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.

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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

I, Tituba Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé tr. Richard Philcox

A Maryse Condé FanGirl Moment

I Tituba Black Witch of Salem Maryse Conde

When I opened I, Tituba to begin reading, on the first page there was a quote from the author Maryse Condé that read:

Tituba and I lived for a year on the closest of terms.
During our endless conversations she told me things she had confided to nobody else.

It gave me such a good feeling to read that, knowing that Condé was doing here, what she did in Victoire: My Mother’s Mother, when the grandmother she’d never met, awakened her from her dreams, to chastise her from the corner of the room.

Sometimes I would wake up at night and see her sitting in a corner of the room, like a reproach, so different to what I had become.

‘What are you doing running around from Segu to Japan to South Africa? What’s the point of all these travels? Can’t you realise that the only journey that counts is discovering your inner self? That’s the only thing that matters. What are you waiting for to take an interest in me?’ she seemed to be telling me.

But that book wasn’t published until 20 years after Condé was listening to Tituba tell her story.

A Caribbean Writer Returns

I, Tituba is the first novel written after Segu and The Children of Segu, historical masterpieces that inform, disrupt and provoke, however the initial reaction was such that Maryse Condé declared she would never write about Africa again.

Tituba came to me or I came to her at a period of my life when really I wanted to turn toward the Caribbean and start writing about the Caribbean.

Who was Tituba?

Tituba existed, she was accused and ultimately set free, however, despite the shelves of history books about the Salem witch trials, there is little factual information about her, who she was, who freed her, or her life after release from prison.

I felt this eclipse of Tituba’s life was completely unjust. I felt a strong solidarity with her, and I wanted to offer her her revenge by inventing a life such as she might perhaps have wished it to be told.

If we look for her story in the history of Salem, it isn’t there. Condé too, looked for her history in the colonization of the continent and found silences, omissions, distortions, fabrications and fleeting, enigmatic insinuations. And so she wrote this novel.

Review

On a ship sailing for Barbados, young Abena was raped by an English sailor, then sold to a planter along with two male slaves. She was employed in the household until the pregnancy discovered whereupon she was banished to the cabin of a male slave Yao. Tituba was born.

In a short reprieve, they find comfort in each other’s company and Tituba would adored by a man more father to her than any other. The joy that now lightened Abena’s world was seen by the master and desired for himself. She struck back, died for it, and for his concubine’s crime, Yao was sold.

Driven off the plantation, Tituba was taken in by Mama Yaya; still grieving for two sons, she had cultivated the ability to communicate with the invisible.

People were afraid of her, but they came from far and wide because of her powers.

Mama Yaya taught her everything, in the ways of her people:

Mama Yaya initiated me into the powers of knowledge. The dead only die if they die in our hearts. They live on if we cherish them and honour their memory, if we place their favourite delicacies in life on their graves, and if we kneel down regularly to commune with them.

Ann Petry Tituba Salem Witch TrialsAnd so Tituba is given a past, skills and knowledge and might have remained in that life, had she not grown into a young woman with desires herself and fallen for the man who would become her husband John Indian.

He belonged to Susanna Endicott who I encountered in the memorable opening scene of Ann Petry’s Tituba of Salem Village.

After a short period in that household where John had lived most of his life, things deteriorated and in an act of revenge the mistress sold them both to the frightening Reverend Samuel Parris, who sailed for the Bay Colony the very next day.

From Island Life to Boston, Massachusetts

In Boston, with the mistress unwell in a room upstairs, Tituba spends time with the daughter Betsey and orphaned niece Abigail, who makes trouble that spreads like a contagion to other young girls in the community, as they fall prey to strange fits and mass hysteria.

I also recognized Abigail and Betsey’s companions in their dangerous games, those young girls whose eyes were shining with excitement. They were dying to roll on the ground too and to attract everybody’s attention.

And so the bad behaviours of girls given credence, turn into accusations of witchcraft against Tituba and others, they are jailed and many lose their lives, until the Govener writes to London for advice on legal proceedings concerning witchcraft resulting in a general pardon and Tituba is condemned to live.

Prison costs mean she can only leave if someone pays and a man with nine children who has lost his wife claims her. And it is through this relation that she will gain her freedom.

Freedom At What Price

If the first part is written from compassion, yet seeking revenge, the second part initially seems strange and challenges the reader, in its use of parody. I found it difficult to accept, the reader isn’t given the satisfaction of a gratifying ending, yet reading past the novel into the essay and interview at the end of the book, I’m confronted with my own subconscious bias and lack of understanding, in a clever and deliberate intervention by the author.

And so Tituba is granted her revenge. We are all complicit.

Reading the book and thinking about it after reading the interview resulted in a deeper reading experience and consideration. My feeling while reading was heightened by having read Ann Petry’s sympathetic version first, Condé takes a different approach, reckoning with the past.

I suggest that though Petry’s version was written 30 years before, it might be better to read her more optimistic version last.

What Is it About Witchcraft?

Magic witchcraft spells Tituba Isobel GowdieLike Condé, who said she knew nothing of witchcraft, I have decided to read a contemporary book next, published in 2020, to see what’s going on in the world of witchcraft today.

Next up A Spell in the Wild: A Year (and Six Centuries) of Magic by Alice Tarbuck.

Further Reading

Paper: Hesitating Between Irony and the Desire to Be Serious in I, Tituba by Sarah Barbour, Wake Forest University

 

Booker Prize Shortlist 2020

Having not really followed this prize in recent years, finding myself more interested in the diversity of the International Booker Prize for translated fiction; this year, I was pleasantly surprised to find a number of titles that were already in my sights, so I thought I’d share the list and plot summaries here, since I plan on reading a few of the titles and I’m interested to see who will win the prize.

Moving With the Times

Personally I think this is a sign that the prize is beginning to move with the times and to recognise that readers and our cultures need exposure to a wider range and scope of voices and stories, if we are ever to move towards greater understanding and tolerance of the other.

The judges had this to say in their summation of the shortlist:

“Every book that we’ve chosen makes one bring all one’s attention and emotions, to understanding what the writer was trying to say and I think that is important.” Margaret Busby

“It’s exciting to realise that there are so many interesting female authors out there. There are so many interesting non-white authors out there giving us different glimpses of what the world is all about, telling interesting and vibrant stories.”  Emily Watson

“We were looking for books that really told a story and grabbed us. We were looking for originality as well. And personally I was also looking for technical mastery, and at the level of the sentence it needed to be really, really superb.” Sameer Rahim

“Every one of these books is an experience which has inspired us and therefore will inspire the reader.” Lemn Sissay

“You have got to read them. If you read this shortlist it will show you where the novel is right now in 2020, and it will give you a pretty good idea of where it might go in the future.”  Lee Child

The 2020 shortlist is:

Booker Prize Shortlist 2020

The plot summaries below come from the Booker Prize website and the links on the author’s names lead to their short biographies.

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (Canongate Books)

Ethiopia. 1935. With the threat of Mussolini’s army looming, recently orphaned Hirut struggles to adapt to her new life as a maid. Her new employer, Kidane, an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army, rushes to mobilise his strongest men before the Italians invade. Hirut and the other women long to do more than care for the wounded and bury the dead. When Emperor Haile Selassie goes into exile and Ethiopia loses hope, Hirut offers a plan to maintain morale. She helps disguise a gentle peasant as the emperor and soon becomes his guard, inspiring other women to take up arms. But how could she have predicted her own personal war, still to come, as a prisoner of one of Italy’s most vicious officers?

The Shadow King casts light on the women soldiers written out of African and European history. It is a captivating exploration of female power, and what it means to be a woman at war.

This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Faber & Faber)

In this tense and psychologically charged novel, Tsitsi Dangarembga channels the hope and potential of one young girl and a fledgling nation to lead us on a journey to discover where lives go after hope has departed.

Here we meet Tambudzai, living in a run-down youth hostel in downtown Harare and anxious about her prospects after leaving a stagnant job. At every turn in her attempt to make a life for herself, she is faced with a fresh humiliation, until the painful contrast between the future she imagined and her daily reality ultimately drives her to a breaking point.

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House)

In her youth, Tara was wild. She abandoned her loveless marriage to join an ashram, endured a brief stint as a beggar (mostly to spite her affluent parents) and spent years pursuing a dishevelled, homeless ‘artist’ – all with a young child in tow. Now she is forgetting things, 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 woman who never cared for her.

This is a love story and it is a story about betrayal. But not between lovers – between mother and daughter. Sharp as a blade and laced with caustic wit, Avni Doshi tests the limits of what we can know for certain about those we are closest to, and by extension, about ourselves.

The New Wilderness by Diane Cook (Oneworld Publications)

A daring, passionate and terrifying novel about a mother’s battle to save her daughter in a world ravaged by climate change.

Bea’s five-year-old daughter, Agnes, is wasting away, consumed by the smog and pollution of the over-developed metropolis they call home. If they stay in the city, Agnes will die, but there is only one alternative – joining a group of volunteers in the Wilderness State. This vast expanse of unwelcoming, untamed land is untouched by mankind. Until now. Living as nomadic hunter-gatherers, Bea and Agnes learn how to survive on this unpredictable, often dangerous land. As Agnes embraces the wild freedom of her new existence, Bea realises that saving her daughter’s life means losing her in a different way.

At once a blazing lament of our contempt for nature and a deeply humane portrayal of motherhood, and what it means to be human, The New Wilderness is an extraordinary, compelling novel for our times.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Picador, Pan Macmillan)

1981 in Glasgow. The city is dying and poverty is on the rise. People watch the lives they had hoped for disappear from view. Agnes Bain had expected more. She dreamed of greater things: a house with its own front door, a life bought and paid for outright (like her perfect – but false – teeth). When her philandering husband leaves, she and her three children are trapped in a mining town decimated by Thatcherism. As Agnes turns to alcohol for comfort, her children try their best to save her. One by one they abandon her in order to save themselves.

Shuggie holds out hope the longest. But he has problems of his own: despite all his efforts to pass as a ‘normal boy’, everyone has decided that Shuggie is ‘no right’. Agnes wants to support and protect her son, but her addiction has the power to eclipse everyone close to her, including her beloved Shuggie.

Laying bare the ruthlessness of poverty, the limits of love, and the hollowness of pride, Shuggie Bain is a blistering and heartbreaking debut, and an exploration of the unsinkable love that only children can have for their damaged parents.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Originals, Daunt Books Publishing)

Wallace has spent his summer in the lab breeding a strain of microscopic worms. He is four years into a biochemistry degree at a lakeside Midwestern university, a life that’s a world away from his childhood in Alabama. His father died a few weeks ago, but Wallace didn’t go back for the funeral, and hasn’t told his friends – Miller, Yngve, Cole and Emma. For reasons of self-preservation, he has become used to keeping a wary distance from those closest to him. Over the course of a blustery end-of-summer weekend, the destruction of his work and a series of intense confrontations force Wallace to grapple with the trauma of the past and the question of the future.

Deftly zooming in and out of focus, Real Life is an affecting story about the emotional cost of reckoning with desire, and overcoming pain.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The Verdict

So, do any of those sound appealing to you?

I’m currently reading This Mournable Body by Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga whose work totally deserves to be on the list. I first read her book Nervous Conditions last year which won the Commonwealth Prize 30 years ago and was a 5 star read for me, her latest novel continues the story of convent educated Tambu and her desire to fulfill her own at times unreachable expectations.

I will also be reading Maaza Mengiste’s work of historical fiction The Shadow King after listening to talk about the book at the Edinburgh Book Festival this month, especially given her passion for the story and the personal connection to her female ancestors, who fought to protect the lives and rights of their families.

The winner will be announced on November 17.