The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore (1976)

Brian Moore 100

2021 is the centenary year of his birth for Northern Irish writer Brian Moore (1921-1999), academically celebrated at Brian Moore 100 and by interested readers in the year long Brian Moore ReadAlong. I have read and reviewed two titles, Lies of Silence (1990) and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955) and I have The Magician’s Wife (1997) plus No Other Life (1993) still on the shelf.

A Distrustful Reader

Brian Moore 100 Northern Irish Literature literary fictionI enjoyed Lies of Silence, however was completely wound up by his treatment of the character in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, a feeling of indignation in his treatment of the female protagonist that was expounded on by Colm Tóibín who admitted:

“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”

I came to The Doctor’s Wife, another novel in which Moore again takes on the voice and attempts to get into the mind of a female protagonist, with significant caution and a not unreasonable dose of distrust.

The Plot: Awaiting her husband’s arrival on holiday in France, Sheila Redden, quiet, middle-aged doctor’s wife from Northern Ireland, suddenly finds herself caught up in an illicit affair with a young American ten years her junior.

The novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1976.

To Prelude or Not

Brian Moore The Doctor's Wife Paris Hotel

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In a short prelude to the first chapter, Shelia’s brother arrives in Paris and from what we glean Shelia has disappeared and there is a letter waiting for her at a friend Peg’s apartment, from a T. Lowry in the US. Shelia’s brother phones this man in America; he says is he is sorry, he can’t help.

The prelude creates an element of intrigue, an unnecessary addition reading it in 2021, though it may have affected readers differently in 1976, by what it implied. That no one knows where she is. That we know where she is not.

Backing Up to the Beginning

Due to his commitments as a Doctor, Shelia’s husband delays his departure for their holiday, they are returning to the Mediterranean  where they honeymooned sixteen years ago. Sheila travels on alone to Paris.

Staying in Paris with her friend Peg, Sheila’s emotions are overwhelmed by the mix of frustration at her husband and the nervous excitement of being in the city with her confident friend, who introduces Ivo, her lover four years younger than herself. Sheila is in awe of Peg’s way of life, the result of having continued her education, pursued a career, travel.

She lives like a man, free, having affairs, travelling, always in big cities, whereas, look at me,  stuck all these years at home, my M.A. a waste. I don’t think I could even support myself anymore. ‘You know’, she said to Peg, ‘it’s working and travelling that keeps a person young. It’s sitting at home doing nothing that makes you middle-aged in your mind. I was just thinking about it the other day. It’s as if the only part of my life that I look forward to now is my holidays. There’s something terribly wrong about that.’

It is through Ivo she becomes acquainted with Tom, the two keep each company while waiting for Peg. Tom is taking a year after his Anglo-Irish Lit studies at Trinity in Dublin to think about his next step. Sheila enjoys being able to talk with Tom on a subject she is virtually forbidden to elsewhere; speaking animatedly about literature to a man at a party has being the cause of reprimand by her husband in the past. Trying to engage with her husband in conversation fails every time these days.

While initially petulant and annoyed with her husband for putting his work ahead of their holiday, at a certain point Sheila begins to will him not to come. The distance and solitude heightens her feelings towards everything. She is at the beginning of developing a kind of resistance, even if that shows itself through what appears to be recklessness. Eventually she will embrace it, learn from it and change.

Before anything is even hinted at with this young man, while still in that isolated wonder of being alone in Paris, with her friend, engaging in a social life, and interesting conversation, she asks herself:

What about those men you read about in newspaper stories who walk out of their homes saying they are going down to the corner to buy cigarettes and are never heard from again? This is Paris. I am here. What if I never go back? page 42

Looking back at this now, it is clear that this thought indicated a turning point for Sheila, who throughout the novel is referred to as Mrs Redden, unless represented in dialogue when she is Sheila. From here she departs Paris to Cap Ferrat, knowing she has at least a few days until her husband may or may not join her. As she gets out of the hotel bath, the telephone rings.

The Objectification of a Man

Love Entrapment Escape The Doctors Wife Brian Moore

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The rest of the story portrays Sheila’s continued attempts to resist what is occurring, until she doesn’t. The focus is always on her, on her thoughts, her decisions, her mind. It is not a novel that looks into the mind of a 27 year old man.

Ironically, the young man is objectified, something more common to woman characters, but here Brian Moore diverges and flips the coin, reducing HIM to an object of sexual pleasure and gratification. Though he doesn’t go so far as to emasculate him, he risks the character of Tom being perceived as inauthentic, for the very reasons Tóibín above, referred to.

Men too, were expected to behave in certain ways, even while conducting illicit affairs. However, Tom is a post-war baby, a baby boomer, he is of a different generation and from another culture, it is quite normal that his behaviour will be perceived by some as childish, ill-considered, unrealistic. Personally, I could believe it. Sheila was born before the war, she was indeed a Traditionalist. In a sense then, her behaviour and responses are the more radical.

