It’s the fourth annual Margaret Atwood Reading Month (#MARM), hosted by Canadian blogger extraordinaire Marcie of Buried in Print. In previous years, I’ve read Surfacing and The Edible Woman, The Robber Bride and Moral Disorder, and Wilderness Tips. This year Laila at Big Reading Life and I did a buddy reread of The Blind Assassin, which was historically my favourite Atwood novel. I’d picked up a free paperback the last time I was at The Book Thing of Baltimore. Below are some quick thoughts based on what I shared with Laila as I was reading.
The Blind Assassin (2000)
Winner of the Booker Prize and Hammett Prize; shortlisted for the Orange Prize
I must have first read this about 13 years ago. The only thing I remembered before I started my reread was that there is a science fiction book-within-the-book. I couldn’t recall anything else about the setup before I read in the blurb about the suspicious circumstances of Laura’s death in 1945. Indeed, the opening line, which deserves to be famous, is “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.”
I always love novels about sisters, and Iris is a terrific narrator. Now a cantankerous elderly woman, she takes us back through her family history: her father’s button factory and his clashes with organizing workers, her mother’s early death, and her enduring relationship with their housekeeper, Reenie. Iris and Laura met a young man named Alex Thomas, a war orphan with radical views, at the factory’s Labour Day picnic, and it was clear early on that Laura was smitten, while Iris went on to marry Richard Griffen, a nouveau riche industrialist.
Interspersed with Iris’s recollections are newspaper articles that give a sense that the Chase family might be cursed, and excerpts from The Blind Assassin, Laura’s posthumously published novel. Daring for its time in terms of both explicit content and literary form (e.g., no speech marks), it has a storyline rather similar to 1984, with an upper-crust woman having trysts with a working-class man in his squalid lodgings. During their time snatched together, he also tells her a story inspired by the pulp sci-fi of the time. I was less engaged by the story-within-the-story(-within-the-story) this time around compared to Iris’s current life and flashbacks.
In the back of my mind, I had a vague notion that there was a twist coming, and in my impatience to see if I was right I ended up skimming much of the second half of the novel. My hunch was proven correct, but I was disappointed with myself that I wasn’t able to enjoy the journey more a second time around. Overall, this didn’t wow me on a reread, but then again, I am less dazzled by literary “tricks” these days. At the sentence level, however, the writing was fantastic, including descriptions of places, seasons and characters’ psychology. It’s intriguing to think about whether we can ever truly know Laura given Iris’s guardianship of her literary legacy.
If you haven’t read this before, find a time when you can give it your full attention and sink right in. It’s so wise on family secrets and the workings of memory and celebrity, and the weaving in of storylines in preparation for the big reveal is masterful.
Some favourite passages:
“What fabrications they are, mothers. Scarecrows, wax dolls for us to stick pins into, crude diagrams. We deny them an existence of their own, we make them up to suit ourselves – our own hungers, our own wishes, our own deficiencies.”
“Beginnings are sudden, but also insidious. They creep up on you sideways, they keep to the shadows, they lurk unrecognized. Then, later, they spring.”
“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it. Impossible, of course.”
My original rating (c. 2008):
My rating now:
What to read for #MARM next year, I wonder??
In general, I have been struggling mightily with doorstoppers this year. I just don’t seem to have the necessary concentration, so Novellas in November has been a boon. I’ve been battling with Ruth Ozeki’s latest novel for months, and another attempted buddy read of 460 pages has also gone by the wayside. I’ll write a bit more on this for #LoveYourLibrary on Monday, including a couple of recent DNFs. The Blind Assassin was only my third successful doorstopper of the year so far. After The Absolute Book, the other one was:
The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles
In Towles’ third novel – a big, old-fashioned dose of Americana – brothers and pals set out from Nebraska on road and rail adventures to find a fortune in 1950s New York. The book features some fantastic characters. Precocious Billy steals every scene he appears in. Duchess is a delightfully flamboyant bounder, peppering his speech with malapropisms and Shakespeare quotes. However, Emmett is a dull protagonist, and it’s disappointing that Sally, one of just two main female characters, plays such a minor role. A danger with an episodic narrative is that random events and encounters pile up but don’t do much to further the plot. At nearly 200 pages in, I realized little of consequence had happened yet. A long road, then, with some ups and downs along the way, but Towles’ fans will certainly want to sign up for the ride.
