The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

This second volume of Deborah Levy’s Living Autobiography trilogy has a completely different feel to the first Things I Don’t Want to Know, stuck as that first volume was, between the parameters of George Orwell’s four motivations in Why I Write and Levy’s own resistance to engaging with aspects of her subject that were rearing up to confront her.

Things I Didn’t Want to Know But Have Discovered

The Cost of LIving Deborah Levy memoirSo we now know a little of her motivation, however now comes the struggle, as she must balance writing with the cost of living; her circumstances have changed and we are going to learn how she manages as a single, independent mother.

This time she creates her own structure, using a series of 14 interlinked vignettes, episodes within the journey of releasing herself from a life lived within what were once deemed the acceptable parameters of a societal construct “marriage”, into the undoing of and reconstruction of something like “the pursuit of” but not quite, freedom.

In the opening, a 19 year old woman character is being chatted up by a man referred to as ‘Big Silver’, he is the wrong audience for the young woman’s story, however Levy decides she is the right reader for this one:

“To speak our life as we feel it is a freedom we mostly choose not to take”.

The young woman has the audacity to interrupt the man’s narrative sharing her own poignant story, as Levy introduces us to one of the recurring themes of her book, minor and major characters.

It had not occurred to him that she might not consider herself to be a minor character and him the major character. In this sense she had unsettled a boundary, collapsed a social hierarchy, broken with usual rituals.

Using the Master’s Tools

Levy’s observations are astute, comical and laced with self-irony, questioning the role and discovering the tenacity of the woman writer, though her verse is peppered with an abundance of references hailing from the tradition of well documented and taught, dead white men.

In the opening sentence she reminds us that Orson Welles once said, if we want a happy ending, it depends on where we stop the story. His words will frame the book and are thought provoking sure, but he was also known for saying there were three intolerable things in life, cold coffee, lukewarm champagne and overexcited women.

Was this irony ?

Or was it the result of a slanted education of a certain era/affiliation. It speaks to what is being read and consumed and to an old monopoly on ideas, that rendered a canon of white men the originators of knowledge.

louise_bourgeois_maman

Louise Bourgeois ‘Maman’

For this reader, it was taken too far when redecorating her bedroom, upon rejecting the bright yellow, embraced too soon (overexcited), she repainted the walls white and chose to hang a portrait of Oscar Wilde, while on the same page, looked at photos of British sculptor Barbara Hepworth and French artist Louise Bourgeois that graced her fridge and wrote of them “the forms they were inventing gave them beauty without measure,” additionally sharing that the moths seem to like landing on those two.

Bourgeois had unfashionably declared that she made art because her emotions were bigger than herself.

Unable to relate to the women, it is towards Proust she inclined, when he said:

Ideas come to us as the successors to griefs, and griefs at the moment when they change into ideas, lose some part of their power to injure the heart.

Sister Outsider Speaks to Me

As I let this frustration percolate, trying to understand it, I wondered about the difference between gender politics and feminism. I admit that my annoyance has much to do with a decision to address an imbalance in my own reading when I started counting and analysing what I read and discovered too much of the same thing by the same type of people. So forgive me for projecting.

Sister OutsiderA voice repeated in my mind, ‘the master’s tools, the master’s house’ – you know when you recall a fragment of a quote but can’t quite remember it. It was the passionate sage wisdom of Audre Lorde reminding me of her essay, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House in Sister Outsider (1984). Four pages of thought provoking, mind opening courageous speech.

“For women, the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power is rediscovered. It is this real connection that is feared by the patriarchal world.”

Audre Lorde speaks too of those standing outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women and suggests that it is learning how to stand alone, unpopular, sometimes reviled, and to make common cause with others identified as outside the structures, that we can create a world in which we can all flourish.

“It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”

Freedom Hurts

Freedom is not to be pursued lightly, as she discovers when she exits her marriage and Victorian home as she enters her 50’s and a 6th floor apartment with her two daughters, soon developing the physical and energetic strength to endure it.

Freedom is never free. Anyone who has struggled to be free knows how much it costs.

Each vignette explores this struggle to cope and live with this new freedom, through a series of anecdotes that allow certain themes to repeat and by the time we read Gravity, she has been loaned a shed in the bottom of a garden in which to write and is kept to task by random apples that fall on the roof.

As I begin to read The Body Electric the writing energy and pace picks up a notch, we are out of the apartment and the shed, out of her head and on the road and what a hazardous place it is, but what energy and humour it brings to the narrative. Cycling became an obsession and kept her rage off the page.

I cursed and shouted at drivers when they opened their front doors in a way that toppled me on to the road. I had road rage. Yes, I had graduated to road rage on my electric bicycle. That is to say, I had a lot of rage from my old life and it expressed itself on the road.

There is the tiresome neighbour who waits for her to arrive to tell her off about temporary parking, intent on making her life more difficult, a situation various friends are keen to advise her on. But Jean is essential to the narrative, her ability to irritate prompts the author to ponder on what a woman is, on what she should be, or not be, a question she has no time to ask Jean.

