Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan tr. George Miller #WITMonth

Nothing Holds Back the Night is the book Delphine de Vigan avoided writing  until she could no longer resist its call. It is a book about her mother Lucile, who she introduces to us on the first page as she enters her apartment and discovers her sleeping, the long, cold, hard sleep of death. Her mother was 61-years-old.

De Vigan collects old documents, stored boxes, talks to members of her family, the many Aunts and Uncles and creates a snapshot of Lucile’s childhood, a large family of nine children living in Paris and then Versailles, holidaying at a ramshackle country house Pierremont, where they would all come together for summers throughout childhood and for many years to come.

Part One strings together the many anecdotes of memories of her mother’s past, and even in their telling, though the purpose is to reveal Lucile’s childhood, she is like a shadow, the one voice that is missing, whose presence is inferred but rarely at the forefront of the drama. She is a beautiful middle child, her beauty quickly capitalised on by her parents, who turn her into a pliable child model.

Her reticence and fear of being alone, is visible when their parents announce they are going to London for a weekend, leaving the children alone to take care of themselves:

Lucile greeted the news like the announcement of an imminent earthquake. A whole weekend! That seemed to her like an eternity, and the idea that a serious accident might happen when Liane and Georges were away made her breathless. For several minutes, Lucile stared into space, absorbed by the horrible visions she could not banish – shocks, falls, burns affecting each of her brothers and sisters in turn, and then she saw herself slip under a metro train. Suddenly she realised how vulnerable they were, how their lives ultimately might hang by a thread, turn on a careless step, one second more or one second less. Anything – especially something bad – could happen. The apartment, the street, the city contained an infinite number of dangers, of possible accidents, of irreparable dramas. Liane and Georges had no right to do this. She felt the tears run down her cheeks and took a step back to hide behind Lisbeth, who was listening attentively to her father.

Though Lucile isn’t given a voice (unless the author imagines it) in the section about her family and upbringing, the events depicted show her reactions and create a vision of the fragile woman she would become; lost, finding it difficult to cope alone, struggling to raise two daughters when she could barely take care of her own needs.

De Vigan goes through the family history, though only one generation, she isn’t as interested in inter-generational patterns, she searches the near past for clues:

The fact is that they run all the way through families like pitiless curses, leaving imprints which resist time and denial.

She asks what happened, what caused the turning point, the change in a family that appeared to be happy and thriving, that then was subject to trauma, cracks in its foundation, broken parts.

And so I asked her brothers and sisters to talk to me about her, to tell their stories I recorded them, along with others, who had known Lucile and our joyful but ravaged family.

She is particular about who she interviews, deciding early on not to speak to any of the men who temporarily came into her mother’s life, including her father. It’s as if she wishes to remove the possibility of judgement, by those who saw something of the effect on a life and not the life in its entirety.

This is her mother’s story and the daughter is fiercely protective, while being very open and honest about what she and her sister experienced. She is also an experienced investigative journalist and is practised in presenting her findings to meet a preconceived aim. She doesn’t wish to harm the family and yet she wants to present a truth, exorcise certain demons that keep her awake at night. Thus the first part reads a little like a novel as she immerses herself into the characters and lives she wishes to portray bringing them alive by imagining their thoughts and dialogue.

A daughter arrives part way through a mother’s life and so she goes back to fill in the gaps, to see her as a child, a sister, a daughter and for the rest, she narrates her story, as the daughter of this fragile woman, whose early life contributed to a deterioration in her mental health, who struggled to continue regardless, even though part of her yearned for an escape. Part Two therefore reads more like a memoir as she no longer has to step into the shoes of others and imagine a time when she wasn’t there, from now on she selectively recalls her own experience and that of her sister.

De Vigan shows her mother’s perseverance alongside her inability to cope, her periods of stability alongside events that trigger her periods of instability, her creativity alongside the terrible hallucinations and paranoia, no one knowing how long either of those states will endure and whether either one will persist.

I read this book in a day, it’s one of those narratives that once you start you want to continue reading, it’s described as autofiction, a kind of autobiography and fiction, though there is little doubt it is the story of the author’s mother, as she constructs thoughts and dialogue inspired by the information provided by family members, acknowledging that for many of the events, some often have a different memory which she even shares.

Manon and I had become adults, stronger for Lucile’s love, but fragile as a result of having learned too young that life could collapse without warning and that nothing around us was completely stable.

