The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante tr. Ann Goldstein

Though it is a relatively slim book compared to what we have come to expect from Elena Ferrante, this novel is just as effective as others at getting to the crux of a woman’s suppressed wound and subsequent behaviour, leaving the reader much to reflect on.

psychological thriller film ItalianI just love the way her novels cast women in various stages of life, and this one, like Troubling Love is set over a summer, but couldn’t be more different, despite the common element of intensity. Our protagonist here is an empty nester.

In The Lost Daughter, an ambiguous title that is left to the reader to decide, Leda, a middle aged divorcée, is facing a long summer; her young adult daughters have now left home, moving to Canada to be with their father.

For the first time in almost twenty-five years I was not aware of the anxiety of having to take care of them.

Though she speaks with them every day, the closeness they had when they were physically present, creates a space, an absence, that begins to fill with other memories, that reach further back to her own childhood.

Freedom and Longing

As the novel opens, she has decided to depart for the summer to the beach, renting an apartment in a seaside town and is looking forward to the freedom. A Professor of English literature, she has brought her work with her, balancing her time between preparation for the year ahead and relaxing at the beach.

I love the scent of resin: as a child, I spent summers on beaches not yet completely eaten away by the concrete of the Camorra – they began where the pinewood ended. That scent was the scent of vacation, of the summer games of childhood.

She drives out of town to find a quiet place and this becomes her preferred beach for the summer. Parked under the pines, she walks through the wooded area to the small beach beyond.

In less than a week, it had all become a peaceful routine. I liked the squeak of the pinecones opening to the sun as I cross the pinewood, the scent of small green leaves that seemed to be myrtle, the strips of bark peeling off the eucalyptus trees.

motherhood obsession Maggie GyllenhaalShe becomes acquainted with the regulars, the boy who puts out the chairs and umbrellas, a young woman with her child, a pregnant woman – part of a large Neapolitan family.

She doesn’t know them, but they feel familiar, they remind her of the family she grew up in, the family she moved away from, both physically and literally.

They were all related, parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, cousins, in-laws, and their laughter rang out noisily. They called each by name with drawn out cries, hurled exclamatory or conspiratorial comments, at times quarreled: a large family group, similar to the one I had been part of when I was a girl, the same jokes, the same sentimentality, the same rages.

Observation and Obsession

She watches in particular, the young mother Nina, and her daughter Lena, eventually engaging with them, observing the family dynamics, revisiting old feelings, remembering events from the past.

She talked to the child and her doll in the pleasing cadence of the Neapolitan dialect that I love, the tender language of playfulness and sweet nothings. I was enchanted. Languages for me have a secret venom that every so often foams up and for which there is no antidote.  I remember the dialect on my mother’s lips when she lost that gentle cadence and yelled at us, poisoned by her unhappiness: I can’t take you anymore, I can’t take any more…That woman, Nina, seemed serene, and I felt envious.

The Lost Daughter Elena Ferrante doll little girl the past

Photo by Isabella CarvalhoPexels.com

When a small drama occurs, it creates an opportunity for her to interact with them; it is from this moment the tension mounts and we realise there is much we do not know about our protagonist, about her motivations for acting the way she does. A sense of unease permeates.

I loved the way this begins like a joyful beach read, the feeling of the end of a teaching year, a mature woman about to enjoy a summer without responsibilities, her children gone, the only clue to something more sinister in the air, a reference halfway to her destination, when an unprompted feeling from the past arises and changes her mood.

It is the promise there is more to this woman than what we have witnessed thus far. We read attentively, alert to anything that seems odd, wondering what might be causing her to be so attentive to this family.

When you finish reading this novella, as I have just discovered now, a few days after finishing it, if you want to experience one final gasp of realisation, go back and reread the first page, that first one page chapter.

The Lost Daughter, The Film

I thoroughly enjoyed this and look forward to seeing what Director Maggie Gyllenhaal and Actor Olivia Colman will bring to the text, in the film that is due to come to the screen at the end of December.

Gyllenhaal is said to have written a letter to Ferrante asking if she could adapt the novel, to which Ferrante responded yes, if she were to direct it herself. The premiere at the Venice Film Festival received a four minute standing ovation.

The thing that drew her to Ferrante, she said, was the writer’s ability to say “these things out loud that I hadn’t really heard anyone say out loud, about mothering, about sex, about desire, about the intellectual life of women, about the artistic life of women.”

You can watch the trailer here.

Further Reading

Interview Guardian, Aug 2020: Elena Ferrante: ‘We don’t have to fear change, what is other shouldn’t frighten us’

Screenrant Film Review, Oct 2021: Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter Is Exquisite & Nuanced by Mae Abdulbaki

Chouette by Claire Oshetsky

Chouette is a second person narrative account written by Tiny (the mother), a professional cellist, to her baby Chouette.

The author Claire Oshetsky describes it as a parable about motherhood, the way she/they experienced raising two non-conforming children. She uses magical realism to magnify and portray a surreal circumstance.

Review

person playing cello Chouette Claire Oshetsky motherhood parable

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Tiny has always been an outsider and she knows her child will be different. She’s wary and unsure how to proceed, knowing it is going to take all she has, to raise her baby the way it will need to be nurtured. Impregnated by an owl, she gives birth to an owl-baby, Chouette.

One of the first things that is sacrificed is her cello playing quartet, and the time she previously spent playing. The instrument might have been sacrificed but music continues to be a part of their lives.

“As for you owl-baby, let’s lay out the facts. Your owlness is with you from the very beginning. It’s there when a first cell becomes two, four, eight. It’s there when you sleep too much, and crawl too late, and when you bite when you aren’t supposed to bite, and shriek when you aren’t supposed to shriek; and on the day that you are born – on the day when I first look down on your pinched-red, tiny-clawed, outraged little body lying naked and intubated in a box – I won’t have the slightest idea about who you are, or what I will become.

But there you will be, and you will be of me.”

Chouette Clairte OshetskyTiny describes to her daughter the story of her conception and arrival into the world and the challenges she has had, both living in a world where her husband, his family and much of the community frown upon this mother and child, and of the mother’s increasing loss of her own sense of self, due to the sacrifices made in order to nurture and allow the child to develop and grow safely.

Tiny sees her offspring as an owl-baby and shares how this magical conception and birth took place, while the husband continues to refer to her as Charlotte. Tiny is tuned into Chouette’s needs, but senses disapproval everywhere, and the more understanding she is of Chouette, the more she feels the external world closing in on her.

“I begin to understand what a gift I’ve been given, to have been chosen for this task. The truth overwhelms me, and humbles me. The birds are telling me that my life’s work, as your mother, will be to teach you how to be yourself – and to honour however much of the wild world you have in you, owl-baby – rather than mould you to be what I want you to be, or what your father wants you to be.”

