The Arsonist’s City by Hala Alyan

“The main feature of exile is a double conscience, a

double exposure of different times and spaces, a constant bifurcation.”

Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia

Hala Alyan writes novels about the effect of displacement on families, the intergenerational trauma passed on as a result of losing a homeland and how it manifests in subsequent generations. She focuses on the minutae of their lives, the clash of cultures and personalities within a family, their rootlessness and their attempts to find their place in a new world that cares little for them.

Her debut novel Salt Houses followed the female line of a family forced to abandon Palestine, after a daughter visited family in Kuwait in 1967, then found herself unable to return, giving rising to successive generations born outside of their home country. Alyan is Palestinian American and spent her own childhood moving between the Middle East and the US, studying in Beirut, finding inspiration for her future characters.

“I wanted to write a family story that felt more urgent and plot-driven than what I had done in my previous work,” Alyan reveals. “I wanted to play with and unpack themes of secrecy – the lies we tell, the secrets we keep from ourselves and the secrets we keep from the people we love – and how that ripples out and what the intergenerational impact is.” Hala Alyan

The  Arsonist’s City

Palestinian American poet novelist Lebanon SyriaThis latest novel begins with a short chapter on the last day of a young man’s life. His name is Zakaria and he lives in one of the Palestinian camps in Beirut. His death is part of a cycle of revenge, one that causes people in many countries to seek asylum elsewhere, people caught in the wrong pace at the wrong time, lives changed in a moment.

The civil war had left the country riven – Shi’ite, Sunni, Maronite, Druze. Now they’ve found Zakaria. Not as an act of war, but one of love, of revenge.

Zakaria’s role in the story is small, but the impact his death has on his friends Mazna, a theatre actress and Idris, a medical student, is life-changing. It is a shocking opening and leaves the reader wanting to know more about these three friends and how they are all implicated in what happened. It plants a seed of fear that never quite leaves the narrative, an absence of the feeling of safety and security that pursues those who flee.

He sighs. “We all come from tribes, Damascus. Whether we want to admit it or not.It’s just that in a tiny place like Beirut, like Lebanon, you can’t help but notice differences. One family sees another has a bigger olive tree. One village wants the other’s water supply. Wars have been started over less.”

The Second Generation

violin tango milongas buenos aires The Gods of Tango

Photo by Felipe LimaPexels.com

The novel is very character lead and something of an immersive family saga.

After the opening chapter, the narrative jumps forward to the near present, focusing on Mazna’s three American born children, Ava, mother of two, a biologist married to Nate, whose marriage has hit a rocky patch; Marwan (Mimi), a 30 something musician, who can’t quite let go of the dream of becoming a rock star, his band now in its fifth incarnation since he graduated; and Naj, the youngest, also a musician and singer who returned to Beirut, to further her ambitions.

Much as they liked to bemoan Ava’s siblings’ careers, her mother and father understand them more than they do hers. They understand ambition, the hunger for the spotlight. Visibility.

The three children, now young adults, have all been invited to spend the summer at their Grandfather’s home in Beirut, to attend his one year memorial. Their father has announced he intends to sell and wants them all present for this last summer.

The Road to Damascus

Having got to know each of these characters, the timeline moves back to the past, before Zakaria’s death, to Mazna’s adolescence in her hometown of Damascus, her venturing into theatre and acting, the catalyst for meeting Idris and his friends, and secret outings to Beirut.

Her failed attempts to pursue her career in America. Her shame. Her reluctance. Her giving in. Her anger. Her rage. Her silence. An atonement.

You soften in the end because they’re all you have. It’s not right and it’s not what you wanted, but here you are…this is her debt and her repayment, the life she has made for herself.

Beirut corniche The Arsonists City Hala Alyan

Photo by Jo KassisPexels.com

The return to Idris’s birth city will uncover secrets and combust lies, revealing fractures and deceptions that could make or break relationships. He will be challenged on his decision and the family, brought together under one roof for the first time in years, will be confronted with aspects of their past and present that can no longer be ignored.

None of the children know anything about their parents’ childhood friend, but old photos and the appearance of his mother outside their grandfather’s house prompt questions no one wants to answer. When they see the young man in an old video, their mother’s reaction speaks volumes:

“Your father is selling a house that isn’t his!” She starts stomping out of the room. “You three are poking through things that aren’t yours! Everyone in this country is a vulture!” They hear a door slam.

“I guess she knew him,” Naj says.

It’s a hotbed of drama, of disappointments, of temptations and regrets.

An enjoyable if overly long-winded read with an abundance of detail and dialogue that felt like a melodramatic soap opera at times. In that respect, while it touched on many issues, they’re dealt with at a superficial level, a lost opportunity given the author’s background as a psychologist.

My main disappointment was how peripheral the family of Zakaria were and some of the decisions the author took about the connections (or lack of) between the two families. Opening the narrative with this family was an invitation to the reader, one that was never quite fulfilled.

The novel was however shortlisted for the Aspen Literary Award 2022 and they had this to say:

“The Arsonist’s City is the sharply drawn and compelling story of one family and the years of tenderness and betrayal that tether them to another, but it also tells a sweeping story about the aftermath of violence, displacement and upheaval.  Alyan expertly balances her portrait of the way early dreams and parts of the self can vanish in adulthood with an exploration of how quickly home or a sense of normalcy can vanish or shift for an entire population, how easily a person, a city or a way of life can become at once familiar and unrecognisable.” 2022 Literary Prize Jury

A Sense of Place, A City Like No Other

olive treeThough I have never visited Damascus, I have been to Beirut a couple of times and I found that the novel evoked many memories of being in that city (over 20 years ago) and the surrounding countryside, the presence of the Syrian army, checkpoints, traffic lights that were recently installed but not compulsory, a generation of youth that had spent their childhoods in bunkers who just wanted to listen to music and party all night long.

As I read, I could hear the sound of that music and see how it became an escape for youth who wanted to escape their constraint, to take risks to feel free and belong to something outside themselves. 

“People get older, they forget how brutal youth is. How dangerous it can be.”

Further Reading

New York Times A Family Reunites in Beirut, Where the Past Is Never Past by Maya Salam

Thoughts From A Page Interview via Podcast by Cindy Burnett: the character she enjoyed writing the most, wanting to provide a deeper understanding of Lebanon to her readers, how and why intergenerational conflict and secrets provide great fodder for writers, and more. 

National News: Arts & Culture : ‘The Arsonists’ City’: Why Hala Alyan’s second novel is a love letter to Lebanon by Malcolm Forbes

“Home for me is a combination of where you have nested.” But, she says: “I always have in the back of my mind an understanding that that can change physically, for that’s the legacy of what I’ve experienced.” Hala Alyan

N.B. I read an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) e-book version thanks to the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (now Mariner Books) via NetGalley.  The book was published in the US in March 2021.

Dear Senthuran, A Black Spirit Memoir by Akwaeke Emezi

This was an interesting follow up to the fiction/auto-fiction debut novel Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, which I thought was a stunning and original book, an unforgettable read.

A Black Spirit Memoir OgbanjeDear Senthuran is a collection of letters to what we might call Emezi’s inner circle, past and present.
Emezi was raised in Nigeria and is of Nigerian/Malaysian heritage; they are an ogbanje, a non-human Black spirit being, currently incarnated in human form.

If you read Freshwater, you understand the basis from which this comes from, the overlapping realities they inhabit.

I live there, inhabiting simultaneous realities that are usually considered mutually exclusive. What can we call the dysphoria experienced by spirits who find themselves embodied in human form?

The memoir is thus a record of the period in their life leading up to the publication of that debut novel, of a year spent in an MFA program and both the highs and lows of that experience. It is about world-bending, living in a way that is true to who they are, thus rather than being flexible to how the world works, it is like the opposite, bending the world to meet them.

