The setting is both exotic and sombre: steamy Rio de Janeiro and a jungle town in the north, with the brown, endless Amazon as backdrop in the 1980s aThe setting is both exotic and sombre: steamy Rio de Janeiro and a jungle town in the north, with the brown, endless Amazon as backdrop in the 1980s and London of today, with its cold and leaky skies. The seventeen-year-old André lives in Rio with his plastic surgeon father, his seven-year-old brother Thiago, attended to by their two empregados (maids) Rita, mother to the teenage, Luana, who helps with the domestic duties. Their mother has recently died tragically in a car accident, and grief ripples through their lives.
The novel opens when forthysomething André opens a letter from Luana, long since gone from his life, who begins by telling him about her life in Brazil. André is now a GP, separated from his English wife and the mother of two teenagers himself. The letters force him to confront his past, to re-remember the events of that long-ago year in Brazil which was to determine the course of the rest of his life.
While there are brief passages set in the present-day London, most of the novel takes place in 1980s Rio and a brief Christmas in Belem, a jungle city on the Amazon, where he and Luana tried to ignore the heat between them.
The novel is lush – the setting of the jungle city and the equally hot and pulsating, but crime-ridden Rio are lovingly evoked and described. André recalls: “Now I find myself thinking, several times a day, about the green wildness of the trees on any street in Ipanema. Thin vines snaking around telephone lines. The sting of the Atlantic in my eyes. The people, their breezy manners.”
This is a city of favelas and luxury apartment buildings – such as the one André and his family live in; a city of desperate poverty alongside wealth, the surest breeding ground of crime. A place where it is quite normal for a middle-class family to be able to afford two maids, for example. The descriptions of the mores and lifestyle of the Brazilians in the 1980s was fascinating to read about – perfectly representing a divided city with its class tensions.
This is a coming of age story – a story of teenagers living the life that an accident of birth has dealt them. Luana, taken out of school, and waiting on André and his brother and father, and André knowing he will soon go to university to be a doctor like his father. And as with all teenagers, there is confusion, lust and desire, the abrupt, sometimes awkward thrust into adulthood with all the pain and mistakes that implies. A world of privileged teenagers spending afternoons at the beach – not very interesting teenagers at that – is subtly contrasted with the life the maid Luana is leading.
It is about memory, and the suppression of memory, and about how a single event can cause a life to shatter or harden and solidify, and how impossible it is to supress pain and secrets, eventually they will inevitably burst into the open. But the effects of secrets long suppressed can be poisonous. “Luana was from a different time and place, so far from London in 2013. More suited to dreams,” André says early on, and we witness his memories and then the ultimate almost redemption from them.
André as a teenager isn’t particularly perceptive, as privileged and as unaware as the friends who surround him. The middle-aged André is much more interesting, more introspective and paradoxically, more damaged. I wanted to know more about this older André. An interesting read, a vivid, evocative story that holds attention for the most part. The coming of age section of the story is a little slack, and events take a long time to develop. I also would have preferred more ending, so to speak, the events revealed at the end of the novel are momentous and there’s certainly more story there. ...more
Sara Baume’s second novel centres on a summer in the life of a disaffected, depression twenty-five old year artist, Frankie. Living in the city, DubliSara Baume’s second novel centres on a summer in the life of a disaffected, depression twenty-five old year artist, Frankie. Living in the city, Dublin, working at an art gallery and living in a grimy bedsit where her ambitions have withered, has left her frayed and hopeless.
Ennui and sadness combine, and she moves back home, where her parents are loving and kind, but kindness only goes so far. She asks to stay in her dead grandmother’s cottage, a home which has been left empty and waiting to be sold for the three years since her grandmother’s death.
Frankie’s days are punctuated by listening to the radio, the long, endless afternoons, TV programmes, memories of her time in the city and observations on artworks. Possessing a fascination with the dead animals she comes across in the country – a fox, a hare killed by a car, perhaps - she takes photographs of the dead creatures and the novel carries these photos in black and white. These images are unsettling; Frankie’s interest in them equally so, and I found myself grimacing reading of them and looking at the photos. But this links directly, perhaps, with Frankie’s interest in art, images, the physical representation of the world. It is why she is an artist, it is why she found work in a gallery.
In between she interacts with Jink, an elderly neighbour who brings her a ducks’ eggs and helps her with repair work. The days are bleak, and the tenor of this novel weaves between bleakness and despair. Frankie too weaves in and out of view and we never get a sense of her physicality until, towards the end of the novel, she reveals her skinniness, her clothes hanging off her, her mother commenting, “I can feel your bones.” Frankie herself weaves in and out of endearment, at times you feel sorry for her, at other times you wish she would lift from the gloom. Details are minutely rendered – the damp home in the country, the small lanes, the quaintness of the small country village near her grandmother’s house.