With the end of summer holidays approaching, I was in one of the local French bookshops buying a new French dictionary for my son, when I spotted this next book from Delphine de Vigan and in a moment of spontaneity, decided I would try reading it in French. Not straight away, but watch this space, for a review in English of a novel read in French.

Have you read any of Delphine de Vigan’s works?

Further Reading

Guardian Review – Ursula Le Guin is fascinated by a dark yet luminous memoir that straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction.

New York Times Review – A Mother in Absentia by Nancy Kline

 

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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 Outermost House by Henry Beston #NatureWriting

A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod

outermost

Reading Beston on Plage de Notre Dame, Porquerolles Island, France

Originally published in 1928, and still in print today, this is perhaps one of the early examples of literary nature writing, an account of a year spent living among the sand dunes of the great peninsula of Cape Cod, living closer to the ‘rough sea nature’ in all her aspects than most humans do and observing all that passes through and by, using all the senses.

Having planned to stay two weeks in his newly built house on the sand dunes, Henry Beston’s fascination with the changes of the dunes, the tides, the sky, the migration of birds and butterflies keep him captivated; thus he keeps extending his stay, observing the minutiae of life and nature, writing it into this book.

I first came across the title while reading one of my favourite nature writing books by Rachel Carson, Under the Sea-Wind, in which she mentions this volume as one of her inspirations.

Under Sea Wind2And though I enjoyed Henry Beston’s book considerably, Carson’s book for me left a greater impression, for who could not forget being made to see life through the eyes of the very creatures Henry Beston observes. Carson chose to narrate the three parts of her book from the point of view of a sanderling (bird), a mackerel, and a migrating eel. If you haven’t read it and loved this book, I am sure you will enjoy and appreciate Rachel Carson’s personal favourite of all the books she wrote, it is the perfect companion to The Outermost House.

I got the impression Henry Beston may have been something of an insomniac, or perhaps it was because during winter he abandoned the cold bedroom and slept in his front room, where there was the warmth and then cooling of the fire and the changing light of the seven windows he’d included in his simple design. Often throughout the book, he wakes in the night and so making the most of it, seeing these awakenings as an unwitting opportunity, he dresses and goes out to see what’s up. And though we might think that one night must surely be just like another, he always finds something new to observe, reflect on and write about.

He was often visited by the “surfmen” who patrolled the coastline, making sure he’d survived the latest storm, men he said knew the conditions of that coast like no other, not as sailors, but like those who are land based who watch and develop their knowledge and instinct as he learned to, observing how quickly the elements could change and become violent, showing little compassion for floating man-made vessels that attempted to navigate its peripheries.

shipwrecksIt was the late 1920’s and no doubt a year like any other, with its share of wrecks, disasters. The pragmatic attitudes of the locals, as likely to come to the rescue and do anything to help, as they are to salvage what is left, not always understood by the families of victims of the many shipwrecks.

“a wreck was treasure trove, a free gift of the sea; even to-day, the usable parts of a wreck are liable to melt away in a curious manner.”

To get a feel for the prose, I’m sharing a few more of the passages I highlighted as I read, they best portray a sense of his experience and lyrical turn of phrase.

He develops a compassion and understanding for birds and animals and insects that he finds at odds with what an education (or perhaps religion) has taught him, he questions the self-perceived superiority of man and wonders that we ought not perhaps rethink this arrogance.

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilisation surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronise them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken a form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of earth.”

He attempts to put into words, his great awe and the magnificence of the ocean, implying that of nature’s three great elemental sounds in nature (the rain, the wind and the sound of outer ocean on a beach) the ocean is the most awesome, beautiful and varied.

“For it is a mistake to talk of the monotone of ocean or of the monotonous nature of its sound. The sea has many voices. Listen to the surf, really lend it your ears, and you will hear in it a world of sounds: hollow boomings and heavy roarings, great watery tumblings and tramplings, long hissing seethes, sharp, rifle-shot reports, splashes, whispers, the grinding undertone of stones, and sometimes vocal sounds that might be the half-heard talk of people in the sea. And not only is the great sound varied in the manner of its making, it is also constantly changing its tempo, its pitch, its accent, and its rhythm, being now loud and thundering, now almost placid, now furious, now grave and solemn-slow, now a simple measure, now a rhythm monstrous with a sense of purpose and elemental will.”

He is prone to talk of the sounds of natures as if they were a symphony of his making.

