As serendipity would have it, I ended up reading two booksFor more reviews of literary fiction by women, see my blog, www.readherlikeanopenbook.com.
As serendipity would have it, I ended up reading two books set in South America back to back. After a steady diet of fiction set in the U.S. and Europe, spending time in Colombia and Brazil constituted a much-needed change of scenery for my Westernized imagination.
Juventud (Youth) is Vanessa Blakeslee’s first novel after a stellar short collection, Train Shots. The standout story in that book was set in Costa Rica, so it’s not surprising that she would write about the manifold issues of life in Colombia at the turn of the millenium.
The story is narrated by its 30-year-old protagonist, Mercedes Martinez, who guides us through a multi-level coming of age story. The novel begins in 1999, as she looks back 15 years to the period in her life when everything changed. Mercedes is the 15-year-old daughter of a wealthy Cali landowner and an American mother who long ago fled to her home country. She adores her father, dreams of her long-absent mother (about whom she knows little and has had no contact with), and frets about her social life. She is, in other words, a fairly typical adolescent.
Mercedes’ opening observations set the stage for the textured depiction of a young woman navigating a complex set of conflicts in her personal life and her homeland.
“Along with most of the professional- to upper-class, I moved through my daily routine largely unaffected by their troubles: one in five residents out of work and unemployment rising, the streets jammed with listless young men, guerillas and government still at war after four decades, one- to two-million Colombians displaced from their villages by the bloodbaths….Otherwise, the disparity outside my windows didn’t faze me much. I was still mourning the loss of my first crush, whom I’d met at a Valentine’s dance and whose parents had swiftly enrolled him at a military school in the United States a few weeks later, after the FARC [the dominant rebel army] captured and assassinated three indigenous-rights activists, all American. That was my luck, I thought, almost sixteen and still no boyfriend. Like any teenage girl, I yearned to fall in love. Beyond that, I had few desires.”
Soon Mercedes meets Manuel, a handsome 21-year-old activist and devout Catholic, who shows her the brutal reality of the economic and cultural woes of her country. She experiences an awakening of her social conscience and now views the desplazados (displaced ones) who camp on the fringes of her family’s sugarcane plantation with new eyes. But a greater awakening awaits her, as the social justice work of Manuel causes her to examine her assumptions about her father and the past he has left shrouded in silence and misdirection.
As Mercedes becomes increasingly involved with Manuel and his activities, the fog of her youth lifts and she begins to see more clearly the circumstances of her privileged life, especially the precarious nature of her father’s financial success and social status.
An explosive event (no spoilers here) forces her to flee to the United States. The second half of Juventud follows Mercedes as she navigates culture shock, completes her education, and moves into life as a young professional. Her memories of life in Colombia remain a powerful presence and an unshakable part of her character. Her mother may have been American, and she may have lived there from age 16 on, but she is Colombian. After 15 years, events call her home, where she confronts the truth about her father and the life she thought she understood.
Blakeslee has written a multi-faceted novel that combines a coming of age story, a socio-political exploration of modern Colombia, and a sympathetic fish out of water story full of cultural conflict. It seems well-researched and accurate (to the extent I am able to judge that) and never struck a wrong note in its detailed descriptions or crisp dialogue.
What struck me as I read Juventud was that, with some judicious editing, it would make a terrific Young Adult novel about a time, a place, and a set of social and economic issues that the adolescents of 2016 know little or nothing about but would certainly find involving and enlightening.
Juventud is a satisfying and thought-provoking read, intelligent fiction that informs as it entertains....more
Ways to Disappear, poet and translator Idra Novey’s debut nFor more reviews of literary fiction by women, see my blog, www.readherlikeanopenbook.com.
Ways to Disappear, poet and translator Idra Novey’s debut novel, is an absorbing exploration of the dichotomy between the perception and reality of a writer’s life. Emma Neufeld translates the novels of the critically acclaimed Brazilian writer Beatriz Yagoda. But Emma is more than just professionally engaged in Yagoda’s work; she is obsessed with her writing and intrigued by her personal life.