With thanks to Hutchinson for the free copy for review.
Anything by Atwood, or any doorstoppers, on your pile recently?
Epic fantasy is far from my usual fare, but this was a book worth getting lost in. The reading experience reminded me of what I had with A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, or perhaps Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – though it’s possible this last association was only in my mind because of Dan Kois. You see, we have Kois, an editor at Slate, to thank for this novel being published outside of Knox’s native New Zealand. He wrote an enthusiastic Slate review of an amazing novel he’d found that was only available through a small university press, and Clarke’s novel was his main point of reference. How’s that for the power of a book review?
Taryn Cornick, 33, has adapted her PhD thesis into a popular history of libraries – the search for absolute knowledge; the perennial threats that libraries face, from budget cuts to burnings – that she’s been discussing at literary festivals around the world. One particular burning looms large in her family’s history: the library at her grandfather’s country estate near the border of England and Wales, Princes Gate. As girls, Taryn and her older sister, Beatrice, helped to raise the alarm and saved the bulk of their grandfather’s collection. But one key artifact has been missing ever since: the Firestarter, an ancient scroll box that is said to have been through five fires and will survive another arson attempt before the book is through.
Nearly 15 years ago now, Beatrice was the victim of a random act of violence. Soon after her killer was released from prison, he turned up dead in unusual circumstances. Ever since, Detective Inspector Jacob Berger has suspected that Taryn arranged a revenge killing, but he has no proof. His cold case heats back up when Taryn lands in the hospital and complains of a series of prank calls.
What ensues is complicated, but in essence, the ongoing fallout of Beatrice’s murder and a cosmic battle over the Firestarter are twin forces that plunge Taryn and Jacob into the faerie realm (Sidh). Their guide to the Sidh is Shift, a shapeshifter who can create impromptu gates between the two worlds (while others, like Princes Gate, are permanent passageways).
Fairies (sidhe), demons, talking ravens … there’s some convoluted world-building here, and when I reached the end I realized I still had many ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions, though often this was because I hadn’t paid close enough attention and if I glanced back I’d see that Knox did indeed tell us how characters got from A to B, and who was after the Firestarter and why.
The book travels everywhere from Provence to Purgatory, but I particularly liked the descriptions of the primitive lifestyle in the faerie realm. Knox gives enough detail about things like food and clothing that you can really imagine yourself into each setting, and there’s the occasional funny turn of phrase that inserts the magical into everyday life in a tongue-in-cheek way, like “The Nespresso [machine] made hatching-dragon sounds.”
My two favorite scenes were an intense escape from a marsh and one that delightfully blends the human world and faerie: Taryn’s father, Basil Cornick, is a Kiwi actor best known for his role in a Game of Thrones-style television show. He’s roped into what he thinks is a screen test, playing Odin opposite a very convincing animatronic monster and pair of talking birds. We and Taryn know what he doesn’t: that he was used to negotiate with a real demon. The terrific epilogue also offers an appealing vision of how the sidhe might save the world.
If, like me, all you know of Knox’s previous work is the bizarre and kind of awful The Vintner’s Luck (which I read for a book club a decade or so ago), you’ll be intrigued to learn that angels play a role here, too. But beneath all the magical stuff, which is sometimes hard to follow or believe in, the novel is a hymn to language and libraries. A number of books are mentioned, starting with the one that was in Beatrice’s backpack at the time of her death: “the blockbuster of that year, 2003, a novel about tantalising, epoch-spanning conspiracies. Beatrice enjoyed those books, perhaps because they were often set in libraries.” (That’s The Da Vinci Code, of course.) Also mentioned: Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, the Moomin books, and the film Spirited Away – no doubt these were beloved influences for Knox.
I appreciated the words about libraries’ enduring value, even on a poisoned planet. “I want there to be libraries in the future. I want today to give up being so smugly sure about what tomorrow won’t need,” Taryn says. She knows that, for this to happen, people must “care about the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation, and about keeping what isn’t immediately necessary because it might be vital one day. Or simply intriguing, or beautiful.” That’s an analogy for species, too, I think, and a reminder of our responsibility: to preserve human accomplishments, yes, but also the more-than-human world (even if that ‘more’ might not include fairies).