“As I muse here, it occurs to me that we are not sufficiently grateful for the great symphony of natural sound which insects add to the natural scene; indeed, we take it so much as a matter of course that it does not stir our fully conscious attention. But all those little fiddles in the grass, all those cricket pipes, those delicate flutes, are they not lovely beyond words when heard in midsummer on a moonlight night.”

Cape Cod Birdlife by Janet DiMatta

Cape Cod Birdlife by Janet DiMatta

A delightful read that I enjoyed even though I have never visited the area, it does make you wish to see it for yourself, a unique ecosystem and landing point between here and there for so many species, one that Henry Beston has succeeded in depicting so well, it has ensured his book has become a classic, continued to be read, reread and appreciated by multiple generations of readers.

To see some pictures of the house, you can visit the website Outermost House.

Click here to buy a copy of

The Outermost House or Under the Sea-Wind

Jo Malone, My Story #JoLoves

Although I lived in London through much of the period when the Jo Malone brand was being created and built, I can’t say I was really aware of it in its early days, not until it hit its tipping point and her trademark bags and candles started to become the beautiful gifts others in the know would offer those who didn’t shop in the more exclusive shopping areas of Chelsea and Belgravia where you often find luxury hip and boutique brands.

my-storyBut Jo Malone the girl, wasn’t born into luxury. She was an ordinary girl raised in a family that struggled a bit on the good days, and a lot on the bad days, which were often brought on by her doting father’s gambling inclinations, her mother’s over-spending habit and the pressure to work long hours to keep the family afloat.

Her mother returned to the workforce as a manicurist until she was lured away by the eccentric Madame Lubatti, who would become an influential figure in Jo’s early life, an Empress of scent, whose origins we never really discover, just that she spent time in Hong Kong gathering her knowledge.

She would introduce her protegé (mother and daughter) to her laboratory of elixirs and magic ingredients and taught Jo to develop her nose and instinct allowing her to experiment and discover how to create  face mask and cream blends, until they were just right – texture, aroma, perfection – inspiring confidence in her while she was young enough not to doubt her ability to make fragrant, creamy magic.

Madame Lubatti coaxed out my love of fragrance and essentially trained my instincts…She would bring over three unlabelled bottles of different rose oils, remove the stoppers, place each one under my nose and ask:

‘What do you think that smells of?’

I’d close my eyes and sniff; ‘Tea-rose?’

It impressed her that I could tell the difference between the woody muskiness of a garden rose, the clean apple-green notes of a tea rose, and the rich, regal scent of a Bulgarian rose.

She would learn other secrets of scent, of the importance of the whiteness of the room, and allowed her access to the biggest secret of her unrivalled success, a precious, well-thumbed, black leather ledger, filled with four decades if recipes. The elderly Madame Lubatti not only exposed to the secrets of her clinic and laboratory, she also took her on her visits to the homeopathic chemist for pills, powders and oils, the herbalist for herbs, waxes and dried flowers and to Marylebone High Street for chocolate marzipan at the Viennese coffee shop. She imparted to Jo her high standards, stressing ‘If you can’t do something perfectly, don’t do it at all. You must do it brilliantly!’

While she was competent in the home and at the salon where her mother worked and even accompanied her father to sell his paintings in the market during a prolonged period of unemployment, school was not any kind of refuge for Jo. Her undiagnosed dyslexia contributed to her difficulty and she would leave school without any qualifications, but quickly found one job after another through her mother’s contacts, until eventually joining up to work with her mother giving facials to clients and making home-made product to sell to them.

She would go on to attract her own clients and after a series of falling outs with her mother, would go it alone, working from a room in their small apartment, making product from her kitchen. By this time she had married Gary, a young man she met in a period when she joined a bible study class. He was the grounding stability she needed, the strategic businessman to her creative inspiration. From this point on, she rarely mentions her family, though one incident reveals something of the bitterness that existed among those who were close to them. Malone’s response to the incident is to share a little of her life philosophy:

…human nature is divided between those who thrive on, and get easily distracted by, gossip and they tend to go nowhere; and those people who know their purpose, know what they want, and won’t give weight to the chirpings of misinformed tittle-tattle because they know that such things are a waste of focus and energy.

lime-basilWhen she really began to play around with fragrance, demand began to rise more than she could cope with, and Gary suggested they embrace the business, move it to its own premise and open a shop. Her business was beginning to overwhelm their living condition, he recognised the potential and offered to commit himself wholeheartedly it. That would be the beginning of Jo Malone, her signature brand.

post-itFrom there, a whirlwind of events follow and she will partner up with a perfume house in Paris, turning her instinct into a viable, enduring product. She tried to put into words her creative process and it is fascinating when she does, for it is something that can’t be copied or cloned, it is an insight into the pure magic of creativity, of how she uses image, colour and experience to create a scent.

