Happiness by Aminatta Forna

Happiness opens with the tale of a wolf hunter in the US called in to track a wolf that is believed to have been killing sheep. He observes the surroundings, lies in wait, makes the kill, collects his bounty and then returns to lie in wait for the she-wolf he knows will come out after three days. Two species. Surviving.

London. A fox makes its way across Waterloo Bridge. The distraction causes two pedestrians to collide—Jean, an American studying the habits of urban foxes, and Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist there to deliver a keynote speech.

Attila has just been to the theatre, he has arrived a few days early to indulge his passion for theatre and to look up his niece Ama, whom the family hasn’t heard from recently, he will also see an old friend and former colleague Rosie, who has premature Alzheimers.

While we follow Attila on his rounds of visiting his friends and family, all of whom are in need of his aide, we witness flashbacks into his working life, his brief encounters in numerous war zones, where he was sent on missions to negotiate with hardline individuals often operating outside the law. He remembers his wife Maryse, there is deep sense of remorse.

His niece Ama and her 10 year old son Tano have been forcibly evicted from their apartment in an immigration crackdown, she is unable to resolve the matter, hospitalised due to an unstable diabetic condition. Attila responds with the help of the doorman of his hotel, who alerts other hotel doormen, to be on the lookout for Tano who has disappeared amidst all the confusion.

And there is Jean, in London to study the behaviour of the urban fox, she has funding for a period of time to observe them, their numbers, how they have come to be living in the city and whether they expose a risk to the humans they live alongside. She recruited a local street-cleaner and through him others, to be her field study fox spotters, the few people likely to regularly see them.

‘Everything happens for a reason, that was Jean’s view, and part of her job was tracing those chains of cause and effect, mapping the interconnectedness of things.’

These networks of connected men, the doormen, the streetcleaners and others, come together to help Jean and Attila in their search for Tano. They’ve texted his picture to each other, they know who to look for. They demonstrate something important, in their resilience and ability to adapt to this new environment, creating new support circles, many having been through traumatic experiences before finding a semblance of new life in London.

‘Let me do the same for you,’ said the doorman. ‘The doormen and security people, they are my friends. Most of those boys who work in security are Nigerian. We Ghanaians, we prefer the hospitality industry. Many of the doormen at these hotels you see around here are our countrymen. The street-sweepers, the traffic wardens are mainly boys from Sierra Leone, they came here after their war so for them the work is okay.’

The fox lives beside the human but inhabits a different time zone, most humans are little aware of their presence as their nocturnal meanderings cease the minute humanity awakens and begins to disturb a territory that belongs more to them in the small hours of the night.

Jean too remembers what she has left, in America, where she tried to do a similar study on the coyote, an animal that due to the human impact on the environment had left the prairie and moved towards more urban environment.

Finding herself in conflict with locals, who campaigned against the coyote, believing it to be a danger to humans, her voice silenced by those who preferred to extend hunting licences, despite her warnings that culling the coyote would result in their population multiplying not decreasing.

‘If you remove a coyote from a territory, by whatever means, say even if one dies of natural causes a space opens up. Another will move in.’

‘What if you were to kill a number of them, ten per cent of the total population, say?’

‘They’d reproduce at a faster rate. We call it hyper-reproduction. Have larger litters of cubs. Begin to mate younger, at a year instead of at two years. All animals do it, not just coyote,’ said Jean. ‘Humans do it after a war. The last time it happened we called it the ‘baby boom”.’

Now a similar debate arises in London, where the Mayor wants to cull the animals and Jean’s message, based on scientific evidence is being ignored, worse it attracts the attention of internet trolls, flaming the unsubstantiated fears of residents.

 

UK Cover

Ultimately the novel is about how we all adapt, humans and wild animals alike, to changing circumstances, to trauma, to the environment; that we can overcome the trauma, however we need to be aware of those who have adapted long before us, who will resist the newcomer, the propaganda within a political message.

And to the possibility that the experience of trauma doesn’t have to equate to continual suffering, that our narrative does not have to be that which happened in the past, it is possible to change, to move on, to find community in another place, to rebuild, to have hope. And that is perhaps what happiness really is, a space where hope  can grow, might exist, not the fulfilment of, but the idea, the expression.

