Bird Summons by Leila Aboulela

The first book I have read by Leila Aboulela, an author I’ve wanted to read for some time, being someone who grew up in one culture and has experienced life in another, of the variety that interests me, the opposite of the colonial visitor.

There was a time when literary insights into other cultures came predominantly from male explorers of anglo-saxon cultures, now we are increasingly able to read stories of how it is to be a woman coming from an African or Eastern culture or country, living in the West, a blend of the richness in perspective of what they bring and the fresh insights of their encounter with the place and people they have arrived to be among.

Bird Summons was all the better, for telling a tale of three women. They share in common that they belong to the Arabic Speaking Muslim Women’s Group, although they’ve each grown up in different countries. Within their group and from that element they have in common, they challenge and learn from each other.

We witness how their attitudes shift and change as they transform, within this environment they’ve adapted to. One can not live elsewhere and stay fixed in the past and even when one adapts to a new present, it is necessary to continue changing and moving forward, no matter what challenges us from the outside.

Salma has organised a trip for the members of the group to visit the remote site of the grave of Lady Evelyn Cobbold, the first British woman to perform the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, to educate themselves about the history of Islam in Britain, however rumours of its defacement cause some to have doubts, whittling their numbers to just three.

“The attempt of the women to visit Lady Evelyn’s grave is a way of connecting more closely to Britain. Because Lady Evelyn was a Muslim like them, they see her as one of them and it gives them a sense of belonging.

She was also more independent than they are, stronger, more confident, more able. She was a Scottish aristocrat and therefore vastly more entitled than they would ever be. She represents the figure of a leader which is something that they need.” Leila Aboulela

Sometimes adversity offers a gift and rather than an overnight visit, they decide to stay a week at the loch, a resort on the grounds of a converted monastery, from where they can leisurely make their way to the grave.

Each of the three women has a pressing life issue that over the week consumes them, that the other women become aware of, leading them to have a strange, hallucinatory, spiritual experience. As their journey unfolds, they explore how faith, family and culture determine their lives, decisions and futures.

As they travel we get to know their characters, their lives, how attached they are to the place they now call home and the pressures and influences on them that come from the cultures they have left behind. They live at the intersection of a past and present, of who they were and who they are becoming. This holiday will be transformational for all three of them.

“Salma, Moni and Iman are weighed down by their egos, though it might not be apparent to them at first. Like most of us, they see themselves as good people, justified in the positions and decisions they have taken.” Leila Aboulela

Salma was trained as a Doctor in Egypt, leaving her fiance, for David, a British convert who would bring her to Scotland, something her family approved of and she was excited to do, despite being unable to practice her profession. Though successful in her current job as a massage therapist, when Amir starts messaging her, she begins imagining the life she might have had, obsessively checking and replying to the messages.

Moni left a high flying career, her life now revolves around caring for her disabled son Adam, consuming her and pushing her away from her husband who wants them to join him in Saudi Arabia, something Moni rejects because of how she believes Adam will  be perceived, an outcast.

Iman is young, beautiful, unlucky in love and a poor judge of character, the men she has married were stunned by her beauty but possessive.

Surrounded by adulation and comfort, like a pet, she neither bristled nor rebelled. She did, though, see herself growing up, becoming more independent.

Hoopoe bird Bird Summons Leila Aboulela

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

And then there is the Hoopoe. The wonderful bird that’ll take some readers on a side journey to find out more. The bird comes to Iman in a dream, recounting fable-like stories.

It spoke a language that she could understand.  It knew her from long ago, it had travelled with her all those miles, never left her side, was always there but only here in this special place, could it make  itself known.

It is one of only three birds mentioned in the Quran, and symbolises tapping into ancient wisdom, probing one’s inner questions for the answers being sought.

The appearance of the Hoopoe late in the novel heralds a period of magic realism, that reminds me of the experience of reading The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. It comes as a surprise when the woman’s reality shifts, as they shape-shift and are tested within the experience. It is disconcerting for the reader as we too experience the women’s confusion, but I recognise it as part of the cultural experience, of an aspect of traditional storytelling bringing a mythical message-carrying bird into contemporary social relevance.

“The Hoopoe in classical Sufi literature is the figure of the spiritual/religious teacher who imparts wisdom and guidance. However, the Hoopoe’s powers are limited. The women must make their own choices.”

It is a wonderful book of three international women, their journey, which they believe to be a pilgrimage to an important site, which becomes an inner voyage of transformation.

Highly Recommended.

About the Author

Leila Aboulela was born in Cairo and brought up in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. She lived for some years in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Her novels include The Translator (1999), Minaret (2005) and Lyrics Alley (2010) all of which were longlisted for the Orange Prize — and The Kindness of Enemies (2015). Lyrics Alley also won Novel of the Year at the Scottish Book Awards and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

“When I write I experience relief and satisfaction that what occupies my mind, what fascinates and disturbs me, is made legitimate by the shape and tension of a story. I want to show the psychology, the state of mind and the emotions of a person who has faith. I am interested in going deep, not just looking at ‘Muslim’ as a cultural or political identity but something close to the centre, something that transcends but doesn’t deny gender, nationality, class and race. I write fiction that reflects Islamic logic; fictional worlds where cause and effect are governed by Muslim rationale. However, my characters do not necessarily behave as ‘good’ Muslims; they are not ideals or role models. They are, as I see them to be, flawed characters trying to practise their faith or make sense of God’s will, in difficult circumstances.”

Further Reading

the punch magazine: interview: Leila Aboulela, Elsewhere, Love

Quicksand by Nella Larsen (1928)

As I read the last sentence, I shouldn’t have been surprised, because the end was coming, there was no time for another escape, for the pattern of Helga’s life to continue. “Oh, my” I uttered, as understanding of the meaning of the title, “Quicksand” sunk in. It had claimed her.

Quicksand Nella Larsen Identity Race BelongingVoice is Everything

What a unique voice and depiction of a rootless young woman searching for her place in the world, bereft, not finding a sense of belonging within family, when the world around her judged the two sides of her family as if they are different peoples because of the colour of their skin.

If you couldn’t prove your ancestry and connections, you were tolerated, but you didn’t belong.

Helga’s mother was a Danish immigrant, her father an African-Caribbean man of whom she had little or no memory or connection to his family. After her mother dies Helga (15) is sent to a boarding school, where life is a little easier for her, except for the growing awareness, like a hole inside her, that unlike her peers, she has no siblings, no family, no roots, no longing for home, no real happiness.

They had mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, of whom they spoke frequently, and who sometimes visited them.

Her life becomes a search to fill the void, an attempt to purge herself from a self-loathing of having been exposed to both sides of her heritage and their disdain for each other, unable to fully embrace either one, as she is both. And from the opening pages you know you are in the presence of a woman who is on a quest to discover if this is all there is, this half life she’s been living until now.