The story shares these twin perspectives, of the way Tiny sees the world (described through the metaphor of an owl baby and everything she needs, how she behaves and the incongruency of that with the expectations of the existing world they live in) – and the perspective of the husband, who can only see things from the perspective of what he has been conditioned to believe is normal.

motherhood, sacrifice, love,Thus a struggle arises between two ways of seeing, of being, one that requires natural behaviour to be modified, medicated, suppressed, so that the child will appear and behave in the family and society as “normal”, while the other allows for that natural “but judged and condemned” way of being to exist.

Therein lies the central conflict, whether to train a child to fit in with everyone else, a shadow of their former self, or allow them to feel more comfortable in their own skin by being themselves. Rather then compromise, the novel presents the two options as extremes, posing one against the other, mother against father.

Each reader is likely to have a different experience of reading the novel, depending on whether you read it as magical realism or a metaphor. Just as the husband and wife see things so very differently in their perspective and determination about how to raise this child, so too will a reader bring their own perspective, experience and varying degree of open-mindedness to the text.

Music, A Narrative Accompaniment

Throughout the novel there are references to different pieces of music, that resonate with the mood or feeling being experienced, or are used to calm a situation. The author’s daughter, a musician, contributed to this aspect of the novel.

“There’s a lot of music  in the novel, and she was my primary consultant about music. And the other way she helped me was just reminiscing about what it was like for her to live through this shared experience of being a child that was deeply misunderstood and sometimes put in situations that were frightening, even in her school system or with therapists that we went with her to see.”

It is very much Tiny’s narrative and as such, there is little empathy towards the husband’s perspective, which challenges and discomforts the reader.

It is a dark, contemporary tale that couldn’t be more relevant than now, when so many mother’s are facing the same dilemma. Should I follow my own intuitive inclination, because I know this child, I love this child, and when I don’t compare this child to others, I see he/she/they are perfect the way are – or do I listen to what the other, the external world is saying, is judging, is condemning them to, despite reducing them to a shell of who they really are?

Owl Symbolism

Owl Wisdom Branch Green

Photo by Amol Mande on Pexels.com

I found it an incredible, disturbing, yet resonant novel, so mind openly, imaginative in the creation of an owl-like creature to accentuate the reactions and responses non-conforming children invite without asking. The owl a prescient choice, auspicious.

The owl sees in the dark, is an observant listener, with its heightened powers of observation and intuition. In some traditions it possesses paranormal wisdom, regal silence and fierce intelligence. Just like those extraordinary children.

Further Reading

Essay, Refinery 29 – Gender: A Family Story by Claire Oshetsky

NPR Interview: A parable about motherhood, ‘Chouette‘ begins with a human birth to an owl baby – Danielle Kurzleban talks to Claire Oshetsky

Poets & Writers: Ten Questions for Claire Oshetsky

The Author, Claire Oshetsky

Claire Oshetsky is a novelist whose writing has appeared in Salon, Wired, and the New York Times. She lives with her family in California. Chouette is her debut novel.

Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

A Reckoning On Race and The Asian Condition

Essays Race Asian AmericanMinor Feelings is a collection of creative nonfiction essays that invites the reader to view aspects of the life experience of artist and writer Cathy Park Hong, from a little observed and known viewpoint, that of an Asian American woman pursuing her own authentic form of expression, while looking for other role models, disrupting the silence that is expected, through a polemic on race, ethnic origins and art.

There have been a few books published in recent years, on the subject of race and intersectionality, where race intersects with other characteristics such as feminism, gender, class and civil rights.

Cathy Park Hong’s contribution moves between different subjects in seven compelling essays that begin with a memory of her own depression, anger and growing realisation at what was at the core of her disturbance.

In her essays, she deconstructs aspects of life that have contributed to a feeling of oppression and her discovery of artists, comediens and writers, who have overcome something, their example like a stepping stone to her own liberation.

It is a thought provoking exploration of both her own personal experiences and opinions and the examples of other artists, citizens, friends and family that have inspired her to delve into the subject and express a truth.

United

In the opening essay she searches for a therapist, having described what lead her to that moment and then her difficulty in being able to engage with the one she selected.

I wanted a Korean American therapist because then I wouldn’t have to explain myself so much. She’d look at me and just know where I as coming from.

connection race Minor feelings

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Her inability to get what she wants or an adequate explanation, followed by a thought provoking conversation with a friend, prove to be defining moments, as she experiences a moment of equanimity, seeing herself from outside of herself, raising her awareness. Her determination and vulnerability fight it out against each other. Intelligence finally wins.

Racial self-hatred is seeing yourself the way the whites see you, which turns you into your own worst enemy. Your only defense is to be hard on yourself, which becomes compulsive, and therefore a comfort, to peck yourself to death.

Her enterprising and persevering father, who studied his way successfully out of rural poverty, immigrated to the US in 1965 when the ban was lifted. The little detail of the hard working father and the frustrated mother provide a barely visible backdrop to the narrative, yet illuminate a strength, highlight contradictions and suggest future avenues not unexplored by this collection.

Stand Up

In this essay she finds inspiration listening to and watching Richard Pryor’s 1979 classic concert film Live in Concert, leading to an epiphany, a brief career in comedy and a deeper understanding of her world.

Pryor told lies – by spinning stories, ranting, boasting, and impersonating everything from a bowling pin to an orgasming hillbilly. And by telling lies, Pryor was more honest about race than most poems and novels I was reading at the time.

The transparency she finds in stand up comedy is like an apprenticeship in opening up and practicing in front of an audience. Comedians can’t pretend they don’t have an identity. They can’t hide behind words, they stand inside them.

It is here she defines for us what ‘minor feelings’ are, acknowledging a debt to cultural theorist Sianne Ngai who wrote extensively on non-cathartic  ‘ugly feelings‘ – negative emotions such as envy, irritation and boredom.

Minor feelings occur when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance. You are told, “Things are so much better,” while you think, Things are the same. You are told, “Asian Americans are so successful,” while you feel like a failure. This optimism sets up false expectations that increase this feeling of dysphoria.

The End of White Innocence

Here Park Hong looks sideways at childhood, finding her own definition for what that means, dissecting Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, set in 1965 – a violent, landmark year for the civil rights movement, the assassination of Malcom X – yet manages to avoid everything outside the nostalgic memories it recreates.

Moonrise Kingdom is just one of countless contemporary films, works of literature, pieces of music, and lifestyle choices where wishing for innocent times means fetishizing an era when the nation was violently hostile to anyone different.

She writes of innocence and shame, of power dynamics, disobedience and indignity.

The alignment of childhood with innocence is an Anglo-American invention that wasn’t popularised until the nineteenth century. Before that in the West, children were treated like little adults who were, if they were raised Calvinist, damned to hell unless they found salvation.

Bad English

Recalling her early school education and affinity with bad English, her fascination with stationery.