When she learns that Yagoda has gone missing, she is convinced she knows what makes Yagoda tick in a way no one else does and can help find her. She flies from Pittsburgh to Brazil to help Yagoda’s suspicious daughter, Raquel, and charming son, Marcus, search for her and discover why she went into hiding. But, as you might expect, young and naive Emma encounters an even greater mystery in Brazil itself and ultimately learns that there is both more and less to Yagoda’s work than she could have imagined.
Emma’s well-intentioned belief that she is uniquely qualified to serve as a private investigator leads her on an unpredictable search through Yagoda’s personal and creative life that exposes her to Brazil’s hard brown underbelly. She faces off against a loan shark named Flamenguinho seeking to recover a debt owed by the writer. Yagoda’s publisher, Roberto Rocha, offers eccentric suggestions and financial support, once he learns that Yagoda may have a work in progress for him to publish.
Raquel plays antagonist to Emma’s meddling, while Marcus is more receptive to her interest in his mother and, before long, him. Together and apart, they chase down clues that lead them to the city of Salvador on the central coast.
Interspersed throughout the narrative are transcripts of reports from Radio Globo, desperate emails from Emma’s fiance back in Pittsburgh, and witty dictionary entries of words and phrases that shed light on Emma’s adventures (including sample sentences referencing Emma’s fraught circumstances). These additional voices add perspective to the careening narrative, as Emma searches for Beatriz, copes with Raquel, falls for Marcus, and negotiates with both Flamenguinho and Rocha.
Novey, who translates works in Portuguese and Spanish (including the work of Clarice Lispector), has concocted a savory Brazilian dish that puts literary traditions as diverse as noir, magical realism, and romance to use in clever and surprising ways.
Ways to Disappear is as complex and enchanting as modern Brazil itself, alternately breezy with fish-out-of-water humor and manic plotting, and humid with portent and mystery. Novey knows how to spin a multi-faceted tale with a love of language and literature at its heart. Like Emma, we are all engaged in the act of translating an author’s work to suit our own needs, completing the writer’s work through reading. Novey’s auspicious debut marks the arrival of a writer worth meeting halfway....more
One of the great joys of reading authors with whom one is unfamiliar is discovering a truly distinctive writer whose work pushes all your buttons, intOne of the great joys of reading authors with whom one is unfamiliar is discovering a truly distinctive writer whose work pushes all your buttons, intellectually and emotionally, and leaves you stunned, as if you’d looked at the sun for more than just that one permissible moment. In the last few years, I’ve experienced this reaction to the work of Molly Antopol (The UnAmericans), Rebecca Lee (Bobcat and Other Stories), Violet Kupersmith (The Frangipani Hotel), Brittani Sonnenberg (Home Leave), and Nina Swamidoss McConigley (Cowboys and East Indians).
[For more on fiction by women, visit my blog, https://readherlikeanopenbook.com/. Reviews, interviews, book news, weekly guest essays by authors, and more. Celebrate women writers!]
Amina Gautier is the latest writer to make me mutter to myself in amazement as I read her stories. Her debut collection of stories, At-Risk (2012), won the Flannery O’Connor Prize for Short Fiction. The follow-up, 2014’s Now We Will Be Happy, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction and an IPPY at the Independent Publishers Book Awards. Her debut focused on at-risk youth, while the follow-up examined the bi-cultural lives of Afro-Puerto Rican-Americans with her trademark combination of intensity and insight. Gautier is unsparing with her very human characters (and readers), but she is also compassionate.
Gautier’s third collection, The Loss of All Lost Things, is her best work yet. Here she moves beyond the concerns of her earlier work to the issue of loss in its many forms. Her characters have either suffered a loss, literally lost someone or something, or are at loose ends in figuring out what to do with their lives following a significant and often unexpected event. What so impresses me about these stories is Gautier’s ability to plumb the psyche of very complex characters with a psychological acuity that will break your heart repeatedly.