Emezi lives in America but is not of that culture and it shows in this work, in how confident and fearless they come across, which is one of the reasons it was difficult to align with their student peers, many of whom held much self-doubt regarding their writing ability and expectations, common to their culture of origin.

I call this a culture because that’s what it was. I’ve seen it in several places: people bonding over insecurities and self-deprecation, constantly saying they didn’t think their work was good, looking to the faculty for validation, someone to tell them they were real writers, to give them direction and guidance and a map to where they wanted to go. Institutions love that, I think. It makes you need them. And all those feelings are valid, but the resentment and hostility when you don’t play along, when you don’t shit on your own work, when you don’t wear doubt like a blanket around your shoulders? That’s the part I have a problem with. It reminds me of that thing back home where people want you to “humble yourself” and sometimes their demand is quiet, sometimes it’s blatant, but either way, they make sure you feel it.

Akwaeke Emezi Black Spirit MemoirEmezi writes about the experience and feelings of being unsupported during some of the challenges they faced and about their determination not to compromise when it became clear the debut novel was going to sell.

There is much reflection on writing, the work, they are prolific, determined and have achieved success in a relatively short period of time, despite numerous challenges. They create and share a spell for storytellers, for those trying to create books. Clearly it worked!

With my spell, I drew a map of the future I wanted, then I took those defined lines and pulled them across time, dragging them into the present. Time bends very easily; you can fold it like this with little trouble.

Most of the letters are in appreciation and record events they do not wish to forget, that mark the rise.

f3toni morrison

Toni Morrison

One of the more memorable letters is to the late, great inspirational Toni Morrison. Emezi shares a quote, words she heard her speak in an interview after winning the Nobel Prize for literature. She remembers how Morrison’s work agitated many of the students, ‘because you wrote people who did horrific things, but you didn’t tell the reader how to feel about these people‘ and how delighted they were to discover you could ‘just show a terrible thing and let the showing be the strength of it’.

The words that changed everything for Emezi though were these:

“I stood at the border, stood at the edge, and claimed it as central, claimed it as central and let the rest of the world move over to where I was.”

It is another of the spells they are using to become free.

Throughout the letters, there are references to ‘the magician’, at a certain point the reader asks who or what this presence is: a lover, a boyfriend and if one of those, is it going to endure for the duration of the book? It is a little mystery that eventually becomes a more direct subject of one or two of the letters, another record of events that transpire, of growth that occurs, of pain and hurt, of revenge even. Nothing is exempt in pursuit of the dream, to be the successful writer they desire.

A couple of the letters are to friends who are also human, non-humans, those in their life who totally get it without needing explanation, who accept their reality, with whom they can speak openly, fearlessly.

These humans are so loud in how they press down, in how they enforce their realities…It’s actually impressive, how someone can work so hard to crush a thing they can’t see.

Friendship provides a balm, and many of the letters, while they show the pain and suffering of someone growing into their adult self, lack the mature self-awareness that comes with age and wisdom. They demonstrate the importance of friendship and acceptance along the way.

In a letter To Kathleen on the subject of Worldbending they write:

The last time we texted, you wrote, I need you and our time this break. I know what you mean. The world can be a grit that sands away at us, and love can be a shelter from that…We are safer with each other. We see the world’s we’re trying to make, and we lend our power to each other’s spells.

Shiny Akwaeke Emezi Godhouse

Photo by Thgusstavo Santana on Pexels.com

After the publication of Freshwater, Emezi buys a house in New Orleans and names it Shiny. It is part of the plan, part of the future they are dreaming into being. Not everything in their lives is how they want it, but fortunately there is now a therapist in their lives, some of the reflections come from the raised consciousness of being in that process.

The house felt too big for me; it felt wrong, like I should have bought it years into my career, not thirteen months after my first book. For weeks, I didn’t sleep well there, worried that God would punish me for being so bold, for bending the world like this. It was Ann who talked me down, who told me that the house was oversized precisely so I could grow into it, so I could have the space to learn to unfurl. I needed that much room, as vast as it felt.

Writing To Jahra, another human/non-human entity, in Home, Emezi describes a return to her birth country, on a pilgrimage to a shrine of their deity, Ala. At the site, they feel seen, the entity nourished.

In a letter To Ann, called Anointing they write of the power of naming themselves, a form of disempowerment of those who want to label, categorise, bully by naming.

People want to be the ones drawing the lines, building the boxes, making the names. Maybe because stories live inside all those structures, and if you’re the one controlling the stories, then you’re the one in power. So they get really angry when you name yourself, especially if you’re the type of thing they were expecting to name. You know how it works: they form a circle around you, point, and call you a name you’re supposed to flinch from, a name you’re supposed to deny and be afraid of. That way, their naming becomes a weapon and what you are becomes a shame, a sentence, a tire around your neck rich with fire. Witch. Demon. Ogbanje. When you name yourself, however, you take the power from the wet, foaming flesh of their mouths and mold it in your hand as if it’s nothing, swallow waiting to slide down your throat, slickened with the soup of your self-knowing.
I thought about this a lot with Freshwater – what it meant, first of all, to publicly name myself ogbanje.

Emezi writes for people like them, for people who might think themselves in the margins, as an example of how to live when that perspective is shifted, when the centre is moved. There are costs when you choose or move a centre, costs they are willing to bear. They have been taught how aggressive they need to be with their wellness in order to survive.

Let the world move over, you said, and I obeyed.

It is an astonishing memoir, written from a frank perspective that doesn’t care whether the reader understands or not, it is for those who understand or are curious, the open-minded. And while it may appear self-indulgent, at times arrogant, narcissistic even, their work is making a splash.

I gave a talk at Yale recently, and at the reception afterward, a woman told me about a paper she wrote on Freshwater, how she was taking it to a medical conference to argue for recognising indigenous realities in treating people. It made me so happy, because it felt like a ripple, you know? You make one thing, and someone makes something else from that, and from there the world is changed, one fraction at a time.

Further Reading

My review of Freshwater

My review of The Death of Vivek Oji

NPR: Letters Reveal Author’s Strength In A World Of Destructive Noise by Hope Wabuke, June 9, 2021

New York Times: Akwaeke Emezi: ‘Imagine Being Ogbanje, Like Me’ by Kim Tran, June 7, 2021

Child of Fortune by Yuko Tsushima tr. Geraldine Harcourt

‘Hark, my distant, quiet friend, and feel
Your breath still enriching this emptiness.’
RilkeSonnets to Orpheus

Such a thought provoking novel.

Child of Fortune begins inside Koko’s dream. Dreams appear often in the narrative, as do memories, not exactly nightmares, they make her uneasy, leave her feeling unsatisfied.

The dream consisted simple of staring at the ice mountain. It had no beginning and no end. When she opened her eyes the mountain was there, and when she closed them it was gone. Cold and abrupt, it wouldn’t allow her emotions free play like any ordinary dream.

Japanese literature literary fiction36 year old Koko raises her 11 year old daughter Kayako alone, she works part time teaching piano, though the way she is obliged to teach it pains her. Since she bought her apartment (thanks to a partial inheritance) she has also become independent of her family, something her sister Shoko constantly criticizes her for.

Shoko chose to stay living in the family home after the death of their mother, using her money to upgrade their lifestyle, the children’s schools. She is full of judgement. Undermining Koko, she lures the daughter away, to the point where Kayako only spends Saturday’s with her mother.

Koko was in fact proud of the way she and her daughter lived in their apartment – with no frills, and entirely on her own earnings – and she wanted Kayako to share that pride, but the cousins in their setting made a too-perfect picture.

Not wishing to nag and risk losing her completely (as she had done with the father and her lover), she allows her this freedom to come and go. She suspects the visit is a way of her sister keeping an eye on her. Her daughter confirms it.