It was once a source of shame, but now I say it proudly: bad English is my heritage. I share a literary lineage with writers who make the unmastering of English their rallying cry – who queer it, twerk it, Calibanize it, other it by hijacking English and and warping it to a fugitive tongue.

An Education

The final essays focus on her university years, her influential friendships and the path of being an artist and eventually moving away from painting and sketching towards poetry and narrative.

The greatest gift my parents gave me was making it possible for me to choose my education and career, which I can’t say for the kids I knew in Koreatown who felt bound to lift their parents out of debt and grueling seven-day workweeks.

Her focus is on her friendship with two friends in particular, unapologetically ambitious artists Erin and Helen, deflecting interest in her mother. The poet Hoa Nguyen persevered:

“You have an Asian mother,” she said. “She has to be interesting.”

I must defer, at least for now. I’d rather write about my friendship with Asian women first. My mother would take over, breaching the walls of these essays, until it is only her.

Portrait of an Artist

Asian American visual artist poetA tribute to thirty one year old artist and poet Theresa Hak Kyung  Cha visual artist and poet who on the day she hand delivered an envelope of photographs of hands, for an upcoming group show at Artists Space Gallery, whose book Dictée had just been published, was raped and murdered on her way to join her husband, by a security guard, who knew her.

Cathy Park Hong comes across Dictée when it is assigned by a visiting professor, ‘a bricolage of memoir, poetry, essay, diagrams and photography.’

Published in 1982..Dictée is about mothers and martyrs, revolutionaries and uprisings. Divided into nine chapters named after the Greek muses, Dictée documents the violence of Korean history through the personal stories of Cha’s mother and the seventeen-year-old Yu Guan Soon, who led the protest against the Japanese occupation of Korea and then died from being tortured by Japanese soldiers in prison.

Struggling to find much out about her, she brings the life of this exceptional artist out of the silence she has been buried, back into focus. What she finds is extraordinary.

The problem with silence is that it can’t speak up and say why it is silent. And so silence collects, becomes amplified, takes on a life outside our intentions, in that silence can get misread as indifference, or avoidance, or even shame, and eventually this silence passes over into forgetting.

The Indebted

The final essay looks back at those to whom she is indebted and discusses this trait as a concept, the weight of it, the gift of it. The difference between indebtedness and gratitude.

Further Listening Reading

Podcast New York Times: Still Processing – The Asian-American poet wants to help women and people of color find healing — and clarity — in their rage. Culture Writers Jenna Wortham & Wesley Moram discuss Minor Feelings & talk to Cathy Park Hong, April 2021

Article The New Yorker: “Minor Feelings” and the Possibilities of Asian-American Identity – Cathy Park Hong’s book of essays bled a dormant discomfort out of me with surgical precision by Jia Tolentino

Interviews – NPR, Goop, Kirkus, NY Times, The Atlantic, Vox, The Yale Review, Medium, Glamour and more.

Cathy Park Hong, Poet, Author

Cathy Park Hong has written three books of poetry Translating Mo’um (2002), Dance, Dance, Revolution (2007) chosen by Adrienne Rich for the Barnard Women Poets Prize, Engine Empire (2012). She is the recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize and fellowships from Guggenheim, the Fulbright Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Her writing on politics and her prose and poetry have appeared in the Village Voice, the Guardian, New Republic, Paris Review, Poetry,  Salon, Christian Science Monitor, and New York Times Magazine.

Minor Feelings was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography, and earned her recognition on TIME’s 100 Most Influential People of 2021 list.

She is the poetry editor of the New Republic and is a full professor at Rutgers-Newark University. 

“Cathy Park Hong’s brilliant, penetrating and unforgettable Minor Feelings is what was missing on our shelf of classics….To read this book is to become more human.” –Claudia Rankine, author of Citizen

The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation 2021 Runner Up + Winner

The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation is awarded annually to the best eligible work of fiction, poetry, literary non-fiction, work of fiction for children or young adults, graphic novel, or play text, written by a woman, translated into English by a translator(s) of any gender, and published by a UK or Irish publisher.

The prize launched in 2017 with the aim of addressing the gender imbalance in translated literature and increasing the number of international women’s voices accessible to a British and Irish readership.

The Long and Shortlist

Translated literary fiction makes up only 3.5% of the literary fiction titles published in the UK, though it accounts for 7% of the volume of sales. You can see the list of 115 eligible titles here, the longlist of 17 titles here (including descriptions of the books) and the shortlist of 8 titles here as shown in the image below.

In 2021, there was a runner up and a winner.

literary fiction memoir short stories novels women in translation

The Runner Up

Strange Beasts of China (Science Fiction/Fantasy) by Yan Ge, translated from Chinese by Jeremy Tiang, published by Tilted Axis Press.

Strange Beasts of China Yan Ge

“Yan Ge imagines a landscape of marvels and terrors that eerily resembles our own everyday world… These fables of love and loneliness, belonging & exclusion, solidarity and otherness, assume an agile and genial English voice in Jeremy Tiang’s translation.”

The Winner

And this year’s winner is….

An Inventory of Losses (Essays/Experimental) by Judith Schalansky, translated from German by Jackie Smith,  published by MacLehose Press.

An Inventory of Losses Judith Schalansky

Described as:

“The stylistic flair, and variety of voice, in Jackie Smith’s mesmerising translation, turn Schalansky’s reminder that ‘Being alive means experiencing loss’ into a journey full of colour, contrast and bittersweet pleasures. A thoroughly memorable winner […] that will surely endure.”

A Line Made By Walking by Sara Baume

I was hesitant to start this knowing it was the last of Sara Baume’s books I had on my shelf to read. I find her work so nourishing and unique, she’s quickly become one of my favourite authors. So what joy, part way through reading this, to learn there is a novel due out in Apr 2022, Seven Steeples.

Navigating the In-Between

Irish literary fiction Visual ArtistA Line Made By Walking takes place over one summer when 26 year old Frankie quits her Dublin bedsit and returns briefly to her parent’s home, before deciding to move temporarily into her grandmother’s slightly decrepit cottage that has long been on the market, since her death over a year ago.

It is a place where she can wallow and wait out a period of depression, create something meaningful, take walks, cycle and test herself on works of art. Her art school days are over, but finding meaning through artistic expression, looking for and noticing it around her, remains important, necessary.

“Why must I test myself? Because no one else will, not any more. Now that I am no longer a student of any kind, I must take responsibility for the furniture inside my head. I must slide new drawers into chests and attach new rollers to armchairs. I must maintain the old highboys and sideboards and whatnots. Polish, patch, dust, buff. And, from scratch, I must build new frames and appendages; I must fill the drawers and roll along.”

Art Creates Structure

Each chapter is titled with a different roadkill or animal species (not living) she has encountered nearby. Everything in the vicinity, plus her stream of consciousness thoughts, link together to create a seamless narrative, like the ripples of a stream bubbling over stones, moving around obstacles. Separate but part of something whole.

