nicola griffith is one of the best writers out there and if you haven't read her books you should. the only book of hers that left me cold was the thinicola griffith is one of the best writers out there and if you haven't read her books you should. the only book of hers that left me cold was the third aud torvingen novel, Always, and the reason it left me cold is maybe similar to the reason why i found that this book, Ammonite, lost some steam 3/4 of the way through (it got it back before the end!).
let me start with saying that this is griffith's first novel. it's an absolutely phenomenal first novel -- the writing is perfect, the pacing is perfect, the characters are perfect. where another author might spend words explaining, griffith gestures deftly with a word or a sentence, and you are all set and, occasionally, blown away. i admire this. i admire the precision and focus of her work.
i also admire that she writes books about people who happen to be women who happen to love other women. this is not "women's fiction" or "lesbian fiction" any more than Mrs. Dalloway is women's fiction (or lesbian fiction!). her characters are complex and rich and tough and tender, and she manages to build entire worlds (in this case, literally) in which very real people experience the full gamut and complexity of human emotions and dramas -- those traditionally assigned to men and those traditionally assigned to women.
as a sci-fi author, griffith is up there with the best. both Ammonite and Slow River are top-notch sci-fi novels, from writing to story to characterization.
Ammonite is about a planet far off into the wide wide universe which is entirely inhabited by women. there are still men on our green planet earth, but they can't go to this faraway planet (the earthlings call it jeep) because they will contract a virus that will kill them. women contract the virus too but, unlike men, have a chance to survive it. a sinister "company" is dying to get its greedy paws onto the planet and its riches, but until a cure for the virus is found this is a no go plan. there is a little bit of gender dig in this, cuz of course if women can survive the virus they can also run things for the company. female earthlings, it must be said, consider their chances to survive the virus very very low, so there's that, but one cannot but perceive the company as distinctly male.
let me point out that the novel does not have a single male character, in any role at all, however tiny. i don't think men are even mentioned. no other author comes to mind who has tried this with such resounding success (Charlotte Perkins Gilman tried something of the sort in Herland -- which does have a couple of (entirely clueless and ridiculed) guys -- but the novel, though interesting, does not reach griffithian levels of mastery).
i think griffith puts to sleep the question of whether a world run by women would be a gentler world. the answer is a definite no, in all respects.
the crux of the book is the us vs. them conundrum. jeep is populated by its own people (some variation of early human settlers), but until our heroine gets on it, no contemporary earthling has even thought of entering in any sort of conversation -- cultural or economical -- with them. these distinct communities/nations are treated pretty much the way herds of bison would, which is of course horribly reminiscent of the various colonial "discoveries" effected by europeans in the rest of the world (if you haven't, read Laila Lalami's The Moor's Account, a sobering report by an enslaved african accompanying a spanish expedition into the "west indies" of the ways in which european discoverers felt that entire villages, cultures and people were theirs to name, pillage, and dispose of). this is not to say that the earthlings who are currently on the planet (they are all military) are abusive to the natives. they simply find no reason whatsoever to start any sort of exchange with them. and of course the watchful eye of the "company" hovers overhead.
the book is the story of how marghe, our heroine and a linguistic anthropologist, decides to get to know (some of) the locals. it's well done and engaging and fun and brutal, the last of which won't surprise you a bit if you have read any griffith at all.
it seems to me that griffith is at her best when she does women in danger. when her troubled women get cozy and safe her writing grows slack. i saw this in Always and in a small part of this book. fortunately, the cozy doesn't last long and we go back to true blue griffithian writing, of which i, for one, can't get enough. ...more
there are things about this book that are wondrous and amazing, and things that are unsatisfying.
the wondrous and amazing things are an early teen'sthere are things about this book that are wondrous and amazing, and things that are unsatisfying.
the wondrous and amazing things are an early teen's love for the delicate world of fish in glass water, where it is beautiful but captive. does the fish long for the expanse of the wild? what if there were no aquariums? where would caitlin get her wondrousness?
