The Arsonist’s City by Hala Alyan

“The main feature of exile is a double conscience, a

double exposure of different times and spaces, a constant bifurcation.”

Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia

Hala Alyan writes novels about the effect of displacement on families, the intergenerational trauma passed on as a result of losing a homeland and how it manifests in subsequent generations. She focuses on the minutae of their lives, the clash of cultures and personalities within a family, their rootlessness and their attempts to find their place in a new world that cares little for them.

Her debut novel Salt Houses followed the female line of a family forced to abandon Palestine, after a daughter visited family in Kuwait in 1967, then found herself unable to return, giving rising to successive generations born outside of their home country. Alyan is Palestinian American and spent her own childhood moving between the Middle East and the US, studying in Beirut, finding inspiration for her future characters.

“I wanted to write a family story that felt more urgent and plot-driven than what I had done in my previous work,” Alyan reveals. “I wanted to play with and unpack themes of secrecy – the lies we tell, the secrets we keep from ourselves and the secrets we keep from the people we love – and how that ripples out and what the intergenerational impact is.” Hala Alyan

The  Arsonist’s City

Palestinian American poet novelist Lebanon SyriaThis latest novel begins with a short chapter on the last day of a young man’s life. His name is Zakaria and he lives in one of the Palestinian camps in Beirut. His death is part of a cycle of revenge, one that causes people in many countries to seek asylum elsewhere, people caught in the wrong pace at the wrong time, lives changed in a moment.

The civil war had left the country riven – Shi’ite, Sunni, Maronite, Druze. Now they’ve found Zakaria. Not as an act of war, but one of love, of revenge.

Zakaria’s role in the story is small, but the impact his death has on his friends Mazna, a theatre actress and Idris, a medical student, is life-changing. It is a shocking opening and leaves the reader wanting to know more about these three friends and how they are all implicated in what happened. It plants a seed of fear that never quite leaves the narrative, an absence of the feeling of safety and security that pursues those who flee.

He sighs. “We all come from tribes, Damascus. Whether we want to admit it or not.It’s just that in a tiny place like Beirut, like Lebanon, you can’t help but notice differences. One family sees another has a bigger olive tree. One village wants the other’s water supply. Wars have been started over less.”

The Second Generation

violin tango milongas buenos aires The Gods of Tango

Photo by Felipe LimaPexels.com

The novel is very character lead and something of an immersive family saga.

After the opening chapter, the narrative jumps forward to the near present, focusing on Mazna’s three American born children, Ava, mother of two, a biologist married to Nate, whose marriage has hit a rocky patch; Marwan (Mimi), a 30 something musician, who can’t quite let go of the dream of becoming a rock star, his band now in its fifth incarnation since he graduated; and Naj, the youngest, also a musician and singer who returned to Beirut, to further her ambitions.

Much as they liked to bemoan Ava’s siblings’ careers, her mother and father understand them more than they do hers. They understand ambition, the hunger for the spotlight. Visibility.

The three children, now young adults, have all been invited to spend the summer at their Grandfather’s home in Beirut, to attend his one year memorial. Their father has announced he intends to sell and wants them all present for this last summer.

The Road to Damascus

Having got to know each of these characters, the timeline moves back to the past, before Zakaria’s death, to Mazna’s adolescence in her hometown of Damascus, her venturing into theatre and acting, the catalyst for meeting Idris and his friends, and secret outings to Beirut.

Her failed attempts to pursue her career in America. Her shame. Her reluctance. Her giving in. Her anger. Her rage. Her silence. An atonement.

You soften in the end because they’re all you have. It’s not right and it’s not what you wanted, but here you are…this is her debt and her repayment, the life she has made for herself.

Beirut corniche The Arsonists City Hala Alyan

Photo by Jo KassisPexels.com

The return to Idris’s birth city will uncover secrets and combust lies, revealing fractures and deceptions that could make or break relationships. He will be challenged on his decision and the family, brought together under one roof for the first time in years, will be confronted with aspects of their past and present that can no longer be ignored.

None of the children know anything about their parents’ childhood friend, but old photos and the appearance of his mother outside their grandfather’s house prompt questions no one wants to answer. When they see the young man in an old video, their mother’s reaction speaks volumes:

“Your father is selling a house that isn’t his!” She starts stomping out of the room. “You three are poking through things that aren’t yours! Everyone in this country is a vulture!” They hear a door slam.

“I guess she knew him,” Naj says.

It’s a hotbed of drama, of disappointments, of temptations and regrets.

An enjoyable if overly long-winded read with an abundance of detail and dialogue that felt like a melodramatic soap opera at times. In that respect, while it touched on many issues, they’re dealt with at a superficial level, a lost opportunity given the author’s background as a psychologist.

My main disappointment was how peripheral the family of Zakaria were and some of the decisions the author took about the connections (or lack of) between the two families. Opening the narrative with this family was an invitation to the reader, one that was never quite fulfilled.

The novel was however shortlisted for the Aspen Literary Award 2022 and they had this to say:

“The Arsonist’s City is the sharply drawn and compelling story of one family and the years of tenderness and betrayal that tether them to another, but it also tells a sweeping story about the aftermath of violence, displacement and upheaval.  Alyan expertly balances her portrait of the way early dreams and parts of the self can vanish in adulthood with an exploration of how quickly home or a sense of normalcy can vanish or shift for an entire population, how easily a person, a city or a way of life can become at once familiar and unrecognisable.” 2022 Literary Prize Jury

A Sense of Place, A City Like No Other

olive treeThough I have never visited Damascus, I have been to Beirut a couple of times and I found that the novel evoked many memories of being in that city (over 20 years ago) and the surrounding countryside, the presence of the Syrian army, checkpoints, traffic lights that were recently installed but not compulsory, a generation of youth that had spent their childhoods in bunkers who just wanted to listen to music and party all night long.

As I read, I could hear the sound of that music and see how it became an escape for youth who wanted to escape their constraint, to take risks to feel free and belong to something outside themselves. 

“People get older, they forget how brutal youth is. How dangerous it can be.”

Further Reading

New York Times A Family Reunites in Beirut, Where the Past Is Never Past by Maya Salam

Thoughts From A Page Interview via Podcast by Cindy Burnett: the character she enjoyed writing the most, wanting to provide a deeper understanding of Lebanon to her readers, how and why intergenerational conflict and secrets provide great fodder for writers, and more. 

National News: Arts & Culture : ‘The Arsonists’ City’: Why Hala Alyan’s second novel is a love letter to Lebanon by Malcolm Forbes

“Home for me is a combination of where you have nested.” But, she says: “I always have in the back of my mind an understanding that that can change physically, for that’s the legacy of what I’ve experienced.” Hala Alyan

N.B. I read an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) e-book version thanks to the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (now Mariner Books) via NetGalley.  The book was published in the US in March 2021.

