20 Books of Summer, #5–8: Anderson, Cusk, Fitch & L’Engle

I’ve been reading a feminist memoir set on Cape Cod, a subtle novel about the inner life and outward experiences of a writer, a soapy literary thriller about a troubled mother and teen daughter, and a slightly melancholy reminiscence of an aged mother succumbing to dementia.

 

A Walk on the Beach: Tales of Wisdom from an Unconventional Woman by Joan Anderson (2004)

This is the third volume in a loose autobiographical trilogy about Anderson’s experiment with taking a break from her marriage and living alone in a Cape Cod cottage to figure out what she really wanted from the rest of her life. Specifically, this book is about the inspirational relationship she formed with Joan Erikson, who moved to the area in her eighties when her husband, the famous psychologist Erik Erikson, was admitted to a care home. Joanie was a thinker and author in her own right, publishing books on life’s stages, especially those of older age. She encouraged Anderson to have the confidence to write her own story, and to take up challenges like a trip to Peru and learning to weave on a loom. Joanie’s aphoristic advice is valuable, but there’s a fair bit of overlap between this book and A Year by the Sea, which I would recommend over this.

My rating:

 

Some of Joan Erikson’s words of wisdom:

“Doing something with your hands, rather than your head, is often the best route to clarity.”

“wisdom comes from life’s experiences well digested. Stop relying so much on your mind and get in touch with experience.”

“The struggle is to try and obtain a sense of participation in your life the whole way through. We must treasure old age, but not wallow in nostalgia.”

 

Transit by Rachel Cusk (2016)

I finally made it through a Rachel Cusk book! (This was my third attempt; I made it just a few pages into Aftermath and 60 pages through Outline.) I suspected this would make a good plane ride, and thankfully I was right. Each chapter is a perfectly formed short story, a snapshot of one aspect of Faye’s life and the relationships that have shaped her: a former lover she bumps into in London, a builder who tells her the flat she’s bought is a lost cause, the awful downstairs neighbors who hate her with a passion, the fellow writers (based on Edmund White and Karl Ove Knausgaard?) at a literary festival event who hog most of the time, the jolly Eastern European construction workers who undertake her renovations, a childless friend who works in fashion design, and a country cousin who’s struggling with his new blended family.

Like in Outline, the novel is based largely on the conversations Faye overhears or participates in (“I had found out more, I said, by listening than I had ever thought possible”), but I sensed more of her personality this time, and could relate to her questioning: Why do her neighbors hate her so? How much of her life is fated, and how much has she chosen? I doubt I’ll read another book by Cusk, but I ended up surprisingly grateful to have gotten hold of this one as a free proof copy of the new paperback edition from the Faber Spring Party.

My rating:

 

Some favorite lines:

“we examine least what has formed us the most, and instead find ourselves driven blindly to re-enact it.”

“Without children or partner, without meaningful family or a home, a day can last an eternity: a life without those things is a life without a story, a life in which there is nothing – no narrative flights, no plot developments, no immersive human dramas – to alleviate the cruelly meticulous passing of time.”

 

White Oleander by Janet Fitch (1999)

Man, that Oprah knows how to pick ’em! This was a terrific read; I’m not sure why I’d never gotten to it before. I read huge chunks during my travel to the States and then slowed down quite a bit, which was a shame because it meant I felt less connected to Astrid’s later struggles in the foster care system. It’s an atmospheric novel full of oppressive Los Angeles heat and a classic noir flavor that shades into gritty realism as it goes on, taking us from when Astrid is 12 to when she’s a young woman out in the world on her own.

Astrid’s mother Ingrid, an elitist poet, becomes obsessed with a lover who spurned her and goes to jail for his murder. Bouncing between foster homes and children’s institutions, Astrid is plunged into a world of sex, drugs, violence and short-lived piety. “Like a limpet I attached to anything, anyone who showed me the least attention,” she writes. Her role models change over the years, but always in the background is the icy influence of her mother, through letters and visits.

Fitch’s writing is sumptuous, as in a house “the color of a tropical lagoon on a postcard thirty years out of date, a Gauguin syphilitic nightmare.” I might have liked a tiny bit more of Ingrid in the book, but I can still recommend this one wholeheartedly as summer reading.

My rating:

 

Some favorite lines:

The knock-out opening two lines: “The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blossoms, their dagger green leaves.”