Hope. Humour. Survival.

Salman Rushdie alludes to this after the fatwa was issued against him when he said this:

“Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.”

Aminatta Forna

In an enlightening article in The Guardian, linked below, Forna describes reading Resilience, by renowned psychologist Boris Cyrulnik. Born in France in 1937, his parents were sent to concentration camps in WW2 and never returned. He survived, but his story often wasn’t believed, it didn’t fit the narrative of the time. He studied medicine and became a specialist in resilience.

“It’s not so much that I have new ideas,” he says, at pains to acknowledge his debt to other psychoanalytic thinkers, “but I do offer a new attitude. Resilience is about abandoning the imprint of the past.”

The most important thing to note about his work, he says, is that resilience is not a character trait: people are not born more, or less, resilient than others. As he writes: “Resilience is a mesh, not a substance. We are forced to knit ourselves, using the people and things we meet in our emotional and social environments.

Further Reading

My Review: The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

My Review: The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna

Article: Aminatta Forna: ‘We must take back our stories and reverse the gaze’, Writers of African heritage must resist the attempts of others to define us and our history, Feb 2017

Article: Escape from the past: Boris Cyrulnik lost his mother and father in the Holocaust. But childhood trauma needn’t be a burden, he argues – it can be the making of us. by Viv Groskop Apr 2009

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Note: This book was an ARC, kindly provided by the publisher (Grove Atlantic) via NetGalley. It is published March 6 in the US and 5 April in the UK.

Buy a copy of Happiness via BookDepository

 

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Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restless unburied souls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Purchase a copy via Book Depository

Two Old Women by Velma Wallis

I bought a second-hand copy of Two Old Women, after it was recommended by someone whose reading I follow as one of her favourite books, I remember it being an interesting list of books that I had never heard of and this small book, an Alaskan legend of betrayal, courage and survival intrigued me enough to get it.

Velma Wallis was born in Fort Yukon, a remote village in interior Alaska and grew up in a traditional Athabaskan family. Alaskan Athabaskans are native to Alaska, the original inhabitants of the interior of Alaska, living a culture of inland creek and river fishing, fabricating what they need from the resources that surround them, living by a matrilineal system in which children belong to the mother’s clan.

They are believed to have descended from Asians who crossed from eastern Siberia into Alaska during an early Ice Age.

The People Velma Wallis writes about in this legend, roamed the land and rivers around the area she was born, following trails that ensured they had access to the necessary resources to survive the changing seasons. They depended on the annual salmon runs and large game as well as small animals, using their skins for warmth.

Growing up in a traditional way, the young Velma also lived in different summer and winter cabins and although no longer a child, she enjoyed the nightly stories her mother continue to narrate. One of those stories was about two old women and their journey through hardship and it lead to her mother reflecting on how she had been able to overcome her own obstacles of old age, despite how physically agonising it could be.

The story held such fascination to her that she wrote it down and it evolved into this little book, once a story handed down from generation to generation, now committed to print so that an ever wider audience could learn from its wisdom.

“This story told me that there is no limit to one’s ability – certainly not age – to accomplish in life what one must. Within each individual in this large and complicated world there lives an astounding potential of greatness. Yet it is rare that these hidden gifts are brought to life unless by chance of fate.” Velma Wallis

The story tells of a group of nomads, People of the arctic region of Alaska who are on the move in search of food, but this particular winter they are beset with problems, the game they usually hunt due to the excess cold have become difficult to find and the smaller animals are not enough to sustain the group. Hunters are fed first, meaning there is often not enough for the women and children.

In the group there are two old women whom the People care for, Ch’idzigyaak and Sa’, younger men set up their shelters, younger women pull their possessions, however they are both known for constantly complaining of their aches and pains. One day, the chief makes a sudden announcement, one that the group has heard of from their stories, but never witnessed within their own band.

“The council and I have arrived at a decision.” The chief paused as if to find the strength to voice his next words. “We are going to have to leave the old ones behind.”

The women are shocked, as are the People, the older woman has a daughter and grandson, however no one objects, not even the daughter, though she leaves her mother a parting gift, one that will be intrinsic to their survival.

