Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf

During the weekend, I took a break from my current read to pick up this final slim book written by Kent Haruf, knowing it would be a gentle, soothing read that makes little demand of the reader.

Nights in Holt, Colorado

Kent Haruf last novel set in HoltLike the Plainsong Trilogy, it takes place in the provincial town of Holt where all Haruf’s book were set. This time we meet neighbours Louis and Addie, who are both widowed, early 70’s, living alone, with Ruth, in her 80’s in the house between them.

They’re not close, but one morning Addie arrives on Louis’s doorstep with an unorthodox proposal to alleviate her insomnia. That he spend nights with her, in her bed. She thinks it might help and wonders if he has a similar issue.

I’ve made up my mind I’m not going to pay attention to what people think. I’ve done that too long – all my life. I’m not going to live that way anymore.

The novel this explores the development of this new relationship, that Addie has no wish to hide, and it’s repercussions, in that frank, open way Haruf has of confronting his characters with their often uncommunicative selves, forcing them out of their silences, of their set ways, for their own benefit.

Challenging the Quiet to Speak Up, Act Out

When Louis tells Addie he has thought of her, admiring her character, she responds:

Why would you say that?
Because of how you live. How you managed your life after Carl died. That was a hard time for you he said. That’s what I mean. I know what it was like for me after my wife died, and I could see that you were doing better than did. I admired that.
You never came over or made a point of saying anything, she said.
I didn’t want to seem intrusive.
You wouldn’t have. I was very lonely.

One would think at their age they ought to be free to indulge themselves a little, but this a parochial town and Addie’s intention is more of a challenge than she initially realises.

Daring to Be Free, At Their Age

Robert Redford Jane Fonda Our Souls at Night Kent Haruf When Louis’s daughter visits, her explains that it is a decision they’ve made to be free. She tells him he is acting like a teenager.

I never acted like this as a teenager. I never dared anything. I did what was supposed to do. You’ve done too much of that yourself, if I may say so.

There’s a reference in chapter 34 to his earlier novels, where Addie and Louis are discussing the upcoming theatrical season in which they are featuring the last book about Holt Country. The one with the old many dying and the preacher. They discuss the author’s imagination.

He took the physical details from Holt, the place names of the streets and what the country looks like and the location of things, but it’s not this town. And it’s not anybody in this town. All that’s made up. Did you know any old brothers like that? Did that happen here?
Not that I know of. Or ever heard of.
It’s all imagined, he said.
He could write a book about us. How would you like that?

Yes, there is one of these in the book too.
Photo by Brixiv on Pexels.com

It’s both life affirming and sad at the same time, we have a perspective that not everyone in the community shares, though Haruf seems to be telling his readership that ultimately, if we nurture and allow it, love always finds a way.

A perfect weekend read and fitting tribute to a much loved author.

Kent Haruf died in November 2014 at the age of seventy-one, just before this last book was published in 2015.

In 2017 it was made into a film starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford.

Have you read this book or seen the film?

Further Reading/My Reviews

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Benediction by Kent Haruf

Eventide by Kent Haruf

 

Gratitude by Delphine de Vigan (France) tr. George Miller

les gratitudes French literature AgeismI’ve read one other novel by Delphine de Vigan, which was auto-fiction and delved into lives affected by a bi-polar parent. A later novel also sat on the edge of fiction and real life, a novel of suspense where a friendship becomes obsessive and perhaps dangerous.

Gratitude feels like a departure from that style of writing, there’s nothing haunting or tense here, no tactics to turn the page faster.

More reflective, it considers the dilemma of ageing on three people: childless, unmarried Michka who was orphaned at the age of seven, near the end of her life; Marie, a young woman who lived upstairs, who has become like family to her; and Jérôme, the resident speech therapist who visits and is touched by Michka’s way of being, as he attempts to retrain her mind to find the lost words.

It’s a relatively simple tale told from the perspective of two people, one whose connections go back many years, the other who meets her for the first time in the care home. Both are equally important, reminding me of the beginning of that saying…

People come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. When you figure out which it is, you will know exactly what to do.

How To Express Gratitude

It is Marie who in the opening pages questions what it means to have gratitude and how to show it to someone who has been important in one’s life. She reflects on Michka’s life and their final interactions, in search of evidence of her  gratitude. Jérôme wishes there was a forewarning system, to let us know when someone’s time is imminent, even though he works with the elderly, he suffers from the shock of their departure.

The narrative switches between the two as first Marie recalls the day everything changed, when Michka lost her independence and then moments are shared while she is in care, Michka’s conversation affected by her aphasia, the impairment of her use of language, other words jump ahead pushing out the one she wishes to say.

The admission interview for the nursing home demonstrates the terror and horror of entry, as if going for a job interview for a job you never wanted in the first place, made to feel like you might be rejected. The director reminds her that it’s the same with everything in life – whatever you do, there are tests, interviews, competitions, exams, assessments, evaluations, grading. It is necessary to show your dedication, commitment, motivation and determination.

In the second half as more and more words disappear or malfunction, a sense of urgency arises.

Attaining Completion, Resolution

It is a slice of life and a look into that part of it that is imperfect, that part when some have to be at the mercy of others, in a facility that diminishes the end, possibly brings it on more quickly.

Michka has an unresolved matter to deal with and in her sessions with Jérome, which she often sabotages to question him about his father, she tells him of her regret, the thing she is unable to do for herself. Time is running out.

