Sea People by Christina Thompson

In Search of the Ancient Navigators of the Pacific

Growing up in rural/coastal New Zealand and being immersed in Maori culture from the age of 5-12, the myths, legends, stories, cultural practices have always resonated with me.

Perhaps because I was so young, or because there was a clear connection to the landscape and environment that rang true, the geography of New Zealand was part of the mythology, that curious blend of enchantment and reality; it made sense to a child.

Sea People In Search of Ancient Navigators of the PacificA Polynesian Connection and Resonance

I read Sea People not so much out of that European curiosity to discover where people originated from, but for the familiarity of that “way of seeing” through the oral tradition of storytelling, of describing things from where I see and what I see around me, not from the lofty heights of above looking down.

My curiosity in all honesty, lay too in wondering if a woman’s perspective and approach might be different.

As the number of oral cultures in the world has diminished, interest in them has grown, and one of the most intriguing questions is whether there might be such a thing as an ‘oral way of seeing’, a  worldview common to oral peoples that might be different in some generalizable way from the worldview of people in cultures with writing.

I loved it.

Like her own mixed family, the author Christina Thompson straddles the masculine/feminine, Polynesian/European aspects and shares something that goes back over all the approaches to Polynesia from the earliest eyewitnesses of 1521 to the brilliant modern day reconstructions of Polynesian canoes, that set sail with a crew of experimental voyagers, trained in the old non-instrument methods of navigation, to re-enact the voyages of the ancient Polynesians.

map-polynesia-frontThe Polynesian Triangle is an area of ten million square miles, defined by the three points of Hawai‘i, New Zealand and Easter Island. All the islands inside this triangle were originally settled by a clearly identifiable group of voyagers: a people with a single language and set of customs, a distinctive arsenal of tools and skills, and a collection of plants and animals that they carried with them wherever they went.

Sea People tells the story of these remarkable voyagers and of the many people—explorers, linguists, anthropologists, folklorists and navigators—who have puzzled over their astonishing history for more than three hundred years.

There is a reason the remote Pacific was the last place on Earth to be settled by humans: it was the most difficult, more daunting even than the deserts or the ice.

cottages in the middle of beach

Photo by Julius Silver on Pexels.com

Written in six parts, chronologically, we follow the thinking of the different eras, immersing in the exploration and research studies of the time, travelling through all the speculation, attitudes, reverence and mystery of a very Eurocentric enquiry, until recent times when those of Polynesian heritage themselves, as decolonization and indigenous rights movements were gaining strength worldwide, demanded representation and respect in these constant intellectual probings.

The first parts look at the various European explorations, their intentions, their reception, discoveries and the kind of records they kept about they witnessed. It also shows the difference in their encounter(s) when they befriend and take a Polynesian navigator with them, bridging a cultural divide, that had often resulted in violence previously.

Much has been made in histories of the Pacific about the problem of observer bias. Early European explorers saw the world through lenses that affected how they interpreted what they found. The Catholic Spanish and Portuguese of the sixteenth century were deeply concerned with the islanders’ heathenism; the mercantile Dutch, in the seventeenth century were preoccupied with what they had to trade; the French, coming alone in the eighteenth century, were most interested in their social relations and the idea of what constituted  a “state of nature”.

Part Three looks at some of the stories the Polynesians told about themselves and the difficulty their European visitors had in understanding and interpreting them.

Europeans and Polynesians, it would seem, had very different ideas about the purpose of narratives and the relative meanings of “falsehood” and “truth”.

The Polynesian Art of Non-Instrument Navigation

For me that was the highlight of the literary journey, when Nainoa Thompson, a young Hawaiian, did all he could to learn the old ways, studying the stars, the winds, reading the waves and ocean swells, the imagined island, all the techniques known that had been passed down, to navigate like the ancient mariners, great ocean distances with nothing but what nature offered to guide them.