The group moves away leaving the stunned women sitting by the remains of their temporary camp. Until they awaken to the reality of their situation and find within them the will to move.

“Yes, in their own way they have condemned us to die! They think we are too old and useless. They forget that we, too, have earned the right to love! So I say if we are going to die, my friend, let us die trying, not sitting.”

And so begins a challenging journey, a reawakening and discovery of talents that had lain dormant from lack of use, as the two women set out to prove their People wrong and more, to set an example, though no one is there to witness it.

It’s a fabulous and poignant story about the value of the accumulation of years, and a reminder for those who arrive there not to lapse into laziness and a sense of entitlement, the respect that they deserve should be earned, the wisdom they are able to impart is not just what is spoken, it can be demonstrated by their actions and attitudes. Its’ beautiful illustrations by James Grant bring the story to life and it is equally an ode to the importance of sharing experiences through friendship and community.

Highly Recommended!

Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo

 Cereus Blooms at Night is the partially told story of one woman’s life, beginning when she is admitted to an alms house, suspected of having murdered her father and slowly unravelling back to the turning points, the highs and lows which brought her to be in the state she is in on arrival.

cereusIt is a novel narrated in parts, each part focusing on a character(s) who were influential in her life, including the young man who never knew her until this day, the one who became her confidant, perhaps the first man she ever trusted, after all that had passed beforehand. Much of it is told as Mala slips into memories of herself as child, reliving it.

It is set on the fictional Caribbean island of Lantanacamara, in a town called Paradise, the Ramchandin patriarch arriving there from India, trading a life of indentured servitude for little more than the promise of a karmic upgrade for his son, Chandin, who would be taken under the wing of the Reverend in the hope of improving the family prospects.

The young male nurse, Tyler accepted his first job in the alms house and although well-trained and qualified, his employers had yet to extend their generosity towards giving him actual nursing duties. The arrival of the controversial patient Mala Ramchandin, provided him with the first opportunity to exercise his skills.

I hardly had opened my mouth to explain that Miss Ramchandin was too frail to inflict even a bad thought when Sister screamed at me for being insolent and blatantly disregarding her authority.

No one else wanted to go near her, she was bound and believed to be mad and dangerous. Tyler was delighted to be given the opportunity and responsibility and treated his patient with the same compassion he might have offered any patient given the chance. Sensing her distress, he acted to alleviate it regardless of instructions to do otherwise.

cereusAs Tyler gained her trust, Mala’s story is revealed to us through him and through the two visitors she received, who on her first day there, unable to see her, left a pot with a cutting of the fragrant night-blooming cereus plant, a gift that clearly delighted her, a symbol of fragrant, nurturing oblivion.

The novel is full of contrasts, moments of delight and anticipation alongside the growing recognition of impending horrors, abuse and neglect. It taunts the reader into a state of hope, as the potential for things to have been otherwise is so close at times, only for the illusion of escape to become shattered by the reality of a situation that holds tight to those who are caught in its web.

The novel is unique in its portrayal of characters whose sexual identity is unclear, exploring hybridity and sexual minorities within a cultural context, in an intriguing, accepting way.

By the time Ambrosia was five, her parents were embroiled in their marital problems to the exclusion of all else, including their child. They hardly noticed that their daughter was slowly transforming herself into their son.  Ambrose slept right through the month, undisturbed until the first Saturday of the next, and Elsie, hungry for a male in the house, went along with his (her) strong belief that he (she) was really and truly meant to be a boy. Else fully expected that he (she) would outgrow the foolishness soon enough.  But the child walked and ran and dressed and talked and tumbled and all but relieved himself so much like an authentic boy that Elsie soon apparently forgot she had ever given birth to a girl. And the father, in his few waking episodes, seemed not to remember that he had once fathered one.

Despite the harrowing nature of Mala’s experiences, the luminous storytelling and unique characters bring light to otherwise dark places, and show that perseverance and allowing space for love, can overcome all manner of tragedy.