Those descriptions of her creative process are some of the most exciting and inspirational passages in the book; when she begins to flourish her creativity sings and reading her descriptions of being in the creative zone, of creating a scent, playing with the notes of fragrance my post-it notes were flying. I had to refrain from dog-earring pages and scribbling in the margins as the book was lent to me.

Having become interested in and immersed in the study of aromas and the energetic and therapeutic qualities of essential oils 20 years ago, I too am someone who creates aromatic oils and creams and loves nothing more than to experiment with and create a personalised magic blend for a client or friend, so I totally relate to the bliss Jo Malone felt when she’s doing her thing in a creative sense. (Me with some of my magic potions below).

Though she had her share of fears and trepidation at entering into the unknown, her life has been scattered with signs and synchronicities that propelled her forward, to meet those who would show her the way, encourage her to take the next step, work through the challenges, admit the mistakes, learn from them and move on where possible.

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

And though she is no longer part of Jo Malone, she is where she ought to be, doing what she loves and still thinking outside the box, creating new scents and new experiences. This one, her new signature fragrance and brand was included in the front of the book, it smells divine!

P A S S I O N  * R E S I L I E N C E   * C R E A T I V I T Y

Highly Recommended!

 

Blue Nights by Joan Didion

This book is called “Blue Nights” because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.

blue-nightsWritten as a reflection on the death of her daughter at 39 years of age, the book begins as Didion thinks back to her daughter’s wedding seven years earlier, which then triggers other memories of her childhood, of family moments, of people and places, numerous hotels they have frequented.

She reflects on her role as a mother, something she hadn’t wanted to be, until suddenly she did, pregnancy had been something to fear, then it became something she yearned for, though it was not to be.

She had difficulty understanding her daughter’s fear of abandonment, knowing how much she needed her child. She displayed little if any understanding or knowledge of common issues that many adoptees often retain within their psyche, issues her daughter presented and was confronted by, including the later presentation of a fully formed family – her birth parents eventually married and had other children.

When we think about adopting a child, or for that matter about having a child at all, we stress the ‘blessing’ part.
We omit the instant of sudden chill, the ‘what if’ the free fall into certain failure.
What if I fail to take care of this baby?
What if this baby fails to thrive, what if this baby fails to love me?
And worse yet, worse by far, so much worse as to be unthinkable, except I did it, everyone who has ever waited to bring a baby home thinks it: what if I fail to love this baby?

Didion examines details of her daughters childhood and life and drawers of photographs and mementos of people who have left her. Not nearly as compelling at her year of magical thinking, and a little too much a collection of names dropped that I found myself skipping over, which all felt terribly sad.

When she speaks of herself, her prose is poetic, mellifluous, at ease. When writing snippets of motherhood and recalling images of her daughter, her language becomes stilted, dissonant, the connections between her thoughts less fluid, the pain too sharp. Ageing has been a long process, one she realises she has seen in her mother, grandmother, but won’t see in her daughter.

joan-didion-and-quintana-rooAlthough the main theme of the book is her daughter’s premature death, nowhere does she analyse or obsess about what actually happened in the way we vividly remember she did about her husband in My Year of Magical Thinking. Rather, the book appears to be as much an acknowledgement of her own ageing and decline, recognising and facing up to her own ‘frailty’, her obsession with her own health scares, recounting every little malfunction or symptom of a thing that never shows up on any of the numerous scans or tests she has. It is as if she writes her own denouement, to a death that never arrives, as the multitude and thoroughness of all the tests she has show how very much alive and in relative good health she is, despite herself.

I was curious to know what she might write looking back at this relationship with her only child, a precious adopted daughter and I was honestly quite shocked at how self-centred the entire book was and how little we came to know Quintana. Rather than go on about that, I refer anyone who is interested to this insightful article below.

Lorraine Dusky also gave birth in 1966 to a daughter, the same year Qunitana was born and for a while she actually thought Joan Didion may have adopted her daughter and went so far as to write and ask. It wasn’t the case and she later met her own daughter, who also died relatively young. As a birth mother she has significant awareness of the issues faced by birth parents and adoptees and her review and commentary of Blue Nights goes some way to addressing Didion’s oblivion.