“I couldn’t imagine my mother in prison. She didn’t smoke or chew on toothpicks. She didn’t say ‘bitch’ or ‘fuck.’ She spoke four languages, quoted T. S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas, drank Lapsang souchong out of a porcelain cup. She had never been inside a McDonald’s. She had lived in Paris and Amsterdam. Freiburg and Martinique. How could she be in prison?”

 

The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L’Engle (1974)

L’Engle is better known for children’s books, but wrote tons for adults, too. In this second volume of The Crosswicks Journal, she recounts her family history as a way of remembering on behalf of her mother, who at age 90 was slipping into dementia in her final summer. “I talked awhile, earlier this summer, about wanting my mother to have a dignified death. But there is nothing dignified about incontinence and senility.” L’Engle found herself in the unwanted position of being like her mother’s mother, and had to accept that she had no control over the situation. “This summer is practice in dying for me as well as for my mother.”

One of the reasons L’Engle was driven to write science fiction was because she couldn’t reconcile the idea of permanent human extinction with her Christian faith, but nor could she honestly affirm every word of the Creed. Hers is a more broad-minded, mystical spirituality that really appeals to me. (Her early life reminds me of May Sarton’s, as recounted in I Knew a Phoenix: both were born right around World War I, raised partially in Europe and sent to boarding school; a frequent theme in their nonfiction is the regenerative power of solitude and of the writing process itself.)

My rating:

 

Some favorite lines:

“I said [in a lecture] that the artist’s response to the irrationality of the world is to paint or sing or write, not to impose restrictive rules but to rejoice in pattern and meaning, for there is something in all artists which rejects coincidence and accident. And I went on to say that we must meet the precariousness of the universe without self-pity, and with dignity and courage.”

“Our lives are given a certain dignity by their very evanescence. If there were never to be an end to my quiet moments at the brook, if I could sit on the rock forever, I would not treasure these minutes so much. If our associations with the people we love were to have no termination, we would not value them as much as we do.”

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Clock Dance by Anne Tyler: Well…

A few years back I read a rare interview with Anne Tyler in which she described getting together with her lady friends of a certain age to watch The Wire and experience how some other Baltimore residents live. The gangs-and-drugs world of The Wire, of course, could hardly be more different from the safe semi-suburban spaces Tyler’s characters inhabit.

However, if you’ve heard one thing about Tyler’s new novel, Clock Dance, her twenty-second, I expect it’s that a character gets shot. Finally, a realistic look at the condition of Baltimore, I thought! To my frustration, though, Tyler does just what she did in her previous novel, the Booker-shortlisted A Spool of Blue Thread, and immediately defuses what could have been a hot-button issue. Sure, her characters have dysfunctional family problems aplenty, but nothing ever gets too out of hand. So in Spool son Denny’s confession that he thinks he’s gay is never given serious consideration, and in Clock Dance the Chekhovian gun we (perhaps) encounter early on in the novel does indeed return to be used in the contemporary-set section, but – and I’m sorry if this strikes you as a spoiler – it’s only a shot in the leg, the result of some kids playing around with a gun, and the unwitting victim is fine.

Essentially Clock Dance is three stories followed by a short novel: glimpses into four periods of Willa Drake’s life. In 1967 she’s 11 and her angry mother Alice, who’s reminiscent of Pearl Tull from Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, gets fed up and leaves – but soon comes back. (You see what I mean about dangling life-changing traumas in front of us but then instantly neutralizing them?) In 1977 Willa is a college junior and flies home over spring break to introduce her boyfriend to her parents. He wants her to give up her linguistic studies and join him in California, where he has a job. On to 1997, when Willa suddenly becomes a widow and has to learn to survive one day at a time. Fast forward to 2017, when the remarried Willa, now based in Arizona, gets a call informing her that her son’s ex-girlfriend has been shot and she needs to come look after her and her daughter and dog in Baltimore.

It’s somewhat ironic that I just read Breathing Lessons earlier in the summer: Clock Dance is awfully similar to Tyler’s 1988 Pulitzer winner in that both protagonists are trying to make things right with their daughter-in-law and granddaughter figures. In Willa’s case, her son never married Denise and isn’t the father of nine-year-old Cheryl, but Willa still feels a grandmotherly concern and, as she seems to be the only person the neighbor knew to call in an emergency, she agrees to fly out with her second husband, a humourless retired lawyer and golfer named Peter. They will stay in Denise’s home on Dorcas Road in Baltimore for as long as she is in the hospital. Peter is impatient with the situation, but Willa feels purposeful for the first time in years, and before long she’s starting to think about Dorcas Road, with its lovably quirky set of neighbors, as home. Could she make her own useful life here?

