This book is presented as a novel, but it's hard, in reading it, not to think of it as a memoir. I have given some thought to what makes a novel readThis book is presented as a novel, but it's hard, in reading it, not to think of it as a memoir. I have given some thought to what makes a novel read as a memoir and I can't quite pinpoint it -- but maybe we expect a novel to have a certain dymanic form, and to be shaped by certain dramatic occurrences and by a certain progressive development. This book is driven by the urgency of telling a story that hasn't been told, that of the Slovenian minority in Austria during WWII. This, too, felt memoiristic rather than novelistic to me, in this particular book, though of course this needn't be the case for every book driven by a historical urgency.
In any case, I was captured by the writing for most of the book -- the protagonist's childhood, the increasingly haunting memories that fell her family and many of her fellow villagers, and that eventually fill up her mind. Her collapse under the cumulative weight of all this silenced, unprocessed past. The unrecognition of Austro-Slovenian partisans both by the Austrian and the (then) Yugoslavian governments, the former because the partisans are perceived as affiliated a bit too much with communism, the latter because they are not communist enough. There are some incredibly moving passages in which the narrator explains (see?) how the partisans simply did what needed to be done for their and their community's survival -- how it wasn't even a choice really. They were Slavs, therefore prime targets in Hitler's path of racial "purification." And many of them, the majority of those who didn’t join the partisans in the mountains, ended up, in fact, in concentration camps, and only a few returned, and those who returned were never the same.
The child and then young woman who narrates the story conveys powerfully, first the mystery in which her family and the entire village is steeped; then her own sense of responsibility for the survival of her family, in which trauma is ravaging minds and physical health; then her need to leave but also, at a distance, to understand, because if she understands the terrible trauma and the terrible belittlement and disgracing that followed maybe, just maybe, things will get better, for someone, maybe.
As a document of a poorly-known corner of WWII this is terrific. As a document of what makes some people last and some people fold, this is terrific too, But at the end, 1/5 to the end, I felt that the "novel" had told me whatever story it had to tell and there was no need to continue.
I wish a careful editor had gotten in here and cut the bits that needed to be cut and blended a bit more rationally the bits that needed to be connected. There is too much repetition. There is, also, some clumsy meshing of styles. Still, if you are interested in the particular story this book tells, then you should read it. And if you are a WWII buff, then you should read it. And if you feel compelled to remember the people who died for justice and freedom but history forgot, then you should read it too.
it seems to me that if you want or need to write about the intensely traumatic life of people under a brutal dictatorship, writing with the language oit seems to me that if you want or need to write about the intensely traumatic life of people under a brutal dictatorship, writing with the language of children is a good way to go.
i deduce from other things i've read by herta mūller (okay, basically only her nobel lecture, which i can't recommend highly enough), that this novel is autobiographical, and i find profoundly inspirational that she helped herself through the process of writing about her trauma by using great inventiveness of imagery and language, and fantastic turns of events. in spite of being dark, this book is suffused with the special sweetness that comes from narrating events through the lens of child-play. trauma is so, so difficult to tell, and if lovely simple imagery helps us through the telling, well, dang, we should totally use it.
so look, this is not a super easy book to read, because you need to don your childlike glasses and let yourself be taken by plums and wooden objects and tin objects and sacks of canvas and pillowcases and barbers and nailclippings, and at first, since you are so thoroughly weaned from the magic of childhood, you will be confused. you will want to understand; you will expect the narrator to explain. eventually, though, the language will train you back into looking at things with the eyes and forbearance of a child, and you will understand pretty much everything.
which is -- the everything that needs to be understood -- that petty quotidian abuse and the systematic reminder that your freedom is taken away from you without rhyme or reason or any possibility for appeal cause a distress so deep that surviving it is well nigh impossible. there are, maybe, hints of true blue torture in here, but mostly what grinds down the soul of the young and older people who populate this beautiful, beautiful novel is their daily subjection to indignity, oppression, humiliation, suspicion, and fear.
i don't want to give the impression that this is all high fantasy, because it isn't. under the language of childish words there is a clear, realist story, and you can reconstruct it pretty well. but the language, well the language made the book more tolerable for me to read, and maybe (this is my starting theory) more tolerable for the writer to write, too.
because children have this tremendous tolerance for horror, and what is horrific to us -- the wolf eating red riding hood's grandmother -- is story to them, and stories make you stronger. stories allow you to experience pain without too much bite. stories give you the demons and the saviors, too.