It was possible that femininity, as I had been taught it was coming to an end. Femininity as a cultural personality, was no longer expressive for me. It was obvious that femininity, as written by men and performed by women, was the exhausted phantom that still haunted the twenty-first century. What would it cost to step out of character and stop the story?

yellow flowers in brown woven basket on bicycle

Photo by Valeriia Miller on Pexels.com

And in the middle of The Black and Bluish Darkness as she is riding up the hill in the rain, comes the most tender and humorous moment, we can afford to laugh reading in the comfort of home, but imagining the scene (no spoilers) and the reminder of the underlying reality, feels a little heart-breaking – except we know she does not indulge in self-pity, and has wonderful friends to call on. She recovers well, reaching out to one of them, who arrives with a box of strawberries and runs a bath for her. There it is, that redemptive power, those good, reliable female friends that no woman can do without.

Levy further explores the lives of other role models and how they managed to write, love, being woman and further reflects on her own role model, her mother, who even after she has passed, whose loss results in Levy sometimes literally getting lost, severed from her origins, somehow manages to remain present, symbolically.

It is certainly the case that there are fewer references and tomes written by women in previous centuries that analyse the sacrifices they make to pursue their art and ideas. That freer life a writer desires comes with a cost of living and women have long been making it easier for others to manifest their dreams while either sacrificing their own, or sacrificing something else in their determination to attain them.

Making her lived experience the lens through which she observes the role of the woman writer, Levy provokes us all to think more about the choices and sacrifices we make and the balancing act required to pursue our creativity and passions.

Next Up : Real Estate!

Further Reading

Guardian Review: The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy review – a memoir and feminist manifesto

Article: Why Not Ask a Powerful Man What He’s Doing to Help Women? By Stella Bugbee

Article France Culture: Louise Bourgeois, “une femme enragée et agrippée” (1911-2010)

Review: Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Healing Women magic realism slavery freedomI loved how this historical novel focuses on the lives of these women, Rue her mother May Belle and grandmother Ma Doe and the community within which they live, without allowing the narrative to stray over too far into the lives and homes of those who diminished their lives.

It is set in two time periods, just before and just after the civil war, so Freedomtime from 1867 onward Surrender 1865 and Slaverytime from May 1861. In particular it inhabits the Reconstruction era, the brief hollow of time between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Jim Crow era, ten years that would have been strangely bittersweet, fraught with disbelief.

Mostly the narrative revolves around Rue who wasn’t taught her mother’s skills yet learned them all the same. Healing and conjuring, midwifery and herbal remedies. Setting things to right.

Other slavefolk got hired out for their washing, for their carpentering, for their fine greasy cooking. Miss May Belle was hired for her hoodooing.

“Hoodoo,” Miss May Belle used to say “is black folks currency.”

She had admitted only once, to Rue, in confidence: “The thing about curses is that you can know who you’ve wronged the most by who you fear has the notion to curse you.”

By shifting the narrative back and forth to tell the story, the reader, like Rue is kept in suspense regarding some of the terrible wrongs done to people, some on the connections and relations between people.

photography of fruits on a tray

Photo Valeria Boltneva @Pexels.com

In the slave masters house there is a young girl Varnia, who is Rue’s age and her playmate. Then there is Sarah, also of similar age, who gives birth in the opening pages to a baby born enveiled in a caul, which provokes people’s superstitions. Rue develops a connection to this baby who seems other worldly.

When the communities babies begin to suffer from a mysterious illness, they begin to distrust her and her methods and rely instead on a charistmatic travelling preacher Bruh Abel, whom Rue has strange feelings for. She hatches a plan to try and bring favour back her way, but it backfires on her and she will seek his help to restore their faith.

She’d known him for what he was then. He was a clear-water cure sweetened with nothing more than clever words a con man’s type of conjure.

Conjure Women CovrIn May Belle’s time, one of the ways to effect a conjure was to make a doll that bore a resemblance to the person and if possible to access strands of hair to entwine with whatever material was used. Varina has porcelain dolls that Rue admires and is envious of, when she discovers her mother is making a doll that faintly resembles her, she pretends not to notice she has discovered it, and will mask even further her disappointment when she misreads its purpose.

Reading this story, made me reflect on how many historical fiction narratives of slavery, civil war and early freedom are told from within the Household and the fields. And how as readers we often come to expect that. How refreshing that Afia Atakora stays with these women and tells their stories from a different vantage point, not needing to take us into the politics of their war, or the lives or agenda of those in the House.

There is one scene where Rue is present for an event that takes place inside the Master’s house and it is telling that she observes the entire scene from within a locked box, that she can lift only slightly, therefore only seeing a sliver of what takes place.

Atakora does the same to her readers, when it comes to observing slave masters and mistresses and white people in her narrative. They never take centre stage even if they still maintain the ability to commit gross acts that impact the lives of her characters.

“We tend to paint slavery in America in broad strokes. There are these pervasive singular images of overseers and cotton fields. We think of it in terms of Amendments and Proclamations and Battles. But it’s a vast 200+ years of history filled with nuance and complexity and no two experiences could have possibly been alike.”