But throughout, Frankie’s observations and views of the world remain interesting, and mostly keep the reader engaged. Here’s some:
“The Navajo Indians believe hair is memory. When a member of the tribe dies, the mourning family cut off their hair and move away to a different settlement.” And: “Because they are extremely small and transparent, dust-mites aren’t visible to the human eye. They are everywhere, yet they are nothing.”
As absorbing are Frankie’s observations on artworks which pepper the text: “Works about Time, I test myself: Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010. A 24-hour film, a collage of extracts from several thousand other films, the complete history of cinema. Each extract represents a minute of the day. Mostly, though not exclusively, by means of a clock face. Wherever the film is screened, it is played in sync with actual time. But I have never seen it for real. Right the way through from beginning to end. I don’t imagine many people have. Nevertheless, I love this piece. I love the idea. I love that an idea can be so powerful it doesn’t matter whether I’ve seen the artwork for real or not.”
“Works about Birds, again, I test myself: Wheatfield with Crows, 1890. Popularly believed to be the last painting Vincent van Gogh completed. An angry, churning sky, tall yellow stalks, a grass-green and mud-brown path cutting through the stalks, tapering into the distance; a line made by walking. And a murder of crows between the stalks and sky as though they are departing or arriving or have just been disturbed.”
But Frankie is in the end, a disturbed heroine, one who has always felt distant from her age mates, and her interactions with them are awkward and sad. She too has to negotiate the minefield of adulthood, and you suspect this is at the heart of her depression. In the end, she learns, via her aunt that compromise is the only way forward, the only salvation possible: “She meant: it’s time to postpone– if not entirely abandon– my burden of unrealistic ambition. To start churning the intellect I have left into simply feeling better; to make this my highest goal. It’s time to accept that I am average, and to stop making this acceptance of my averageness into a bereavement.”
Frankie may be twenty-five, but her acceptance of adulthood’s compromises and acknowledgement of our own limitations also cast this novel as a type of coming of age story. ...more
“To live and work on a ranch implicates me in new ways: I have blood on my hands and noises in my throat that aren’t human.” - Ehrlich
Escaping grief,“To live and work on a ranch implicates me in new ways: I have blood on my hands and noises in my throat that aren’t human.” - Ehrlich
Escaping grief, embracing life writer Gretel Ehrlich arrived in Wyoming to make a series of documentaries when her partner died. She writes: “Finally, the lessons of impermanence taught me this: loss constitutes an odd kind of fullness; despair empties out into an unquenchable appetite for life.”
She never left, she put down roots and lost and rediscovered herself on the plains of Wyoming. These essays, first published in 1984, now reissued in book form, describe life on the plains, far away from her previous home in California. There are essays about the land and those who live on it, from herding sheep, ranching, and the obituary of a ranch going under, about the men (and some women) who labour on the ranches, about grief, about getting married, rodeo cowboys, and more. This lunar land comes alive in Ehrlich’s poetic voice: “Walking to the ranch house from the shed, we saw the Northern Lights. They looked like talcum powder fallen from a woman’s face. Rouge and blue eyeshadow streaked the spires of white light which exploded, then pulsated, shaking the colors down— like lives— until they faded from sight.”
She opens a window on lives most of us could never imagine. Highlights included reading about the various lives of those who live on ranches in ‘Other Lives’, concluding that “Living well here has always been the art of making do in emotional as well as material ways. Traditionally, at least, ranch life has gone against materialism and has stood for the small achievements of the human conjoined with the animal, and the simpler pleasures- like listening to the radio at night or picking out constellations. The toughness I was learning was not a martyred doggedness, a dumb heroism, but the art of accommodation. I thought: to be tough is to be fragile; to be tender is to be truly fierce.”
In ‘About Men’ Ehrlich examines the tough lives of cowboys, “For the most part his work is done on horseback and in a lifetime he sees and comes to know more animals than people.” Their toughness seems to mean that “emotional evolution” is impossible and Ehrlich quotes one cowboy confessing after opening up that, “I feel as if I’d sprained my heart”.
In the fascinating ‘Sheepherder’s Notebook: Three Days’ Ehrlich describes three days herding sheep – a job she had never done before, but the sheepherder had just quit and she was it. She’s given a mare a collie and told the sheep headed for the hills. It’s a time of “queasy fears”, sunburn and a curious sense of longing, and when she leaves she notes: “Dust rises like an evening gown behind his truck. It flies free for a moment, then returns, leisurely, to the habitual road— that bruised string which leads to and from my heart.”