That’s right. She said we can’t let your mother out of our sight or there’s no telling what she’ll get up to next.

Child of Fortune Dreams Ice Mountain Yuko

Photo Simon Berger @ Pexels.com

Koko begins to feel unwell.

She remembers her marriage to Hatanaka and how ill-suited they were, her husband so focused on his studies, never working, all his women friends, the loss of the few of her own, because they didn’t like him.

Though she has no memory of it, her father died when she was young, she knew he had gone to live elsewhere before she was born. Her mother too had raised her children alone.

Koko suspects she may be pregnant. She ignores it.

Three people. Koko was strongly attracted by the number’s stability. Not two, not four, but three. A triangle: a full, beautiful form. There was something to be said for the square, too, but the triangle was the basis of all form. The dominant.

She remembers her affair with Doi, three years before, how attentive he had become when he became a father himself. Then in the fall, she began seeing Osada, a friend of Hatanaka, stirring up old, deep regrets.

He reminds Koko of her brother who died, a child who found happiness in making others happy. The loss of this childhood connection is deep, profound, forgotten, almost non-existent. He had been Kayako’s age.

She was sure there could be no happiness for her without her brother. For the first time, Koko knew a kind of joy that had nothing to do with the intellect. The boy’s emotions were unclouded: what pleased him meant joy, what displeased him meant anger; but he experienced his deepest joy in enduring what displeased him for the sake of those he loved. She wondered why. Though he lacked intelligence, he was endowed with love, which was another kind of wisdom.

The sister arranges an interview for Koko’s daughter at the school her cousins attend. Koko isn’t comfortable but allows it. Kayako is worried about what to say about her father, having heard a lot of people are turned down because of their home background.

Koko’s dreams are like insights into a state of mind she can’t quite grasp. She is passive, the consequences of which threaten to overwhelm her, the potential loss of her daughter, the pending arrival of a baby, the secrecy around it. She thinks of everything, except what she must do, make a decision, confront reality. She has become somewhat paralysed.

She could hear her sister’s voice now, drawing gradually closer: so you’ve finally begun to understand what a bad mother you’ve been, how little sense you’ve shown? And hear herself protest; no, that’s not it – don’t think I’ve liked choosing a different world from other people. I know I’ve been stubborn – but not about Kayako alone. All my life, though often I haven’t known which way to turn, I have managed to make choices of my own. I don’t know if they were right or wrong. I don’t think anyone can say that.

Because of the insight into her mind, her thoughts, dreams, her past, we see all aspects of Koko and we hear the damning, irresponsible voice of her sister, the judgement that wears down what little self-worth remains. There is no recognition of her pain, of her depression, neither seen within nor by others. It is never mentioned, never thought of, yet it is obvious.

One thing, though, was certain: that she had never betrayed the small child she’d once been; the child who had pined for her brother in the institution; the child who had watched her mother and sister resentfully, unable to understand what made them find fault with her grades, her manners, her languages. And she was not betraying that child now, thirty years later. This, she had always suspected, was the one thing that mattered. And although she was often tempted by a growing awareness of the ‘proper thing to do’ once Kayako was born – not only in the harsh advice she was constantly offered by others, but within her own mind – in the long run her choices had always remained true to her childhood self.

Tsushima explores this in a powerful stream of consciousness narrative that invites all kinds of reactions from readers, many sit in judgement, casting Koko as the bad mother, the unconventional mother, the selfish woman pursuing her own desires.

And yet, she is the new woman, safeguarding the home, choosing to do something she loves without it stealing all her time, so she has time for her daughter and herself. She is independent and does not aspire to that which accrued wealth can buy.

It is a reflection on the many manifestations of grief, of events, moods and emotions that arrive unbidden; often unseen, rarely unexplained, but very present; and how little patience our society can have for understanding, how punitive we can be in our insistence on conventionality, how intolerant of depression, of weakness, of prolonged grief.

Rather than stand for any one view, Tsushima presents her character Koko and shows us the effect of her struggle for freedom.

As I finished the book, which was originally published in 1978, I was struck by the relevance of a quote by the French author Constance Debré, author of Love Me Tender translated by Holly James; in the Guardian on 14 Jan, 2023:

“There’s always a price to pay for freedom. To me, that’s a happier, livelier way to see things: rather than saying there are injustices or blows raining down on you, you realise it’s all because you’re living life in the way you want, seeking out an existence … trying to give life some shape. That’s why life and literature are so connected: it’s the quest for form.”

Yuko Tsushima, Author

Japanese literature feminismYuko Tsushima (1947-2016) was a prolific writer, known for her stories that centre on women striving for survival and dignity outside the confines of patriarchal expectations. Groundbreaking in content and style, Tsushima authored more than 35 novels, as well as numerous essays and short stories.

Like her protagonist in Child of Fortune, Tsushima’s childhood was marked by the death of her disabled brother. Her father, Osamu Dazai was one of the most celebrated Japanese writers of the 20th century, who passed away when she was a year old.

Tsushima’s 1978 novel Child of Fortune  won the 1978 Women’s Literature Prize in Japan, it was published in English in 1986 by The Women’s Press, earning the translator Geraldine Harcourt the Wheatland Foundation’s translation prize in 1990.

Further Reading

New York Times: The Overlooked Autofiction of Yuko Tsushima By Abhrajyoti Chakraborty

The Glass-Blowers by Daphne du Maurier

The Glass-Blowers (1963) is a work of historical fiction by Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989), based on members of her own family. It begins in 1844 and is largely set during the French Revolution.

A Louis XV engraved crystal tumbler made by the Bussons and passed down through the family was in Daphne’s possession at the time she wrote this book. The novel will celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2023.

An Ancestral Scoundrel

eighteenth century France revolutionDaphne du Maurier was a fifth-generation descendant of a master glassblower who moved to England during the French Revolution. Until the author began researching her French ancestry, the family believed they were descended from the French aristocracy and that their ancestor Robert Busson (1747 – 1811) had fled France and the threat of the guillotine during the French Revolution.

The truth was known by his sister and documented in letters now held in a special collections archive at the University of Exeter. Despite knowing these family stories were false, Daphne’s grandfather George continued to perpetuate the story of the aristocratic ancestors. Her father Gerald, who then grew up listening to these tales, also insisted they were true.

Daphne’s research concluded that far from being aristocratic owners of a glass-blowing empire, Mathurin Robert Busson was a failed artisan glassmaker who had escaped to England to avoid a French debtors’ prison.  He took the name du Maurier to provide himself status, becoming Mathurin Robert Busson du Maurier.

Daphne du Maurier French ancestry The GlassBlowers“She was not at all snobbish,” says American academic Anne Hall, who lives in the Perche region and has made a study of the du Mauriers’ French connection. “So she was genuinely very proud when she found out her ancestors were craftsmen.”

The du Maurier name was a reference to the farmhouse where his family had lived and worked – Le Maurier, still around today in the Perche region, 190km (120 miles) south-west of Paris.

The Glass-Blowers, the novel

The novel begins with an introductory prologue, where Madame Sophie Duval’s daughter writes to her mother of an extraordinary surprise, in meeting a young man at a dinner party whose name was Louis-Mathurin Busson, that he had been born and raised in England of émigré parents.

crystal artifact Daphne du Maurier The Glass-Blowers

The Louis XV engraved crystal tumbler made by ancestors of Daphne du Maurier

Recognising the names connected to her mother’s family, she enquired of his father’s profession, only to be told he had been a gentleman glass-blower who had owned several foundries before the Revolution and that due to being part of the aristocracy it had been necessary for them to emigrate. He had told her of his father’s tragic death on returning to France in the hope of restoring his family fortunes.

“I asked if he had relatives. He said he believed not. They had all been guillotined during the Terror, and the château Maurier and the glass-foundries destroyed.”