In one sense, her ability to get up and change her circumstances is admirable, empowering even, her refusal to accept the status quo and take action, her departing words carry unexpected strength. When she resigns from her teaching job mid-term, she doesn’t hold back in telling the principal how much she hates the school ans his misguided perception of who he thinks she is, with her conflicted feelings of her biracial and non-Southern lineage.

In the girl blazed a desire to wound. There he sat, staring dreamily out of the window, blatantly unconcerned with her or her answer. Well, she’d tell him. She pronounced each word with deliberate slowness.
“Well for one thing, I hate hypocrisy. I hate cruelty to students, and to teachers who can’t fight back. I hate backbiting, and sneaking, and petty jealousy.”

Revenge Against Rejection

When she encounters those who see her, like Dr Anderson, she feels the urge to abandon her selfish need to flee, responding to a mystifying yearning to serve, until he too says the words that will inflame her ego, pushing reason away, refusing it a place in her thought process.

“Someday you’ll learn that lies, injustice and hypocrisy are a part of every community. Most people achieve a sort of protective immunity, a kind of callousness, toward them. If they didn’t, they couldn’t endure. I think there’s less of these evils here than in most places, but because we’re trying to do such a big thing, to aim so high, they irk some of us more.”

Her loss and lack of rootedness creates an incessant restlessness, her education, beauty and even her bigoted relative provide her the means to be independent. But that which she wishes to escape from, continuously pursues her, seeking solace in the outer world, she avoids the one path that might bring her serenity, to look within.

Nella Larsen Quicksand Passing Harlem Renaissance

Nella Larsen

She leaves Nashville for Chicago, where she discovers the need for connections and references and is brutally rejected by her Uncle’s new wife, who can’t bear to harbour the thought they might be related.

She saw herself for an obscene sore in all their lives, at all costs to be hidden. She understood, even while she resented. It would have been easier if she had not.

She finds her way to New York and finds solace there, until the restlessness returns. The descriptions of her encroaching discontent are vivid, realistic, perhaps even a real memory, described by Approaches to Teaching the Novels of Nella Larsen the more “obviously autobiographical” of Larsen’s two novels.

A windfall from her Uncle provokes an impulse to seek out her family in Denmark, whom she has dim but fond memories of from a childhood visit. Again she begins life anew and initially revels in it, and enjoys being the object of attention, until the vague discontent returns.

She desired ardently to combat this wearing down of her satisfaction with her life, with herself. But she didn’t know how.

A Sign of Healing

We are lured into the belief she may have found the right path, as leaving Denmark signifies a return after hearing the wailing undertones of songs remembered in her youth strike her longing heart, remove her defenses, making her homesick for more than just the land of her birth.

For the first time Helga Crane felt sympathy rather than contempt and hatred for that father, whom so often and so angrily she had blamed for his desertion of her mother. She understood, now, his rejection, his repudiation, of the formal calm her mother had represented. She understood his yearning, his intolerable need for the inexhaustible humor and the incessant hope of his own kind, his need for those things, not material, indigenous to all his peoples’ environments.

Nella Larsen Passing Quicksand BiRacial Identity Belonging

Photo by Josh Sorenson on Pexels.com

A Surprise Twist

The plot then takes a significant and surprising turn and the ending too, contributing to what no doubt makes this an interesting novella for discussion, as to the origins and perpetuation of Helga’s difficulties, separation from the mother, from one’s lineage and family, identity, race, cross-cultural societal differences, what it means to belong and the expectations of being a woman.

I loved it. Even if it felt unfinished, like a young woman’s coming-of-age as she learns who she is, first from the outside, in terms of how others perceive her and also how she perceives the outside world, initially with each move, falling into the same trap of finding solace in that which is external to her. She is ripe for an inner journey of transformation, that which follows the realisation that who ones parents and family are, isn’t who “I am”. Instead she finds something else, a fork in the road and it is as if the author can not take us further.

Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen (1891-1964), an acclaimed novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, became the first African American woman to win a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and won the Harmon Foundation Bronze Medal for Literature, celebrated as one of the bright stars of the Harlem Renaissance.

Famous for her two books Quicksand and Passing, she was the daughter of immigrant parents. Her father, Peter Walker, was a black cook from the West Indies, and her mother, Mary Hanson, was a Danish seamstress. Soon after Larsen was born, her father disappeared. Her mother remarried a white Danish man named Peter Larsen and they had a daughter. She spent four years living in Denmark before returning to the US where she worked as a nurse and a librarian.

 

I Am Dust by Louise Beech

This book is magical and extraordinary, as is the author, her daughter and her grandfather. I feel like I know them all, though we’ve never met. I’m unable to give an objective opinion because this book and her debut How to Be Brave will forever be etched in my heart and mind as books that evoked an experience that I now have a personal connection to.

A Dedication

I Am Dust Louise Beech Jenna Spartan Allia JenI Am Dust was dedicated by Louise Beech to my 17 year old daughter Allia Jen who passed away suddenly in Aug 2019 as the last chapters to this book were being written.

Like Louise’s daughter, Allia Jen lived with the daily grind (4 injections/day) of Type 1 diabetes. Louise’s excellent novel How to Be Brave (about a daughter’s challenging diagnosis and an arduous ‘lost at sea’ survival story inspired by her own Grandad Colin’s war story), was my reading choice when Jen had corrective back surgery for scoliosis in 2016.

We experienced a kind of psychic connection as that book took us on a trip, me experiencing symptoms of being lost at sea and for Allia Jen, the post midnight, morphine-induced presence of three beings with “strange English accents” present in the room. ‘It was Granddad Colin’, I said.

Jen loved the theatre, it was their favourite holiday activity, signing up for week long, full day theatre activities, mostly improvisation, rarely scripted. At first it seemed incomprehensible, having spent six years of primary school mute, never speaking in class, to school friends, or the teacher. And then wanting to sign up for theatre? Yes, but never with friends or anyone who Jen knew and I was requested not to attend the final show. I didn’t mind. I loved that she’d found her voice, was projecting it on stage and had found a new community of like-minded souls.

So ‘I Am Dust‘, a suspenseful, teen drama with a psychic element and a protagonist whose great love is the theatre, a character who is creative and doesn’t recognise her own talent, is a magical and meaningful gift to a mother who totally gets it.

The power is in us all along.

Book Review: I Am Dust

The novel is written in a past/present dual narrative.  In 2005 we meet Chloe, Jess and Ryan, teenagers in a youth theatre group that is rehearsing Macbeth; alternate chapters bring us to present day 2019 where Chloe works as an usher at the Dean Wilson Theatre, Jess is now the actress ‘Ginger’ and no-one has seen or heard of Ryan since that summer of Macbeth.

