Silence is a Sense by Layla AlAmmar

A lone young woman watches the world outside her window from the relative safety and refuge of her apartment, in a British town. She refers to those she observes in the East, West, South tower blocks by pseudonyms, Juicer, No-Lights-Man, Anime Girl. She too is unnamed, a refugee from Syria.

Self-Imposed Safety

literary fiction, trauma, survival, communityShe rarely leaves and when she does, it’s within her self-imposed ‘safe zone’ including the nearby shop, the mosque, and part of the park.

When I first arrived, I couldn’t reconcile myself to the notion that I was free to go anywhere. So I set invisible borders that I abided by for a good, long while.

She has email contact with a magazine editor she sends her writing to, using her own pseudonym Voiceless. She writes a kind of truth, as something of her experience, perspective and trauma passes through her into the page.

The editor is after a more nuanced narrative, truth but not quite that truth, tempering the Voiceless, pandering to the expectations of a home-based audience.

Silence Protects

I  don’t know how to explain to her that I am cornered by memories, caged in by recollections. I feel persecuted by the things I remember and by what my mind chooses to hide from me.

Flashbacks from her last days in Aleppo, her friends, protests, declarations, family decisions, a world disrupted.

Journeying alone through a continent that equates refugee with terrorist, and that violence exists even in refuge.

It’s not so difficult to know what people want. At the root of it we all want the same things: freedom, happiness, safety. I want to write what I want to write without the fear of a knock at the door and an interrogation room. I want to love who I want to love without the fear of death or corrective rape. I want to wear what I want to wear without the worry that men will see my skirt or the buttons on my shirt as an invitation. That’s it. The freedom to live how we want to live.

In her silence she is overwhelmed by the other senses, unable to speak, yet filled with so much looking for outward expression.

Trauma Endures

silence is a sense Layla alammarAn intense, visceral insight and demonstration of the effect of trauma, the ongoing sensitivities, reactions, the struggle to adapt, to accept safety, to even perceive safety, when threats are observed everywhere, violence seen through windows, threatened against communities.

And yet, something within the human spirit needs to reach out, to have contact, to be a part of what little community is offered, tentative gestures, towards healing.

Sensitively depicted, rather than witnessing the events themselves, the author draws the reader into the fragmented mind of the victim of trauma, making us feel what it can be like, to be in that post traumatic period, trying to live again in an unwelcoming, welcome British town.

A Real Life Story, A Young Syrian Woman Refugee

While Lalya AlAmmar’s story is fiction and is focused more on the aftermath of of a young woman experiencing her hometown turn into a warzone, on her trying to overcome the feeling of not being safe in another country, and the effect of trauma, I found it helpful having already read a true account of another young woman’s true life experience in Syria, her life before the war, during it and the inevitable escape she and her sister would make alone.

It makes an excellent companion read to AlAmmar’s novel and I highly recommend Butterfly by Yusra Mardini.

Further Reading

NPR: ‘Silence Is A Sense’ Works To Dispel The Terrible Abstractions Of Syria’s Civil War

Interview: Scan, University of Lancaster, An Interview with Layla AlAmmar, Author of Silence is a Sense by Harriet Fletcher

Dublin Literary Award Winner 2021

The winner of this prestigious award nominated by public library’s from around the world, has now been announced.

From an initial longlist of 49 books from 30 countries across 10 languages, they were narrowed down to a shortlist of six by a panel of expert judges and the winner, coming from Mexico, but nominated by the Bibliotecha Vila de Gràcia library of Barcelona is:

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli.

A road-trip novel of a family driving one summer from New York to Arizona, perspective and voices move from the parents to the children, witnesses, speaking and listening, seeing and observing, the subtle, yet dramatic shift. A story of what happens to the human spirit on a long road journey.

As their journey progresses, countless migrant children are making their way up from Central America to the US border, often alone, separated from their parents. A growing awareness of familial rupture enters the confined vehicle space, as they move closer towards an immigration crisis at the border, as their roads converge.

Lost Children Archive is a novel about the depths of childhood solitude, about children’s boundless imagination, the fragile intensity of familial ties, about tensions between history and fiction and the complex intersections of political circumstances and personal lives.

But more than anything Lost Children Archive is a novel about the process of making stories, of threading voices and ideas together in an attempt to better understand the world around us.” Valeria Luiselli

Valeria Luiselli

Born in Mexico, but raised and schooled in Costa Rica, South Korea, South Africa and India, she learned early on to inhabit a solitary, liminal and observant space, a childhood she attributes her decision to become a writer to, situated between cultures, spaces and their linguistic bridges or barriers.

Tell Me How It Ends, An Essay in 40 Questions

Tell Me How It Ends Valeria LuiselliIn preparation to read Lost Children Archive, I decided to read Valeria Luiselli’s nonfiction narrative essay Tell Me How It Ends which documents her experience as a volunteer translator, assisting child migrants who travelled alone from Latin America to the US, now facing deportation, to fill in the 40 question questionnaire they must respond to within 21 days of arrival.

It’s a sombre read as she and her niece become more and more despondent, discovering they are virtually helpless in terms of changing the outcome for these children, fleeing one bad situation and arriving into another.

I became involved with this kind of work while I was writing the novel, and what happened is I started using the novel as a space in which to pour all my angst and fury and political frustration and emotional sense of stalemate. But I slowly started to realize I wasn’t doing justice to the novel by trying to turn it into that kind of vehicle for my politics, and I wasn’t doing justice to the subject matter itself, either, because I was trying to thread it into this fictional narrative. So I stopped writing the novel. Then, John Freeman, whom I’d worked with as an editor in different projects, suggested I write a non-fiction piece on what I was witnessing in court.

Once I had done that, I was able to go back to the novel and not feel the responsibility of directly covering the crisis. I could focus on other issues and allow the novel to breathe with fictional lungs, so to speak.

Have you read Lost Children Archive or any of Valeria Luiselli’s essays or novels?

Further Reading

Interview : The Social Fabric – An Interview With Valeria Luiselli by Allan Vorda

Dublin Literary Award 2021 Longlist and the Six Shortlisted titles.

Sidewalks, Essays by Valeria Luiselli translated by Christina MacSweeney

The International Booker Prize Shortlist 2021

Since I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump I didn’t post about the International Booker longlist when it came out, and to be honest, nothing on it really jumped out at me, so I felt little motivation to share it.