And in the face of disbelief by all the European sceptics who’d come before, unable to embrace the paradigm of this ancient skill, they succeeded, using practical sea voyaging, no computer simulation or dusty pottery references or annals of research; a brilliant touch of reality and reaching back through the generations of ancestry.

It was a stunning achievement. Without maps or charts or instruments or recording devices, without even paper and pen, an apprentice navigator – the first from Hawai’i in at least half a century – had piloted a canoe more than 2,500 miles, spanning more than thirty-five degrees of latitude.

A wonderful history and a beautifully accessible read. While it is inevitably limited due to being addressed from within those same structures that European exploration came from, and written by an outsider (albeit married to someone from the region), it provides a valuable insight into that outsider view and representation of centuries of exploration.

It will lead very nicely on to my next read, appropriately, the inside view from Dr Hinemoa Elder in her book of Maori wisdom, Aroha.

Sea People Christina Thompson

Christina Thompson

A dual citizen of the United States and Australia, she was born in Switzerland and grew up outside Boston and spent a decade living in Australia. Since 2000 she has been the editor of Harvard Review and teaches writing at Harvard University Extension. She lives outside Boston with her husband and three sons.

Sea People won the 2020 Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award, the 2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, and the 2019 NSW Premier’s General History Award. Her first book, Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All, was a finalist for the 2009 NSW Premier’s Literary Award and the 2010 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.

Further Reading/Listening

NPR Interview: ‘Sea People’ Examines The Origins And History Of Polynesia by Ilana Masad

Read More Co: Author Interview: Christina Thompson

Breath by James Nestor

The New Science of a Lost Art

I stumbled across this book almost by accident, in a conversation with a client about the importance of the breath to regulate health. I’d been practicing a version of the Lion’s Breath to balance a throat chakra (energy centre) issue and I had become aware of the power of the breath and mantra combined.

Another client had shared after being able to resume swimming training, “Do you know what the best thing about getting back in the pool and training is? The deep breath.” Upon hearing this anecdote, the first client returned with this book.

science of breathing nasal breathing pranayamaThe book is written by the American journalist and author James Nestor, who also wrote the nonfiction science and adventure book, DEEP: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves (2014) exploring the abilities of those who have trained themselves to be able to stay underwater for 4 or 5 minutes without oxygen.

Breath takes that research even further and is a book he researched and wrote over a period of ten years, as he explored the hypotheses that the human species had lost the ability to breath properly, causing not only changes in the structure of the face and respiratory apparatus, but hastening health problems.

Over the millenia, these cultures developed hundreds – thousands – of methods to maintain a steady  flow of prana. They created acupuncture to open up prana channels and yoga postures to awaken and distribute the energy.

But the most powerful technique was to inhale prana: to breathe.

sportive woman with bicycle resting on countryside road in sunlight

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

His obsession with the breath took him from the Himalayas to Brazil, into the homes and offices of people equally dedicated to pursuing the art of the breath for improving health and discovered miraculous findings that western science seemed to have ignored until very recently.

Pranayama. Buteyko. Coherent Breathing. Hypoventilation. Breathing Coordination. Holotropic Breathwork. Adhama. Madhyama. Uttama. Kevala. Embryonic Breath. Harmonising Breath. The Breath by the Master Great Nothing. Tummo. Sudarshan Kriya.

I’ve been reading it over the past two weeks and I certainly agree that upon reading this, you’ll never breathe the same again, to have one’s awareness raised in this way about the health promoting effects of certain types of breathing and the detriment to the health of the other.

As a result of some of the experiments James Nestor and Anders Olsson put themselves through, another two-year study was being put together with 500 subjects to research the effects of sleep tape on snoring and sleep apnea.

man doing hand stand on mountain

Photo by Sam Kolder on Pexels.com

The overall summary of helpful breathing techniques and resources at the end of the book is excellent and the journey to get there is interesting and entertaining, if occasionally somewhat tiresome, as the level of eccentricity of the author in pursuing so many of these guru-types begins to make what should be a simple technique, into something akin to scaling a mountain.