Sara Baume Irish literature Bicycle Cycling Ireland

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Though she is not herself at this time, Frankie creates purpose in each day, and while not under observation, makes slow progress. Her mother worries, but allows her the freedom she needs. She resists conventional treatment and takes quiet charge of her own healing.

My parents did not want me to come here to stay. They are, like everybody, fearful of being completely alone and suspicious of people who choose to be. They hesitate, like everybody, to understand how it could heal me, as I believe it can. I believe: I am less fearful of being alone than I am of not being alone.

She fixes the bicycle in the shed and establishes a routine and purpose, an affirmation of the natural order of things, that all life passes. Her grandmother, the dog, a robin, rabbit, rat, mouse, rook, fox, frog, hare, hedgehog and badger. Her photographs grace each chapter.

“Here is another rule for my project: no pets, only wild things. So it can be about the immense poignancy of how, in the course of ordinary life, we only get to look closely at the sublime once it has dropped to the ditch, once the maggots have already arrived at work.”

Artwork Word Association

Though it possesses the barest of plots, I loved it’s meandering style and waymarker structure through an incredible recollection of over seventy art installations, like rabbit holes the reader can burrow into, something Baume encourages us to do.

I urge readers to seek out, perceive and interpret these artworks for themselves.

A Line Made By Walking Sara BaumeThe line made by walking crops up three or four times in the novel, in reference to artworks, the first time in Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows (1890) and represents the division between the field and sky, the sadness inherent in life. It was his final painting.

Having left the city behind, the narrative is as much immersed in the observations of nature around her, in the discoveries to be made on a walk, a cycle, a drive, a visit somewhere; her poetic voice making even the mundane mesmerising.

Again, the novel reads for me, as if the author is speaking, I forget there is a fictional protagonist, after reading her nonfiction Handiwork and listening to Sara Baume talk about her own art making projects, her presence is always there, lurking within the brush strokes of her characters.

Absolutely loved it.

Further Reading/Listening

Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, Spain : “An artist, first and foremost”. An Interview with Sara Baume by Margarita Estévez-Saá

Guardian Interview: Sara Baume: ‘I always wanted to be an art monster’ Feb 2017, Alex Clark

Sara Baume, Author, Visual Artist

Sara Baume Irish AuthorSara Baume, born in 1984, was raised and now lives in County Cork, after having studied Fine Art at Dun Laoghaire College of Art, and Design and Creative Writing at Trinity College, Dublin.

Her fiction and criticism have been published in anthologies, newspapers and journals such as Irish Times, the Guardian, the Stinging Fly and Granta.

She has published two critically acclaimed novels, spill simmer falter wither (2015) winner of the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and A Line Made by Walking (2017) shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize and a work of creative nonfiction Handiwork (2020).

“Baume’s protagonists in both her novels and short stories are solitary people, misfits of our society, mostly representatives of those human beings who find it difficult to adapt themselves to contemporary standards and conventions and who look for different ways of living or rather try to establish alternative communities of life.”

Pre-Order Seven Steeples

If you are interested in the forthcoming novel, it’s available to pre-order as a Limited Edition here

It is a novel about a couple that pushes against traditional expectations, moving with their dogs to the Irish countryside where they embed themselves in nature and make attempts to disappear from society.

Seven Steeples Sara Baume

Corregidora by Gayl Jones (1975)

This is a raw, visceral read and I’m glad I read it in a group discussion. First published in 1975 and edited by Toni Morrison, it was Gayl Jone’s debut novel. 

Corregidor Gayl JonesWritten when the author was 26 years old, a similar age to her young protagonist Ursa Corrie (Corregidora) when we first encounter her. Ursa sings blues in a bar, the first paragraph of the book, reads like a piece of flash fiction, a story in 150 words. Of her marriage to Mutt in Dec 1947, his dislike of her singing after their marriage because he believed marriage changed all that.

“I said I sang because it was something I had to do.”

And in April 1948 after threatening publicly to remove her from the stage, other men throw him out, but he is there waiting for her outside at the end, after that evening her short-lived marriage is over and another man waits for her.

Much of the novel is relayed in dialogue and in sections that reconnect with the past, with things her mother told her, that her grandmother has said to her, and conversations that took place between the grandmother and the great grandmother that Ursa asks her mother about. She visits her mother to ask more about the unsaid.

She sat with her hands on the table.
‘It’s good to see you, baby,’ she said again.
I looked away. It was almost like I was realizing for the first time how lonely it must be for her with them gone, and that maybe she was even making a plea for me to come back and be a part of what wasn’t anymore.

There are things she wants to know, an oral history that is supposed to be passed down to protect them, however there are subjects her mother hasn’t opened up about. About Corregidora, a 19th century slavemaster who fathered both her mother and grandmother. And who her father was.

‘He made them make love to anyone, so they couldn’t love anyone.’

Corregidora Gayl Jones Black Woman Diva

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Ursa feels those things in her, the inherited trauma, but doesn’t understand it. We witness her reactions to things, the duality of her strength at standing up for herself alongside her inability to speak at all.

She has both strength and reticence.

The attack by her husband landed her in hospital, and resulted in doctors removing her womb, the forced sterilisation of Black women part of America’s eugenics policy at the time. This causes Ursa to reflect on the broken line, the passing down of the oral history, the need to ‘create generations’. What is her place now that she is the end of a lineage.

But I am different now, I was thinking. I have everything they had, except the generations. I can’t make generations. And even if I still had my womb, even if the first baby had come – what would I have done then? Would I have kept it? Would I have been like her, or them?

abstract close up cobweb connection

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Trauma experienced pre-conception changes a persons DNA and is passed on. It need not be explained, it is most often not understood, it is lived out through experiences and reactions to them. Present from conception, inherited without notice, it is no wonder that children who inherit both the trauma of the victim (slave or slave descendant) and the DNA of the perpetrator (slave master) are confused, both one thing and its opposite, neither nor, either or.

It was as if she had more than learned it off by heart, though. It was as if their memory, the memory of all the Corregidora women, was her memory too, as strong with her as her own private memory, or almost as strong. But now she was Mama again.

As James Baldwin put it,

“it dares to confront the absolute terror which lives at the heart of love”

Further Reading

Virago Press: Where To Start With Gayl Jones

Article, New Yorker: Gayl Jones’s Novels of Oppression by Hilton Als

Article, The Atlantic: The Best American Novelist Whose Name You May Not Know by Calvin Baker
Essay, New York Times: She Changed Black Literature Forever. Then She Disappeared. In Search of Gayl Jones, whose new novel breaks 22 years of silence by Imani Perry

Gayl Jones, Author

Corregidora The Healing Palmares Oral tradition storytelling Black African American WomenGayl Jones was born in Kentucky in 1949. She attended Connecticut College and Brown University. She is a novelist, poet playwright, professor and literary critic.