Page count: 626 (my only 500+-page doorstopper so far this year!)
Next month will be all about the short books (#NovNov!), but first it was time to get this excessively long one out of the way. My husband’s and my reading tastes don’t overlap in many areas, but John Irving is our mutual favorite author. I first started The Cider House Rules (1985) on our second honeymoon – being from two different countries, we had two nuptial ceremonies and two honeymoons, one per continent – which was a road trip through New England. We drove from Maryland to Maine and back; I have a specific memory of reading the chunky Irving hardback at our B&B in Stowe, Vermont. I was a much less prolific reader in those days, so I had to return my American library copy partially read and then pay to reserve one from the Hampshire Libraries system once we were back in the UK.
Thirteen years on, I remembered the orphanage and cider farm settings, the dynamic between Doctor Wilbur Larch and his protégé, Homer Wells, and Homer’s love for his best friend’s girl, Candy. I also remembered that this is a Trojan horse of a novel: it advocates, not very subtly, for abortion rights through pictures of women in desperate situations. Luckily, by the time I first read it I was no longer slavishly devoted to the American Religious Right. But this time I felt that even readers who consider themselves pro-choice might agree Irving over-eggs his argument. My memory of the 1999 film version is clearer. It severely condenses the book’s 40 years or so of action, cutting subplots and allowing Tobey Maguire and Charlize Theron to play the leads all the way through. A shorter timeframe also more neatly draws a line between Rose Rose’s experience and Homer’s change of heart about offering abortions.
I had a strong preference for the scenes set at St. Cloud’s orphanage in Maine. Dr. Larch is celibate and addicted to ether – all a result of his first sexual encounter with a prostitute. He has an ironclad conviction that he is doing the Lord’s work for the pregnant women who get off the train at St. Cloud’s, whether they come for an abortion or to leave a live baby behind. Homer Wells is the one orphan who never finds an adoptive home; he stays on and becomes Larch’s trainee in obstetrics, but vows that he won’t perform abortions. As a young adult, Homer is pulled away from the orphanage by his puppy love for Wally and Candy, a couple-in-trouble who come up from his family’s apple farm. Homer thinks he’ll go back with his new friends for a month or two, but instead he stays at Ocean View orchard for decades, his relationship with Candy changing when Wally goes off to war and comes back disabled.
I had forgotten the bizarre scenario Larch has to set up for the orphanage’s board of trustees to accept his chosen successor, and the far-fetched family situation Homer, Candy and Wally end up in. The orchard sections could feel endless, so I always thrilled to mentions of what was happening for Dr. Larch and the nurses back at St. Cloud’s.
The Dickensian influence – lots of minor characters and threads tying up nicely by the end; quirks of speech and behavior – has generally been the aspect I like the most about Irving’s work, and while I loved the explicit references to David Copperfield here (a few kids get their names from it, it’s read aloud to the boy orphans every night, and its opening question about whether the protagonist will be the hero of his own life or not applies to Homer, too), I did find the novel awfully baggy this time. I even put in a slip of paper where I felt that things started to drift: page 450.
One further note to make about the film: it, rather unforgivably, eliminates Melony, a larger-than-life character and necessary counterpart to the book’s multiple passive females. She’s the de facto head of the girl orphans, as Homer is for the boys, and initiates Homer into sex. But her feelings for him are more of hero worship than of romantic love, and when he breaks his promise and leaves St. Cloud’s without her, she sets off to hunt him down. Her odyssey, delivered in parallel, is nearly as important as Homer’s (see what I/Irving did there?).
While I loved the medical history material and Dr. Larch’s moral fiber, this time I found Homer a little insipid and annoying (he answers nearly every question with “Right”), and the plot somewhat slack and obvious. In my memory this is probably #3 out of the Irving novels I’ve read, below A Prayer for Owen Meany and The World According to Garp – both of which I’d also like to reread to see if they’ve retained their power.
Page count: 731
My original rating (July–September 2007):
My rating now:
Done any rereading, or picked up any very long books, lately?