It’s a novel that demonstrates the effect of conditioning, regardless of changed circumstances, the legacy of bondage and the aspects of genetic inheritance that refuse to be extinguished through the will of others.

“Rue-baby” Miss May Belle would’ve said, “there ain’t no easier lie to tell folks than the one they wanna believe.”

A thought provoking read that shakes up conventional storytelling and vantage points.

Further Reading

Interview: A Conversation with Afia Atakora on Conjure Women

Afia Atakora

Afia Atakora was born in the United Kingdom and raised in New Jersey, where she now lives. She graduated from New York University and has an MFA from Columbia University, where she was the recipient of the De Alba Fellowship. Her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and she was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers.

 

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

I was looking forward to reading this after it won the Women’s Prize for fiction and having been tempted by her earlier work, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell but put off by the length of it.

Piranesi Winner Susanna ClarkeFantasy isn’t a genre I read very often, but one I have a nostalgic feeling for, having loved it when I was a child. The problem usually being that it becomes harder to evoke the magical feeling that a child’s imagination is capable of creating. However I was willing to try and decided to read it on a day I’d have few interruptions.

I learned after finished it, that the name Piranesi, is likely to have been inspired by the 18th century Italian classical archaeologist, architect and artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1728) and his series of 16 etchings, Carceri d’invenzione or Imaginary Prisons, depicting enormous subterranean vaults with stairs and towers and bas-relief type sculptures.

If Jonathan Strange was a riotous meeting of Austen and Dickens, then Piranesi’s pole stars are Jorge Luis Borges and CS Lewis. “I found Lewis at a very impressionable age and then he sort of organised the inside of my head,” she says. “And that’s just the way it has been ever since.”

Review

Piranesi, the main character of the novel, lives in a house that has walls and multiple levels and statues and tides and fish and the bones of 13 bodies. More than a house, this is his world. Nothing outside this house exists for Piranesi and as we read we slowly begin to imagine it ourselves.

I spent today working at my usual tasks: fishing, gathering seaweed, working on my Catalogue of Statues.

Piranesi is content, though inquisitive. There is only one other person in his world, whom he refers to as The Other. The Other calls him Piranesi.

Since the World began it is certain that there have existed fifteen people. Possibly there have been more; but I am a scientist and I must proceed according to the evidence. Of the fifteen people whose existence is verifiable, only Myself and the Other are living.

It is clear to the reader that Piranesi is more open and honest with The Other than he is with Piranesi. Thus the mystery underlying the story, about who he is and what he is withholding from Piranesi.

Piranesi keeps journals, using his own calendar creation and indexing system. These will help him understand.

The Other believes that there is a Great and Secret Knowledge hidden somewhere in the World that will grant us enormous powers once we have discovered it.

Piranesi CoverDespite Piranesi’s scientific status, he is developing a connection to the World within he lives, in which he is able to ask questions and intuit answers.

The Other warns him about things that may happen and Piranesi has to use what knowledge he has and his developing ability to sense things, to navigate this new situation. To understand messages and develop meaning from his observations that inspire those intuitive nudges.

The warning of the birds – if that was what it was – seemed on the face of it nonsensical, but I decided nonetheless to follow this unusual line of reasoning and see where it took me.

I enjoyed reading it and the slow way that the reader is made to experience something of Piranesi’s own “forgetting”, by only seeing and understanding what is around him, without an appreciation for what exists outside the world, the House, he currently resides in. And his development of that other sense that provides meaning.

This realisation – the realisation of the Insignificance of the Knowledge – came to me in the form of a Revelation. What I mean by this is that I knew it to be true before I understood why or what steps had led me there.

I loved the not knowing, and that process of beginning to understand, the sense of there being an acknowledgment of so much more than what was in the story. Of the natural world, connectedness, a sense of the divine, that all these things are seen as transgressive, the act of forgetting due to rational thought and science becoming the only true authority.

If anything, I felt it stopped short and wondered if this might not have been a longer story, had it been able to develop further, perhaps it reflects the state of where the world is, stuck in this era of rational thought, on the precipice of rediscovering ancient knowledge and intuitive power, of realising who and what we really are, our capacity if we can move beyond the current limitations. I enjoyed it in the moment of reading it, but due to the limitations and sparseness of his world, I’m not sure that it stay long with me.

Further Reading

Guardian Review – Taking on uncanny relevance this year, this austere story of one man’s isolation explores profound questions of freedom by Justine Jordan

Guardian Interview – how the celebration of solitude in Piranesi, grew from her experience of a long illness

Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve tr. Adriana Hunter

Winter Flowers Angélique VilleneuveWinter Flowers (Les Fleurs d’hiver) by Angélique Villenueuve, translated by Adriana Hunter is published Oct 7 by Peirene Press, a boutique publishing house, specialising in high-quality first-translations of contemporary European novellas that can be read in an afternoon.

Review

A young woman in 1918 Paris is considered one of the fortunate, when her husband returns from war injured. Wearing a face mask. He lived. He is not the same man who left. When Toussaint Caillet was transferred from the department of facial injuries at Val-de-Grâce military hospital, he sent Jeanne a one sentence note ordering her not to visit.