Moore however is clear, he elicits only her thoughts, provoking her to express them aloud, to hear herself speak. What she has to say is far more interesting.

‘I don’t know’ she said. ‘Some people never want to go outside the place they were born in. And others seem to want to run away from the day they’re old enough to walk.’

‘And which are you?’

‘A runaway.’

‘But you didn’t leave, did you?’ 

When it becomes clear what Sheila is contemplating, the men in her life, her husband and her brother will resort to the kind of tools that men in power, medical men were able to use to exercise control over what they considered a wayward woman. There’s a history of mental illness in Sheila’s family, something her husband doesn’t hesitate to consider using to his advantage. It is a scary moment.

Understanding Women

It is to his credit, that Brian Moore takes a different approach twenty years after writing about Judith Hearne. This time he pursues other perspectives, making thought provoking choices that engage the reader. 

Female empowerment Women

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It reads like a kind of thriller because she acts so out of convention and the longer she does so, the more likely it seems there is a possibility she might indeed be upending her life.  The reader can feel she is hovering between two choices. The detail with which her encounters are shared and the response of her family to them, increase this duality.

I really enjoyed this, perhaps because I did read it with that level of distrust and was therefore surprised to see how much the author’s perception of a woman character had developed. Although, here too, I had a sense of the author almost writing this in collaboration, I imagined him discussing and arguing this premise with his women friends, or was he reflecting on his own doomed affair? Who knows, but he left me wanting to know more, wanting to pursue Sheila further in her adventure towards liberation.

This one I definitely recommend!

Have you read any Brian Moore this year?

 

The Gods of Tango by Carolina de Robertis

Tango Milongas Buenos Aires Argentina UruguayAn Immigrant Story

This is the story of Leda, a girl from a small Italian village outside of Naples, who when she learns that her cousin Dante is taking the ship to Buenos Aires to seek his fortune and future, attaches herself to him in the months before he leaves, making him make her a promise, to wait for her.

To follow him means becoming betrothed to him and the story opens with their proxy marriage, Leda marries Dante in the village, with her father-in-law standing in the place of the groom. Thus she sets off two years after the promise is made to join her husband, her father’s parting gift, the violin that belonged to her grandfather, the instrument she was never taught to play, but longed to know its secrets.

She was restless, she didn’t want to wait; if migration was the only way to push open the confines of her world, then she wanted it to happen now, she wanted to embark right along with Dante, cross the ocean and begin scraping her destiny out of foreign rock.

An Unforgiving city, Buenos Aires

On arrival in Buenos Aires, she is met by Arturo, who informs her of the dreadful accident. She discovers she in this bustling, unforgiving city, alone, without friends or family, a melange of voices and languages, familiar and unfamiliar. And as a young woman, the work she can do won’t be enough to keep on the room Dante had kept for them.

All the buildings were tall old mansions that the rich had abandoned to the foreign hordes decades ago, during a legendary bout of yellow fever. Stately houses now crowded with the families of the poor. Bakers and grocers with their wares in wood crates on the sidewalk, and cafés shut down to sleep for the day.

Music and Dance, The Tango

The novel is about Leda’s desire and determination, to make a life for herself, to play the violin, to live without being observed, to be the observer, to walk a fine line between freedom and safety, as she finds a way to enter the world of music, a world forbidden to women, as a man.

And isn’t that strange she thought, the way one city can swirl inside another; the way you can be in one country yet carry another country in your skin; the way a place is changed by whoever comes to it, the way silt silt invades the body of the river.

violin tango milongas buenos aires The Gods of Tango

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She arrived in Buenos Aires in 1913, just as the music of the tango was transforming. After weeks of watching, an opportunity arises to join a group when an altercation leads to the stabbing of a violinist. From there she, who has become he, is spotted by Santiago, a bandoneón (a type of concertina found in Argentina and Uruguay) player, who puts together a quartet and is aiming for a higher class of establishment, the cabaret and dance halls. Because the tango has crossed the ocean and sparked a fire in the night establishments of Paris.

The Old World, Europe, ignited by songs from the grim conventillos of New Babel. To think she’d crossed the ocean to find this Argentinian music, only to find it sailing back to Europe, closing a vast loop around the world.

Transformation and Transgression

The transformation in her life and work, follows that of the transformation of the tango, the addition of the bass, the piano and finally the addition of a voice, some instruments were rising into prominence while others began to disappear.

The tango without the bandoneón was no longer considered the tango. That strange German instrument had been absorbed into the music,, altering its essential texture and slowing its pace.

Leda finds a way to be one of the guys, unveiling her own passion as she navigates a dangerous situation that must remain secret if it is to be sustained.

Haunts of the Past

Throughout the novel, her thoughts return often to her childhood friend Cora, Dante’s sister. Something happened to Cora that haunts Leda, that she keeps suppressed, but the unwilling memories rise up and have their own effect on the decisions she makes, as she navigates the tricky path chosen.