On one of my periodic trips back to the States, I saw Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speak at a large Maryland library soon after Americanah (2013) was published. I didn’t retain much from her talk, except that her main character, Ifemelu, was a blogger about race issues and that Black hair also played a role. I was hugely impressed with Adichie in person: stylish and well-spoken, she has calm confidence and a mellifluous voice. In the “question” (comment) time I remember many young African and African American women saying how much her book meant to them, capturing the complexities of what it’s like to be Black in America.
Ironically, I have hoarded Adichie’s work over the years since then but not read it. I did read We Should All Be Feminists from the library for Novellas in November one year, but had accumulated copies of her other five books as gifts or from neighbors or the free bookshop. (Is there a tsundoku-type term for author-specific stockpiling?) Luckily, my first taste of her fiction exceeded my high expectations and whetted my appetite to read the rest.
“You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country,” a secondary African American character declares at an evening salon Ifemelu attends. Adichie puts the lie to that statement: her slight outsider status allows her to cut through stereotypes and pretenses and get right to the heart of the issue. The novel may be seven years old (and hearkens back to the optimism of Barack Obama’s first election), but it feels utterly fresh and relevant at a time when we are newly aware of the insidiousness of racism. Again and again, I nodded in wry acknowledgment of the truth of Ifemelu’s cutting observations:
Job Vacancy in America—National Arbiter in Chief of ‘Who Is Racist’: In America, racism exists but racists are all gone. Racists belong to the past. Racists are the thin-lipped mean white people in the movies about the civil rights era. Here’s the thing: the manifestation of racism has changed but the language has not. So if you haven’t lynched somebody then you can’t be called a racist.
Through Ifemelu’s years of studying, working and blogging her way around the Eastern seaboard of the United States, Adichie explores the ways in which the experience of an African abroad differs from that of African Americans. These subtleties become especially clear through her relationships with Curt (white) and Blaine (African American), which involve a performative aspect and a slight tension that were absent with Obinze, her teenage sweetheart. Obinze, too, tries life in another country, moving to the UK illegally. Although they eventually earn financial success and good reputations – with Obinze a married property developer back in Nigeria – both characters initially have to do debasing work to get by.
Americanah is so wise about identity and perceptions, with many passages that resonated for me as an expat. When Ifemelu returns to Nigeria after 13 years, she doesn’t know if she or her country has changed: “She was no longer sure what was new in Lagos and what was new in herself … home was now a blurred place between here and there … there was something wrong with her. A hunger, a restlessness. An incomplete knowledge of herself.”
I loved Ifemelu’s close bond with her cousin, Dike, who is more like a little brother to her, and the way the narrative keeps revisiting a New Jersey hair salon where she is getting her hair braided. These scenes reminded me of Barber Shop Chronicles, a terrific play I saw with my book club last year. The prose is precise, insightful and evocative (“she would not unwrap from herself the pashmina of the wounded,” “There was something in him, lighter than ego but darker than insecurity, that needed constant buffing”).
On a sentence level as well as at a macro plot level, this was engrossing and rewarding – just what I want from a doorstopper. The question of whether Ifemelu and Obinze will get back together is one that will appeal to fans of Normal People – can these sustaining teenage relationships ever last? – but Ifemelu is such a strong, independent character that it’s merely icing on the cake. I’m moving on to her Women’s Prize winner, Half of a Yellow Sun, next.
Page count: 477 (but tiny type)
Source: Free bookshop
Deerbrook by Harriet Martineau (1839)
This was meant to be a buddy read with Buried in Print, but I fell at the first hurdle and started skimming after 35 pages. I haven’t made it through a Victorian triple-decker in well over a decade; just since 2012, I’ve failed to get through three novels by Charles Dickens, whom I used to call my favorite author. I’m mildly disappointed in myself, but may have to accept the change in my reading tastes. In my early 20s, I loved chunky nineteenth-century novels and got my MA in Victorian Literature, but nowadays I look at one of these 500+-page classics and think, why wade through something so tortuously verbose over a matter of weeks when I could read three or more contemporary novels that will have more bearing on my life, for the same word count and time?