Thankfully, the reader doesn’t need to go to any of the lengths the author did, from the summary of techniques (see the NY Times link below), it’s enough to find the one that resonates and try it out, or if it’s snoring that ails you, try out the mouth tape!

Breathing is a missing pillar of health.

Further Reading

James Nestor Responds: How is it possible for humans to have evolved this way? 

New York Times: Breathe Better With These Nine Exercises by James Nestor

The Observer: How One Hour of Breathing Changed My Life, 26 July 2020, by James Nestor

“You can’t be truly healthy unless you’re breathing correctly.”

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

 

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 Soul of a Woman by Isabelle Allende

This was a short read and as the author herself says, it’s more of “an informal chat” than any other label one might put against it.

A Conversation With Isabelle Allende

The Soul of A Woman memoir feminism reviewIsabelle Allende looks back over her life from the viewpoint of her gender, as a woman and looks at how the family she was born into, and their circumstances contributed to her own growth and development and attitudes.

Her mother Panchita was abandoned by her husband in Peru with two toddlers and newborn (Isabel), forcing her to return to her family in Chile. It is this circumstance she ascribes her rebellion against male authority to.

A fear and darkness in childhood, a pre-verbal trauma and conscious frustration as she aged, that ensured she would do everything in her power not to inhabit that vulnerable space women so easily fall into.

An Epiphany in India

An Epiphany in India Isabel Allende Foundation

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

Thwarted by her own passion(s) she marries a number of times, becomes obsessed with justice, develops a visceral reaction to male chauvinism and is so shocked by an experience she had in India, a random roadside breakdown event, that she creates a foundation for vulnerable girls, today run by her daughter in law.

At times the commentary seemed superficial, almost as if written too quickly, there were gaps, assertions without the facts, anecdotes, generalisations etc about women, men, feminism, the patriarchy, but then there were the silver linings, the moments of truth when she’d strike a chord that vibrated and made one pause.

On Ageing, Life in Later Years

Isabel Allende The Soul of A Woman MemoirBeing in the later years of her life, she also reflects on that era, on the post retirement years and her attitude towards them, how she sees that she has changed, what she is and isn’t prepared to compromise on.

It’s provocative, insightful and an invitation to join the conversation and the action, to continue the work towards empowerment of women on their own terms and not as defined by the other. An optimist who drives a hard bargain, she also is one who says yes to life, prepared to take risks and then manage the consequences.

Though it was a galley e-book and I shouldn’t quote from it, I end with thoughts inspired by her reading of Jampolsky on forgiveness, which she appears to follow as guidance in her own life to satisfy the soul of a woman.

More energy is needed to sustain ill feelings than to forgive. The key to contentment is forgiveness of others and ourselves.

After which she asks “What kind of world do we want?”

Further Reading

Geographic Expeditions: An Epiphany In India, February 8, 2013 by Isabel Allende

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

I think this is one of the most popular reads of 2020, it’s also on the Dublin Literary Award longlist 2021 a recognition of the votes of libraries and readers from around the world.

Passing

I thought initially it was a novel about ‘passing’, similar to Nella Larsen’s novel Passing (1929) that I read last year, a subject that at the time of Larsen’s book, literally hundreds of books were being written about, however it is so much more.

I knew that I was writing into this long, storied history of passing literature, but I was also writing into it as a writer in the 21st century. And I wanted to look at that genre from my perspective as a young person alive now. And some of that meant trying to skirt some of those tropes in the genre. And some of that meant just trying to reimagine what a passing story looks like in a world where we think of these categories as being inherently fluid. Brit Bennett

Passing Twins Class RaceBrit Bennett’s novel features identical African American twins who leave home suddenly to make their way in the world, and looks at all the ways people survive and hide things about themselves, keep secrets and the impact that has not just on themselves but on others around them. And the many ways one can lose oneself.