also the early teen's, caitlin's, love for another girl, a classmate, the tenderness and devastating body melting of whose kisses she's just encountered and can't get enough of. this is a particularly lovely part of the book -- the girls' unproblematic decision that they get together solely and specifically to kiss and caress each other's skin, because kissing and touching are such sweet, sweet things, and why should they not get their fill of them? when i was a kid and was beginning to discover the absolute marvel of other girls' bodies, there was front and center in my mind, always, the belief that giving in to desire, or giving in too much, would dissolve me. not such fear for these girls.
also caitlin's and her mother's exhausted love, the woman a single mother and dock worker with long hours, the kid a lonely kid waiting for mom to pick her up after school, rising early before school and waiting around for school to start in order to accommodate mom's schedule, cold seattle winter, darkness on either side of their being together, mother and daughter, and yet, when this togetherness happens, even if mom is exhausted, there is the pure joy of bodies meeting and loving each other, just like with the young girlfriend, caitlin preparing to leave the warmth and comfort of mom's body for the warmth and comfort of her girlfriend's body in an uncomplicated, safe, held way, taking all the time she needs, getting love here and there, never alone in spite of the brutal hours and the cold and the damp.
also the mother's breakdown, the sheer brutality of it, the breaking of a sacred compact, and caitlin's mildness in the face of it, her compliance, cuz mom is wonderful, mom means well, nothing can be wrong even though this is so hard and scary, nothing can be wrong.
also, the intergenerational trauma, the passing down of scars like genetic material, the inevitability of it, and a young woman who's been playing at being the adult for so long finally reversing to her lost childhood.
the most unsatisfying thing in the book, for me, is the restorative power of money. i wondered, what if the old man had been poor? what would he have had to offer then? would his money-less offerings have been as alluring, as compelling? and why the dissolution of this terrific working class mother-daughter, daughter-girlfriend romance? doesn't the sudden infusion of cash take away an essential dimension of this book, leaving us lost, leaving us missing it?
and the conclusion, which i won't spoil -- some elements of it (sheri-the-mom dealing a death blow to her bond with caitlin, leaving her finally unsafe and alone in this key moment of her development) and their power notwithstanding -- so wrapped up, so perfect, so meaningless.
(view spoiler)[one of the tragedies of this tremendous narrative of trauma is that the only perpetrator we see is the traumatized mother. her father, the original perpetrator, is present only in his absence, and when he comes back, all contrite and hell bent on making amends, we admire him and root for him, all the while noticing, and being traumatized by, the mother's brutality. but this is hardly fair isn't it? and i wonder if all of this is a male fantasy, and an unintentional (i cannot imagine it would be intentional) woman bashing, cuz by the end of the book we are really, really angry at the mother and truly impressed with the lovely grandfather. (hide spoiler)] ...more
**spoiler alert** i am not sure what the biafra war is doing in this book. i am not sure what the death of a beloved parent who can no longer fight fo**spoiler alert** i am not sure what the biafra war is doing in this book. i am not sure what the death of a beloved parent who can no longer fight for survival is doing in this book. i am not sure what a mother's breakdown and subsequent abandonment are doing in this book. i am not sure what a child's servitude is doing in this book.
once you are done, once you get to the end, this feels very much like a book about being a young gay girl and the a gay woman, but there are all these other things too. they are woven together in a lovely and flowing narrative that feels entirely unforced. it feels easy, as if the composing of it were the most natural thing in the world. this makes it a fast read. this is a book one reads fast.
but then you wander what all those things are doing in the story. you also notice how much temporal back and forth there is.
life is not linear. gayness is not its own story. gayness happens in context. a dead father. an abandoning then punishing mother. servitude. schooling.
this is what i got out of this book beside the joy i took from just reading it:
if you are gay in a gay-hating place you will internalize the hatred and feel abominable. your mom, who loves you so much, will turn against you and try to de-gaify you. you will marry a man, have his children, and be raped night after night by someone you don't desire. you will feel like sex is owed to him. you will feel like your desires must be eradicated. you will despair. you will pray. you will cry. you will become numb to your own child.
so many of ijeoma's experiences resonated with me, even though there are differences between our lives. what resonated was the intolerable horror of being stuck. also, the intolerable horror of seeing one's beloved parent turn against one.
thank you chinelo okparanta for making this story end well. i could not have borne it had it ended in misery.
there is a noble tradition in memoir writing, a tradition that is basically never violated, and that tradition is that you have to leave the reader withere is a noble tradition in memoir writing, a tradition that is basically never violated, and that tradition is that you have to leave the reader with something that is not abject misery. however much travail and pain you go through, there must be something at the end that is good and solid and a glimmer of hope.
