Quicksand by Nella Larsen (1928)

As I read the last sentence, I shouldn’t have been surprised, because the end was coming, there was no time for another escape, for the pattern of Helga’s life to continue. “Oh, my” I uttered, as understanding of the meaning of the title, “Quicksand” sunk in. It had claimed her.

Quicksand Nella Larsen Identity Race BelongingVoice is Everything

What a unique voice and depiction of a rootless young woman searching for her place in the world, bereft, not finding a sense of belonging within family, when the world around her judged the two sides of her family as if they are different peoples because of the colour of their skin.

If you couldn’t prove your ancestry and connections, you were tolerated, but you didn’t belong.

Helga’s mother was a Danish immigrant, her father an African-Caribbean man of whom she had little or no memory or connection to his family. After her mother dies Helga (15) is sent to a boarding school, where life is a little easier for her, except for the growing awareness, like a hole inside her, that unlike her peers, she has no siblings, no family, no roots, no longing for home, no real happiness.

They had mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, of whom they spoke frequently, and who sometimes visited them.

Her life becomes a search to fill the void, an attempt to purge herself from a self-loathing of having been exposed to both sides of her heritage and their disdain for each other, unable to fully embrace either one, as she is both. And from the opening pages you know you are in the presence of a woman who is on a quest to discover if this is all there is, this half life she’s been living until now.

In one sense, her ability to get up and change her circumstances is admirable, empowering even, her refusal to accept the status quo and take action, her departing words carry unexpected strength. When she resigns from her teaching job mid-term, she doesn’t hold back in telling the principal how much she hates the school ans his misguided perception of who he thinks she is, with her conflicted feelings of her biracial and non-Southern lineage.

In the girl blazed a desire to wound. There he sat, staring dreamily out of the window, blatantly unconcerned with her or her answer. Well, she’d tell him. She pronounced each word with deliberate slowness.
“Well for one thing, I hate hypocrisy. I hate cruelty to students, and to teachers who can’t fight back. I hate backbiting, and sneaking, and petty jealousy.”

Revenge Against Rejection

When she encounters those who see her, like Dr Anderson, she feels the urge to abandon her selfish need to flee, responding to a mystifying yearning to serve, until he too says the words that will inflame her ego, pushing reason away, refusing it a place in her thought process.

“Someday you’ll learn that lies, injustice and hypocrisy are a part of every community. Most people achieve a sort of protective immunity, a kind of callousness, toward them. If they didn’t, they couldn’t endure. I think there’s less of these evils here than in most places, but because we’re trying to do such a big thing, to aim so high, they irk some of us more.”

Her loss and lack of rootedness creates an incessant restlessness, her education, beauty and even her bigoted relative provide her the means to be independent. But that which she wishes to escape from, continuously pursues her, seeking solace in the outer world, she avoids the one path that might bring her serenity, to look within.

Nella Larsen Quicksand Passing Harlem Renaissance

Nella Larsen

She leaves Nashville for Chicago, where she discovers the need for connections and references and is brutally rejected by her Uncle’s new wife, who can’t bear to harbour the thought they might be related.

She saw herself for an obscene sore in all their lives, at all costs to be hidden. She understood, even while she resented. It would have been easier if she had not.

She finds her way to New York and finds solace there, until the restlessness returns. The descriptions of her encroaching discontent are vivid, realistic, perhaps even a real memory, described by Approaches to Teaching the Novels of Nella Larsen the more “obviously autobiographical” of Larsen’s two novels.

A windfall from her Uncle provokes an impulse to seek out her family in Denmark, whom she has dim but fond memories of from a childhood visit. Again she begins life anew and initially revels in it, and enjoys being the object of attention, until the vague discontent returns.

She desired ardently to combat this wearing down of her satisfaction with her life, with herself. But she didn’t know how.

