the Earthkeepers by Alberto Villoldo I couldn’t write about my top reads without mentioning Alberto Villoldo, as I read three of his books this year and loved them all, but this one was the best and was the first I read, because it gives the background and explanations behind the philosophy of shamanic energy medicine in an accessible way.

I absolutely loved it and all its insights, I was familiar with the shamanic levels of perception, of serpent, jaguar, hummingbird, eagle, corresponding to body, mind, soul, spirit and their associated languages. The book expands on those themes and provides deeper explanations of how we perceive at each of these levels, what we need to understand about how we are responsible for creating the reality of each of those levels, and that we can only change our own inner perception and try to uplevel, we can never change another’s perception, except through being the role model that they might perceive and respond to without influence.

And that’s it for 2019, did you have an outstanding read for the year? Or a few? Let me know in the comments below what your favourite(s) were.

Thanks for reading and following and commenting and happy reading to you all for the year ahead.

Farewell, My Orange by Iwaki Kei, tr. Meredith McKinney

Farewell, My Orange is an immigrant story set in Australia, centering around the new life of a young African migrant, now a single mother.  Alternative chapters are in the form of letters written by her friend, a young married Asian mother, to her English teacher, and in both narratives we encounter an older European woman whom the younger women  come to know.

For the first fifty pages, I was unsure who was really in the story, I found the blurb a little disconcerting (and still do) because it didn’t seem to tie up with the names in the story I was reading, which distracted from the read. The two women use different names to refer to the same characters and one of the names in the blurb is never mentioned at all in the novel. I couldn’t figure out what the author was doing by this and actually read most of the novel thinking it was a mistake, albeit a consistent one. Of course, being a prize-winning novella, it isn’t a mistake but it was mildly annoying. The book almost needs a message to tell the reader to forget about what appear to be inconsistencies, all shall be revealed, two pages from the end.

The novella introduces Salimah, who found herself a job in the supermarket after her husband left her and her two sons as soon as they arrived in this foreign country. She attends an English class for learners of a second language where she meets a Japanese woman named Echnida who brings her small baby to class, an older Italian woman Olive, a group of young Swedish ‘nymphs’ and her teacher. She makes observations about her classmates and her own life, as she learns the language that is her entry into this foreign place.

The letters her friend writes to her English teacher reflect on details of her new life, with what seem to be the same people, except the names are different.

The woman, whose letters are signed ‘S’ has sent her manuscript entitled ‘Francesca‘ to the teacher, she thanks her for her input and updates her on her life. Following her academic husband around has meant suspending her own university studies, something the teacher encourages her to continue with. In the first letter, she expresses hope to find a teacher like her in this new town and reflects on learning a foreign language:

“While one lives in a foreign country, language’s main function is as a means of self-protection and a weapon in one’s fight with the world. You can’t fight without a weapon. But perhaps its human instinct that makes it even more imperative to somehow express oneself, convey meaning, connect with others.”

In the next letter she has found the ESL class and mentions the older woman with three grown up children itching to look after her baby and a woman she thinks might be a refugee from Sudan or Somalia, who works in a supermarket and is a single mother. Then there is her neighbour, the illiterate truckie, she reads Charlotte’s Web to him on the communal stairs while he holds the baby, an arrangement they have come to, related to the unwanted noise of another neighbour whose incessant drumming has turned them into unlikely allies.

Salimah is asked by the teacher at her son’s primary school to give a presentation on growing up in ‘her African village’, it becomes a significant project for her, that the ESL teacher and Echidna help her with. She reads to the children about her life, narrating it with the simplicity of a children’s story, an oratory that enraptures the younsters, if not the teacher.

When Salimah finished reading, the children sat in silence. The teacher frankly thought that the story was too personal to be much use for the children’s projects. But it was certainly ‘an Africa you could never learn about from the class material.’ What’s more, after hearing the story the children were extremely quiet, and young though she was, she had learned from experience that when children are truly surprised or moved they forget how to express themselves and say nothing, so she waited for them to slowly begin to talk again.

As time passes, new developments replace old situations, opportunities arise, Salimah’s son begins to be invited to play with a school friend, a pregnancy brings the three women together and it is as if they begin to create a community or family between them.

Suddenly everyone in the room was laughing. With her own bright laughter, Salimah felt a great gust of air that had long been caught in her throat come bursting forth, and was aware of something new approaching within her as she drew fresh breath.

It is a unique insight into the intersection of lives that are so foreign to each other and to the culture within which they now live, the old familiar references of little help or comfort, how new connections are slowly born without expectation and can ultimately delight. It is about the common thread of humanity that can be found, when we let go of the familiar and are open to new experiences, helping each other without judgement.

Ultimately, apart from the confusion of names that interfered with my initial reading experience, I loved this novella. After page 50 I highlighted so many pertinent passages and felt the story grow and expand as the lives of these three women did too on the page.

It gave a unique insight into the lives of women from three different cultures and countries and their experience of living in a foreign country where they didn’t have a complete handle on the language, their struggles, their independence, their initial reluctance and inability to engage.

It isn’t a novel about the new culture or interacting with its people, it’s more about their own subtle transformation and the incremental support they eventually find in other foreigners, sharing their experiences, helping each other in small ways that grow their tentative friendship and hint at a hope that perhaps they might find happiness in this place after all.

Over the period they know each other, something changes in their lives, they have the opportunity to grow a little closer and develop something of a new friendship, connection. We see how this human contact and care helps them overcome the adversity of their individual situations. It’s farewell to one shade of orange and its shadow, only to welcome another brighter one they are becoming used to.

I absolutely loved it and was reminded a little of my the experience of sitting in the French language class for immigrants, next to women from Russia, Uzbekistan, Cuba and Vietnam, women with whom it was only possible to converse in our limited French, supported by a teacher who spoke French (or Italian). So many stories, so many challenges each woman had to overcome to contend with life here, most of it unknown to any other, worn on their faces, mysteries the local population were unconcerned with.

Iwaki Kei was born in Osaka. After graduating from college, she went to Australia to study English and ended up staying on, working as a Japanese tutor, an office clerk, and a translator. The country has now been her home for 20 years. Farewell, My Orange, her debut novel, won both the Dazai Osamu Prize (a Japanese literary award awarded annually to an outstanding, previously unpublished short story by an unrecognized author) and the Kenzaburō Ōe Prize (another literary award, the winning work selected solely by Ōe.).

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N.B. Thank you to Europa Editions for sending me a copy of this book.