The personal is intertwined very subtly and through these startling essays, but in ‘Just Married’, she writes candidly: “Here’s to the end of loneliness,” I toasted quietly, not believing such a thing could come true. But it did and nothing prepared me for the sense of peace I felt— of love gone deep into a friendship.”
In ‘Rules of the Game’ Ehrlich focuses on the sport of rodeo. At the start of their marriage she and her new husband spending their honeymoon in Oklahoma City attending the National Final Rodeo. Illuminating the tough sport, Ehrlich concludes that, “Rodeo is not a sport of opposition; there is no scrimmage line here. No one bears malice— neither the animals, the stock contractors, nor the contestants; no one wants to get hurt. In this match of equal talents, it is only acceptance, surrender, respect, and spiritedness that make for the mid-air union of cowboy and horse. Not a bad thought when starting out fresh in a marriage.” ...more
The story revolves around the murder of a high school girl, Joy Enright, strangled and left at the woods by a pond. Intriguingly the story is told fro The story revolves around the murder of a high school girl, Joy Enright, strangled and left at the woods by a pond. Intriguingly the story is told from four viewpoints. There is Martin, a black graduate student who as the novel opens is accused of her murder. The mother of the murdered child, Susanne a professor of the local art college, wife of Gil, but as the book unfolds we see the tears in their marriage. Harper, Joy’s friend, who seems to be hiding secrets of her own and Tom, a rescue-diver, and the son-in-law of the police chief, whose own marriage also unravels as he grapples with his own secrets.
Tension is built up slowly, a little too slowly, and at times I felt the pace slackening. The cold December is evoked brilliantly and starkly in this small town, riven with the secrets and lies we all carry in our lives. The portraits of the four are sharply etched, and one feels an empathy with all, but, for me, not for the teenage friend, Harper.
Marriage and its compromises and commitments and difficulties is another theme that winds through the book, below the surface tension which is carried by the question of the murder of Joy. Susanne is here ruminating on the way she and Gil communicate: “All their married life they had been having conversations like this, saying one thing (with words or not) but communicating another. At least, this was how it seemed to Susanne. She didn’t think Gil felt the same way. It had bothered her, once, but after all these years she’d grown accustomed to it, and now— especially with their daughter dead— it didn’t matter. She still considered it a foreign language they spoke to each other, but she had adjusted, and she understood it well enough to translate what she needed to know.” A telling scene, pinpointing the different islands two people can inhabit even in one union.
In another passage Tom reflects on his own marriage: “In that instant, he recognized that his marriage could not survive either choice, in the first case because Alison would refuse to live with him, and in the second because he would not be able to live with himself. It struck him like a sucker punch: there was no way out.”
Art too and its purposes and its creation is another thread that winds through the narrative, the dead girl used to draw; her mother a teacher of art, Martin, a promising young student. Conversations revolve around art, with a debate on hyperrealism and Susanne ruminating on it: “Art makes the absent present, and the dead almost alive?”
This is a slow, meditative read – slightly too long at times – but the cast of crisply drawn characters brings the story alive, fused with the tension of the murder and the weather that threatens with its iciness. An interesting, rewarding read, perhaps best described as a literary thriller. ...more
This novel starts off entertainingly, with Wally Lamb’s characteristic humour in full force. “I turned sixty this year,” says the narrator Felix FunicThis novel starts off entertainingly, with Wally Lamb’s characteristic humour in full force. “I turned sixty this year,” says the narrator Felix Funicello, “an age that brings deficits of course: creaky knees, a temporary inability to remember familiar people’s names, a second colonoscopy.” Every Monday evening he sets up his projector in an old vaudeville theatre to show old movies. One night the ghost of Lois Webber, a director from the silent film era shows up, and invites him to watch scenes from his life. And so Felix is taken back, to his childhood, and to the women in his life. These sections provide entertaining, marvellous, witty reading. And of course while reading who isn’t propelled back into their own lives, imagining the deliciousness of being able to watch your past in a movie being screened just for you?
He reflects on the women in his life, the exes and all that went wrong, his two sisters, and the family dynamics. The scenes set in his 1950s childhood, campaigning for one of nominees for the Miss Rheingold crown (a beauty pageant) to win the competition, as she comes from their hometown are keenly written.