Morbid curiosity, youthful bravado and teenage love had joined the three of them, on a dusty stage in a church.

Louise Beech Playwright Author Writer I Am Dust Hull

Author, Playwright Louise Beech

The theatre is believed to be haunted by long-dead actress Morgan Miller who played the lead in the opening premiere of the musical ‘Dust’ a season that ended after four nights due to the tragedy.

The teens had been involved in a spooky game after hours, each of them with an ulterior motive; as the narrative progresses in the present, Chloe recalls what happened in the past, things she’d forgotten.

For some reason when Chloe chatted with Jess, a void cracked open and memories Chloe hadn’t known were there slithered out, like lava laden with debris – the dusty stage at the youth theatre, a box with letters and a glass in it, and three shimmering candles.

The past gains clarification and the present moves towards the re-staging of the iconic musical creating an atmosphere of eerie suspense and renewed interest in the unsolved murder of the lead actress.

‘How did we forget?
‘Don’t people bury traumatic memories?’
‘Maybe,’ muses Ginger. ‘But it’s more like…I don’t know. It’s like the synopsis of a play. We just can’t see the actual script.’
‘I agree. I can see bits clearly…other stuff, not so much.’

The setting in the theatre is realistically evoked, as if we are there; as the lights go down and the crackle of a voice comes through the radio earpiece with it’s threatening tone, a shiver runs down my spine and I imagine her in the dark looking around for the source of the menace.

At times the suspense is dragged out and the scenes with the teens end prematurely making the reader wait for them to meet again, but by the time to musical is close to opening for the second time, the pace has picked up and I’m no closer to suspecting the truth behind the mystery element of the novel, my one suspicion turning out to be hopelessly wrong and the finale comes as a shock.

And then the most beautiful, reverent ending that evoked all kinds of emotion in me and had tears rolling my cheeks. I look back at the dates that the book was being written and remember what was happening in our own lives at that time and recognise how much more I understand about life after death than I did before August 2019.

‘That’s what I found the hardest,’ admits Morgan, still golden gorgeous in the glow of the mirror lights. ‘Never getting to say goodbye to anyone properly. But there are ways you can. Love lingers. It’s still there, even if you’re not.’

I can’t say whether this book is for you, but I want to say a huge thank you to Louise Beech for her gesture, and for following her own heart and passion, for she too, like the protagonist, is a lover of theatre, an usher and a girl with a few screenplays in her top drawer that I hope one day, like Chloe’s, will make it onto the stage.

Written from the heart, it brings the stage alive, igniting the imagination of those with a passion for theatre, whether from the front mezzanine seats or in the spotlight. It would make an excellent theatre piece.

Lest We Forget

“I’m still here; I am dust.

I’m those fragments in the air,

the gold light dancing there,

that breeze from nowhere.”

Dust – the musical

Further Reading

My review of How To Be Brave

My review of Louise Beech’s The Mountain in My Shoe

My review of Louise Beech’s Maria in the Moon

Buy a Copy of I Am Dust via Book Depository

 

Auē by Becky Manawatu

I read this with a feeling of mild apprehension throughout, which grew by the end and had me staying up late to finish it, to move beyond that feeling that something bad was going to happen. Now I can say, yes, it’s okay, step outside the comfort zone and read it. It’s brilliant.

Ockham New Zealand Book Awards 2020

Aue Becky Manawatu Makaro Press Literary Fiction ReviewAuē has just won the annual NZ Book Award for fiction. I read last year’s winner Fiona Kidman’s This Mortal Boy, inspired by the true story of a young Northern Irish man who travelled to NZ in the 1950’s seeking employment opportunities and a future only to meet a tragic, unjust end.

I saw that Becky Manawatu had written a personal essay about her sister, so I read The novelist whose sister married into the Mongrel Mob.

It made me think of that dark television series I didn’t like, created by Jane Campion Top of the Lake; Auē too is set in the South Island, a land of extreme beauty and few humans – I thought, do I really want to read this?

Despite the current of fear created by the essay and that TV series, something about it felt unique and standalone, the heartfelt reviews on Goodreads ultimately convinced me, like this line from Kayla Polamalu:and her publisher, who described her as ‘a writer to her bones — such a talent, such a heart.’

“This book has created an ache in my chest that I’ll carry with me for a long time. It is awful in such a way that it is brilliant, sentences so visceral my breath would stop.
It is triumphant too – the spades of sorrow matched by spades of hope.”

Having read and enjoyed Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen with it’s Irish vernacular, I was interested to read something with a connection to Māori, a language and culture I learned and adored from the age of 5 until 12, I hoped it wasn’t going to be too visceral.

Review of Auē

Auē – to cry, howl, groan, wail, bawl

The story is told from three narrative perspectives, with chapters highlighting either Ārama (an 8 year old boy Ari), Taukiri (his older brother) and Jade & Toko (a couple).

South Island Aue Becky Manawatu Literary fiction

Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Pexels.com

It begins with Ari being dropped off at his Aunty Kat’s home by his brother Taukiri, who then departs and drives north, severing contact with everyone as he crosses the channel on the ferry to the North Island jetting his ringing telephone into the tide.

Sitting on his own on a beach on Christmas day, eating Marmite sandwiches Taukiri thinks about his little brother. It’s the first time he’s been close to the sea since Bones Bay. A place whose story has yet to be revealed.

One year Ari got a box of chocolates, and when the box was empty, he cut out photos of me and him, pictures of waves and surfboards and a guitar and glued them to the box to give to me for my birthday. That empty chocolate box was the best present I’d ever been given.

It becomes clear that the narratives of the two boys are set in the present and that of the couple in the past. The novel moves forward fleshing out its main characters who we grow more and more attached to, building tension and slowly revealing the connection between them all.

Despite Taukiri’s desperation to remove the past, it continues to haunt him, memories mix with things he sees and hears, a kaleidoscope of confused images assault him.

I guessed it would be this way for me and Ari. We would look for pieces of everyone we’d lost, in mirrors and crowds.
That’s how Ari would come to feel about me – that he’d lost me and had to search for me in places where I wasn’t.
He’d get over that though. It’d get easier.

Occasionally there is an italicized voice of someone not present, a lyrical incantation of the wind, or the presence of a spirit, observing – familiar and yet just outside of reach, pushing the reader on towards clarification.

Django Aue Becky Manawatu Makaro PressAri befriends the neighbours daughter Beth, she lives with her Dad and Ari prefers the atmosphere over there, even though some of the things Beth likes scare him. Beth is brilliant, a little kid with a whole lot of attitude, the confidence of being reassuring well-loved, if dangerously naive due to a little parental inattentiveness. And those drop-dead, three words she utters that steal or perhaps save the narrative.

