Literary Wives Club: Red Island House by Andrea Lee
My second read with the Literary Wives online book club, after The Sentence. The other members will also be posting their thoughts this week; I’ll add links as we go.
Kay at What Me Read
Lynn at Smoke & Mirrors
Naomi at Consumed by Ink
Red Island House by Andrea Lee – a new author for me – is a linked short story collection that spans 20 years or so on Naratrany, a small (fictional) island off of northwest Madagascar, and stars an odd couple. Senna is a rich Italian businessman; Shay is an African American professor 15 years his junior. They meet at a wedding in Como and Senna builds his tropical island getaway at the same time as he courts her. Lee plays up the irony of the fact that Shay ends up being the lady of the house, served by all Black staff.
Colonial attitudes linger among the white incomers. I loved the long first story, “The Packet War,” in which Shay has a low-key feud with Senna’s bombastic Greek overseer, Kristos. The locals believe that, because Senna did not throw a traditional housewarming party for his opulent complex, the Red House is cursed (there are some magic realist scenes reflecting this, and the servants prescribe Shay some rituals to perform to combat it). And the same comes to seem true of their marriage. Or does their partnership just have your average ups and downs?
The main question we ask about the books we read for Literary Wives is:
What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?
~SPOILERS IN THE FOLLOWING~
Shay and Senna eventually have two children, Roby and Augustina, and spend most of the year in Italy, only coming back to Madagascar for long holidays in the summer and winter. She tolerates her husband’s presumed affairs until he has one so blatant she can’t ignore it. By this time their children are grown and Senna uses the Red House for get-togethers with his ageing playboy friends. Both have realized how little they have in common. They spend much of their time apart; the love that once bound them despite their differences appears to be gone.
as the fascination of their mutual foreignness wears away over the years, they find they share few tastes and interests outside of family life, and it is easy to let that independence pull them apart.
The long story of their love and marriage has always been full of stops and starts, dependent on dashingly improvised bridges over differences in temperament and culture.
By the end of the book they’re facing the fact that they need to make a decision on whether to try to heal their rift or formalize it.
The message I take from this novel is that, if coming from very different backgrounds, you may have to put in extra effort to make a partnership work. Perhaps, too, to an extent, Senna and Shay could be read as symbols of the colonizer and the exotic prey. But there’s a cautionary tale here for all of us in long-term relationships: it’s easy to drift apart. (I remember, at the time of my parents’ divorce, my mother’s colleague astutely noting that their house was too big, such that it was too easy for them to live separate lives in it.)
In general, I liked Lee’s passages describing Madagascar (I was interested to note the Chinese infrastructure projects), and the stories that focus on this family. Others about peripheral characters – beauty parlour customers, a local half-Italian boy, visits from friends – engaged me less, and I was irked by the present tense, so pervasive that it’s even used to, nonsensically, describe actions that took place in the past. I doubt I’d try another by Lee.
With thanks to Scribner UK for the free copy for review.
Next book: State of the Union by Nick Hornby in December (a reread for me).
Talking ’bout My Generation? Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist review #2
The first thing to note about a novel with “Conversations” in the title is that there are no quotation marks denoting speech. In a book so saturated with in-person chats, telephone calls, texts, e-mails and instant messages, the lack of speech marks reflects the swirl of voices in twenty-one-year-old Frances’ head; thought and dialogue run together. This is a work in which communication is a constant struggle but words have lasting significance.
It’s the summer between years at uni in Dublin, and Frances is interning at a literary agency and collaborating with her best friend (and ex-girlfriend) Bobbi on spoken word poetry events. She’s the ideas person, and Bobbi brings her words to life. At an open mic night they meet Melissa, an essayist and photographer in her mid-thirties who wants to profile the girls. She invites them back for a drink and Frances, who is from a slightly rough background – divorced parents and an alcoholic father who can’t be relied on to send her allowance – is dazzled by the apparent wealth of Melissa and her handsome actor husband, Nick. Bobbi develops a crush on Melissa, and before too long Frances falls for Nick. The stage is set for some serious amorous complications over the next six months or so.
Young woman and older, married man: it may seem like a cliché, but Sally Rooney is doing a lot more here than just showing us an affair. For one thing, this is a coming of age in the truest sense: Frances, forced into independence for the first time, is figuring out who she is as she goes along and in the meantime has to play roles and position herself in relation to other people:
At any time I felt I could do or say anything at all, and only afterwards think: oh, so that’s the kind of person I am.
I couldn’t think of anything witty to say and it was hard to arrange my face in a way that would convey my sense of humour. I think I laughed and nodded a lot.
What will be her rock in the uncertainty? She can’t count on her parents; she alienates Bobbi as often as not; she reads the Gospels out of curiosity but finds no particular solace in religion. Her other challenge is coping with the chronic pain of a gynecological condition. More than anything else, this brings home to her the disappointing nature of real life:
I realised my life would be full of mundane physical suffering, and that there was nothing special about it. Suffering wouldn’t make me special, and pretending not to suffer wouldn’t make me special. Talking about it, or even writing about it, would not transform the suffering into something useful. Nothing would.
Rooney writes in a sort of style-less style that slips right down. There’s a flatness to Frances’ demeanor: she’s always described as “cold” and has trouble expressing her emotions. I recognized the introvert’s risk of coming across as aloof. Before I started this I worried that I’d fail to connect to a novel about experiences so different from mine. I was quite the strait-laced teen and married at 23, so I wasn’t sure I’d be able to relate to Frances and Bobbi’s ‘wildness’. But this is much more about universals than it is about particulars: realizing that you’re stuck with yourself, exploring your sexuality and discovering that sex is its own kind of conversation, and deciding whether ‘niceness’ is really the same as morality.
With its prominent dialogue and discrete scenes, I saw the book functioning like a minimalist play, and I could also imagine it working as an on-location television miniseries. In some ways the dynamic between Frances and Bobbi mirrors that between the main characters in Paulina and Fran by Rachel B. Glaser, Friendship by Emily Gould, and The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker, so if you enjoyed any of those I highly recommend this, too. Rooney really captures the angst of youth:
You’re twenty-one, said Melissa. You should be disastrously unhappy.
I’m working on it, I said.
This is a book I was surprised to love, but love it I did. Rooney is a tremendous talent whose career we’ll have the privilege to watch unfolding. I’ve told the shadow panel that if we decide our focus is on the “Young” in Young Writer, there’s no doubt that this nails the zeitgeist and should win.
Reviews of Conversations with Friends:
From the shadow panel:
Annabel’s at Annabookbel
Clare’s at A Little Blog of Books
Dane’s at Social Book Shelves
Eleanor’s at Elle Thinks