Tyler is surprisingly good on modern children and technology, and there are some terrific individual scenes, like the fairly awkward dinner Willa has with her elder son, Sean, and Elissa, the woman he left Denise for. But at times the dialogue didn’t ring true for me, with some 1950s vocabulary like darn, gosh, pussyfoot, hoodlum, and jeepers, plus (I checked this in the Kindle book) a whopping 188 sentences start with some variation on “Well, …” That works out to more than once every other page, a tic Tyler’s editor should have ironed out.

The U.S. edition of Clock Dance, which features a cactus on the cover, tries to make more of the partial Arizona setting, though most of the book is set in Tyler’s familiar small-town Pennsylvania and Baltimore. Willa admires saguaro cacti – “She loved their dignity, their endurance” – and Peter also buys one from the hospital gift shop, as a sort of symbol of resilience and adaptation to one’s surroundings. The U.K. cover, by contrast, goes for nostalgic Americana and reminded me of this passage from Breathing Lessons:

(An early Tyler novel is called The Clock Winder, but I imagine the similarity in the titles is just incidental.)

The story behind the title: Cheryl and friends perform what they call a “clock dance,” wherein two girls stand behind a third and they all move their arms in rhythmic jerks like a clock face. Willa imagines her own ‘clock dance’ would be a mad whirl from stage left to right: a race against time. Her efforts to redirect her life before it’s too late are heartening, but overall I didn’t sense strong enough themes in this novel; in particular, I would have preferred if Tyler had been consistent in checking in with Willa every decade and making each vignette truly count.

Of the eight Tyler novels I’ve read so far, here’s how I’d rank them (from best to least good). You’ll see that this latest one falls somewhere in the middle.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

The Accidental Tourist

Breathing Lessons

Vinegar Girl

Clock Dance

Back When We Were Grown-ups

A Blue Spool of Thread

The Beginner’s Goodbye

 


My rating:

Clock Dance is released in the UK today, July 12th, by Chatto & Windus and came out on the 10th from Knopf Doubleday in the USA. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.

Blog Tour: Extract from The Power of Dog by Andrew G. Marshall

Last April I participated in the blog tour for Andrew G. Marshall’s previous book, My Mourning Year, a memoir about the death of his partner Thom and his journey through grief.

The Power of Dog is like a sequel; it tells what happened when Andrew acquired a collie cross puppy named Flash.

Alas, a copy didn’t arrive in time for me to read it before I left for America, but to open up the blog tour today I have an extract for you, and I look forward to reading the book when I get back.

 


Prologue

What I wanted most and what frightened me most, when I was a child, turned out to be the same thing. Every year as I blew out my birthday cake candles, I’d wish for a puppy ‒ with my eyes tightly closed to maximise the magic. But while my daydreams were full of adoring Labradors fetching sticks, my nightmares were stalked by their distant relatives: wolves.

My parents belonged to the ‘comfortably off’ middle classes and were only too happy to pay for tennis lessons, new bikes and summer camp – indeed they were particularly keen to send me to these. My birthday cake was always home baked, a fruit cake decorated with teddy bears sitting in a spiky snow scene. Despite the growing number of candles and my entreaties, the gods of birthday wishes were unmoved. Although my mother agreed first to guinea pigs and later mice, she remained firm about getting a dog: ‘I’ll be the one who ends up walking it.’

I can pinpoint the exact moment the nightmares started. Our next-door neighbours, whom I’d christened H’auntie and H’uncle, had retired to Bournemouth and one summer we stayed overnight at their house. I must have been four or five and already possessed a vivid imagination. In the middle of the night, I had to tiptoe across an unfamiliar landing to the lavatory ‒ never toilet because my mother considered the term vulgar. Returning, I closed the bedroom door as quietly as possible and revealed a large hairy wolf ready to pounce. I can’t remember if I screamed or whether anybody came. Maybe my mother pointed out that the wolf was really a man’s woollen winter dressing gown hanging on a hook; all of those details have been forgotten but I can still remember the nightmares.