the present-time of the narration is alternated with flashbacks of the narrator's childhood, and i found these little vignettes, inserted seamlessly in the text, very powerful. they felt to me reminders that this is a book written in some ways by a child (in some ways, because the narrator is in fact a university student), but since the stories contained in them are pretty straightforwardly bitter, they also brought home to me that it is easier for the childlike narrator to play a little when telling the story of her present trauma if she tells the pain of her childhood straight up. in other words, the childlike narrator has to establish herself as a lucid and direct narrator of her own childhood, so that the childlike quality of her narrative of her adulthood be grounded and rooted in the honesty and truthfulness of the story of her childhood pain.
i don't quite know why things were not better for our narrator when she was a child. i don't know whether she looks back at her childhood and tinges it with the horrors of the present. i don't know if her childhood is meant to represent the childhood of all children and all adults under ceausescu. It is quite possible that this was her childhood -- that it wasn't a good childhood. those were the parts that hit me the most: the unadorned pain of a little girl.
even though this, for the reasons i have explained, was not the easiest read, i couldn't put it down, and always looked forward to going back to it. it's beautiful writing, and an important story, and in my opinion quite a masterpiece.
i can't possibly read a book this long about the mostly-happy married life of two beautiful, in-love, successful heterosexual people. cuz, you see, asi can't possibly read a book this long about the mostly-happy married life of two beautiful, in-love, successful heterosexual people. cuz, you see, as tolstoy sez, happy marriages are all the same. i appreciate groff's effort here to break the tortured-marriage mold and give us decent people who love and desire each other instead, the infinite nuances of that, but dang, i can't find it in myself to be interested. also, too much anatomically-worded fucking. ew.
i imagine i might like the second part better, but i don't have the stamina to get there.
i really like all the theater stuff, cuz theater is cool.
*************** UPDATE i finished. i'm blown away. wow. ...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)] ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
i approached this book the way i was told to approach it (no one in particular said anything, but i got the general idea) and, well, i don't like booki approached this book the way i was told to approach it (no one in particular said anything, but i got the general idea) and, well, i don't like books about nastiness. you know, books about psychopaths, serial killers, and the like. not my cup of tea. the sociopath here would be zenia. but slowly it dawned on me, thanks in part to having read Dept. of Speculation (as i type this i don't know why, but maybe it will be clearer to me by the end of this review), that this book is not about zenia. not even close. this book is about tony, charis, and roz. you start getting this when atwood unravels slowly (something she never does for zenia) their stories, starting from their childhoods. and these childhoods are invariably horrible. so much abuse, so much loneliness, so much abandonment. later, they tie themselves to men who are much more valuable to them in retrospect, after zenia has worked her black magic on them. when atwood gives them -- these men -- to us unvarnished, un-zenia-ed, un-mourned, well there is pretty much nothing redeemable about them, and no reason at all why these women should stay with them.
except they (the women) are so hurt. they are so mauled by their terrible childhoods. so they stick to what they think they deserve. because bad, cruel companionship is better than no companionship at all.
zenia is a cypher. she is the empty form into which these three deeply injured women pour their demons. and zenia delivers. she delivers in spades. she takes the demons out of the box and smacks them powerfully into each woman's face.
and in the process, she does them a favor. except they don't know it, do they? they hate zenia, which is awesome because this possibly saves them from hating themselves (as victims do: they don't hate the perpetrator, they hate themselves) too much. and she brings them closer to each other.
the magic, the true white magic of the book is the care, the unjudgmental care (and yes, they may be snippy occasionally in their thoughts, but oh do they come through for each other!), the love tony, charis and roz have for each other. their demons bring them together, and, because deflected on another, manage not to tear them apart.
but here's another piece of magic atwood performs (because, really, com'on, who can write like this? who? no one, that's who). atwood takes these three women and gives as complete a picture of the complexities of three women's lives (not femininity, not womanhood, but many of us will still find ourselves there) as is humanly possible. in doing this, she covers with astounding meticulousness: fashion (for lack of a better word), natural eating, comfort eating, fancy-restaurant eating, farming, gardening, sexual abuse, religion (please check the fantastic chapter in which roz gives us a pretty formidable account of the christian faith), romantic love, parental love, childhood, loss, boating, corporation running, history, war, weaponry, battles, battlefields, language, etymology, escaping the US draft, desire, motherhood, loneliness, internal decoration, running a woman's magazine, toronto, canada, etc. etc. etc.*
so for this alone, for atwood's astounding power to observe and describe, for her capacity to capture lives in such an infinite multitude of aspects and reflections and refractions, i proclaim her the best writer ever. (not really). (but). (kinda).