It is also a reflection on the conditional aspirations of the white middle class, once you’ve entered this milieu, there are certain expectations, invisible rules, codes of conduct, and when children dare to want to be someone that doesn’t fit into a conventional perception of success, many parents will attempt to manipulate, entice or bribe them into fulfilling their expectations.

“Why can’t you just be yourself?” Stella asked once.
“Maybe I don’t know who that is,” her daughter shot back. And Stella understood, she did. That was the thrill of youth, the idea that you could be anyone. That was what had captured her in the charm shop, all those years ago. Then adulthood came, your choices solidifying, and you realise that everything you are had been set in motion years before. The rest was aftermath. So she understood why her daughter was searching for a self, and she even blamed herself for it.

From the Deep South to California, 1950’s to 1990’s

Each of the four main characters, twin sisters Desiree and Stella, and their children Jude and Kennedy, are given significant space to explore worlds as they each venture out from home, we observe their encounters and the repercussions of decisions either they make or that are made for them.

The Vanishing Half Runaway America South

Photo by Gantas on Pexels.com

And there is Early, a wonderful character when we first meet him bringing his gifts of fruit to a teenage Desiree, then later his unique job, hunting people who have run, a byproduct of his own story of having been abandoned by his parents and his ability to be the carer, to be present in an unconventional way, despite his never quite feeling at home anywhere.

The key to staying lost was to never love anything. Time and time again, Early was amazed by what a running man came back for. Women, mostly.

On their journeys, the narrative and characters touch on a range of societal issues such as sexual abuse, racism, poverty, abandonment, domestic violence, sexism, gender fluidity, identity, silencing, dementia. It’s never too much, it’s patient, adept storytelling that doesn’t set out to solve problems, but shines a light on them and offers an inside view. Camille Okhiow

It is Bennett’s refusal to pass judgement on her characters that allows the reader to actively engage.

The Omniscient Narrator

Structured in parts, it moves back and forth in time, using a 3rd person omniscient all-knowing narrator, enabling a slow reveal of questions that build up in the reader’s mind.  A dialogue between characters will open into a stream of consciousness narrative and circle back to the close of the dialogue, accessing the thoughts and imagination of the characters and the narrator.

The Vanishing Half Brit Bennett twins passing identity

Photo by willsantt on Pexels.com

Beautifully executed and paced, it is also very rooted in the town of Mallard, the home of the twins and their mother and the point of departure for most of the characters.

Ironically, it too will disappear, initially in being too small to appear on any map and ultimately amalgamated into a nearby town. Fluid identities come in all shapes and forms.

It’s a book you can’t wait to get back to and can in no way predict the outcome, except that they represent aspects of the many different types of people in societies today.

There were many ways to be alienated from someone, few to actually belong.

I loved it and can’t wait to read her debut novel and see what she comes up with next.

How do we all become who we are?

I wanted to write toward that and think about these characters who are all performing in a way, who are transforming in a way, who are making these choices that are big and small but shape them in some way. I knew that my entry point was going to be these twin sisters who make different choices as far as which race that they want to live and which community they belong to. But I also wanted to explore these other forms of being, other types of identities.

I wanted to think about all the different ways in which we make choices that shape who we are, and [think] about the ways in which making those choices and creating ourselves … can be very liberating, but it can also be very painful. Brit Bennett

Brit Bennett, Author

The Vanishing Half The Mothers Literary InfluencerBorn and raised in Southern California, Brit Bennett graduated from Stanford University and later earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan. Her debut novel The Mothers (2016) was a New York Times bestseller, and her second novel The Vanishing Half (2020) was an instant #1 New York Times bestseller.

She is a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree and in 2021, she was chosen as one of Time’s Next 100 Influential People.

Her essays have been featured in The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and Jezebel.

Playwrights Aziza Barnes (BLKS) and Jeremy O. Harris (Slave Play) have been tapped to write and executive-produce the upcoming HBO series based on Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, after a heated auction involving 17 bidders.

Further Reading

Interview: Brit Bennett on publishing The Vanishing Half during the George Floyd protests by Constance Grady

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

Brilliant.