A Sign of Healing

We are lured into the belief she may have found the right path, as leaving Denmark signifies a return after hearing the wailing undertones of songs remembered in her youth strike her longing heart, remove her defenses, making her homesick for more than just the land of her birth.

For the first time Helga Crane felt sympathy rather than contempt and hatred for that father, whom so often and so angrily she had blamed for his desertion of her mother. She understood, now, his rejection, his repudiation, of the formal calm her mother had represented. She understood his yearning, his intolerable need for the inexhaustible humor and the incessant hope of his own kind, his need for those things, not material, indigenous to all his peoples’ environments.

Nella Larsen Passing Quicksand BiRacial Identity Belonging

Photo by Josh Sorenson on Pexels.com

A Surprise Twist

The plot then takes a significant and surprising turn and the ending too, contributing to what no doubt makes this an interesting novella for discussion, as to the origins and perpetuation of Helga’s difficulties, separation from the mother, from one’s lineage and family, identity, race, cross-cultural societal differences, what it means to belong and the expectations of being a woman.

I loved it. Even if it felt unfinished, like a young woman’s coming-of-age as she learns who she is, first from the outside, in terms of how others perceive her and also how she perceives the outside world, initially with each move, falling into the same trap of finding solace in that which is external to her. She is ripe for an inner journey of transformation, that which follows the realisation that who ones parents and family are, isn’t who “I am”. Instead she finds something else, a fork in the road and it is as if the author can not take us further.

Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen (1891-1964), an acclaimed novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, became the first African American woman to win a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and won the Harmon Foundation Bronze Medal for Literature, celebrated as one of the bright stars of the Harlem Renaissance.

Famous for her two books Quicksand and Passing, she was the daughter of immigrant parents. Her father, Peter Walker, was a black cook from the West Indies, and her mother, Mary Hanson, was a Danish seamstress. Soon after Larsen was born, her father disappeared. Her mother remarried a white Danish man named Peter Larsen and they had a daughter. She spent four years living in Denmark before returning to the US where she worked as a nurse and a librarian.

 

Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) and The Harlem Renaissance

Although well-known as a poet and pioneer of the Harlem Renaissance movement – an intellectual, social, musical and artistic explosion centered in Harlem, Manhattan, New York City, from 1918 until mid 1930’s, Langston Hughes also wrote Not Without Laughter, a semi-autobiographical novel, now considered a classic.

Three Harlem Renaissance Women 1925During the Harlem Renaissance, there was an outpouring of creativity, an expression of how African Americans sought social, political, and artistic change in the US, also influencing francophone black writers from African and Caribbean colonies living in Paris. This movement turned attention to and invoked pride, in the lives of Black Americans.

An anthology of essays, poetry and fiction produced during this era, edited by Alain Locke, reflects the voice of middle class African American citizens who desired  equal civil rights like their white, middle class counterparts. Langston Hughes however sought to give voice to and remained a humble advocate for the lower, working class.

His authenticity, appreciation and ability to see beauty in simplicity, evoked through the power of his words, proved him to be one of modern literature’s most revered and versatile African-American authors.

Not Without Laughter, written while he was a student at university, and inspired by his own youthful experiences, provides us a privileged insight into the kind of characters who inhabited his world and imagination, giving us today this powerful, timeless novel.

Books That Connect Threads

As I began reading this I was reminded of Bernice McFadden’s The Book of Harlan, a story of another young man, in part inspired by the author’s grandfather and pulling on historical references of the time, both general to the population and specific to her own family.

Here it’s semi autobiographical, as Hughes writes of a boy named Sandy, like himself and like Harlan, raised by a grandmother who was more worldly and wise, women with ideas about raising grandsons to reach their better potential, while their daughters were off following husband(s) who liked the road and moved from place to place in search of their dreams. Being a young couple and trying to make a living was challenge enough, the grandmother, though often a working woman herself, was a wise and practical choice for keeping a boy on track towards a worthy future.