Wondering if this could be her brother’s son, Madame Duval decides to go to Paris immediately to meet this young man and ascertain if he is indeed her nephew. When he shows her an artifact (pictured here) his father left him, there remains no doubt it is indeed her brother’s son. There is much the boy does not know about his father, Sophie then promises to write.

Family History Revealed In Letters

“Perhaps we shall not see each other again. I will write to you, though, and tell you, as best I can, the story of your family. A glass-blower, remember, breathes life into a vessel, giving it shape and form and sometimes beauty; but he can with that same breath, shatter and destroy it. If what I write displeases you, it will not matter. Throw my letters in the fire unread, and keep your illusions. For myself, I have always preferred to know the truth.”

special collections archive University of Exeter

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Chapter One and the novel begins as Madame Sophie Duval begins to write the story to her nephew, covering sheet after sheet of writing paper in her formal upright hand.

Sophie narrates the story, beginning with her parents’ marriage and the change in lifestyle for her mother as they joined the company of glassblowers to begin a new life together.

My father Mathurin and my mother Magdaleine, with his sister Françoise and her husband Louis Démére – a master glass-maker like himself -seated themselves in the front of the waggon beside the driver, and behind them, in order of precedence, came the various craftsmen with their wives: the souffleurs, or blowers, the melters, and the flux-burners. The stokers, along with the driers, came in the second waggon, and a crowd of apprentices filled the third, with my father’s brother Michel in charge.

Familial Relationships Explored

By the time Sophie was twelve years old her father would be managing four glass-houses. Her elder brother Robert was given responsibilities, but seemed to prefer going off to the town and his rapidly acquired airs annoyed his father. Robert didn’t wish to spend his life dealing with merchants and traders, he believed that by mixing in a more refined society, he would create contacts and obtain more orders that way.

Glassblower Dahne du Maurier France

Photo by M. Balland @ Pexels.com

The novel explores the different characters of the brothers, Robert always wanting to get ahead by making foolhardy gambles, putting the family business at risk, Pierre, the dreamer who spends ten years in Martinique, returns and surprises them all by buying a notary’s practice in Le Mans and an advocate for citizen’s rights, and Michel, afflicted with a stutter, the least expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, will become the natural leader.

Sophie is the most conventional, an observer of events, rarely becoming actively involved, her sister Edmé something of an activist, particularly in the years of the revolution.

‘The glass world was unique, a law unto itself. It had its own rules and customs, and a separate language too, handed down not only from father to son but from master to apprentice, instituted heaven knows how many centuries ago wherever the glass-makers settled—in Normandy, in Lorraine, by the Loire—but always, naturally, by forests, for wood was the glass foundry’s food, the mainstay of its existence.’

La Grande Peur, France During the Revolution

The novel loses some of its pace when it moves away from the family business towards the revolutionary era, a period of terror, when rumour is rife of marauding bands of men roaming the nearby forests, food prices becoming exorbitant and strikes and disturbances continually breaking out in Paris and the big cities. Talk of a new constitution, new laws, equal rights for all and the removal of privileged classes was everywhere.

‘How,’ I asked, ‘would having a written Constitution make any of us better off?’

‘Because’, answered Pierre, ‘ by abolishing the feudal system the power of the privileged would be broken, and the money they take from all our pockets would go towards giving the country a sound economy.

This seemed to me all in the air, like so much of Pierre’s talk. The system might one day change, but human nature remained the same, and there were always people who profited at the expense of others.

Clearly the novel was very well researched, which at times compromised the pace of the story. I did set it aside at one stage and took a while to get back to it, that said, it’s a novel that is best persevered with, pushing through the more dense political sections.

It is a fascinating story and an interesting family history, even if not quite the one that was handed down through one of the family lines. What family doesn’t have skeletons in its closets, secrets buried deep and unknown relatives popping up when least expected?

‘I was the only one to know my brother’s secret, and I kept it even from my husband.’

Further Reading

Article: Daphne du Maurier: Novelist who traced past to a French debtors’ jail by Hugh Schofield, BBC

Daphne du Maurier’s French Ancestry and her novel The Glass Blowers – article on The Daphne du Maurier website

Three by Valérie Perrin tr. Hildegarde Serle

From Flowers to Friendship

Valérie Perrin’s Fresh Water for Flowers was the final book I read in Dec 2020 and one of my favourite reads of that year. It is a novel that has stayed with me since, due to a strong sense of place in various locations in France, the unique character of Violette Touissant and her unforgettable choice of careers; she moves from being a level-crossing keeper to cemetery keeper.

“If life is but a passage, let us at least scatter flowers on that passage.”

The Ties That Bind

French literature fiction Europa Editions

Valérie Perrin’s latest novel Three, (a 575 page chunkster) is something of a coming-of-age tale of three young people in a small provincial French town, intersecting with the mystery of why they no longer speak to each other, 30 years on.

“They were united by the same ideal: leaving when they were grown up. Quitting this hole to go and live in a city full of traffic lights, noise, and frenzy, of escalators and store windows, with bright lights everywhere, even in the middle of the night. With crowds on the pavements, of strangers, of foreigners one can’t gossip about.”

Set in 1986, the years they were at high school together and 2017 – the year a car is retrieved from the bottom of a lake with the remains of human bones in the back seat – the novel glides back and forth over time, scene by scene, recounting a kaleidoscope of episodes among the three that slowly reveal the depth of their relationships to each other and how they were torn apart.

“Étienne was the leader, Nina the heart, and Adrien followed with never a complaint.”

Unconventional Families

Nina was raised by her grandfather and never knew her single mother. She is both curious and resentful about Marion, with good reason. Having such loyal friends as Adrien and Étienne and the assurity of her grandfather’s presence, she feels secure.  He is worried about her, she exhibits signs of taking after her mother, traits he is determined to stamp out.

“He panics. Like lightning in his eyes. He’s brought straight back to his daughter, Marion. His punishment. She was the same. Something like misfortune running in their veins. The mother has contaminated the daughter. An affliction.”

coming of age french novel

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Adrien lives with his mother Josephine. He sees his father occasionally, a man married to another, who will never leave his wife. He becomes the victim of a bullying teacher at school, the same year he becomes part of the Three. The school year that gave him two friends and took away his innocence.

“Sometimes, he would reappear. Like some public-works inspector, or cop. He barely rang the doorbell before coming in. He would glance around the apartment, at the paintwork, the plumbing, Adrien’s school report, leave yet another cheque on the table in the sitting room, and leave. No doubt his conscience clear.”

When the car is dredged from the bottom of the lake, a fourth voice, the only first person narrator in the novel appears. Virginie is a journalist, clearly someone who was at school with the Three. This character is something of an enigma, never mentioned in the adventures of the Three.

“They had no friends but themselves.They were almost stuck to each other, like puppies from the same litter. And yet, they in no way resembled each other. Neither physically, nor in their attitudes.”

Creating Suspense and Intrigue

Three Valérie Perrin Europa Editions

Photo Quang Nguyen VinhPexels.com

Valérie Perrin is quite the master at withholding and timing revelations, drip feeding events, turning points and characters to increase the intrigue, leading the reader down various paths of speculation, until further scenes reveal a bigger picture.

As major events occur, we witness how the three respond, how their dreams are both pursued and thwarted, how secrets eat away at them and ultimately how the strength and belief in their friendship can help them, if they can overcome their inner obstacles.

Ultimately, while there is an engaging plot and a multitude of minor intrigues layered around the central mystery, it is a novel that dissects friendship, its random formation and sense of belonging, its source of support to each person and potential for envy and destruction by those outside of it.

Over thirty years, they will make their mistakes, drift apart, come together, indulge resentments, forgive each other and come to realise that acceptance and truth can set them free from pain and longing, that personal histories matter and those who were part of them can help each other to heal.