Back home in Northampton, I slept in a tall wooden bed which had originally belonged to my father. The mattress and the springs were so old that they had sunk to form a hollow which fitted exactly around my small body. I felt safe nestling between the two hills on either side. However, the old-fashioned design left a large amount of space under the bed. By day, this space housed a box of favourite toys, but at night I never had the nerve to lift the white candlewick counterpane. I instinctively knew the wolves had set up camp there. The rules of engagement were simple: I was safe in bed, but they could pounce and catch me if I didn’t run fast enough back from the loo ‒ an acceptable abbreviation. On particularly dark nights, the wolves would emerge from their lair and dance round the room with their teeth glinting in the moonlight. I’d scream out and Mummy would come and reassure me:

‘The wolves will not get you.’

She would lift the counterpane and show me.

‘There’s nothing there.’

It was easy for her to say – the wolves would disappear as soon as she’d open my bedroom door. But after she’d told me to ‘sleep tight’ and gone back to bed, they would rematerialise, slink back into the lair and an uneasy truce would be established.

Wolves did not have a monopoly on my fears. For a while in the sixties a ‘cop killer’ called Harry Roberts evaded the police by haunting my nightmares. If there was a strange-looking man drinking alone at the rugby club bar ‒ where my father was treasurer ‒ I would sidle up to one of my parents and whisper: ‘THERE’S HARRY ROBERTS.’ It must have been embarrassing for my parents, but in defence of my seven-year-old self, the rugby club did attract an odd crowd.

Fortunately, my fear of Harry Roberts was easy to cure. One night in 1966, I was allowed to stay up late to watch his capture on the news. I can still picture the small makeshift camp in the woods ‒ the blanket strung between three trees and the discarded tin cans ‒ but not where (except it was many miles from my home). I slept soundly that night.

The author with his current canine pal.

Flushed by her success with Harry Roberts, my mother took me to London Zoo. I was softened up with lions, monkeys and possibly even a ride on an elephant. Next, she casually mentioned that they had wolves too. I can’t remember what I was wearing but I can picture myself in an anorak so large it came down past my knees ‒ ‘you’ll grow into it’ – being taken to an enclosure hidden in some back alley of the Zoo. Did I actually look at the wolves? Perhaps I refused. Perhaps they were asleep in their den. Whatever happened next, the pack under my bed would not be exorcised so easily.

At that age it was impossible to believe I would ever reach ten; but I did. I even turned eighteen and left home for university where I studied Politics and Sociology. After graduating, I got a job first at BRMB Radio in Birmingham (in the newsroom) and then Essex Radio in Southend (as a presenter and producer) and Radio Mercury in Crawley (where I rose to become Deputy Programme Controller). My nightmares about wolves had long since ended, but if they appeared on TV they would still make me feel uneasy and I would switch channels. I still wanted a dog, but I was far too practical. I had a career to pursue. Who would walk the dog? Would it be fair to leave it alone while I worked? I couldn’t be tied down by such responsibilities.

At thirty, I fell in love with Thom and we talked about getting a dog together. However, for the first four and a half years, he lived in Germany and I lived in Hurstpierpoint (a small Sussex village). In the spring of 1995, Thom finally moved over to England with plans to set up an interior design company. However, six months later, he fell ill. All our plans for dog-owning were put on hold, while we concentrated on getting him better. He spent months in hospital first in England and then in Germany and I spent a lot of time flying backwards and forwards between the two countries. I loved Thom with a passion that sometimes terrified me, so when he died, on 9 March 1997, I was completely inconsolable.

I moved into the office he’d created in our spare room, but I couldn’t stop the computer from still sending faxes from Andrew Marshall and Thom Hartwig. As far as Microsoft Word was concerned, he was immortal. I tried various strategies to cope with my bereavement but three different counsellors did not shift it. Two short-term relationships made me feel worse not better. I had just turned forty. My regular sources of income – being Agony Uncle for Live TV and writing a column for the Independent newspaper – were both terminated. My grief was further isolating me and many of Thom’s and my couple friendships had just withered away.

Approaching the Millennium, something had to change, but what?

 


The Power of Dog will be released by RedDoor Publishing on Thursday, July 12th. My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

 

I was pleased to participate in the blog tour for The Power of Dog. See below for details of where other reviews and features will be appearing soon.