The Glass-Blowers by Daphne du Maurier

The Glass-Blowers (1963) is a work of historical fiction by Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989), based on members of her own family. It begins in 1844 and is largely set during the French Revolution.

A Louis XV engraved crystal tumbler made by the Bussons and passed down through the family was in Daphne’s possession at the time she wrote this book. The novel will celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2023.

An Ancestral Scoundrel

eighteenth century France revolutionDaphne du Maurier was a fifth-generation descendant of a master glassblower who moved to England during the French Revolution. Until the author began researching her French ancestry, the family believed they were descended from the French aristocracy and that their ancestor Robert Busson (1747 – 1811) had fled France and the threat of the guillotine during the French Revolution.

The truth was known by his sister and documented in letters now held in a special collections archive at the University of Exeter. Despite knowing these family stories were false, Daphne’s grandfather George continued to perpetuate the story of the aristocratic ancestors. Her father Gerald, who then grew up listening to these tales, also insisted they were true.

Daphne’s research concluded that far from being aristocratic owners of a glass-blowing empire, Mathurin Robert Busson was a failed artisan glassmaker who had escaped to England to avoid a French debtors’ prison.  He took the name du Maurier to provide himself status, becoming Mathurin Robert Busson du Maurier.

Daphne du Maurier French ancestry The GlassBlowers“She was not at all snobbish,” says American academic Anne Hall, who lives in the Perche region and has made a study of the du Mauriers’ French connection. “So she was genuinely very proud when she found out her ancestors were craftsmen.”

The du Maurier name was a reference to the farmhouse where his family had lived and worked – Le Maurier, still around today in the Perche region, 190km (120 miles) south-west of Paris.

The Glass-Blowers, the novel

The novel begins with an introductory prologue, where Madame Sophie Duval’s daughter writes to her mother of an extraordinary surprise, in meeting a young man at a dinner party whose name was Louis-Mathurin Busson, that he had been born and raised in England of émigré parents.

crystal artifact Daphne du Maurier The Glass-Blowers

The Louis XV engraved crystal tumbler made by ancestors of Daphne du Maurier

Recognising the names connected to her mother’s family, she enquired of his father’s profession, only to be told he had been a gentleman glass-blower who had owned several foundries before the Revolution and that due to being part of the aristocracy it had been necessary for them to emigrate. He had told her of his father’s tragic death on returning to France in the hope of restoring his family fortunes.

“I asked if he had relatives. He said he believed not. They had all been guillotined during the Terror, and the château Maurier and the glass-foundries destroyed.”

Wondering if this could be her brother’s son, Madame Duval decides to go to Paris immediately to meet this young man and ascertain if he is indeed her nephew. When he shows her an artifact (pictured here) his father left him, there remains no doubt it is indeed her brother’s son. There is much the boy does not know about his father, Sophie then promises to write.

Family History Revealed In Letters

“Perhaps we shall not see each other again. I will write to you, though, and tell you, as best I can, the story of your family. A glass-blower, remember, breathes life into a vessel, giving it shape and form and sometimes beauty; but he can with that same breath, shatter and destroy it. If what I write displeases you, it will not matter. Throw my letters in the fire unread, and keep your illusions. For myself, I have always preferred to know the truth.”

special collections archive University of Exeter

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Chapter One and the novel begins as Madame Sophie Duval begins to write the story to her nephew, covering sheet after sheet of writing paper in her formal upright hand.

Sophie narrates the story, beginning with her parents’ marriage and the change in lifestyle for her mother as they joined the company of glassblowers to begin a new life together.

My father Mathurin and my mother Magdaleine, with his sister Françoise and her husband Louis Démére – a master glass-maker like himself -seated themselves in the front of the waggon beside the driver, and behind them, in order of precedence, came the various craftsmen with their wives: the souffleurs, or blowers, the melters, and the flux-burners. The stokers, along with the driers, came in the second waggon, and a crowd of apprentices filled the third, with my father’s brother Michel in charge.

Familial Relationships Explored

By the time Sophie was twelve years old her father would be managing four glass-houses. Her elder brother Robert was given responsibilities, but seemed to prefer going off to the town and his rapidly acquired airs annoyed his father. Robert didn’t wish to spend his life dealing with merchants and traders, he believed that by mixing in a more refined society, he would create contacts and obtain more orders that way.

Glassblower Dahne du Maurier France

Photo by M. Balland @ Pexels.com

The novel explores the different characters of the brothers, Robert always wanting to get ahead by making foolhardy gambles, putting the family business at risk, Pierre, the dreamer who spends ten years in Martinique, returns and surprises them all by buying a notary’s practice in Le Mans and an advocate for citizen’s rights, and Michel, afflicted with a stutter, the least expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, will become the natural leader.

Sophie is the most conventional, an observer of events, rarely becoming actively involved, her sister Edmé something of an activist, particularly in the years of the revolution.

‘The glass world was unique, a law unto itself. It had its own rules and customs, and a separate language too, handed down not only from father to son but from master to apprentice, instituted heaven knows how many centuries ago wherever the glass-makers settled—in Normandy, in Lorraine, by the Loire—but always, naturally, by forests, for wood was the glass foundry’s food, the mainstay of its existence.’

La Grande Peur, France During the Revolution

The novel loses some of its pace when it moves away from the family business towards the revolutionary era, a period of terror, when rumour is rife of marauding bands of men roaming the nearby forests, food prices becoming exorbitant and strikes and disturbances continually breaking out in Paris and the big cities. Talk of a new constitution, new laws, equal rights for all and the removal of privileged classes was everywhere.

‘How,’ I asked, ‘would having a written Constitution make any of us better off?’

‘Because’, answered Pierre, ‘ by abolishing the feudal system the power of the privileged would be broken, and the money they take from all our pockets would go towards giving the country a sound economy.

This seemed to me all in the air, like so much of Pierre’s talk. The system might one day change, but human nature remained the same, and there were always people who profited at the expense of others.

Clearly the novel was very well researched, which at times compromised the pace of the story. I did set it aside at one stage and took a while to get back to it, that said, it’s a novel that is best persevered with, pushing through the more dense political sections.

It is a fascinating story and an interesting family history, even if not quite the one that was handed down through one of the family lines. What family doesn’t have skeletons in its closets, secrets buried deep and unknown relatives popping up when least expected?

‘I was the only one to know my brother’s secret, and I kept it even from my husband.’

Further Reading

Article: Daphne du Maurier: Novelist who traced past to a French debtors’ jail by Hugh Schofield, BBC

Daphne du Maurier’s French Ancestry and her novel The Glass Blowers – article on The Daphne du Maurier website

Three by Valérie Perrin tr. Hildegarde Serle

From Flowers to Friendship

Valérie Perrin’s Fresh Water for Flowers was the final book I read in Dec 2020 and one of my favourite reads of that year. It is a novel that has stayed with me since, due to a strong sense of place in various locations in France, the unique character of Violette Touissant and her unforgettable choice of careers; she moves from being a level-crossing keeper to cemetery keeper.