They have a 3 year old daughter who only knows her father by the portrait of the soldier on the wall of their cramped quarters. She has two fathers, the Papa who left and the man who returned.

Of course she’d expected that the war and his injury would have changed him, but she’d never tried to imagine the scale or even the nature of this disruption. The letter he’d sent her in January 1917 had been a dark window and, once she’d stomached the pain of it, she’d made a point of not reopening it.

Jeanne works from home making artificial flowers, she is trying to be patient and understanding, but her husband’s refusal to engage inflames her.

Sitting at her table, Jeanne senses nothing. It has to be said that the huge red dahlias, whose wound-like qualities are accentuated by the light of the oil lamp, completely absorb her in a swirl of scarlet. The repeated gestures gradually steal over her body, leaving no part of her in which she can drift. When Jeanne sleeps or closes her eyes, when she’s most absent in mind or body, she knows this much: the flowers are still there and always will be.

red dahlia winter flowers angélique villeneuve wound like

Photo David JakabPexels.com

When he finally leaves the room, she follows him. It is not the first time.

Her neighbour Sidonie, a seamstress, has lost almost everything, they support each other. She is about to be tipped over the edge.

Winter Flowers exquisitely renders a situation many lived through and few understood. The silence and destruction of men who survived, who came back traumatised. Who never spoke of what happened. Who may or may not have healed. And the women who stood beside them, who persevered, who sacrificed and learned to live with the reality of what they too had lost.

Like all women whose husbands or sons had been mobilised, though, she’d heard countless stories about men’s homecomings. Poor women. Those who entrusted a sheep to their country  were given back a lion. Someone who’d sent out a young lad was said to have come home an old man, or mad.

And there were so many, Jeanne was well aware, who would never come home at all.

Despite the terrible events and circumstances, the hopes and fears, the woman too must participate and receive the words of recognition from those in power, despite their grief, unable to express their truth.

The mayor’s words are incomprehensible they come and go and sting. Jeanne doesn’t know whether it’s up to them, the women here, these workwomen, to tame the words and arrange them in the correct order, whether it’s really to them that they’re addressed. They flow too quickly. They fly too high. There are too many of them.

Thunder and fire, men freezing and caked in mud and half poisoned by noxious gases, heroes, brothers, love, defeat, hope, victory, history peace, blood, martyrs, children. His speech is riddled with these impassioned fragments. And, just like the battles experienced by those who are now dead, these official words accumulate terrifyingly, chaotically over the gathering. It’s a bombardment, and Jeanne, busy as she is shoring up her neighbour’s faltering frame, struggles to withstand its fire for more than a few minutes.

It is a lament, a form of consolation, a living mourning, of how a family rebuilds itself after an event that has wreaked devastation on them all. Day by day, acknowledging the small wins, with patience, forgiveness, empathy and imagination.

I loved it.  A heart-rending, visceral account of loss and the accompanying overwhelm of steadfast perseverance. The tidal-like edge of madness and the surreal act of continuing despite it. Women.

Every few pages, I marked passages, highlighted sentences and rereading them as I write this, felt like going back to beginning and reading it over again, so rare is it to encounter this perspective, to share how it might have been for those who waited and wailed, who persevered and attempted to recreate a new life from the wreck of what returned.

Angélique Villeneuve writes with great empathy, sensitivity and understanding in narrating a story from the little explored perspective of the young working woman dealing with the aftermath of war, in which they have all changed and must live in a post traumatic world, with little knowledge of how to navigate it.

Angélique Villeneuve, Author

Born in Paris in 1965, Angélique Villeneuve lived in Sweden and India before returning to her native France. The author of eight novels, she has also written numerous children’s books and poetry.

Les Fleurs d’hiver, originally published in 2014, won four literary prizes: the 2014 Prix Millepages, the 2015 Prix La Passerelle and Prix de la Ville de Rambouillet, and the 2016 Prix du Livre de Caractère de Quintin.

Villeneuve’s novel Maria (2018), won the SGDL Grand Prix for fiction. Her most recent work, La Belle Lumière (2020), is a fictional account of the life of Helen Keller’s mother.

Winter Flowers is the first of her books to be translated into English.

Adriana Hunter, Translator

An award-winning British translator, Adriana Hunter has translated over ninety books from French, mostly works of literary fiction. She won the 2011 Scott Moncrieff Prize for her translation of Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi (Peirene Press, 2010) and the 2013 French-American Foundation and Florence Gould Foundation Translation Prize for her translation of Hervé Le Tellier’s Electrico W. Her translations have been shortlisted twice for the International Booker Prize.

N.B. Thank you to Peirene Press for providing me a review copy.