She wrote Corregidora (1975), Eva’s Man (1976), and The Healing (1998) which have all recently been republished as Virago Modern Classics.

The Healing was a fiction finalist for the National Book Awards in 1988.

Her most recent and long awaited novel is Palmares (2021). 

The Son of the House by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia

Described as a compelling novel about two women caught in a constricting web of tradition, class, gender, and motherhood and set in Nigeria, I requested this novel via NetGalley earlier this year immediately attracted by the premise and the setting.

Scotiabank Giller Prize 2021, Canada’s Literary Award

Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist Nigerian literary fictionCoincidentally, the day I started reading it, I became aware it was one of the five shortlisted novels for the Canadian literary award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize on the same day the winner was to be announced.

It didn’t win – that award went to journalist/novelist Omar El Akkad for What Strange Paradise, a novel that examines the current refugee crisis and the lengths to which people will go to find home, safety and belonging – however The Son of the House is already an award winning novel and one that addresses important contemporary issues and one I highly recommend reading.

Review

I really enjoyed The Son of the House right from the opening pages; the intrigue set up by the fact that two women have just been kidnapped from within their car on a residential street, we know nothing about who they are or why this has happened. However, it is not the drama that takes centre stage, it is the lives of the characters, who we will come to know.

These two do know this kind of thing can happen and the woman who drove castigates herself for having taken that particular road.

We did not entertain the idea that the police might save us, guns blazing, as happened in the movies. The police themselves, people said, would sometimes tell the family of kidnapped persons to go pay the ransom so that harm would not come to their loved one. They had neither the resources nor the serious desire to pursue kidnappers. There was even speculation that the police might be complicit in some kidnappings. So our only hope, like many kidnapping victims in this country, was that our people would come up with the money.

Since they are going to be spending time together, they decide to share their stories. And thus the reader must wait while getting to know these two women and the circumstances that lead to this intersection of their lives.

Their lives are very different, and both equally fascinating and riveting to read about.

Nwabulu, Orphan, Housemaid, Mother

gender women expectations motherhood The Son of the House

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Nwabulu, lost her mother when she was born and her father remarried soon after.

From that day, the peace and joy of our home moved somewhere else; peace and joy could not stay in the same room as Mama Nkemdilim’s jealousy.

Her stepmother resents her and at the first offer, sends her away to serve for a family. Innocent, yet she seems to go from one terrible situation to another, no adult looking out for her, she is vulnerable to the outside world, even within the supposed confines of an employer’s home.

I had been a housemaid for nearly half my life when I met Urenna. My first sojourn as a housemaid began when I was ten.

She finds a situation finally that suits her, only to be disgraced and sent back again to the village. The situation that occurs is the first instance we become aware of the presence and significance of ‘the son of the house’.

I was a housemaid. He was the son of the house. He would not really know what it was like to work in a place and live and sleep there but still know that it was not home. He would not know and I could not put it into words.

Back in the village, an older woman who has lost her son, appears to offer solace to Nwabulu, but her life too revolves around this traditional symbol, and the lengths to which she will go to fulfill it are devastating.

Although this is a story of women, it is also about the intersection of women and the importance, presence and success of this symbol, ‘the son of the house’ to their society and how it impacts their lives as girls, sisters, young women, and as mothers.

Julie, Sister, Unmarried daughter, Second wife

parental authority expectations gender The Son of the House

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The second woman Julie is single and contentedly having an affair with a married man. She has one brother and he is supposed to be the example and support of his family, according to how their father has raised them.

“By joining the church and getting an education,” he continued, “I brought light to my family. It is the duty of each new person in the line to bring something good to the family, to keep the family going.”

However, due to her brother’s problems, her father makes this her responsibility, on his death bed, that she will work to ensure the success of her brother in meeting his familial duties – here again we realise that these stories, these women’s lives revolve in some way around maintaining the tradition, the status of the patriarchy, in the elevation of and presence of ‘the son of the house’.

I would make a better son of the house, I sometimes thought. But what fell to me was not carrying on the family name but ensuring that the one who was to do so succeeded.

Unexpected Friendships, Synchronicity’s

Cheluchi OnyeMelukwe Onubia Europa Editions UKAs their stories unfold, we also discover the importance of these women’s friendships, both of them have been helped by their best female friend at a turning point in their lives and the mystery gradually unfolds as to what has brought these unexpected allies together.

It’s a riveting read and an insight into Nigerian culture and classism, into how two very different women navigate a traditional patriarchal society and not only survive, but the lengths to which they will go to both meet those cultural/societal expectations, to develop resilience, how they find ways to rise beyond it.

I loved the book and thought the characters were realistic and intriguing and the sense of place evocative.

Here’s the fabulous UK cover version, it was published in the UK by my favourite publisher, Europa Editions in May 2021. Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

Review, Brittle Paper: Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia’s The Son of the House reviewed by Ikhide Ikheloa

Interview, Olongo Africa: I am a child of the 80’s an interview with Uchechukwu Umezurike

Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia, Author

The Son of the House Nigerian LiteratureCheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia is a Nigerian-Canadian lawyer, academic and writer.

She holds a doctorate in law from Dalhousie University and works in the areas of health, gender, and violence against women and children.

Cheluchi divides her time between Lagos and Halifax.

The Son of the House was shortlisted for Canada’s Scotiabank Giller Prize 2021, winner of the Nigeria Prize for Literature 2021, and winner of the Best International Fiction Book Award, Sharjah International Book Fair 2019.

A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards

Literary fiction that manages to be utterly compelling, thought provoking, intense and revelatory. Set in 1970’s East London. It was long listed for the Booker Prize in 2011 and nominated for The Hurston-Wright Legacy Award in 2013.

I read A Cupboard Full of Coats during October with Didi’s Read Soul Lit ReadAlong group on Goodreads.

A Visitation

Booker longlisted Black british literary fictionIt is 14 years since Jinx’s mother died and the knock on her door by a friend of her mother’s she hasn’t seen since then, initiates this weekend like no other, which will bring back all the emotion, rage, resentment, passion and sorrow that has been pushed down so deep for years.

It is an intense and provocative beginning that reveals just enough to pique interest and make the reader begin to ask questions, that we hope the story will reveal. Who was responsible for what happened back then and what part did each of them play?

When Lemon arrives at her door, his first words are “he’s out”.

There were changes around his face; the crow’s feet at the corner of his eyes were wider fanned, the bags beneath them full and heavy, and his old skin bore new lines. His eyes were red-rimmed, the whites yellowed, the expression intense as he looked at me, already asking questions, talking of things that should be whispered even when alone, and it was me that looked away, looked down, wondering if my own eyes were as eloquent as his, afraid that they might be speaking volumes, scared of the things they might have already said.