A Feast of Issues, A Famine of Depth

It is an entertaining and enjoyable novel, the way the text goes back and forth, the slow reveal, felt very much like something written for the screen, not surprising given that the author is a photographer and screenwriter.

My criticism  would be that there is an attempt to pack too much into the novel; weighty issues, each of which could have been a central theme of the novel. The sheer number of significant issues it raises, in some way dilutes them and compromises the authenticity of some of the secondary characters. The author has ambitious ideas and an interest in social issues, but as a result some are dealt with too lightly, or used to create intrigue, which at times felt inauthentic, a disservice. It’s neither a conventional mystery/thriller or literary fiction, it sits somewhere between the two, something of a hybrid.

Valérie Perrin, Author

Fresh Water for Flowers, ThreeValérie Perrin is a photographer and screenwriter who was born in the Vosges in 1967, grew up in Bourgogne and settled in Paris in 1986, then Normandy in 1995.

Her novel The Forgotten Sunday (2015) won the Booksellers Choice Award. Her English language debut Changer l’eau des fleurs (Fresh Water for Flowers) (2020) was translated into 30 languages, it won the Prix Maison de la Presse 2018 and the Prix des Lecteurs au livre de poche in 2019 and was longlisted for the Dublin Literary Award 2022.

Figaro Littéraire named Perrin one of the 10 best-selling authors in France in 2019, and in Italy, Fresh Water for Flowers was the best selling book of 2020.

N.B. Thank you to the publisher Europa Editions, for providing me a review copy of the novel.

Free Love by Tessa Hadley

Nothing Free About It

relationshipsAfter seeing this title on a few end of year Top Fiction Reads for 2022, this was one of the first books I chose, to get back into the reading rhythm. Perhaps for that reason, it took a little while to get into, but once it reached the first significant turning point, the plot became more interesting and surprising and the choices the author made, much more thought provoking. It would make an excellent book club choice.

In essence, 40 year old Phyllis – who was living a conventional life as a housewife with two children, her husband Roger working at the Foreign Office – steps out of the submissive role she has been wed to, when a friends’ son comes to visit. Prior to this moment she hadn’t appeared to be frustrated with her life.

“In fact she was easy, an easy person, easily made happy, glad to make others happy. She was pleased with her life. The year was 1967.”

The encounter leads to numerous consequences, increasingly dramatic, that will affect everyone in the family. Our housewife leaves her middle class, manicured English lawn suburb for a rundown, seedy apartment building in Ladbroke Grove, teeming with diversity, creativity, and people living in the moment.

A Housewife Acting on a Crazy Impulse. Really?

Free Love Tessa Hadley Sixties fashion UtopiaIn the initial chapters, it was difficult to believe. Every reader will bring to their reading of the story, their own imagining of how this mother could abandon all for something that feels like it will be fleeting.

But then you slowly accept it, recalling the era in which it was set, knowing there was a whole other way of living and being in the 1960’s, a revolution against convention and authority, a risk taking utopian fever spreading its tentacles among the young and not so young. A time bomb, but still.

Colette, Not Yet Colette

The teenage daughter Colette is the more tortured soul, an astute observer, a lonely intellectual who read everything, though refused to read the novelist her mother said she was named after.

“Her father’s intelligence was so much stronger than her mother’s, Colette thought; yet it was the slippery labyrinth of her mother’s mind – illogical, working through self-suggestion and hunches according to her hidden purposes – which was closed to Colette, and therefore more dangerous for her.”

Colette Reading

              The Other Colette

While we may feel sorry for the children – the son was always going to be sent away to boarding school, an interesting juxtaposition, to set side by side, twin forms of abandonment – it is interesting to see how the relationship between mother and daughter evolves under the new circumstance of their lives.

Colette starts skipping school.

“When she got to London Bridge she put her satchel and uniform in a left-luggage locker. All she did in the city was walk around in the crowds, pretending to be absorbed and purposeful like everyone else. She went to browse in certain bookshops, in Carnaby Street she bought tinted sunglasses, underground magazines and cones of incense from stuffy little shops, also henna to dye her hair at home. Sometimes she screwed up her courage to ask for a glass of barley wine in a pub, then sat alone defiantly to drink, reading.”

Honesty versus Secrecy

It was interesting to imagine a conventional housewife having such courage or impulsivity to do what she did. The choices Phyllis makes are surprising and daring, and just when we think she is the only one capable of making such counter conventional choices, there is another twist in the story.

It becomes a story about consequences, those that are dared lived out in the open, versus those that have been hidden. Then it gets really interesting. It makes you wonder, should those secrets be kept or shared? One can never predict the consequences of either route, but this story attempts to pit one against the other.

It reminded me of the experience of reading Brian Moore’s The Doctor’s Wife.

Coming Full Circle

The ending is more poignant than conclusive, it reiterates the messiness of real lives and the power of forgiveness, the benefit of setting aside judgement, of being true to oneself without having to reject the other.

“Phyllis had been braced to defend herself against her husband. On her way to meet him, she’d summoned an idea of his authority, implacable and punitive, mixed up with his role in the world of Establishment power. Now she was taken aback by how he bent his head before her, opening himself so easily; his kindness drew one sob out of everything loosened and raw inside her.”

An enjoyable and thought provoking read ad an author I’d be happy to read more of. Have you read any of Tessa Hadley’s novels?

N.B. Thank you to the publisher for providing an ARC via Netgalley.

Further Reading

NPR review –A woman embraces change in the 1960s in Tessa Hadley’s novel ‘Free Love’ by Heller McAlpin

Guardian review: sexual revolution in 60s suburbia by Michael Donkor

Interview with Lisa Allardice: Tessa Hadley: ‘Long marriages are interesting. You either hang on or you don’t’

Guardian Short Story, Dec 18, 2022 : Juana the Mad – A chance encounter at a Christmas party churns up buried memories in this exclusive tale by the prize-winning novelist.

Tessa Hadley, Author

Free Love London based fiction A9Tessa Hadley is a British author of 8 novels, short stories and nonfiction. Born in Bristol in 1956, she was 46 when she published her first novel, Accidents in the Home, which she wrote while bringing up her 3 sons and studying for a PhD.

Her writing focuses on women, families and relationships – what she has called “the intricate tangle of marriage, divorce, lovers, close friends, children and stepchildren – the web people create for themselves”.

She reviews regularly for the London Review of Books and is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and Granta. Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, her special interests including Jane Austen, Henry James, Jean Rhys and Elizabeth Bowen.

“I love the irresponsibility of short stories. Writing short, you create with a free hand. Each new development you imagine can be drawn in to the story without consequences, with all the lightning-bolt effect of a first thought, no requirement to elaborate a hinterland. A quickly scribbled indication of background can stand in for a whole city, a whole past. And yet I can’t stop wanting to write novels too. Novels see things through. The reader is in for the long term; the writer is in for a sizeable stretch of her life. In a novel there’s not only the dazzle of the moment, but also the slow blooming of the moment’s aftermath in time, its transformation over and over into new forms. I love to write about the present, and the past that’s recent enough for me to remember. The fiction writer’s ambition is modest and overweening: to take the imprint of the passing moment, capture it in the right words, keep it for the future to read.” Tessa Hadley, Author Statement

Top Reads of 2022

It feels a little fraudulent to write about my favourite reads of 2022, when I forbid myself to read or write about books for six months of the year, while I was working on a creative writing project. Writing about books is one of my greatest pleasures, however I realised that if I could harness that energy and apply it to something else I wished to complete, perhaps I could finish that other project.

I did finish it, so I’m giving myself a break and reopening the blog door, keeping the ‘thoughts on books’ muscle active.