In any case, Deerbrook is interesting from a cultural history point of view, sitting between Austen and the Brontës or George Eliot in terms of timeline, style and themes. In the fictional Midlands village of Deerbrook, the Greys and Rowlands are neighbors engaged in a polite feud while sharing a summer house and a governess. Orphaned sisters Hester and Margaret Ibbotson, 21 and 20, come to live with the Greys, their distant cousins and known dissenters. Hester got “all the beauty,” so it’s no surprise that, after a visit from a local doctor, Edward Hope, everyone is pairing him with her in their minds. I liked an early passage voicing the thoughts of Maria Young, the crippled governess (“How I love to overlook people,—to watch them acting unconsciously, and speculate for them!”), but soon tired of the matchmaking and moralizing. A world in which everyone does their duty is boring indeed.
Martineau, though, seems like a fascinating figure I’d like to read more about. She wrote a two-volume Autobiography, which I would also skim if I could find it from a library. Just her one-page bio at the front of my Virago paperback contained many astonishing sentences: “her education was interrupted by advancing deafness, requiring her to use an ear trumpet in later life”; “Her fiancé, John Hugh Worthington, having gone insane also died”; [after writing Deerbrook] “She then collapsed into bed where she was to remain for the next five years. In 1845 Harriet Martineau was dramatically cured by mesmerism,” etc.
Page count: 523 (again, tiny type)
Source: A UK secondhand bookshop 15+ years ago
My impression of Claire Messud is that she’s admired by critics but unpopular with ordinary readers (e.g. this novel has a catastrophically low average rating on Goodreads, probably because of that “unlikable characters” chestnut). I fit into both categories, so was curious to see where I would fall on the appreciation spectrum. Doubly intrigued by Susan’s inclusion of The Emperor’s Children on her list of top New York novels, I finally picked up the copy I’d gotten from the free mall bookshop where I volunteered weekly in ordinary times.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that this is a 9/11 novel. It opens in March 2001 and covers the next eight months, with “the towers” first getting a mention at the halfway point. There’s heavy irony in one character commenting to another in the first week of September, “Whatever else they may be, our times are almost criminally uninteresting. The dullest times ever.” As in a couple of novels I read last year (not naming them in case that is a spoiler), the terrorist attacks wake the main characters up from a stupor of entitlement and apathy.
The trio of protagonists, all would-be journalists aged 30, have never really had to grow up. Marina still lives with her parents, social worker Annabel and respected cultural pundit Murray Thwaite. She got an advance to write a book on children’s fashions, but the project has languished for years. Her best friend Danielle is a documentary maker mired in an affair with an older man. Their other close pal is half-Vietnamese Julius, whose new boyfriend keeps him in the luxurious lifestyle to which he’s become accustomed.
The arrival of two young men sets the plot in motion. Through Danielle, Marina meets Ludovic Seeley, who has moved from Australia to New York City to launch a magazine, The Monitor, for which he is soliciting cutting-edge cultural exposés. Meanwhile, Murray’s nephew, college dropout Frederick Tubb, who has the unfortunate nickname of “Bootie,” has moved to the City to seek his fortune. Murray offers him a job as his amanuensis, but what Bootie learns leads him to wish he could expose his idolized uncle as an intellectual fraud.
For these characters, leaving an extended childhood behind means getting out from under the shadow of a previous generation and reassessing what is admirable and who is expendable. As Marina’s book title (The Emperor’s Children Have No Clothes) indicates, appearance and substance do not always match. I won’t give away what 9/11 means for this fictional world, though I’d be interested in discussing it in the comments with anyone who’s read the book. Bootie was my favorite, and what happens with him is particularly interesting.
This was thoroughly engrossing: richly textured and intellectually satisfying in a way that might call to mind George Eliot and Edith Wharton – or, more recently, Jennifer Egan and Zadie Smith. Great American Novel territory, for sure. I’ll be keen to read more by Messud.
Page count: 581
This was a rare case of reading a novel almost entirely because of its famous first line: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” I was familiar with the quote from the Bookshop Band song “Once Upon a Time” (video on bottom right here), which is made up of first lines from books, but had never read anything by the late Iain Banks, so when a copy of The Crow Road turned up in the free bookshop where I volunteered weekly in happier times, I snapped it up.