However I do like to have a record of what was highlighted, so I’m sharing below the six books that have made the shortlist and below that the longlist. Clicking on any of the titles will take you a description of the book.

I don’t have any of these to read and I’m unlikely for the moment to add to my list of reading, since I’m looking for more of an uplifting read at the moment.

The 2021 International Booker Prize longlist

I Live in the Slums by Can Xue, translated from Chinese by Karen Gernant & Chen Zeping, Yale University Press

At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, translated from French by Anna Mocschovakis, Pushkin Press

A novel that captures the tragedy of a young man’s mind hurtling towards madness and tells the little-heard story of the Senegalese who fought for France on the Western Front during WW1.

Alfa Ndiaye and Mademba Diop are two of the many Senegalese tirailleurs fighting in the Great War under the French flag. Whenever Captain Armand blows his whistle they climb out of their trenches to attack the blue-eyed enemy.  One day Mademba is mortally wounded, and without his friend, his more-than-brother, Alfa is alone amidst the savagery of the trenches, far from all he knows and holds dear. He throws himself into combat with renewed vigour, but soon begins to scare even his own comrades in arms.

 

The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili, translated from Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway, Peirene Press

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell, Granta Books

Unruly teenagers, crooked witches, homeless ghosts, and hungry women, these stories walk the uneasy line between urban realism and horror, with a resounding tenderness toward those in pain, in fear and in limbo. As terrifying as they are socially conscious, the stories press into the unspoken – fetish, illness, the female body, the darkness of human history – with bracing urgency. A woman is sexually obsessed with the human heart; a lost, rotting baby crawls out of a backyard and into a bedroom; a pair of teenage girls can’t let go of their idol; an entire neighbourhood is cursed to death when it fails to respond correctly to a moral dilemma.

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut, translated from Spanish by Adrian Nathan West, Pushkin Press

Albert Einstein opens a letter sent to him from the Eastern Front during the First World War. Inside, he finds the first exact solution to the equations of general relativity, unaware that it contains a monster that could destroy his life’s work. The great mathematician Alexander Grothendieck tunnels so deeply into abstraction that he tries to cut all ties with the world, terrified of the horror his discoveries might cause. Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg battle over the soul of physics after creating two equivalent yet opposed versions of quantum mechanics. Their fight will tear the very fabric of reality, revealing a world stranger than they could have ever imagined.

The Perfect Nine: The Epic Gikuyu and Mumbi by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, translated from Gikuyu by the author, VINTAGE, Harvill Secker

The Employees by Olga Ravn, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken, Lolli Editions

Structured as a series of witness statements compiled by a workplace commission, The Employees follows the crew of the Six-Thousand Ship which consists of those who were born, and those who were made, those who will die, and those who will not. When the ship takes on a number of strange objects from the planet New Discovery, the crew is perplexed to find itself becoming deeply attached to them, and human and humanoid employees alike start aching for the same things: warmth and intimacy, loved ones who have passed, shopping and child-rearing, our shared, far-away Earth, which now only persists in memory.

Gradually, the crew members come to see their work in a new light, and each employee is compelled to ask themselves whether they can carry on as before – and what it means to be truly living. Wracked by all kinds of longing, The Employees probes what it means to be human, emotionally and ontologically, while simultaneously delivering an overdue critique of a life governed by work and the logic of productivity.

Summer Brother by Jaap Robben, translated from Dutch by David Doherty, World Editions

An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky, translated from German by Jackie Smith, Quercus, MacLehose Press

Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette, Fitzcarraldo Editions

In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale, Fitzcarraldo Editions

The story of how a seemingly ordinary Jewish family somehow managed to survive the myriad persecutions and repressions of the last century. Following the death of her aunt, Maria Stepanova builds the story out of faded photographs, old postcards, letters, diaries, and heaps of souvenirs left behind: a withered repository of a century of life in Russia.

In dialogue with writers like Roland Barthes, W. G. Sebald, Susan Sontag and Osip Mandelstam, In Memory of Memory is imbued with intellectual curiosity and a soft-spoken, poetic voice. Dipping into various forms – essay, fiction, memoir, travelogue and historical documents – Stepanova assembles a vast panorama of ideas and personalities and offers an entirely new and bold exploration of cultural and personal memory.

Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichý, translated from Swedish by Nichola Smalley, And Other Stories

The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard, translated from French by Mark Polizzotti, Pan Macmillan, Picador

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century takes on the powerful and the privileged. It quickly becomes more about the bourgeoisie. Peasants, the poor living in towns, who are still being promised that equality will be granted to them in heaven, begin to ask themselves: and why not equality now, here on earth? There follows a furious struggle. Out of this chaos steps Thomas Müntzer, a complex and controversial figure. Sifting through history, Éric Vuillard extracts the story of one man whose terrible and novelesque life casts light on the times in which he lived – a moment when Europe was in flux. Inspired by the recent gilets jaunes protests in France: a populist, grassroots protest movement – led by workers – for economic justice. While The War of the Poor is about 16th-century Europe, this short polemic has a lot to say about inequality now.

Have you read anything on this longlist?

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore (1955)

Brian Moore at 100

This is my second read for the year long read along of Brian Moore novels organised by Cathy at 746 Books. Previously I read Lies of Silence, which I very much enjoyed and next up for the month of May will be The Doctor’s Wife.

Review

Brian Moore at 100 Northern IrelandAll I can say is thank goodness that’s over and wonder what I can read to mitigate the toxic absorption of reading it and being amidst a pack of inhumane characters and a main character set up for incarceration due to her having had her way in life taken from her after the prolonged and dutiful care of an unappreciative and domineering Aunt.

We meet Judith Hearne as she is moving into yet another boarding house, having lost her youth and employment prospects to the years of caring for her Aunt in the postwar years, despite her initial resistance.

Her only connection to family, she places a framed photo of her in view, a symbolic gesture of creating a sense of home. Judith is capable and talented, but worn down by those lost years, anxious about her dwindling prospects and bitter in her thoughts on account of suppressed resentments.  Despite regular religious observance, she is discovering that faith too has abandoned her.

“Miss Hearne had always been able to find interesting happenings where other people would find only dullness. It was, she felt, a gift which was one of the great rewards of a solitary life. And a necessary gift.”

She turns towards three people and a vice, the landlady’s brother Jim, recently returned from decades of living in New York, her local priest and her family friend Moira. The novel explores these encounters and Judith’s deterioration as she seeks solace and loses control with alcohol.