Gratitude is a life-affirming read, even if there are sad undertones, showing there exist all manner of souls around, those that want to hurry us along, and those that without expectation of reward, are willing to go out of their way to help another. And the importance of fulfilling those wishes for another.

My Review Of:

Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan

gratitude Maya Angelou Delphine de Vigan

N.B. This book was an ARC ( Advance Reader Copy) with thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing provided via Netgalley.

 

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death by Maggie O’Farrell

This memoir is told using the unique narrative structure of seventeen brushes with death, each chapter heading shows an anatomical sketch of an organ of the body and the year it was affronted, a pattern that isn’t chronological, more like a jigsaw puzzle, that as we read, begins to reveal more of itself as each experience is understood.

Warnings and Wake Up Calls

Maggie O'Farrell Memoir Near Death ExperiencesI thought it was brilliant and I Am as much in awe of how it’s been put together, as I Am of the insights she shares as each brush has its impact and adds to her knowledge of the body, mind and her own purpose in being here.

The first encounter is thriller-like and anyone who’s ever felt their inner warning system go off when in the presence of a would-be predator, will recognise the signs and shake their heads at the response she gets when trying to report the event to the police.

That going over the conversation afterwards thing, wondering what else she could have said for there to have been a different outcome.

How could I have articulated to this policeman that I could sense the urge for violence radiating off the man, like heat off a stone?

It occurs to me that we humans have more lives than cats, these brushes with death can occur without us even realising. It will make you pause and think back to some of those near misses you too might have had.

Others, like the first one she shares are pushed down so deep, never again mentioned, except that one time, when it was necessary to make someone understand, to accept a necessary attitude and behaviour change.

It is a story difficult to put into words, this. I never tell it, in fact, or never have before. I told no one at the time, not my friends, not my family: there seemed no way to translate what had happened into grammar and syntax.

Some stories/brushes forewarn of another that is still to come in the narrative, so that in this way, there is an invisible thread connecting them, we come to an encounter later in the text, having already been made aware of some of the underlying facts that have formed this life.

Drowning In Life, Travel An Escape

Drowning Maggie O'Farrell Memoir I Am I Am

Photo by Hernan Pauccara on Pexels.com

A near drowning at sixteen is as much about the inclinations, boredom and despondency of adolescence, as it is about the consequence of having lost a sense of direction underwater.

It is all these things and more that propel me to my feet. At sixteen you can be so restless, so frustrated, so disgusted by everything that surrounds you that you are willing to leap off what is probably a fifteen-metre drop, in the dark, into a turning tide.

A Latin class school trip to Rome and Pompeii at seventeen was a turning point O’Farrell describes as being like receiving a blood transfusion, the assault on all the senses of the sights, sounds, tastes, the contrast to what was familiar so great, it was painful to consider leaving.

It was the beginning of a love affair with travel and gave a focus to her innate restlessness, a way to satisfy it, the only thing besides writing that can meet and relieve it.

A Cure For Prejudice, Bigotry and Narrow-Mindedness

Maggie O'Farrell Feather Death Angels

Photo by Erik Mclean on Pexels.com

She quotes Mark Twain, who after travelling around the Mediterranean said that travel was ‘fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness’ and tells us that neuroscientists have for years been trying to understand what it is about travel that alters us, effects mental change.

Professor Adam Galinsky, an American social psychologist who has studied the connection between creativity and international travel, says that ‘Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms.

One of the most gripping chapters for me was the second to last, CEREBELLUM 1980, when a headache that becomes a significant marker on her life path, a period of hospitalisation and subsequent rehabilitation and re-education as she recovers from encephalitis, a debilitating inflammation of the brain probably caused by a virus resulting in muscular atrophy, a long period of immobility and several ongoing, invisible side-effects.

Apart from the more obvious physical issues, enduring a chronic condition also had a kind of mystical quality. The way she writes of convalescence, where weeks slide by without your participation, ironically, has some resonance with what we are experiencing with lockdowns/confinement.

Fever, pain, medicine, immobility: all these things give you both clarity and also distance, depending on which is riding in the ascendant.

A Fear Of Fearlessness

Near death experience fearless recklessness Maggie O'Farrell Memoir

Photo by Christopher Moon on Pexels.com

The insight that really stood out though, was the development of, and her living in a state, of fearlessness.

Coming so close to death as a young child, only to resurface again into your life, imbued in me for a long time a brand of recklessness, a cavalier or even crazed attitude to risk. It could, I can see, have gone the other way, and made me into a person hindered by fear, hobbled by caution. Instead, I leapt off harbour walls. I walked alone in remote mountains. I took night trains through Europe on my own, arriving in capital cities in the middle of the night with nowhere to stay.

These insights were so remarkable and familiar to me, when I reflect on the way my daughter lived her life, that they help me understand something I was so fearful of myself, her fearlessness and familiarity with death, and her artistic conversation with it.

It was not so much that I didn’t value my existence but more that I had an insatiable desire to push myself to embrace all that it could offer. Nearly losing my life at the age of eight made me sanguine – perhaps to a fault – about death. I knew it would happen, at some point, and the idea didn’t scare me; its proximity felt instead almost familiar. The knowledge that I was lucky to be alive, that it so easily could have been otherwise, skewed my thinking.