When I read more about Langston Hughes, I was reminded too of Audre Lorde and her essays in Sister Outsider, of her travels and observations in Russia, looking at that foreign country through the lens of being black and a woman; Hughes too was curious about the world beyond his home town, travelling beyond his home and country.

Hughes rode steamships to West Africa, toured the American South, traveled to Spain to cover the Civil War, rode the Trans-Siberian Railway, and saw his own reputation shift from Harlem Renaissance star in the 1920s to Communist activist poet in the 1930s to public figure in the 1960s…

Book Review

Not Without Laughter is a coming-of-age story that introduces us to Sandy Rogers who lives with his grandmother who everyone refers to as Aunt Hager and his mother Annjee, who works as a housekeeper for a rich white family, while his father Jimboy traverses the country pursuing a living as a musician.

He was a dreamy-eyed boy who had largely grown to his present age under the dominant influence of women – Annjee, Harriett, his grandmother – because Jimboy had been so seldom home.

It’s 1930’s in small town Kansas and Hughes creates a vivid portrait of African-American family life in a racially divided society, where some try to make the most of the way things are without changing it, some try to help others no matter their colour or creed, some aspire to be like what they perceive are successful white folk and Sandy observes all, in the process of making up his mind about all that he witnesses.

Eventually Annjee follows her husband, whom she only ever sees through rose-tinted glasses believing that one day things will change and their fortunes will change. Sandy gets his knowledge of a man’s world from his part-time jobs at the barber shop and as a bellboy in a local hotel.

Aunt Hager as they affectionately call her, is a great character and the one who truly formed Sandy into the quiet, highly observant child and teenager he becomes, a hardworking washerwoman she is always there for those who are ailing, and worked every day of her life to the last.

We follow Sandy through his opportunities and disappointments, his observations of how his people are treated and the strangeness of those who try to be what they aren’t, moving up in a world that makes some of them ashamed of their humble beginnings and the humble trying to stay good, not allowing themselves to indulge in certain types of disreputable fun should it corrupt them.

Racism is ever present, like the shadow that projects itself in full sunlight, unquestioned, accepted and quickly forgotten by white children whose psyche is undamaged by its selective vengeance. Sandy sees everything, choosing his revolutionary acts wisely, knowing when to run, where to find safety  and paying homage where it is due.

Even when he is at a loss, his new situation offers him the opportunity to learn anew, seeing more of the world his people inhabit, the consequences of the various choices they make, so that by the time he too must make a choice, he is as well informed as he can be.

In the home of the social-climbing Tempy, Sandy discovers a treasure trove of literature, which he eagerly consumes. Life  blossoms for Sandy, who, as he excels at school, grows both in stature and self-confidence.  – from the Introduction by Maya Angelou

Langston Hughes The Racial Mountain Not Without Laughter

Langston Hughes

It’s a heartfelt story that leaves a sense of regret as the last page is turned, when Sandy is deciding whether to leave school as suggested by his mother, to support her, or return to his studies as suggested by his Aunt, who like her mother wishes him to have that chance at bettering himself.

His observations of family dynamics, of the impact of race, community connection, the culture of music and the complications of young love are portrayed vividly and without judgement, leaving it to the reader to note the obvious.

Ultimately the title says it all, the way to cope, the example he admires, the man who finds something in his day to laugh about or someone to laugh with, finds joy right there.

A rich and important work, Hughes shines a light on the black American experience, paying homage to those who formed and informed him, enabling him to leave his own legacy for which we are fortunate to have insight into.

I, too, am America.

Further Reading

Poem: I, Too by Langston Hughes

Essay: Langston Hughes landmark essay The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain

Article, New Yorker: The Elusive Langston Hughes by Hilton Als (2015)

An Introduction to the Author: Langston Hughes 101 by Benjamin Voigt

The Ferryman’s Daughter by Juliet Greenwood

Cornwall The Ferryman's Daughter Juliet Greenwood Historical FictionHester is the ferryman’s daughter, it is Autumn 1908 and she lives in a Cornish seaside village with her family, whose lives are soon to be forever changed when her mother dies.

Working Class Women

A working class family, her mother warns her against getting close to those living in the big houses, who employ but rarely befriend those deemed beneath them in status.

They are not like us. They will never be like us. However much they may try not to be, they see us as a convenience, the people who clean their houses and draw their baths and make their life comfortable. It doesn’t really enter their heads that we are as real as they are, with dreams and ambitions and a desire to also walk in the sun. And that can make them cruel, even if they don’t mean to be. You remember that and don’t ever be distracted from the path you wish to take.

Hester takes over the household domestic duties and then her father’s job becoming a ferrywoman, when he is invalided. Despite her ability to cope, her father is taken in by the wily Jimmy, who continually ignores Hester’s refusals and worms his way into the family and their business.

The Ferryman's Daughter Juliet Greenwood red fishing boat

Photo by Korhan Erdol on Pexels.com

After performing a rescue at sea, Hester experiences for one night what it is like to be waited on, to sink into a hot bath and rest, sleep, with nothing else to do.

Her eyes closed, savouring the stillness. ‘This is what I want,’ she said aloud. She had no hankering to be waited on like a queen, as she had been this evening. She just didn’t want to spend her life as a drudge, the one who got up first, who went to bed last. The invisible hand who did the cleaning and the cooking and the mending, along with the juggling of a meagre budget, the conjuring up of meals out of the barest of essentials.

She is a young woman working against the odds that would normally pull her towards accepting a fate confining her to care for younger siblings and a wayward father. She manages to keep alive her ambition to become something more than what society, her father and Jimmy expect from her, to develop independence without neglecting those who rely on her, finding those who see her for who she really is, even when she loses sight of that herself.

Dad saw reliance on a daughter as humiliating, a lessening of his manhood. Reliance on a son-in-law, particularly one who would, in turn, be reliant on his instruction and his expertise, would restore the natural order of things. Her feelings on the matter were irrelevant.

The Ferryman's Daughter Seaside cafe blue chairs flower pots Cornwall

Photo by Juany Jimenez Torres on Pexels.com

Women During the War

Eventually circumstances including the outbreak of war provide her an opportunity to pursue her first love, to cook wholesome homemade food from the abundance of the gardens of Afalon, the big house where her grandmother had been head cook.  She will be tested and confront challenges she thought she’d left behind, but doing so leads her towards a desire inherited from her mother she is determined to pursue.

A refreshing protagonist, living in an era where few women escaped the narrow role society decided for them, until war gave them a chance to show what were capable of. Hester paves the way in setting a new example for those who experience setbacks, showing how they can be overcome and the importance of working with and being supported by like-minded women.

Historical Fiction With Empowered Female Characters

Another captivating novel from Juliet Greenwood, set in her familiar locale of Cornwall, with her trademark, capable, independent woman protagonist exploring an alternative way of life than ‘the pursuit of a husband’ in an era where rejection of a man’s attentions was perceived as a mark against the character of a woman, who ought not to think so highly of herself as to be capable of surviving without him. A refreshing representation of the rise of the empowered woman.

N.B. Thank you to the author Juliet Greenwood for providing me with a copy of your new book.

Further Reading/Reviews

Review of Eden’s Garden by Juliet Greenwood

Review of We That Are Left by Juliet Greenwood

Buy a Copy of The Ferryman’s Daughter via Book Depository

Burn by Patrick Ness

I have read two books by Patrick Ness, the unforgettable, award winning YA (Young Adult) A Monster Calls and one of his two novels for adults The Crane Wife.

The first one was written with the help of a powerful presence, in that it was the brainchild of the writer Siobhan Dowd , who didn’t live long enough to write the story herself, requesting that Ness take over and do it for her readers. And what he accomplished as a result was extraordinary, a dark tale featuring a monstrous yew tree that torments a grieving boy.