Men Writing Women in the 1950’s

From the opening pages I couldn’t shake off the fact that this 40 year old woman is being created by a man, that the mind looking out from behind her eyes isn’t a woman, but a man living in exile with grievances to bare and an unconscious bias, by virtue of being part of and conditioned by the dominant sex/race of an Irish Catholic flavour.

Written in an era where if women hadn’t been subdued by marriage, tamed by employment, shipped off or upholstered in the habit, they were indeed on a slippery slope towards disillusionment, realising that society did not value them outside certain roles, and by this age had indirectly cast them aside, or put them on a shelf, as the saying went, perpetuating the cultural myth. 

The Outsider(s)

I could believe she might momentarily look upon the returning emigrant Jim Madden with interest, curious about his life elsewhere, but the gaze of them all upon her, as if her considering him a possible suitor were an abominable thought, the weight of all that judgement – it is a world portrayed that lacks care or empathy, disapproves of adventure, lacks imagination and excitement and instead lures the lonely towards oblivion, thus destroying the few threads of potential that have kept this one woman going till now.

The one light of hope comes from her friend Moira, in whom we find thankfully, a small thread of humanity, kindness and consideration.

The Bottle and the Cloth

brown wooden upright piano in shallow focus lens

Photo: Maria TyutinaPexels.com

I found the extreme indulgence in her whiskey bottles totally unrealistic. She was so straight-laced and God fearing, that one bad experience surely would have been sufficient, but the heavy hand of the author deeply imprinted on her back pushed her onward. He had a beef with the church and by God he was going to make his victim confront it. And then have her put away, as they did with any woman who acted with impropriety and lacked a moral (or male) sponsor.

I think Judith was unjustly portrayed, if she were to write a first person account of her story, we would see a more nuanced character, disillusioned yes, but a more perceptive perspective from within, than those who depict her from without, and a society ready to discard her. 

I went looking for Moore’s inspiration, certain that Miss Hearne was not just a creature of his imagination and discovered that he had cherry picked parts of her character from a family visitor Miss Keogh, asking his obliging sister for memories and details. Colm Toibin writes:

“However, he disregarded most of what he was told. (The original Miss Keogh had a job, for example.) He used merely the ‘speech and mannerisms’ of the original and he surrounded them with something else, elements of his own isolation as a non-achiever in a family obsessed with achievement, and as an emigrant in Canada. His own loss of faith becomes hers, and his memory that his original had ‘a little weakness for the bottle’ becomes her alcoholism.” Colm Tóibín

He  also admits that Moore clearly knew that you could achieve certain effects by writing about a woman in the Ireland of his time which you could not achieve in writing about a man, the same behaviour would not bring disgrace, pity perhaps, tolerance certainly, humour most likely, incarceration – never.

Dis Empowerment

Judith Hearne never found her passion, it was conditioned the hell out of her, ensuring she’d never yearn for, seek or ever become aware of how she might empower herself above or out of her situation. 

“In a society that was merely half-formed and had no sense of itself, a society in which the only real choice was to leave or live in a cowed internal exile, the failure to create a fully-formed male character in fiction was emblematic of a more general failure.” Colm Tóibín

Further Reading

Article: Gaelic Gloom by Colm Tóibín

 

Dublin Literary Award Shortlist 2021

From that longlist of 49 novels here, nominated by libraries from all around the world, today a shortlist of six novels was announced. 

Bernardine Evaristo Valeria Luiselli Colum McCann Ocean Vuong Colson Whitehead

I’ve only read one, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and unfortunately despite the lyrical language, it wasn’t for me. I did recently read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and have heard good things about The Nickel Boys.

I would love to read Lost Children Archive having read her long essay Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (a nonfiction narrative of Luiselli’s stay in NY and decision to assist child migrants who travel alone to the US to fill in the 40 question survey they must respond to within 21 days of arrival) in preparation to read her novel. And Girl, Woman, Other is another I’ll get around to eventually.

Colum McCann is an author I have enjoyed in the past, but a 500 page novel wading into the Israeli Palestinian narrative by focusing on two families who lost daughters and develop a friendship, sits uncomfortably, described by Susan Abulharwa as a colonialist misstep in commercial publishing.

Here is what the judges had to say about these six titles:

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (Mexico)(nominated by Bibliotecha Vila de Gràcia, Spain)

Lost Children Archive“Two journeys—one of countless migrant children making their way up from Central America and Mexico to the US border, and another of a fragile young family taking a road trip down from New York to the Mexican border—come together in this imaginative, heartfelt, and entirely original novel.

Interweaving works of literature, music, maps, photographs, and other documents with multiple narrative voices, Luiselli has composed a masterpiece that is at once an exhilarating, lyrical road novel and an unsparing meditation on dislocation, remembering, and storytelling. Timely and timeless, Lost Children Archive is an immersive work that transports, unsettles, and ultimately elevates the reader.”

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (UK)(nominated by libraries in Germany and Ireland)

Dublin Literary Award Shortlist 2021“A magnificent book fuelled by its own unique energy – one which catapults the novel form into an original, exhilarating direction. Twelve women’s lives are vigorously revealed, each character given an individual chapter of their own. And yet within these chapters Evaristo skilfully weaves all of their worlds together.

The result: an astonishing tapestry of women’s lives – flaws and all – and of the wide-ranging and spirited experiences that have made them who they are. A bravura feat of storytelling by a writer at the top of her game, which vividly celebrates the voices of intergenerational black British women in contemporary times.”

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (Mexico) translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes (nominated by libraries in Canada, Mexico and the USA)

Fitzcarraldo Editions Translated Fiction“Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season is a ferocious novel that challenges and astonishes in equal measure. It portrays the most painful margins of a Mexican underworld of poverty and corruption, a universe dominated by a merciless violence that is deeply embedded in the community and in the actions and thoughts of its inhabitants, almost obscuring ant trace of empathy and humanity.

The novel’s hyperrealist language displays striking power, a direct, brutal and incisive energy that transports you headlong into the centre of a hurricane where there seems to be little hope or redemption. Sophie Hughes’ English translation succeeds in transmitting the expressive force and richness of Melchor’s Spanish. It is a novel that does not give you a break and that drags you in its verbal current, so torrential and intense, towards the darkest entrails of humankind, where the shadows live. An extraordinary book.”