‘Let’s go to my place and watch Django.’
‘Why do you like that movie so much?’
‘It’s a dog-eat-dog world and we gotta stay ahead of the game.’
‘That’s not how the world really is.’
‘Isn’t it? Like I said that rabbit was probably an orphan, like you are. Like I sort of am.’

Jade is the child who grew up in a House like the one from Top of the Lake. A scary place. Her parents are no longer there, but she was reclaimed by the new inhabitants. Reading her chapters is unsettling, she seems not to possess a mind of her own and every time she almost breaks free, trauma arrives unbidden. Used to it, she blames herself for existing, the inherited trauma of past generations.

his soft hand as he spoke of the violence that ended her father’s life reminded her of something. The only type of love she knew. Fury then remorse and forgiveness.

It’s a compelling, riveting story that feels likes riding the waves, moments of joy at the heights, the threat of doom as they crash.  And the poetry of the in-between, the goodness inherent within the young and those who have been loved, the healing that can happen when families reconnect, the ceaseless drama of life. The characterisation is so well done, unsentimental but deeply empathetic, the vulnerability of some sits in deep contrast to the brutal nature of others, the tension almost unbearable.

A 5 star read – extraordinary literary fiction.

Three Words – Read this Book

Mākaro Press is named after a nearby island, Mākaro was the niece of the legendary great Maori explorer Kupe, who discovered Aotearoa (New Zealand) around the 10th century and named two islands after his nieces Mākaro and Matiu. Like their uncle they are considered imaginative, curious and courageous, like this indie press. Publishing literary fiction and run by Mary McCallum and her son Paul Stewart, I leave you with the publisher’s words on this extraordinary book:

Makaro Press Aue Becky Manawatu

I published Auē because it is a deeply powerful, very real and beautifully written book about New Zealanders living hard-scrabble lives. Māori who carry generations of trauma in their bones that spills out here in one family in a small town.

The characters are compelling and the story holds the reader tightly as it winds through the interconnected lives of Ārama and Beth, Taukiri, Toko and Jade, and another who watches and weeps.

There is darkness, yes, but there is elation too in the beauty of the writing, and in the telling of the story at the micro level with the two children, and in the incredible moment when the tide turns … I’ve read the climax of the book so many times because it is so damned good. Mary McCallum, Mākaro Press

If you’re interested in reading this book and having trouble finding a copy, it’s currently available as an ebook direct from the indie publisher Mākaro Press.

Further Reading

Read the First Chapter – the beautiful, shocking first chapter of Auē

Personal Essay – A Day’s Grace by Becky Manawatu

Article by Mary McCallum, The Spinoff – The rise and triumphant rise of Makaro Press

Circe by Madeline Miller

Retelling Greek Myths From an Awakened Perspective

Greek Myth of Circe Odyssey UlyssesOriginally published in 2018, Circe is a reimagined version of one of the ancient Greek myths, which have been variously retold through the ages, but possibly never quite in a voice like Madeline Miller’s that brings a feminine perspective and knowing, to fill in the gaps and flesh out a story that reconsiders some of the motivations the exiled  protagonist Circe might have operated under.

I enjoy well handled myths and fables and the classical Greek myths are among the longest-lived continuing to inspire much creative output. I love the voyage of discovery a retelling takes the reader on, igniting our curiosity to seek out and understand a set of characters more, finding their origins, the connections.

Last year I read Icelandic author Sjón’s The Whispering Muse, introducing me to Medea, Jason and The Argonautica, an epic poem by Apollonius of Rhodes, (Hellenistic poet, 3rd century BC). I read and reviewed Miller’s award winning The Song of Achilles, but I wasn’t nearly as animated by it as Circe.

Review

I absolutely loved the book and the evolution of the character Circe from a somewhat insular, jealous nymph, not really knowing her place in life, though her gesture towards the punished Prometheus was a clue; to her fully fledged, capable, learned, wise woman self that is revealed when she lives in isolation on the island Aiaia.

I decided to read the book straight through before looking up Circe in Myths of Greece and Rome by H.A. Gueber, because I knew Miller was going to tell us her story from Circe’s perspective and I wanted to absorb that without any  pre-conceived influence.

It starts off slowly as Circe is living in the Halls of the Gods, she is the daughter of Helios the Sun God, who rides his chariot cross the skies each day, ensuring the sun rises and sets on time the world over and her mother Perse, a naiad (a type of female spirit, or nymph, presiding over fountains and bodies of fresh water).

Her family don’t pay her much attention and in her lonesome wanderings she encounters a mortal, the fisherman Glaucus, whom she begins to meet secretly and worrying about his future, she creates a bed of flowers wishing he might transform into a God, so he can become immortal like her.

However, once he enters the Halls he is distracted by all the other beauties, no longer seeking Circe out, upset she seeks revenge against one of the nymphs Scylla, creating a spell to turn her into what Circe believes is her nature within, and Scylla becomes a multi-headed sea-monster.

Beautiful Scylla, dainty-doe Scylla, Scylla with her viper heart.

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

Circe is punished by her father and exiled to the island of Aiaia, which doesn’t sound too bad, despite being alone, there is a well equipped home with self-cleaning capabilities, plenty of plant, animal and bird life and rather than a dog, she befriends a lioness, who sleeps at her hearth.

I learned to recognise the different blooming vines and gaudy roses, to spot the shining dragonflies and coiling snakes. I climbed the peaks where the cypresses speared black into the sky, then clambered down to the orchards and vineyards where purple grapes grew thick as coral.  I walked the hills, the buzzing meadows of thyme and lilac,  and set my footprints across the yellow beaches. I searched out every cove and grotto, found the gentle bays, the safe harbour for ships. I heard the wolves howl, and the frogs cry from their mud…I was drunk, as the wine and nectar in my father’s hall had never made me. No wonder I have been so slow I thought. All this while I have been a weaver without wool, a ship without the sea.

From the moment she is exiled, something changes, Circe comes into her own and without the distraction, drama and judgement of the halls she has left behind, she begins to listen to her intuition and develop her knowledge of plants and remedies, experimenting with tinctures and seeds and leaves. Developing a skill that was not divine, not magic, something ‘made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over and sung.’

For a hundred generations, I had walked the world drowsy and dull, idle and at my ease.  I left no prints, I did no deeds. Even those who had loved me a little  did not care to stay.

Dragonfly Nature Circe

Photo by Marian Florinel Condruz on Pexels.com

She discovers her inner power and outer skill through practice. But as we know, solitude becomes less of a novelty over time and when visitors arrive she is happy to see them; Hermes checks in on her, bringing a prophecy, punished daughters are sent to do time and it is said that Odysseus himself will come, a turning point in her story.

In the origins of the story, she is perceived as evil, as if when she cast her spells upon these men who arrive by ship, she has no reason. They who feast at her table, drink her wine and then discover she is a woman alone without a husband – before able to act on their dishonourable intentions – are turned into four legged swine.