Fortunately for us Maggie O’Farrell lived far enough into her life for this thinking to change, the birth of a child is magical in so many ways, her indifference stopped the minute she became a mother. And then even greater challenges would arrive, situations that the life she had lived until then, unwittingly had been preparing her for.

If you are aware of these moments, they will alter you. You can try to forget them, to turn away from them, to shrug them off, but they will have infiltrated you, whether you like it or not.

A work of incredible merit, highly recommended.

And then there is Hamnet.

 

Potiki by Patricia Grace

Brilliant. Republished in 2020 as a Penguin Modern classic, originally published in 1986, a year before the New Zealand government finally recognised Māori as an official language, I hope many more people get to read this poignant novella.

Literature Awakens the Past

This book evoked so many thoughts, memories and dug up much buried deep within me, that it was at times difficult to concentrate on the story. I read and reread pages and deliberately took my time, scribbling in the margins, remembering stories and experiences from my primary school days, learning the Māori language, flax weaving, poi dances, sticks, songs, the legends and the gods, occasional participation in marae activities, including school attendance of a funeral for someone important in the community, and the cautionary tales of the taniwha.

Potiki – the last born

Maori culture literature New Zealand Potiki ClassicPotiki is the story of a family and the encroachment on their lives of the now dominant culture that is trying to usurp their way of life, a land developer wants to turn their coastal ancestral land into a holiday park, and will use whatever tactics necessary to do it.

In some ways the new culture has already succeeded in subverting their own, colonial style education conditions young minds, severing them from their language and traditions, causing divisions within the community as some are enticed by the individualism and material benefits of a capitalist mentality.

Told in three parts, the story is narrated by Hemi, his wife Roimata and the son they bring into their family Toko, raising him with their three children.

Each of them have their own stories, James’s of the earth and the universe, Tangimoana’s of the sea, Manu, in fear of disappearing, can not find his stories.

Roimata worries for Manu when he is due to start school:

What would be right then for a little one who called out in sleep, and whose eyes let too much in? What would be right for one who didn’t belong in schools, or rather, to whom schools didn’t belong?

Nurturing Stories and Life

Rather than go out to become a teacher as initially planned, she becomes the keeper, listener and narrator of stories, a writer and reader of stories, enactor, collector and maker of stories. Of continuity.

Then I knew that nothing need be different. ‘Everything we need is here. We learn what we need and want to learn, and all of it is here,’ I said to Hemi, but he had always known it. We needed just to live our lives, seek out our stories and share them with each other.

Their home, their land and community is under threat from outsiders, who covet their location and do everything they can to entice them to give it up, to sell, using the offer of money, then more threatening measures to get what they want.

Two cultures collide, but only one side is listening, the other is used to getting their way, is used to their tactics winning over. This family and community understand too well what they will lose if they let go of their land, they have already witnessed it. And though it is not them that fight, for their way is to talk openly, there are others who will intervene.

Ancestral Lands and the Tangata Whenua

Hemi worked the land in his youth but went out to work when his grandfather passed on. Now there is no job, he is back to caring for and caretaking the land.

They still had their land and that was something to feel good about. Still had everything except the hills. The hills had gone but that was before his time and there was nothing he could do about that, nothing anyone could do. What had happened there wasn’t right, but it was over and done with. Now, at least, the family was still here, on ancestral land. They still had their urupa and their wharenui, and there was clean water out front.

It is a new era, there is more determination which created hope, that turned into confidence and created an energy to confront the situation and demand the protection of the language, customs and way of life wherever possible.

Land, their homes, the meeting house, the food-house, the cemetery are part of a community that allows its members to leave or return, to be independent knowing they can come back to a place where family can come together, a refuge for the lost and broken.

The Gift Inherent Within All

Toko is visionary, a child that almost wasn’t, one with a special gift, who sees the stories changing and will become part of the story that is carved into the meeting house, remembered in wood and in the eloquent words of Patricia Grace’s reflection on the loss of an extraordinary one.

We have known what it is to have had a gift, and have not ever questioned from where the gift came, only sometimes wondered. The gift has not been taken away because gifts are legacies, that once given cannot be taken away. They may pass from hand to hand, but once held they are always yours. The gift we were given is with us still.

Shared narratives move from one to another in a spiral, in the way of their culture, detailing their progress and regression, their ability to support and nurture and their deceptions, their desire to make the other understand, and their failure to be heard or respected.

It is not a tale with a logical solution, but a demonstration of the cultural differences that exist in Aotearoa, New Zealand and how the actions of those in power, with their single agenda, affect a people whose way of life, customs and beliefs are different.

Further Reading

Patricia Grace, Biography – NZ novelist, short story writer and children’s writer of Ngati Toa, Ngati Raukawa and Te Ati Awa descent.

NZ History – Te reo Māori recognised as official language, 1 August 1987

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume

It is an interesting situation to have read an author’s work of creative nonfiction before reading either of her two novels, so I come to Sara Baume’s novel, knowing her as a sculptor of birds, an acute observer and thinker about bird migrations.

From Handiwork to Imagination

Sara Baume Ireland Dogs in Literature

I know she is someone who spends her mornings at her writing desk and her afternoons and evenings working with her hands, accumulating and gathering things around her, writing about objects, thinking about people, what they said and did, making things, a ponderer who crafts with their hands.