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

The Ties That Bind

French literature fiction Europa Editions

Valérie Perrin’s latest novel Three, (a 575 page chunkster) is something of a coming-of-age tale of three young people in a small provincial French town, intersecting with the mystery of why they no longer speak to each other, 30 years on.

“They were united by the same ideal: leaving when they were grown up. Quitting this hole to go and live in a city full of traffic lights, noise, and frenzy, of escalators and store windows, with bright lights everywhere, even in the middle of the night. With crowds on the pavements, of strangers, of foreigners one can’t gossip about.”

Set in 1986, the years they were at high school together and 2017 – the year a car is retrieved from the bottom of a lake with the remains of human bones in the back seat – the novel glides back and forth over time, scene by scene, recounting a kaleidoscope of episodes among the three that slowly reveal the depth of their relationships to each other and how they were torn apart.

“Étienne was the leader, Nina the heart, and Adrien followed with never a complaint.”

Unconventional Families

Nina was raised by her grandfather and never knew her single mother. She is both curious and resentful about Marion, with good reason. Having such loyal friends as Adrien and Étienne and the assurity of her grandfather’s presence, she feels secure.  He is worried about her, she exhibits signs of taking after her mother, traits he is determined to stamp out.

“He panics. Like lightning in his eyes. He’s brought straight back to his daughter, Marion. His punishment. She was the same. Something like misfortune running in their veins. The mother has contaminated the daughter. An affliction.”

coming of age french novel

Photo by iOnix on Pexels.com

Adrien lives with his mother Josephine. He sees his father occasionally, a man married to another, who will never leave his wife. He becomes the victim of a bullying teacher at school, the same year he becomes part of the Three. The school year that gave him two friends and took away his innocence.

“Sometimes, he would reappear. Like some public-works inspector, or cop. He barely rang the doorbell before coming in. He would glance around the apartment, at the paintwork, the plumbing, Adrien’s school report, leave yet another cheque on the table in the sitting room, and leave. No doubt his conscience clear.”

When the car is dredged from the bottom of the lake, a fourth voice, the only first person narrator in the novel appears. Virginie is a journalist, clearly someone who was at school with the Three. This character is something of an enigma, never mentioned in the adventures of the Three.

“They had no friends but themselves.They were almost stuck to each other, like puppies from the same litter. And yet, they in no way resembled each other. Neither physically, nor in their attitudes.”

Creating Suspense and Intrigue

Three Valérie Perrin Europa Editions

Photo Quang Nguyen VinhPexels.com

Valérie Perrin is quite the master at withholding and timing revelations, drip feeding events, turning points and characters to increase the intrigue, leading the reader down various paths of speculation, until further scenes reveal a bigger picture.

As major events occur, we witness how the three respond, how their dreams are both pursued and thwarted, how secrets eat away at them and ultimately how the strength and belief in their friendship can help them, if they can overcome their inner obstacles.

Ultimately, while there is an engaging plot and a multitude of minor intrigues layered around the central mystery, it is a novel that dissects friendship, its random formation and sense of belonging, its source of support to each person and potential for envy and destruction by those outside of it.

Over thirty years, they will make their mistakes, drift apart, come together, indulge resentments, forgive each other and come to realise that acceptance and truth can set them free from pain and longing, that personal histories matter and those who were part of them can help each other to heal.

A Feast of Issues, A Famine of Depth

It is an entertaining and enjoyable novel, the way the text goes back and forth, the slow reveal, felt very much like something written for the screen, not surprising given that the author is a photographer and screenwriter.

My criticism  would be that there is an attempt to pack too much into the novel; weighty issues, each of which could have been a central theme of the novel. The sheer number of significant issues it raises, in some way dilutes them and compromises the authenticity of some of the secondary characters. The author has ambitious ideas and an interest in social issues, but as a result some are dealt with too lightly, or used to create intrigue, which at times felt inauthentic, a disservice. It’s neither a conventional mystery/thriller or literary fiction, it sits somewhere between the two, something of a hybrid.

Valérie Perrin, Author

Fresh Water for Flowers, ThreeValérie Perrin is a photographer and screenwriter who was born in the Vosges in 1967, grew up in Bourgogne and settled in Paris in 1986, then Normandy in 1995.

Her novel The Forgotten Sunday (2015) won the Booksellers Choice Award. Her English language debut Changer l’eau des fleurs (Fresh Water for Flowers) (2020) was translated into 30 languages, it won the Prix Maison de la Presse 2018 and the Prix des Lecteurs au livre de poche in 2019 and was longlisted for the Dublin Literary Award 2022.

Figaro Littéraire named Perrin one of the 10 best-selling authors in France in 2019, and in Italy, Fresh Water for Flowers was the best selling book of 2020.

N.B. Thank you to the publisher Europa Editions, for providing me a review copy of the novel.

Free Love by Tessa Hadley

Nothing Free About It

relationshipsAfter seeing this title on a few end of year Top Fiction Reads for 2022, this was one of the first books I chose, to get back into the reading rhythm. Perhaps for that reason, it took a little while to get into, but once it reached the first significant turning point, the plot became more interesting and surprising and the choices the author made, much more thought provoking. It would make an excellent book club choice.

In essence, 40 year old Phyllis – who was living a conventional life as a housewife with two children, her husband Roger working at the Foreign Office – steps out of the submissive role she has been wed to, when a friends’ son comes to visit. Prior to this moment she hadn’t appeared to be frustrated with her life.

“In fact she was easy, an easy person, easily made happy, glad to make others happy. She was pleased with her life. The year was 1967.”

The encounter leads to numerous consequences, increasingly dramatic, that will affect everyone in the family. Our housewife leaves her middle class, manicured English lawn suburb for a rundown, seedy apartment building in Ladbroke Grove, teeming with diversity, creativity, and people living in the moment.

A Housewife Acting on a Crazy Impulse. Really?

Free Love Tessa Hadley Sixties fashion UtopiaIn the initial chapters, it was difficult to believe. Every reader will bring to their reading of the story, their own imagining of how this mother could abandon all for something that feels like it will be fleeting.

But then you slowly accept it, recalling the era in which it was set, knowing there was a whole other way of living and being in the 1960’s, a revolution against convention and authority, a risk taking utopian fever spreading its tentacles among the young and not so young. A time bomb, but still.

Colette, Not Yet Colette

The teenage daughter Colette is the more tortured soul, an astute observer, a lonely intellectual who read everything, though refused to read the novelist her mother said she was named after.

“Her father’s intelligence was so much stronger than her mother’s, Colette thought; yet it was the slippery labyrinth of her mother’s mind – illogical, working through self-suggestion and hunches according to her hidden purposes – which was closed to Colette, and therefore more dangerous for her.”