Toni Morrison February 18 Black History MonthA little way into reading, I had to pause and go back to the beginning, because this story is told not in a linear way, but in a spiral and with multiple perspectives that to me didn’t relate to what the blurb says this book is about.

Florens is the only voice we hear more than once as she sets out on her quest, her chapters are interspersed by those she is growing up around, each one of those is told in the third person, but for their chapter stays with their perspective and views the others. And the last chapter circles back to the beginning and is given to the mother.

The novel begins with Florens beginning to tell us her story/confession and her telling of it will also be the second to last chapter, where she thinks of her mother and what she wishes her to know. We learn of the  plantation where she lived with her mother and younger brother and the accompanied journey she made to her new owner Jacob, given to him in payment for a debt.

It is around 1690, at a time when anyone, of any colour, race or creed could be rented, sold or traded.

The beginning begins with the shoes. When I was a child I was never able to abide being barefoot and always beg for shoes, anybody’s shoes,even on the hottest days. My mother, a minha mãe, is frowning, is angry at what she says are my prettifying ways.

We meet the other women living on Jacob’s farm, how he has “acquired” them, who he is and why he lives the way he does. And the blacksmith, a free man, the turning point of the novel.

To tell any more would be a disservice, for it is a novel to discover, letting it reveal its layers to you.

Their drift away from others produced a selfish privacy and they had lost the refuge and the consolation of a clan. Baptists, Presbyterians, tribe, army, family, some encircling outside thing was needed. Pride, she thought. Pride alone made them think that they needed only themselves, could shape life that way, like Adam and Eve, like gods from nowhere beholden to nothing except their own creations. She should have warned them, but her devotion cautioned against impertinence. As long as Sir was alive it was easy to veil the truth: that they were not a family-not even a like-minded group. They were orphans, each and all.

The Spiralling Narrative

Without looking at the structure, and trying to understand the author’s intention by it, I can see why one might struggle with this, I went back and reread the first chapter countless times as I read forward, because it reveals so much that is understood as we progress. I benefited so much from each time I circled back and reread that beginning. And felt the excitement of realising what Morrison was doing. A lyrical revelation.

The man Jacob gets one chapter, but the first person narrator is the little girl Florens who we see at eight years and at sixteen years and we only understand why, when we read the very last voice, that of her mother, and whose intention it was, who spotted that opportunity, A Mercy. The story is seen from these different angles, perspectives, narrative voices circling the oblivious character.

Just wow.

Ombu Trees Argentina

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

A simple telling of a complex novel in the hands of one of the greats.

To use my own symbolism, which at the end I draw in the back of the book, to capture it immediately it comes to mind, it’s like learning about how trees live in communities and support each other.

There is what you see above ground, what lies below that connects them, and then there is the environment in which they grow, are nurtured, or might wither. And the small mercies.

It was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human.

 

Further Reading

Short Video (3 mins) Toni Morrison on her character Florens in ‘A Mercy’

Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf

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

Nights in Holt, Colorado

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

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

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

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

Challenging the Quiet to Speak Up, Act Out

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

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

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

Daring to Be Free, At Their Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you read this book or seen the film?

Further Reading/My Reviews

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Benediction by Kent Haruf

Eventide by Kent Haruf

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

How To Express Gratitude

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

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

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

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

Attaining Completion, Resolution

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

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

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

My Review Of:

Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan

gratitude Maya Angelou Delphine de Vigan

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

 

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

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

Warnings and Wake Up Calls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drowning In Life, Travel An Escape

Drowning Maggie O'Farrell Memoir I Am I Am

Photo by Hernan Pauccara on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

A Cure For Prejudice, Bigotry and Narrow-Mindedness

Maggie O'Farrell Feather Death Angels

Photo by Erik Mclean on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

A Fear Of Fearlessness

Near death experience fearless recklessness Maggie O'Farrell Memoir

Photo by Christopher Moon on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

A work of incredible merit, highly recommended.

And then there is Hamnet.