So when I meet the 57 year old man in Spill Simmer Falter Wither, it takes me a while to think of him as that man, because seeing through his eyes and listening to his inner conversation with OneEye, the injured, undisciplined dog he has just adopted, I see how this character too, has been sculpted with as much care and detail as one of the many birds in Handiwork.

I have to remind myself the narrator is an older man, not Sara Baume, because she is so present, looking out through her character’s eyes, all-seeing. Her rhythmic style of storytelling, the repetition of words are all giveaways. I love it.

Handiwork was such a sliver of a book, it was over so quickly, small morsels, often only a paragraph to a page, it was a delight to go on a fictional journey here, once she was able to get her protagonist out of the house.

She does so, by his act of taking in a homeless dog. We don’t know at the time how out of character that is for him. The dog gets him in trouble and they are coming for him, so he flees, but little do we know what he is really escaping.

Stream of Consciousness, Second Person Narrative, The Unreliable Narrator

Spill Simmer Falter Wither Sara Baume Dogs in Literature

Photo by Laura Stanley on Pexels.com

What great characters, what eccentricity gently portrayed, what clever use of the first and second person narrative, what a revelation, what tension, what joy that finally here is a relationship of unconditional love, even if it causes him such anxiety for much of the time.

I was wrong to tell you you were bold. I was wrong to try and impose something of my humanness upon you, when being human never did me any good.

A stream of consciousness first person narrative morphs into a second person narrative, the anxious man-child thinks and speaks in his mind to himself (I) and the dog OneEye (you). He even begins to dream he is a canine. This inner conversation cleverly hides his denial, rendering him an unreliable narrator.

Sometimes I see the sadness in you, the same sadness that’s in me. It’s in the way you sigh and stare and hang your head. It’s in the way you never wholly let your guard down and take the world I’ve given you for granted. My sadness isn’t a way I feel but a thing trapped inside the walls of my flesh, like a smog. It takes the sheen off everything. It rolls the world in soot. It saps the power from my limbs and presses my back into a stoop.

One Man and his Dog on a Road Trip

Spill Simmer Falter Wither Sara Baume

Photo by Ali KarimiBoroujeni on Pexels.com

The road trip is unsustainable, the two of them experiencing a kind of freedom they’ve not known before.

I expected it would be exciting;  I expected that the freedom from routine  was somehow greater than the freedom to determine your own routine. I wanted to get up in the morning and not know exactly what I was going to do that day. But now that I don’t, it’s terrifying.

He thinks about his father sometimes, but has no memory of his mother.

I’ve never looked through his stuff and I can’t explain exactly why it is I’m so incurious. I suppose there are clues about his life there in the shut-up-and-locked room, perhaps even some traces of my mother, but better to be content with ignorance, I’ve always thought, than haunted by truth.

The presence of the twist comes as a surprise, we hadn’t realised this was a mystery, its literary qualities create the expectation not to have expectations. The element of surprise when it comes is genuine.

The title, which is also the structure is brilliant, only a lover of words and perhaps a scrabble player or reader of the dictionary or thesaurus could have come up with four words that represent the four seasons and almost begin with same two letters,  suggestive of what the four parts of the book represent. Signs of the philosophical mind and playfulness of the artist at work.

An Irish Times review suggested “the Becketty title is a worry, because it begs to be misremembered”, but once I see that Spill  = Spring, Simmer = Summer, Fall = Falter, Wither= Winter and I think about the four parts of the narrative, I can never forget the title. It’s like playing a word game, remembering it, the author having fun with her readers, well – some of them.

In total awe.

Further Reading

My Review of Handiwork (2020) by Sara Baume

Irish Times Review: Spill Simmer Falter Wither, by Sara Baume: Greatness already evident by Joseph O’Connor

Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud

As soon as I saw that there was a book out called Love After Love, I was curious, then seeing it was written by a UK based Trinidadian author, I knew it was no coincidence.

Derek Alcott, Poet

Trinidad Literature Costa PrizeLove After Love is the title of one of my favourite poems by Derek Walcott (1930-2017) of St Lucia in the West Indies. A poet and playwright, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. He moved to Trinidad after graduation when he was 23, having already published two volumes of poetry by the age of 19.

I first encountered his poem in the front of Audrey Niffennegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife. It is a poem that elicits different feelings from readers, depending perhaps on when in their lives it is encountered; some relate it to rediscovering one’s cultural identity, others to grief, a broken heart or to the freedom of finding one’s true purpose.

For me it evokes a feeling of a partial awakening of consciousness, the discovery that one is able to self-nourish and expend love and energy inward, rather than expressing it or looking for it externally. It represents a form of liberation and freedom, a soul awakening, leading.

I was curious to see how Ingrid Persaud would write a story with such a bold and beautiful reference.  How would this story encapsulate the essence of that wonderful poem I wondered, and imagine if it succeeded.

Winner of Costa Book Award 2020, First Novel

Love After Love Ingrid Persaud Love After Love was shortlisted for the popular Costa Book Awards (annual literary awards recognising English-language books by writers based in Britain and Ireland) in the First Novel category.

I was quietly confident it would win this category, as I’ve followed category judge and highly valued reader/blogger Eric Anderson of The Lonesome Reader for years and I knew how much he loved this novel (it was in his Top 10 of 2020). It did win and the novel, The Mermaid of Black Conch: A Love Story by Monique Roffey also set in the Caribbean won the Novel Award.

Ingrid Persaud won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2017 and the BBC Short Story Award in 2018. An author I’m sure we’re going to be reading more of in future.