An Irish Obsession and A Foreign Language Desire

Reading Ireland Month 2022 TBRThough I read less than half the number of books of 2021, I did manage to read 30 books from 13 countries, a third Irish authors, thanks to Cathy’s annual Reading Ireland month in February. I’m looking forward to more Irish reads this year; there were many promising reads published in 2022 that I wasn’t able to get to.

Sadly I missed Women in Translation month in August, though I managed to read six books in translation, two making my top reads of the years.

2023 will definitely be better for translations, since I’ve taken out a Charco Press subscription, giving me the opportunity to read a few Latin American contemporary authors from Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Mexico.

Books Read By Country

Non-Fiction, A Rival to the Imagination

As far as genre went, there was a much greater balance between fiction and non-fiction than in previous years, due to having been in the mood to read a lot more non-fiction this year.

Books Read by Genre

And so to the books that left the most significant impression, where I have reviewed them I’ll create a link in the title.

One Outstanding Read

Was there one book that could claim the spot of Outstanding Read of 2022? This wasn’t easy to decide given most of my reading occurred in the beginning of the year, but as I look over the titles, there was one book that I remember being pleasantly surprised by and having that feeling of it not wanting to end, and being laugh out loud funny in places.

It is one of those novels, or perhaps I ought to say she is one of those writer’s whose works I wouldn’t mind being stuck on a desert island with, more than just a story, they open your mind to other works, stimulate curiosity and have a particular sensibility that reassures this reader that the novel will endure.

“I absolutely loved it and was surprised at how accessible a read it was, given this is an author who recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her power to provoke by telling a story is only heightened by the suggestion on the back cover that her ideas presented here caused a genuine political uproar in Poland.” – extract from my review

So here it is, my One Outstanding Read of 2022 was :

Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

In no particular order, here are my top 5 fiction and non-fiction reads for 2022.

Top 5 Fiction

Peirene Press German Literature Women in TranslationMarzhan, mon amour, Katja Oskamp (Germany) translated by Jo Heinrich

– What a joy this Peirene novella was, one of those rare gems of what I perceived as uplifting fiction, until I lent it to a friend who is a nurse, who DNF’d it, making me realise that what can be delightful for one reader can be quite the opposite for another, in this case, someone who had heard too many sad stories from patients, requiring an empathetic barrier, to endure the overwhelm it creates.

Marzhan is a much maligned multi-storied, communist-era, working class quarter in East Berlin, where our protagonist, a writer, leaves her career behind to retrain as a chiropodist, due to the sudden illness of her husband. In each chapter, we meet one of her clients, members of the local community, many who have lived there since its construction 40 years earlier. A chronicler of their personal histories, we witness the humanity behind the monolith structures of the housing estates, the connections created between the three women working in the salon and the warmth and familiarity they provide to those who cross their threshold. A semi-autobiographical gem.

Northern Irish Literature novellaThe Last Resort, Jan Carson (Northern Ireland)

– Another novella, this was another delightful, often hilarious story, with well constructed characterisation. Set in a fictional Seacliff caravan park in Ballycastle on the North Coast of Ireland, a group gather to place a memorial bench on the cliff top for a departed friend.

Each chapter is narrated by one of 10 characters, revealing their state of mind and concerns, while exploring complex family dynamics, ageing, immigration, gender politics, the decline of the Church and the legacy of the Troubles.  A sense of mystery and suspense, pursued by teenage sleuth Alma, lead to the final scene, the cliff-hanger.  A delightful afternoon romp.

Ukraine historical fictionI Will Die in a Foreign Land, Kalani Pickhart (US) (Set in Ukraine 2013/14) (Historical Fiction)

– Set in Ukraine in 2014, during the Euromaiden protests, four characters with different backgrounds (two outsiders, two protestors) cross paths, share histories, traverse geography and represent different perspectives in this Revolution of Dignity, the origin of a conflict that endures today.

The narrative is gripping, informative, well researched and had me veering off to look up numerous historical references. Moved by the documentary, Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Democracy, Pickhart was struck by the fighting spirit of the Ukrainian people against their government and the echo of the past, when the bells of St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery rang for the first time since the Mongols invaded Kyiv in 1240AD.

“Though it is novel told in fragments, through multiple narratives and voices, there is a fluidity and yet the plot moves quickly, as the connection(s) between characters are revealed, their motivations and behaviours come to be understood and revelations acknowledge the pressures and complexities of life in this country, some things universal, others unique to their history and geography.”

Dublin One City One Read Irish LiteratureNora, A Love Story of Nora Barnacle & James Joyce, Nuala O’Connor (Ireland) (Historical Fiction)

– Absolutely loved it. I was instantly transported into Nora’s world, seeing their life and travels, the many challenges they faced and the unique connection that kept them together throughout. I knew nothing of their lives before picking this up during the One Dublin, One Book initiative in April 2022. Knowing now all the many places they lived and how Europe allowed them to live free of convention, I’m curious to encounter the stories Joyce created while Nora was keeping everything else together for him.

It is incredible that Nuala O’Connor managed to put together such a cohesive story given the actions of Joyce’s formidable grandson/gatekeeper Stephen, who did all he could to prevent access or usage of the family archive, including the destruction of hundreds of letters, until his death in 2020.

In 2023 the One Dublin, One Book read will be The Coroner’s Daughter by Andrew Hughes.

London Homesickness New Zealand writers abroadTowards Another Summer, Janet Frame (NZ) (Literary Fiction)

–  What a treat this was, one of Janet Frame’s early novels written in the 1960’s when she was living in London, one she was too self conscious to allow to be published, so it came out posthumously in 2007. Written long before any of her autobiographical work, it clearly was inspired by much of her own experience as a writer more confident and astute with her words on the page than social graces.

In the novel, a young NZ author living in a studio in London, is invited to spend a weekend with a journalist and his family, something she looks forward to until beset by anxiety and awkwardness. Her visit is interspersed with reminiscences of her homeland, of a realisation of her homesickness and desire to return. She imagines herself a migratory bird, a kind of shape-shifting ability that helps her to be present, absent, to cope with the situation and informs her writing.

“A certain pleasure was added to Grace’s relief at establishing herself as a migratory bird. She found that she understood the characters in her novel. Her words flowed, she was excited, she could see everyone and everything.”

Top 5 Non-Fiction

nonfiction essays love effect of domination patriarchy black woman perspectiveAll About Love: New Visions, bell hooks (US)

– What a joy it was to discover the voice and beautifully evolved mind of bell hooks in these pages.

Her perspective is heart lead, her definition of love leaves behind conditioned perceptions of romance and desire and the traditional roles of carer, nurturer, provider – and suggests that it might be ‘the will to do for oneself or another that which enables us to grow and evolve spiritually’ love becomes a verb not a noun.

It is a way of looking at this least discussed human emotion and activity that fosters hope and encouragement, in an era where we have been long suffering the effects of lovelessness under a societal system of domination.

essays Sara Baume Colum McCann Europa EditionsThe Passenger – Ireland (Essays, Art, Investigative Journalism)

– This collection of essays, art and information about contemporary Ireland is an underrated gem! Europa Editions noticed my prolific reading around Ireland after I read Sara Baume’s wonderful A Line Made By Walking and mentioned that she was one of the contributors to this stunning collection.

I planned to read a couple of essays each day, but it was so interesting, I kept reading until I finished it. Brilliant!

Across 11 essays, the collection explores the life and times of modern Ireland, with contributions from Catherine Dunne and Caelinn Hogan – discussing the decline of the Church’s influence, the dismantling of a system designed to oppress women and a culture of silence in The Mass is Ended; William Atkins writes a fascinating essay on the Boglands; Manchan Magnan shares how the contraction of a small local fishing industry heralded the decline and disappearance of much of the Irish language in An Ocean of Wisdom; Sara Baume writes of Talismans and Colum McCann of nostalgia in Everything That Falls Must Also Rise.