Winter Flowers Angélique Villeneuve French Literature

Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy

There are two ways of reading Deborah Levy’s slim memoir, the first in her Living Autobiography trilogy:

things-i-dont-want-to-know-deborah-levy1. just open it and start reading taking in what is actually shared at face value, a woman on the cusp of a life change, whose suppressed emotions will no longer stay down, who leaves town to try and figure them out, looks back at her childhood and adolescence for inspiration, then decides to look forward instead and begins to write (on the last page);

or,

2. consider the framework within which she writes; a response to the essay ‘Why I write’ by George Orwell, who claimed 4 chief motivations, in this order:
i. sheer egoism
ii. aesthetic enthusiasm
iii. historical impulse
iv. political purpose

which Levy moves around, addressing but not – in the following rearranged order.

i. political purpose – her feminist awakening opening, as she ponders her role and her desire, supported by poignant quotes from Simone de Beauvoir, Margurite Duras and others, culminating in a brief getaway, escape to Palma, Mallorca, reading her journal ‘Poland 1988‘ in which she witnesses a soldier’s farewell to his mother, sister, girlfriend.

What interests me (in my sheriff’s notebook) is the act of kissing in the middle of a political catastrophe.

ii. historical impulse – her white South African childhood in which her father is imprisoned and her mother sends her to stay with relatives whose political leanings are opposite to her father’s. Everywhere there are signs, reminding them of their privilege.

There was something I was beginning to understand at seven years old. It was to do with not feeling safe with people who were supposed to be safe.

iii. sheer egoism – the sadness of exile, adolescence and separation in London, England, writing on paper serviettes in a greasy spoon cafe, avoiding home life. The first tentative steps towards becoming a writer.

I was born in one country and grew up in another, but I was not sure which one I belonged to. And another thing. I did not want to know this thing, but I did know all the same.

iv. aesthetic enthusiasm – in which she has dinner with the Chinese shopkeeper, a continuation of the story  begun in the opening section – and there it is, the reflection of that kiss in the middle of a catastrophe.  I skipped forward after i. to read this section second, it being clear from the beginning that this was a framing device, I was immediately drawn to read it whole, not in parts. It’s not like other books, it doesn’t spoil the story to read the end before the middle.

At first I found it annoying, that the framework of Orwell had been used and quoted on the back of the book, while the contributions from the feminist writer’s in her opening section had so much more to contribute to her reasoning. I asked, Why not create your own framework? Then later, thought, perhaps she does, disguised as it is, within the infamous outline of the other. Making the reader try and read between the lines.

Levy places the life of a woman writer (herself) into this construct created by a male writer, his opinion on  the motives of writing – already an act of rebellion, and though it doesn’t work entirely, perhaps it was never intended to, though it may have lured some otherwise reluctant readers in.

Joan Didion Writer Essayist

Joan Didion, Author

Joan Didion also wrote an essay Why I Write in 1976, prompted by the same source. Ignoring Orwell’s framework she delved immediately into sharing her flaws and inability to conform, out of which grew her own singular way of seeing, observing and recording answers to her own curious questions, the flexing of imagination.

I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was. Joan Didion

When Levy writes, there is an absence, a reluctance. It is admitted in the title, it stems from a childhood, continues into an adolescence and confronts her in middle age as she rides the escalator and can no longer keep it down. It threatens to overflow and engulf her.  Those things she does not want to know. That she laughs off.

It occurred to me that both Maria and I were on the run in the twenty-first century, just like George Sand whose name was also Amantine was on the run in the nineteenth century, and Maria whose name was also Zama was looking for somewhere to recover and rest in the twentieth. We were on the run from the lies concealed in the language of politics from myths about our character and our purpose in life. We were on the run from our own desires too probably, whatever they were. It was best to laugh it off.

She is left with her question. What do we do with the things we do not want to know?
She realises she can not accept her own question. She will continue to write and perhaps find the answer in the next book. I will read it and find out whether she has the courage.

In the meantime Didion persevered with hers:

Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Joan Didion

Further Reading

NY Times Review: Serrated Edges by Lisa Zeidner

Guardian Review: Kate KellawayDeborah Levy’s rich response to George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay “Why I Write” is unmissable

Deborah Levy

Deborah Levy On Writing and Living

Deborah Levy, Author

Deborah Levy is the author of seven novels: including Swimming Home, Hot Milk and The Man Who Saw Everything and a short story collection Black Vodka. She has been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize and the Man Booker Prize.

She has also written for The Royal Shakespeare Company and her pioneering theatre writing is collected in Levy: Plays 1.  She has written a trilogy of memoirs, referred to as a living autobiography on writing, gender politics and philosophy. The first two volumes, Things I Don’t Want to Know and The Cost of Living, won the Prix Femina Etranger 2020. The final volume, Real Estate, was  published in 2021.

Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty

A stunning reflection by a 15 year old boy, over the course of a year, season by season into how nature provides him with a breathing space, a remedy to his own being.

nature writing Wainwright prizeDara McAnulty is autistic, as are his mother and two siblings, a beautiful advantage, because the family seem to understand exactly how to mitigate the intensity and lived experience of this characteristic.

As a result, they often escape their suburban habitat for the slightly wilder places within reach, places where whatever constraints they might be feeling inside, that might otherwise result in some kind of behavioural impulse, can be released into the conducive expanse of a living outdoors, an ecosystem, they feel at one with.

He reflects on the influence of both parents:

“Many people attribute my love of nature on him He’s definitely contributed deeply to my knowledge and appreciation, but I also feel the connection was forged while I was in Mum’s womb the umbilical still nourishing. Nature and nurture – it’s got to be a mix of both. It may be innate, something I was born with, but without encouragement from parents and teachers and access to the wilder places, it can’t bind to everyday life.”

