Auē by Becky Manawatu

I read this with a feeling of mild apprehension throughout, which grew by the end and had me staying up late to finish it, to move beyond that feeling that something bad was going to happen. Now I can say, yes, it’s okay, step outside the comfort zone and read it. It’s brilliant.

Ockham New Zealand Book Awards 2020

Aue Becky Manawatu Makaro Press Literary Fiction ReviewAuē has just won the annual NZ Book Award for fiction. I read last year’s winner Fiona Kidman’s This Mortal Boy, inspired by the true story of a young Northern Irish man who travelled to NZ in the 1950’s seeking employment opportunities and a future only to meet a tragic, unjust end.

I saw that Becky Manawatu had written a personal essay about her sister, so I read The novelist whose sister married into the Mongrel Mob.

It made me think of that dark television series I didn’t like, created by Jane Campion Top of the Lake; Auē too is set in the South Island, a land of extreme beauty and few humans – I thought, do I really want to read this?

Despite the current of fear created by the essay and that TV series, something about it felt unique and standalone, the heartfelt reviews on Goodreads ultimately convinced me, like this line from Kayla Polamalu:and her publisher, who described her as ‘a writer to her bones — such a talent, such a heart.’

“This book has created an ache in my chest that I’ll carry with me for a long time. It is awful in such a way that it is brilliant, sentences so visceral my breath would stop.
It is triumphant too – the spades of sorrow matched by spades of hope.”

Having read and enjoyed Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen with it’s Irish vernacular, I was interested to read something with a connection to Māori, a language and culture I learned and adored from the age of 5 until 12, I hoped it wasn’t going to be too visceral.

Review of Auē

Auē – to cry, howl, groan, wail, bawl

The story is told from three narrative perspectives, with chapters highlighting either Ārama (an 8 year old boy Ari), Taukiri (his older brother) and Jade & Toko (a couple).

South Island Aue Becky Manawatu Literary fiction

Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Pexels.com

It begins with Ari being dropped off at his Aunty Kat’s home by his brother Taukiri, who then departs and drives north, severing contact with everyone as he crosses the channel on the ferry to the North Island jetting his ringing telephone into the tide.

Sitting on his own on a beach on Christmas day, eating Marmite sandwiches Taukiri thinks about his little brother. It’s the first time he’s been close to the sea since Bones Bay. A place whose story has yet to be revealed.

One year Ari got a box of chocolates, and when the box was empty, he cut out photos of me and him, pictures of waves and surfboards and a guitar and glued them to the box to give to me for my birthday. That empty chocolate box was the best present I’d ever been given.

It becomes clear that the narratives of the two boys are set in the present and that of the couple in the past. The novel moves forward fleshing out its main characters who we grow more and more attached to, building tension and slowly revealing the connection between them all.

Despite Taukiri’s desperation to remove the past, it continues to haunt him, memories mix with things he sees and hears, a kaleidoscope of confused images assault him.

I guessed it would be this way for me and Ari. We would look for pieces of everyone we’d lost, in mirrors and crowds.
That’s how Ari would come to feel about me – that he’d lost me and had to search for me in places where I wasn’t.
He’d get over that though. It’d get easier.

Occasionally there is an italicized voice of someone not present, a lyrical incantation of the wind, or the presence of a spirit, observing – familiar and yet just outside of reach, pushing the reader on towards clarification.

Django Aue Becky Manawatu Makaro PressAri befriends the neighbours daughter Beth, she lives with her Dad and Ari prefers the atmosphere over there, even though some of the things Beth likes scare him. Beth is brilliant, a little kid with a whole lot of attitude, the confidence of being reassuring well-loved, if dangerously naive due to a little parental inattentiveness. And those drop-dead, three words she utters that steal or perhaps save the narrative.

‘Let’s go to my place and watch Django.’
‘Why do you like that movie so much?’
‘It’s a dog-eat-dog world and we gotta stay ahead of the game.’
‘That’s not how the world really is.’
‘Isn’t it? Like I said that rabbit was probably an orphan, like you are. Like I sort of am.’

Jade is the child who grew up in a House like the one from Top of the Lake. A scary place. Her parents are no longer there, but she was reclaimed by the new inhabitants. Reading her chapters is unsettling, she seems not to possess a mind of her own and every time she almost breaks free, trauma arrives unbidden. Used to it, she blames herself for existing, the inherited trauma of past generations.

his soft hand as he spoke of the violence that ended her father’s life reminded her of something. The only type of love she knew. Fury then remorse and forgiveness.

It’s a compelling, riveting story that feels likes riding the waves, moments of joy at the heights, the threat of doom as they crash.  And the poetry of the in-between, the goodness inherent within the young and those who have been loved, the healing that can happen when families reconnect, the ceaseless drama of life. The characterisation is so well done, unsentimental but deeply empathetic, the vulnerability of some sits in deep contrast to the brutal nature of others, the tension almost unbearable.

A 5 star read – extraordinary literary fiction.

Three Words – Read this Book

Mākaro Press is named after a nearby island, Mākaro was the niece of the legendary great Maori explorer Kupe, who discovered Aotearoa (New Zealand) around the 10th century and named two islands after his nieces Mākaro and Matiu. Like their uncle they are considered imaginative, curious and courageous, like this indie press. Publishing literary fiction and run by Mary McCallum and her son Paul Stewart, I leave you with the publisher’s words on this extraordinary book:

Makaro Press Aue Becky Manawatu

I published Auē because it is a deeply powerful, very real and beautifully written book about New Zealanders living hard-scrabble lives. Māori who carry generations of trauma in their bones that spills out here in one family in a small town.

The characters are compelling and the story holds the reader tightly as it winds through the interconnected lives of Ārama and Beth, Taukiri, Toko and Jade, and another who watches and weeps.

There is darkness, yes, but there is elation too in the beauty of the writing, and in the telling of the story at the micro level with the two children, and in the incredible moment when the tide turns … I’ve read the climax of the book so many times because it is so damned good. Mary McCallum, Mākaro Press

If you’re interested in reading this book and having trouble finding a copy, it’s currently available as an ebook direct from the indie publisher Mākaro Press.