It takes little stretch of the imagination to read between the lines, however things change when Odysseus sends his men ahead of him and arrives later alone, no surprise that he who acts with respect toward the hospitality offered meets a different fate.

There was always a leader, he was not the largest, and he need not be the captain, but he was the one they looked to for instruction in their cruelty.  He had a cold eye and a coiling tension. Like a snake, the poets might say, but I knew snakes better by then. Give me the honest asp, who strikes me if I trouble him and not before.

There is so much more to the story, but it is one that has to be read and experienced. Brilliantly written, inspired by the epic tales but told in a compelling way appropriate to the 21st century when the woman’s story is given voice, being listened to and shared, rising to bring balance to a skewed narrative of the past.

Madeline Miller Answers Questions on her Inspiration

What classics did she rely on to write Circe?

The Odyssey Emily Wilson TranslationAlong with the Iliad and the Odyssey, I also drew on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Vergil’s Aeneid, the Argonautica, the Telegony, Euripides‘ Medea, Sophocles‘ Philoctetes’, Tennyson’s poem Ulysses, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, and lots of small pieces from all kinds of other scattered places.

I like to throw open the doors, and read everything I can about all the different figures, not just the protagonist. I never know where I might find the key detail that animates the character in my imagination, so I try to look everywhere.

In most tellings Circe is depicted as an evil sorceress, you chose to show her humanity and make her likable, why?

Circe has been portrayed as a two-dimensional villain in most post-Homeric works. In the Odyssey itself, however, she’s actually a much more balanced and complex character. Yes, she’s frightening, and yes, she turns men to pigs, but after she and Odysseus become lovers she offers to help him and his men, giving them shelter and helping them heal from their griefs for an entire year. Her house is the only place in the Odyssey that Odysseus doesn’t agitate to leave; his men have to come and remind him that it’s time to go.

Then, when he tells her he’s leaving, Circe doesn’t try to keep him, nor even complain about his going. She instead offers him vital help and advice on the difficult road ahead. She ends up, in fact, being one of the most helpful people he encounters!

So I think it’s very interesting that she’s been made into such a villain. It has much more to say about our fear of powerful women than it does about Homer’s poetry. Even the detail of Circe’s connection to humanity comes from Homer–he calls her “the dread goddess who speaks like a human.” I wanted to return to that complexity, and expand it further.

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

Rose Tremain is an author whose books I never hesitate to pick up, she is such an engaging storyteller. The last novel I read by her was The Colour, set in New Zealand during the gold rush, an excellent alternative to the lengthier The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.

Review

Set in Switzerland, The Gustav Sonata opens in 1947 in the village of Matzlingen when Gustav is five years old, and like a sonata is structured in three parts.

Gustav lives in a small apartment with his mother Emilie who works at the local Emmental cheese factory, her circumstances diminished since the death of her husband. Frustrated by motherhood and resentful, Emilie finds little solace in the presence of her son, she  barely extends basic care towards him. Each morning they walk to kindergarten.

He never cried. He could often feel a cry trying to come up from his heart, but he always forced it down. Because this was how Emilie had told him to behave in the world. He had to master himself. The world was alive with wrongdoing, she said, but Gustav had to emulate his father who, when wronged, had behaved like an honourable  man; he had mastered himself. In this way Gustav would be prepared for the uncertainties to come. Because even in Switzerland where the war hadn’t trespassed, nobody yet knew how the future would unfold.

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Gustav befriends an anxious little boy named Anton and inspires confidence in him. Emilie invites him to play, but then seems disturbed by his name, doesn’t want him around. Gustav visits Anton and discovers his new friend is a gifted piano player.

‘I’m going to play for Gustav’ said Anton. ‘I’m going to play The Linden Tree.’

‘If you listen carefully and close your eyes,’ said Anton, ‘you can hear the leaves of the tree rustling in the notes.’

In Part Two the story moves back to 1937 and we meet Emilie again as a young girl, attending a festival with a friend, oblivious to the troubled undercurrent gripping the continent.

Europe is moving, slowly, almost blindly, like a sleepwalker, towards catastrophe. But in the villages of Mittelland, the calendar of feast days and festivals unrolls through a fine and untroubled summer.

In the excitement of the day, the girls meet off-duty Assistant Police Chief Erich Perle, just as he is crowned Schwinger Champion at the festival, they’re both smitten, he tells them his work isn’t onerous, having no idea yet of the trouble that is headed his way.

‘What’s “onerous”,’ asks Sofie?

‘Burdensome or difficult. The reason police work isn’t very onerous is because the Swiss enjoy obeying the law. On the whole, unless a law is felt to be unjust, they prefer to obey it. When I joined the force, I was told in one of the lectures that Switzerland is a country where people have mastery over themselves.’

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The story unfolds and by Part Three Gustav is a mature adult and hotel owner. Not much has changed in the cool, indifference shown to him by his mother, but he develops an interest in uncovering the mystery surrounding his father, of which we are now aware more of than he. Thoughts of childhood continue to invoke an inexplicable sadness.

The sadness gathered like a grey twilight around the idea of his own invisibility: the way the boy Gustav had kept on trying to push himself into the light so that his Mutti would see him better. But she had never seen him better. She’d remained half blind to who he was.

It’s a beautifully written simple story unraveling the circumstances that brought these people together and the reverberating impact of decisions they made that changed the course of their lives. It is the story of a friendship that is little understood until it fragments and is temporarily severed, separation allowing the space to reflect on the importance a shared history brings. It’s about making amends.

Rose Tremain’s Islands of Mercy – coming Sept 2020

1865, in the city of Bath, a young woman renowned for her nursing skills is convinced another destiny will one day present itself. When she finds herself torn between a dangerous affair and the promise of a conventional marriage to an apparently respectable doctor, her desires lead her towards a future she never imagined.

On the island of Borneo, an eccentric British ‘rajah’, Sir Ralph Savage, overflowing with philanthropy but compromised by his passions, sees his schemes undermined by his own fragility, by man’s innate greed and the invasive power of the forest.

Jane’s quest for an altered life and Sir Ralph’s endeavours entwine as the story journeys from the confines of an English tearoom to the rainforests of a tropical island via the slums of Dublin and the transgressive fancy-dress boutiques of Paris.

Islands of Mercy is a novel that ignites the senses, a bold exploration of the human urge to seek places of sanctuary in a pitiless world.

******

Do you have a favourite Rose Tremain novel?

Good Behavior by Molly Keane

Thoughts On A Novel

I read this book with great discomfort all the way through. I have a sense of having being conned. It was mentioned more than once in an Irish Times article Laugh in the time of Corona: Favourite funny books. It was also nominated for the Booker Prize in 1981, Hilary Mantel calls it an ‘overlooked classic’.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, was also mentioned and I agree, there were many laugh out moments for me there and great compassion too, some recompense for the underlying sadness of a woman spending the end of her days in a hotel with strangers who become almost friends and the unexpected gift of a complicit friendship with a young man who makes up for an absent grandson.

In Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour, not only were there no laugh out loud moments, I may have grimaced all the way through. So utterly did I dislike the story and the characters, I questioned my understanding of the word behaviour, there wasn’t any good behaviour, even when the characters denied their true thoughts and said things to cover them, the behaviour remained appalling. The only exception being the maid Rose who kept the household going, working and caring her way through the narrative, shifting her alliances towards whichever household member required her attention.

The Anglo-Irish & Big Houses

Although Molly Keane was an Irish novelist and playwright, it felt like I was reading an old English novel and I saw many refer to her as Anglo-Irish, so I had to fill myself in on what that influence I could feel in the text was about. So for those like me who didn’t grow up in either of those countries, a quick explanation on what it meant to be Anglo-Irish.

Coolbawn House, County Wexford burned in 1923 By Mike Searle, CC BY-SA

The Anglo-Irish social class made up most of the professional and landed class from the 17th century up to Irish Independence around 1920, they were until that time the ruling aristocracy. They identified as Irish but retained English habits in business, politics, culture and society. They participated in English sports, they loved horse sports, racing, fox hunting, would send their children to boarding schools in England if possible and often intermarried with the ruling classes in Great Britain.

Many constructed large country houses in the first half of the 18th century, ranging from palatial mansions to more modest ‘large’ houses known as Big Houses, a symbol of their class dominance in Irish society. Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, published in 1800 is one of the original Big House novels. Elizabeth Bowen chronicled the decline of the Big House in The Last September.

275 were destroyed, deliberately burned by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) during the Irish revolutionary period (1919-1921) including Molly Keane’s family’s own estate, her father ignoring warnings to leave and take his family to England, refusing to leave the place even when he saw them coming to burn it down.

Book Review

The protagonist of Good Behaviour is Iris Aroon St Charles, daughter of an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family, who grows up with her brother Hubert in ‘Temple Alice’ one of the ‘Big Houses’, built by an ancestor as his temporary residence until inheriting his titles and estates.

Now the title extinct and estates entirely dissipated, Temple Alice, after several generations as a dower house (a house intended as the residence of a widow), came to Mummie when her mother died. Papa farmed the miserably few hundred acres that remained of the property.

While the novel opens with a chapter when she is fifty-seven-years old at her mother’s death-bed, the remainder of the novel focuses on their life under the tutelage of a governess Mrs Brock up until her sudden departure through to her twenties when she is an unhappy, overweight, unmarried daughter without prospect, living a life of gross deception and delusion. Seeds of her discontent are sown early on, with a mother lacking in maternal feeling.

She simply did not want to know what was going on in the nursery. She had had us and she longed to forget the horror of it once and for all. She didn’t really like children; she didn’t like dogs either, and she had no enjoyment of food, for she ate almost nothing.

Animals, food and her brother are her consolation, her mother rarely responds even when Aroon reports that she thinks her baby brother is dead, she enquires where the staff are. Her father responds and inspires hope. She seeks out his company, a kind word, favour, he seeks comfort elsewhere.

We adored Papa, and his hopeless disapproval paralysed any scrap of confidence or pleasure we had ever had in ourselves or our ponies.

When Mrs Brock intervenes and with kindness and encouragement succeeds in endowing them with the necessary confidence, he turns away shaking his head.

In those days one did not quite admit the possibility of cowardice, even in young children. The tough were the ones who mattered;  their courage was fitting and credible. A cowardly child was a hidden sore, and a child driven to admit hatred of his pony was something of a leper in our society. It appeared to Papa that Mrs Brock has rescued our honour and his credit.

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An awkward teen she revels in her brother’s company and his friend Richard. The time the three spend together is the height of her happiness, little realising they too are indulging in ‘good behaviour’ masking an ulterior motive, using her as an alibi. Her self-deception knows no bounds.

Here, to my delight , Hubert and Richard danced with me in turn. I almost preferred dancing with Hubert because I loved showing off to Richard…I was fulfilled by them. I felt complete. There was no more to ask.

Aroon is constantly striving for connection and endlessly blind to reality, and when connection is possible, where genuine friendship might have a chance to flourish, she is locked into the conventions of her class that forbid it. She lacks empathy and is unaware of her own bitterness, so we have little sympathy for her predicament.

The family live in denial of their escalating debt, living beyond their means and incapable of doing anything for themselves. When her father returns from war injured, Aroon tries to get close to him and is thwarted once again. Without prospect of marriage, her mother closing her out, her father’s attentions elsewhere, she seems doomed.

And then a final twist.

And yet. The thirty years in-between the beginning and the end leave a lot more unsaid.

Selina Guiness in the Irish Times says Keane writes the most spectacularly “nasty” black comedies in Irish Big House fiction and Keane herself request her daughter to make the biography she wrote about her more like a novel adding, “I’m afraid you won’t be nasty enough.”

Perhaps it is this that so disturbs, I like a book in which a character can in some way redeem themself, can change or transform, ‘nasty, black comedies’ and characters that take pleasure in using their wounds as weapons against another isn’t entertaining for me, I am unable to wear a mask and pretend otherwise.

I know I’m in the minority as this is a popular English novel, but I’m wondering if anyone else read this with a similar feeling of discomfort?

On Molly Keane

She was full of uncertainties, anxieties, even fears, capable of striking out in anger and of little streaks of prejudice and snobbery, but in spite of all of this, Molly’s essence was in the generosity, kindness and wisdom which won her so many instant friends. It was almost as though there were two of her, one shaped by class and family circumstances, against which she often rebelled but from which she would never quite escape, and the other which stirred into life whenever she worked her way through to writing level, and this Molly became able to see through her first self with calm amusement.  Diana Athill

Further Reading

An excellent review by a reader who loved (5 star) the book – I do know how to behave – believe me, because I know. I have always known. Dear Molly, by Juliana Brina

Diana Athill on editing and befriending Molly Keane 

Molly Keane’s Anglo-Irish life: ‘Courage, glamour and fantasy’

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

A New York Times Bestseller, Pachinko is a work of historical fiction set in Korea and Japan that follows the lives of one family and how their circumstances and choices continue to reverberate through the generations.

It demonstrates how discrimination towards ‘perceived outsiders’ and their descendants becomes so deeply ingrained within a culture it distorts the way people live, even when from the outside there is no visible difference.

I won this book from the publisher after answering the question, “What do you think Min Jin Lee wanted to express with her first line of the book?” I hadn’t read the book then, but I liked how thought-provoking the first line (below) was. I’ll share my response at the end of the review.