I came across the author Shani Mootoo in my search for other women authors, writing in the Caribbean tradition, authors who may have lived and been educated elsewhere, but whose writing evokes a clear connection to roots from elsewhere. Mootoo was born in Ireland, raised in Trinidad and moved to Canada as a young adult.

Trinidad and Tobago literature is rooted in the oral storytelling of African slaves, the European literary roots of the French creoles and the religious and folk tales of the Indian indentured immigrants.

How To Be Brave by Louise Beech #Type1

how-to-be-braveHow to Be Brave isn’t just a book you read, it’s a story that you feel like you are living while reading, right down to sharing the symptoms and emotions of some of its characters. I didn’t just read this book, I experienced it, developed symptoms and was grateful for medicine and the time to rest and recuperate from it. But fear not, it’s totally worth the ride.

Natalie is the mother of 9-year-old Rose, whose father Jake is on a tour of duty in Afghanistan when Rose has a crisis which we learn is caused by a diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes. While they are in hospital both mother and daughter are visited and spoken to by a man who reassures them and whose voice leads them soon after to the discovery of dusty diary in a long abandoned box belonging to Natalie’s grandfather Colin.

As the two struggle to adapt to their new life routines that diabetes has forced upon them, they begin to share the story they have uncovered, of the destruction of the ship Colin had been working on and his long survival at sea before rescue.

The narrative of mother-daughter daily life and the passing of days at sea by Colin are interwoven so closely that we live the two simultaneously, there is a strong connectivity between what passes through the mind of young Rose and that of her great-grandfather.

They develop a routine that each time they must do the finger prick test and the insulin injection, they will narrate a portion of Rose’s great grandfather’s story; they don’t read from the diary however, rather, they take what they know and imagine the days, entering the minds and bodies of the men who shared the enormous challenge of trying to survive in a lifeboat floating with the currents at sea, and keeping their spirits up.

We meet Ken and Fowler and Scown and others and Scarface, the menacing shark that never gives up its pursuit, whose instinct is sharp and head-butting intentions lethal.

how-to-be-brave2Louise Beech has created a page-turning, moving story that on Day 2 of reading, which was also Day 2 post-op for my daughter who also has Type 1 diabetes (diagnosed at 9 year-old), but who is recovering currently from spinal surgery to correct a scoliosis related curvature, I began to develop symptoms of headache, dehydration and my body ached all over. I wasn’t sure if it was sympathetic pain for my daughter or for Colin, I couldn’t read, just as Colin and the men couldn’t always find the energy to keep a lookout and gave into sleep, and so did I, after a quick trip to the pharmacy for medicine and water, so dehydrated! Miraculously, the next day I was completely fine.

In between the created narrative which mother and daughter eventually share, coinciding with Rose taking more responsibility for doing her tests, preparing her insulin and even doing her own injections, they also open the diary randomly, using it as a kind of oracle and as one would expect, discovering just the reflection they needed to hear at that moment, as they travel their own journey.

Just as I do now with this book, while I live one day at a time with my daughter’s pain, and today as the morphine is removed and she has taken the paracetamol and all the medicine she is allowed, and the pain is still there and there is nothing more to give but a mother’s love, yes, I too open the book for reassurance and get this:

No one spoke. Even the sea seemed to listen, calm for a moment, its many colours merging into sparkling gold. Colin cut off thoughts beyond two days ahead. He was unable to imagine his hunger on so small an amount of food and so little water. Looking around at the craggy faces of his mates, he could see in their eyes the same fear. But it had to be. Much as the craving was there,they couldn’t eat more heartily for fear of how long rescue might be in coming.

Louise’s book has been my little escape these past four days, and these notes more like a journal than a review. I had intended to take a literary ocean escape with me during this time and meant to begin with Sheila Hurst’s Ocean Echoes which I will begin today, as she shares a similar love of the sea and ocean to me and likes the same kind of nature writing, however Louise’s book reached out to me and I decided to begin there, not realising how much of it takes place at sea. I couldn’t help noticing the synchronicity of this giant picture of a roiling sea, tossing a ship in its swell, right opposite us, the first thing I see every time I leave the room:

at-sea

When Rose suggests she is ready to take more responsibility for her diabetes preparation and injections, her mother is initially reluctant, seeing her still as small child, wanting to avoid her immersion into the serious world of managing the medical challenge. In the same way she resists Rose’s desire to take up some of the storytelling, until Rose shares the words she’d whispered into Colin’s ear, during her night-time dream:

Rose patted my head, gentler now.
‘I said, If you don’t live, I’ll disappear Grandad. Can I call you Grandad? You’re really my Great Grandad, but I like Grandad better. If you don’t live Grandad, I won’t be able to come back and stroke your hair. I’ll just dissolve like a salty ghost. So then I got a bit of the canvas logbook and drew us all in there; you and me and Dad. I wrote above it that I was learning how to be brave, and he was making it a lot easier.

I loved everything about this book, brilliantly conceived and written, I would almost say channelled, as we are totally cast into Colin’s experience and made to feel it, and that doesn’t come from mere words scratched on a page. And I loved how mother and daughter become twin storytellers of the story, using their imagination, feeding into and drawing from their night dreams and day dreams and the bittersweet ending. Oh the magic of fiction and of life.

Highly Recommended.

Click Here To Buy A Copy of How To Be Brave

The Vegetarian by Han Kang tr. Deborah Smith #WITMonth

A novel in three acts that centre around the middle sister whose behaviour goes relatively unnoticed by those around her until she decides to become vegetarian, because “I had a dream“.

I’m already under the spell of Han Kang, having read Human Acts earlier this year, an extraordinary and unique book and I find The Vegetarian equally compelling, perhaps even more disturbing, a visceral, disturbing depiction of the fragility of the mind and the strange mechanisms, illusions we attach to in order to cope. It won the Man Booker International Prize 2016 and I’m reading it as part of #WITMonth, reading women in translation.

The Vegetarian reminded me of the distressing yet refined style and experience of reading Yoko Ogawa’s novel of interlinked stories Revenge and the shock and compulsion of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but really it is in a league of its own, a remarkable literary expression of the effect of people, our external environment and of our internal methods of coping, questions Han Kang poses through the situations she puts these characters into and our observations of what then happens.

The book is structured into three parts:

I. The Vegetarian – right from the beginning Kang draws up the husband and wife (Yeong-hye) characters with such precision, skill and intrigue, I was completely hooked from those initial pages. Their uneventful life changes suddenly with her decision to become vegetarian, bringing out the worst in everyone.

Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her…However, if there wasn’t any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to get married.

II. Mongolian Mark – this is a reference to a kind of birthmark that disappears post adolescence, it becomes the cause of an infatuation by Yeong-hye’s narcissistic brother-in-law, the obsessive video artist who is inspired to create what he perceives will be his greatest work, if he can convince his sister-in-law to become the subject of his oeuvre, and balance the fine line between art and pornography.

‘Will the dreams stop now?’ she muttered, her voice barely audible.

III. Flaming Trees Yeong-hye is in a psychiatric hospital, her sister her only visitor, the visits and the realisations she is having take their toll on her as she begins to understand her sisters descent from being human into believing that she is like or wishes to become a tree, that all she needs is sunlight and moisture, slowly depriving her human form of sustenance.

This pain and insomnia which, unbeknownst to others, now has In-hye in its grip – might Yeong-hye have passed through this same phase herself, a long time ago and more quickly than most people? Might Yeong-hye’s current condition be the natural progression from what her sister has recently been experiencing? Perhaps, at some point, Yeong-hye had simply let fall the slender thread which had kept her connected with everyday life.

It’s a sad tale of a woman’s descent into madness and how it affects those around her and has the reader wondering if this was brought about by the effect of attitudes and behaviour towards this one woman or whether this was something that was in her all along, something that is in everyone and under certain terrible circumstances can degenerate a sensitive human being into such a state.

Not one to let the reader off so easily Han Kang explores all avenues and leaves the reader continuing to ponder the same questions that perhaps inspired her to create this extraordinary, award-winning novel.

Click Here to Buy a Copy of The Vegetarian via Book Depository

WIT logo

Moloka’i by Alan Brennert

molokaiBorn in Honolulu, Rachel’s Kalama’s memory of childhood with her mother, sister and two brothers is limited to her first six years, a time when life was full of simple joys and memorable returns, the homecomings of her father Henry, who was away at sea for months on end, his return always marked for Rachel by an anticipated gift, a doll he never failed to present to her, from one of the places he had recently visited.