The BBC’s former political editor in Northern Ireland Mark Devenport, writes about a region hanging in the balance, the UK and the EU, torn between fear and opportunity and the distinct feeling of having been abandoned in At The Edge of Two Unions: Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast; while Lyra McKee’s gut-wrenching essay Suicides of the Ceasefire Babies investigates the troubling fact that since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, more people in Northern Ireland have committed suicide than were killed during the 30 year conflict.

“Intergenerational transmission of trauma is not just a sociological or psychological problem, but also a biological one.”

And more, a brilliant essay on citizen assemblies, another on Irish music, rugby and a less enchanting one that explores locations in The Game of Thrones.

What My Bones Know Stefanie FooWhat My Bones Know, A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma, Stefanie Foo (US) (Memoir)

– This was a gripping memoir I couldn’t put down. I read it for reference purposes, interested in the solutions she finds for healing complex PTSD. It is well researched, while each section contributes to the arc of a comprehensive and compelling narrative.

Stefanie Foo had a dream job as an award-winning radio producer at This American Life and was in a loving relationship. But behind her office door, she was having panic attacks and sobbing at her desk every morning.  After years of questioning what was wrong with herself, she was diagnosed with complex PTSD – a condition that occurs when trauma happens continuously, over the course of years.

She becomes the subject of her own research, her journalist skills aiding her to interview those responsible for various discoveries and healing modalities, gaining insights into the effect and management of her condition, eventually reclaiming agency over it.

“Every cell in my body is filled with the code of generations of trauma, of death, of birth, of migration, of history that I cannot understand. . . . I want to have words for what my bones know.”

Ancestor Trouble Maud NewtonAncestor Trouble, A Reckoning & A Reconciliation, Maud Newton (US) (Memoir/Genealogy)

– This was a fascinating read and exploration, at the intersection between family history and genetics; the author sets out to explore the nurture versus nature question with the aid of DNA genetic reports and stories both documented about and passed down through her family. Some of those stories and people she was estranged from create a concern/fear about what she might inherit.

Maud Newton explores society’s experiments with eugenics pondering her father’s marriage, a choice he made based on trying to create “smart kids”. She delves into persecuted women, including a female relative accused of being a witch, and discovers a clear line of personality inclinations that have born down the female line of her family. A captivating and highly informative read.

My Fathers Daughter Hannah Azieb PoolMy Father’s Daughter, Hanna Azieb Pool (UK/Eritrea) (Adoptee Memoir)

– A memoir of the Eritrean-British journalist, Hannah Azieb-Pool, who returns to Eritrea at the age of 30 to meet her family for the first time. In her twenties, Azieb-Pool is given a letter that unravels everything she knows about her life. Adopted from an orphanage in Eritrea, brought to the UK, it was believed she had no surviving relatives. When she discovers the truth in a letter from her brother – that her birth father is alive and her Eritrean family are desperate to meet her, she is confronted with a decision and an opportunity, to experience her culture origins and meet her family for the first time.

It’s a story of uncovering the truth, of making connections, a kind of healing or reconciliation. Ultimately what has been lost can never be found. It’s like she was able to view an image of who she might have been and the life she may have had, and while viewing it was cathartic, it is indeed an illusion, a life imagined, one never possible to live.

 *  *  *  *  *  *

Have you read any of these books? Anything here tempt you for reading in 2023?
Happy Reading All!

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Hamnet was the winning novel of the Women’s Prize For Fiction in 2020 and won the fiction prize at the National Book Critics Circle Awards (2020). It was author Maggie O’Farrell’s eighth novel.

Behind Every Great Man…Is An Often Untold Story

Anne Hathaway Shakespeares wife HamletSet in 1580’s Stratford, Warwickshire, the novel is about the meeting of two young people, their respective families, the life they create and the effect their twin children have on it.

Though the husband will become a famous playwright and name one of his plays after the son they lose, this isn’t a story that centres around him or his work, neither is it really about the son – those names are more like the bright lights that make us curious to see what the fuss is about.

Delightfully, it’s all about Agnes.

“If you ask someone what they know about Shakespeare’s wife, you’ll probably receive one of two answers. Either: he hated her. Or: she tricked him into marriage. Historians and biographers and critics have for a long time inexplicably vilified and criticized her, creating a very misogynistic version of her. I wanted to persuade people to think again, to not rush to conclusions.

We are so accustomed to calling her ‘Anne Hathaway’ but her father’s will clearly names her as ‘Agnes’. That was an electrifying, defining moment in the writing of the book. In giving her what is presumably her birth name, I’m asking readers to discard what we think we know about her and see her anew.” Maggie O’Farrell

Twin Everything

I expected to be gripped early on, so was surprised that it took a while to get into sync with the very descriptive, present tense, third person, omniscient narrative perspective. Initially it felt like listening to someone -while looking through a camera – describe in minute detail every single detail in the frame as it was moving quickly forward. 

It’s written in a dual narrative timeline in alternate chapters; the year that the twins fall ill and the year that these young parents meet. It is divided into two parts, Part 1 takes place before the death of Hamnet and the shorter Part 2, the aftermath.

The initial scene puts us in the eyes of this boy Hamnet as he rushes through his home and that of his grandparents, looking for someone, anyone, due to the sudden onset of deathly pestilence in his twin sister Judith.

Love Always Finds A Way

As the chapters switch between Hamnet’s alarm given the pending emergency and the year his parents met, we get to know his father, a Latin tutor, son of a glove maker/tyrant and his mother Agnes, a farmer’s daughter, living with her disapproving stepmother.

These young people become each others refuge from family situations they’d both like to escape. Agnes is highly intuitive, has an in-depth knowledge of herbalism and possesses a kestrel the local priest gave her. She is unlike other young women, self-possessed, ‘knowing’.

“Some have asked Susanna how her mother does it. They have sidled up to her in the market or out in the streets to demand how Agnes divines what a body needs or lacks or bursts with, how she can tell if a soul is restive or hankering, how she knows what a person or a heart hides.”

The novel traces their relationship, marriage and the sacrificial act that came from her ability to perceive what was best for her husband (facilitating his venturing to London to find and pursue his purpose) and what best for her three children, while highlighting the tragic demise of their son, a turning point in their relationship.

“She, like all mothers, constantly casts out her thoughts, like fishing lines, towards her children, reminding herself of where they are, what they are doing, how they fare.”

Even in the boys passing there is something mystical in the way it is rendered. The boy is a twin, but also the son of a woman in touch with nature and with a feeling for ‘the other side’. What Hamnet did to save his sister comes of both those mysteries.

How Women Shape The Lives of Others

Forget that the playwright Shakespeare is a character in this novel and read it for the unique individuals they might have been, as ordinary people in a community, coming together against the odds. I really enjoyed that this was so much more about Agnes and that she had gifts she seemed able to live with and use as a mature woman, without persecution. A result and reward of a difficult childhood, after the untimely death of her own mother.

“She grows up feeling wrong, out of place, too dark, too tall, too unruly, too opinionated, too silent, too strange. She grows up with the awareness that she is merely tolerated, an irritant, useless, that she does not deserve love, that she will need to change herself substantially, crush herself down if she is to be married. She grows up, too, with the memory of what it meant to be properly loved, for what you are, not what you ought to be.”

By deliberately not mentioning the husband’s name, we imagine this couple encountering each other, evolving together, moving apart and coming back together, for nothing can both unite and divide a couple quite like the grief of losing a child.

“What is given may be taken away at any time. Cruelty and devastation wait for you around corners, inside coffers, behind doors; they can leap out at you at any moment, like a thief or a brigand. The trick is to never let down your guard. Never think you are safe. Never take for granted that your children’s hearts beat, that they sup milk, that they draw breath, that they walk and speak and smile and argue and play. Never for a moment forget that they may be gone, snatched from you, in the blink of an eye; borne away from you like thistledown.”