Review

From the short opening Betty chapter I was riveted. Vivid, charged and terrifying, I felt like my heart was in my throat with my hand gripping it. And then, just as quickly, an immense relief followed it.

Costa Book Awards 2020 Love After Love Derek Walcott poemBy page seven there is a broken arm and a funeral as I gasp “Thank goodness” for I couldn’t bear to spend more time in the presence of Betty’s volatile husband Sunil. After five pages of tension-filled dialogue, the book becomes unputdownable.

In that opening chapter we read of a significant turning point in Betty’s life. There will be a further turning point later relating to the events of that day, one that the second half of the book and its characters will struggle with.

The book is structured into chapters told from the perspective of the three main characters, Betty, Solo and soon to become boarder Mr Chetan, Betty’s work colleague who calls her Mrs Ramdin, despite her insistence that he use her first name. The dialogue is written in the unique island way of speaking, a Trinidadian dialect, that I imagine is even more colourful to listen to on audio. It brings the text alive.

In Mr Chetan’s opening chapter he is late for work, waiting to catch a maxi taxi and getting more and more stressed as none are passing to flag down. He is a little mortified to see Mrs Ramdin’s car slowing down, instructing him to jump in quick, they’re holding up traffic.

Nothing’s wrong with Mrs Ramdin. She’s a little talkative. And you can see the girl she was in her big dark eyes and simple shoulder length hair. I just prefer not to be too friend friend with people in the main office. Next thing the whole of town all up in your business. I know she so so. Good morning, how you going, but never any big conversation.

That unexpected interaction lead to his learning she was looking for a lodger, and if he knew anyone suitable. Though he doesn’t present himself as a candidate then, because he knows she would prefer a woman, later he seeks her out and by the weekend is moving in.

The delightful, yet lost Mr Chetan is a sensitively drawn character, living in a country fearful of being himself, yet finds ways to make the lives of those around him better. Cast out from his own, he is everyone’s friend.

In the first half of the book we get to know these brilliantly portrayed characters, the new routines and life they create for themselves as a kind of family, the laughs, the loves, the conversations, the creation of a bond they’re hardly aware of as it entwines their lives together. Until the hunger to create a life for themselves results in both Solo and Mr Chetan moving away. All three of them will undertake an inner journey of discovery.

Betty is distraught. Solo takes such a tough line against his mother once he has left, too young to know what preceded him, she experiences the mother’s dilemma of not wishing to cast her sons father as a villain, while suffering the sons judgement of her, having cast her as the ‘baddie’ instead.

I must be call Solo a hundred times but he not answering. I don’t know if to stop calling or what to do. He have age so he could do what he want. I must accept that. You make your children, look after them and hope for the best. But oh gosh, man. Any fool knows that reaching adult age is not the same as having the sense and the experience. And if anybody needs some good sense knocked into them it’s that boy and his hard head. Who going to help him up there? Hari?

Solo is angry and not in the mood to listen, nor realises what he has lost in leaving. Betty’s calls go unanswered. She writes letters instead and we hear her thoughts, we hear his and we experience the frustration of a mother-son situation that endures.

Ingrid Persaud captures brilliantly the dynamic of both, the stubborn independence of the son, his inner pain and the torturous way he deals with it – hides it – and the perseverance of his mother, never giving up on her son, consistent in her love of him. Solo’s struggles are also external, the flip side of the American dream, the reality of creating a new life alone, where everything is unfamiliar and one doesn’t know who to trust, the shame that prevents a young man from admitting to his mother that he isn’t okay.

And Mr Chetan, always there for them both, with his quietly spoken, sound advice and his complex life.

Totally engaging characters and story line all the way through, sad to have left them all behind.

Highly recommend!

Further Reading

Review, The Washington Post: ‘Love After Love’ reminds readers why we go to books in search of answers to life’s great questions by Naomi Jackson

My Review: Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo

L O V E   A F T E R   L O V E
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome, and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
love after love Ingrid Persaud Costa Book Awards

Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat (2019)

Everything Inside is a collection of short stories by Haitian author Edwidge Danticat.

Little Haiti in Miami, Florida

Edwidge Danticat Literary Fiction Short StoriesHaving left Haiti when she was twelve years to live in America, it’s not surprising that her stories involve a cast of characters with connections to her home country and a neighbourhood in Miami Dade County, Florida referred to as ‘Little Haiti’ after a Haitian pro-democracy activist wrote to a Miami newspaper referring to his new home as “Little Port-au-Prince” which was shortened and known thereafter as ‘Little Haiti’.

Many Haitians fled their country in the sixties and seventies, to escape the brutal dictatorship of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier.

The stories concern those who left, those who stayed, those who visited one place or another for a short time, those who belong, those who are trying to find their place, those who have found success by honest means and those who resorted to taking advantage of the vulnerable.

The Immigrant Dilemma, Stay or Return?

When the dictatorship in Haiti ended, so did a lot of marriages. This tension and divide is also explored within the stories.

There was a hard line between those who wanted to stay in America and others who wanted to go back and rebuild the country.

Exploring the connections that bind people together and the events that force them apart, they could be tales of any number of immigrant individuals or families. The clash of cultures shifts and evolves as immigrants find themselves seen as the other, if they stay too long and get too used to life elsewhere.

