I Will Die In A Foreign Land by Kalani Pickhart

Many are reading literature from or about Ukraine at the moment, whether it is history, news reports, fiction or other. Below are a book and a diary I’m reading to both stay in touch and understand.

A Daily Reflection from A Woman in Kyiv

Ukranian author Yevgenia Belorusets lives in Kyiv, each day she writes from her neighbourhood, she goes out and meets people, takes a few pictures. You can read her very moving, human interest diary here.

Today she noticed cosy lights on in a café that has been closed since the beginning of the war:

Ukraine Coffee

Photo by E.Tariq on Pexels.com

I went inside and ordered a cappuccino, a drink I keep trying to find since the war started and, if successful, enjoy in a new way each time.

It is a game I play with myself. Every day I wonder if a coffee kiosk will be open on my route. When I get a cup, I’m immensely happy, as if I’ve received an unexpected gift.

The coffeehouse was open because an employee who had quit before the war offered to come back and work alone.

I Will Die In A Foreign Country, A Novel

Ukraine historical fictionI thought this was an excellent and exceptional novel, that I chose to read because it is too distressing and overwhelming to be bombarded with only the terrible news that is flooding us at the moment.

Rather than look away, here is a novel, whose intention is to pay homage to those who wish to preserve a culture, to protect their homes, to help the wounded, to ease the suffering of the dying, to sing their songs and tell their stories.

Kalani Pickhart is American, passionate about Ukranian history and culture and began to write this story in 2016, in the aftermath of the American elections.

In an interview with New Lines’ Lydia Wilson, Pickhart talks about her motivation and inspiration for writing this novel, which has come to the world at a time when many are trying to understand how these terrible patterns continue to repeat, and searching for some hope in a humanity that appears at times to have gone mad.

Ukraine 2013 – 2014

The novel is set in late 2013, early 2014 and on the opening page, there is a map of Ukraine and a timeline of events at Euromaidan (the site of mass protest), from November 21, 2013 the day the 4th President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych declined to sign an association agreement with the European Union, precipitating protests, until late 2014 when the last barriacades and tents were removed from the city of Kyiv.

The novel is about four fictional characters, whose paths cross during this time, the story goes back and forth in time. The text is interspersed with other voices, most chapter headings indicating the place, the date, the voice or a subject, pieces that connect the narrative. With its relatively concise chapters, the narrative never overwhelms, like pieces of a jigsaw, as the story evolves and events unfold, geography is traversed, people respond to what confronts them, understanding broadens, a picture emerges.

Kobzari, Singing

Kobzari musicians Kalani PIckhartThe first lines of the prologue are the collective voice of the Kobzari, whose story of persecution isn’t told until later in the book; like a Greek chorus, they recount aspects of Ukranina history, culture and tradition through the lyrics of song, ensuring a language, a culture and events can be carried forward to future generations.

Where does it begin? Ah, ah. Depends on who you ask…

It could begin with Scythians and Cimmerians, Slavs and the Rus’. Queen Olha. Vladmyr the Great. Yaroslav the Wise.

The Kobzari sing of events that will never be forgotten, like the church bells at St. Michael’s that rang in December 2013, something the church has only done once before: 800 years ago, against the Mongols. This collective voice slips into the narrative seamlessly, drip feeding the reader with an historical context.

Katya, the American Doctor

I Will Die in a Foreign Land Kalani Pickhart Literature UkraineKatya is a Boston based, American doctor, working with the wounded inside a temporary medical clinic at St Michaels monastery. She is an outsider, drawn to the country because she was orphaned there, but grew up in America with no connection to her birth country. Hers, like the author, is an outside perspective, one that wants to know, to connect, to understand.

She has temporarily removed herself from having to face a broken marriage in the aftermath of the death of her son.

Ekaterina, her mother and father named her when they took her home from the orphanage. Ekaterina the Great. Looking over Kyiv, Katya feels neither great nor pure. Her son is dead, her marriage is dead, and her birthplace is on fire.

The Captain

One of Katya’s patients is a man they refer to as Captain, only known to people because he would play an outdoor piano every day on the street during the protests. Katya finds a telephone number and a cassette in his pocket. The Captain’s story is narrated through the playing of an audio tape, created for his daughter Anna. He too is an outsider, a former officer, a man whose loyalties have been dictated to him, who is given little choice. He shares his story in an old oral tradition.

My mother was the one with the gift. She had a soft voice that warbled like a bird, but it was my father who wanted us to learn music. We learned the arts, my father said, to be civilized people because the world was at times a most uncivilized place. I often forgot he survived the war.

The Violence of Spring

One of the  (true) stories the Captain tells is of the composer Stravinsky’s controversial composition The Rite of Spring. He was invited by the Director of the newly opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées to collaborate in a ballet. The work was so modern, it attracted a youthful audience and a riot broke out inside the theatre as the traditionalist patrons in the crowd began hurling insults, clashing with youth.

In his notes, Stravinsky said it is an episodic ballet without a cohesive beginning-to-end narrative. Instead, the episodes are bound by one unifying thread: the mystery and the great surge of the power of Spring.

It is a violent ballet, a violent composition, taking place in pagan Russia. During the performance in 1913, the choreographer, Nijinsky, before he went mad, had the dancers move in contorted, disfigured ways. It was obscene, the audience thought – an abomination of the arts, of theatre, of ballet.

Intrigued, I looked this up, it was one of the most notorious ballet performances of the 20th century, shattering the conventions of both classical music and dance. Here is France Musique’s excellent explanation (3 mins).

Micha, Ukranian Engineer

Micha is a Ukranian protest, helping out, an engineer, originally from Chernobyl, who worked in the mines. He was married to his childhood friend Vera, who succumbed to sickness.

The Exclusion Zone

His home is near where Katya was born, they return to visit his mother, to reconnect with a lost part of her, before her return.

I didn’t think people could live there anymore, but I heard stories about some old women whose husbands died, the samosely. I tried to convince my mother not to return. She said it was the only place she ever felt at home. A couple hundred babushkas had returned and she went with them. Women in their seventies, eighties having survived Stalin, genocide.

Slava, Ukranian Protestor

Slava and Micha are friends, she is from Odessa, a place she ran from after what happened to her there, something that fuels her determination. Slava meets a journalist Dascha, their relationship puts them both at risk.

You said you once protested with FEMEN – that is also very brave, I feel we have similar views, that you’re accepting of me.

Though it is novel told in fragments, through multiple narratives and voices, there is a fluidity and yet the plot moves quickly, as the connection(s) between characters are revealed, their motivations and behaviours come to be understood and revelations acknowledge the pressures and complexities of life in this country, some things universal, others unique to their history and geography.

Lest We Forget

As I neared the end of the book, on page 268, I read six pages of names that traverse the globe in culture, nationality, language, showing just how interconnected the world today is. It was the Passenger and Crew Manifest read aloud at trial for the victims of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

The same day I read those names, I read this article indicating that today Australia and the Netherlands  launched legal proceedings against Russia for the downing of flight MH17.

Loss, when it occurs, has memory stronger than the mind, stronger than visual recollection patterned in the brain. It’s something the flesh knows, the muscles know, like a dancer reciting a step done hundreds of times, like a musician playing a song or a scale after decades without practice. It’s something the body knows, something the body is aware of while the mind adapts, responds, reacts.

Highly Recommended.

Further Reading/Listening

Podcast: Writing a Revolution: Ukraine’s Maidan Uprising — with Kalani Pickhart

Article: The Atlantic – What Ukrainian Literature Has Always Understood About Russia by Uilleam Blacker

Who Will Bury Me if I Die in a Foreign Land

Kalani Pickhart, Author

Kalani Pickhart, author of I Will Die in a Foreign Land, holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Arizona State University. An American, she is the recipient of research fellowships from the Virginia G. Piper Center and the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Intelligence for Eastern European and Eurasian Studies.

She currently lives and writes in Phoenix, Arizona.

What is the act of love if not bold?

As the world comes apart, nothing to lose-

What is love if not a promise to go on?

Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey

I loved Catherine Chidgey’s lesser known novel The Transformation, more than the award winning debut In a Fishbone Church, so I was curious about and looking forward to her latest novel.

Buchenwald Weimar WWII novel GermanyThough truthfully, I had been avoiding it due to its 522 pages and subject matter, it does require a commitment. 

After reading and enjoying Marzahn, mon amour also set in Germany, I decided why not just remain in the same location, even though Remote Sympathy takes us back to that tragic period in history.

An incredibly accomplished novel, it is told using four narrative strands in different voices, through letters, diaries, recordings and a community reflection,  backed up but never bogged down by a solid foundation of research and testimony.

The fictional story relates to events during the second world war, around the lives of two German families, the citizens of the town of Weimar and the prisoners of Buchenwald, a camp located just up the hill from the town.

The novel demonstrates the responses of people, in different circumstances, showing how they behave and manage their lives, what they choose to acknowledge and to ignore, the lies they tell themselves and others, faced with the extreme conditions of living under the Third Reich (Nazi Germany).

Four Entwined Narratives

Doctor Lenard Weber, the inventor

Anatomy nervous system of manThe novel begins with an epistolary narrative of letters written by Doktor Lenard Weber to his daughter Lotte in Frankfurt 1946, after the war has ended. He is telling his daughter how he first first met her mother, his wife Anna, at an exhibition of ‘The Transparent Man’, an installation that showed the inner circuitry of the human body.

The exhibit further inspired him with his own ideas on the therapeutic uses of electricity and the invention of his Sympathetic Vitaliser, a machine that he believed might heal the body of disease.

But it was the eighteenth century writings of John Hunter, the great Scottish surgeon, that sparked the idea for my machine: his theory that the cure as well as the disease could pass through a person by means of remote sympathy; that the energetic power produced in one part of the body could influence another part some distance away.

However, they were living in dangerous times and at the time of their marriage, neither of them knew their family ancestry would drive them apart and that his invention would draw him into the lives of an SS officer and his wife.

But I wanted to tell you about the miracles, Lotte. There are three in this story – I’ll start with the first.

Frau Greta Hahn, the wife of an SS major

SS officer villas BuchenwaldThe second narrative voice comes from the imaginary diary of Frau Greta Hahn, the younger wife of the officer and begins in 1943 as she is packing up their lives in Munich, to move to a villa in Weimar, her husband having taken over as Administrator of the Buchenwald prison camp. He has told her and their young son Karl-Heinz how much they will love it there, being near a forest, a zoo, close to nature.

‘Taking a child to a place like that,’ said my mother.
‘It’s quite safe,’ I told her; ‘We’ll be living well outside the enclosure. We won’t even be able to see it. Apparently the villa’s beautiful – you can come and stay whenever you like.’

An invitation her mother is loathe to take up, even when Greta becomes very unwell.

Greta chooses to live in denial, unlike her friend and neighbour Emmi, who delights in their newfound circumstances and privilege. Her discomfort turns inward and she finds herself in need of a radical medical intervention.

1000 citizens of Weimar

One of the narrative threads is a third person “we” voice, the collective reflections of one thousand citizens of the town of Weimar. This community is proud of their town’s association with a number of past eminent citizens and love to show visitors Goethe’s garden house in the park, with its bee-filled beds of flowers and to speak of others who had called their town home.

The Goethe oak still stands, though, not far from here – the tree beneath which the poet wrote some of his most celebrated verse, and rested with Charlotte von Stein. They say that if it falls, Germany will also perish…

They hear strange noises, they smell the smoke, they see signs of maltreatment, but for every observation that doesn’t fit with their idealised version of home, they have an excuse, an accusation, an alternative perspective, so loathe are they to admit even the thought of what might be going on up the hill. Anyone who shows concern or empathy is scorned by a cacophony of voices.

Former SS Sturmbannführer Dietrich Hahn, the husband, the major

This first person narrative begins in October 1954, a taped, sometimes interrupted interview with the major who is under trial. He talks about the stress of his job, the insistence that it was a work camp, the pressure of budgets, his family and his desire to have a large family. It is the perspective of a man in charge of his responsibilities who refuses to acknowledge any human suffering (except his own).

The lives of the couple and the Doktor become entwined when the major hears of the medical invention and arranges to have him imprisoned in the hope that he may assist his wife. The presence of the Doktor and the young boy Josef who is their housekeeper, challenge her ideas about the so-called ‘criminals’ being held in the camp next door.

Seeking Salvation Through Lies

Though one man represents power and the other is a prisoner, both men possess something that the other desires, they both believe that some kind of salvation might be able to be obtained from the other. Ultimately both will lie, in the hope of getting what they want.

Though ‘remote sympathy’ refers to the healing action of the machine, it is also a theme running through the novel. Greta’s denial of what is occurring over the fence prevents her from confronting the truth, there is little sympathy for something one refuses to see, but she feels it and pays the price, it is literally eating away at her within.

Likewise, her husband obsesses about budgets and cutbacks, without ever acknowledging the human impact, in personal and institutionally narcissistic acts, depriving inmates of basic necessities in order to meet financial pressures. Privately, he succumbs to behaviours that initially alleviate the stress, but will lead to their downfall.

The Consequence of Willful Blindness, Ignorance and Fear

It’s a novel of great discomfort and incredulity, in that it imagines the inner lives and perspectives of an officer, his wife and son, their military family neighbours – it focuses on this more so than it narrates the lives of the prisoners, as most of the story and gaze takes place outside the camp, among the privileged, including the Doktor himself, who has found himself in an enviable yet dangerous position.

The use of letters, diaries, an interview and a reflection create a slight distance between the reader and the narrative, we too become observers, avoiding the discomfort of a first person narrative told in the present. Ironically, the effect of that is to avoid a sense of connection or emotional resonance, recreating that uncomfortable, debilitating situation of being a silent, unobserved witness.

It is a thought provoking, disturbing read that highlights the failings and frailties of humankind, the inclination to look away or make up stories to avoid confronting brutal harsh truths about our own inhumanity and the ease with which people lie in pursuit of a desire, refusing to acknowledge their own culpability or wrongdoing, their harm.

And it is a nod too, to the small tangible things that humans find to create meaning, to restore hope, to get through another day, the wooden remains of an oak tree, a photo, pages from a book, a prayer card.

And On It Goes

It occurred to me at the end, that Claire Keegan’s disturbing novella Small Things Like These addresses a similar issue in relation to the collective blindness of community, in the culpability and denial of the Irish (in families, institutions and villages) in their incarceration of young women and the trafficking of their babies, more crimes against humanity that we are only just beginning to come out of dark ignorance about, to be truthfully acknowledged.

Remote sympathy is everywhere and nowhere.

Remote Sympathy was published in the UK in April 2021 by Europa Editions.

Further Reading

Tanya Hart (daughter of a Holocaust survivor) Interviews Catherine Chidgey

Lisa at ANZLITLover’s review

Catherine Chidgey, Author

Remote Sympathy Germany BuchenwaldCatherine Chidgey is an award-winning and bestselling New Zealand novelist and short-story writer.

Her first novel, In a Fishbone Church, won the Betty Trask Award, and was longlisted for the Orange PrizeGolden Deed was Time Out’s Book of the year, a Best Book in the LA Times Book Review and a Notable Book in the New York Times Book Review. Her fourth novel, The Wish Child (2016) won the 2017 Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize, the country’s major literary prize and Remote Sympathy (2021) was also shortlisted for the same prize.

N.B. Thank you kindly to Europa Editions for providing an ARC (Advance Reader Copy)

Dublin Literary Award longlist 2022

The Dublin Literary Award longlist is nominated by public libraries in capital and major cities throughout the world and this year contains 79 titles. Titles are nominated on the basis of ‘high literary merit’ as determined by the nominating library.

Now in its 27th 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. Last year, the award was won by Valeria Luiselli for Lost Children Archive. See previous winners here.

Translated Fiction

Nominations this year include 30 novels in translation, spanning 19 languages, with works nominated by 94 libraries from 40 countries across Africa, Europe, Asia, the US & Canada, South America and Australia & New Zealand. 16 are debut novels. If the winning book has been translated, the author receives €75,000 and the translator receives €25,000.

Of the novels in translation below, I have read two: Fresh Water for Flowers (my review) by French author Valérie Perrin tr.Hildegarde Serle which made my top 10 fiction reads in 2020, and Voices of the Lost by Lebanese/French author Hoda Barakat, an epistolary novel of letters by the displaced, living in exile.

Dublin Literary Award Novels in Translation

International Judges

The international panel of judges who will select the shortlist and winner, features Dubliner Sinéad Moriarty, a writer and books ambassador for Eason’s Must Reads book club; Alvin Pang, from Singapore, a poet, writer, editor, anthologist, translator and researcher; Cork-born, Clíona Ní Ríordáin who lives in Paris and is a Professor of English at Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle; Professor Emmanuel Dandaura, a creative writer, literary critic, festival curator, scholar, and multiple award winning playwright based in Abuja, Nigeria and Victoria White, a graduate with an M.Litt in English Literature of Trinity College Dublin, who has worked as a writer and journalist with the Irish Times and the Irish Examiner.

The Longlist

The entire list of 79 titles follows, click on the title to read a description of the novel and the comment by the nominating library(s).

I have read 10 of these books (in pink), you can find my reviews next to the book description :

Dublin Literaary Award Longlist 2022

A Million Aunties by Alecia McKenzie (Jamaican author, based in France)
A Recipe for Daphne by Nektaria Anastasiadou (lives in Istanbul writes in Greek Istanbul dialect, debut)
Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan (Irish author living in London, debut)
All God’s Children by Aaron Gwyn (Oklahoma author, historical fiction)
Antkind by Charlie Kaufman (American Screenwriter, postmodern, debut)
At Night all Blood is Black by David Diop (Senegalese/Parisian, major award winning war novel)
Barry Squires: Full Tilt by Heather Smith (Newfoundland author living in Ontario, Young Adult)
Bedraggling Grandma with Russian Snow by João Reis (Portuguese writer/philosopher, literary comedy)
Before You Knew My Name by Jacqueline Bublitz (NZ author, debut)
Betty by Tiffany McDaniel (Ohio author/visual artist, coming-of-age novel)
Black Bottom Saints by Alice Randall (Detroit author lives in Nashville, biographical novel)
Brighten the Corner Where You Are by Carol Bruneau (Halifax/canadian author, historical fiction)
Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi (Nigerian/Canadian writer/multidisciplinary artist)
Catch the Rabbit by Lana Bastašić (Serb/Croatian author lives in Belgrade, Young Adult)
Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma author, debut)
Crossmatch by Carmel Miranda (Sri Lankan author, , social justice novel, debut)
Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear by Matthew Salesses (Asian American author, magic realism, existential)
Fresh Water for Flowers by Valérie Perrin (French author/screenwriter, literary fiction) (my review here)
Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov (Leningrad/Ukranian author, war novel)
Here is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan (Irish author, debut)
I is Another: Septology III-V by Jon Fosse (Norwegian author, 2nd of 3 volumes existential novel)

In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova (Russian  poet, essayist, journalist – autofiction)
In Search of a Name by Marjolijn Van Heemstra (Dutch poet, novelist, and playwright –  autofiction)
Indians on Vacationby  by Thomas King (American-Canadian Indigenous author )
Infinite Country by Patricia Engel (Colombian/American immigrant novel) (my review here)

Jack by Marilynne Robinson (US author, 4th Gilead novel)
Kin by Miljenko Jergović (Bosnian/Croatian author/journalist, historical novel)
Klara & the Sun by Kazou Ishiguro (British author, science fiction dystopia)
Kraft by Jonas Lüscher (Swiss/German author, literary satire)
Lay Figures by Mark Blagrave (Canadian author, arts community/cultural history, war novel)
Longevity Park by Zhou Daxin (Chinese author, humanitarian novel)
Love in Five Acts by Daniela Krien (German author, Social novel of 1989/90 East Germany)
Low Expectations by Stuart Everly-Wilson (Australian author, black humour suburban novel)
Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy (Australian author, environmental change novel) (my review here)
Miss Iceland by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (Icelandic author, dark humour, award winning feminist novel)
No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood (US author, internet irony novel, award winning debut)
Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies by Leanne Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg indigenous author, response to English/Canadian settler/author Susanna Moodie’s 1852 memoir Roughing It in the Bush)
October Child by Linda Boström Knausgård (Swedish author, autofiction)
Olive by Emma Gannon (UK author, contemporary fiction)
One Left by Kim Soom (Korean author, war stories of ‘comfort women’ Japanese colonisation)
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (UK author, fantasy) (my review here)
Punching The Air by Ibi Zoboi & Dr. Yusef Salaam (Haitian/US author & Prison reform activist YA novel)
Ramifications by Daniel Saldaña París (Mexican author, literary novel set in ’94 Mexico)
Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey (NZ author, historical fiction, Germany WWII) (my review here)
Second Place by Rachel Cusk (UK author, contemporary fiction)
Song of the Crocodile by Nardi Simpson (Yuwaalaraay/Australian author, generational debut novel)
Sprigs by Brannavan Gnanalingam (Sri Lankan/NZ author, crime fiction)
Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan (Irish author, contemporary fiction) (my review here)
The Art of Falling by by Danielle McLaughlin (Irish author, character drive literary fiction, debut novel)
The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter  (French/Algerian author, historical fiction) (on the TBR!)
The Bitch by Pilar Quintana (Colombian author, Contemporary fiction)

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi (NIgerian author, contemporary fiction) (my review here)
The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams (British/Australian author, historical fiction) (my review here)
The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun (Korean author, feminist, eco-thriller)
The Employees A workplace novel of the 22nd century by Olga Ravn (Danish author, contemporary fiction)
The Fig Tree by Goran Vojnović (Slovenia author, multigenerational family saga, historical novel)
The Girl with Braided Hair by Rasha Adly (Egyptian author, historical fiction)
The Hummingbird by Sandro Veronesi (Italian author, contemporary fiction)
The Imago Stage by Karoline Georges (French-Canadian author, contemporary fiction)
The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey (Tasmanian/Australian author, contemporary fiction)
The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex (British author, Mystery)
The Last Queen by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (Indian author, historical fiction)
The Masochist by Katja Perat (Slovenian author/poet, debut novel)
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook (US author, science fiction, dystopia)
The Octopus Man by Jasper Gibson (UK author, psychological novel)
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris (US author, contemporary novel)
The Prophets by Robert Jones (US author, historical fiction, slavery narrative)
The Survivors by Jane Harper (Australian author, crime fiction)
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi (US author, contemporary fiction) (my review here)
Twenty After Midnight by Daniel Galera (Brazilian author, contemporary fiction)
Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell (British author, historical fiction)
Voices of the Lost by Hoda Barakat (Lebanese/French author, epistolary immigrant novel) (my review here)
What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez (US author, existential fiction)
Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (US author writing in Italian, autofiction)
Who is Ma Kemah? by Sianah Nalika DeShield (Liberian author, Romance drama)
Women Dreaming by Salma (Tamil Indian author, contemporary fiction)
Xstabeth by David Keenan (Glasgow/Scottish author, transcendent contemporary fiction)
You, Me & the Sea by Elizabeth Haynes (UK former police intelligence analyst/author, contemporary fiction)
Your Story, My Story by Connie Palmen (Dutch author, historical fiction)

The shortlist will be unveiled on 22nd March and the winner on 19 May 2022.

Have you read any of these novels that you recommend?

Best Books Read in 2021 Part 1: The Stats + One Outstanding Read of the Year

In 2021 I read approximately 80 books. Less than in 2020 which was an exceptional year, when reading basically replaced external social activity and travel.

This year I’m sharing the best reads of the year over three separate posts; the overview and bigger picture seen from the stats here in Part 1 + My One Outstanding Read of the Year, Top Fiction Reads in Part 2 and Top Nonfiction in Part 3. And a few special mentions along the way.

Christmas reads literature in translationMy habit and ritual is to read a book a week, to read half an hour every morning and every evening, without fail. Now that I’m no longer required to fulfill the needs of little people in the early morning, a few pages accompanies my hot beverage to start the day and is like a reliable sedative that ensures I fall into easy sleep at night.

This year, it turns out I read a book and a half a week.

This change in rhythm and habit may explain why I’m reading more nonfiction, less escapism and imagination, more contemplative immersion.

Writing about reading is not only a pure joy it’s a way of decluttering; write a review, get rid of a book off the shelf, donate to the vide grenier!

So thank you to those who read and share the fun with me and apologies for email subscribers if I fill up your inboxes too rapidly at times.

The Stats

Over the years, I’ve made a conscious effort to read more women authors, to reverse a subconscious trend that had been occurring based on the exposure to reviews in traditional types of media. So now you could say I have a conscious bias towards women authors, this year representing 86%.

I know I’m missing out on some great storytelling, but I’ve become a little bit of a literary activist in this respect, so while Dalmon Galgut, the South African writer won the Booker Prize this year, I’m less likely to read The Promise, instead favouring another South African author Sindiwe Magona and her twin autobiographies, To My Children’s Children and Forced to Grow, two exceptional titles that deserve to be more widely known and read.

Reading Around the World

In 2021, I read books from 28 different countries, 87% of them were written in English and 13% translated from other languages. As you can see from the pie chart above, the Anglo-Saxon countries continue to dominate, although there was a much greater focus on Ireland than the UK, due to participating in the Brian Moore 100 read along.

The countries where authors originated from were US, Ireland, UK, South Africa, Australia, Uganda, New Zealand, Argentina, France, Canada, Uruguay, Italy, Cameroon, Nigeria, Lebanon, Jamaica, Zambia, Haiti, Chile, Antigua, Iran, Guadeloupe, Mexico, Kuwait, Hong Kong, Trinidad, Colombia, Japan.

Women In Translation

Best Reads of 2021At 13%, this was down on 2020 when 32% of my reads were in translation. This year I spent July/August focusing on a personal writing project so I didn’t participate in the usual Women in Translation August reading challenge.

Below, the breakdown by region.

Read Around the World 2021

Fiction Rules, Nonfiction Rises

Being a big fan of fiction, I was surprised to see this year that my nonfiction reads increased from 30% to 35%. It’s been a struggle to come up with a limited shortlist of favourites, as there were so many!

I read more multiple books by the same authors this year, for example in Nonfiction Sindiwe Magona (South Africa) and Deborah Levy (South Africa/UK), while in Fiction Brian Moore (Northern Ireland) and Sara Baume (Ireland).

Audio Books, E-Books, Paperback or Hardbacks

This year 78% of my reading came from off my bookshelf while 21% were e-books I read on a kindle.

Best Reads of 2021

There has been a significant upward trend in the reading/listening world towards audio books, a change I have not jumped into. I do have a daily half hour commute, but it’s through the countryside of Provence and being present to the local landscape is a pleasurable, mindful lead-up to the work I do.

I think it is interesting and encouraging though, that many are rediscovering literature through having someone read to them aloud, something that each generation has valued, from the radio listening days before television, to podcasts to audiobooks, not to mention the nostalgia of childhood, having stories read to us. I can still remember the excited anticipation of sitting on the mat in primary school, at that hour of the day that the teacher would continue with a longer story that was being read to the class.

What Mood of Book Do We Gravitate Towards?

There’s a new app for storing your reading library called The Storygraph. It’s interesting though I don’t think it matches what I get from Goodreads yet, but one thing it does is analyse your reading by mood and pace. So I have discovered that I tend to read more slow and medium paced books, only 2% are fast paced! So it appears I’m fast at reading slow paced books and slow at reading fast paced? Here’s the breakdown for 2021.

Mood of Book 2021

The three main moods of the books I read according to this are Reflective, Emotional and Challenging!

Outstanding Book of the Year 2021

Best Books of 2021 Autofiction Forough FarrokhzadAnd so to my One Outstanding Read of the Year, which thinking about it, combines a little of everything that appeals to me.

It is fiction, but based on the real life of a woman, so it has the best of what fiction offers through being able to reimagine a voice and the authenticity of nonfiction in using the life, the achievements, the poetry and self expression of a woman to channel her story. And it takes me to another country and culture, to open the mind and yet observe the universal.

Beyond Black There is No Colour : The Story of Forough Farrokhzad by Maryam Diener not only is my favourite and One Outstanding Read of 2021, but surely it is one of the least publicized and underrated books of the year.

Forough Farrokhzad, poet, mother, feminist, film-maker, radical, was one of the most iconic dissenting voices in modern Iranian history.

Maryam Diener reimagines the life of the young revolutionary poet in this heart-felt novella, portraying a young woman who desired to be authentic and write from the core of her being about her emotional life, loves and losses, in a way that no woman in her country before her had ever dared.

At only 150 pages, Diener has chosen certain events in Farrokhzad’s life from her childhood, marriage, her success with poetry and its contribution to the dissolution of her family life, her love for her son and the way she pours herself into her creative output, including film.

“What sets [Farrokhzad] apart from her predecessors and even her contemporary women writers is her rendering of quotidian experience with no intention to guide, to educate, to lead…(her) poetry is an accurate portrayal of the pain and pleasure of a whole generation undergoing radical change.” Iranian Scholar, Farzaneh Milani

It’s Outstanding and like nothing else I have read this year. This is the one slim book that rises to the top of the pile for me, one that haunts the reader, that leaves a legacy, that cuts a path for other women to step in to and follow.

And so next up My Top Fiction so 2021…

Did you have one book that stood out from all the rest this year? If so, share it in the comments below.

The Magician’s Wife by Brian Moore (1997)

The Magician’s Wife is historical fiction, set in 1856 France and Algeria.

Brian Moore 100

This is the final read for #BrianMoore100, a year of reading his novel’s in what would been the Northern Irish novelist’s 100th year.

This year, I managed to read and review Lies of SilenceThe Lonely Passion of Judith HearneThe Doctor’s Wife and now The Magician’s Wife. I enjoyed all of them and plan to continue reading more of his work in the year ahead.

Gustave Flaubert and George Sand’s Letters

According to New York Times essayist and reviewer Thomas Mallon, Brian Moore, in discussing the origins of The Magician’s Wife, gave credit to a note in Francis Steegmuller and Barbara Bray’s translation of The Correspondence of George Sand & Gustave Flaubert.

Flaubert was complaining about the French government and their political priorities, and in his letter to Sand he writes:

“But before concerning ourselves with “social security” and even with agriculture, we send a Robert-Houdin to all the villages of France to work miracles!”

The associated footnote further explains:

In 1856 the French government had sent the celebrated conjuror Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin to North Africa in an attempt to destroy the nefarious influence of the marabouts on the native population. His feats, announced as “miracles”, were a great success.

Strangely, the footnote erroneously names the magician in parentheses as Houdini, however, Harry Houdini changed his name (from Ehrich Weisz) in honour of his mentor Robert-Houdin.

In the novel, the character of the magician, Henri Lambert, is inspired by the historical character of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin.

Review

France 1856 Algeria Robert Houdin MaraboutsBeing historical fiction, The Magician’s Wife became one of those books that I often put down to look up the historical characters, such as Napoleon III (the nephew and step-grandson of Napoleon Bonaparte – he was the son of Josephine Bonaparte’s daughter Hortense de Beauharnais who married Napoleon’s brother Louis) and his wife, the Empress Eugénie de Montijo. His reign was referred to as the Second Empire and lasted for 18 years (1852-1870).

The first half of the novel is set in France, in Tours, the home of the magician and his wife Emmeline, briefly in Paris, where she is outfitted for the pending visit to one of the Emperor’s chateau.

The second half is set in Algeria, in the cities of Algiers and Milianah.

The Emperor’s Invitation

When the magician Henri Lambert is visited by a highly ranked Colonel Deniau and subsequently invited by the Emperor to the autumn residence, Château de Compiègne for a week of events and festivities, Emmeline is curious as to why these men of politics are interested in her husband and unimpressed by the activities they drag her into.

napoleon III Second empire The Magicians Wife Brian MooreIt becomes clear, that this particular série or group of invitees, are people whose influence might be required, to assist the ruler in his campaigns.

Emmeline looked down the long table to where Lambert was as usual in animated conversation with his fellow diners. Not a first-tier série, this man says. Foreigners, bankers, people the Emperor wants to use in some way. What can he want from Henri?

Because the narrative is seen through the eyes of Emmeline, it remains a mystery for some time as to what use the magician might be to the Emperor, however both the Colonel and Napoleon III attempt to bring her close, in order to help persuade her husband of the mission they have in mind for him.

Colonial Conspirators

They want the Magician and his wife to go to Algeria, to perform tricks of illusion, posing as a superior French version of their influential marabouts (a kind of spiritual leader/healer/wise man), in order to inculcate fear of their power and diminish faith in their spiritual leadership. It was an attempt to destabilise and weaken people in preparation for the French armies to continue their conquest and colonisation of the country.

“There, marabouts or saints have a political and spiritual influence which is greater than the power of any ruler…And because of that, only the marabout can proclaim a jihad or holy war against us. At the moment, Your Majesty, all of Algeria is in thrall to a certain Bou-Aziz, a charismatic marabout who has risen up in the south and is said to possess miraculous powers.”

The Female Gaze

Brian Moore Algeria 1856 Magicians Wife

Photo by Noureddine Belfethi on Pexels.com

It is a fascinating story and all the more interesting because Moore chooses to view events and see those involved in this ‘act of illusion’ through the eyes of the accompanying wife.

Emmeline is never quite in support of the events she is dragged along to participate in, openly showing her disapproval despite their promises to elevate her and her husband in society.

Bored by her provincial marriage and uneventful home life, she briefly considers a liaison with the Colonel, initially responding to his attention, though sees through his contrived flattery and begins to resent him, seeing that he too is looking for acclaim and willing to use whatever means necessary.

A Desert Awakening

The Colonel warns her that a visit to Algeria will change her, and this perhaps is the only truth he speaks, for she has a kind of awakening herself, though not in a way that necessarily benefits the mission they are on.

The turning point for her comes, when their servant Jules falls sick and she is the only one to comfort him. What she learns about him in this little time they spend together, awakens her to certain realities about their lives and the impact of what they are doing there. She becomes the sole voice of conscience with regard to this duplicitous mission, moved by the words and aura of the spiritual leader.

She thought of Bou-Aziz, of his grave, dignified speech, of his resolve to pray for God’s guidance. And in that moment in the courtyard of a French fort surrounded by illimitable desert she remembered the Emperor’s study in Compiègne, the Emperor with his waxed moustaches and his lecher’s smile, puffing on his long cigar. ‘I have great plans for Algeria. In the spring, I will bring our armies to Africa, subdue the Kabylia region and complete our conquest of the entire country.’ But this conquest that the Emperor desired would not ‘civilise’ these people as he promised but instead bring more forts, more soldiers, more roads, more French colonists to profit from Algeria’s trade and crops. And more mahdis, more jihads, more repression.

It is extraordinary that Moore chose to write about this intriguing piece of history, given he was an Irish author living in exile in America, writing about French political activities in Algeria. As is to be expected, though it is a history far from home, he succeeds in making the story a conduit for many of his themes and literary preoccupations.

It was an insightful and sympathetic reading journey, to read about this period and event in history, from an alternative perspective, painted by the outsider, written through the eyes of another Brian Moore protagonist, a viewpoint he favoured, that of a woman.

And I’ll certainly be adding the Château de Compiègne to my list of near future places to visit.

Further Reading

Article New York Times: Sleight of Hand by Thomas Mallon

France Inter: Robert Houdin, un sorcier blanc en Algérie Dec 5, 2021

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photography of fruits on a tray

Photo Valeria Boltneva @Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

Interview: A Conversation with Afia Atakora on Conjure Women

Afia Atakora

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

 

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

A historical fiction novel about words both entices and because of its popularity also made me hesitate.

Background

Scottish lexicographer Dr James Murray was the primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1884. The only word Dr Murray ever conceded had been overlooked was “bondmaid”, meaning a girl bound to serve without wages.

When author Pip Williams discovered this omission, the idea for her debut novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words, was born. Jenny Valentish, Guardian

Pip Williams Language Words DictionaryAnd so I dive in and find myself often using the dictionary feature on the kindle – yes there are a lot of lost words, or words that are no longer in common use, and one of the main words, and locations, the scriptorium had me confused right from the start – a tin shed where a few learned, self-important men are compiling the first edition of the Oxford dictionary? Even as I write these words, the spellcheck has underlined that word in red.

We are introduced to this place and the main character Esme as she is crawling around beneath the table in this scriptorium, we don’t understand a lot about why she is there, as her father appears to be raising her alone without childcare.

A slow build up in the early years, the pace picks up finally when Esme is old enough to go to town and meet a few unconventional women and hears new to her ears, ancient popular but unknown words, and when she meets Tilda, an actor and suffragette her vocabularly and life experience widen even further.

It is the late 1880’s, an era of slow progress, both on the dictionary and on the rights of women.

black and white book business close up

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Esme grows up and begins to work with her father, collecting “slips” and the necessary quotations, that give words the right to be part of this grand dictionary.

The problem being that much of a women’s world is left out, words that have existed, often for centuries, but have either not been written in any notable works or are deemed not appropriate for polite society. 

Esme has found her calling.

It’s an interesting journey through a particular period of history, though I found the character of Esme to be a little two-dimensional compared to some of the secondary characters and one of the characters appears mostly through letters, which rather than illuminate some of the mysteries in Esme’s life, just had me asking why this one character if she was so important to her life, wasn’t present. The story seemed to lose pace towards the end or perhaps just went on too long, as I began to lose interest.

There are moments of humour, but also predictability – in Esme’s 30’s her like of words pertaining to women and the poor are discovered by the villainous Dankworth, as the slips flutter to the floor, who should arrive but her literary knight (not yet in armour) Gareth, the compositeur. She ponders the words “manhandled, pillock and git”.

A slow consciousness raising and cast of characters across the class divine in Oxford, with the controlled compilation of the Dictionary at the centre of it.

Further Reading

Guardian Books: All words are not equal’: the debut novelist who’s become a lockdown sensation by Jenny Valentish

Lisa’s Review at ANZLitLover’s – a more passionate take on the history and the bias resulting from it being a virtually male endeavour

Guardian Review: A Gentle Hopeful Story 

 

Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain

“I have felt for years that there was much more to say about the psychic distance between west and east and those who tried to make that journey in the 19th century.” Rose Tremain

Islands of Mercy Rose TremainSet in late 1800’s Ireland, Bath, London and Borneo, this is the story of a community of people whose lives intersect in the town of Bath, a dual narrative of events concerning those who live there and the efforts of two men in Borneo with ambitions slightly at cross purposes.

As I reread Tremain’s quote above, and wonder about the journey’s taken by some of the characters, I realise the irony too in the different paths of what a journey west to east meant. For an ambitious woman travelled from Ireland to England and a man from England to Southeast Asia’s Malay archipalego.

The novel opens with the ambitious young woman Clorinda, who travels west to east, from Ireland to Bath, and after some months of work realising she is unlikely to raise her status to where she strives, she sells her family inheritance, a necklace of rubies, to purchase rooms she turns into a salon de thé, where society can mix and gather and she can listen and observe.

One afternoon she observes a couple in earnest conversation, until the young woman abruptly gets up to leave, having taken neither her tea or cake.

old temple facade reflecting in roman baths in england

Photo by Rachel Claire on Pexels.com

The young woman Jane, referred to by locals as ‘Angel of the Baths’ is the daughter of the esteemed Doctor Adeane and known for her therapeutic treatments and hands on healing that relieve the aches of the body, the pains of their souls, her voice of encouragement leading them to bathe in the waters of Bath.

The young man is Valentine Ross, also a Doctor, who works for her father. His brother, inspired by Darwin and passionate about nature, is on an expedition and has just arrived where the second part of the narrative takes place, seeking refuge with an Englishman Sir Ralph Savage, referred to as Rajah Sir on the island of Borneo, where he has gifted a parcel of land in return for favours to the Sultan of Brunei, built himself an impressive mansion and is infatuated by a local man Leon, who harbours ambitions of his own.

After this encounter with Valentine, Jane goes to London to spend time with her childless, unmarried, financially independent Aunt Emmilene, an artist. She is like a mother to Jane and it is during this visit that Jane discovers more of the essence of who she is, an aspect captured by her Aunt in a portrait she sits for. The events that unfold create a significant dilemma for Jane, that she must navigate.

The world, Jane already knew, reeked horribly of old, exhausted things. Day could follow day without a single original or exciting moment stirring her pulse. But now Aunt Emmeline – by far the most exceptional and independent person the Adeane family – was going to reveal something new.

brown bare tree on brown rock formation

Photo by Iqx Azmi on Pexels.com

Sir Ralph is intent on improving what the Creator has given him telling his lover that he wished to go down in history as one who had ‘enabled happiness’. Leon advises him to begin by building a road.

‘A road to where?’ Sir Ralph had asked.
‘Sir Raff,’ said Leon? ‘There is no “where” in Sarawak. There is only Nature. Men begin; Nature finishes.’
‘Then what is the point of the road?’
‘The point of the road is to try to be’.

The narrative in Borneo centres on the men and the colonial struggle, whether it’s to create manors and roads and capitalist ventures or chasing butterflies and being distracted by ruined goldmines. Regardless of their pursuits, there are warnings embedded in their endeavours and the risk of danger to those who are ignorant of the environment within which they operate.

At a certain point while reading, when I thought of all the female characters, and realised how strongly independent all of them were, and looked at the relationships they had to the men around them, I wondered if this novel was actually satire. For most of the yearning and longing is done by the male characters, the female characters are all strong and given the era and location, none of them sit around in parlours pining for suitors, they’re too busy creating their lives, working and supporting each other.

It highlights some of the issues of that era, but does so with a cast of characters that are not stereotypical, which makes it all the more interesting to read, because it defies expectation and presents an alternate scenario by focusing on those who defy convention, transgressing this straight-laced, Victorian society daring to live in ways outside mainstream society and getting away with it.

One of the more shocking historical revelations was the mention of the Private Member’s Bill entitled the Married Woman’s Property Act, a measure to address and reverse the fact that though an unmarried woman could inherit, by law, as soon as she married any property automatically was transferred to her husband.

At one point there is a conversation between Jane and her friends in London, where they discuss literature, a french author’s novel is set in a morgue and asks a lot of the reader, not least a strong stomach, they note there is nothing like it in England.

The French and the Russians are the only writers who follow a dark road like this one. Because they have no fear of scandal, no fear of fear. They show human life in all its difficulty. And they know that readers are wolves.
‘Wolves? I have never thought of them like that. Do you think Miss Austen’s readers are wolfish?
‘Yes, Even they. They tear at the flesh of her stories. They love to see the wicked punished or humiliated. Do we not gloat when Fanny Price rejects Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park?

It was an enjoyable read, albeit at times perplexing, because I kept asking myself questions about what the author was doing, when I realised and read more closely the difference in attitudes and dialogue of the male versus female characters. It had this daring and thought provoking intention, that didn’t quite come off in its execution, so there many moments of reader satisfaction. In a brilliant review in the FT, Natalie Whittle describes it exactly:

“In Islands of Mercy, Rose Tremain seizes the traditional image of a cautiously celibate Victorian England and blasts it with a suite of women for whom transgression leads neither to emancipation nor to damnation. Her female characters live spontaneously, sometimes dangerously, but they are not alone in making spirited sexual choices. And, in an act of pleasing literary reversal, it is a “fallen” man who leaves the country in desperate exile. These are the strengths of what is otherwise a problematic narrative, split neatly but strangely into two streams, one in Bath and the other in Borneo.” Natalie Whittle, FT

Further Reading

FT Review: Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain — Victorian transgressions

Review: by Lisa at ANZLitLovers

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was a bestseller in the US and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (2017), a National Book Award (2016), longlisted for the Booker Prize and at least 12 other awards. It has been very widely read. I picked it up at a book sale recently and decided to read it during February for Black History Month (US).

What Was The Underground Railroad?

The Underground Railroad was a network of people, African American as well as white, offering shelter and aid to escaped enslaved people from the American South. It developed as a convergence of several different clandestine efforts. The exact dates of its existence are not known, but it operated from the late 18th century to the Civil War and by 1840 it had become part of the American vernacular.

Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad, by Charles T. Webber

People referred to as “conductors” guided the fugitive enslaved people. Hiding places included private homes, churches and schoolhouses. These were called “stations” “safe houses” and “depots.” The people operating them were called “stationmasters.”

Many slaves headed for Canada because it offered Black people the freedom to live where they wanted, sit on juries, run for public office and efforts at extradition had largely failed. Some Underground Railroad operators based themselves in Canada and worked to help the arriving fugitives settle in.

Review

Fugitive Slave Acts 1793 bounty huntersCora is an African slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia and within the first few pages we learn of her grandmother’s death while working in the fields and not long after this, her mother Mabel’s disappearance, a runaway.

When Mabel vanished Cora became a stray. Eleven years old, ten years, thereabouts – there was no one now to tell for sure.

The only thing Cora inherited was a small garden plot and she had to fight to retain it, as others had ideas. Her lack of protection also resulted in her being sent to live in a hut with fellow outcasts.

The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.

Three weeks later she said yes.

The novel explores the difficult conditions the slaves live under, including the significant difference between slave masters who are brothers. When the running of the plantation changes and life becomes even more unbearable, Cora decides to make her attempt, no matter the consequences.

From the moment of their decision onward, the tension ramps up, as the whole time they are on the run, they are being pursued, in particular by one slave-catcher, who has turned Cora into a personal vendetta, on account of his not being able to find her mother.

No one knows what happens to Mabel and far from inspiring her daughter, Cora is driven by anger at having been left. And so they enter the underground railroad system.

The tunnel, the tracks, the desperate souls who found salvation in the coordination of its stations and timetables – this was a marvel to be proud of. She wondered if those who had built that thing had received their proper reward.

Colson writes of the underground railway, as if it is a physical entity, only this is a means of transporting people who are oppressed, vilified, maltreated and scorned by the mostly white population. While others travel by train above ground and see the beauty of a landscape, this route takes them into a damp, dark, unwelcoming labyrinth with no guarantee of safe passage.

At various stops, they enter new territory, sometimes staying a while, other times going into hiding, always fearful of capture.

“Every state is different,” Lumbly was saying. “Each one a state of possibility, with its own customs and way of doing things. Moving through them, you’ll see the breadth of the country before your final stop.”

It’s not an easy read and a sense of unease stays with the reader throughout. There are moments of horror, of confusion, flickers of hope, of disappointment, exhaustion, disgust. Perseverance. Belief.

He told her that every one of her enemies, all the masters and overseers of her suffering, would be punished, if not in this world then the next, for justice may be slow and invisible, but it always renders its true verdict in the end.

She didn’t believe what he said about justice, but it was nice to hear him say it.

The she woke up the next morning and she felt better, and had to admit that she did believe it, maybe just a little.

I appreciated the novel and understand its popularity, I think my enjoyment of it was affected by the horror and also because I read a number of other excellent slave narratives in February by women, whose way of storytelling relies less on the horrors and violence and more on the varying perspectives of characters, stories that are thought provoking and have stayed with me like Toni Morrison’s brilliant A Mercy and Tammye Huf’s A More Perfect Union both of which I highly recommend.

 

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

Brilliant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Spiralling Narrative

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

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

Just wow.

Ombu Trees Argentina

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

 

Further Reading

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