I wanted to read more, so chose The Crane Wife a modern retelling of a Japanese myth he read as a child. And enjoyed it as well.

Burn Patrick Ness Dragon FantasyDragon Symbolism

Seeing that he had a new book out and being in a reading lull, I decided to read this latest YA novel Burn, a book that features a world where dragons are employed as farm workers and a cult of Believers reveres them, one of the members has been told by their leadership and foretold by a prophecy that he must stop certain events from occurring.

On a cold Sunday evening in early 1957 – the very day, in fact, that Dwight David Eisenhower took the oath of office for the second time as President of the United States of America – Sarah Dewhurst waited with her father in the parking lot of the Chevron gas station for the dragon he’d hired to help on the farm.

Featuring two dragons,  it reads more like realistic fiction than fantasy, I’d hoped the dragon presence to be greater, but it seems we only need a couple to be taught a lesson. We like dragon energy and symbolism here.

 Symbolically the dragon brings us a message of strength, courage and fortitude, they are messengers of balance and magic, encouraging us to tap into our psychic nature and see the world through the eyes of mystery and wonder.

The book is set in the 1950’s in America, racism and a mistrust of foreigners brings two young people together; the Russian blue dragon Kazimir (it’s set in the Cold war era) intervenes when the racist, trouble-making Deputy sheriff steps out of line.

“A Russian dragon,” the Deputy said. “In my town. With the way the world is today. You a Communist, claw?”

“I am a dragon,” the dragon said simply.

“You a threat to my country?”

“I do not know. Are you a threat to mine?”

The dragon might be friend or foe, depending on whether you believe Sarah, her father or the sheriff. But for sure, it has something to do with the prophecy that is driving everyone towards their farm for a bit of a showdown.

A couple of FBI agents are involved, creating an atmosphere of suspense as they pursue the person believed to be about to create chaos in their world across the country.

As we read, we are not sure whether the dragons are a force for good or otherwise and that aspect of the mystery carries through to the end and left me wondering whether there might be a sequel to the story as there were many elements and questions I had, that could have been explored, that may have been held back deliberately. Though the mystery is solved, there is a desire to explore further the world that has been discovered.

Teenage Reading and YA Fiction

Interesting for fans of fantasy teenage fiction, introducing historical-political elements about society in that era, the way foreigners and those of colour are mistrusted and maltreated, paranoid attitudes about communism, gay rights and cult fanaticism.

And the superheroes are those of our imagination, fire-breathing dragons and innocent not-yet corrupted children.

Do you like to read outside your normal genre occasionally? Have you read Patrick Ness?

 

I Am Dust by Louise Beech

This book is magical and extraordinary, as is the author, her daughter and her grandfather. I feel like I know them all, though we’ve never met. I’m unable to give an objective opinion because this book and her debut How to Be Brave will forever be etched in my heart and mind as books that evoked an experience that I now have a personal connection to.

A Dedication

I Am Dust Louise Beech Jenna Spartan Allia JenI Am Dust was dedicated by Louise Beech to my 17 year old daughter Allia Jen who passed away suddenly in Aug 2019 as the last chapters to this book were being written.

Like Louise’s daughter, Allia Jen lived with the daily grind (4 injections/day) of Type 1 diabetes. Louise’s excellent novel How to Be Brave (about a daughter’s challenging diagnosis and an arduous ‘lost at sea’ survival story inspired by her own Grandad Colin’s war story), was my reading choice when Jen had corrective back surgery for scoliosis in 2016.

We experienced a kind of psychic connection as that book took us on a trip, me experiencing symptoms of being lost at sea and for Allia Jen, the post midnight, morphine-induced presence of three beings with “strange English accents” present in the room. ‘It was Granddad Colin’, I said.