The last doll she received from him was a nesting doll from Russia that he’d bought in Japan, the matryoshka.

Things started to change when her Uncle Pono fell sick and not only were they not allowed to see him, they weren’t to speak of him to anyone.

After a fight with her sister Sarah, which resulted in scratches on her legs, her mother notices a patch of pink skin with a nasty gash in the middle, one that doesn’t cause Rachel to flinch, something that worries her mother and causes her to become paranoid with fear, fear of leprosy, a disease that carries not only a terrible social stigma, but a life sentence if discovered by the authorities, and they will hunt you down at the first hint of suspicion.

It is the beginning of the end of childhood as Rachel has known it when the Health Inspector calls.

Brennert’s novel, largely based on historical fact, follows Rachel through the quarantine process of those suspected of carrying leprosy (Hansen’s disease) and on to life in Kalaupapa on the island of Moloka’i, allowing a glimpse into the community of sufferers and carers, of the pain of isolation and the irony of the freedom of this close-knit, albeit closed community.

“Love, marriage, divorce, infidelity… life was the same here as anywhere else, wasn’t? She realized now wrong she’d been; the pali wasn’t a headstone and Kalaupapa wasn’t a grave. It was a community like any other, bound by ties deeper than most, and people here went to their deaths as people did anywhere: with great reluctance, dragging the messy jumble of their lives behind them.”

It follows the life of a girl raised by Franciscan nuns, befriended by lepers, loved by her Uncle and an adopted Aunty, coming of age, finding one true love, deprived of maternal love and healing both physical and emotional wounds.

Brennert said of his novel:

“I wanted to tell the story of ordinary people who had to make such heartbreaking sacrifices…”

And one his main characters, Sister Catherine:

“I’ve come to believe that how we choose to live with pain, or injustice, or death is the true measure of the Divine within us…I use to wonder, why did God give children leprosy? Now I believe God doesn’t give anyone leprosy. He gives us, if we choose to use it, the spirit to live with leprosy, and with the imminence of death.”

Not just a tale of their suffering and coming to terms with life and death, it is a clash of cultures as a local population is forced to accept the beliefs and rituals of outsiders, a colonial and christian inheritance, where to stay true to one’s own traditions was seen as an act of rebellion or work of the devil even.

Recommended if you enjoy historical fiction based on real events and enjoy literature set in the islands of the Pacific.

End of an Island Era

A mere 16 leprosy patients remain today in this isolated community of Kalaupapa, a place through whom thousands of sufferers have passed since the 19th century. At present, the youngest member of the colony is 73-years-old. Although mandatory exile was lifted by the state in 1969, a number of patients voluntarily decided to stay. They were offered lifetime housing, amenities and healthcare and did not wish to open their community and environment to uninvited visitors. This may change however, when the colony’s last patient dies.

In an interesting article written by Philip Ross in the International Business Times on 5 May, 2015, he mentions:

Kalaupapa’s history is a tragic tale. In 1866, the Hawaiian government banished anyone diagnosed with leprosy, a chronic bacterial infection also known as Hansen’s disease, to Kalaupapa. More than 8,000 lepers were forced to relocate to the island at a time when there was no cure for the infection.

Men, women and children who had the disease were stigmatized and shunned as outcasts out of fear that their condition was highly contagious. The disease, however, cannot easily be passed from one person to another. Leprosy is caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium leprae that grows slowly and affects the skin and nerves. Symptoms of leprosy include skin sores, and lumps and bumps that disfigure the body and can last for several weeks or months.

Read the entire article and see some incredible pictures here:

Further Reading:

Philip Ross, International Business Times Article: Kalaupapa, Hawaii Leper Colony: A Look Inside The Remote Island Home For The State’s Few Surviving Leprosy Patients

 

Kalaupapa leper colony, Moloka'i, circa 1870: Creative Commons

Kalaupapa leper colony, Moloka’i, circa 1870:
Creative Commons