Apeirogon by Colum McCann (Ireland) (nominated by South Dublin Libraries, Ireland)

Dublin Literary Award Shortlist“They were so close that, after a while, Rami felt that they could finish each other’s stories”— Exploring Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin’s friendship and peace activism after the killings of their young daughters, Colin McCann’s novel Apeirogon, true to its title, ambitiously presents “a countably infinite number of sides” in its expansive exploration of injustice, loss, relationality and resilience.

Its visionary mapping of displacements and returns, as well as its inventive structure of fragments and blank spaces open up alternative narrative pathways for the histories and futures of Palestine and Israel, powerfully suggesting that “Anywhere is reachable. Anything is possible, even the seemingly impossible.”

On Earth Were Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (Vietnamese/American)(nominated by libraries in Norway, Sweden, Switzerland & the USA)

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous Ocean Vuong“Ocean Vuong’s stunning debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is characterised by the same lyricality and powerful use of language he employs in his poetry. The novel takes the form of an extended letter.

A young Vietnamese America man writes to his mother sharing his story and revealing how his story’s inseparably bound to hers. As Vuong’s narrator finds his voice he entertains questions of class and ethnicity, language and sexuality. It’s a captivating and tender story shot through with moments of pure, unsettling humanity. Vuong wants his readers to see that even the most mundane of moments can be briefly gorgeous and transformative.”

The Nickle Boys by Colson Whitehead (American) (nominated by libraries in Belgium and the USA)

The Nickel Boys Colson Whitehead“Colson Whitehead’s emerged as a leading chronicler of African-American experience with The Underground Railroad in 2016. Where The Underground Railroad was expansive in its imagination, The Nickel Boys returns to the traumas of African-American history with a very different literary style. Set in a juvenile institution in Florida – the ‘Nickel Academy’ – in 1960s, Whitehead here writes with a pared-down narrative and prose style, tracing the scars of the past in the lives of the present. The writing is spare, clean, and direct; and the result is a novel that not only casts light on a dark moment of African-American history, but also speaks to stories of institutional abuse everywhere.”

The winner will be announced on 20 May 2021 as part of the opening day programme of the International Literature Festival Dublin.

Have you read any of these or do you plan to?

The Fire Starters by Jan Carson

Having recently read another novel without realising it was of the gothic genre, I think I’ve gone and done it again, this time, a contemporary Belfast gothic novel, because right from the first chapter, there is the overwhelming sense of something sinister going to happen, and it’s not the series of summer fires that are plaguing the city though they are equally troubling. I discovered having finished the book that Jan Carson is also a fan of absurdist fiction. Another clue.

Contemporary Irish Fiction Empathy EU Prize for LiteratureIn that first chapter we meet a father, Jonathan, who has a strange perception of his baby daughter, who he is caring for alone. He desperately wants to care for her, but he feels that part of his role in doing that is to remove the aspect of her that she has inherited from her mother, who he believes is a siren.

His own childhood was one of being provided for, but unloved, his parents (who never wanted children or grandchildren) abandoning him at the age of 16 to a boarding school, leaving the country. He becomes a Doctor, and of no surprise, lacks any form of empathy.

We meet Sammy, also a father, an ex loyalist paramilitary, who is becoming increasingly anxious, having reason to suspect that his son Mark, who lives in their attic and rarely comes out, may be involved in sinister activities, fearing he has inherited his own thirst for violence, a tendency he had no control over in youth and even today, has to quell the feeling inside.

I found the depictions of both these men terrifying, both are planning some kind of intervention and up until the last pages, we can’t quite believe that they may follow through, and they too wrestle with their instinct and question, whether they ought to proceed.

Then there is the background of a hot summer and the approach of the Orange parades of the Eleventh Night on every 12th of July, an Ulster Protestant tradition where large, towering bonfires are lit, accompanied by street parties and loyalist marching bands.

The bonfires are lit to celebrate (1688) the victory of Protestant King William (Billy) of Orange over Catholic king James II at the Battle of the Boyne (1690), which began the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. – Wikipedia

When the rain finally arrives, people begin to smile, there are fewer angry people on the streets, they no longer have the numbers for a decent riot, the air of festivity is extinguished. Protesting soon makes way for the football season.

This is how it has been in Belfast every summer since the Agreement. The same hot anger rises at the end of June and and goes stamping up and down the little streets. Stamping and shouting and raising Cain all the way through July until, by August’s end, the energy’s gone right out of it.

My Truth is Not Your Truth

And the various versions and perceptions of truth and history that exist, depending on who is doing the telling, where they live, what day it is, demonstrated in this opening chapter This is Belfast.

This is Belfast. This is not Belfast.
Better to avoid calling anything a spade in this city. Better to avoid names and places, dates and second names. In this city names are like points on a map or words worked in ink. They are trying too hard to pass for truth. In this city truth is a circle from one side and a square from the other. It is possible to go blind staring at the shape of it. Even now, sixteen years after the Troubles, it is much safer to stand back and say with conviction, ‘It all looks the same to me.’

And following this are two paragraphs, one that begins with ‘The Troubles are over now’ and the other begins with ‘The Troubles have only just begun.’

Deidre Sullivan Tangleweed and Brine Jan Carson The Fire Starters

Sirens from Deidre Sullivan’s Tangleweed and Brine

Jonathan (Dr Murray) is obsessed with silencing his daughter, and even employs a deaf nanny to look after her. She is a loving, nurturing soul, providing one of the few notes of relief in an otherwise tense narrative, as these men ponder their responsibility as fathers and fear of what their children may become.

There is a third brief narrative, an omniscient voice that shares the story of a few of the Unfortunate Children of Belfast, children of parents who belong to a support group, that Jonathan attends once, they are children born with deformities and powers and it is here, that I realise there is an element of magic realism in this tale, that perhaps his perception of his daughter as a siren isn’t an aspect of his own mental health problem.

The novel is a blend of politically charged social and magic realism, though it feels realistic in its reading; dealing with the trauma of legacy’s, a parent’s legacy to a child and the community’s complicated legacy of the political troubles of Northern Ireland. It is set in East Belfast, where the author lives and from listening to the interview, I learn that she is an accomplished eavesdropper, that many of the words in these pages have been inspired by overheard conversations.

On Developing Empathy for Those Living Segregated Lives

Interested to understand the motivation behind the novel, I listened to an excellent interview with Nicky Bull in which she shares something of her role as a community arts facilitator and the role this can play in healing rifts, bringing people together, using the creative process to help develop empathy, she talks about the ability of storytelling to help develop this.