Colette Reading

              The Other Colette

While we may feel sorry for the children – the son was always going to be sent away to boarding school, an interesting juxtaposition, to set side by side, twin forms of abandonment – it is interesting to see how the relationship between mother and daughter evolves under the new circumstance of their lives.

Colette starts skipping school.

“When she got to London Bridge she put her satchel and uniform in a left-luggage locker. All she did in the city was walk around in the crowds, pretending to be absorbed and purposeful like everyone else. She went to browse in certain bookshops, in Carnaby Street she bought tinted sunglasses, underground magazines and cones of incense from stuffy little shops, also henna to dye her hair at home. Sometimes she screwed up her courage to ask for a glass of barley wine in a pub, then sat alone defiantly to drink, reading.”

Honesty versus Secrecy

It was interesting to imagine a conventional housewife having such courage or impulsivity to do what she did. The choices Phyllis makes are surprising and daring, and just when we think she is the only one capable of making such counter conventional choices, there is another twist in the story.

It becomes a story about consequences, those that are dared lived out in the open, versus those that have been hidden. Then it gets really interesting. It makes you wonder, should those secrets be kept or shared? One can never predict the consequences of either route, but this story attempts to pit one against the other.

It reminded me of the experience of reading Brian Moore’s The Doctor’s Wife.

Coming Full Circle

The ending is more poignant than conclusive, it reiterates the messiness of real lives and the power of forgiveness, the benefit of setting aside judgement, of being true to oneself without having to reject the other.

“Phyllis had been braced to defend herself against her husband. On her way to meet him, she’d summoned an idea of his authority, implacable and punitive, mixed up with his role in the world of Establishment power. Now she was taken aback by how he bent his head before her, opening himself so easily; his kindness drew one sob out of everything loosened and raw inside her.”

An enjoyable and thought provoking read ad an author I’d be happy to read more of. Have you read any of Tessa Hadley’s novels?

N.B. Thank you to the publisher for providing an ARC via Netgalley.

Further Reading

NPR review –A woman embraces change in the 1960s in Tessa Hadley’s novel ‘Free Love’ by Heller McAlpin

Guardian review: sexual revolution in 60s suburbia by Michael Donkor

Interview with Lisa Allardice: Tessa Hadley: ‘Long marriages are interesting. You either hang on or you don’t’

Guardian Short Story, Dec 18, 2022 : Juana the Mad – A chance encounter at a Christmas party churns up buried memories in this exclusive tale by the prize-winning novelist.

Tessa Hadley, Author

Free Love London based fiction A9Tessa Hadley is a British author of 8 novels, short stories and nonfiction. Born in Bristol in 1956, she was 46 when she published her first novel, Accidents in the Home, which she wrote while bringing up her 3 sons and studying for a PhD.

Her writing focuses on women, families and relationships – what she has called “the intricate tangle of marriage, divorce, lovers, close friends, children and stepchildren – the web people create for themselves”.

She reviews regularly for the London Review of Books and is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and Granta. Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, her special interests including Jane Austen, Henry James, Jean Rhys and Elizabeth Bowen.

“I love the irresponsibility of short stories. Writing short, you create with a free hand. Each new development you imagine can be drawn in to the story without consequences, with all the lightning-bolt effect of a first thought, no requirement to elaborate a hinterland. A quickly scribbled indication of background can stand in for a whole city, a whole past. And yet I can’t stop wanting to write novels too. Novels see things through. The reader is in for the long term; the writer is in for a sizeable stretch of her life. In a novel there’s not only the dazzle of the moment, but also the slow blooming of the moment’s aftermath in time, its transformation over and over into new forms. I love to write about the present, and the past that’s recent enough for me to remember. The fiction writer’s ambition is modest and overweening: to take the imprint of the passing moment, capture it in the right words, keep it for the future to read.” Tessa Hadley, Author Statement

Dublin Literary Award Shortlist 2022

From a longlist of 79 novels, including 30 novels in translation, the committee has shortlisted six novels. These novels were all nominated by libraries around the world. Celebrating 27 years, 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.

The list includes two novels in translation and a debut novelist, with authors from France, Ireland, Canada (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg, Alderville First Nation), New Zealand and Nigeria.

Below are the shortlisted titles with judges comments and the two I have read linked to my reviews:

Dublin Literary Award shortlist 2022
Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey (New Zealander) Published by Europa Editions
Nominated by Auckland Libraries, New Zealand and Dunedin Public Libraries, New Zealand.

Buchenwald Weimar WWII novel Germany – New Zealander Catherine Chidgey opens a new chapter of Holocaust literature as she tells the story of Greta Hahn, who is the wife of a concentration camp manager and doesn’t know – then doesn’t want to know – what goes on behind the fence.  When her Nazi husband becomes convinced that only a prisoner can save Greta from dying of cancer, Dr. Weber enters her parallel universe at the edge of the camp.  The prisoner-doctor treats Greta because he hopes it will help his Jewish wife and their young daughter who have been forcibly separated from him and sent further East.  Slowly he bursts Greta’s bubble of oblivion and she is forced to confront the horror to which she has been an accomplice.

Chidgey expertly choreographs this desperate dance of death as the Allied liberating army comes closer and closer, and surviving long enough to be freed becomes the ultimate challenge. Remote Sympathy, harrowing but ultimately hopeful, is a passionate warning against the dangers of our wilful ignorance in the face of oppression which is, sadly, of urgent relevance today, and every day.

At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop (French) Translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis  Published by Pushkin Press Nominated by Bibliothèque de Reims, France

At Night All Blood is BlackAt Night All Blood is Black is a carefully crafted, heart-wrenching, passionate, and engaging story about the insanity of war and its devastating toll on humanity. Told from the perspective of Alfa Ndiaye, a 20-year-old Senegalese who, like his friend, Mademba Diop and many other young West Africans were conscripted by European imperial powers – in this case, France – to fight in World War I. The novel raises fresh concerns about the issues of war, humanity, identity, sexuality, racism, violence, and colonialism as it explores strong emotions like love, apathy, fear, and indignation towards war.  The plot hinges around the gruesome death in battle of Mademba, and Ndiaye’s refusal to carry out the “mercy killing” for his friend.  From that point onward, Ndiaye begins to spiral towards insanity, consciously becoming the “dämme”, “demon” or “savage” his European trench-mates think him to be.

Alternately horrific and lyrical, the novel moves back and forth between the Senegalese village of Ndiaye’s youth and the brutal chaos of the trenches.  For such a slim book, Diop’s novel manages to attain a kind of epic scale, sweeping back and forth between Africa and Europe, between world-historical events and village life.  Holding all of this together is the narrative voice of Ndiaye.  Diop combines traditional African tropes with modern literary devices, giving the novel a rhythmic quality, as Ndiaye repeats phrases like “God’s truth”, “more-than-brother”, “I swear to you”, “I know, I understand”, whispering gently in our ears as he carries us into the dark heart of twentieth-century history.