It’s an enjoyable read and an insight into what must have awaited those who left Europe for Buenos Aires at the beginning of the twentieth century, what a tough environment it was for women to survive in and the development of this music and dance that came with its own set of rules and transgressions.

Carolina de Robertis, Author

tango Carolina de Robertis Gods of Tango Argentina

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Carolina de Robertis, a writer of Uruguayan origins is the author of two earlier novels,  Perla (2012) and The Invisible Mountain (2009), translated into 17 languages.

Her most recent novel Cantoras (2019), a novel about queer love, womanhood, and personal and political revolution was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize

“I wanted to explore the immigrant experience, and for a woman immigrant, the only way for her to fully access the underworld of the tango on her own terms without becoming a prostitute was to dress as a man.”

Further Reading

NPR Interview: An Outsider In Buenos Aires Goes Incognito, For Love Of Tango

Booker Prize Winner 2021

Today the Booker Prize winner for 2021 was announced from the shortlist of these six novels below:

Booker Prize Fiction Shortlist 2021

You can see all the titles and read mini descriptions of all the 13 novels that were longlisted here:

Having reread the entire shortlist three times the judges have decided:

The Winner

The Promise by South African writer Damon Galgut

The Promise Damon Galgut

Description

The Promise charts the crash and burn of a white South African family, living on a farm outside Pretoria. The Swarts are gathering for Ma’s funeral. The younger generation, Anton and Amor, detest everything the family stand for, not  least the failed promise to the Black woman who has worked for them her whole life. After years of service, Salome was promised her own house, her own land… yet somehow, as each decade passes, that promise remains unfulfilled.

The narrator’s eye shifts and blinks: moving fluidly between characters, flying into their dreams; deliciously lethal in its observation. And as the country moves from old deep divisions to its new so-called fairer society, the lost promise of more than just one family hovers behind the novel’s title.

In this story of a diminished family, sharp and tender emotional truths hit home.

Judges Comment

In The Promise, Damon Galgut makes a strong, unambiguous commentary on the history of South Africa and of humanity itself that can best be summed up in the question: does true justice exist in this world? The novel’s way of tackling this question is what makes it an accomplishment and truly deserving of its place.

Another author I haven’t read, I might have to check it out! Have you read this or anything by Damon Galgut?

Bewilderment by Richard Powers

A writer I’ve hesitated over before, but heard many rave about, I decided to read this purely because so many predict it to win the Booker Prize, (winner announced later today).

Environmental fiction Science Booker shortlistThe book is about Theo, a widower and astrophysicist, raising his nine year old son Robin alone, two years after the death of his wife.

Theo’s work is pure imagination, a science fiction fantasy, he creates models of imaginary planets, deciding their characteristics, populated with his own datasets, that one day he hopes can be substituted for real data – if they ever complete the trillion dollar machine/project that can go further than anything else ever has and discover the unknown planets out there that may contain life.

And all my simulated atmospheres waited for the day when the long-gestated, long delayed space-borne telescopes would lift off and come online, blowing our little one-off Rare-Earth wide open.

Robin likes to listen to his father speak of these planets as a bedtime story/game, but his own urgent focus is on planet Earth and her endangered species, and the terrible things humans are doing to her. His passion and enthusiasm for things elicits unwanted attention at school and he’s unable to control his responses.

Theo mentions the problem to a neuroscientist colleague who suggests an alternative treatment, a kind of training in an aspired emotional trait, something Theo and his wife had already contributed to, that Robin might benefit from.

“Are you afraid he might hurt someone? Has he ever come after you?”

“No. Never. Of course not.”

He knew I was lying. “I’m not a doctor. And even doctors can’t give you a reliable opinion without a formal consult. You know that.”

“No doctor can diagnose my son better than I can. I just want some treatment short of drugs that will calm him down and get his principal off my back.”

In essence that’s the story, Theo’s navigation of Robin’s equilibrium, the precariousness of his own career, Robin’s frustrated attempts to make a difference on planet Earth and their mutual grief and loss of his mother.

galaxy solar system planets stars Bewilderment

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In a sense Theo’s interest and career in imagining those lifeforms far, far away, external to oneself are a method and training to avoid any kind of inner reflection and growth – they are another form of distraction, escapism from what he perceives as a painful reality.

Theo’s only comfort is to be in the forest with Robin, something he too adores.

It’s written in a kind of spare prose that at times, semi-lectures rather than describes, the effect perhaps of a father talking to his son about science, but neglects to inform him about life, which can make the reader detach somewhat.

It’s an outer journey, not so much an inner one, ironically, this becomes one of Robin’s most thought-provoking questions, near the end of the narrative.

Which do you think is bigger? Outer space…? He touched his fingers to my skull. Or inner?

At the same time as the planet is in peril, so is humanity, not least in the manner of how this father is disconnected from support and community, taking on the care of his son in a way that isolates them.

It reminded me of the fallacy of man and the inclination of those in power, spending trillions in the pursuit of a curiosity out there, or more trillions defending man made territories here, while the concerns of caring, poverty, and nurturing what already exists, living in the present are rarely mentioned, valued or given concern.

It’s an interesting story and it touches on many familiar, contemporary issues and it will be of interest to anyone interested in the environment and space. Likely to provoke opinions, about what is present and what is missing.

Watch this space later today to see who wins the prize! Check out the Booker shortlist here and the complete longlist here.

 

Voices of the Lost by Hoda Barakat tr. Marilyn Booth

Those Who Are Lost

Lebanese Arabic LiteratureWritten in three parts, this award winning novel by Lebanese author Hada Barakat, is composed of a series of six letters written in a stream of consciousness narrative that are interlinked.  The letters are read, but not by their intended recipient, found between the pages of a book, dug out of a bin or otherwise encountered. They prompt the finder to write their own letter.

They are a kind of confession, written by the marginalised, floundering in exile. The letters excavate a depth of feeling that is raw, that traverses memory, hurts, an indifferent ability to cause pain, love, sorrow, longing, an abuse of kindness, a deterioration of the psyche.

“With this novel, I wanted to really listen to those millions of wandering souls who can’t speak for themselves: migrants. Their desperation to leave their country, no matter the cost, even if they know their lives will be at stake.”

Some of the letters are written to a family member, others to a lover, others to nameless recipients.

They are all experiencing deep loss having either been removed from all they’ve known or been connected to, or have been abandoned. Below, I’ve chosen a quote from each letter to give a sense of the narrative.

An undocumented immigrant writes to his former lover. He is unkind and doesn’t understand why she tolerates him. We learn that his mother put him on a train alone when he was eight or nine, effectively abandoning him, a sacrifice to gift him the education she never had. A man across from him is watching him through the window. Paranoia.

I’ve never written a letter in my life. Not a single one. There was a letter in my mind, which I brooded over for years, rewriting it in my head again and again. But I never wrote it down. After all, my mother could hardly read, and so I expect she would have taken my letter to one of the village men with enough education to read it to her. That would have been a disaster though!

a book in arabic writings

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A woman in a hotel room writes to a man from her past. She finds a perplexing letter in the pages of the telephone directory in the room. She wonders whether it was the man who penned it or the woman to which he wrote who left it there and why. It was clearly unfinished. She recalls the sweet succulence of the medlar fruits they ate walking the streets of Beirut.

This sweetness has nothing to do with the act of remembering. It’s not the delicious and sweet because it is linked to the past, to the time of our youth, where nostalgia for that time gives everything we can’t bring back a more beautiful sheen. Nothing in my childhood or my adolescence has ever prompted a longing for the past, a past that seems to me more like a prison than anything else. I am not here in this room in order to return to what was, nor to see you and thus see with you the charming young woman I once was, or how lovely and robust the springtime was that year, there in my home country. That country is gone now, it is finished, toppled over and shattered like a huge glass vase, leaving only shards scattered across the ground. To attempt to bring any of this back would end only in tragedy. It could produce only a pure, unadulterated grief, an unbearable bitterness.

flowers desk pen letter

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An escaped torturer recounts his crimes to his mother. He got the idea to write a letter from observing a woman taking some folded papers from her handbag, read them, then tear them in half and drop them in a bin. He retrieves them.

You would say I deserve all this. You might even disown me, calling me the Devil’s offspring. And if I think of my father, I’d have to admit that you have a point. Still, after all that I’ve been through, is there any point in believing that if I asked you to pardon me, you might do it?

I know you won’t, I know there’s really no hope.

A former prostitute writes to her brother. She is on a plane that had been delayed due to the arrest of a passenger. She found a crumpled up letter shoved between the seat and the wall.

I know why security took him away in handcuffs, because I have a letter in my pocket that this man wrote to his mother. He must have tried to hide it before they reached him, because it’s not the kind of letter anyone would just forget about or be careless enough to lose.

A young queer man recounts to his estranged father his partner’s battle with AIDS. He stumbles across a letter written by a woman in a storage locker at a bar he worked in. That was two years ago, recently he reread it.

I read it again and again, as if I knew that woman personally. Or as if I could actually see her in front of me, asking someone’s forgiveness but discovering she could not get it. And not just because her letter would never arrive. It’s about the need we all have for someone to listen to us, and then to decide they will pardon us no matter what we have done.

Those Who Are Searching

In this second part, brief extracts focused on those who have some connection to the letter writers, those who are trying to find their place, searching, also at a loss.

Those Who Are Left Behind

Finally, the mailman leaves his own note, sheltering in the bombed out remains of the post office.

Neither the internet nor anything else would do away with the need for my rounds, not even after internet cafés were springing up everywhere like mushrooms.

Displaced, at a loss, rootless, untethered. Like the roll of the dice they were born into a place and era where stability, home and belonging would be denied them.

Haunting, at times disturbing, it is a compelling read, the rootlessness and isolation felt by the reader, due to the manner in which the letters are written. The edge of despair palpable. It’s as if the one who stayed, surrounded by destruction, is the only one left with a sense of belonging.

Further Reading

Article: The Return of the NonProdigal Sons by Hoda Barakat

Hoda Barakat

Winner International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2019Hoda Barakat was born in Beirut in 1952. She has worked in teaching and journalism and lives in France. She has published six novels, two plays, a book of short stories and a book of memoirs, as well as contributing to books written in French. Her work has been translated into a number of languages.

She received the ‘Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres’ in 2002 and the ‘Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite National’ in 2008.

Her novels include: The Stone of Laughter (1990), Disciples of Passion (1993), The Tiller of Waters (2000) which won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, and My Master and my Lover (2004). The Kingdom of This Earth (2012) reached the IPAF longlist in 2013. In 2015, she was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, given (at that time) every two years to honour a writer’s achievement in fiction. Voices of the Lost won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction ((IPAF) in 2019.

N.B. Thank you to OneWorld Publications for providing me a review copy

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Healing Women magic realism slavery freedomI loved how this historical novel focuses on the lives of these women, Rue her mother May Belle and grandmother Ma Doe and the community within which they live, without allowing the narrative to stray over too far into the lives and homes of those who diminished their lives.

It is set in two time periods, just before and just after the civil war, so Freedomtime from 1867 onward Surrender 1865 and Slaverytime from May 1861. In particular it inhabits the Reconstruction era, the brief hollow of time between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Jim Crow era, ten years that would have been strangely bittersweet, fraught with disbelief.

Mostly the narrative revolves around Rue who wasn’t taught her mother’s skills yet learned them all the same. Healing and conjuring, midwifery and herbal remedies. Setting things to right.

Other slavefolk got hired out for their washing, for their carpentering, for their fine greasy cooking. Miss May Belle was hired for her hoodooing.

“Hoodoo,” Miss May Belle used to say “is black folks currency.”

She had admitted only once, to Rue, in confidence: “The thing about curses is that you can know who you’ve wronged the most by who you fear has the notion to curse you.”

By shifting the narrative back and forth to tell the story, the reader, like Rue is kept in suspense regarding some of the terrible wrongs done to people, some on the connections and relations between people.

photography of fruits on a tray

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In the slave masters house there is a young girl Varnia, who is Rue’s age and her playmate. Then there is Sarah, also of similar age, who gives birth in the opening pages to a baby born enveiled in a caul, which provokes people’s superstitions. Rue develops a connection to this baby who seems other worldly.

When the communities babies begin to suffer from a mysterious illness, they begin to distrust her and her methods and rely instead on a charistmatic travelling preacher Bruh Abel, whom Rue has strange feelings for. She hatches a plan to try and bring favour back her way, but it backfires on her and she will seek his help to restore their faith.

She’d known him for what he was then. He was a clear-water cure sweetened with nothing more than clever words a con man’s type of conjure.

Conjure Women CovrIn May Belle’s time, one of the ways to effect a conjure was to make a doll that bore a resemblance to the person and if possible to access strands of hair to entwine with whatever material was used. Varina has porcelain dolls that Rue admires and is envious of, when she discovers her mother is making a doll that faintly resembles her, she pretends not to notice she has discovered it, and will mask even further her disappointment when she misreads its purpose.

Reading this story, made me reflect on how many historical fiction narratives of slavery, civil war and early freedom are told from within the Household and the fields. And how as readers we often come to expect that. How refreshing that Afia Atakora stays with these women and tells their stories from a different vantage point, not needing to take us into the politics of their war, or the lives or agenda of those in the House.

There is one scene where Rue is present for an event that takes place inside the Master’s house and it is telling that she observes the entire scene from within a locked box, that she can lift only slightly, therefore only seeing a sliver of what takes place.

Atakora does the same to her readers, when it comes to observing slave masters and mistresses and white people in her narrative. They never take centre stage even if they still maintain the ability to commit gross acts that impact the lives of her characters.

“We tend to paint slavery in America in broad strokes. There are these pervasive singular images of overseers and cotton fields. We think of it in terms of Amendments and Proclamations and Battles. But it’s a vast 200+ years of history filled with nuance and complexity and no two experiences could have possibly been alike.”

It’s a novel that demonstrates the effect of conditioning, regardless of changed circumstances, the legacy of bondage and the aspects of genetic inheritance that refuse to be extinguished through the will of others.

“Rue-baby” Miss May Belle would’ve said, “there ain’t no easier lie to tell folks than the one they wanna believe.”

A thought provoking read that shakes up conventional storytelling and vantage points.

Further Reading

Interview: A Conversation with Afia Atakora on Conjure Women

Afia Atakora

Afia Atakora was born in the United Kingdom and raised in New Jersey, where she now lives. She graduated from New York University and has an MFA from Columbia University, where she was the recipient of the De Alba Fellowship. Her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and she was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers.

 

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

I was looking forward to reading this after it won the Women’s Prize for fiction and having been tempted by her earlier work, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell but put off by the length of it.

Piranesi Winner Susanna ClarkeFantasy isn’t a genre I read very often, but one I have a nostalgic feeling for, having loved it when I was a child. The problem usually being that it becomes harder to evoke the magical feeling that a child’s imagination is capable of creating. However I was willing to try and decided to read it on a day I’d have few interruptions.

I learned after finished it, that the name Piranesi, is likely to have been inspired by the 18th century Italian classical archaeologist, architect and artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1728) and his series of 16 etchings, Carceri d’invenzione or Imaginary Prisons, depicting enormous subterranean vaults with stairs and towers and bas-relief type sculptures.

If Jonathan Strange was a riotous meeting of Austen and Dickens, then Piranesi’s pole stars are Jorge Luis Borges and CS Lewis. “I found Lewis at a very impressionable age and then he sort of organised the inside of my head,” she says. “And that’s just the way it has been ever since.”

Review

Piranesi, the main character of the novel, lives in a house that has walls and multiple levels and statues and tides and fish and the bones of 13 bodies. More than a house, this is his world. Nothing outside this house exists for Piranesi and as we read we slowly begin to imagine it ourselves.

I spent today working at my usual tasks: fishing, gathering seaweed, working on my Catalogue of Statues.

Piranesi is content, though inquisitive. There is only one other person in his world, whom he refers to as The Other. The Other calls him Piranesi.

Since the World began it is certain that there have existed fifteen people. Possibly there have been more; but I am a scientist and I must proceed according to the evidence. Of the fifteen people whose existence is verifiable, only Myself and the Other are living.

It is clear to the reader that Piranesi is more open and honest with The Other than he is with Piranesi. Thus the mystery underlying the story, about who he is and what he is withholding from Piranesi.

Piranesi keeps journals, using his own calendar creation and indexing system. These will help him understand.

The Other believes that there is a Great and Secret Knowledge hidden somewhere in the World that will grant us enormous powers once we have discovered it.

Piranesi CoverDespite Piranesi’s scientific status, he is developing a connection to the World within he lives, in which he is able to ask questions and intuit answers.

The Other warns him about things that may happen and Piranesi has to use what knowledge he has and his developing ability to sense things, to navigate this new situation. To understand messages and develop meaning from his observations that inspire those intuitive nudges.

The warning of the birds – if that was what it was – seemed on the face of it nonsensical, but I decided nonetheless to follow this unusual line of reasoning and see where it took me.

I enjoyed reading it and the slow way that the reader is made to experience something of Piranesi’s own “forgetting”, by only seeing and understanding what is around him, without an appreciation for what exists outside the world, the House, he currently resides in. And his development of that other sense that provides meaning.

This realisation – the realisation of the Insignificance of the Knowledge – came to me in the form of a Revelation. What I mean by this is that I knew it to be true before I understood why or what steps had led me there.

I loved the not knowing, and that process of beginning to understand, the sense of there being an acknowledgment of so much more than what was in the story. Of the natural world, connectedness, a sense of the divine, that all these things are seen as transgressive, the act of forgetting due to rational thought and science becoming the only true authority.

If anything, I felt it stopped short and wondered if this might not have been a longer story, had it been able to develop further, perhaps it reflects the state of where the world is, stuck in this era of rational thought, on the precipice of rediscovering ancient knowledge and intuitive power, of realising who and what we really are, our capacity if we can move beyond the current limitations. I enjoyed it in the moment of reading it, but due to the limitations and sparseness of his world, I’m not sure that it stay long with me.

Further Reading

Guardian Review – Taking on uncanny relevance this year, this austere story of one man’s isolation explores profound questions of freedom by Justine Jordan

Guardian Interview – how the celebration of solitude in Piranesi, grew from her experience of a long illness

Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve tr. Adriana Hunter

Winter Flowers Angélique VilleneuveWinter Flowers (Les Fleurs d’hiver) by Angélique Villenueuve, translated by Adriana Hunter is published Oct 7 by Peirene Press, a boutique publishing house, specialising in high-quality first-translations of contemporary European novellas that can be read in an afternoon.

Review

A young woman in 1918 Paris is considered one of the fortunate, when her husband returns from war injured. Wearing a face mask. He lived. He is not the same man who left. When Toussaint Caillet was transferred from the department of facial injuries at Val-de-Grâce military hospital, he sent Jeanne a one sentence note ordering her not to visit.

They have a 3 year old daughter who only knows her father by the portrait of the soldier on the wall of their cramped quarters. She has two fathers, the Papa who left and the man who returned.

Of course she’d expected that the war and his injury would have changed him, but she’d never tried to imagine the scale or even the nature of this disruption. The letter he’d sent her in January 1917 had been a dark window and, once she’d stomached the pain of it, she’d made a point of not reopening it.

Jeanne works from home making artificial flowers, she is trying to be patient and understanding, but her husband’s refusal to engage inflames her.

Sitting at her table, Jeanne senses nothing. It has to be said that the huge red dahlias, whose wound-like qualities are accentuated by the light of the oil lamp, completely absorb her in a swirl of scarlet. The repeated gestures gradually steal over her body, leaving no part of her in which she can drift. When Jeanne sleeps or closes her eyes, when she’s most absent in mind or body, she knows this much: the flowers are still there and always will be.

red dahlia winter flowers angélique villeneuve wound like

Photo David JakabPexels.com

When he finally leaves the room, she follows him. It is not the first time.

Her neighbour Sidonie, a seamstress, has lost almost everything, they support each other. She is about to be tipped over the edge.

Winter Flowers exquisitely renders a situation many lived through and few understood. The silence and destruction of men who survived, who came back traumatised. Who never spoke of what happened. Who may or may not have healed. And the women who stood beside them, who persevered, who sacrificed and learned to live with the reality of what they too had lost.

Like all women whose husbands or sons had been mobilised, though, she’d heard countless stories about men’s homecomings. Poor women. Those who entrusted a sheep to their country  were given back a lion. Someone who’d sent out a young lad was said to have come home an old man, or mad.

And there were so many, Jeanne was well aware, who would never come home at all.

Despite the terrible events and circumstances, the hopes and fears, the woman too must participate and receive the words of recognition from those in power, despite their grief, unable to express their truth.

The mayor’s words are incomprehensible they come and go and sting. Jeanne doesn’t know whether it’s up to them, the women here, these workwomen, to tame the words and arrange them in the correct order, whether it’s really to them that they’re addressed. They flow too quickly. They fly too high. There are too many of them.

Thunder and fire, men freezing and caked in mud and half poisoned by noxious gases, heroes, brothers, love, defeat, hope, victory, history peace, blood, martyrs, children. His speech is riddled with these impassioned fragments. And, just like the battles experienced by those who are now dead, these official words accumulate terrifyingly, chaotically over the gathering. It’s a bombardment, and Jeanne, busy as she is shoring up her neighbour’s faltering frame, struggles to withstand its fire for more than a few minutes.

It is a lament, a form of consolation, a living mourning, of how a family rebuilds itself after an event that has wreaked devastation on them all. Day by day, acknowledging the small wins, with patience, forgiveness, empathy and imagination.

I loved it.  A heart-rending, visceral account of loss and the accompanying overwhelm of steadfast perseverance. The tidal-like edge of madness and the surreal act of continuing despite it. Women.

Every few pages, I marked passages, highlighted sentences and rereading them as I write this, felt like going back to beginning and reading it over again, so rare is it to encounter this perspective, to share how it might have been for those who waited and wailed, who persevered and attempted to recreate a new life from the wreck of what returned.

Angélique Villeneuve writes with great empathy, sensitivity and understanding in narrating a story from the little explored perspective of the young working woman dealing with the aftermath of war, in which they have all changed and must live in a post traumatic world, with little knowledge of how to navigate it.

Angélique Villeneuve, Author

Born in Paris in 1965, Angélique Villeneuve lived in Sweden and India before returning to her native France. The author of eight novels, she has also written numerous children’s books and poetry.

Les Fleurs d’hiver, originally published in 2014, won four literary prizes: the 2014 Prix Millepages, the 2015 Prix La Passerelle and Prix de la Ville de Rambouillet, and the 2016 Prix du Livre de Caractère de Quintin.

Villeneuve’s novel Maria (2018), won the SGDL Grand Prix for fiction. Her most recent work, La Belle Lumière (2020), is a fictional account of the life of Helen Keller’s mother.

Winter Flowers is the first of her books to be translated into English.

Adriana Hunter, Translator

An award-winning British translator, Adriana Hunter has translated over ninety books from French, mostly works of literary fiction. She won the 2011 Scott Moncrieff Prize for her translation of Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi (Peirene Press, 2010) and the 2013 French-American Foundation and Florence Gould Foundation Translation Prize for her translation of Hervé Le Tellier’s Electrico W. Her translations have been shortlisted twice for the International Booker Prize.

N.B. Thank you to Peirene Press for providing me a review copy.

Winter Flowers Angélique Villeneuve French Literature

Sugar by Bernice McFadden

I just love the way that right from the first pages Bernice McFadden’s characters jump off the page and in this case Sugar Lacey makes her grand entrance, dragging her suitcase, strutting through the small town of the deep south, Bigelow, Arkansas (1950’s) in her high heels, tight dress, brightly coloured wig and nonchalant attitude,  peering through the window of the hairdresser knowing that would be where all the talk happens, and on to number 10 Grove Street, her new abode, right next door to Pearl and Joe.

Sugar Lacey Vintage ClassicPearl has promised the Reverend to welcome this newcomer, but she wasn’t expecting the shock of seeing Sugar’s face and who it reminds her of, nor the sudden flurry of visitors who want to sit in her kitchen in case they get a peek at this unwelcome new resident, whom they’re so inquisitive of.

Was this the woman the Reverend spoke of? The woman Pearl had been asked to guide and help eventually lead into the flock? Was this her? This woman didn’t look like she’d ever spent a second in a house of worship, much less knew what one was. But there was something else too. A slither of something familiar that Pearl was yet to put her finger on.

When they do spot her, they’re certainly given more to talk about.

Sugar has grown up not knowing her family, raised by the three Lacey sisters before setting out and discovering how much tougher life is on your own. Pearl still hasn’t got over the loss of her daughter Jude and many things about her life, date from that moment, who she was before and who she is now.

When she finally plucks up the courage to go next door and introduce herself, she can’t herself from commenting on what she thinks is an unusual name, asking Sugar if that’s her nickname.

“No, that’s my Christian name. Why? Don’t you know sugar is brown first? White folks couldn’t stand the fact that something so sweet shared the same colour as the people who cut the cane, slopped the hogs and picked the cotton. So they bleached it to resemble them, and now they done gone and fooled everybody. You included.”

Pearl and Sugar develop an unlikely friendship, the one challenging the other to change perspective, enabling them both to meet somewhere in the middle, an improvement for both of them in the way they had been living their lives.

As we know, life never sits still, change and disruption often arrive uninvited and when they do Sugar must make a decision. The book closes with a few threads indicating that there could be more to come and indeed there is, Sugar being the first in the Sugar Lacey trilogy of novels.

In this wonderful debut novel, 20 years after being first published, now available in the UK, we encounter the enchanting, captivating and entertaining storytelling of Bernice McFadden, her unforgettable characters and the community that surrounds them.

McFadden is an author who I will happily read all her work, there’s something reliable and comforting when you sit down with one of her works, knowing you’re not going to want to put it down until it’s finished, but forcing yourself to do so, because you want the experience to linger.

The second novel This Bitter Earth will be published in the UK by Vintage Classics in August 2022 and sees Sugar leaving Bigelow and returning to her childhood home, where she learns the truth about her parentage: a terrible tale of unrequited love, of one man’s enduring hatred, and of the black magic that has cursed generations of Lacey women.

Bernice L. McFadden

Bernice McFaddenBernice L. McFadden is the author of ten critically acclaimed novels including Sugar, Loving Donovan, Nowhere Is a Place, The Warmest December, Gathering of Waters (a New York Times Editors’ Choice and one of the 100 Notable Books of 2012), and Glorious, which was featured in O, The Oprah Magazine and was a finalist for the NAACP Image Award.

Her most recent novel, Praise Song for the Butterflies (Jacaranda Books), was longlisted for the Women’s Prize in 2019. Sugar featured in the Richard and Judy Autumn 2021 Bookclub.

She is a three-time Hurston/Wright Legacy Award finalist, as well as the recipient of three awards from the BCALA. McFadden lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Other Works by Bernice McFadden Reviewed Here

Praise SongPraise Song For the Butterflies

– a visit to Ghana in 2007 where she met two women who told her about a rehabilitation centre and a tradition referred to as trokosi are the inspiration for this intriguing, excellent novel.

The Book of HarlanThe Book of Harlan

– one of my top reads of 2020, a truly immersive read, inspired by the lives of some of the authors ancestors and the little known history of Black Americans in Paris circa WWII.

How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

This was a brilliant read and the kind of cross cultural, reading journey I love.

Colonialism Capitalism Africa Cameroon Literary fictionImbolo Mbue takes you back to the fictional African village, Kosawa in the 1980’s. It could be in any number of countries, a fact acknowledged by naming her characters after real towns and cities.

She tells what should be a simple story, about how the village has been affected by the interventions of outsiders and those placed in power within their own country and the people’s attempt to seek and find justice.

Mostly the story is narrated through the multi-generational members of one family, of Thula and her brother Juba, their mother Saleh, grandmother Yaya, uncle Bongo and then the third person plural (we) of The Children, Thula’s age mates. It reaches back to the 1970’s and travels through to the current day.

Seeking Justice, Inviting Retribution

The issue the village initially attempts to address is the polluting of the river and air, resulting in the poisoning of the land, the destruction of their farming way of life and the deaths of too many of their children, since this latest American corporation Pexton, arrived and began drilling for oil.

Though the villages allowed the corporation to drill for oil, based on assurances that all would be more than well for them, they suspect their problems are due to contamination created by the activities of Pexton. The corporation deny all and their paid village representative tries to downplay the gravity of their losses. Continue reading