History has failed us, but no matter.

Review

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When we meet the family it is 1910, an ageing fisherman and his wife live in Yeongdo, a coastal village near Busan in Korea. They decide to take in lodgers for extra money. They’ve had three sons, but only Hoonie, (27) the eldest and weakest survived.

Hoonie was born with a cleft palate and a twisted foot; he was however, endowed with hefty shoulders, a squat build, and a golden complexion. Even as a young man, he retained the mild, thoughtful temperament he’d had as a child.

1910 was the year Japan annexed Korea. After years of war, intimidation and political upheaval; the country would be considered a part of Japan until 1945.

Hoonie went to school long enough to learn to read and write Korean and Japanese well enough to manage the boarding house ledger and do sums so he wouldn’t be cheated in the market. They raised him to be clever and capable ensuring he’d manage when they weren’t around. One day a matchmaker paid them a visit.

We cannot help but be interested in the stories of people that history pushes aside so thoughtlessly.

Marriage in that era was like a business transaction, a person’s chances were attributable partly due to physical attributes and mostly by their family’s potential for a dowry and gifts. Hoonie was fortunate, he married Yangjin who after losing her first three, gave birth to Sunja, her fourth child and only girl. When she was 13 her father died of tuberculosis.

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Sunja and her mother work hard running the boarding house; her life is turned around when at 16, she is cornered by a group of boys on her way home from the market. Husan, a man twice her age, intervenes and forms a friendship with her, eventually seducing her; she believing he will marry her.

When she learns of his wife and family in Osaka, she severs contact and accepts an offer of marriage from a Isak, a gentle, young man recovering from illness in their boarding house, soon to depart for Osaka to be with his brother and take up a role as assistant minister in the church.

Isak noticed that when Sunja worried,  she furrowed her brow like she was trying to see better. He liked being with her;  she was capable and level-headed.  She was not helpless, and that was appealing because, although he wasn’t helpless himself, Isak knew that he was not always sensible. Her competence would be good for what his father had once termed Isak’s “impractical nature”.

The couple move to Osaka and live with Yoseb and his wife and discover life is more difficult than Isak realised. Survival is already a challenge, but being outside their native country they encounter for the first time that they are foreigners, perceived differently.

Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.

After giving birth to her son Noa, they have a son together and the boys are raised as if Isak is father to them both. Sunja’s affinity for hard work and her ability to negotiate and stand up to situations, leads her and her sister-in-law into working to support the family despite resistance from her brother-in-law.

Isak knew how to talk with people, to ask questions, and to hear the concerns in a person’s voice; she seemed to understand how to survive, and this was something he did not always know to do. He needed her; a man needed a wife.

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The women in this lengthy saga are stalwarts, it is their story, their trials and tribulations that carry the narrative and make it unique. This could easily have been a story about the underworld inhabited by men who survive and thrive on the other side of the law; instead the author ventures into the lives of women, showing how they support and strengthen families.

It is a story of their endurance and survival and how perceptions change as one generation segues into the next and yet shame and stigma continue to exert their undermining influence.

I loved the book and the immersive experience it offered due to the combination of carefully drawn characters, the attention to the detail of their lives and the expectations under which they lived.

It is clearly a work of great dedication and love, the author originally wrote a version called ‘Motherland‘ which was completely rewritten after living in Tokyo for five years, meeting and interviewing many Korean-Japanese people, discovering how much more complex their lives, identities and connections to both countries were. It necessitated a complete rewrite, taking the story back to 1910, resulting in this extraordinary, all-encompassing, immersion into a rich cultural and familial history.

The Title

It is not until page 142 that we come across ‘pachinko’, the Japanese name for pinball, a huge industry in Japan at the entry into the workforce of Sunja’s son Mozasu.

We discover the difficulty Korean-Japanese citizens have in the workforce, unable to work in ordinary professions, pushed out to the margins of society where they become street traders or involved in ‘less than ideal’ industries such as pachinko parlours. Many  Korean-Japanese person she met had a historical or social connection to pachinko.

It is a metaphor for the predicament of Koreans in Japan, caught in the aftermath of historical conflicts as they win, lose, struggle to survive, sometimes thrive and sustain their gains.

I did not know until I lived in Japan that it was a business dominated by the Korean Japanese. It’s also seen as very second class and kind of vulgar and dirty and dangerous business,” said Lee, adding that these sorts of words and attitudes are still commonly associated with Korean Japanese, even those who have lived in Japan for decades.

My Response to That Question

On the opening line of the novel: History has failed us, but no matter.

History refers to the past and it seems that there are situations or circumstances that have been lived through before, whose lessons have not filtered through to future generations. Tragedy, destruction, suffering and corruption continue. Certain people of every generation encounter inequality and discrimination, no matter what they do to blend in.

However, we should not lose hope, as somewhere in our subconscious we carry the will to survive and thrive no matter what the circumstance. The future belongs to all of us, as yet unknown, to be ventured forth into without preconception.

Further Reading

YouTube – What is Pachinko? Japan’s Strangest Obsession

Business Insider Article – Japan’s pinball gambling industry rakes in 30 times more cash than Las Vegas casinos

Buy a copy of Pachinko via Book Depository

 

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor, a popular English novelist who wrote 12 novels, was compared by Anne Tyler to Jane Austen, Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Bowen, she described them as “soul sisters all”.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was named by the Guardian as one of ‘the 100 best novels,‘ and shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1971. It is a humorous and compassionate look at friendship between an old woman and a young man at a time in her life when she has little to look forward to.

We meet Mrs Palfrey as she is checking in for a long stay at the hotel, after having visited her only daughter in Scotland. A widow who is not ready for a nursing home, she joins an eccentric group of fellow residents, doing their best to maintain their dignity and cope with boredom while competing with each other over the calibre of their visitors.

‘And you wouldn’t care to live in the North?’ Mrs Arbuthmot asked, probing.

Mrs Palfrey had not been invited to, and she did not get on well with her daughter, who was noisy and boisterous and spent most of her time either playing golf or talking about it. ‘I doubt if I could stand that climate,’ she replied.

Regrettably, she mentions the existence of her grandson Desmond, who works at the British museum and for whom she is knitting a sweater. It comes to their notice that he hasn’t visited.

‘If we don’t see him soon, we shall begin to think he doesn’t exist.’

‘Oh, he will come’ Mrs Palfrey said, and she smiled. She really believed that he soon would.

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He doesn’t come and it causes her to participate in her age old habit of ‘saving face’ which also involved small lies and having to keep track of what she’d said, which became a strain.

One day on her return from the library she falls and is helped by a young man named Ludo, whom she learns is a struggling but determined writer. She misunderstands when he says he works in Harrods.