Jinx’s five year old son Ben arrives for the weekend, a shared custody arrangement; it goes badly, she is reactive, he is upset.

Effect of Unconscious Trauma

There is a sense of suppressed trauma that impacts her ability to mother. The son tries to reach out to her and is unable to connect. Her perceptions and behaviour are inexplicable. When she views her son interacting with Lemon, she can’t grasp the ease they demonstrate.

I was in shock. I had never heard my son like this before. I had simply thought he was a morose child, because morose was how he always was with me. I had never seen this side of him, this laughing chattiness, the non-stop outpouring of everything going on in his life, the pleasure he took from his accomplishments, such as they were. And I felt hurt. Really hurt. Wounded to the core just listening to how natural and happy he could be with a virtual stranger, when I had been trying for nearly five years to have a relationship with him and had come up against brick after brick after brick.

Throughout the course of the weekend, we learn about the lives of Jinx and her mother, widowed at a young age having married a much older man.

The one thing my mother always said about Mr Jackson was that he was a decent man, that he took proper care of things, including this mortgage-free house that he left to her, which she then left to me when I was sixteen and she was dead. Decent enough to ask no more of her than that she occupy it and dedicate her life to raising me, forsaking all other men till I had grown up. ‘Grown up’ she interpreted to mean when I was sixteen. It was ironic that I actually had grown up then. Sixteen and overnight my childhood was over.

Will We Ever Understand Domestic Violence?

rain weather London Black British literary fiction

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We learn about the beginning of her mum’s relationship with Berris. Of his moving in and taking over, Jinx’s growing resentment and jealousy. His volatile nature and her mother’s acceptance of it, of those coats he gives her as apologies.

There are many different kinds of rain, and England is famous for all of them. There are showers that start with a light drizzle, then build up to a steady pour. Then there’s rain that begins drip, drip, gets heavy, then stops then starts and stops and starts again. Then there’s sudden rain that falls quickly when it’s sunny, like its only ambition is to make a rainbow and once it’s done that, it stops. If I had to describe Berris as rain, he was none of those, and the words ‘You won’t even know he’s here’ turned out to be the understatement of the year.

Friendship

A Cupboard Full of Coats Yvvette Edwards

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When the narrative moves back to her sixteenth year, Jinx is her final year at school, sitting O levels. We meet her best friend Sam and observe that she too is going through a transition, two girls that used to do everything together, begin to diverge.

Their relationship begins to change when after a few days of absence the teacher no longer calls Sam’s name in roll call.

It’s like the beginning of the application of a moral code, something stronger than friendship, when womanhood approaches and white lies creep in between friends, as they navigate the shifting status on that precipice between girl and woman, when boys and men begin to enter their lives.

Narrative Structure

The narrative is structured in alternate chapters of the past and the present, so as the weekend progresses, with Lemon’s visit, there is a gradual thawing out and opening up, on both their parts, as Jinx listens and begins to open up, remembering, recalling, each filling in the gaps of the other’s perception of what happened around the time of her mother’s death.

The past concentrates on those month’s leading up to her mother’s death, building suspense as the story closes in on that final day, that until now, no one really had the complete picture of what occurred.

Reading it, we ask ourselves, can healing take place over a weekend? What will Lemon’s visit reveal? What is Jinx hiding?

A Cupboard Full of Coats explores relationships, jealousy, independence, co-dependence and the transitions that happen as a girl becomes a woman, a mother a lover and the vulnerability of women.

The atmosphere she creates, the intensity, the adept characterisation, the confessions and revelations make for a compelling read. Though I read it over a week when I was busy, each time I picked it up, it gripped me and I highlighted thought provoking passages all the way through. The conversation the group had about the book was dynamic, there was a lot of outrage expressed against the characters, the live discussion was a rewarding way to end the book.

Highly Recommended. I’ll definitely be reading her next novel and hope to see more from this talented British author.

Yvvette Edwards, Author

Black British literary fictionYvvette Edwards is a British East Londoner of Montserratian origin and author of two novels, A Cupboard Full of Coats and The Mother.  Her short stories have been published in anthologies including New Daughters of Africa, and broadcast on radio.

Her work has been nominated for a number of literary awards including the Booker Prize. She is particularly interested in writing that challenges the single narrative, giving voice to characters who are absent or under-represented in contemporary fiction.

She was a judge for the inaugural Jhalak Prize for Writers of Colour and the George Floyd Short Story Competition. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Further Information

OneWorld Publications: Yvvette Edwards discusses A Cupboard Full of Coats

The Independent: A Matter of Black and White

Warwick Prize for Women in Translation 2021 Shortlist

It wasn’t that long ago we saw the novels that made the longlist for this prize, but with the winner being announced on 24 Nov, here we are already with the shortlist out!

The 2021 competition received a total of 115 eligible entries of which 17 titles made the initial longlist. The eight shortlisted titles include four novels, two genre-defying works that blend history, essay and fiction, one work of social history, and one collection of poetry. Six source languages are represented: Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Polish, and Russian. The shortlist is dominated by independent publishers.

The judges had this to say:

“This powerful and eclectic shortlist spans a world of stories, from China and Japan to Russia, Rwanda and Algeria. It also salutes the formal boldness and originality of women’s writing around the world today, with books that range from innovative poetry and fiction of many kinds – from the fable to the saga – to works that take non-fiction narrative into exciting new territories. Together, the titles on the list celebrate the literary imagination without boundaries or constraints, served in every case by translations of the highest calibre.”

literary fiction memoir short stories novels women in translation

The full list of shortlisted titles, with their genre and descriptions, in alphabetical order,  below:

Mieko KawakamiBreasts and Eggs, (Fiction/Feminism) translated from Japanese by David Boyd and Sam Bett (Picador)

Breast and Eggs

Breasts and Eggs paints a portrait of contemporary womanhood in Japan and recounts the intimate journeys of three women as they confront oppressive mores and their own uncertainties on the road to finding peace and futures they can truly call their own.

It tells the story of three women: thirty-year-old Natsu, her older sister, Makiko, and Makiko’s daughter, Midoriko. Makiko has traveled to Tokyo in search of an affordable breast enhancement procedure. She is accompanied by Midoriko, who has recently grown silent, finding herself unable to voice the vague yet overwhelming pressures associated with growing up. Her silence proves a catalyst for each woman to confront her fears and frustrations.

On another hot summer’s day ten years later, Natsu, on a journey back to her native city, struggles with her own indeterminate identity as she confronts anxieties about growing old alone and childless.

Through the story of these women, Kawakami paints a portrait of womanhood in contemporary Japan, probing questions of gender and beauty norms and how time works on the female body.

Scholastique MukasongaOur Lady of the Nile, (Fiction/Rwanda) translated from French by Melanie Mauthner (Daunt Books Publishing)

Our Lady of the Nile Scholastique MukasongaParents send their daughters to Our Lady of the Nile to be moulded into respectable citizens, to protect them from the dangers of the outside world. The young ladies are expected to learn, eat, and live together, presided over by the colonial white nuns.