Dara channels his passion for wildlife and nature into a series of journal entries, written with language that is beautifully descriptive and resonant, that conjures up exactly how it might feel like to be this young man, whose five senses are so intense, who wants to understand more, to do what he can to improve the state of our planet, its nature.

On dandelions:

yellow dandelion flower

Photo by Daniel Absi on Pexels.com

“…I love dandelions. They make me feel like sunshine itself, and you will always see some creature resting on an open bloom, if you have a little patience to wait. This vital source for all emerging pollinators is a blast of uplifting yellow to brighten even the  greyest of days. It stands tall and proud, unlike all  the others opening and swaying in the breeze. The odd one out.”

Spring ends with the announcement that the family will move to another village to be closer to a different school and for their father to be in closer proximity to Belfast. At first disillusioned, Dara soon learns there is a forest nearby and a whole new ecosystem to explore and learn. The move marks a significant change in his experience of the school system, he begins to thrive.

“Many people accuse me of ‘not looking autistic’. I have no idea what that means. I know lots of ‘autistics’ and we all look different. We’re not some recognisable breed. We are human beings. If we’re not out of the ordinary, it’s because we’re fighting to mask our real selves. We’re holding back and holding in. It’s a lot of effort. What’s a lot more effort, though, is the work Mum did and does still, so light-heartedly. She tells us it’s because she knows. She knows the confusion. That’s why she and Dad will be doing the worrying about moving, and why Mum will be doing all the planning and mind-mapping, and will somehow know how everything fits together. I’m lucky, very lucky.”

He asks himself constantly, is this enough; to observe, to spend time in nature, to speak, to write?

If this was all he ever did, it is already enough, but it is clear he is destined to do more.

Silverbar, the Sanderling

A sanderling shore bird

Observing the sanderling, I am reminded of Rachel Carson’s excellent Under the Sea-Wind, where she too brings this bird to life:

I reach for my binoculars and see them: sanderlings, about thirty, moving erratically yet with powerful purpose. Blurred black legs. A flash of beak prodding the sand. Sand ploughman. They whirl with the waves, never stopping. Scurrying. Rushing. Every movement too fast for me to focus on. Dazzlers of the shore.

Sanderling plumage is snow-white and pewter-black, the crown darted with linear black-among-white. They come to winter in Ireland from the high Arctic, travelling nonstop for over 3,000 miles. Their movements are completely hypnotic, especially as I focus in one bird and observe how it moves relentlessly at speed between the waves and shoreline, sandpeckering as it goes, and repeating it all over again as the waves recede, over and over, over and over. What tenacity. I’m not sure how productive it all is, as they never stop for a second and must spend so much energy making each tack from wave to shoreline.

When he begins to doubt himself or feel overwhelmed by what he understands is happening to the environment, his ever patient, wise, knowing mother is there:

She also tells me that I need to hold on to grace and gratitude. ‘Hold them close’ she says. ‘And remember by writing down all the good things in life.’ She’s right of course, but it takes every muscle to agree.

A wonderful, inspirational book and journey to a few of the wildish places of Northern Ireland.

Loved it.

Sugar by Bernice McFadden

I just love the way that right from the first pages Bernice McFadden’s characters jump off the page and in this case Sugar Lacey makes her grand entrance, dragging her suitcase, strutting through the small town of the deep south, Bigelow, Arkansas (1950’s) in her high heels, tight dress, brightly coloured wig and nonchalant attitude,  peering through the window of the hairdresser knowing that would be where all the talk happens, and on to number 10 Grove Street, her new abode, right next door to Pearl and Joe.

Sugar Lacey Vintage ClassicPearl has promised the Reverend to welcome this newcomer, but she wasn’t expecting the shock of seeing Sugar’s face and who it reminds her of, nor the sudden flurry of visitors who want to sit in her kitchen in case they get a peek at this unwelcome new resident, whom they’re so inquisitive of.

Was this the woman the Reverend spoke of? The woman Pearl had been asked to guide and help eventually lead into the flock? Was this her? This woman didn’t look like she’d ever spent a second in a house of worship, much less knew what one was. But there was something else too. A slither of something familiar that Pearl was yet to put her finger on.

When they do spot her, they’re certainly given more to talk about.

Sugar has grown up not knowing her family, raised by the three Lacey sisters before setting out and discovering how much tougher life is on your own. Pearl still hasn’t got over the loss of her daughter Jude and many things about her life, date from that moment, who she was before and who she is now.

When she finally plucks up the courage to go next door and introduce herself, she can’t herself from commenting on what she thinks is an unusual name, asking Sugar if that’s her nickname.

“No, that’s my Christian name. Why? Don’t you know sugar is brown first? White folks couldn’t stand the fact that something so sweet shared the same colour as the people who cut the cane, slopped the hogs and picked the cotton. So they bleached it to resemble them, and now they done gone and fooled everybody. You included.”