A novel of an auspicious pairing of souls, of longing and grief, of sacrifice and regret, I really enjoyed it after the slow start, despite the narrative perspective at times keeping me at a distance from the characters.  O’Farrell does such a brilliant job in re-imagining this much maligned character, it makes you want to read and know much more about Agnes. About the women whose lives were rarely scribed.

Maggie O’Farrell, Author

Hamnet The Marriage Portrait Shakespeares WifeMaggie O’Farrell is a Northern Irish novelist, now one of Britain’s most acclaimed and popular contemporary fiction authors whose work has been translated into over 30 languages. Her debut novel After You’d Gone won the Betty Trask Award and The Hand That First Held Mine the Costa Novel Award (2010).

She has written 9 novels and a superb memoir, I’ve reviewed here: I Am, I Am, I Am, Seventeen Brushes With Death.

Her latest book set in Renaissance Italy, The Marriage Portrait, tells the story of a 16-year-old duchess and her fateful marriage to the Duke of Ferrara – based on the short life of Lucrezia de’ Medici.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

This long time classic, came up in conversation last week; a friend and I were talking about the inclination for one to want to ask, know or understand the ‘why’ when something bad happens.

For me, looking back at something challenging, I have a sense that when we cease to ask or need to know the ‘why’, that is a sign we have moved past or overcome it. How we get there is another subject altogether.

classic tribute to hope from Holocaust LogotherapyMy friend then mentioned Viktor Frankl and interestingly, I learned he held a similar premise, but in the opposite direction. In terms of looking forward in life, we are likely to be more at peace and less prone to suffering if we have a ‘why’ in terms of our life’s meaning. So having our own ‘why’ is what we can focus on, looking forward, not back, at ourselves and not ‘the other’.

I decided it was time to dust off the book and retrieve it from my shelf.

In the first 100 pages Frankl shares some of his experiences and observations from being in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps, with a focus on answering for himself the question of why some of them, like him, survived.

He identifies different turning points, observing the moment when some lost meaning and how those that did survive often had found a way to create it, despite the horrific circumstances.

His experience in Auschwitz, terrible as it was, reinforced what was already one of his key ideas. Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Sigmund Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning.

Frankl’s most enduring insight, one that resonates deeply:

forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.

meaning of life goal why purpose

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The prisoner who lost faith in the future was doomed. Any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength had first to succeed in showing him some future goal.

Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why – an aim – for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence.

Following this account of survival, in a short essay Frankl describes and discusses the therapy he was renowned for, one still practiced today:

Logotherapy in a Nutshell

Logotherapy focuses on the future, on the meanings to be fulfilled by a patient, a reorientation of sorts towards the meaning of a life.

Logotherapy tries to make the patient fully aware of his own responsibleness; therefore, it must leave to him the option for what, to what or to whom, he understands himself to be responsible. That is why a logotherapist is the least tempted of all psychotherapists to impose value judgments on his patients, for he will never permit the patient to pass to the doctor the responsibility of judging.

He writes of some of the methods used, citing examples as well as discussing the meaning of love and suffering.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

It is a poignant read from a man who would embody his philosophy literally, leaving us with this enduring work and a therapy that is indeed a legacy and leaves us in no doubt as to the meaning and puspose of Viktor Frankl’s life.

Viktor Frankl

Man's Search for Meaning Psychology logotherapyViktor Emil Frankl, psychiatrist, was born March 26, 1905 and died September 2, 1997, in Vienna, Austria. He was influenced during his early life by Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, and earned a medical degree from the University of Vienna Medical School in 1930.

He founded the school of existential analysis, or logotherapy, which Wolfgang Soucek of the University of Innsbruck named “the third Viennese school of psychotherapy,” the other two being Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and Alfred Adler’s individual psychology. Logotherapy was designed to help people find meaning in life.

By the time of his death, his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, had been published in 24 languages.

Further Reading

Logotherapy: How to Find More Meaning in Your Life by  Emily Waters, PsychCentral

What is Logotherapy and Existential Analysis? by Alexander Batthyány, Viktor Frankl Institute

 

Towards Another Summer by Janet Frame

This novel grew on me the more I read it and the less I expected from it.

A Kiwi Writer In London

London Homesickness New Zealand writers abroadThe story takes place over one weekend when a young New Zealand novelist named Grace Cleave, who is living in London, takes a train to spend the weekend with Philip, a journalist, his wife and two young children. She has escaped the city for a while after accepting an invitation to visit the family following an interview about her work and ambitions.

She is the author of a few published novels, a writer with an expanding reputation, living in a small, cold, uninspiring flat, moving between her writing desk, her therapist and a nagging yearning to be elsewhere. 

Keen to take up the opportunity to escape and the familiarity the visit may offer (they have a connection to her home country), she is disappointed to be confronted by dreadful anxiety once she arrives. Her tendency to analyse everything and to express herself more articulately in her thoughts (or on paper) than in actual conversation makes her feel shameful.  She has been invited in her capacity as a writer; she feels sure they expect more from her and sees herself as a disappointment, not measuring up to the perception created by her talent.

Grace was stricken with the terrible certainties and uncertainties of speech…The ritual of spoken communication is so firmly accepted that few people question it or dare to rearrange it. If you look towards someone, speak to that person, saying You, you, you, then what you say refers to that person; it’s all so simple.
Not being a human being and not being practiced in the art of verbal communication, Grace was used to experiencing moments of terror when her mind questioned or rearranged the established ritual; when commonplace certainties became, from her point of view, alarming uncertainties.

Homesickness

New Zealand landscape cabbage tree Janet FrameDuring the visit, many instances, objects and mutterings remind her of her own faraway home, memories of childhood intercede and brilliant metaphors come to her fully formed. It was as if she were being filled with future content and yet the contrast with how she came across to others was painful for her to witness.

Filled with longing born out of the loneliness of her self-imposed exile, she hoped to fill that void by being with someone who valued her work and understood her connection to a landscape elsewhere.

“So I, a migratory bird, am suffering from the need to return to the place I have come from before the season and sun are right for my return. Do I meet spring summer or winter? Here I live in a perpetual other season unable to read in the sky, the sun, the temperature, the signs for returning. Is it homesickness – ‘I know a place whereon…’ the matagouri, the manuka, the cabbage tree grow…”

A Migratory Bird

In her dream life, day or night, there are moments when Grace thinks of herself as a migratory bird.  It adds something to her work, to be able to retreat into this imagined form and see things from another perspective.

“A certain pleasure was added to Grace’s relief at establishing herself as a migratory bird. She found that she understood the characters in her novel. Her words flowed, she was excited, she could see everyone and everything.”

Semi-Autobiographical

It is all the more brilliant, having learned that it was published posthumously, that it is semi autobiographical, though written twenty years before any of her own autobiographical works. She set the novel aside referring to it as ’embarrassingly personal’. The character of Philip was based on a Guardian journalist who had interviewed her.

“I matter. I fly alone, apart from the flock, on long journeys through storm and clear skies to another summer. Hear me!”

Highly recommended for Janet Frame fans.

migratory bird, get on your bird, Janet Frame Towards Another Summer

Photo by Flo Maderebner on Pexels.com

Janet Frame, Author

Janet Frame died on January 29 2004 at the age of 79. She wrote novels, poems, and a three-volume autobiography that were read and admired worldwide. She won many awards and was short-listed for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Further Reading

‘a sharp drama, of fleeing and missing, home’ – Guardian review by Catherine Taylor

Short Biography of Janet Frame – by Patrick Evans Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

The Janet Frame Collection, NZ On Screen – a collection of films and material relating to Janet Frame

Wrestling With the Angel – a brilliant biography written by esteemed historian Michael King