Character Driven Narratives

Everything Inside Hope Edwidge Danticat short stories Haiti

Photo by Sudipta Mondal on Pexels.com

There are eight contemplative, character driven stories that are slightly melancholic, that all represent some change in the status quo, but that each provide the prospect of hope.

This is the third book I’ve read by Edwidge Danticat and I enjoy the way she fuses the characters of her origin country with present day life in America and the intersection of the two.

It maps the slow beginnings of a divide between the generations, grandparents who have never met their grandchildren, business people trying to entice successful Haitians back to their motherland and the increasing disconnect between the two, as their worlds grow further apart. And the vulnerability of women who put their trust in another.

The stories were published over a twelve year period, so pick up on historical events that create turning points in her stories, the earthquake of 2010, the actions of foreign aid workers, and the elevated perception of North America.

Her debut novel Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994) a story of four generations of women was excellent, as was the gripping memoir Brother, I’m Dying (2007) which focuses on the relationship between her father and her Uncle Joseph.

Further Reading

NY Times : Haitians May Leave Their Country, but It Never Leaves Them by Aminatta Forna

Review NPR: Coming to terms with loss and grief in ‘Everything Inside’ by Michael Schaub

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

Best Reads of 2020

In 2020 I read more books than usual, as a result of the diminished social and leisure life we’ve all had to rein in. That extra home time I gifted to my reading and writing activities and was aptly rewarded.

Books That Soothe the Soul

It was a slow start as the year began, still in the terrible lull that followed the death of my teenage daughter in August 2019. I couldn’t read and when I tried it wasn’t easy to find the right match. The few books that soothed me were more of a spiritual nature, Julie Ryan’s Angelic Attendants Felicity Warner’s Sacred Oils, and The Grief Recovery Handbook; though I wasn’t able to express here how they sustained me, they just did.

Confinement in France

Then in March we were ordered to stay home. In France, it is known as le confinement. For two months I wasn’t able to work and we were only allowed to leave home for an hour a day for exercise within a 1 kilometre radius of home and to carry a printed attestation each time we left home. Ironically, while this was the beginning of a difficult period for many, it was the beginning of a return to a new reality and routine for me. The daily walk, the immense gratitude, the arrival of spring, noticed and appreciated in a new way. I was finding a way back to balance, re-centering.

I wrote a series of blog posts entitled Reading Lists for Total Confinement, which included my:

Alberto Villoldo How Shamans Dream the World into BeingTop Five Spiritual Well Being Reads, Top Five Nature Inspired Reads, Top Five Uplifting Reads,

Top Five Translated FictionTop Five Memoirs and the Top Five books I was intending to read next.

It was a tipping point and re-entry back into reading, and one title that I slow-read and drip-fed myself, no more than a chapter a day, during those two months, that was like an uplifting, therapeutic intervention was Cuban-American Alberto Villoldo’s Courageous Dreaming.

Our situation may be a difficult one, but it’s only a nightmare if we choose to make that our reality. By taking the facts and writing a new story with them, we can script a different experience of reality.

He reminds us that we are all living within our own stories, that they can either stay stuck in the past and put on repeat, or we can rewrite them and courageously imagine or dream a better version of ourselves and of our future. Never was there a better time to refresh this knowledge and to recall the benefit of expressing one’s creativity.

“Curing is the elimination of symptoms. Healing is a journey on which you discover the cause of your ailment and make fundamental life changes from diet to belief systems that will create health.”

Travelling the World From Home

And so my reading mojo returned and from the comfort of home, I rested in the present, resisted the pull of other media and travelled the world through literature, reading a little over a book a week, by authors from 34 countries, a third of them in translation.

Continuing to favour the imagination in storytelling, 70% of the books I read were fiction, however I read more non-fiction this year than ever and some of my favourite reads came from this genre.

Here are my Top Fiction and Non-Fiction Reads, as well as my annual ‘One Outstanding Read of the Year’.

Outstanding Read of the Year

Best Non Fiction Read of 2020A Ghost in the Throat, Doireann Ní Ghríofa (Ireland) – I read so many deserving, excellent works of fiction that were also outstanding, so I revisited this book to remind me why it deserves to be elevated above the rest.

It may be due to my own journey, perhaps there is something about this book that validates my desire to write something fragmented and unconventional, something that isn’t easily categorised.

This work of creative nonfiction is as personal as it is universal, it uses a poem and the author’s passion for it, to bring together various threads of her own life, both before having a family, while on the threshold of birth, being in proximity to death, experiencing love and daring to author a work that bursts beyond genre, challenges academia and waves the flag for women in all her multifaceted complexity.  Language, poetry, babies, dark nights of the soul, creativity, writing, Irish life, the burying and rise of women authors working in partnership.

Much of this book was written sitting inside her car, parked up after dropping her children at school. Forget excuses about finding time to write, or a room of one’s own, Ni Ghriofa deserves a prize for perseverance, achievement, breaking all convention and writing an utterly engaging 21st century kick-ass, feminist oeuvre. Just brilliant. Read it people!

Top Fiction Reads of 2020

Here, in no particular order is the best of the fiction I read in 2020, reading experiences that have stayed with me, that I continue to highly recommend to you all, just click on a title to read my original review:

Fresh Water for Flowers, Valérie Perrin (France) tr. Hildegarde Serle – this was the last book I read in 2020 and a fitting way to end the year, it is a beautiful translation of what was a bestseller in France in 2018, about a young woman who becomes a train level-crossing keeper, then cemetery-keeper. It a story of love, loss and redemption told through an extensive cast of characters, both living and not, demonstrating the interconnectivity of lives, viewed through a compassionate lens. Evocative, lyrical, character lead and quintessentially French.