The community arts sector in Northern Ireland has played a huge role in the peace and reconciliation process. Primarily it brings people from both communities together into a shared space but I also think it has also taught people soft skills that have been missing from Northern Irish culture.

It’s very, very hard for people here to practice empathy because quite often we grow up segregated, so how are you supposed to understand what life is like if you don’t have any friends who aren’t from the same background as you, the skill system is still largely segregated,and government housing and things.

So these conversations around learning how to empathise, which I think the creative act, particularly writing fiction, you’re putting yourself in the shoes of another character, even when you read, it’s an act of empathy, those skills can be taught and then transferred into the social realms that we’re working in Northern Ireland at the moment, that people can imagine a life that isn’t theirs, it’s much more difficult to hate and to segregate when you have the ability to empathise with other people.

It’s an incredible and deeply disturbing novel, yet despite the discomfort I learned a lot from reading it and especially from taking the opportunity to listen to the author speak, that helped me understand the motivation behind it and that incredible candour around the very real problem of how the creation of segregated community’s causes a lack empathy and how the creative arts can help provide a practical humanist solution.

It’s Saint Patrick’s Day and #ReadingIrelandMonth21, have you read a good Irish book this month?

The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Brilliant. I absolutely loved this novel and it will definitely feature in my Best Reads of 2021.

Best African Women Writers UgandaThe First Woman might even have surpassedher debut novel Kintu which was fabulous and my outstanding read of 2018.

Firstly I am a huge fan of literature that takes us elsewhere, into the storytelling traditions of other cultures, seen from the inside, told in a way that doesn’t alienate a reader from outside that culture, but has both a particular and universal message. And secondly, when a novel has all the essential storytelling elements.

And Jennifer Makumbi’s storytelling has all the elements – great, unforgettable characters, a ‘moving at pace’ plot, a little bit of mystery, a whole lot of feminism, plus controversy, multiple perspectives, mini dramas and the wise counsel of women who’ve had enough of past injustices.

Then there is the contrast of the rural life and upbringing versus an urban existence, the striving for and effect of education on girls and the natural way that local Ugandan folklore and ancestral stories are interwoven throughout their way of living, learning and coming of age. They create a sense of belonging and help young people navigate their concerns, sorrows, strange feelings and unanswered questions in a thought provoking and entertaining way

In Kintu, Makumbi set part of her story in the pre-colonial 1700’s and other parts in modern times; colonial interlopers had left their imprint, but it was not their story nor a story of their influence and so too The First Woman belongs to and is born of its people, whose existence grows and evolves from their unique origins, belief systems and traditions. Their challenges come from within their culture and again Makumbi focuses on what is uniquely Ugandan.

The narrative begins when Kirabo is a teenage living with her grandmother, she develops a curiosity to know who her mother is, she is awakening to a perceived deficit in her life and notices that those closest to her are unwilling to talk about it. So she seeks out Nsuutu, who some refer to as the witch, intuitively knowing she may have knowledge, visiting her in secret.

Though Nsuutu was practically blind, behind her blindness she could see. But Nsuutu was not just a witch – she was Grandmother’s foe. Their feud was Mount Kilimanjaro. Apparently, Nsuutu had stolen love from the family.

Nsuutu tells Kirabo that she has “the original state” of the first woman inside her. This explanation and story is shared over various visits and sets up an extremely compelling narrative, as Kirabo learns from this wonderful, empowered but ageing feminist. However, she is warned her not to go looking for her mother, an instruction that feeds her obsession, making it all-consuming.

‘We changed when the original state was bred out of us.’ Kirabo looked at her hands as if to see the change. ‘Was it bad what we were? Is it what makes me do bad things?

‘No, it was not bad at all. In fact, it was wonderful for us. We were not squeezed inside, we were huge, strong, bold, loud, proud, brave, independent. But it was too much for the world and they got rid of it. However, occasionally that state is reborn in a girl like you. But in all cases it is suppressed. In your case the first woman flies out of your body because it does not relate to the way this society is.’

The First Woman Ugandan Literature

US Cover Version

The story is divided into five sections; The Witch (Nattetta, Bugerere, Uganda 1975), The Bitch (Kampala 1977), Utopia, When The Villages Were Young (Nattetta 1934) and Why Penned Hens Peck Each Other (1983).

After Nsuutu’s wise counsel, Kirabo’s life is upended when it is announced she will go to Kampala to live with her father Tom, about whom she has never been curious. She has seen him on and off over the years as he visited the clan in the village where she lives, but now she will go and live with him in the city, where it becomes clear that much more had been hidden from her.

Nsuutu held both her hands. ‘Don’t judge the women you met too harshly.’

‘I won’t.’

‘Often, what women do is a reaction. We react like powerless people. Remember kweluma?’

‘When women bite themselves because they are powerless.’

‘Tell me that whatever happens, you will not make another woman’s life worse.’

‘I won’t, Nsuuta!’ Kirabo was miffed that Nsuutu would ask.

‘Remember, be a good person, not a good girl. Good girls suffer a lot in this life.’

Utopia‘ is when she is sent to St Theresa’s, a girl’s boarding school. An education, a world without men, though interrupted by war and expulsions that occur elsewhere, having the effect of changing the balance of power and perception among the girls as well, many will leave and a new influx will arrive. It is also the period where her friendship with Sio develops.

St Theresa’s was a safe space for them to develop their talents without intimidation, interference or interruption. They owed it to themselves, and to all other girls who did not have their privilege, to excel and to change the world. ‘Our job is to arm the girl child with with tools so she can live a meaningful life, for herself and for the nation.’

The narrative then returns to the past, to 1934 when her grandmother Alikisa and Nsuutu were children and fills in the backstory to their friendship, a pact, their very different aspirations and the effect of the community on how their lives play out. Much of this section is told through letters they write to each other while Nsuutu is at nursing school and Alikisa is at home, having abandoned her plans to become a midwife, encouraged by her father towards teaching.

Finally, a family tragedy brings the entire clan together, and opinions are aired, grievances followed through, threads come together, some rifts are healed, others not, but there is the opportunity to break new ground, and move on from the past, without significant loss.

The First Woman KintuThe First Woman is bold, empowered, authentic storytelling of the highest order, that embraces its cultural origins and exposes the reader to universal emotions, questions, conflicts, shame, friendships, love and humanity it shares.