Further Reading

Read the First Chapter – the beautiful, shocking first chapter of Auē

Personal Essay – A Day’s Grace by Becky Manawatu

Article by Mary McCallum, The Spinoff – The rise and triumphant rise of Makaro Press

The Resilient Farmer by Doug Avery

Growing Up on a Hill Country Sheep Farm

I spent the majority of my childhood on two hill country sheep farms in rural New Zealand (Port Waikato and Te Akau); Ngapuriri in the photo below left, my Dad and my son in the other two photos on his retirement farm.

Not knowing what I wanted to do in my life after school, I decided to attend an agricultural university in the South Island, a college full of farmer’s sons and those interested in horticulture, plant science and associated research. I never worked in agriculture, I spent a few years in forestry, then moved to London to study essential oils and well-being, leaving both farming and the corporate world behind.

#matesofmatesformates – mental health and well-being

Recently I noticed a few friends, many of whom are the current generation of farmer’s, on video doing press-ups in the paddocks of their farms, or on the floorboards of the woolshed, in support of mental health awareness in the rural sector, where anxiety and depression are serious issues. Farmer’s were being encouraged to start a conversation with their mates, check in on each other and to read Doug Avery’s book, The Resilient Farmer, a great conversation starter.

John Jackson, a university friend and neighbour from one of those farms we lived on, took the challenge further. Knowing farmers were suffering from drought after record low rainfall and at time when the country had been further isolated by Covid-19 lockdown, he contacted his local Rural Support Trust (an organisation that supports rural people through tough times) with an idea to raise funds to buy copies of the book to be distributed among farmers. The publisher has offered a generous discount and so the press-ups and fund-raising continues.

It is inspiring to see those who are participating, taking a minute to talk on camera a little about mental health well-being, sharing something of their own experience or encouraging others to give a mate a call. I’m sure that all the comments they receive and the interactions from old friends has also lifted everyone’s spirits. Fortunately I wasn’t tagged to do push-ups, but I thought I’d read the book and share a little of what its about, to support the initiative.

A Review of the Book

Doug Avery The Resilient Farmer

The book begins with a foreword by a well-known New Zealand rugby player from the 80’s and 90’s John Kirwan who admits that until he became aware of their particular situation he thought most farmers had an idyllic life, living in their beautiful landscapes away from the stresses of city living.

If you look at our farmers, traditionally, they tend to be introverts – they have to be, to handle the isolation. They are strong people. Stoic. Their self-belief centres on being able to cope with everything the land throws at them. So mental health, for them, is pretty complex. The idea of showing vulnerability is probably several times more traumatic than it is for someone like me.

They look to their family background – maybe they’re the third or fourth generation on that piece of land – and they think, My parents and grandparents built this farm, cleared it with their own hands; and I am going to lose it? They think, My parents and grandparents never got depressed; what’s wrong with me? They don’t realise that, often, their parents and grandparents did suffer, but they hid it. Sir John Kirwan (All Black 1984-1994)

Doug Avery lives in the north-east of the South Island, a part of the country that has a particular micro-climate with very little rainfall. His father had a small farm, but when Doug got involved as a young man, he had energy and ambition and quickly figured out that they’d make a better living by expanding, so he convinced his father to purchase a neighbouring farm. He farmed according to traditional methods that had seemed to serve previous generations, but when successive years of low rainfall caused severe drought, his animals, his mental health and his livelihood suffered.

For farming folk as for everybody else, the really big things in life are outside our control. The only thing we can control is how we meet these challenges.

In short, he stuck his head in the sand, hiding away in his office, not confiding his worries to his wife and growing increasingly irritated with everyone around him. He became an angry man and a less social one and began thinking that perhaps everyone would be better off without him.

I thrive on reward, and that had vanished from my life. I was so ashamed and afraid, and yet so determined to blame everyone – anything – else for my problems.

My problem was the way I farmed, and the way I thought about things.

In his book, he describes his personal descent and that of the farm, of the environment. There comes a turning point when a friend invites him to attend a seminar being held by a plant scientist, a researcher from that same university we went to. Reluctantly he agrees to go. Listening and after meeting and working with him, he has an epiphany when this man tells him he isn’t farming sheep and beef, he’s farming water, and not very successfully.

Learning to farm differently – to farm with nature, rather than against it – is at the heart of that success. But even more important I had to change my thinking processes.

Doug Avery Resilient Farmer South Island New ZealandHis farm sat in a part of the country that had more of a Mediterranean character, hot summers, mild winters and dryness, a challenge for traditional farming. Their nearest neighbour was a salt works, for them long, dry summers and the warm north-west winds were ideal. When he stopped being angry and started engaging in a more collaborative way with people who had knowledge he could tap into, who wanted to work with him, everything changed.

When asked by a specialist why he had a system that didn’t fit the natural curves of what nature was offering him on the farm, he realised he hadn’t been asking the right questions.

My big problem was that I didn’t stop to consider the nature of this place. I was working against it, uselessly trying to make it fit my old ideas about what would work; and in doing so, I was working against myself.

In the book he details a three pronged sustainable approach to dealing with the problem. Environmental, financial and social. While he doesn’t really share much about the method he followed to deal with his depression, beyond admitting he needed to change his thinking, his attitude and behaviours – there are references to support networks provided and one of the stand out first things he asks anyone who comes to him sharing their despair, is whether they have talked openly with their wife. And the second thing he says, after they say no – is that she’s unlikely to react how you think she will.

Resilience isn’t about not having bad times; it’s about having the tools to recover from difficulties, to adapt, to bounce forward. Part of resilience is being honest and self-aware about the feelings we carry inside ourselves.

Ultimately, Doug too has family who are going to farm and he has been able to pass on what he has learned, in the hope that they might avoid the depths of despair to which he fell. His community suffered devastating earthquakes and so he has taken his learning and experiences with depression to the wider community, being part of a group of people who check in on others, he recognises the look, the sign of someone trying to keep it all together and knows how to listen, to start a conversation, to let people know that we are all connected, that people care. It started for him in the farming community and has extended out to the wider community.  He finishes with a suggestion about the education system, which makes me think about sharing something that has existed here in France for over 50 years MFR (Maison Familiale Rurale) at school level.

In my view, our education system tends to prepare people en masse, but in reality nearly everyone has an individual task and an individual destination. We need to start personalising education to make people more purpose-ready for the life they want to live.

It’s an excellent book that people with any connection to rural communities will take something from and for those who know little or nothing about farming lives, it will be an eyeopener. It’s a job that is often a life commitment and he talks about it in a way that people will be able to understand and relate to and discuss. He’s become an inspiration to many.

Support The Initiative – Rural Support Trust

To support the initiative and contribute to the purchase of books for the rural community:

Email wanda@ruralsupport.org.nz and ask for more information or if you are in New Zealand simply make a deposit to ANZ 06-0145-0743411-00 with the reference “Mates”. All donations with the reference “Mates” will be used to buy copies of Doug Avery’s book The Resilient Farmer and distributed throughout the country.

Further Reading

Brilliant Podcast – Past All-Black John Kirwan talking on BBC Radio 4 about the daily tools and tips he uses

Mentemia – the new mental health well-being app, launched during the Covid-19 epidemic, currently available free to New Zealanders and Australians.

The Minefield Podcast: Rugby man Ben Jeffery’s – The mental health struggle that nearly cost me my life

Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen

Northern Irish Vernacular

I liked the idea of reading a Northern Irish novel that used more of the phonetic vernacular as encountered in  Milkman by Anna Burns. Years ago on my first visit there, I bought a slim volume on some of the words used in the North but out of the context of a story or novel they made little sense and in the course of travels there wasn’t enough exposure to it to immerse in. So this seemed like a perfect opportunity.

I got so into it, I started writing to a friend about weans and oul wans an shite. She thought I was typing too fast and not using spellcheck.  And from the comments I’ve read on twitter by those who would know, it’s been deemed an authentic rendition.

The vernacular dialogue in this is absolutely perfect. Captures the patter, the understatement, the colour, the wry knowingness of the exchanges. Rónán Hession

Big Girl, Small Town takes place during a week in the life of socially awkward but inwardly clear-eyed 27-year-old Majella who from the opening page we learn has a list of stuff in her head she isn’t keen on, a top ten that hasn’t changed in seven years. Things like gossip, physical contact, noise, bright lights, scented stuff, sweating, jokes and make-up.

Sometimes Majella thought that she should condense her whole list of things she wasn’t keen on into a single item:  – Other People.

The list of things she does see the point in is shorter and includes eating, Dallas (except for the 1985-86 season), her da, her granny, Smithwicks (the most consumed Irish ale in Ireland), painkillers, cleaning and sex.

She lives with her alcoholic mother in a fictional border town, her father disappeared years before, presumed not to be living, though no one knows that for sure. They have just heard news of the death of her 85-year-old Granny, suspected as murder.

A Unique Narrative Structure

Each chapter begins with a time of day and an item from the list, such as:

Monday
4.04 p.m.
Item 12.2 Conversation: Rhetorical questions

and the story is narrated through her regular, unchangeable routine and manifestations of these items as she encounters them, like here where she shares one of her pet dislikes, her mother’s rhetorical questions.

Majella? D’ye not have work tae go til this evening?
Majella had work to go to, just as she had done every Monday for the past nine years. And Majella knew that her Ma knew that, because her work schedule and weekly Mass were the only routines their lives revolved around.

Donegal McCleans Malin

Outside a pub & grocery store in Malin, Donegal

Majella works in a local fish and chip shop with her colleague Marty and each evening we meet local characters and encounter more items; 3.3 Noise: Shutters in work and item 3.4: Noise: Shite singing, item 1: Small talk, bullshit and gossip, item 8.4: Jokes: Repeated jokes.

There’s routine and repetition and although it might seem uninteresting to follow along day after in this quotidian recital, even the chip counter conversations and order placements I enjoy, triggering as they do a recent (Oct 2019) humorous encounter of our own in a chipper (chip shop) in Northern Ireland.

Digression – A Personal Experience of Linguistic Nuance

I now understand better having finished the book, why the man at the chipper in Newcastle looked aghast at my son when in response to his question ‘Do you wan sauce onit?’ he replied ‘Yes please, Moutarde, I mean Mustard’. This was after my son had looked at me and said, ‘I can’t understand what he’s saying’, when the man asked him following his request for a chicken burger, ‘Wud ya likit S’thrn fried or Batter’d?’. I said ‘I’m not going to explain what battered is, so just take Southern Fried’. Who’d have thought a takeaway shop could provide such an entertaining, cross-cultural experience.

In Majella’s chipper, no one ever asks for mustard. Some of them ask for things that go beyond the everyday boundaries of pleasantries, the banter of some replays itself each visit, like an old record on repeat. Majella is clearly intelligent but hasn’t been in an environment that has encouraged to pursue that elsewhere, so instead she has found a role that suits her character (in a town with the highest unemployment rate in the country) and despite everything, it is clear that she is unlikely to become trapped by the same vices that capture most who’ve given up on their dreams.

It’s entertaining, it’s kind of sad, it’s funny and also confrontational. You read it and feel like you’re really in the skin of this character and though we might want more for her, it’s clear she’s ok and if watching Dallas reruns sounds a bit odd, it provides a bit of a cliffhanger of an ending as she reflects on the lessons of that Machiavellian character J.R. Ewing.  While most probably only saw what she was on the outside, beneath it all she was totally in charge of herself and about to become even more empowered than she had ever been.

The Author Michelle Gallen

Michelle Gallen Big Girl Small Town

Her debut novel,  Big Girl, Small Town has been nominated for the CWIP Prize (Comedy Women in Print) 2020, the UK and Ireland’s first comedy literary prize. In the podcast below she discusses why it has taken so long for this type of women’s writing to appear, suggesting that in the North there has been a sea-change, a cultural change that has finally enabled different voices to come in that allows women to write bawdy, irreverent, darkly humourous content that addresses sex in a very frank way.

Michelle Gallen – who grew up in the most bombed small town in Europe post World War II and went to school in an area with the highest unemployment rate in the industrially developed world – when interviewed, said of her motivation:

“I wrote Big Girl Small Town to shine a spotlight on the consequences of the British-Irish border on a family in a deeply divided community over decades of peace and ruthless violence. It tells the story from the dark heart of the community, revealing the human growth and resilience of a proudly ungovernable community on the very edge of Britain.”

She admits that Majella might be happier if she’d watched less Dallas and read more books. Asked how she thought Majella would have coped with corona virus, she said:

“I think that while Majella would welcome the social distancing aspect of managing Covid-19, she would – like most people – be intensely worried for the virus’s effect on those who are vulnerable: the sick, the infirm and the elderly.”

And on what she might find comfort in reading:

“She would find a kindred soul in the narrator of Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. She’d have a real laugh reading Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies. And I can see her finding comfort in the lovely Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession.” Michelle Gallen

Comedy Women in Print Literary Prize 2020

Further Reading & Listening

Irish Times Article – Post troubles tale of a damaged woman 

Irish News Interview – Tyrone author’s debut novel delves into our troubled past with a helping of chips and Dallas on repeat

Irish Times The Woman’s Podcast, Episode 396 starts at 27.50 : Listen to three of Ireland’s newest authors Michelle Gallen, Niamh Campbell and Rachel Donohue join Róisín Ingle to speak about their debut novels and the inspiration behind them.

Audio Extract: Listen to 2 minutes from the beginning of the novel, read by Nicola Coughlin

Three Ways to Disappear by Katy Yocom

Sarah has recently left journalism due to her frustration at not being able to do more than just tell a story. The forced abandonment her profession demands, the development of a journalists detachment that enables them to walk away and move on to the next story isn’t in her. She resigns.

In her confusion about what to do next Sarah decides to return to the country where she spent her early childhood, where mysteries about their time there still remain. India.

Protecting Bengal Tigers in India

She joins a tiger protection organisation in Ranthambore National Park and helps raise awareness of the issues of a community, where humans, their animals and wildlife compete for scarce resources, land and water. There is tension between those trying to protect the tigers and those trying to keep their animals alive, where water is scarce and the lake is a forbidden zone to them.

Sarah’s twin bother Marcus died of cholera when they were children, her mother fled with Sarah and her sister Quinn, leaving her husband and returned to America. All three of them have different perspectives on what happened that day, and Sarah’s move back begins to unravel the shadow that has remained with them all.

Photo by Flickr on Pexels.com

Sarah provokes controversy after taking a photo of a poacher that becomes evidence and lands him in jail, leaving his wife and children in difficulty and when she rescues a cub that has fallen into the river. Her actions raise her profile in the wider community, in some ways helpful to the organisation but in other ways endangering her.

Her involvement with one of her colleagues creates further complications, highlighting cultural taboos she is determined to overcome. The scheme she comes up with to resolve those issues is well-intended, requiring a stretch of the imagination to accept.

It’s a thought provoking novel that looks at how our environment has changed as species are hunted into extinction, how overpopulation and the need to survive means that humans compete with wildlife for scarce resources and how cross cultural alliances can be sabotaged by those whose worldview favours domination, or nurtured by those seeking partnership.

How We Disappear

Three Ways Humans Disappear – sickness, accident, violence
Three Ways Animals Disappear – hunted, starvation, genetic extinction

I’m still thinking about the meaning of the title as it can be interpreted in a number of ways that aren’t made clear in the text, but it made me think about how humans disappear and how animal species disappear. It seems it remains a mystery to the author as well.

“The title is a bit of a mystery even to me! I originally chose “Three” because the family in the story has three children, and “disappear” because of the threat of extinction to the tiger. But there are so many ways to disappear: for instance, through death, or by withdrawing from relationships. And as time goes by, the meaning of the title shifts a bit. Currently I think one interpretation of three ways to disappear would be physically, emotionally, and spiritually,” Yocom explained.

It took me a while to get into the book and there was some discomfort for me around the white saviour trope and although the main protagonist had spent some of her childhood in India, she didn’t feel natural to the environment, nor was her presence really appreciated, she was seen as another threat, as her first published photograph proved. Equally the love story. Overall it was an enjoyable read despite its flaws.

Environmental Literature

It reminded me of The Tusk That Did the Damage, a novel set in South India that explores the moral complexities of the ivory trade through the eyes of a poacher, a documentary filmmaker and an elephant.

The tigress in this story Machli is based on a real tiger with the same name who lived in the lakes region of Ranthambore and was observed and photographed by the author in 2006.

This book won the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature and is published by Ashland Creek Press, who publish “books that foster an appreciation for worlds outside our own, for nature and the animal kingdom, for the creative process, and for the ways in which we connect.”

It also won a First Horizon Award, a prize for debut authors bestowed by the Eric Hoffer Book Award. The EHBA honors books from small, academic, and independent presses.

Further Reading

EcoLit Books: An Interview and Q & A with Katy Yocom

N.B. This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher.

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

How I Heard About The Book

My curiosity was peaked by a mini review over at JacquiWine’s Journal in which she said this memoir may end up being one of the highlights of her reading year. Though first published in 2019 in the US with the title Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother’s Disappearance as a Child, it was published in the UK by Vintage in April 2020 as On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming.

I was drawn to it for research reasons, it being a memoir in the genre of mother/daughter relationships with an investigative element, focused on the author’s mother, ancestors and villagers from the Lincolnshire coast, her attempts to uncover past secrets and understand the people who kept them.

Laura Cumming’s Love Letter to Her Mother

I was a little skeptical due to the subtitle, which reads like a tabloid soundbite aimed at selling multiple copies of sensationalist content.

I wasn’t interested in reading a ghostwritten drama tragedy, but the understated cover I first saw here and the simplicity of the new title, suggested a narrative that might make a motif out of a sandy beach. And JacquiWine had recommended it. Others who write about books and follow her will know what I mean by that.

Laura Cumming On Chapel Sands

I loved it. The opening chapter sets the scene, recounting the story of a little girl of three years playing on the beach near her mother and her shocking disappearance.  It is a familiar scene, the beach being down a path not far from their home, the tide going out, the sea half a mile in the distance, her mother Vera inattentive for a moment sees nothing.

One minute she was there, barefoot and absorbed, spade in hand, seconds later she was taken off the sands at the village of Chapel St Leonards apparently without anybody noticing at all. Thus my mother was kidnapped.

The little girl, Betty, was found five days later and returned to her family. Laura Cumming learns about this event in her mother’s life many years later, something her mother has no recollection of, a mystery unsolved, yet it is a turning point in her life explaining why she never went to the beach or left the front yard of their house or played with other children from school.

Her life began with a false start and continued with a long chain of deceptions, abetted by acts of communal silence so determined they have continued into my life too. The mystery of what happened, how it changed her, and her own children, has run through my days ever since I first heard of the incident on the beach thirty years ago.

On Chapel Sands Laura Cumming Memoir

Veda Elston, Betty’s Mother

Rather than seek to resolve the mystery, the book introduces us to the main characters like a novel, including black and white photos, not collected in the middle of the book but placed amidst the text where we read about them.

They are described in a way that makes me flick back to look at them again and again, and I realise this isn’t just a daughter telling a story about her mother, this is an art historian studying a family portrait looking for clues – and finding answers.

To my surprise the truth turns out to pivot on images as much as words. To discover it has involved looking harder, looking closer, paying more attention to the smallest of visual details – the clues in a dress, the distinctive slant of a copperplate hand, the miniature faces in the family album.

She poses many unanswered questions about the events that occurred and seeks answers in the photos she possesses, assembling evidence with the assurity of a forensic expert. Her mother was an artist and taught her how to notice and remember images seen in a museum long before telephones could record them. It has become the way she thinks.

A sense of place is created through references to Dutch painters, there being a resemblance in this landscape to Holland.

The flattest of all English counties, Lincolnshire is also the least altered by time, or mankind, and still appears nearly medieval in its ancient maze of dykes and paths. It faces the Netherlands across the water and on a tranquil day it sometimes feels as if you could walk straight across to the rival flatness of Holland.

Laura Cumming On Chapel Sands

Edgar Degas, The Bellelli Family, (1858-1869) musée d’Orsay

Characters are pondered deeply through photos and family paintings, the author finding inspiration and clues even in more famous works that help us understand the narrative power of an image. By the time I got to reading about Degas’s The Bellelli Family, I had to put the book down and seek the painting out to see more clearly the father’s revealing hand placement mentioned and the escaping dog. What an incredible painting!

I was completely hooked, even looking up to see which museum this painting hangs, and what luck, it’s in the musée d’Orsay in Paris, at least I live in the right country to visit it.

Serendipitously, that same day, Laura Cumming wrote an article in the Observer about the collective yearning for visiting art exhibitions; for Velázquez in Edinburgh, Monet in Glasgow, Goya in Cambridge, Rembrandt at Kenwood House, Poussin in Dulwich, Gwen John in Sheffield.

Cumming is aided by her mother’s writing, the photographs and a little by the visits they would make back to the place of her birth, but she holds out on the big reveal on what really happened until midway into the book, by which time the reader is increasingly desperate have confirmed what she is beginning to suspect.

For my twenty-first birthday, my mother gave me the gift I most wanted: the tale of her early life. This memoir is short, ending with her teenage years, but its writing carries so much of her grace, her truthful eloquence and witness, her artist’s way of looking at the world.

She was fifty-six when she sat down to write and still knew nothing about the kidnap, or her existence before it, except that she had been born in a mill house in 1926; or rather as it seemed to her, that some other baby had arrived there.

Once Cumming learns the truth, there are a roller coaster of emotions spilling onto the page, from anger, disbelief and outrage to sadness, regret and finally some semblance of compassion for those involved. On the continued collective silence though, a protective gesture to cover-up shame, that distorted her mother’s life, she says “in a way, I can’t forgive them.”

I suppose my book, quite apart from being a memoir about my mother and what happened to her and this mystery – it’s also a campaign against collective silence because these people who knew – they knew.

There’s so much more I could say and share, but I urge you rather to read it yourself, particularly if you have an interest in memoir, in mother-daughter dynamics and understanding how art reveals life. It’s a fantastic read, one I’d actually like to read again. And the NPR radio interview is excellent.

On Laura Cumming

Laura Cumming has been the Observer’s art critic for 20 years. Previously, she was arts editor of the New Statesman and a presenter of Nightwaves on BBC Radio 3.

Author of two highly acclaimed books: A Face to the World (2009) draws on art, literature, history, philosophy and biography to investigate the drama of self-portraiture; and The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velázquez (2016), tells the haunting tale of a bookseller’s discovery in 1845 of a lost portrait by Diego Velázquez and how his quest to uncover its strange history ruined his life.

Further Reading

Laura Cumming, Observer Article: Close Your Eyes and Imagine Seeing the Art Worlds Treasures as if for the First Time

NPR Radio, Listen: Laura Cumming Explores Her Mother’s Brief Disappearance In ‘Five Days Gone’

To Read:  An Extract from On Chapel Sands

Laura Cumming On Chapel Sands

“To commemorate Veda’s life, Elizabeth planted thousands of daffodil bulbs in the grounds of Chapel school for the pupils to pick on Mother’s Day each year, so that no future mother would ever be forgotten.”

Buy a Copy of On Chapel Sands

 

Circe by Madeline Miller

Retelling Greek Myths From an Awakened Perspective

Greek Myth of Circe Odyssey UlyssesOriginally published in 2018, Circe is a reimagined version of one of the ancient Greek myths, which have been variously retold through the ages, but possibly never quite in a voice like Madeline Miller’s that brings a feminine perspective and knowing, to fill in the gaps and flesh out a story that reconsiders some of the motivations the exiled  protagonist Circe might have operated under.

I enjoy well handled myths and fables and the classical Greek myths are among the longest-lived continuing to inspire much creative output. I love the voyage of discovery a retelling takes the reader on, igniting our curiosity to seek out and understand a set of characters more, finding their origins, the connections.

Last year I read Icelandic author Sjón’s The Whispering Muse, introducing me to Medea, Jason and The Argonautica, an epic poem by Apollonius of Rhodes, (Hellenistic poet, 3rd century BC). I read and reviewed Miller’s award winning The Song of Achilles, but I wasn’t nearly as animated by it as Circe.

Review

I absolutely loved the book and the evolution of the character Circe from a somewhat insular, jealous nymph, not really knowing her place in life, though her gesture towards the punished Prometheus was a clue; to her fully fledged, capable, learned, wise woman self that is revealed when she lives in isolation on the island Aiaia.

I decided to read the book straight through before looking up Circe in Myths of Greece and Rome by H.A. Gueber, because I knew Miller was going to tell us her story from Circe’s perspective and I wanted to absorb that without any  pre-conceived influence.

It starts off slowly as Circe is living in the Halls of the Gods, she is the daughter of Helios the Sun God, who rides his chariot cross the skies each day, ensuring the sun rises and sets on time the world over and her mother Perse, a naiad (a type of female spirit, or nymph, presiding over fountains and bodies of fresh water).

Her family don’t pay her much attention and in her lonesome wanderings she encounters a mortal, the fisherman Glaucus, whom she begins to meet secretly and worrying about his future, she creates a bed of flowers wishing he might transform into a God, so he can become immortal like her.

However, once he enters the Halls he is distracted by all the other beauties, no longer seeking Circe out, upset she seeks revenge against one of the nymphs Scylla, creating a spell to turn her into what Circe believes is her nature within, and Scylla becomes a multi-headed sea-monster.

Beautiful Scylla, dainty-doe Scylla, Scylla with her viper heart.

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

Circe is punished by her father and exiled to the island of Aiaia, which doesn’t sound too bad, despite being alone, there is a well equipped home with self-cleaning capabilities, plenty of plant, animal and bird life and rather than a dog, she befriends a lioness, who sleeps at her hearth.

I learned to recognise the different blooming vines and gaudy roses, to spot the shining dragonflies and coiling snakes. I climbed the peaks where the cypresses speared black into the sky, then clambered down to the orchards and vineyards where purple grapes grew thick as coral.  I walked the hills, the buzzing meadows of thyme and lilac,  and set my footprints across the yellow beaches. I searched out every cove and grotto, found the gentle bays, the safe harbour for ships. I heard the wolves howl, and the frogs cry from their mud…I was drunk, as the wine and nectar in my father’s hall had never made me. No wonder I have been so slow I thought. All this while I have been a weaver without wool, a ship without the sea.

From the moment she is exiled, something changes, Circe comes into her own and without the distraction, drama and judgement of the halls she has left behind, she begins to listen to her intuition and develop her knowledge of plants and remedies, experimenting with tinctures and seeds and leaves. Developing a skill that was not divine, not magic, something ‘made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over and sung.’

For a hundred generations, I had walked the world drowsy and dull, idle and at my ease.  I left no prints, I did no deeds. Even those who had loved me a little  did not care to stay.

Dragonfly Nature Circe

Photo by Marian Florinel Condruz on Pexels.com

She discovers her inner power and outer skill through practice. But as we know, solitude becomes less of a novelty over time and when visitors arrive she is happy to see them; Hermes checks in on her, bringing a prophecy, punished daughters are sent to do time and it is said that Odysseus himself will come, a turning point in her story.

In the origins of the story, she is perceived as evil, as if when she cast her spells upon these men who arrive by ship, she has no reason. They who feast at her table, drink her wine and then discover she is a woman alone without a husband – before able to act on their dishonourable intentions – are turned into four legged swine.

It takes little stretch of the imagination to read between the lines, however things change when Odysseus sends his men ahead of him and arrives later alone, no surprise that he who acts with respect toward the hospitality offered meets a different fate.

There was always a leader, he was not the largest, and he need not be the captain, but he was the one they looked to for instruction in their cruelty.  He had a cold eye and a coiling tension. Like a snake, the poets might say, but I knew snakes better by then. Give me the honest asp, who strikes me if I trouble him and not before.

There is so much more to the story, but it is one that has to be read and experienced. Brilliantly written, inspired by the epic tales but told in a compelling way appropriate to the 21st century when the woman’s story is given voice, being listened to and shared, rising to bring balance to a skewed narrative of the past.

Madeline Miller Answers Questions on her Inspiration

What classics did she rely on to write Circe?

The Odyssey Emily Wilson TranslationAlong with the Iliad and the Odyssey, I also drew on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Vergil’s Aeneid, the Argonautica, the Telegony, Euripides‘ Medea, Sophocles‘ Philoctetes’, Tennyson’s poem Ulysses, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, and lots of small pieces from all kinds of other scattered places.

I like to throw open the doors, and read everything I can about all the different figures, not just the protagonist. I never know where I might find the key detail that animates the character in my imagination, so I try to look everywhere.

In most tellings Circe is depicted as an evil sorceress, you chose to show her humanity and make her likable, why?

Circe has been portrayed as a two-dimensional villain in most post-Homeric works. In the Odyssey itself, however, she’s actually a much more balanced and complex character. Yes, she’s frightening, and yes, she turns men to pigs, but after she and Odysseus become lovers she offers to help him and his men, giving them shelter and helping them heal from their griefs for an entire year. Her house is the only place in the Odyssey that Odysseus doesn’t agitate to leave; his men have to come and remind him that it’s time to go.

Then, when he tells her he’s leaving, Circe doesn’t try to keep him, nor even complain about his going. She instead offers him vital help and advice on the difficult road ahead. She ends up, in fact, being one of the most helpful people he encounters!

So I think it’s very interesting that she’s been made into such a villain. It has much more to say about our fear of powerful women than it does about Homer’s poetry. Even the detail of Circe’s connection to humanity comes from Homer–he calls her “the dread goddess who speaks like a human.” I wanted to return to that complexity, and expand it further.

Happy Mother’s Day

Happy Mother’s Day to you all and especially if you live in one of the country’s where it was celebrated today. Here in France it is not La Fête des Mères yet.  It is usually the last Sunday in May but it is moved to the first Sunday in June if that day falls on Whit Sunday/Pentecost, which it does this year. So it is on Sunday 7 June this year and will revert back to the 31st of May in 2021.

A few other countries celebrate Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May, today Sunday 10 May, including New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the US, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Switzerland, Turkey, Belgium, India, China, Japan, the Philippines, Kenya and South Africa. In some countries such as Argentina and Ethiopia it is celebrated in autumn.

Confinement In France

I received a few messages from friends and family in New Zealand wishing me a Happy Mother’s Day, which was lovely and unexpected.

We have had a lovely light rainy day here in Aix-en-Provence today, though thunderstorms are forecast, I now love the rain, it being such a rarity here, and it is the eve of #DeConfinement. We are in the green zone so must follow guidelines accordingly. Sadly Paris is still in the red zone.

Tomorrow we are allowed to go out without the printed attestation (certificate) that declared our name, date and place of birth, address, signature, the time and reason for leaving home, which for the last 6 weeks for me had been limited to supermarket shopping (I’ve been twice) and walking up to 1 kilometre from said address. I take my hour every day, a small liberty for which I have immense gratitude. I haven’t been able to work for 6 weeks, tomorrow that changes.

I think I will write a whole post about my daily walk with images as it has been an interesting experience, almost like a little short story, so perhaps I will create that before things change too much.

I’ll begin by sharing this one image, which is a hole in a wall on my walk, where there is something hidden inside, a little mystery that I partially solved and have a theory on, but I will save that for another day and leave you with just this clue.

Making Simple Graphics

Something I have recently discovered and will share in case anyone else is interested is how to create simple free graphics using Canva. They make it simple to use and you can use your own photos or their templates and backgrounds. I created this image below today and shared it on twitter with a quote from the book I am reading, just for fun and to acknowledge the serendipitous event of reading it on Mother’s Day.

On Chapel Sands

On Chapel Sands is written by Laura Cumming the art critic for the Observer (an excellent Sunday newspaper in the UK). I haven’t finished the book yet, it’s a memoir and it’s brilliant, unlike anything you will have ever read, as she brings her art historian talent for interpretation of the visual image into her investigation of her mother’s life.

It’s brilliantly done, especially if you appreciate having art works explained to you by a knowledgeable guide or expert.  And she keeps some of the mystery back, making it a slow revelation of the past and finding out what really happened when her mother went missing from the Lincolnshire beach when she was three years old.

Today is about appreciating and remembering mother’s, so I leave you with a quote from Laura’s book about her mother Elizabeth and her grandmother Vera, in remembrance of all mother’s.

“To commemorate Veda’s life, Elizabeth planted thousands of daffodil bulbs in the grounds of Chapel school for the pupils to pick on Mother’s Day each year, so that no future mother would ever be forgotten.” Laura Cumming, On Chapel Sands

 

The Long Goodbye

A Musical Interlude

I wasn’t planning on posting anything today, but on Friday night one of my friends sent me a clip of another song he has written during our now 55 day confinement, which is about to move to the next level on May 11, finally.

The songs he has been composing have been made at home, without the accompaniment of his band of musicians, but it makes me hopeful that there will be a third album coming out in the near future.

I remember being at a party for his son, when he turned two, Trevor played a few covers and asked the audience if they had any requests. I used to often play his CD in the car when I was taking my son to and from rugby practice, so he was familiar with his original songs. So you can imagine the artist’s delight when a request came from my son for ‘Mademoiselle‘, one of his own original songs.

So here is the song I’ve spent most of my evening listening to on repeat: The Long Goodbye by Trevor Barrett from the album Pulling On The Devil’s Tail. It feels very relevant to what we have been through, and in anticipation of what’s to come soon.

They are a little known band, so given them a ‘like’ or a comment if you enjoy it.

Happy Saturday!

 

 

Butterfly by Yusra Mardini

From Refugee to Olympian, My Story of Rescue, Hope and Triumph

Yusra is the middle sister of three daughters living with their parents in Damascus. Their father is a swimming coach, obsessed with training his two eldest girls to excel. Being in the pool is one of their first memories and being pushed to succeed an ordinary part of childhood, as habitual as their going to school.

Not everyone in the community approves of the girls swimming, it clashes with tradition, despite the diversity that exists.

A lot of people don’t understand about us swimming. They don’t see the hard work and dedication it takes us to swim. They just see the swimsuit. Neighbours and parents of kids at our school tell Mum they don’t approve. Some say wearing a swimsuit past a certain age is inappropriate for a young girl. Mum ignores them. The summer I’m nine, Mum even decides to learn to swim herself.

Nothing gets in the way of the girls training, even when they don’t feel like it or have an injury, it’s clear their Dad is a disciplinarian and is instilling strength and resilience in his daughters, while their mother is there watching, waiting and supporting them all the way through.

When Yusra is six they watch they watch the finals of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games on television. It’s the 100m men’s butterfly and their Dad tells them to watch lane four. It’s the American Michael Phelps. It’s a defining moment for the Yusra.

I never chose to be a swimmer. But from that moment on I’m hooked. My gut burns with ambition. I clench my fists. I no longer care what it takes. I’ll follow Phelps to the top. To the Olympics. To gold. Or die trying.

Though she is in the background of Yusra’s story, I find the mother’s quiet strength and nurturing of significance in the story. Both her own personal development and her continuity in being there for the girls.

Photo by Heart Rules on Pexels.com

Following a terrible scene where her elder sister Sara is having her shoulders stretched and her collar-bone is broken, the doctor insists she rests. Her father is displeased, while her mother tries to help.

Since learning to swim she’s been teaching water aerobics at a hot springs spa south of Damascus, close to the city of Daraa. She’s branched out into massage therapy and tries her new skills out on Sara’s shoulders.

As the political situation in Syria deteriorates, it becomes dangerous for them to return to their home, culminating in one evening when they return from visiting family to find tanks at either end of their street. A soldier holding his assault rifle in the air tells him to take his family and leave.

‘I’m not leaving my house,’ he says.

‘Then get us out of here at least,’ says Mum, her voice choked with panicked tears.

He drives them some distance away, then sets off on foot alone to return to their home,  a mistake, though he won’t learn his lesson yet. They are forced to abandon their home and stay with family, until they find another apartment in a quieter part of town.

Though they continue at school and in the pool, people are beginning to leave. Their father is offered a coaching job in Jordan and departs, alone, sending his salary to them regularly.

One by one, friends and neighbours drift away. Groups of siblings, whole friendship groups, families disappear.  The majority leave for Lebanon or Turkey and then overstay their tourist visas. Some of them end up in Europe. Most of the boys my age are either planning to leave or have already gone. Once guys hit eighteen, they’re eligible for compulsory military service in the army. Only students and men without brothers are exempt. In normal times, its just a fact of Syrian life. But now there’s no doubt: going into the army means kill or be killed.

Yusra turns seventeen, her sister has quit swimming and for a period she does as well, without her father there fighting in her corner, she loses some of her will, until she meets her friends again and decides to return. But when a bomb falls on the building, everything changes.

Sara announces she is leaving, and Yusra will go with her. They will send for their mother and younger sister when they arrive in Europe. They are heading for Germany and will have to take a small boat from Turkey across to Greece, paying smugglers at various places along the way.

It’s a fraught journey, the boat crossing particularly, an overloaded vessel that looks like it won’t make it, that forces the sisters into the water for hours to lighten the load to prevent it sinking. The sea is a danger, but there will be more worrying experiences ahead as they attempt to cross hostile borders and find accommodation in some countries  that refuse to rent rooms to Syrians.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It’s not until they arrive safely in Berlin that it begins to dawn on them, the immensity of what they have been through. Once settled in the refugee camp and as they begin their asylum process, Yusra finds a pool to train in and opportunities open up for her and Sara, and soon she is on track to attain that childhood dream, though not in the manner she expected, there remain hurdles to confront. And the trauma of others which they’re seeing daily on their Facebook timelines continues, lessening any joy they might feel.

When she is struggling to accept the offer of being part of the newly formed Refugee Olympic Team, it is her father who reminds her that it isn’t always about the swimming.

‘Very few Syrians get this chance to speak up,’ he says.  ‘You can be their voice. You know a big part of their story because you’ve been through it too. It’s an opportunity for all of us to be heard.’

It’s an incredible story of a young woman and her family, who becomes something of a reluctant heroine and inspiration for young people from the region and for refugees everywhere. It’s very honest, she shares her struggles in accepting the role and opportunity she is given, while being grateful to those who’ve welcomed, helped and made it possible, all the while aware of the continued struggles and horrors being faced by those who couldn’t leave or died trying.

Further Reading

Illustrated Children’s Book – Yusra Swims by Julie Abery

Article in Guardian – Butterfly by Yusra Mardini review – the refugee swimmer whose story swept the world

Women and Hollywood Article – Sally El Hosaini Will Direct Yusra Mardini Biopic “The Swimmers”

Holistic News – 2 Min Video Introducing Yusra Mardini, a Syrian swimmer that represented refugees at the Olympics in Rio.

Rio Highlights – Yusra Mardini’s 100m Butterfly race

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

Rose Tremain is an author whose books I never hesitate to pick up, she is such an engaging storyteller. The last novel I read by her was The Colour, set in New Zealand during the gold rush, an excellent alternative to the lengthier The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.

Review

Set in Switzerland, The Gustav Sonata opens in 1947 in the village of Matzlingen when Gustav is five years old, and like a sonata is structured in three parts.

Gustav lives in a small apartment with his mother Emilie who works at the local Emmental cheese factory, her circumstances diminished since the death of her husband. Frustrated by motherhood and resentful, Emilie finds little solace in the presence of her son, she  barely extends basic care towards him. Each morning they walk to kindergarten.

He never cried. He could often feel a cry trying to come up from his heart, but he always forced it down. Because this was how Emilie had told him to behave in the world. He had to master himself. The world was alive with wrongdoing, she said, but Gustav had to emulate his father who, when wronged, had behaved like an honourable  man; he had mastered himself. In this way Gustav would be prepared for the uncertainties to come. Because even in Switzerland where the war hadn’t trespassed, nobody yet knew how the future would unfold.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Gustav befriends an anxious little boy named Anton and inspires confidence in him. Emilie invites him to play, but then seems disturbed by his name, doesn’t want him around. Gustav visits Anton and discovers his new friend is a gifted piano player.

‘I’m going to play for Gustav’ said Anton. ‘I’m going to play The Linden Tree.’

‘If you listen carefully and close your eyes,’ said Anton, ‘you can hear the leaves of the tree rustling in the notes.’

In Part Two the story moves back to 1937 and we meet Emilie again as a young girl, attending a festival with a friend, oblivious to the troubled undercurrent gripping the continent.

Europe is moving, slowly, almost blindly, like a sleepwalker, towards catastrophe. But in the villages of Mittelland, the calendar of feast days and festivals unrolls through a fine and untroubled summer.

In the excitement of the day, the girls meet off-duty Assistant Police Chief Erich Perle, just as he is crowned Schwinger Champion at the festival, they’re both smitten, he tells them his work isn’t onerous, having no idea yet of the trouble that is headed his way.

‘What’s “onerous”,’ asks Sofie?

‘Burdensome or difficult. The reason police work isn’t very onerous is because the Swiss enjoy obeying the law. On the whole, unless a law is felt to be unjust, they prefer to obey it. When I joined the force, I was told in one of the lectures that Switzerland is a country where people have mastery over themselves.’

Photo by brenoanp on Pexels.com

The story unfolds and by Part Three Gustav is a mature adult and hotel owner. Not much has changed in the cool, indifference shown to him by his mother, but he develops an interest in uncovering the mystery surrounding his father, of which we are now aware more of than he. Thoughts of childhood continue to invoke an inexplicable sadness.

The sadness gathered like a grey twilight around the idea of his own invisibility: the way the boy Gustav had kept on trying to push himself into the light so that his Mutti would see him better. But she had never seen him better. She’d remained half blind to who he was.

It’s a beautifully written simple story unraveling the circumstances that brought these people together and the reverberating impact of decisions they made that changed the course of their lives. It is the story of a friendship that is little understood until it fragments and is temporarily severed, separation allowing the space to reflect on the importance a shared history brings. It’s about making amends.

Rose Tremain’s Islands of Mercy – coming Sept 2020

1865, in the city of Bath, a young woman renowned for her nursing skills is convinced another destiny will one day present itself. When she finds herself torn between a dangerous affair and the promise of a conventional marriage to an apparently respectable doctor, her desires lead her towards a future she never imagined.

On the island of Borneo, an eccentric British ‘rajah’, Sir Ralph Savage, overflowing with philanthropy but compromised by his passions, sees his schemes undermined by his own fragility, by man’s innate greed and the invasive power of the forest.

Jane’s quest for an altered life and Sir Ralph’s endeavours entwine as the story journeys from the confines of an English tearoom to the rainforests of a tropical island via the slums of Dublin and the transgressive fancy-dress boutiques of Paris.

Islands of Mercy is a novel that ignites the senses, a bold exploration of the human urge to seek places of sanctuary in a pitiless world.

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Do you have a favourite Rose Tremain novel?