Butterfly Boy does follow the tradition but only just. this book starts off with serious pain and traces a life trajectory of pain. what makes it not a painful book to read is that it's fucking beautiful. i mean, it's gorgeous.
pain marks the narrator's personal story of queerness, and the slow reveal that masochism was built into his queerness from the start. the extraordinary scenes in which the narrator describes his first sexual experiences with older men are both brutal and tender. he needs to be owned, and fucked, and abandoned. he doesn't tell us why (he doesn't tell us many whys) but his life has been hard and poor and fraught with abandonment, and sometimes being owned and fucked is the best love one can get.
there is tremendous longing here, for a mother, for a father, for a lover, for a country, for financial security, for a culture, for belonging. chicano literature at its finest. repeated border crossings with families spread all over the place. crushing poverty. exploitative labor. rough family loving. cerveza. absent fathers who still love but whose love one doesn't know how to digest. silent but present grandmothers. gonzález doesn't sugarcoat one damn thing. he's always running, and you ache at this running because it's not even remotely good.
the mariposa is both the chicano queer and the restless butterfly, doomed to early death. it keeps on being reborn, but each new birth just lands it in the same miserable patch of dusty desert land.
i really enjoyed all of this book, then it lost me at the end.* nothing special happens at the end that should lose me, but i felt suddenly disconnecti really enjoyed all of this book, then it lost me at the end.* nothing special happens at the end that should lose me, but i felt suddenly disconnected from the book, i don't know why. maybe my mood or the weather or the phases of the moon. i don't know. but here's the thing about time: that now, as i'm writing this review, what is most present to me are not the pages and pages i enjoyed but the end i didn't.
this book is centrally about time. these observation are ironically pertinent to the marrow of this book.
but this i can say: i don't want horses in my books, but i really liked that there was a horse here called Mattone, and the name Mattone was so funny to me (it means "brick" in italian).
franscescho's story is beautiful and franschescho him/herself is beautiful.
all of the italian is pretty much perfect except for the accents, which are treated as if they were irrelevant, which they are not (they change the pronunciation). this is not a small feat.
all the characters fall in love. this is a very good thing. this book is about loving and touching.
i am not sure i cared a whole lot for anyone, but reading was fun, except at the end, as i said. i wish george's mother hadn't died. i am furious that george's mother died. this is not a spoiler.
i can't imagine anyone not liking this book, because it's so alive and fun and crazy. it's also deep in some deep way that eluded me a bit because i'm deep in a different way. i hope that won't count against me.
* (ETA) not having read any reviews, i had no idea that each individual book can have george's or franchescho's story first, randomly!
i love this book so much. thank you thank you thank you.
this may well be the most beautiful coming-of-age novel i've ever read. it's so non-clichéi love this book so much. thank you thank you thank you.
this may well be the most beautiful coming-of-age novel i've ever read. it's so non-clichéd and, you know, the author, just like the protagonist, is a poet, so basically every page is a poem.
the most astounding feature of this slender book is the treatment of sex. adolescent queer desire; straight puppy sex that is not exactly puppy-esque; the secret sex of not-very-sexual middle-aged same-sex lovers; the sex that inevitably passes between a mother and a child, a father and a(n older) child; rape (yah); and then some more mature same-sex attraction. it's all done so intelligently and so daringly, and even when it feels transgressive and icky it's still intelligent, delicate and smart.
love is sex is desire is love is tenderness is dedication is freedom is sex is desire is love. love can be entrapping or it can be safe. you have to pick your love carefully. if you can. (heartbreak.)
this is a book written by a feminist author who has no desire to traumatize her reader, but means to enrich her at every turn with the power of beauty, feeling, strength, and language.
if you are feeling like the world is a heavy place, this may be the book for you. ...more