There’s a prosaic explanation for that magical-sounding opening: Grandma Margot had a pacemaker that the doctor forgot to remove before her cremation. Talk about going out with a bang! To go “away the crow road” is a Scottish saying for death, and on multiple occasions a sudden or unexplained death draws the McHoan clan together. As the book starts, Prentice McHoan, a slothful student of history at the university in Glasgow, is back in Gallanach (on the west coast of Scotland, near Oban), site of the family glassworks, for Margot’s funeral. He’ll be summoned several more times before the story is through.
Amid clashes over religion with his father Kenneth, a writer of children’s fantasy stories, plenty of carousing and whiskey-drinking, and a spot of heartbreak when his brother steals his love interest, Prentice gets drawn into the mystery of what happened to Uncle Rory, a travel writer who disappeared years ago. The bulk of the book is narrated by Prentice, but shifts into the third person indicate flashbacks. Many of these vignettes recount funny mishaps from Kenneth or Prentice’s growing-up years, but others – especially those in italics – reveal darker matters. As Prentice explores Uncle Rory’s files from a project called “Crow Road,” he stumbles on a secret that completely changes how he perceives his family history.
This reminded me of John Irving at his 1970s‒80s peak: a sprawling coming-of-age story, full of quirky people and events, that blends humor and pathos. In all honesty, I didn’t need the mystery element on top of the character study, but it adds direction to what is otherwise a pleasant if lengthy meander through the decades with the McHoans. I particularly appreciated how Prentice’s view of death evolves: at first he’s with Uncle Hamish, believing there has to be something beyond death – otherwise, what makes human life worthwhile? But Kenneth’s atheism seeps in thanks to the string of family deaths and the start of the Gulf War. “They were here, and then they weren’t, and that was all there was,” Prentice concludes; the dead live on only in memory, or in the children and work they leave behind. I can’t resist quoting this whole paragraph, my favorite passage from the novel:
Telling us straight or through his stories, my father taught us that there was, generally, a fire at the core of things, and that change was the only constant, and that we – like everybody else – were both the most important people in the universe, and utterly without significance, depending, and that individuals mattered before their institutions, and that people were people, much the same everywhere, and when they appeared to do things that were stupid or evil, often you hadn’t been told the whole story, but that sometimes people did behave badly, usually because some idea had taken hold of them and given them an excuse to regard other people as expendable (or bad), and that was part of who we were too, as a species, and it wasn’t always possible to know that you were right and they were wrong, but the important thing was to keep trying to find out, and always to face the truth. Because truth mattered.
That seems like a solid philosophy to me. I’ll try more by Banks. I also nabbed a free copy of The Wasp Factory, which I take it is very different in tone. Any recommendations after that? Could I even cope with his science fiction (published under the name Iain M. Banks)?
Page count: 501
“The fallen Congo came to haunt even our little family, we messengers of goodwill adrift on a sea of mistaken intentions.”
You may have gathered by now that I struggle with rereading. Often I find that on a second reading a book doesn’t live up to my memory of it – last year I reread just four books, and I rated each one a star lower than I had the first time. But that wasn’t the case with my September book club book, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which I’ve just flown through in 11 days. I first read it in the spring of 2002 or 2003, so maybe it’s that I’d allowed enough time to pass for it to be almost completely fresh – or that I was in a better frame of mind to appreciate its picture of harmful ideologies in a postcolonial setting. In any case, this time it struck me as a masterpiece, and has instantly leapt onto my favorites list.
Here’s what I’d remembered about The Poisonwood Bible after the passage of 16–17 years:
- It’s about a missionary family in Africa, and narrated by the daughters.
- One of the sisters marries an African.
- The line “Nathan was made frantic by sex” (except I had it fixed incorrectly in my mind; it’s actually “Nathan was made feverish by sex”).
Everything else I’d forgotten. Here’s what stood out on my second reading:
- Surely one of the best opening lines ever? (Though technically there’s a prologue that comes before it.) “We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle.”
- The book is actually narrated in turns by the wife and four daughters of Southern Baptist missionary Nathan Price, who arrives in the Congo with his family in 1959. These five voices are a triumph of first-person narration, so distinct and arising organically from the characters’ personalities and experiences. The mother, Orleanna, writes from the future in despondent isolation – a hint right from the beginning that this venture is not going to end well. Fifteen-year-old Rachel is a selfish, ditzy blonde who speaks in malapropisms and period slang and misses everything about American culture. Leah, one of the 13-year-olds, is whip-smart and earnest; she idolizes their father and echoes his religious language. Her twin, Adah, who was born with partial paralysis, rarely speaks but has an intricate inner life she expresses through palindromes, cynical poetry and plays on words. And Ruth May, just five years old, sees more than she understands and sets it all across plainly but wittily.
- Nathan’s arrogant response to the ‘native customs’ is excruciating. His first prayer, spoken to bless the meal the people of Kilanga give in welcome, quickly becomes a diatribe against nakedness, and he later rails against polygamy and witch doctors and tries to enforce child baptism. When he refuses to take their housekeeper Mama Tataba’s advice on planting, all of the seeds he brought from home wash away in the first rainstorm. On a second attempt he meekly makes the raised beds she recommended, and keeps away from the poisonwood that made him break out in a nasty rash. This garden he plants is a metaphor for control versus adaptation.
- Brother Fowles, Nathan’s predecessor at the mission, is proof that Christianity doesn’t have to be a haughty rampage. He respects Africans enough to have married one, and his religion is a playful, elastic one built around love and working alongside creation.
- The King James Bible (plus Apocrypha, for which Nathan harbors a strange fondness) provides much of the book’s language and imagery, as well as the section headings. Many of these references come to have (sometimes mocking) relevance. Kingsolver also makes reference to classics of Africa-set fiction, like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
- Africa is a place of many threats – malaria and dysentery, snakes in the chicken house, swarms of ants that eat everything in their path, corruption, political coups and assassinations – not least the risk of inadvertently causing grave cultural offense.
- The backdrop of the Congo’s history, especially the declaration of independence in 1960 and the U.S.-led “replacement” (by assassination) of its first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, with the dictator Mobutu, is thorough but subtle, such that minimal to no Googling is required to understand the context. (Only in one place, when Leah and Rachel are arguing as adults, does Kingsolver resort to lecturing on politics through dialogue, as she does so noticeably in Unsheltered.)
- Names are significant, as are their changes. With the end of colonialism Congo becomes Zaire and all its cities and landmarks are renamed, but the change seems purely symbolic. The characters take on different names in the course of the book, too, through nicknames, marriage or education. Many African words are so similar to each other that a minor mispronunciation by a Westerner changes the meaning entirely, making for jokes or irony. And the family’s surname is surely no coincidence: we are invited to question the price they have paid by coming to Africa.
- We follow the sisters decades into the future. “Africa has a thousand ways to get under your skin,” Leah writes; “we’ve all ended up giving up body and soul to Africa, one way or another.” Three of the four end up staying there permanently, but disperse into different destinies that seem to fit their characters. Even those Prices who return to the USA will never outrun the shadow the Congo has left on their lives.
What an amazing novel about the ways that right and wrong, truth and pain get muddied together. Some characters are able to acknowledge their mistakes and move on, while others never can. As Adah concludes, “We are the balance of our damage and our transgressions.”
I worried it would be a challenge to reread this in time to hand it over for my husband to take on his week-long field course in Devon, but it turned out to be a cinch. That’s the mark of success of a doorstopper for me: it’s so engrossing you hardly notice how long the book is. I think this will make for our best book club discussion yet. I can already think of a few questions to ask – Is it fair that Nathan never gets to tell his side of the story? Which of the five voices is your favorite? Who changes and who stays the same over the course of the book? – and I’m sure I’ll find many more resources online since this was an Oprah’s Book Club pick too.
English singer-songwriter Anne-Marie Sanderson’s excellent Book Songs, Volume 1 EP includes the song “Poisonwood.” The excerpted lyrics are below, with direct quotes from the text in bold.
Our Father speaks for all of us
Our Father knows what’s best for us as well
He planted a garden where poisonwood grew
He cut down the orchids cos none of us knew
that the seeds that filled his pockets
would grow and grow without stopping
his beans, his Kentucky Wonders
played their part in tearing us asunder.