Jen loved the theatre, it was their favourite holiday activity, signing up for week long, full day theatre activities, mostly improvisation, rarely scripted. At first it seemed incomprehensible, having spent six years of primary school mute, never speaking in class, to school friends, or the teacher. And then wanting to sign up for theatre? Yes, but never with friends or anyone who Jen knew and I was requested not to attend the final show. I didn’t mind. I loved that she’d found her voice, was projecting it on stage and had found a new community of like-minded souls.

So ‘I Am Dust‘, a suspenseful, teen drama with a psychic element and a protagonist whose great love is the theatre, a character who is creative and doesn’t recognise her own talent, is a magical and meaningful gift to a mother who totally gets it.

The power is in us all along.

Book Review: I Am Dust

The novel is written in a past/present dual narrative.  In 2005 we meet Chloe, Jess and Ryan, teenagers in a youth theatre group that is rehearsing Macbeth; alternate chapters bring us to present day 2019 where Chloe works as an usher at the Dean Wilson Theatre, Jess is now the actress ‘Ginger’ and no-one has seen or heard of Ryan since that summer of Macbeth.

Morbid curiosity, youthful bravado and teenage love had joined the three of them, on a dusty stage in a church.

Louise Beech Playwright Author Writer I Am Dust Hull

Author, Playwright Louise Beech

The theatre is believed to be haunted by long-dead actress Morgan Miller who played the lead in the opening premiere of the musical ‘Dust’ a season that ended after four nights due to the tragedy.

The teens had been involved in a spooky game after hours, each of them with an ulterior motive; as the narrative progresses in the present, Chloe recalls what happened in the past, things she’d forgotten.

For some reason when Chloe chatted with Jess, a void cracked open and memories Chloe hadn’t known were there slithered out, like lava laden with debris – the dusty stage at the youth theatre, a box with letters and a glass in it, and three shimmering candles.

The past gains clarification and the present moves towards the re-staging of the iconic musical creating an atmosphere of eerie suspense and renewed interest in the unsolved murder of the lead actress.

‘How did we forget?
‘Don’t people bury traumatic memories?’
‘Maybe,’ muses Ginger. ‘But it’s more like…I don’t know. It’s like the synopsis of a play. We just can’t see the actual script.’
‘I agree. I can see bits clearly…other stuff, not so much.’

The setting in the theatre is realistically evoked, as if we are there; as the lights go down and the crackle of a voice comes through the radio earpiece with it’s threatening tone, a shiver runs down my spine and I imagine her in the dark looking around for the source of the menace.

At times the suspense is dragged out and the scenes with the teens end prematurely making the reader wait for them to meet again, but by the time to musical is close to opening for the second time, the pace has picked up and I’m no closer to suspecting the truth behind the mystery element of the novel, my one suspicion turning out to be hopelessly wrong and the finale comes as a shock.

And then the most beautiful, reverent ending that evoked all kinds of emotion in me and had tears rolling my cheeks. I look back at the dates that the book was being written and remember what was happening in our own lives at that time and recognise how much more I understand about life after death than I did before August 2019.

‘That’s what I found the hardest,’ admits Morgan, still golden gorgeous in the glow of the mirror lights. ‘Never getting to say goodbye to anyone properly. But there are ways you can. Love lingers. It’s still there, even if you’re not.’

I can’t say whether this book is for you, but I want to say a huge thank you to Louise Beech for her gesture, and for following her own heart and passion, for she too, like the protagonist, is a lover of theatre, an usher and a girl with a few screenplays in her top drawer that I hope one day, like Chloe’s, will make it onto the stage.

Written from the heart, it brings the stage alive, igniting the imagination of those with a passion for theatre, whether from the front mezzanine seats or in the spotlight. It would make an excellent theatre piece.

Lest We Forget

“I’m still here; I am dust.

I’m those fragments in the air,

the gold light dancing there,

that breeze from nowhere.”

Dust – the musical

Further Reading

My review of How To Be Brave

My review of Louise Beech’s The Mountain in My Shoe

My review of Louise Beech’s Maria in the Moon

Buy a Copy of I Am Dust via Book Depository

 

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