Calypso by David Sedaris

“Why Aren’t You Laughing?” is one of the essay titles in Calypso, David Sedaris’s tenth book; it’s an ironically appropriate question you might ask of the whole book. It’s not that this isn’t funny – it is, very much so, in places – but that there’s a melancholy aura I hadn’t sensed in his work before. “Now We Are Five,” the second piece, sets the tone, explaining that Tiffany, Sedaris’s youngest sister, committed suicide in 2013, aged 49. He hadn’t spoken to her for the eight years prior to that. The siblings learn that she did it with pills plus a plastic bag over her head. These facts are just thrown out there for us: there’s no getting around how horrific it all was, but Sedaris doesn’t do much obvious hand-wringing or soul-searching.

Tiffany’s suicide is an occasional point of reference in these 21 short essays, as is their mother’s alcoholism and death from cancer. The remaining middle-aged family members – and their 90-something dad – make an effort to stay close, chiefly through meet-ups at the beach cottage Sedaris and his partner, Hugh Hamrick, buy in Emerald Isle, North Carolina. They name the place Sea Section, and it’s the setting for about a third of the book. Two-thirds of these essays were published previously, which entails some repetition, especially in the setup of each piece. I wondered if an adjustment to the sequencing and some editing out of repeated details could have made the Emerald Isle material flow together a bit better.

Sedaris’s trouble communicating with his father, a thrift-conscious hoarder, is one major theme of the book. “We’re like a pair of bad trapeze artists, reaching for each other’s hands and missing every time,” he writes. Their relationship mostly consists of trying to avoid talk of politics lest his father spout pro-Trump propaganda, and his father nagging him about his health. Despite advancing age, Sedaris’s medical crises are trivial and turned to humorous effect: broken ribs from falling off a ladder, an awful stomach virus that provides scatological background to a reading tour, and a fatty tumor he decides to freeze and feed to the snapping turtles the next time he’s on Emerald Isle.* O-kaaaay.

There are echoes of Me Talk Pretty One Day and When You Are Engulfed in Flames in the delight in languages and travel. “Your English Is So Good” skewers the annoyances of small talk and jargon, especially as used by waitstaff and shop assistants. Another essay is about what people in various countries shout when they get cut off in traffic – unsurprisingly, this one is rather foul-mouthed. Sedaris gets addicted to clothes shopping in Tokyo and obsesses over achieving his daily Fitbit steps goal while litter picking near his home in West Sussex. Some of my favorite essays were “A Modest Proposal,” reflecting on the Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage; “Untamed,” about feeding a local fox; and “Boo-Hooey,” in which he scoffs at ghost stories yet wonders if his dead mother visits him in dreams.

This collection doesn’t quite live up to the two I’ve already mentioned, and there were moments when I was put off by the author’s unthinking adherence to a luxurious lifestyle, but this is a solid book you wouldn’t have to be an existing fan to enjoy.

Favorite lines:

“The battle for gay marriage was, in essence, the fight to be as square as straight people, to say things like ‘My husband tells me that the new Spicy Chipotle Burger they’ve got at Bennigan’s is awesome!’”

“We’re not pessimists, exactly, but in late middle age, when you envision your life ten years down the line, you’re more likely to see a bedpan than a Tony Award.”

My rating:

 

*The topic of the title essay. He’s affronted when he learns that the local kids know about ‘his’ snapping turtle and even have a name for it – he likens this to finding out that your cat is being secretly fed by the neighbors, who call it “Calypso.” It’s an obscure reference, definitely; then again, this is the same man who titled books Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. The cover design even has some slight relevance within the book: “Calypso” mentions an old friend he meets up with on an American book tour, Janet, and her woodgrain art.

 

Calypso comes out today, July 5th, in the UK from Little, Brown. It was released in the USA on May 29th. My thanks to the publisher for sending a free copy for review.

20 Books of Summer #4 + Substitutes & Plane Reading

You’ll have to excuse me posting twice in one day. I’ve just finished packing the last few things for my three weeks in America, and want to get my latest #20BooksofSummer review out there before I fly early tomorrow. What with a layover in Toronto, it will be a very long day of travel, so I think the volume of reading material I’m taking is justified! (See the last photo of the post.)

 

Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly by Sue Halpern (2001)

I admire nonfiction books that successfully combine lots of genres into a dynamic narrative. This one incorporates travel, science, memoir, history, and even politics. Halpern spent a year tracking monarch butterflies on their biannual continent-wide migrations, which were still not well understood at that point. She rides through Texas into Mexico with Bill Calvert, field researcher extraordinaire; goes gliding with David Gibo, a university biologist, in fields near Toronto; and hears from scientists and laymen alike about the monarchs’ habits and outlook. It happened to be a worryingly poor year for the butterflies, yet citizen science initiatives provided valuable information that could be used to predict their future.