The opening “Lost and Found” follows a young boy who has been abducted by a man identified only as “Thisman” as they move from motel to motel over a period of several months. They watch The Twilight Zone wherever they stay. One episode teaches him that “this is something one can do with words, stretch them into softness and push them past their meaning. Take him, for example. He prefers the word lost instead of taken. Lost is much much better. Things that are taken are never given back. Things that are lost can be found. He doesn’t like to think of himself as a stolen thing, taken away in plain sight of his own home, plucked from the curb like a penny found on the sidewalk. . . He knows that there is a place for things that are lost. . . He remembers the Lost and Found at the school he no longer attends. . . If only he could find the Lost and Found and turn his own self in.” Only five pages into this collection and Gautier has sent repeated bolts of lightning through my heart and mind.
The title story takes us into the home and life of the grieving parents of the boy from “Lost and Found.” The opening line scalds.
“The posters go up immediately.”
The narrator continues. “They search in all weather; they harass the media for coverage. They leave the light on outside. They do not touch their answering machine: they keep the message exactly the same. They supply the authorities with recent photos, with medical and dental records, with everything they ask. They do all they can think of. They never rest. They never tire. They never lose hope.”
As the weeks and months pass, each deals with the heartbreak, anger, and sense of loss differently, and it begins to wear down their unified front and eventually their relationship. “Blame is the glue that keeps them together. They shuttle it between them, neither one able to shoulder it alone. . . They cannot endure this without each other. Splitting up is too simple of a solution. Far too easy to buckle under the strain of it all. . . They are stuck. Stuck here. Stuck in this time. Stuck together. . . Worse than mourning is this waiting that never ends.”
Gautier stares across the abyss of what is perhaps every parent’s greatest fear and suggests what might be found on the other side, if it can be reached somehow. After the supporters and media have moved on, after hope seems like pretending, the parents make a random decision which they are convinced is the only way to save themselves, their marriage, and the well-being of their younger son. Only those experiencing this loss can decide what is best, even if it appears illogical or pointless to those on the outside.
“Cicero Waiting” is a variation on this theme of parents coping with the loss of a child. “Intersections” explores the seemingly cliched affair between a white college professor and a beautiful and brilliant black student with results that manage to sidestep those cliches.
“A Cup of My Time” probes another marriage, this time that of young, expectant parents. Sona’s twin boys are “battling it out inside of my womb.” Her doctor advises her, prior to a risky procedure, that if it fails to save the fetuses, “the two of you will have a tough decision to make. You’ll have to choose which one you want to live.”
“Disturbance” is the odd man out in this collection, a piece of speculative fiction with echoes of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Gautier takes what seems like a domestic drama and stretches it into purely metaphorical territory with haunting results.
Gautier also explores individuals searching for the solutions to the voids in their lives.
In “What’s Best for You,” we meet Bernice, a black single mother who works in the university library and is lonely but maintaining her standards. When the amiable new custodian flirts with her, she is forced to confront the cost of her biases.
“As I Wander” finds a widow named Judy trying to adjust to her life following the loss of her older husband. She has lost track of the shape of her normal life. She spends the night on a bench in a local park, sleeping among the homeless. “She had lost her ability to find anything disgusting in mingling among those whom she would have normally avoided. . . Life had stolen something from them, robbed them, made them crazy and despairing so that they cared only for something to distract them. The park had become a depository for the unwanted, forgotten, and discarded.” Including, now, Judy. She seeks solace in an unexpected form with disappointing results.
The Loss of All Lost Things is a dark and often disturbing collection, but Gautier is such a gifted storyteller, the characters and conflicts so compelling, the telling details so perfectly chosen, that you can’t turn away. Amina Gautier is a fearless writer who I am willing to follow anywhere....more