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi (Nigerian) Published by Faber & Faber
Nominated by Helsinki City Library, Finland

Akwaeke Emezi trans literatureAkwaeke Emezi’s novel opens with a chapter of only one sentence: “They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died.”  From that first sentence, we are immersed in contemporary Nigeria in all of its complexity, where tight family and community bonds are woven into the submerged stories of gay, bisexual and transgender people, and where groups such as the ‘Nigerwives’ (foreign-born wives of Nigerian men) form one of the cultures that make up the mosaic of Nigerian society.  Emezi’s novel manages to balance an unflinching realism with something of the quality of a folktale or a myth.  On one level, this is a very directly told story of two people coming of age and grappling with sexualities that struggle to find expression.

As readers, we encounter these lives almost like “a stack of photographs” being handed around at a wake (to use an image from the novel).  At the same time, The Death of Vivek Oji is shot through with mythic elements.  Oji is born on the day of their grandmother’s death, and there is a sense in which her spirit inhabits the person they will become.  The burning market foretold in that opening line is both an entirely credible part of the novel’s world, and a kind of symbolic crucible, out of which a new identity is born.  “I was born and I died”, Oji tells us at the novel’s end.  “I will come back.”

The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin (Irish) Published by John Murray
Nominated by Cork City Libraries, Ireland

Dublin literary award shortlist 2022Danielle McLaughlin’s novel is set in Cork. Its curator protagonist Nessa , is organizing a retrospective of the work of a Scottish-born sculptor, Robert Locke. Locke established himself in West Cork, at the end of the 1960s, after years of wandering. Locke’s studio and his sculpture ‘Venus at the Hotel Negresco’, known colloquially as ‘The Chalk Sculpture’ will become a permanent exhibit in the museum where Nessa is employed. Nessa has worked long and hard for this event and has nurtured a relationship with Locke’s widow Eleanor and daughter Loretta. Women attribute healing powers to the statue, fetishizing it as a cure for infertility. At a public lecture on Locke’s work, another woman, Melanie Doerr, comes forward and tells Nessa that she was the model for the monumental piece, claiming that Locke spent a period of time with her in 1972. These are lost months in Locke’s biography, when Locke disappeared without trace, turning up later, like an unkempt beggar, on Eleanor’s doorstep offering neither explanation nor apology. While Nessa’s professional life revolves around the mystery of Locke’s disappearance and the veracity of Melanie Doerr’s claims, Nessa’s own personal life is in turmoil. She struggles with the aftermath of her husband’s affair, their threadbare finances, and their teenage daughter’s behavioural problems.

McLaughlin creates a compelling portrait of a life spent in pursuit of art and happiness. She summons up contemporary Cork, the universality of marital woes, and the everyday frustrations of middle-age in elegantly chiseled prose.

Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg)
Published by House of Anansi Nominated by Ottawa Public Library, Canada

Dublin Literary Award Shortlist 2021– This book is literary art. It’s charming, witty, insightful and unforgettable. The way Simpson writes is completely unique. The love and honour about which she writes among Anishinaabeg (an indigenous people in Canada) and the land is both poetic and lyrical.  Narrators include Mashkawaji (they/them), who lies frozen in the ice, remembering a long-ago time of hopeless connection and now finding freedom and solace in isolated suspension. They introduce us to the seven main characters: Akiwenzii, the old man who represents the narrator’s will; Ninaatig, the maple tree who represents their lungs; Mindimooyenh, the old woman who represents their conscience; Sabe, the giant who represents their marrow; Adik, the caribou who represents their nervous system; Asin, the human who represents their eyes and ears; and Lucy, the human who represents their brain.

The novel unfolds as a constant conversation and interaction between the seven selves that make up Mashkawaji. Simpson skilfully brings each of the characters to life on the page so they feel real and not just metaphorical.  Ultimately, the novel provides powerful insight into how Indigenous people have tried to sustain their identity and their old traditions as they navigate living in the modern world. This is a unique, charming and lyrical novel that combines poetry song and prose.

The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter (French)
Translated from the French by Frank Wynne Published by Picador, Pan Macmillan
Nominated by Bibliothèque publique d’information, Paris, France

The Art of LOsing Alice Zeniter – Deriving its title from the piercing first line of Elizabeth Bishop’s arch poem “One Art”, The Art of Losing follows three generations of an Algerian family from the 1950s to the present day—as they progressively lose, in the fog of conflict and post-colonial transition, their country, their roots, and their innocence. The narrative wings its way from the contested highlands of Northern Algeria to a French refugee camp, to the streets of Paris and back, borne forward by a cast of nuanced characters: from the patriarch Ali to his granddaughter Naïma, heir to a new digital age in which old prejudices and presumptions persist. Each is profoundly human in their passions, griefs, vanities, contradictions and silences. The family’s journey unspools in a deft weave of fiction and research, as the narrator fills in with compassion and imagination what the clan’s muteness about the past have refused to yield.

Symphonic in historical and emotional scope, the novel is by turns infuriating, unflinching, wry, recalcitrant, sensual, aporetic, courageous. It offers insights at every scale, from the national and the individual, about the fluid nature of identity; how our relations to place and to each other situate and perhaps free us. Refusing easy answers, pat politics and cultural caricatures while acknowledging their presence and seductive power in our time, The Art of Losing is a loving and clear-eyed sifting of the stories we tell ourselves.

* * * * *

The winner will be announced on Thursday 19th May during the International Literature Festival Dublin which runs from the 19th to the 29th May 2022.

Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2022

And another welcome tradition on International Women’s Day is the announcement of the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, which though it generally doesn’t influence my reading intentions, I do enjoy seeing what’s made the list, the familiar and the unfamiliar and becoming acquainted with them, whether read or not.

It looks like a real mix this year, with familiar names of authors I’ve read before, like Louise Erdrich, Elif Shafak and Ruth Ozeki and the titles that have been appearing often in reviews and then the lesser known surprises!

16 novels fiction Remote Sympathy

The only book I have read from the list, and likely to be one of the lesser known is New Zealand author Catherine Chidgey’s excellent historical fiction novel Remote Sympathy (reviewed here), published by Europa Editions.

This 4 minute video below gives very brief mini descriptions of the sixteen novels chosen:

Or if you prefer to read about them; the sixteen longlisted books are as follows:

Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith –  (Debut historical fiction, set in Vietnam)(US/Philadelphia, lived in Vietnam for 2 years, her mother’s family fled Vietnam in 1975)

Build Your House Around My BodyTwo Vietnamese women go missing decades apart. Both are fearless, both are lost. And both will have their revenge. The fates of both women are linked, bound together by past generations, ghosts and ancestors, by the history of possessed bodies and possessed lands. This heart-pounding fever dream of a novel hurtles through the ghostly secrets of Vietnamese history creating an immersive, playful, unforgettable debut.