The book is especially insightful about clashes between environmentalist initiatives and local livelihoods in Mexico (tree huggers versus subsistence loggers) and the joy of doing practical science with simple tools you make yourself. It’s also about how focused attention becomes passion. “Science, like belief, starts with wonder, and wonder starts with a question,” Halpern writes.

The style is engaging, though at nearly 20 years old the book feels a bit dated, and I might have liked more personal reflections than interviews with (middle-aged, white, male) scientists. I only realized on the very last page, through the acknowledgments, that the author is married to Bill McKibben, a respected environment writer. [She frequently mentions Fred Urquhart, a Toronto zoology professor; I wondered if he could be related to Jane Urquhart, a Canadian novelist whose novel Sanctuary Line features monarchs. (Turns out: no relation. Oh well!)]

Readalikes: Farther Away by Jonathan Franzen & Ruins by Peter Kuper

My rating:

 

I’ve already done some substituting on my 20 Books of Summer. I decided against reading Vendela Vida’s Girls on the Verge after perusing the table of contents and the first few pages and gauging reader opinions on Goodreads. I have a couple of review books, Twister  by Genanne Walsh and The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr, that I’m enjoying but will have to leave behind while I’m in the States, so I may need that little extra push to finish them once I get back. I’ve also been rereading a favorite, Paulette Bates Alden’s memoir Crossing the Moon, which has proved an excellent follow-up to Sheila Heti’s Motherhood.

(What I haven’t determined yet is which books these will be standing in for.) Waiting in the wings in case further substitutions are needed is this stack of review books:

Also from the #20Books list and coming with me on the flight are Madeleine L’Engle’s The Summer of the Great-Grandmother and Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, which are both terrific thus far. The final print book joining me for the journey is Transit by Rachel Cusk. I have attempted to read her twice before and failed to get through a whole book, so we’ll see if it’s third time lucky. It seems like the perfect book to read in transit to Canada, after all.

Finally, in progress on the Kindle are Summer by Karl Ove Knausgaard, the last in his set of four seasonal essay collections, and The Late Bloomers’ Club by Louise Miller, another cozy novel set in fictional Guthrie, Vermont, which she introduced in her previous book, The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living.

It’ll be a busy few weeks helping my parents pack up their house and moving my mom into her new place, plus doing a reduced freelance work load for the final two weeks. It’s also going to be a strange time because I have to say goodbye to a house that’s been a part of my life for 13 years, and sort through box after box of mementoes before putting everything into medium-term storage.

I won’t be online all that much, and can’t promise to keep up with everyone else’s blogs, but I’ll try to pop in with a few reviews.

Happy July reading!

Blog Tour: Extract from Song by Michelle Jana Chan

Song escapes the poverty and natural disasters of his hometown in China by sailing to Guiana. The village medicine man describes Guiana as a kind of paradise, and tells him he can earn free passage if he presents himself to the Englishmen in Guangzhou. What he doesn’t realize is that he will effectively be an indentured servant, working in the sugarcane fields for years just to pay for the voyage. From Singapore to India to Guiana, it’s a long and fraught journey, and though his new home does dazzle with its colors and wildlife, it’s not the idyll he expected. Still, Song is determined to make something of himself. “He would yet live a life that was a story worth telling.”

 

I have an extract from Chapter 1, about the flooding in China, to whet your appetite:

 


Lishui Village, China, 1878

 At first they were glad the rains came early. They had already finished their planting and the seedlings were beginning to push through. The men and women of Lishui straightened their backs, buckled from years of labouring, led the buffalo away and waited for the fields to turn green. With such early rains there might be three rice harvests if the weather continued to be clement. But they quickly lost hope of that. The sun did not emerge to bronze the crop. Instead the clouds hung heavy. More rain beat down upon an already sodden earth and lakes were born where even the old people said they could not remember seeing standing water.

 The Li rose higher and higher. Every morning the men of the village walked to the river to watch the water lap at its banks like flames. Sometimes they stood there for hours, their faces as grey as the flat slate light. Still the rain fell, yet no one cared about their clothes becoming wet or the nagging coughs the chill brought on. Occasionally a man lifted his arm to wipe his face. But mostly they stood still like figures in a painting, staring upstream, watching the water barrel down, bulging under its own mass.