It is both a story and an act of courage that provokes men and women to consider their roles and the effect their decisions have on others, to consider alternatives, seeking a kinder, more just way of being, rather than repeating the same patters that have existed.

Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

My review of Kintu

Guardian Review: A girl longs for her absent mother in this frank, witty tale about power and gender roles from the author of Kintu by Alex Clark

Article, Johannesburg Review of Books : A Triump of a Novel: The First Woman can be read as Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s answer to people who like to defend patriarchal power by claiming that feminism is ‘not African’, writes Itumeleng Molefi.

 

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021 LongList

Women's Prize Fiction Winner logo 20212020 marked the 25th anniversary of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, a feat that was celebrated by the creation of a reading challenge to read all the winners including last year’s Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.

There was a competition to find the winner of winners chosen by the reading public, and that award went to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for her novel Half of A Yellow Sun (2007).

Interviews, Recommendations, Opinion, On Writing

The team at the Women’s Prize have been active throughout the year and their website is a repository of much more than just longlists and winners.

There are regular features such as interviews with previous winners and nominees, recommendations from judges, for example this years judges Recommendations for Black History Month and Books You Should Discover in 2021.

There is an Opinion Section where you can read about Comedy in Fiction; Women Writer’s Revisited; and the On Writing Section where you can read Twelve Creative Tips From Women’s Prize Winning Authors.

Women’s Prize Fiction 2021 Long List

In the meantime, another season has come around and here are the 16 novels long listed, along with a short summary of their plot. It includes two Irish authors, six British and five American authors, one Canadian, one Barbadian and one Ghanaian/American.

Womens Literature Fiction

The list features new and well-established writers across a range of genres and themes – family (twins and siblings, mother-daughter relationships); motherhood; rural poverty and isolation; addiction; identity and belonging; race and class; grief and happiness; coming-of-age and later life.

I have read one (review linked below) and I have Transcendent Kingdom. I’m disappointed not to see The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi on the list, which I just finished today and is an outstanding novel, I highly recommend.

Passing twinsThe Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (American)- The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ story lines intersect?

Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.

Womens Prize Fiction 2021Summer by Ali Smith (British)- In the present, Sacha knows the world’s in trouble. Her brother Robert just is trouble. Their mother and father are having trouble. Meanwhile the world’s in meltdown – and the real meltdown hasn’t even started yet. In the past, a lovely summer. A different brother and sister know they’re living on borrowed time. This is a story about people on the brink of change. They’re family, but they think they’re strangers. So: where does family begin? And what do people who think they’ve got nothing in common have in common?

Summer is the unmissable conclusion to Ali Smith’s Seasonal quartet.

Torrey PetersDetransition Baby by Torrey Peters (American)- Reese nearly had it all: a loving relationship with Amy, an apartment in New York, a job she didn’t hate. She’d scraped together a life previous generations of trans women could only dream of; the only thing missing was a child. Then everything fell apart and three years on Reese is still in self-destruct mode, avoiding her loneliness by sleeping with married men.

When her ex calls to ask if she wants to be a mother, Reese finds herself intrigued. After being attacked in the street, Amy de-transitioned to become Ames, changed jobs and, thinking he was infertile, started an affair with his boss Katrina. Now Katrina’s pregnant. Could the three of them form an unconventional family – and raise the baby together?

Nothing But Blue Sky by Kathleen McMahon (Ireland) – Is there such a thing as a perfect marriage?

David thought so. But when his wife Mary Rose dies suddenly he has to think again. In reliving their twenty years together David sees that the ground beneath them had shifted and he simply hadn’t noticed. Or had chosen not to.

Figuring out who Mary Rose really was and the secrets that she kept – some of these hidden in plain sight – makes David wonder if he really knew her. Did he even know himself?

Consent by Annabel Lyon (Canada) – Saskia and Jenny are twins, alike in appearance only: Saskia has a single-minded focus on her studies, while Jenny is glamorous, thrill-seeking and capricious. Still, when Jenny is severely injured in an accident, Saskia puts her life on hold for her sister. Sara and Mattie are sisters with another difficult dynamic: Mattie needs almost full-time care, while Sara loves nothing more than fine wines, perfumes and expensive clothing, and leaves home at the first opportunity. But when their mother dies, Sara must move Mattie in with her. Gradually, Sara and Saskia learn that both their sisters’ lives, and indeed their own, have been altered by the devastating actions of one man…

Consent is a novel of sisters and their knotty relationships, of predatory men and sexual power, of retribution and the thrilling possibilities of revenge.

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood – (American) A woman known for her viral social media posts travels the world speaking to her adoring fans, her entire existence overwhelmed by the internet – or what she terms ‘the portal’. Are we in hell? the people of the portal ask themselves. Are we all just going to keep doing this until we die? Suddenly, two texts from her mother pierce the fray: ‘Something has gone wrong’ and ‘How soon can you get here?’

As real life and its stakes collide with the increasing absurdity of the portal, the woman confronts a world that seems to contain both an abundance of proof that there is goodness, empathy and justice in the universe, and a deluge of evidence to the contrary.

How The One Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones (Barbados) – In Baxter’s Beach, Barbados, Lala’s grandmother Wilma tells the story of the one-armed sister, a cautionary tale about what happens to girls who disobey their mothers. For Wilma, it’s the story of a wilful adventurer, who ignores the warnings of those around her, and suffers as a result.

When Lala grows up, she sees it offers hope – of life after losing a baby in the most terrible of circumstances and marrying the wrong man. And Mira Whalen? It’s about keeping alive, trying to make sense of the fact that her husband has been murdered, and she didn’t get the chance to tell him that she loved him after all.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps her House is the story of three marriages, and of a beautiful island paradise where, beyond the white sand beaches and the wealthy tourists, lies poverty, menacing violence and the story of the sacrifices some women make to survive.

Womens Prize Fiction 2021Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi (Ghananian/American) – As a child Gifty would ask her parents to tell the story of their journey from Ghana to Alabama, seeking escape in myths of heroism and romance. When her father and brother succumb to the hard reality of immigrant life in the American South, their family of four becomes two – and the life Gifty dreamed of slips away.

Years later, desperate to understand the opioid addiction that destroyed her brother’s life, she turns to science for answers. But when her mother comes to stay, Gifty soon learns that the roots of their tangled traumas reach farther than she ever thought. Tracing her family’s story through continents and generations will take her deep into the dark heart of modern America.