Careless by Kirsty Capes – (debut contemporary fiction) (UK) (inspired from being inside the care system)

Care LessSometimes it’s easy to fall between the cracks… At 3.04 p.m. on a hot, sticky day in June, Bess finds out she’s pregnant. She could tell her social worker Henry, but he’s useless. She should tell her foster mother, Lisa, but she won’t understand. She really ought to tell Boy, but she hasn’t spoken to him in weeks. Bess knows more than anyone that love doesn’t come without conditions. But this isn’t a love story…

A new narrative of the care experience by a writer who grew up in foster care herself. Already snapped up by the makers of BBC One’s Call The Midwife.

Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé – (Fantasy/Paranormal) (US/Washington DC)

Creatures of PassageNephthys is a taxi driver in DC, ferrying ill-fated passengers in a haunted car, with a ghost in the trunk. Endless rides and alcohol help her manage grief over the death of her twin brother, Osiris.

Unknown to Nephthys, her estranged great-nephew, ten-year-old Dash, is drawn to the banks of the same river, where he talks with a mysterious “River Man.” When Dash arrives at Nephthys’s door bearing a cryptic note, she must face the family she abandoned and what frightens her most.

Threading stories of the living and dead it shows us an unseen Washington filled with otherworldly landscapes, flawed super-humans and reluctant ghosts, bringing together a community intent on saving a boy in order to reclaim themselves.

Flamingo by Rachel Elliott – (UK/Bath) (contemporary fiction)

FlamingoA novel of love, homelessness, and learning to be fearless. In the garden, there were three flamingos, gateways to a time when life was impossibly good. They were mascots, symbols of hope.

A novel about the power of love, welcome and acceptance, a celebration of kindness. Set in 2018 and the 80’s, it’s a song for the broken-hearted and the big-hearted, a book full of wild hope.

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead – (US/California) (historical fiction)

Great Circle Maggie ShipsteadFrom days as a wild child in prohibition America to wartime London, from the rugged shores of NZ to a lonely iceshelf in Antarctica, Marian Graves is driven by a need for freedom and danger. Determined to live an independent life, she resists her childhood sweetheart, burning her way through a suite of glamorous lovers. An obsession with flight consumes her. As she is about to fulfil her greatest ambition, to circumnavigate the globe, Marian crash lands in a perilous wilderness of ice.

Half a century later, troubled film star Hadley Baxter is drawn to play the enigmatic pilot on screen. It is a role that will lead her to an unexpected discovery, throwing fresh light on the story of the unknowable Marian Graves.

Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey – (Historical fiction set in Germany) (New Zealander who lived some years in Germany)

Buchenwald Weimar WWII novel GermanyMoving away from their Munich apartment isn’t as bad as for Frau Greta Hahn feared. The new villa is  beautiful and life in Buchenwald seems idyllic. But beyond the forest is the looming presence of a work camp. Her husband, SS Dietrich Hahn has been assigned as the camp’s new administrator.

When Frau Hahn’s health leads her into a friendship with one of Buchenwald’s prisoners, Dr Weber, her ignorance about what is going on is challenged. A decade earlier Dr Weber invented an electrotherapy machine to cure disease, until politics interfered with progress. Did it really work? Might it save a life?

A tour de force about the evils of obliviousness, Remote Sympathy compels us to question our continuing and wilful ability to look the other way, in a world in thrall to the idea that everything – even facts and morals – is relative.

Salt Lick by Lulu Allison – (Visual artist/UK/Brighton) (Science fiction/Dystopia)

Salt LickBritain is awash, the sea creeps into the land, brambles and forest swamp derelict towns. Food production has moved overseas and people are forced to move to the cities for work. The countryside is empty. A chorus, the herd voice of feral cows, wander this newly wild land watching over changing times, speaking with love and exasperation.

Jesse and his puppy Mister Maliks roam the woods until his family are forced to leave for London. Lee runs from the terrible restrictions of the White Town where he grew up. Isolde leaves London on foot, walking the abandoned A12 in search of the truth about her mother.

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason – (NZ’er living in Australia) (Contemporary fiction/humour)

Sorrow and BlissEveryone tells Martha she’s clever and beautiful, a brilliant writer loved by her husband Patrick. A gift, her mother once said, not everybody gets. So why is everything broken? Why is Martha – almost 40 – friendless, near jobless and so sad? Why did Patrick leave?

Maybe she is too sensitive, someone who finds it harder to be alive than most. Or maybe – as she has long believed – there is something wrong with her. Something that broke when a little bomb went off in her brain at 17 leaving her changed in a way that no therapist has been able to explain.

Returning to her childhood home to her dysfunctional, bohemian parents, Martha has one last chance to find out whether a life is too broken to fix, or by starting over, to write a better ending for herself.

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki – (Japanese American) (literary fiction/magic realism)

The Book of Form and EmptinessAfter the tragic death of his father, 14-year-old Benny begins to hear voices. The voices belong to the things in his house and sound variously pleasant, angry or sad. As his mother develops a hoarding problem, the voices grow louder. When ignoring them doesn’t work, Benny seeks refuge in the silence of a  public library. There he meets a mesmerising street artist with a pet ferret; a homeless philosopher- poet who encourages him to find his own voice; and his very own Book, who narrates Benny’s life and teaches him to listen to the things that truly matter.

Blending unforgettable characters with everything from jazz to climate change to our attachment to material possessions, this is classic Ruth Ozeki – bold, humane and heartbreaking.

The Bread the Devil Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini – (Trinidad & Tobago) (contemporary feminist fiction)

The Bread the Evil KneadAlethea is turning 40. Fashionable, feisty and fiercely independent, she manages a boutique, but behind closed doors she’s covering up bruises from an abusive partner and seeking solace in an affair. When she witnesses a woman murdered by a jealous lover, the reality of her own future challenges her.

Bringing us her truth in an arresting, unsparing Trinidadian voice, Alethea unravels memories repressed since childhood and begins to understand the person she has become. She must now decide the woman she wants to be. An engrossing, atmospheric novel with a strong feminist message at the heart of a page-turning plot.

The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson – (British) (Contemporary fiction)

The ExhibitionistThe Hanrahan family gather for a weekend as artist and notorious egoist Ray prepares for a new exhibition of his art – the first in many decades – and one he is sure will burnish his reputation for good.

His three children will be there: beautiful Leah, always her father’s biggest champion; sensitive Patrick, who has finally decided to strike out on his own; and insecure Jess, who has her own momentous decision to make.

And then Lucia, Ray’s steadfast and selfless wife, also an artist, who has always put her roles as wife and mother first. What will happen if she decides to change? For Lucia is hiding secrets of her own, and as the weekend unfolds and the exhibition approaches, she must make a choice.

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton – (US/Florida) (Contemporary fiction)

Opal and NevOpal is a fiercely independent young woman pushing against the grain in her style and attitude, a Black punk artist before her time. Despite her unconventional looks, Opal believes she can be a star. So when the aspiring British singer/songwriter Neville Charles discovers her one night, she takes him up on his offer to make rock music together.