Before the end of the week the Li had spilled over its banks. A few days later the water had covered the footpaths and cart tracks, spreading like a tide across the land and sweeping away all the fine shoots of newly planted rice. Further upstream the river broke up carts, bamboo bridges and outbuildings; it knocked over vats of clean water and seeped beneath the doors of homes. Carried on its swirling currents were splintered planks of wood, rotting food, and shreds of sacking and rattan.

Song awoke to feel the straw mat wet beneath him. He reached out his hand. The water was gently rising and ebbing as if it was breathing. His brother Xiao Bo was crying in his sleep. The little boy had rolled off his mat and was lying curled up in the water. He was hugging his knees as if to stop himself from floating away.

Song’s father was not home yet. He and the other men had been working through the night trying to raise walls of mud and rein back the river’s strength. But the earthen barriers washed away even as they built them; they could only watch, hunched over their shovels.

The men did not return that day. As the hours passed the women grew anxious. They stopped by each other’s homes, asking for news, but nobody had anything to say. Song’s mother Zhang Je was short with the children. The little ones whimpered, sensing something was wrong.

Song huddled low with his sisters and brothers around the smoking fire which sizzled and spat but gave off no heat. They had wedged among the firewood an iron bowl but the rice inside was not warming. That was all they had left to eat now. Xiao Wan curled up closer to Song. His little brother followed him everywhere nowadays. His sisters Xiao Mei and San San sat opposite him, adding wet wood to the fire and poking at the ash with a stick. His mother stood in the doorway, the silhouette of Xiao Bo strapped to her back and her large rounded stomach tight with child.

The children dipped their hands into the bowl, squeezing grains of rice together, careful not to take more than their share. Song was trying to feed Xiao Wan but he was too weak even to swallow. The little boy closed his eyes and rested his head in Song’s lap, wheezing with each breath. Their mother continued to look out towards the fields, waiting, with Xiao Bo’s head slumped unnaturally to the side as he slept.

‘I don’t think they’re coming back.’

Song could barely hear what his mother was saying.

‘They’re too late,’ she muttered.

Song wasn’t sure if she was talking to him. ‘Mama?’

Her voice was more brisk. ‘They’re not coming back, I said.’

 


I was delighted to be invited to participate in the blog tour for Song, which was released by Unbound on June 28th. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing soon.

Hurled into Gettysburg: Poems by Theresa Wyatt

Today marks the start of the 155th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, which took place on July 1–3, 1863. Theresa Wyatt was so kind as to send her terrific book of commemorative poems all the way to England for me. She pays tribute to forgotten and fringe players of the Civil War, such as Elizabeth C. Thorn, who served as the gatekeeper of Gettysburg’s Evergreen Cemetery from 1862 to 1865 while her husband was off fighting, and Jennie Wade, the only civilian killed by a war sniper. “Jennie & Jack” includes fragments of letters written by Jennie and her childhood friend and sweetheart Johnston Skelly, who died of an infection just nine days after her; neither was aware of the other’s demise. Another great story is that of poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier, whose colorblindness may have been a disadvantage growing up on a farm but was a metaphorical boon in the days of slavery.

The poems are also peopled by immigrant settlers, Underground Railroad passengers (“divinity squeezing / into dark tight spaces”) on the run from slave hunters, and brothers fighting on opposite sides. On a recent visit to Gettysburg Wyatt imagines herself into the position of General Buford, “descending these stairs in flawless summer light, / uplifted by a cyclorama of clear view, fortified” – a clever reference to the famous Gettysburg Cyclorama.

In “Visiting Gettysburg” she captures the sense of overwhelmed helplessness one experiences in relation to great historical tragedies: “trying to take it all in as if I knew anything at all / about horses, cannons or bloodshed.” The imagery ranges from grisly through innocuous to lovely, so that “buckets full of gangrene – a country’s highest price” contrast with “drops of ruby blood / invisible to sight or touch / [that] have mingled into blooms” on a farm that once comprised part of the battlefield. Especially if you’ve visited Gettysburg or another military site recently, you’ll find these poems truly resonate. It’s hard not to devour them within one sitting.

 

Another favorite passage: “Some people like their heroes loud / and let them talk, but sometimes history / picks off the scabs of arrogance / when setting records straight.” (from “At the Jennie Wade Monument”)

 

Readalikes:

March by Geraldine Brooks

Into the Cyclorama by Annie Kim

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead