The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey

Read Caribbean Book of CinzJune is Caribbean Heritage Month in the US, held to recognise the many contributions they have made, so not surprisingly, it has been picked up by Book of Cinz to create awareness for Caribbean Literature, Caribbean Authors and Authors from Caribbean Heritage for readers, encouraging us all to discover and read more of their works.

The Contemporary Caribbean Woman Writer, Keeping Ancestral Connections Alive

I have a fondness of Caribbean women writers and in years past I have reviewed a number of books by the Guadeloupean author Maryse Condé. Crossing the Mangrove  was one of my favourite reads in 2020.

Jamaica Kincaid is another author I admire and her novel The Autobiography of My Mother was an Outstanding Read of 2015. There is something special in the way they writer inter-generational stories, even when some have immigrated, there remains a connection between women in families, even those who have passed, that they have a particular way of expressing that I find magical, as they address themes of identity, belonging and familial connection.

Mythology and Colonisation

It seems that they have developed their own history, mythology, use of language and tradition and not only are they connected to the African diaspora, there is the effect and influence of colonisation, something that both takes away from their essence and has woven itself into their thinking, they can neither rid themselves of it or embrace its legacy.

mermaid of the black conch Monique RoffeyThe Mermaid of Black Conch is an excellent example of the intersection of those effects and her well drawn characters each possess something of that heritage and complication.

Monique Roffey uses a Neo-Taino (people who inhabited the Caribbean 2000 years before the Christian era) legend of a woman transformed into a mermaid, having been cursed by jealous women due to her beauty and effect on men as the foundation of a contemporary story, when this ancient mermaid is captured by an opportunistic and exploitative American man and his son in a fishing competition.

A local fisherman David sings to himself awaiting his catch and the ancient mermaid Aycayia first appears to him. The story is told in part through his journals and in part through the poetic songs of the mermaid and a third person narrative.

She looking like a woman from long ago, like old time Taino people I saw in a history book at school. She face was young and not pretty at all and I recognise something ancient there too. I saw the face of a human woman who lived centuries past, shining at me.

David feels guilty when he hears of the mermaids capture knowing that she has become familiar with his presence. He blames himself for her capture and decides to intervene knowing nothing good will come of her being taken by men not from the island.

Trophy Hunting

photo of man fishing

Photo by William McAllister on Pexels.com

The man who captured her insists she is a fish and has destructive, misogynistic intentions, while his son, whom he had brought with him in the hope of father-son bonding, is appalled but ineffective in stopping him, as are the other men on the boat.

They are a reminder of the many who came before them exploiting the islands natural resources, wishing to claim her bounty as their own.

Uncomfortable yet uncaring, violence and violation has become normalised and the suggestion that she may be worth millions renders them all complicit.

David’s original plan to release her is thwarted as she transforms into a woman, but with few of the skills necessary to survive and he is afraid of people finding out he had sheltered her. He tries to gain her trust, but she is wary of men.

She’d changed his comprehension of what it was to be human. An intuition pestered him that they had met before, that he’d even been searching for her, out there, by those jagged rocks off Murder Bay.

Settler Colonialism and Land Ownership

Miss Arcadia Rain, another island inhabitant lives in the biggest house on the island with her deaf son Reggie. She is local, white and a landowner; she keeps herself distant from the population, though she is as much a part of it as them all. The bay area was her inheritance, it is both her joy and a burden something she struggles to reconcile.

The Rain family had owned almost the whole of St Constance, since 1865, a generation after slavery time. The estate was mostly rainforest high up in the hills, but it came down to St Constance and the bay.

The mermaid becomes friends with Reggie and the two use sign language, to communicate; the friendship brings David and Miss Rain together as they try to figure out what to do.

humpback whale in ocean water on sunny day

Photo: Stefanie Klenner @ Pexels.com

Inevitably there is another jealous woman, and the ill-meaning cackle of those who long ago cursed Aycayia can be heard, as strange things happen on the island making it clear that she is unlikely to be able to stay.

The story explores love, loss, separation, the destructiveness of female jealousy, the ease and allure of male corruption and the repercussions of one family possessing ownership of most of the land in a community.

Although the mermaid is the oldest inhabitant, she is seen as an outsider and her presence brings out the good and the bad in the community, exposing its cracks.

It’s a thought -provoking read and an interesting portrayal of a community living under the influence of its historical past and that influences the behaviour of contemporary inhabitants.

The Mermaid of Black Conch was the 2020 winner of the Costa Book Award, with another Caribbean author Ingrid Persaud winning the Debut Fiction Prize for Love After Love.

Further Reading

The Observer: The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey review – a fishy tale of doomed womanhood by Anthony Cummins

Do you have a favourite Caribbean novel?

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021 LongList

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

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

Interviews, Recommendations, Opinion, On Writing

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

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

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

Women’s Prize Fiction 2021 Long List

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

Womens Literature Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The old millennium turns into the new.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exciting times ensue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

Happy Reading!

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

Dublin Literary Award 2021 – Libraries Worldwide Vote

I haven’t featured this award before, but I’m intrigued because it’s an award where nominations are made not by publishers, but by libraries from around the world, based on their perception of literary merit, so it brings a truly international flavour from a strong readership based group. It is interesting to see both the familiar and unfamiliar among them, a representation of what is being read around the world in English.

Novels From 30 Countries Across 10 Languages

Only four novels from Ireland are among the 49 books nominated by libraries around the world and the award is generously sponsored by Dublin City Council. Full details of the nominated titles, including the name of the library who nominated the book and the reason why they chose it, can be viewed here on the website.

Personally, I have read six of these, When All is Said by Anne Griffin (Ireland), The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins (UK), Aue by Becky Manawatu (NZ), The Yield by Tara June Winch (Australia) and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (US) and The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (US).

Now in its 26th year, this award is the world’s most valuable annual prize for a single work of fiction published in English, worth €100,000 to the winner. Titles are nominated on the basis of ‘high literary merit’ as determined by the nominating library. You can see where the participating libraries are located on this map. Three new nominating libraries were welcomed this year: Slemani Public Library in Iraq, South Dublin Libraries in Ireland, and District of Columbia Public Library in USA.

A Third Are Novels in Translation

Nominations include 18 novels in translation with works nominated by libraries from 30 countries across Africa, Europe, Asia, the US & Canada, South America and Australia & New Zealand. If the winning book has been translated, the author receives €75,000 and the translator receives €25,000.

The international panel of judges who will select the winner, features Jan Carson, a writer and community arts facilitator based in Belfast; David James Karashima, an author, translator, and associate professor of creative writing at Waseda University in Tokyo; Lebanese-born, Dr Rita Sakr who lectures in Postcolonial and Global Literatures at Maynooth University; Dr Martín Veiga, a Cork-based Galician poet, translator, and academic who lectures in Hispanic Studies at University College Cork, and Enda Wyley, an Irish poet, author, and teacher who has published six collections of poetry.

They will narrow these nominations down to a shortlist of 10 titles announced on 25 March and the winner will be announced in June 2021.

A Free Reading App for Library Users

During Level 5 COVID-19 restrictions, readers can borrow some of the long listed titles as eBooks and eAudiobooks on the free Borrowbox app, available to all public library users.

Have you heard of or used Borrowbox?

The Irish are so keen to get people reading they even have an Ireland Reads Day on February 25 and they invite readers to make a pledge!

 

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.

 

Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud

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

Derek Alcott, Poet

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

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

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

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

Winner of Costa Book Award 2020, First Novel

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

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

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

Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommend!

Further Reading

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

My Review: Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo

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

Best Reads of 2020

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

Books That Soothe the Soul

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

Confinement in France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Travelling the World From Home

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

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

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

Outstanding Read of the Year

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

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

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

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

Top Fiction Reads of 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Non-Fiction Reads of 2020

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * *

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

 

Fresh Water for Flowers by Valérie Perrin tr.Hildegarde Serle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Level Crossing Keeper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a day goes by without us thinking of you.

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

The Last Migration by Charlotte McConaghy

Franny Stone is a woman with an obsession that she will follow to the death.

When we meet her she is in windswept Greenland during nesting season, braving the elements to tag birds, Arctic terns. She manages to tag three. She wants to follow them, on what might be their last migration, in a world where so many other species have already disappeared.

She is looking for a boat and a crew she can influence, to follow the birds, because they will lead these fishermen to where the fish are -they are also disappearing and this profession is in danger, both from humans wanting to stop them and by governments who want to ban their activities. Frannie doesn’t support them, but she needs them, so compromises her beliefs to pursue her obsession.

Ennis Malone. Captain of Saghani. The Saghani: an Inuit word for raven.

His vessel is one of the last legally certified to fish for Atlantic herring, and he does so with a crew of seven.

bird migration Charlotte McConaghy

Photo by Wendy Wei on Pexels.com

As they journey following the red dot tracker of the bird, her own story, character and the mystery surrounding her is slowly revealed.

I decided to follow a bird over an ocean. Maybe I was hoping it would lead me to where they’d all fled, all those of its kind, all the creatures we thought we’d killed. Maybe I thought I’d discover whatever cruel thing drove me to leave people and places and everything, always. Or maybe I was just hoping the bird’s final migration would show me a place to belong.

Chapters flick back and forward between places she has inhabited, people she has known: Ireland with her mother, Australia with an unloving grandmother, jail time, a box that reveals information about her father, letters to her husband Niall, a man we don’t know what happened to. Clues are dropped throughout the narrative, as she continues a dangerous journey.

After nearly losing one crew member they pull in to port for medical help, met by angry protestors. It is unsure whether they can continue on their mission.

novels about bird migration natureI admit I found it difficult to believe that a young woman could convince the tough crew of one of the last fishing boats to accept her suggestion to follow the blinking light of a few birds, over the knowledge and intentions of an experienced captain.

It was difficult to suspend belief, particularly as the more we come to know about her as a character, the less it seemed she was capable was influencing their decisions.

It becomes clear that she is chasing more than just a flight path, as her dark secrets are revealed.

Speculative Eco Fiction

It has been described as a hybrid novel, ‘both an adventure story and a piece of speculative climate fiction’, personally I’d call it mystery and adventure set in a not too distant future, when more species are extinct and there is a greater sense of urgency and violent activism to prevent those seen as contributing towards it.

Asked about the inspiration for writing the novel, Charlotte McConaghy said:

Toni Morrison said ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ And this book was like that for me. It just felt necessary for me to engage with this climate crisis in a personal, intimate way, to write about something that’s breaking my heart.

I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t a stand out novel for me. In the US, the book is marketed under the title Migrations, I read the UK version entitled The Last Migration.

N.B. I read an ARC (advance reader copy) of this novel, provided by the publisher via Netgalley.

Further Reading

Interview: Sophie Masson of Feathers of the Firebird interviews Charlotte McConaghy

Review: NY Times – The Animals Are Dying. Soon We Will Be Alone Here by Ellie Tzoni