Pearl and Sugar develop an unlikely friendship, the one challenging the other to change perspective, enabling them both to meet somewhere in the middle, an improvement for both of them in the way they had been living their lives.

As we know, life never sits still, change and disruption often arrive uninvited and when they do Sugar must make a decision. The book closes with a few threads indicating that there could be more to come and indeed there is, Sugar being the first in the Sugar Lacey trilogy of novels.

In this wonderful debut novel, 20 years after being first published, now available in the UK, we encounter the enchanting, captivating and entertaining storytelling of Bernice McFadden, her unforgettable characters and the community that surrounds them.

McFadden is an author who I will happily read all her work, there’s something reliable and comforting when you sit down with one of her works, knowing you’re not going to want to put it down until it’s finished, but forcing yourself to do so, because you want the experience to linger.

The second novel This Bitter Earth will be published in the UK by Vintage Classics in August 2022 and sees Sugar leaving Bigelow and returning to her childhood home, where she learns the truth about her parentage: a terrible tale of unrequited love, of one man’s enduring hatred, and of the black magic that has cursed generations of Lacey women.

Bernice L. McFadden

Bernice McFaddenBernice L. McFadden is the author of ten critically acclaimed novels including Sugar, Loving Donovan, Nowhere Is a Place, The Warmest December, Gathering of Waters (a New York Times Editors’ Choice and one of the 100 Notable Books of 2012), and Glorious, which was featured in O, The Oprah Magazine and was a finalist for the NAACP Image Award.

Her most recent novel, Praise Song for the Butterflies (Jacaranda Books), was longlisted for the Women’s Prize in 2019. Sugar featured in the Richard and Judy Autumn 2021 Bookclub.

She is a three-time Hurston/Wright Legacy Award finalist, as well as the recipient of three awards from the BCALA. McFadden lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Other Works by Bernice McFadden Reviewed Here

Praise SongPraise Song For the Butterflies

– a visit to Ghana in 2007 where she met two women who told her about a rehabilitation centre and a tradition referred to as trokosi are the inspiration for this intriguing, excellent novel.

The Book of HarlanThe Book of Harlan

– one of my top reads of 2020, a truly immersive read, inspired by the lives of some of the authors ancestors and the little known history of Black Americans in Paris circa WWII.

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

A historical fiction novel about words both entices and because of its popularity also made me hesitate.

Background

Scottish lexicographer Dr James Murray was the primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1884. The only word Dr Murray ever conceded had been overlooked was “bondmaid”, meaning a girl bound to serve without wages.

When author Pip Williams discovered this omission, the idea for her debut novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words, was born. Jenny Valentish, Guardian

Pip Williams Language Words DictionaryAnd so I dive in and find myself often using the dictionary feature on the kindle – yes there are a lot of lost words, or words that are no longer in common use, and one of the main words, and locations, the scriptorium had me confused right from the start – a tin shed where a few learned, self-important men are compiling the first edition of the Oxford dictionary? Even as I write these words, the spellcheck has underlined that word in red.

We are introduced to this place and the main character Esme as she is crawling around beneath the table in this scriptorium, we don’t understand a lot about why she is there, as her father appears to be raising her alone without childcare.

A slow build up in the early years, the pace picks up finally when Esme is old enough to go to town and meet a few unconventional women and hears new to her ears, ancient popular but unknown words, and when she meets Tilda, an actor and suffragette her vocabularly and life experience widen even further.

It is the late 1880’s, an era of slow progress, both on the dictionary and on the rights of women.

black and white book business close up

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Esme grows up and begins to work with her father, collecting “slips” and the necessary quotations, that give words the right to be part of this grand dictionary.

The problem being that much of a women’s world is left out, words that have existed, often for centuries, but have either not been written in any notable works or are deemed not appropriate for polite society. 

Esme has found her calling.

It’s an interesting journey through a particular period of history, though I found the character of Esme to be a little two-dimensional compared to some of the secondary characters and one of the characters appears mostly through letters, which rather than illuminate some of the mysteries in Esme’s life, just had me asking why this one character if she was so important to her life, wasn’t present. The story seemed to lose pace towards the end or perhaps just went on too long, as I began to lose interest.

There are moments of humour, but also predictability – in Esme’s 30’s her like of words pertaining to women and the poor are discovered by the villainous Dankworth, as the slips flutter to the floor, who should arrive but her literary knight (not yet in armour) Gareth, the compositeur. She ponders the words “manhandled, pillock and git”.

A slow consciousness raising and cast of characters across the class divine in Oxford, with the controlled compilation of the Dictionary at the centre of it.

Further Reading

Guardian Books: All words are not equal’: the debut novelist who’s become a lockdown sensation by Jenny Valentish

Lisa’s Review at ANZLitLover’s – a more passionate take on the history and the bias resulting from it being a virtually male endeavour

Guardian Review: A Gentle Hopeful Story 

 

How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

This was a brilliant read and the kind of cross cultural, reading journey I love.

Colonialism Capitalism Africa Cameroon Literary fictionImbolo Mbue takes you back to the fictional African village, Kosawa in the 1980’s. It could be in any number of countries, a fact acknowledged by naming her characters after real towns and cities.