Womens Prize Fiction long listUnsettled Ground by Claire Fuller (British) – What if the life you have always known is taken from you in an instant? What would you do to get it back? Twins Jeanie and Julius have always been different from other people. At 51 years old, they still live with their mother, Dot, in rural isolation and poverty. Inside the walls of their old cottage they make music, and in the garden they grow (and sometimes kill) everything they need for sustenance.

But when Dot dies suddenly, threats to their livelihood start raining down. Jeanie and Julius would do anything to preserve their small sanctuary against the perils of the outside world, even as their mother’s secrets begin to unravel, putting everything they thought they knew about their lives at stake.

Unsettled Ground is a heart-stopping novel of betrayal and resilience, love and survival. It is a portrait of life on the fringes of society that explores with dazzling emotional power how we can build our lives on broken foundations, and spin light from darkness.

Womens Prize Fiction 2021Because Of You by Dawn French (British) – Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock . . . midnight.

The old millennium turns into the new.

In the same hospital, two very different women give birth to two very similar daughters.

Hope leaves with a beautiful baby girl. Anna leaves with empty arms.

Seventeen years later, the gods who keep watch over broken-hearted mothers wreak mighty revenge, and the truth starts rolling, terrible and deep, toward them all. The power of mother-love will be tested to its limits. Perhaps beyond . . .

Womens Prize Fiction 2021Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers (British) – 1957, the suburbs of South East London. Jean Swinney is a journalist on a local paper, trapped in a life of duty and disappointment from which there is no likelihood of escape.

When a young woman, Gretchen Tilbury, contacts the paper to claim that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth, it is down to Jean to discover whether she is a miracle or a fraud.

As the investigation turns her quiet life inside out, Jean is suddenly given an unexpected chance at friendship, love and – possibly – happiness. But there will, inevitably, be a price to pay.

Womens Prize Fiction longlist 2021Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (British) – Piranesi lives in the House.

Perhaps he always has. In his notebooks, day after day, he makes a clear and careful record of its wonders: the labyrinth of halls, the thousands upon thousands of statues, the tides which thunder up staircases, the clouds which move in slow procession through the upper halls.

On Tuesdays and Fridays Piranesi sees his friend, the Other. At other times he brings tributes of food and waterlilies to the Dead. But mostly, he is alone. Messages begin to appear, scratched out in chalk on the pavements. There is someone new in the House. But who are they and what do they want? Are they a friend or do they bring destruction and madness as the Other claims?

Lost texts must be found; secrets must be uncovered. The world that Piranesi thought he knew is becoming strange and dangerous. The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.

Womens Prize Fiction long list 2021The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig (British) – Intelligent, bookish and hard-working, Hannah is part of a generation that grew up in hope and has tried to escape life in Cornwall’s ugliest coastal town through a university degree, a professional career, and marriage to the privileged Jake. However, her life has gone disastrously wrong. Jake has left her for Eve and, reduced to near penury, she is desperate enough to agree to murder the brutal husband of Jinni, the rich woman she meets in the First Class carriage of the London to Penzance train, in return for having Jake killed.

However, when Hannah turns up at the remote Cornish house where Jinni’s husband is living intending to keep her promise, she meets a filthy, drunken, despairing man living in a house whose misery tells a very different story.

Womens Prize Fiction 2021Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan (Ireland) – When you leave Ireland aged 22 to spend your parents’ money, it’s called a gap year. When Ava leaves Ireland aged 22 to make her own money, she’s not sure what to call it, but it involves:

– a badly-paid job in Hong Kong, teaching English grammar to rich children;

– Julian, who likes to spend money on Ava and lets her move into his guest room;

– Edith, who Ava meets while Julian is out of town and actually listens to her when she talks;

– money, love, cynicism, unspoken feelings and unlikely connections.

Exciting times ensue.

Womens Prize Fiction longlist 2021Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi (American) – In her youth, Tara was wild. She abandoned her arranged marriage to join an ashram, took a hapless artist for a lover, rebelled against every social expectation of a good Indian woman – all with her young child in tow.

Years on, she is an old woman with a fading memory, mixing up her maid’s wages and leaving the gas on all night, and her grown-up daughter is faced with the task of caring for a mother who never seemed to care for her. This is a poisoned love story. But not between lovers – between mother and daughter.

Burnt Sugar gradually untangles the knot of memory and myth that bind two women together, revealing the truth that lies beneath.

Womens Prize Fiction 2021Luster by Raven Leilani (American) – Edie is just trying to survive. She’s messing up in her dead-end admin job in her all white office, is sleeping with all the wrong men, and has failed at the only thing that meant anything to her, painting. No one seems to care that she doesn’t really know what she’s doing with her life beyond looking for her next hook-up.

Then she meets Eric, a white, middle-aged archivist with a suburban family, including a wife who has sort-of-agreed to an open marriage and an adopted black daughter who doesn’t have a single person in her life who can show her how to do her hair. As if navigating the constantly shifting landscape of sexual and racial politics as a young, black woman wasn’t already hard enough, with nowhere else left to go, Edie finds herself falling headfirst into Eric’s home and family.

Razor sharp, provocatively page-turning and surprisingly tender, Raven Leilani’s Luster is a painfully funny debut about what it means to be young now.

* * * * *

That’s it, a long list to look through, some familiar, others not. What looks tempting to you? Have you read any of these already that you’d recommend?

The judging panel will now whittle these 16 books down to a shortlist of 6 novels, announced on April 28th. The 25th winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced on Wednesday 7th July.

Happy Reading!

Lies of Silence by Brian Moore

Brian Moore at 100

Lies of Silence was the January read for the Brian Moore at 100 year long read along hosted by Cathy at 746 Books, which I introduced and will link my reviews back to here. A political thriller, it was originally published in 1990 to much acclaim and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, losing to A.S. Byatt’s excellent novel Possession.

Northern Irish Literature Booker Prize shortlistedIt is the story of a disenchanted man, a man who reluctantly returned to Northern Ireland from London with his wife Moira, who was keen to return. Now he is the manager of a hotel, a job he doesn’t particularly like, having left his poetry aspirations far behind him, following in the footsteps of his father, a man he feels resentment towards.

Unsurprisingly, his personal life has become entangled and just as the unspoken issues simmering below this relationship are about to boil over, he and his wife are taken hostage in their own home, he to be used as a pawn in what unfolds as a complex, thought out plan.

In the midst of the initial drama Michael sees his neighbour, a retired bank manager leave with his dog for a walk, seeing in him the average, everyman and woman who just wants to get on with life without interference from “men in woolen masks”.

Watching him go off with his dog, Dillon felt anger rise within him, anger at the lies which had made this, his and Mr Harbinger’s birthplace, sick with a terrible illness of bigotry and injustice, lies told over the years to poor Protestant working people about the Catholics, lies told to poor Catholic working people about the Protestants, lies from parliaments and pulpits, lies at rallies and funeral orations, and, above all, the lies of silence from those in Westminster who did not want to face the injustice of Ulster’s status quo. Angry, he stared across the room at the most dangerous victims of these lies, his youthful, ignorant, murderous, captors.

Under threat, as he moves towards doing what has been asked of him, he faces an excruciating moral dilemma, and a situation that spirals him into further confusion and deliberations over what the “right thing to do” is.

It’s something of a page turner, while not holding back on expressing the tensions and opinions of various characters in this complex, often not well understood political environment.

The Freedom of Self-Imposed Exile

There are also subtle hints to Moore’s own yearning for places beyond the hills of home, as seen in this passage, as he gets off the telephone from his American boss:

Brian Moore Lies of Silence Belfast City Northern Ireland

Cave Hill Mountain Overlooking Belfast City towards Belfast Lough

Dismissed from Keogh’s busy, money-breathing world, Dillon stood looking out at the mountain which reared up like a stage backdrop behind the city. Long ago, in school, daydreaming, he would look out of the classroom window and imagine himself in some aeroplane being lifted over that grey pig’s back of mountain to places far from here, to London, New York, Paris, great cities he had seen in films and photographs, cities far away from the dull constrictions of home.

It’s also clear that Moore was as keen on seeking revenge with his pen, as much as his characters do with whatever is at their disposal, his distance from the home country giving him a freedom and inclination to provoke, inform and stir the troubled pot, so to speak. In particular, the denouement.

Further Reading

You can read recent reviews here: Cathy at 746 Books, Ali at HeavenAli, Lizzy’s Literary Life, Kim at Reading Matters

February’s novel was Moore’s 1957 novel The Feast of Lupercal, whose pragonist is a 37 year-old teacher at a Catholic boarding school run by priests in Belfast during the 1950s.  I don’t have this one, though it sounds excellent according to these enticing reviews, which you can read here: Cathy at 746 Books, HeavenAli.

In March, they will be reading Fergus (1970).

I will join in the reading in:

April with The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955)

May with The Doctor’s Wife.

I hope more of you might be able to join in this next one, which is one of his more well-known and popular titles.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was a bestseller in the US and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (2017), a National Book Award (2016), longlisted for the Booker Prize and at least 12 other awards. It has been very widely read. I picked it up at a book sale recently and decided to read it during February for Black History Month (US).

What Was The Underground Railroad?

The Underground Railroad was a network of people, African American as well as white, offering shelter and aid to escaped enslaved people from the American South. It developed as a convergence of several different clandestine efforts. The exact dates of its existence are not known, but it operated from the late 18th century to the Civil War and by 1840 it had become part of the American vernacular.

Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad, by Charles T. Webber

People referred to as “conductors” guided the fugitive enslaved people. Hiding places included private homes, churches and schoolhouses. These were called “stations” “safe houses” and “depots.” The people operating them were called “stationmasters.”

Many slaves headed for Canada because it offered Black people the freedom to live where they wanted, sit on juries, run for public office and efforts at extradition had largely failed. Some Underground Railroad operators based themselves in Canada and worked to help the arriving fugitives settle in.

Review

Fugitive Slave Acts 1793 bounty huntersCora is an African slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia and within the first few pages we learn of her grandmother’s death while working in the fields and not long after this, her mother Mabel’s disappearance, a runaway.

When Mabel vanished Cora became a stray. Eleven years old, ten years, thereabouts – there was no one now to tell for sure.

The only thing Cora inherited was a small garden plot and she had to fight to retain it, as others had ideas. Her lack of protection also resulted in her being sent to live in a hut with fellow outcasts.

The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.

Three weeks later she said yes.

The novel explores the difficult conditions the slaves live under, including the significant difference between slave masters who are brothers. When the running of the plantation changes and life becomes even more unbearable, Cora decides to make her attempt, no matter the consequences.

From the moment of their decision onward, the tension ramps up, as the whole time they are on the run, they are being pursued, in particular by one slave-catcher, who has turned Cora into a personal vendetta, on account of his not being able to find her mother.

No one knows what happens to Mabel and far from inspiring her daughter, Cora is driven by anger at having been left. And so they enter the underground railroad system.

The tunnel, the tracks, the desperate souls who found salvation in the coordination of its stations and timetables – this was a marvel to be proud of. She wondered if those who had built that thing had received their proper reward.

Colson writes of the underground railway, as if it is a physical entity, only this is a means of transporting people who are oppressed, vilified, maltreated and scorned by the mostly white population. While others travel by train above ground and see the beauty of a landscape, this route takes them into a damp, dark, unwelcoming labyrinth with no guarantee of safe passage.

At various stops, they enter new territory, sometimes staying a while, other times going into hiding, always fearful of capture.

“Every state is different,” Lumbly was saying. “Each one a state of possibility, with its own customs and way of doing things. Moving through them, you’ll see the breadth of the country before your final stop.”

It’s not an easy read and a sense of unease stays with the reader throughout. There are moments of horror, of confusion, flickers of hope, of disappointment, exhaustion, disgust. Perseverance. Belief.

He told her that every one of her enemies, all the masters and overseers of her suffering, would be punished, if not in this world then the next, for justice may be slow and invisible, but it always renders its true verdict in the end.

She didn’t believe what he said about justice, but it was nice to hear him say it.

The she woke up the next morning and she felt better, and had to admit that she did believe it, maybe just a little.

I appreciated the novel and understand its popularity, I think my enjoyment of it was affected by the horror and also because I read a number of other excellent slave narratives in February by women, whose way of storytelling relies less on the horrors and violence and more on the varying perspectives of characters, stories that are thought provoking and have stayed with me like Toni Morrison’s brilliant A Mercy and Tammye Huf’s A More Perfect Union both of which I highly recommend.