Our mother suffered through all of this
Our mother carried the guilt
Carry us, marry us, ferry us, bury us
Carry us, bury us with the poisonwood.
Page count: 615
When she read my review of As a God Might Be by Neil Griffiths, Liz Dexter suggested Wendy Perriam’s books as readalikes and very kindly sent me one to try: The Stillness The Dancing – a title whose lack of punctuation confused me until I discovered that it’s taken from a line of T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker”: “So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” It took me nearly a year and a half to get around to it, but I’ve finally read my first Perriam (fairly autobiographical, it seems) and found it very striking and worthwhile.
The comparison with the Griffiths turned out to be apt: both are hefty, religion-saturated novels dwelling on themes of purpose, mysticism, asceticism, and the connection between the mind and body, especially when it comes to sex. Perriam’s protagonist is Morna Gordon, a 41-year-old translator. The end of her marriage was nearly as disorienting for her as the loss of her Catholic faith. Occasional chapters spotlight the perspective of the other women in this family line: Morna’s mother, Bea, who’s been a widow for as long as Morna has been alive and finally finds a vocation at an age when most people are retiring; and Morna’s daughter Chris, who’s tasting freedom before starting uni and settling down with her diver boyfriend, Martin.
When Morna accompanies Bea on a week-long religious retreat in the countryside, she meets David Anthony, a younger man she initially assumes is a priest. Here to deliver a lecture on miracles, he’s a shy scholar researching a seventh-century Celtic saint, Abban, who led an austere life on a remote Scottish island. Morna is instantly captivated by David’s intellectual passion, and in lieu of flirting offers to help him with his medieval translations. Still bruised by her divorce, she longs to make a move yet doesn’t want to scare David off. After 14 years of Neil telling her she was frigid, she’s startled to find herself in the role of sexual temptress.
Staid suburban England is contrasted with two very different locales: Saint Abban’s island and the outskirts of Los Angeles, where Morna and Chris travel for a few weeks in January so Chris can spend time with her father and meet his new family: (younger) wife Bunny and Chris’s four-year-old half-brother, Dean. California is “another world completely,” a fever dream of consumerism and excess, and Morna does things that are completely outside her comfort zone, like spending hours submerged in a sensory deprivation tank and breaking down in tears in the middle of Bunny’s women’s consciousness-raising circle.
The differences between England and California are exaggerated for comic effect in a way that reminded me of David Lodge’s Changing Places – but if for Chris it’s all about hedonistic self-expression, for Morna America is more of an existential threat, and she rushes back to be with David. There are several such pivotal moments when Morna flees one existence for another, often accompanied by a time of brain fog: alcohol, sleeping pills or grief disrupt her normal thought processes, as reflected in choppy, repetitive sentences.
I bristled slightly at the melodramatic nature of the final 60 pages, unsure to what extent the ending should be seen as altering the book’s overall message: Morna is denied a full transformation, but it seems she’s still on the spiritual path towards detachment from material things. Though still a lapsed Catholic, she finds some fresh meaning in the Church’s history and rituals. As her mother and daughter both embark on their new lives, her ongoing task is to figure out who she is apart from the connections that have defined her for so many years.
My favorite parts of the novel, not surprisingly, were Morna’s internal monologue – and her conversations with David – about faith and doubt. Perhaps I wasn’t wholeheartedly convinced that all the separately enjoyable components fit together, or that all the strands were fully followed through, but it’s an exuberant as well as a meditative work and I will certainly seek out more from Perriam.
Some favorite lines:
(Morna thinks) “If one had been exhorted all one’s girlhood to live for God alone, then how could one have purpose if He vanished?”
David: “I know our society shies away from any type of self-denial, regards it as neurotic or obsessional, but I disagree with that. Anything worth having is worth suffering for.”
Morna: “Are you still a Catholic? I know you said you believed in God, but that’s not the same, is it?” / David: “I’m still redefining all my terms. That can take a lifetime.”
Author note: Wendy Perriam’s name was completely new to me, though this was her 11th novel. Now in her 70s, she is still publishing fiction, with a crime novel released in 2017.
Page count: 536