‘Oh no, I don’t work for Harrods. I work at Harrods. In the Banking Hall. I take my writing and few sandwiches there. It’s nice and warm and they’re such comfortable chairs. And I save lighting this gas-fire, which eats up money.’

To thank him, she invites him to dine with her at the hotel and when letting the waiter know she would be expecting a guest on Saturday, declines to correct one of the residents. It is a fortuitous meeting and the beginning of an unlikely but mutually beneficial friendship.

‘So your grandson is coming to see you at last’, Mrs Arbuthnot had said on her slow way past Mrs Palfrey’s table and, for some reason she searched for later, Mrs Palfrey let her go without a word.

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And so the comedy begins, Ludo relishing his role as Desmond and the opportunity to observe them all, seeing it all as research for his novel, which he renames after one of Mrs Palfrey’s comments at dinner.

‘Mrs Arbuthnot has been at the Claremont for years.’

‘It has entered her soul.’

”But we aren’t allowed to die here.’

He threw back his head and laughed….He thought, I mayn’t write it down, but please God may I remember it. We Aren’t Allowed to Die Here by Ludovic Myers.

It’s like watching an old style, witty English television series, you read the lines and can imagine the way they speak, with air of pompous superiority, which has become even more elevated in the bourgeois elderly.

I loved the little lie Mrs Palfrey tells and the consequence it brings her, it’s perhaps the most interesting thing that happens to her and that she really looks forward to in her time at the Claremont, a random connection with a stranger, a budding new relationship, the envy of others and for him, a character study, a kind of mother figure of a different kind, and the title of his novel.

It was interesting how in this era people lived in inexpensive hotels as an alternative to independent living, not having to cook or clean or take care of any of the infrastructural requirements of a house or apartment. I’ve just read another novel about a woman who lived in a hotel in France, Colette’s The Shackle, only her protagonist was close to 40 years old, so she and her “hotel companions” got out and about more and their escapades were of a different nature.

Have you read any of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels?

Further Reading

Guardian: The 100 best novels: No 87 – Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971)

Buy a Copy of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont via Book Depository

Benediction by Kent Haruf

And finally, the third book in the Plainsong trilogy, Kent Haruf’s penultimate of his writing career, Benediction.

A man named Dad Lewis, owner of the local hardware store in Holt,  nears the end of his life. The stress of caring for him put his wife in hospital, so their daughter Lorraine returns home to help.

Next door Berta-May lives with her grand-daughter Alice whose mother died some years earlier. Lorraine takes an interest in Alice as do the Johnson’s, Willa and her 60 year-old unmarried daughter Alene.

The Reverend Lyle visits, new to Holt, sent from Denver after what happened there. His wife and son are having difficulty getting used to the place.

I doubt if he’s accustomed to small towns.
He better start getting accustomed to them, Dad said.
The women turned and looked at him. They’d thought he was asleep. Hi head was turned toward the window and he wasn’t looking at them when he talked.
Nothing goes on without people noticing, he said.

Haruf plants small seeds of intrigue in his books, one line that isn’t explained further, that suggests something that occurred in the past, we know eventually it will come out, just not yet. For all his plain talking and minimalist use of literary devices, he successfully hooks the reader early on.

He had some trouble in Denver, I heard. I believe that’s why he was sent here.

A young couple come to see him, all dressed up, asking if he could marry them, immediately. First they have a little talk about what love means to them, the girl gives her version, then the boy. The reverend is satisfied they understand and adds his thoughts to theirs.

Love is the most important part of life isn’t it. If you have love, you can live in this world in a true way and if you love each other you can see past everything and accept what you don’t understand and forgive what you don’t know or don’t like. Love is all. Love is patient and boundless and right-hearted and long-suffering.

Moved by the day he shares a little of his delight with his wife and teenage son that evening at dinner. Later, before bed, the boy comes to his mother. Others in the community will also be upset by the things the Reverend has to say, unable to understand his intent.

Why does he have to talk like that? It makes me sick.
Don’t talk about him that way.
He’s not preaching here. At the table with us. But he still sounds like he’s preaching or pointing up some moral.
He means well, you know that. He was trying to tell us about something that was important to him.
He’s full of shit Mom.
Don’t talk like that. It’s not true.
It is. I can’t stand it when he talks like that.

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There are the humorous dialogues I’ve come to expect, the laugh out loud moments, that catch you unawares and you just want to reread them because they’re so good.  It’s a novel that observes ageing from different angles, through different minds.

Willa asks her daughter if she’s not too lonely, she says she tries not to think about it and her mother tells her, oh but you will dear, but it’ll get better.

How will I get better?
It’s gets better. Everything gets better.
How?

And then you get your laugh out moment, which I won’t spoil by telling you what she says! When the women characters Willa, Alene, Lorraine and Alice come together, they’re bridging the deficit each of them has in their lives, opening up and allowing their personal stories to move forward.

Dad Lewis comes to the realisation that in order to let ago, he needs to make amends for some things in his life he realises he regrets. Where he is unable to, he makes certain spontaneous redemptive acts, paying it forward.

It wasn’t until I read this third book that I began to wonder about the titles and I realised I didn’t even know what plainsong meant. The titles seem symbolic despite the fact that Haruf avoids literary devices in his narrative. Haruf said of his prose in an interview, it includes “almost no metaphors or figurative language” because he was “trying to get at the thing itself without comparing it with something else.”

I learn that plainsong refers to ‘words that are sung, without any instrumental accompaniment’ which describes his style, a continuous melodic narrative, a work of austere realism, free of literary ornamentation.

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Eventide refers to evening, or the end of the day, the period of decreasing daylight from late afternoon until nightfall, the continuation of the story that started with Plainsong. These books are more connected to each other than Benediction, like the day and night of one story, whereas the third book could be standalone, with only the briefest mentions of past characters if at all.

Benediction is the double act, to give a blessing and ask for divine guidance, to both be thankful and to ask for guidance in the days to come. The book’s epigraph says ‘the utterance of a blessing, an invocation of blessedness’. Appropriate to the living and to the dying.

Haruf’s preferred aesthetic strategy is simply to present his characters from the outside, as we follow what they do, what they say, and how they interact with others. To an extent, the inner lives of these characters remain something of a mystery to us, but this also seems to be an intentional effect — we must infer motive from a character’s actions and at times allow emotion to remain implicit. Daniel Green, Full-Stop

The real draw to his stories then are the characters and their situations, their understated way of being with each other, the little that is said, the importance that something must be said, the situations that force that to occur.

Everyone has their underlying wounds, but rather than excavate their thoughts, Haruf creates examples of how people move on (literally) from their situations, often in small ways, to heal and find faith in humanity again. And suffer again, in that never-ending cycle of growth.

Overall, an excellent and thought provoking trilogy to have read during this quite time of confinement.

Further Reading

My review of Book 1 Plainsong

My Review of Book 2 Eventide