It is 15 years prior to the 1994 Rwandan genocide and a quota permits only two Tutsi students for every twenty pupils. As Gloriosa, the school’s Hutu queen bee, tries on her parents’ preconceptions and prejudices, Veronica and Virginia, both Tutsis, are determined to find a place for themselves and their history. In the struggle for power and acceptance, the lycée is transformed into a microcosm of the country’s mounting racial tensions and violence. During the interminable rainy season, everything slowly unfolds behind the school’s closed doors: friendship, curiosity, fear, deceit, and persecution.

A landmark novel about a country divided and a society hurtling towards horror. In gorgeous and devastating prose, Mukasonga captures the dreams, ambitions and prejudices of young women growing up as their country falls apart.

Judith SchalanskyAn Inventory of Losses, (Essays/Experimental) translated from German by Jackie Smith (MacLehose Press)

An Inventory of Losses Judith SchalanskyA dazzling cabinet of curiosities from one of Europe’s most acclaimed and inventive writers.

Each of the pieces, following the conventions of a different genre, considers something that is irretrievably lost to the world, including the paradisal pacific island of Tuanaki, the Caspian Tiger, the Villa Sacchetti in Rome, Sappho’s love poems, Greta Garbo’s fading beauty, a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, and the former East Germany’s Palace of the Republic.

As a child of the former East Germany, the dominant emotion in Schalansky’s work is “loss” and its aftermath, in an engaging mixture of intellectual curiosity, with a down-to-earth grasp of life’s pitiless vitality, ironic humour, stylistic elegance and intensity of feeling that combine to make this one of the most original and beautifully designed books to be published in 2020.

Maria StepanovaIn Memory of Memory, (essay/fiction/memoir/travelogue/history) translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

In Memory of Memory Maria StepanovaWith the death of her aunt, Maria Stepanova is left to sift through an apartment full of faded photographs, old postcards, letters, diaries, and heaps of souvenirs: a withered repository of a century of life in Russia. Carefully reassembled, these shards tell the story of how a seemingly ordinary Jewish family somehow managed to survive the myriad persecutions and repressions of the last century.

In dialogue with writers like Roland Barthes, W. G. Sebald, Susan Sontag and Osip Mandelstam, In Memory of Memory is imbued with intellectual curiosity and a soft-spoken, poetic voice. Dipping into various forms – essay, fiction, memoir, travelogue and historical documents – Stepanova assembles a panorama of ideas and personalities and offers a new and bold exploration of cultural and personal memory.

Maria StepanovaWar of the Beasts and the Animals, (Poetry/Experimental) translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale (Bloodaxe Books)

War of the Beats Maria StepanovaOne of Russia’s most innovative and exciting poets and thinkers, though high-profile in Russia, her reputation has lagged elsewhere.

War of the Beasts and the Animals includes recent long poems of conflict ‘Spolia’ and ‘War of the Beasts and Animals’, written during the Donbas conflict, as well as ‘The Body Returns’ commemorating the Centenary of WWI. In all three poems Stepanova’s assured and experimental use of form, her modernist appropriation of poetic texts from around the world and her consideration of the way that culture, memory and contemporary life are interwoven make her work pleasurable and relevant.

This collection includes two sequences of poems from her 2015 collection Kireevsky: sequences of ‘weird’ ballads and songs, subtly changed folk and popular songs and poems that combine historical lyricism and a contemporary understanding of the effects of conflict and trauma. Stepanova uses the forms of ballads and songs, altering them so they appear to be refracted in moonlit water. The forms seem recognisable, but the words are fragmented and suggestive, weaving together well-known refrains of songs, familiar images, subtle half-nods to films and music.

Małgorzata SzejnertEllis Island: A People’s History, (Nonfiction/History) translated from Polish by Sean Gasper Bye (Scribe UK)

Ellis Island A Peoples HistoryA landmark work of history that brings voices of the past vividly to life, transforming our understanding of the immigrant experience.

While living in New York, journalist Małgorzata Szejnert would gaze out from lower Manhattan at Ellis Island, a dark outline on the horizon and wonder about the people, journeys and stories that passed through there. 

Ellis Island draws on unpublished testimonies, memoirs and correspondence from internees and immigrants, including Russians, Italians, Jews, Japanese, Germans, and Poles, along with commissioners, interpreters, doctors, and nurses — all of whom knew they were taking part in a tremendous historical phenomenon.

At the book’s core are letters recovered from the Russian State Archive, a heartrending trove of correspondence from migrants to their loved ones back home. Their letters never reached their destination: they were confiscated by intelligence services and remained largely unseen.

Today, the island is no less political. In popular culture, it is a romantic symbol of the generations of immigrants that reshaped the US. Its true history reveals that today’s immigration debate has deep roots. Now a master storyteller brings its past to life, illustrated with unique photographs.

Yan GeStrange Beasts of China, (Fantasy/Science Fiction) translated from Chinese by Jeremy Tiang (Tilted Axis Press)

Strange Beasts of China Yan GeIn the fictional Chinese town of Yong’an, human beings live alongside spirits and monsters, some of almost indistinguishable from people.

Told in the form of a bestiary, each chapter introduces us to a new creature – from the Sacrificial Beasts who can’t seem to stop dying, to the Besotted Beasts, an artificial breed engineered by scientists to be as loveable as possible. The narrator, an amateur cryptozoologist, is on a mission to track down each breed, but in the process discovers that she might not be as human as she thought.

Alice ZeniterThe Art of Losing, (Historical Fiction/Algeria) translated from French by Frank Wynne (Picador)

The Art of LOsing Alice ZeniterNaïma has always known  her family came from Algeria – until now, that meant little to her. Born and raised in France, her knowledge of that foreign country is limited to what she’s learned from her grandparents’ tiny flat in a crumbling French housing estate: the food cooked for her, the few precious things they brought with them when they fled.

Of the past, the family is silent. Why was her grandfather Ali forced to leave? Was he a harki – an Algerian who worked for and supported the French during the Algerian War of Independence? Once a wealthy landowner, how did he become an immigrant scratching a living in France?

Naïma’s father, Hamid, says he remembers nothing. A child when the family left, in France he re-made himself: education was his ticket out of the family home, the key to acceptance into French society. Now, for the first time since they left, one of Ali’s family is going back. Naïma will see Algeria for herself, will ask questions about her family’s history that till now, have had no answers.

Spanning three generations across seventy years, The Art of Losing tells the story of how people carry on in the face of loss: the loss of a country, an identity, a way to speak to your children. It’s a story of colonisation and immigration, and how in some ways, we are a product of the things we’ve left behind.