What the past has to teach us, and how secrets that are unearthed propel us towards healing is a message at the core of this novel. As Felix remarks, as the story ends: “How could I not believe in ghosts, and what they have to teach us about how to learn from the past, fully inhabit the present, and embrace the propulsive thrust of the future.” The narrative is also undercut with his interactions with his intelligent, lively Gen Y daughter, Aliza, who keeps a blog. The story is entertaining, as I’ve said, but seems to end all too suddenly, and I felt there should have been more. ...more
“The chilly fingers of grief touch us in a way that mark us forever” Shannon Leone Fowler writes early on in this memoir of her lost fiancé. There is“The chilly fingers of grief touch us in a way that mark us forever” Shannon Leone Fowler writes early on in this memoir of her lost fiancé. There is no easy way to deal with loss and grief. Each mourns in their own way, and the journey is different for all those who find themselves on that road. The length of time too, differs, and there are no ready answers for that either.
In Traveling with Ghosts: A memoir Fowler takes us through the journey she took in mourning her fiancé, Sean, who dies of a box jellyfish sting in Thailand in 2002. At the time she was a twenty-eight marine biologist from the US, backpacking with Sean, who was from Australian. Her description of the time after he dies are horrific, the Thai police are trying to make out the death was because of drunk drowning, and while mired in her shock she maintains it certainly wasn’t. She’s helped in these first few days by a group of Israeli women, whose names she doesn’t know, but who hold her up metaphorically and literally. It’s a scenario few of us want to imagine.
After his death and funeral in Australia, mired in grief, Fowler decides to honour her relationship and to find healing through travelling. She and Sean met and bonded in Barcelona while travelling, and Fowler, groping in the dark for answers and healing starts out by going through Eastern Europe. Interspersed through these journeys – to Poland, where she visits Auschwitz, to Bosnia and Romania – are her memories of Sean and their travels through places such as China. The narrative weaves between the past and her current healing journey, while also presenting facts about Fowler’s past, her deciding to be a marine biologist – a cruel irony in itself as the sea is what took her fiancé.
Her description of her work as a marine biologist is best described in this fascinating passage about her work with an octopus and demonstrates Fowler’s skilled writing: “I thought back to the summer I’d spent at the Bodega Bay Marine Lab. Ripley, a giant Pacific octopus, had been brought into the lab after being caught in a crab trap. She weighed over forty pounds, had an arm span of almost fifteen feet, and was considerably stronger than I was. As I’d studied Ripley’s learning behavior that summer, she began to recognize me. When I walked into the room, she would crawl up to the trapdoor at the top of her huge tank and reach out a tentacle, her suckers sticking and gripping and tasting the length of my arm. In turn, I began to recognize her moods and corresponding colors and textures. Her skin turned white and rippled when she was frightened, red and spiky when she was angry or frustrated, and she flushed a deep smooth purple when she was content, usually after a meal. I used to watch what I swore was dreaming— wedged into a corner with her eyes narrowed into slits, her eight arms piled into lose coils around her body as she pulsed from pink to camouflage to brown.”
Mired in her sadness she spends days alone, being a tourist, travelling on the local buses, eating at local restaurants, absorbing what the countries have to offer, moving inexorably toward some conclusion. She travels to Israel to meet the two women who helped her after the accident in Thailand and finds the warmth of her friends, and solace. They take her to the tank museum at Yad La-Shiryon. Her descriptions of the Tower of Tears testify to her lyrical writing: “The tower in the old fort had been converted to a Tower of Tears. The inside of the tower was lined with metal from damaged and war-torn tanks, the soldered sheets rusting and riddled with bullet holes. Water trickled down these walls and collected in a spring below a glass floor at the base. I’d gotten so used to going to museums by myself in Eastern Europe, it felt almost strange to share the experience with people I knew. It felt even stranger that they each understood what it was like to suddenly lose someone. The four of us stood together in the tower, silent and still as the drops ran down the battered steel of the walls. We thought of the different people we loved who had died far too young.” She goes on to Barcelona, where she and Sean first met: “It was where we’d had our first kiss, and although I didn’t tell him until weeks later in Salamanca, it was in Barcelona where I first began to fall in love with him.”
Through it all the memories and grief persist: “I certainly didn’t feel strong. I was frantic and scared and barely getting out of bed in the morning. And although I knew it would never have been a conscious decision, it felt as if my friends were choosing not to see how damaged I was.” And, a telling paragraph, an experience common to those who have suffered grief: “I felt like I’d lost the ability to interpret social situations. I was always so close to tears, it made it hard to guess the intentions of other people. It would be years before I stopped flinching in everyday conversations.”
This is a vivid, compelling story – both memoir and travel writing – the language is strong, yet lyrical. A book of memories, a book of places and a book of those people who hold our hands once the necessary silence and mourning has run its course: “This is what Israel and its rules for sitting shiva taught me— that as much as grief needs solitude, memories need to be shared and mourning needs to be recognized. Grief needs time and space, but it also needs company.”...more
The Arrangement is a wise, warm, funny, intelligent novel about what happens when two people decide to open their marriage. The idea sounds sordid toThe Arrangement is a wise, warm, funny, intelligent novel about what happens when two people decide to open their marriage. The idea sounds sordid to many, and when Lucy and Owen are entertaining their friends from New York, their friends reveal that’s just what they have done. Lucy is appalled by the idea. But the thought doesn’t go away.
Lucy and Owen are a happily married couple, together nine years, now ensconced the suburban enclave of Beekman. They have an autistic son, Wyatt, and Lucy stays home to be with him. Surrounded by suburban conventions, opening their marriage is the last ting they’d be expected to do. And yet… they decide to open their marriage up for six months of experimentation: they will tell each other if they are seeing anyone else and will not discuss it. At the end of six months, that’s it, experiment closed.
And this is what happens when two people step out of the traditional strictures of monogamy, and surprise, there’s nothing sordid at all in this delightful, charming read. Instead, Dunn throws a strong light on marriage and its shortfalls, in the process locating both its strengths and weaknesses through this charming story. The warmth of intimacy has its downsides, as Lucy ponders in this passage: “Marriage changes the kissing, Lucy found herself thinking later. Why is that? The kissing had almost stopped. And when it did happen, it felt different than it used to. It felt— well, weird wasn’t quite the right word, but it was the closest one Lucy could come up with. Kissing without all the fireworks that used to be there; it was a strange activity. Marriage doesn’t hurt the cuddling or even change the sex all that much, but it does do something very bad to kissing, Lucy thought. It does. And it’s a shame.”
It’s a shame – and when they step out of that, something happens to both Lucy and Owen, changing them both. This delightful, fun and yet thought-provoking novel is also filled with a range of characters of those who also inhabit the suburbs, and add to the spice of this story. To reveal what happens would be a spoiler indeed – but Dunn weaves a story of possibilities while showing that marriage and commitment is something you have to work hard at, it doesn’t come with any guarantees. I loved reading of this couple’s adventures – Lucy and Owen are likeable and ordinary people, and the empathy felt towards them is one of the many strengths of this novel. Very highly recommended. ...more
Poet Mary Oliver’s poetry speaks to the rhythms and beauties of the natural world. This slim volume of essays expands those themes into prose, as wellPoet Mary Oliver’s poetry speaks to the rhythms and beauties of the natural world. This slim volume of essays expands those themes into prose, as well as taking a look at some of the writers who have had a deep impact on her thinking such as Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Witman and Ralph Waldo Emerson. She concludes her essay, ‘Winter Hours’ with the words, “I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.” And this volume serves as a companion to the writing on the world, in prose that is as beautiful and sometimes illusory as the poems themselves. Highlights include ‘Swoon’ about Oliver’s observation of a spider she encounters and watches in a rented holiday home; ‘Bird’ about Oliver and her partner’s attempts to save an injured bird and the examination of Poe’s life and influences, ‘Poe’s Dream of Recapturing the Impossible.’ A small, beautiful gem of a book. Some quotes: “I don’t mean it’s easy or assured; there are stubborn stumps of shame, grief that remains unsolvable after all the years, a bag of stones that goes with one wherever one goes and however the hour may call for dancing and for light feet.” “Over and over in the butterfly we see the idea of transcendence. In the forest we see not the inert but the aspiring. In water that departs forever and forever returns, we experience eternity.” “I am one of those who has no trouble imagining the sentient lives of trees, of their leaves in some fashion communicating or of the massy trunks and heavy branches knowing it is I who have come, as I always come, each morning, to walk beneath them, glad to be alive and glad to be there.” “It sounds crazy, but when she looked at me I felt connected to everything in the entire universe, like I was witnessing the divine in those ancient turtle eyes. It was a gift to float at the top of her world. It was, I realized, the kind of authentic experience that I hoped for while traveling. In order to better understand the world, I wanted an unmanufactured glimpse of lives that were different from my own and I’d found one, right below the surface of the water.” “In the mystery and the energy of loving, we all view time’s shadow upon the beloved as wretchedly as any of Poe’s narrators. We do not think of it every day, but we never forget it: the beloved shall grow old, or ill, and be taken away finally. No matter how ferociously we fight, how tenderly we love, how bitterly we argue, how pervasively we berate the universe, how cunningly we hide, this is what shall happen. In the wide circles of timelessness, everything material and temporal will fail, including the manifestation of the beloved. In this universe we are given two gifts: the ability to love, and the ability to ask questions. Which are, at the same time, the fires that warm us and the fires that scorch us. This is Poe’s real story. As it is ours.”