*spectacularly missing, as always in atwood: race and, to a significant extent, same-sex desire. ...more
i wanted to create a shelf for this one. i would have called "how-the-young'uns-write." but then i faltered. it seemed dismissive. maybe there is somei wanted to create a shelf for this one. i would have called "how-the-young'uns-write." but then i faltered. it seemed dismissive. maybe there is something slightly MFA-ish and a bit "trendy" about the way this book is written, but, really, this is beautiful, brave, and virtuoso writing, and it should be judged as its own writerly thing.
elyria, the protagonist, is a very young 28 year old. she speaks (writes) in lulling run-ons that are often startling and beautiful, and sometimes so poetic and original they make your heart sing. sometimes they are hilarious and then you laugh. she writes of all the things young'uns with broken hearts, a truncated view of their future, and a disembodied desperation write: time, relationships, parents, siblings, love, not love, the big wide world with its big wide being-lost-in-ness, and death.
(MINOR SPOILER THAT GETS REVEALED SOON ENOUGH) elyria's particular relationship to time, death, and disembodiment is connected to the death of her sister ruby. (END OF SPOILER) since elyria talks mostly from a place of disconnection and inner sense-making rather than story-telling, we don't learn much about her life prior to the present of the narration, but we learn enough to understand that it wasn't pretty. she doesn't tell us a lot about what she was like as a child, but you get a sense she was one of those kids who thought all the time about dying. you know those kids. they are the heroes of the literature you love best. my favorite are mick kelley, frankie addams, holden caulfield, and nomi nickel.* if you can imagine mick, frankie, and holden at 28, you get elyria.
it takes a really good writer to pull off a mick, a frankie, a holden, a nomi. the despair of children is not for the faint of heart.
fact is, some of us carry those children inside us all of our lives. we manage to survive by learning to love them. cuz those children are too formidable, too unbelievably cool to go away. what loss that would be! so we make peace with them and their deathlust the best we can. we become the mommies and daddies who weren't there or weren't enough, and, as snotchcheez says (i'll paraphrase), we take 'em home and give them a warm blanket and a bowl of chowder. for life.
this is a brutal and unsparing portrayal of sexual violence. it's also a critique of economic disparity and an angry indictment of patriarchy (which mthis is a brutal and unsparing portrayal of sexual violence. it's also a critique of economic disparity and an angry indictment of patriarchy (which may or may not go hand in hand with economic disparity).
a young haitian lawyer, black, married to a handsome nebraskan man (white), with an übercute little kid, is kidnapped during her visit to haiti to see her family. kidnapping apparently is the order of the day in haiti at the time (pre-earthquake) and wealthy people expect it and do all they can to prevent it. mireille's family's security measures are not enough and soon the kidnappers are asking for one million american dollars as ransom for mireille. sort of inexplicably, near the beginning of the novel mireille, who narrates the vast majority of the chapters, tells us that her kidnappers were scared young men. this sense of forgiveness, acceptance, or empathy never returns in the novel; nor, frankly, do they seem that scared when we meet them. but there you have it.
in all likelihood that kidnapping would have gone off without a hitch and no-one would have gotten hurt if mireille's father had paid straight away. but mireille's father has opinions about how to handle situations like this (it's his first time, but of course he has been preparing for it forever), and decides not to negotiate with the kidnappers. this unleashes in the latter a barrage of sexual violence that goes on, relentlessly, for the entirety of the 13 days of the kidnapping. we are given a really precise sense of what this violence consists of and of what it feels like, and it isn't pretty. in fact, it's barely tolerable. one night, after reading, i found myself shaking and unable to sleep. let's just say that i've never read sexual brutality described with such truthfulness. the only other book that made me equally horrified is Primo Levi's incredible narration of his life in auschwitz in Survival in Auschwitz, aka If This Is a Man. what these two books have in common is their masterful rendition of what it feels like to stop being human.
mireille alternates the narrative of what happens to her during her capture with stories of her life with her husband michael and of her pregnancies, only one of which goes to term. the narrative organization is pretty flawless, and while mireille's life before her capture emerges as nice (a lot of emphasis on desire between mireille and michael), there is always, looming, and by necessity, a sense of unease about men and their strange culture. in short, men are brutes who hurt women, michael notwithstanding. and michael is not a sweetie pie. he's a man of few words and he's as hungry for mireille as mireille is for him. given the narrative set up, though, this hunger is uncomfortable to the reader. you'd rather have them make french toast together than fuck intensely, overwhelmed by their love/desire for each other.
there is also the fact that michael's nebraskan family, made of farm-owning mom and dad, is none too pleased with michael's marrying someone of a different color, and makes absolutely no mystery of it. this is as painful and uncomfortable to mireille as you'd expect it to be, but michael seems kind of clueless about it.
the most powerful parts of the book are about the brutality and the cluelessness of men. the torture scenes are really, really good. roxane gay, who was born in nebraska but is of haitian origin, gives you a clear sense of how easily women turn from human beings to playthings in the hands of men. she gives, it seems to me, no rhyme or reason for this. the playing they are subjected to is fully sexual and fully sadistic, so that if we weren't used to this, if the object of such treatment were, say, animals rather than human beings, we would unquestioningly consider these men psychopaths. as it is, we consider them rapists, a category that is so over-present in all sorts of representational forms, we consider it pretty much natural. so one thing that roxane gay does well here is denaturalize all that, show it for the absolute pathological deadly derangement it is.
and we are extremely thankful for the fact that, after having given us a chillingly accurate idea of what these men are doing -- after making sure we get it -- she lets up and simply hints. not that it gets any easier for the reader, but the novel doesn't turn into torture porn one. tiny. bit. which it could easily have done.
men's cluelessness is portrayed in all its glory in the aftermath, when mireille is released. the major culprit, of course, is michael -- but then he was clueless from day one.
the second part of the book is about post traumatic agony, and there are some pretty brutal scenes (not quite as brutal as the torture scenes, but close) in which michael thinks that the best way to help his wife is to force her to do things she doesn't want to do. as anyone who understand trauma even just a bit knows, forcing someone who's been deprived of her autonomy in the most radical way to do things, even things that are supposedly good for her, is a sure recipe for intolerable retraumatization.
eventually respite comes to mirelle (thank god) from some unexpected and lovely place, and we can breathe a little (just a little).
two things that left me unhappy at the end: although reformed, michael seems to me to continue being a jerk, understanding his role as mireille's partner only in terms of "masculine" protectiveness and bluster. if the book means for that to be the case, and therefore critiques michael, this critique is not made clear at all. the other thing is small but it bugged me all the way through: mireille has two siblings but the second one, a male, is mentioned only at the beginning and never mentioned again. this is strange in a book in which the family and its dynamics are so closely analyzed. if i've missed something, please feel free to let me know in comment.
i think roxane gay puts material about nationhood, race, belonging and capitalism in the book, too -- especially about the mayhem that is bound to happen when very rich people live in close proximity to people who are absolutely destitute -- but, frankly, her analysis of gender relations is so bright and stark and powerful, the rest kind of falls by the wayside. ...more
i am, doubtless, doing a grave injustice to this book, which will be probably rectified the moment i read reviews and secondary material on it. but ii am, doubtless, doing a grave injustice to this book, which will be probably rectified the moment i read reviews and secondary material on it. but i have a prejudice against alice walker. she seems to me, for an accumulation of reasons none of which sits discreetly in my mind, identifiable, a sloppy writer. say this book. the story is powerful and powerfully told. but then there's a whole lot of anthropology thrown in, and some etymology, and some sort of grand historical theory of patriarchy and the submission of women, and when you scratch the surface a tiny little bit you realize that it's made up. i didn't scratch the whole surface, so it's entirely possible that some of it -- the core of it? -- may not be made up. but when i scratched i found sloppiness or unabashed invention (some invention is openly acknowledged in the postscript) and, well, i am not sure i liked it.
i could be persuaded, but, right now, i don't see why alice walker needs to come up with an invented nomenclature (say) for stuff that truly exists. she doesn't offer any reason and i don't see a reason myself.
so this is what took the book south for me. the first part is beautiful, but then, well, i stopped being engaged, because i felt i was being taken for a ride, and i become unconvinced with everything. what is the relationship between adam and lisette all about? what is its narrative purpose? how do people (reviewers, etc.) know that tashi is treated by carl jung? are the clay figurines for real? do women really leave refugee camps because otherwise they'd be asked to work? what?
nice treatment of post-traumatic mental pain, and powerful, powerful indictment of genital mutilation. i thought i knew about it but i didn't know a thing. genital mutilation must stop. ...more
benightedly i gave this 4 stars i'm sorry/you are/yes/why did you give it 4 stars/i wanted it to be like Aof R/ poetry is never the same/as i'm learninbenightedly i gave this 4 stars i'm sorry/you are/yes/why did you give it 4 stars/i wanted it to be like Aof R/ poetry is never the same/as i'm learning mostly from the reviews i am too inexperienced to learn from the book itself/some of these poems are surreal/they are/you don't like surreal/i like surreal but it doesn't quite talk to me the language seems gimmicky to me without/ i've heard this before/wisdom i guess/poetry's curse/insight quotability a light/we fumble in the dark/there's a glacier then there is a volcano polar opposites/which pole/i'd say the north pole/it's the easiest to assume/there is no life at the south pole except of course that which the explorers bring basically themselves/you mean native life but then how would we know/i mean currently/ah, temporality/i loved io/she's feathery and magic/thank you/you're welcome/i hate war/me too...more