* * * * * * *

So what do you think? The Lady of the Nile and The Art of Losing are the two that stand out for me, though I could easily be tempted by a few others as well.

Watch this space for the winner in two weeks time on 24 November!

The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore (1976)

Brian Moore 100

2021 is the centenary year of his birth for Northern Irish writer Brian Moore (1921-1999), academically celebrated at Brian Moore 100 and by interested readers in the year long Brian Moore ReadAlong. I have read and reviewed two titles, Lies of Silence (1990) and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955) and I have The Magician’s Wife (1997) plus No Other Life (1993) still on the shelf.

A Distrustful Reader

Brian Moore 100 Northern Irish Literature literary fictionI enjoyed Lies of Silence, however was completely wound up by his treatment of the character in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, a feeling of indignation in his treatment of the female protagonist that was expounded on by Colm Tóibín who admitted:

“that Moore clearly knew that you could achieve certain effects by writing about a woman in the Ireland of his time which you could not achieve in writing about a man, the same behaviour would not bring disgrace, pity perhaps, tolerance certainly, humour most likely, incarceration – never”

I came to The Doctor’s Wife, another novel in which Moore again takes on the voice and attempts to get into the mind of a female protagonist, with significant caution and a not unreasonable dose of distrust.

The Plot: Awaiting her husband’s arrival on holiday in France, Sheila Redden, quiet, middle-aged doctor’s wife from Northern Ireland, suddenly finds herself caught up in an illicit affair with a young American ten years her junior.

The novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1976.

To Prelude or Not

Brian Moore The Doctor's Wife Paris Hotel

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In a short prelude to the first chapter, Shelia’s brother arrives in Paris and from what we glean Shelia has disappeared and there is a letter waiting for her at a friend Peg’s apartment, from a T. Lowry in the US. Shelia’s brother phones this man in America; he says is he is sorry, he can’t help.

The prelude creates an element of intrigue, an unnecessary addition reading it in 2021, though it may have affected readers differently in 1976, by what it implied. That no one knows where she is. That we know where she is not.

Backing Up to the Beginning

Due to his commitments as a Doctor, Shelia’s husband delays his departure for their holiday, they are returning to the Mediterranean  where they honeymooned sixteen years ago. Sheila travels on alone to Paris.

Staying in Paris with her friend Peg, Sheila’s emotions are overwhelmed by the mix of frustration at her husband and the nervous excitement of being in the city with her confident friend, who introduces Ivo, her lover four years younger than herself. Sheila is in awe of Peg’s way of life, the result of having continued her education, pursued a career, travel.

She lives like a man, free, having affairs, travelling, always in big cities, whereas, look at me,  stuck all these years at home, my M.A. a waste. I don’t think I could even support myself anymore. ‘You know’, she said to Peg, ‘it’s working and travelling that keeps a person young. It’s sitting at home doing nothing that makes you middle-aged in your mind. I was just thinking about it the other day. It’s as if the only part of my life that I look forward to now is my holidays. There’s something terribly wrong about that.’

It is through Ivo she becomes acquainted with Tom, the two keep each company while waiting for Peg. Tom is taking a year after his Anglo-Irish Lit studies at Trinity in Dublin to think about his next step. Sheila enjoys being able to talk with Tom on a subject she is virtually forbidden to elsewhere; speaking animatedly about literature to a man at a party has being the cause of reprimand by her husband in the past. Trying to engage with her husband in conversation fails every time these days.

While initially petulant and annoyed with her husband for putting his work ahead of their holiday, at a certain point Sheila begins to will him not to come. The distance and solitude heightens her feelings towards everything. She is at the beginning of developing a kind of resistance, even if that shows itself through what appears to be recklessness. Eventually she will embrace it, learn from it and change.

Before anything is even hinted at with this young man, while still in that isolated wonder of being alone in Paris, with her friend, engaging in a social life, and interesting conversation, she asks herself:

What about those men you read about in newspaper stories who walk out of their homes saying they are going down to the corner to buy cigarettes and are never heard from again? This is Paris. I am here. What if I never go back? page 42

Looking back at this now, it is clear that this thought indicated a turning point for Sheila, who throughout the novel is referred to as Mrs Redden, unless represented in dialogue when she is Sheila. From here she departs Paris to Cap Ferrat, knowing she has at least a few days until her husband may or may not join her. As she gets out of the hotel bath, the telephone rings.

The Objectification of a Man

Love Entrapment Escape The Doctors Wife Brian Moore

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The rest of the story portrays Sheila’s continued attempts to resist what is occurring, until she doesn’t. The focus is always on her, on her thoughts, her decisions, her mind. It is not a novel that looks into the mind of a 27 year old man.

Ironically, the young man is objectified, something more common to woman characters, but here Brian Moore diverges and flips the coin, reducing HIM to an object of sexual pleasure and gratification. Though he doesn’t go so far as to emasculate him, he risks the character of Tom being perceived as inauthentic, for the very reasons Tóibín above, referred to.

Men too, were expected to behave in certain ways, even while conducting illicit affairs. However, Tom is a post-war baby, a baby boomer, he is of a different generation and from another culture, it is quite normal that his behaviour will be perceived by some as childish, ill-considered, unrealistic. Personally, I could believe it. Sheila was born before the war, she was indeed a Traditionalist. In a sense then, her behaviour and responses are the more radical.

Moore however is clear, he elicits only her thoughts, provoking her to express them aloud, to hear herself speak. What she has to say is far more interesting.

‘I don’t know’ she said. ‘Some people never want to go outside the place they were born in. And others seem to want to run away from the day they’re old enough to walk.’

‘And which are you?’

‘A runaway.’

‘But you didn’t leave, did you?’ 

When it becomes clear what Sheila is contemplating, the men in her life, her husband and her brother will resort to the kind of tools that men in power, medical men were able to use to exercise control over what they considered a wayward woman. There’s a history of mental illness in Sheila’s family, something her husband doesn’t hesitate to consider using to his advantage. It is a scary moment.

Understanding Women

It is to his credit, that Brian Moore takes a different approach twenty years after writing about Judith Hearne. This time he pursues other perspectives, making thought provoking choices that engage the reader. 

Female empowerment Women

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It reads like a kind of thriller because she acts so out of convention and the longer she does so, the more likely it seems there is a possibility she might indeed be upending her life.  The reader can feel she is hovering between two choices. The detail with which her encounters are shared and the response of her family to them, increase this duality.

I really enjoyed this, perhaps because I did read it with that level of distrust and was therefore surprised to see how much the author’s perception of a woman character had developed. Although, here too, I had a sense of the author almost writing this in collaboration, I imagined him discussing and arguing this premise with his women friends, or was he reflecting on his own doomed affair? Who knows, but he left me wanting to know more, wanting to pursue Sheila further in her adventure towards liberation.

This one I definitely recommend!

Have you read any Brian Moore this year?