She tells what should be a simple story, about how the village has been affected by the interventions of outsiders and those placed in power within their own country and the people’s attempt to seek and find justice.

Mostly the story is narrated through the multi-generational members of one family, of Thula and her brother Juba, their mother Saleh, grandmother Yaya, uncle Bongo and then the third person plural (we) of The Children, Thula’s age mates. It reaches back to the 1970’s and travels through to the current day.

Seeking Justice, Inviting Retribution

The issue the village initially attempts to address is the polluting of the river and air, resulting in the poisoning of the land, the destruction of their farming way of life and the deaths of too many of their children, since this latest American corporation Pexton, arrived and began drilling for oil.

Though the villages allowed the corporation to drill for oil, based on assurances that all would be more than well for them, they suspect their problems are due to contamination created by the activities of Pexton. The corporation deny all and their paid village representative tries to downplay the gravity of their losses. Continue reading

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Delighted to pick this up at a book sale in the small French village of Ansouis recently, it contains two pieces previously published in other formats, brought together in this slim but powerful book, originally published in 1963, a period of time when he had returned from eight years living in Paris and before he returned to live in the south of France for the last 17 years of his life.

I have read one of Baldwin’s novels If Beale Street Could Talk (also made into a film in 2018) and listened to his 1965 impassioned speech in the historic debate between James Baldwin v. William F. Buckley Jr. at Cambridge University on the question: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?“.

Letter to My Nephew

The Fire Next Time James BaldwinThe first ‘Letter to my nephew on the one hundredth anniversary of the emancipation’ entitled My Dungeon Shook originally appeared in the Progressive Madison, Wisconsin – a magazine known for its strong pacifism, championing grassroots progressive politics, civil liberties, human rights, economic justice, a healthy environment, and a reinvigorated democracy, is a letter to his 15 year old nephew James (who appears in a photo with his author Uncle on the cover of the book I read).

He shares with him what and who he sees in him, that comes from within the family, qualities that endear and those to be careful of, all from a place of deep love.

He writes to him too of his country and what it means to be of this country, to be black, to be at home in it despite all, to retain dignity and remember, to take inspiration from the long line of poets he comes from and remember one of them who said:

The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.

A Letter to Me and You

The second is an essay Down at the Cross first appeared in the New Yorker as Letter from a Region of My Mind and is a wonderful talking through of his own development of self-awareness as he entered adolescence, describing how he and his peers came into a change that transformed girls and boys into something other and the refuges they seemed destined for, given how much beyond childhood wasn’t available to them.

He dissects his own choice to simultaneously seek refuge and revenge by going into the Church and the clarification it gave him, having seen beneath the veneer of that institution, while equally learning to use the tools it flexed to bring about an objective.

“I was saved. But at the same time, out of a deep, adolescent cunning I do not pretend to understand, I realized immediately that I could not remain in the church  merely as another worshipper. I would have to give myself something to do, in order not to be too bored and find myself among all the wretched unsaved of the Avenue. And I don’t doubt that I also intended to best my father on his own ground. Anyway, very shortly after I joined the church, I became a preacher – a Young Minister – and I remained in the pulpit for more than three years. My youth quickly made me a much bigger drawing card than my father. I pushed this advantage ruthlessly, for it was the most effective means I had found of breaking his hold over me. That was the most frightening time of my life, and quite the most dishonest, and the resulting hysteria lent great passion to my sermons – for a while. I relished the attention and the relative immunity from punishment that my new status gave me, and I relished, above all, the sudden right to privacy.”

He also speaks of his meeting and audience with Elijah Muhammad, then leader of the Nation of Islam, and analyses what he perceives of this man and their intentions, beyond the religious element.

america ancient architecture art

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It is noteworthy to consider this organisation that brought together religion and a population suffering from racism, when one thinks about the fact that most wars come about over religious difference, what terrible outcome might have occurred should they have been successful in the aim of their conversion, to make Islam the religion of Black American people, thus turning an issue of race into one of ideology.

“It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be.”

Ultimately Baldwin’s message is one of love, for standing up for one’s rights, of dignity and the health of one’s soul, of our responsibility to life. His words seem as relevant today as they were at the time he wrote them.

“I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also, much more than that. So are we all.”  James Baldwin

Highly Recommended.

James Baldwin (1924-1987)

James_Baldwin_in_his_house_in_Saint-Paul_de_Vence

Baldwin at home in Saint Paul de Vence

James Baldwin was an essayist, playwright, novelist and voice of the American civil rights movement. His essays, collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955), explore intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in the society of the United States during the mid twentieth-century. 

An unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, was adapted for cinema as the Academy Award–nominated documentary film, the visual essay currently showing on Netflix (in France) I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

Other notable works include Go Tell It On The Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, Another Country, If Beale Street Could Talk.

Further Reading

Interview: Paris Review – The Art of Fiction James Baldwin talking with  Jordan Elgrably

New York Times: James Baldwin – His Voice Remembered; Life in His Language by Toni Morrison

LA Times: 30 Years After His Death James Baldwin Has Another Pop Culture Moment by Scott Timberg