In early 70’s New York City, as she’s finding her niche in a flamboyant creative scene, a rival band signed to her label brandishes a Confederate flag at a promotional concert. Opal’s bold protest and the violence that ensues, set off a chain of events that will not only change the lives of those she loves, but be a reminder that repercussions are harsher for women, especially Black women, who dare to speak their truth.

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak – (British Turkish living in London) (Contemporary fiction)

The-Island-of-Missing-TreesIn 1974 Cyprus, two teenagers, from opposite sides of a divided land meet at a tavern in the city they both call home. The tavern is the only place that Kostas, Greek/Christian and Defne, Turkish/Muslim, can meet in secret hidden beneath the blackened beams from which hang garlands of garlic, chilli peppers and wild herbs. It is where the best food, music and wine in town is. But there is something else to the place: it makes one forget, even if for just a few hours, the world outside and its sorrows.

In the centre of the tavern, growing through a cavity in the roof, is a fig tree. This tree witnesses their hushed, happy meetings, their silent, surreptitious departures; and it will be there when war breaks out, when the capital is reduced to rubble, when the teenagers vanish and break apart.

Years later in London, 16-year-old Ada has never visited the island where her parents were born. Looking for answers, she seeks to untangle years of secrets, separation and silence. The only connection she has to the land of her ancestors is a Ficus Carica growing in the back garden of their home.

The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller – (US/New York) (Contemporary fiction)

The Paper PalaceOn a perfect August morning, Elle heads out for a swim in the pond below ‘The Paper Palace’ – her family’s holiday home in Cape Cod. As she dives beneath the water she relives the passionate encounter she had the night before, against the side of the house that knows all her darkest secrets, while her husband and mother chatted to their guests inside.

So begins a story that unfolds over 24 hours and 50 years, as Elle’s shocking betrayal leads her to a life-changing decision – and an ending you won’t be able to stop thinking about.

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich – (Native US/Minnesota) (Contemporary fiction)

The Sentence Louise ErdrichThe Sentence asks what we owe to the living, the dead, the reader and the book. A small bookstore in Minneapolis is haunted by the store’s most annoying customer. Flora dies on All Souls’ Day, but won’t leave the store. Tookie, who has landed a job selling books after years of incarceration that she survived by reading ‘with murderous attention,’ must solve the mystery of this haunting while trying to understand all that occurs during a year of grief, astonishment, isolation and furious reckoning.

The Sentence begins on All Souls’ Day and ends a year later. Its mystery and proliferating ghost stories during the year propel a narrative as rich, emotional and profound as anything Erdrich has written.

This One Sky Day by Leone Ross – (British/Jamaican) (Fantasy/Magic realism)

This One Sky DayDawn breaks across the archipelago of Popisho. The world is stirring awake again, each resident with their own list of things to do: A wedding feast to conjure and cook, an infidelity to investigate, a lost soul to set free. As the sun rises two star-crossed lovers try to find their way back to one another across this single day. When night falls, all have been given a gift, and many are no longer the same.

The sky is pink, and some wonder if it will ever be blue again.

* * * * *

The judging panel will announce the shortlist of six novels, on April 27th. The winner of the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced on Wednesday 15th June.

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante tr. Ann Goldstein

Though it is a relatively slim book compared to what we have come to expect from Elena Ferrante, this novel is just as effective as others at getting to the crux of a woman’s suppressed wound and subsequent behaviour, leaving the reader much to reflect on.

psychological thriller film ItalianI just love the way her novels cast women in various stages of life, and this one, like Troubling Love is set over a summer, but couldn’t be more different, despite the common element of intensity. Our protagonist here is an empty nester.

In The Lost Daughter, an ambiguous title that is left to the reader to decide, Leda, a middle aged divorcée, is facing a long summer; her young adult daughters have now left home, moving to Canada to be with their father.

For the first time in almost twenty-five years I was not aware of the anxiety of having to take care of them.

Though she speaks with them every day, the closeness they had when they were physically present, creates a space, an absence, that begins to fill with other memories, that reach further back to her own childhood.

Freedom and Longing

As the novel opens, she has decided to depart for the summer to the beach, renting an apartment in a seaside town and is looking forward to the freedom. A Professor of English literature, she has brought her work with her, balancing her time between preparation for the year ahead and relaxing at the beach.

I love the scent of resin: as a child, I spent summers on beaches not yet completely eaten away by the concrete of the Camorra – they began where the pinewood ended. That scent was the scent of vacation, of the summer games of childhood.

She drives out of town to find a quiet place and this becomes her preferred beach for the summer. Parked under the pines, she walks through the wooded area to the small beach beyond.

In less than a week, it had all become a peaceful routine. I liked the squeak of the pinecones opening to the sun as I cross the pinewood, the scent of small green leaves that seemed to be myrtle, the strips of bark peeling off the eucalyptus trees.

motherhood obsession Maggie GyllenhaalShe becomes acquainted with the regulars, the boy who puts out the chairs and umbrellas, a young woman with her child, a pregnant woman – part of a large Neapolitan family.

She doesn’t know them, but they feel familiar, they remind her of the family she grew up in, the family she moved away from, both physically and literally.

They were all related, parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, cousins, in-laws, and their laughter rang out noisily. They called each by name with drawn out cries, hurled exclamatory or conspiratorial comments, at times quarreled: a large family group, similar to the one I had been part of when I was a girl, the same jokes, the same sentimentality, the same rages.

Observation and Obsession

She watches in particular, the young mother Nina, and her daughter Lena, eventually engaging with them, observing the family dynamics, revisiting old feelings, remembering events from the past.

She talked to the child and her doll in the pleasing cadence of the Neapolitan dialect that I love, the tender language of playfulness and sweet nothings. I was enchanted. Languages for me have a secret venom that every so often foams up and for which there is no antidote.  I remember the dialect on my mother’s lips when she lost that gentle cadence and yelled at us, poisoned by her unhappiness: I can’t take you anymore, I can’t take any more…That woman, Nina, seemed serene, and I felt envious.

The Lost Daughter Elena Ferrante doll little girl the past

Photo by Isabella CarvalhoPexels.com

When a small drama occurs, it creates an opportunity for her to interact with them; it is from this moment the tension mounts and we realise there is much we do not know about our protagonist, about her motivations for acting the way she does. A sense of unease permeates.

I loved the way this begins like a joyful beach read, the feeling of the end of a teaching year, a mature woman about to enjoy a summer without responsibilities, her children gone, the only clue to something more sinister in the air, a reference halfway to her destination, when an unprompted feeling from the past arises and changes her mood.

It is the promise there is more to this woman than what we have witnessed thus far. We read attentively, alert to anything that seems odd, wondering what might be causing her to be so attentive to this family.

When you finish reading this novella, as I have just discovered now, a few days after finishing it, if you want to experience one final gasp of realisation, go back and reread the first page, that first one page chapter.

The Lost Daughter, The Film

I thoroughly enjoyed this and look forward to seeing what Director Maggie Gyllenhaal and Actor Olivia Colman will bring to the text, in the film that is due to come to the screen at the end of December.

Gyllenhaal is said to have written a letter to Ferrante asking if she could adapt the novel, to which Ferrante responded yes, if she were to direct it herself. The premiere at the Venice Film Festival received a four minute standing ovation.

The thing that drew her to Ferrante, she said, was the writer’s ability to say “these things out loud that I hadn’t really heard anyone say out loud, about mothering, about sex, about desire, about the intellectual life of women, about the artistic life of women.”

You can watch the trailer here.

Further Reading

Interview Guardian, Aug 2020: Elena Ferrante: ‘We don’t have to fear change, what is other shouldn’t frighten us’

Screenrant Film Review, Oct 2021: Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter Is Exquisite & Nuanced by Mae Abdulbaki

Chouette by Claire Oshetsky

Chouette is a second person narrative account written by Tiny (the mother), a professional cellist, to her baby Chouette.

The author Claire Oshetsky describes it as a parable about motherhood, the way she/they experienced raising two non-conforming children. She uses magical realism to magnify and portray a surreal circumstance.

Review

person playing cello Chouette Claire Oshetsky motherhood parable

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Tiny has always been an outsider and she knows her child will be different. She’s wary and unsure how to proceed, knowing it is going to take all she has, to raise her baby the way it will need to be nurtured. Impregnated by an owl, she gives birth to an owl-baby, Chouette.

One of the first things that is sacrificed is her cello playing quartet, and the time she previously spent playing. The instrument might have been sacrificed but music continues to be a part of their lives.

“As for you owl-baby, let’s lay out the facts. Your owlness is with you from the very beginning. It’s there when a first cell becomes two, four, eight. It’s there when you sleep too much, and crawl too late, and when you bite when you aren’t supposed to bite, and shriek when you aren’t supposed to shriek; and on the day that you are born – on the day when I first look down on your pinched-red, tiny-clawed, outraged little body lying naked and intubated in a box – I won’t have the slightest idea about who you are, or what I will become.

But there you will be, and you will be of me.”

Chouette Clairte OshetskyTiny describes to her daughter the story of her conception and arrival into the world and the challenges she has had, both living in a world where her husband, his family and much of the community frown upon this mother and child, and of the mother’s increasing loss of her own sense of self, due to the sacrifices made in order to nurture and allow the child to develop and grow safely.

Tiny sees her offspring as an owl-baby and shares how this magical conception and birth took place, while the husband continues to refer to her as Charlotte. Tiny is tuned into Chouette’s needs, but senses disapproval everywhere, and the more understanding she is of Chouette, the more she feels the external world closing in on her.

“I begin to understand what a gift I’ve been given, to have been chosen for this task. The truth overwhelms me, and humbles me. The birds are telling me that my life’s work, as your mother, will be to teach you how to be yourself – and to honour however much of the wild world you have in you, owl-baby – rather than mould you to be what I want you to be, or what your father wants you to be.”

The story shares these twin perspectives, of the way Tiny sees the world (described through the metaphor of an owl baby and everything she needs, how she behaves and the incongruency of that with the expectations of the existing world they live in) – and the perspective of the husband, who can only see things from the perspective of what he has been conditioned to believe is normal.

motherhood, sacrifice, love,Thus a struggle arises between two ways of seeing, of being, one that requires natural behaviour to be modified, medicated, suppressed, so that the child will appear and behave in the family and society as “normal”, while the other allows for that natural “but judged and condemned” way of being to exist.

Therein lies the central conflict, whether to train a child to fit in with everyone else, a shadow of their former self, or allow them to feel more comfortable in their own skin by being themselves. Rather then compromise, the novel presents the two options as extremes, posing one against the other, mother against father.

Each reader is likely to have a different experience of reading the novel, depending on whether you read it as magical realism or a metaphor. Just as the husband and wife see things so very differently in their perspective and determination about how to raise this child, so too will a reader bring their own perspective, experience and varying degree of open-mindedness to the text.

Music, A Narrative Accompaniment

Throughout the novel there are references to different pieces of music, that resonate with the mood or feeling being experienced, or are used to calm a situation. The author’s daughter, a musician, contributed to this aspect of the novel.

“There’s a lot of music  in the novel, and she was my primary consultant about music. And the other way she helped me was just reminiscing about what it was like for her to live through this shared experience of being a child that was deeply misunderstood and sometimes put in situations that were frightening, even in her school system or with therapists that we went with her to see.”

It is very much Tiny’s narrative and as such, there is little empathy towards the husband’s perspective, which challenges and discomforts the reader.

It is a dark, contemporary tale that couldn’t be more relevant than now, when so many mother’s are facing the same dilemma. Should I follow my own intuitive inclination, because I know this child, I love this child, and when I don’t compare this child to others, I see he/she/they are perfect the way are – or do I listen to what the other, the external world is saying, is judging, is condemning them to, despite reducing them to a shell of who they really are?

Owl Symbolism

Owl Wisdom Branch Green

Photo by Amol Mande on Pexels.com

I found it an incredible, disturbing, yet resonant novel, so mind openly, imaginative in the creation of an owl-like creature to accentuate the reactions and responses non-conforming children invite without asking. The owl a prescient choice, auspicious.

The owl sees in the dark, is an observant listener, with its heightened powers of observation and intuition. In some traditions it possesses paranormal wisdom, regal silence and fierce intelligence. Just like those extraordinary children.

Further Reading

Essay, Refinery 29 – Gender: A Family Story by Claire Oshetsky

NPR Interview: A parable about motherhood, ‘Chouette‘ begins with a human birth to an owl baby – Danielle Kurzleban talks to Claire Oshetsky

Poets & Writers: Ten Questions for Claire Oshetsky

The Author, Claire Oshetsky

Claire Oshetsky is a novelist whose writing has appeared in Salon, Wired, and the New York Times. She lives with her family in California. Chouette is her debut novel.

The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore (1976)

Brian Moore 100

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

A Distrustful Reader

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

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

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

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

The novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1976.

To Prelude or Not

Brian Moore The Doctor's Wife Paris Hotel

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

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

Backing Up to the Beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Objectification of a Man

Love Entrapment Escape The Doctors Wife Brian Moore

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

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

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

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

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

‘And which are you?’

‘A runaway.’

‘But you didn’t leave, did you?’ 

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

Understanding Women

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

Female empowerment Women

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

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

This one I definitely recommend!

Have you read any Brian Moore this year?

 

Booker Prize Winner 2021

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

Booker Prize Fiction Shortlist 2021

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

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

The Winner

The Promise by South African writer Damon Galgut

The Promise Damon Galgut

Description

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

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

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

Judges Comment

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

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