The Book of Harlan, Bernice McFadden (US) – this work of historical fiction, in part inspired by the author’s own family was hugely memorable and one of the first in 2020 that really stood out for me. It was also the book that lead me into a bit of Harlem Renaissance period of reading which uncovered some excellent older reads that I adored. It follows the life of Harlan from his early years with his grandparents to Harlem and the music scene, to Paris and Germany, and while reading I was accompanied by the music of that era which McFadden incorporates brilliantly into the narrative and had me pausing, listening, watching and learning all the way through. Absolutely brilliant.

Quicksand, Nella Larsen (US) (semi-autobiographical) – while the reading world in 2020 was devouring Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, a contemporary exploration of the American history of passing, I opted to read Nella Larsen’s classic novellas Passing (1929) and Quicksand (1928). I enjoyed Passing, however the semi-autobiographical Quicksand was equally brilliant. It follows the life of a young woman, a third culture kid of mixed race parentage with a white mother from Denmark and a black father from the Danish West Indies (as were Nella’s parents), foreigners, immigrants, a child growing up with little connection to either culture, who has trouble settling in to the society she is born into. Brilliantly written and observed, I highly recommend it.

Crossing the Mangrove, Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe) tr. Richard Philcox (French) – I love reading Condé and managed another two this year including I, Tituba Black Witch of Salem however Crossing the Mangrove was a stand out and had me shaking my head in admiration of her talent. Here she returns to a Caribbean setting, where the death and subsequent funeral of an outsider brings together a number of characters, each of whom narrate a chapter, revealing the multilayered diversity of island society. Though the man’s death is a mystery, it is is more of a ‘noir‘ novel, no tidy resolution, rather an insightful, penetrative look at the folly of life. Brilliant, one I want to reread.

Circe, Madeline Miller (US) – I’d wanted to read this for a while and finally did so earlier in the year and loved it. With Circe, Miller brings a refreshing, feminist perspective to an ancient Greek myth, that reconsiders the motivations of the jealous nymph, allowing her to evolve and grow into the fully fledged, capable, learned, wise woman self that she becomes while living in exile. Rather than the evil sorceress men have historically depicted her as, here we meet a more nuanced, balanced and complex character. Brilliant.

The Adventures of China Iron, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara (Argentina), tr. Fiona Mackintosh, Iona Macintyre (Spanish) – short listed for the International Booker Prize 2020 this was one of the most humorous books I’ve read in a while, a contemporary retelling of a well-known Argentinian gaucho poem Martin Fierro by José Hernández; that title a lament for a disappearing way of life, whereas this is an elegy to what could have been, told from the perspective of his little mentioned wife, a tale of adventure, emancipation, sexual freedom and liberation. It didn’t win, but it remains a firm favourite of the year for me.

A Girl Returned, Donatella Di Pietrantonio (Italy), tr. Ann Goldstein – this novella was an unexpected surprise, I read four books translated from Italian this year, Elena Ferrante’s latest The Lying Life of Adults and her debut Troubling Love, both of which were excellent, but it was this novella that has stayed in my mind. A thirteen year old girl is returned to the family she was born to without being told why. Determined to unravel the cause of abandonment by both sets of parents, at birth by her biological family and now by her adoptive family, the book explores the changes that happen as she detaches from one and becomes entwined in the other. It’s brilliantly depicted, thought provoking and insightful.

Auē, Becky Manawatu (NZ) – last year I read the winner of the NZ Book Award This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman and this year when Auē took the prize, I bought a copy immediately. Very different books, both explore a darker aspect of New Zealand life. Aue has you on the edge of the seat, following the lives of an eight year old boy, his older brother and a couple they are connected to. The characters are unforgettable, portrayed with empathy without indulging sentimentality. The proximity of vulnerability to brutality is intense and unforgettable. You won’t read anything else like this in 2020. Extraordinary literary fiction from elsewhere. Go on. Read it.

Top Non-Fiction Reads of 2020

Stories of the Sahara, Sanmao (Taiwan) tr. Mike Fu (Chinese) – incredible that it has taken 40 years for this title to come to our attention and be translated. This was definitely the funniest, sometimes scariest and surprising read of the year. Sanmao wasn’t exactly a hippy, she was one of a kind, a woman way ahead of her time and outside of her culture, travelling with her Spanish boyfriend in the 70’s with the intention to live in the Spanish Sahara like a local, thanks to a deep passion for the landscape and curiosity for its people. The situations she finds herself in, the people she meets and the tender love affair with the man who indulges her whims, was a close runner up for outstanding read of the year.

Atlantis, A Journey in Search of Beauty, Carlo & Renzo Piano (Italy), tr. Will Schutt – another from Italy, this is a father and son adventure, a journalist and an architect who take an eight month trip by boat around the world, visiting the various sites of Renzo Piano’s architectural constructions. I requested it on a whim and found it both educational, entertaining, philosophical and surprisingly riveting. This now 80 year old father is an inspiration and his son an engaging, provocative narrator. It left me wishing that more familial partnerships could come together to capture these kind of conversations, that have such universal appeal.

Handiwork, Sara Baume (Ireland) – an author whose name I was familiar with, I read Handiwork after finding it was published by Tramp Press, who published A Ghost in the Throat. I couldn’t believe my luck to have come across another title that blurs the boundaries of genre. Handiwork is an artwork, a lyrical account of a year spent sculpting and painting small birds for an installation. Her morning she spends writing, her afternoons making stuff with her hands, just her Dad and Grandad did before her. An eclectic collage of thoughts, observations, memories and quotes from various masters, it was a total pleasure to read.

A Spell in the Wild, A Year & Six Centuries of Magic, Alice Tarbuck (Scotland) – after reading two novels about Tituba, the black slave woman accused of witchcraft, I decided to read a book with a contemporary view of witchcraft, now that we are safely beyond the era when admitting to being partial to the practice of ritual outside of acceptable religion could get you hanged. And I stumbled across the incredibly knowledgeable author Dr Alice Tarbuck, who puts the formality of her PhD aside to share her monthly rituals, spells and historical anecdotes from a vast canon of literature that portrayed women as something wicked and powerful that needed to be suppressed if not put down. Her six centuries of magic is quite the opposite, unputdownable.

The Warmth of Other Suns, Irene Wilkerson (US) – the product of years of research, and an intimate relationship with three people, from three different states and decades through whom Wilkerson recounts history, this is a factual account of the little acknowledged great migration of African Americans out of the Jim Crow Southern states of America, beginning just after WW1 in 1915, continuing until the 1970’s. It’s a long continuous diaspora that had a significant impact on families, their culture and connections between their new home and old and a fascinating insight into black American history told in a compelling way.

* * * * * * *

And there it is, a summary of the most memorable books I read in 2020, thank you for your patience if you managed to read this far! Do you have a few absolute favourite reads of the year to share? Did you read any of those I mention here? Let me know in the comments below.

 

Fresh Water for Flowers by Valérie Perrin tr.Hildegarde Serle

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

cemetery keeper changer l'eau des fleursWhat a refreshing read to end 2020 with, a novel of interwoven characters and connections, threaded throughout the life of Violette Touissant, given up at birth.

When I was born I didn’t even cry. So I was put aside, like a 2.67kg parcel with no stamp, no addressee, while the administrative forms were filled in, declaring my departure prior to my arrival.
Stillborn. A child without life and without a surname.

We first meet Violetteas an adult. Having been a level-crossing keeper she is now a cemetery keeper. She introduces her neighbours and their characteristics in common, they are an intriguing lot, who we are going to get to know better.

Those neighbours she lives among are the dead, while she lives in the heaven of the living, at the mid-range of life having been through plenty of pain and suffering to get there. Now rewarded, she has found her place, her people and those who deserve to be part of it, have found her too.

My present life is a present from heaven. As I say to myself every morning, when I open my eyes.
I have been very unhappy, destroyed even. Nonexistent. Drained. I was like my closest neighbours, but worse. My vital functions were functioning, but without me inside them.

Level Crossing Keeper

The 94 short chapters all begin with a thought provoking quote, the narrative seesaws back and forth to moments in that life, sometimes revisiting the same moments, but seeing them from the point of view of Violette, her husband Philippe and the many other pairs of characters we encounter, through their connection to those dead neighbours of hers.

Since taking on the job of cemetery keeper, after meeting one of the most life-changing characters, Sasha, she has been recording details of the events that take place in the cemetery, making diary-like entries, references that she is able to refer back to when people stop by to have a cup of tea or something stronger, looking for the resting place of someone important to them, not always family, but people with connections that weren’t always able to be fully expressed in life.

Death never takes a break. It knows neither summer holidays, not public holidays, nor dentist appointments…It’s there, everywhere, all the time. No one really thinks about it, or they’d go mad. It’s like a dog that’s forever weaving around our legs, but whose presence we only notice when it bites us. Or worse, bites a loved one.

The narrative returns to her early adult life, at 18, already married, she discovers the 821 page novel L’Oeuvre de Dieu, la part du Diable a French translation of John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, a book known to open minds and hearts, eliciting compassion for a set of circumstances no one really thinks about, making the reader look at the world in a slightly different way.

Which is perhaps what Fresh Water For Flowers does, taking characters in unconventional circumstances and sharing their stories, watching how those stories shock, enlighten, end and change lives.

Violette too will have to deal with death. A death that develops into the more significant mystery at the core of the novel. And with it, innumerable twists and turns, suspicions and revelations.

Life is but an endless losing of all that one loves.

Every summer she stays in the chalet of her friend Célia, in the calanque of Sormiou, Marseille. A place of refuge and rejevenation, that Perrin too brings alive, eliciting the recovery and rehabilitation this nature-protected part of the Mediterranean offers humanity.

It’s a gentle novel because even though there are moments of tragedy, they are seen through the eyes of the most empathetic character, so even the most villainous, unlikable characters are given a generous, understanding hearing.

The details of the life of a keeper, whether it’s the level crossing or the cemetery are so realistic, evocative and visual, it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that this book may be turned into a series; it’s too long for a movie and with so many interconnecting lives, it  feels like it could have continued on, just as life and death does, always someone arriving, someone departing, and someone there to soothe the way through those transitions.

It’s not a book I have heard anything about until now, but it’s going on my list of favourites for 2020 and is one I highly recommend.

Not a day goes by without us thinking of you.

N.B. Thank you to Europa Editions for sending me a copy for review.