Article – Joan Didion’s Blue Nights is Really an Adoption Memoir by Lorraine Dusky

joan-didion

Top Reads 2016

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

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

Outstanding Read of 2016
Bridge of Beyond

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

Top 5 Fiction Reads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Non Fiction Reads

Memoir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soul Food

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

Special Mentions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was your outstanding read for 2016?

 

A Woman on the Edge of Time: A Son’s Search for His Mother by Jeremy Gavron

img_0485A Woman on the Edge of  Time is a memoir that reads like a mystery, as Jeremy Gavron, a journalist, interviews family, old school friends, neighbours and colleagues of his mother Hannah Gavron, whom he has little memory of.

It documents his long-delayed search for a greater understanding of why she took her own life at 29 years of age, a married, working mother of two boys aged four and seven, living in Highgate, London.

It was 1965, she had been on the cusp of publishing a manuscript encapsulating the findings of her sociology research into the conflicts faced by young housebound mothers in North London, The Captive Wife. It was two years since another mother of two young children Sylvia Plath, had done the same thing.

Hannah Gavron was an out-going, confident child, an accomplished, confident teenager, popular and desirous of growing up. She wanted to do something with her life, to share her views with the world, but she also wanted freedom, to leave the constraints of family, to be in love, to claim her place in a rapidly changing society. She married at 18, went to RADA drama school for a year, quit, had two children, then realising her prospects were limited, went back to university to study sociology, attained a PhD and then a teaching post at the “iconic British art institute”, renowned for its experimental and progressive approach, Hornsey College of Art.

It seemed she had everything going for her, and yet at that tender age of 29, when her youngest son Jeremy, was 4 years old, she took her own life, shocking everyone around her.

Now the father of two girls himself, having previously just accepted the subject of his mother was a taboo subject never raised, he is seized by an urgency to know and understand the mystery, for how could it happen that a woman with so much going for her, two small children and a manuscript about to heighten her career, could suddenly end it all?

He interviews an extraordinary number of people and succeeds in recreating the jigsaw of Hannah’s life in incredible detail and begins to understand the multiple forces that may have played a part in leading up to that tragic decision.

As gripping as any mystery, it reads like a pageturner providing an interesting insight into the subject Hannah Gavron wrote her thesis about, ‘The Captive Wife’ and the struggle of women in the early 1960’s, a period just prior to the second wave of feminism, an era whose attitudes and dilemmas were encapsulated in Doris Lessing’s powerful account of a woman searching for her personal and political identity, The Golden Notebook, published in 1962.

 

Looking back from our own times, the subject seems an obvious one, still relevant today, but in 1960 it was neither obvious nor easy for her to get past her academic supervisors. For all the advances gained by the suffragette movement, and the opportunities the war had given woman to work and experience life beyond family,  the woman’s movement was in retreat in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. in the post-war period, emphasis had been put on the role of motherhood in rebuilding Britain. The Beveridge Report, the basis for social reforms, spoke of how ‘housewives as mothers have vital work to do in ensuring the adequate continuance of the British race and of British ideals in the world’.

A woman attempting to forge an academic career in sociology at the time and proposing studies which focused on women as the subject, was provocative and a gesture not ready to be accepted by many in power in academia.

In Her Wake, Nancy Rappaport

In Her Wake, Nancy Rappaport

It reminded me of reading Nancy Rappaport’s In Her Wake: A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother’s Suicide, she too was 4 years old when her mother, who was raising a large family as well as being involved in organising society events and political campaigning, suddenly committed suicide. That drama took place in 1963 in Boston.

They are tragic stories and serve to create a more substantial memory for the authors, piecing together the lives of these woman who should have been able to contribute so much more than they did.

It left me wondering about the author himself, as he keeps himself well out of the narrative, not shining any light on how it had been for him to grow up under this shadow, this absence. How was it for him to accept the love of another mother, how might this turning point have influenced who he would become. Rather he shines his light outward and builds an incredibly detailed vision of his mother, leaving just a hint of suggestion that within her, we may also finds parts of him.

Further Reading

The Guardian, Nov 2015 – Jeremy Gavron: ‘My mother was a woman who looked for solutions. Suicide was a solution’

The Guardian, Apr 2009 – ‘Tell the Boys I Loved Them’

Buy a Copy of A Woman on the Edge of Time Here