This coming Sunday is Mother’s Day in the USA. (Mothering Sunday generally falls in March here in the UK, so every year I have to buy a card early to send to my mother back in the States, but I still associate Mother’s Day with May.) Earlier in the year I got over halfway through a Goodreads giveaway book, Beyond the Pale by Emily Urquhart, before I realized its author was the daughter of a Canadian novelist I’d read before, Jane Urquhart. That got me thinking about other mother–daughter pairs that might be on my shelves. I found one in the form of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees plus an advance e-copy of her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor’s upcoming debut novel, The Shark Club. (I’ve previously reviewed their joint memoir, Traveling with Pomegranates.) And, as a bonus, I have a mini-review of Graham Swift’s novella Mothering Sunday: A Romance.
The Whirlpool, Jane Urquhart
From 1986, this was Urquhart’s first novel. Overall it reminded me of A. S. Byatt (especially The Virgin in the Garden) and John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Set in 1889 on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, it features characters who, each in their separate ways, are stuck in the past and obsessed with death and its symbolic stand-in, the whirlpool. Maud Grady, the local undertaker’s widow, takes possession of the corpses of those who’ve tried to swim the Falls. Her creepy young son starts off mute and becomes an expert mimic. Major David McDougal is fixated on the War of 1812, while his wife Fleda camps out in a tent reading Victorian poetry, especially Robert Browning, and awaiting a house that may never be built. Local poet Patrick sees Fleda from afar and develops romanticized ideas about her.
Each of these narratives is entertaining, but I was less convinced by their intersections – except for the brilliant scenes when Patrick and Maud’s son engage in wordplay. In particular, I was unsure what the prologue and epilogue (in which Robert Browning, dying in Venice, is visited by images of Shelley’s death by drowning) were meant to add. This is the second Urquhart novel I’ve read, after Sanctuary Line. I admire her writing but her plots don’t always come together. However, I’m sure to try more of her work: I have a copy of Away on the shelf, and Changing Heaven (1990) sounds unmissable – it features the ghost of Emily Brontë! [Bought from a Lambeth charity shop for 20p.]
Beyond the Pale: Folklore, Family and the Mystery of Our Hidden Genes, Emily Urquhart
In December 2010, the author’s first child, Sadie, was born with white hair. It took weeks to confirm that Sadie had albinism, a genetic condition associated with extreme light sensitivity and poor eyesight. A Canadian folklorist, Urquhart is well placed to trace the legends that have arisen about albinos through time and across the world, ranging from the Dead Sea Scroll story of Noah being born with blinding white skin and hair to the enduring superstition that accounts for African albinos being maimed or killed to use their body parts in folk medicine.
She attends a NOAH (America’s National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation) conference, discovers potential evidence of a family history of albinism, and even makes a pilgrimage to Tanzania to meet some victims. It’s all written up in as engaging present-tense narrative of coming to terms with disability: to start with Urquhart is annoyed at people reassuring her “it could be worse,” but by the end she’s ever so slightly disappointed to learn that her second child, a boy, will not be an albino like his sister. [Goodreads giveaway copy]
The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd
It’s hard to believe it was 15 years ago that this debut novel was an It book, and harder to believe that I’d never managed to get around to it until now. However, in some ways it felt familiar because I’d read a fair bit of background via Kidd’s chapter in Why We Write about Ourselves and Traveling with Pomegranates, in which she and her daughter explored the Black Madonna tradition in Europe.
It joins unusual elements you wouldn’t expect to find in fiction – beekeeping and the divine feminine – with more well-trodden territory: the Civil Rights movement in the South in the 1960s, unhappy family relationships, secrets, and a teenage girl’s coming of age. Fourteen-year-old Lily is an appealing narrator who runs away from her memories of her mother’s death and her angry father, peach farmer T. Ray. You can’t help but fall in love with the rest of her new African-American, matriarchal clan, including their housekeeper, Rosaleen, who scandalizes the town by registering to vote, and the bee-keeping Boatwright sisters, August, June, and May, who give Lily and Rosaleen refuge when they skip town.
Although this crams in a lot of happenings and emotional ups and downs, it’s a charming story that draws you into the brutal heat of a South Carolina summer and keeps you hoping Lily will forgive herself and slip into the rhythms of a purposeful life of sisterhood. [Secondhand purchase in America]
A favorite line: “The way people lived their lives, settling for grits and cow shit, made me sick.”
The Shark Club, Ann Kidd Taylor
Dr. Maeve Donnelly loves sharks even though she was bitten by one as a child. She’s now a leading researcher with a Florida conservancy and travels around the world to gather data. Her professional life goes from strength to strength, but her personal life is another matter. Aged 30, she’s smarting from a broken engagement to her childhood sweetheart, Daniel, and isn’t ready to open her heart to Nicholas, a British colleague going through a divorce.
Things get complicated when Daniel returns to their southwest Florida island to work as the chef at her grandmother’s hotel – with his six-year-old daughter in tow. Maeve is soon taken with precocious Hazel, who founds the title club (pledge: “With this fin, I do swear. To love sharks even when they bite. When they lose their teeth, I will find them. When I catch one, I will let it go”), but isn’t sure she can pick up where she left off with Daniel. Meanwhile, evidence has surfaced of a local shark finning operation, and she’s determined to get to the bottom of it.
This is a little bit romance and a little bit mystery, and Taylor brings the Florida Keys setting to vibrant life. It took a while to suspend disbelief about Maeve’s background – an orphan and a twin and a shark bite survivor and a kid brought up in a hotel? – but I enjoyed the sweet yet unpredictable story line. Nothing earth-shattering, but great light reading for a summer day at the beach. Releases June 6th from Viking. [Edelweiss download]
Mothering Sunday: A Romance, Graham Swift
If you’re expecting a cozy tale of maternal love, let the Modigliani nude on the U.K. cover wipe that notion out of your mind. Part of me was impressed by Swift’s compact picture of one sexy, fateful day in 1924 and the reverberations it had for a budding writer even decades later. Interesting class connotations, too. But another part of me thought, isn’t this what you would get if Ian McEwan directed a middling episode of Downton Abbey? It has undeniable similarities to Atonement and On Chesil Beach, after all, and unlike those novels it’s repetitive; it keeps cycling round to restate its main events and points. There’s some good lines, but overall this felt like a strong short story stretched out to try to achieve book length. [Library read]
Barbara Yelin’s Irmina is one of the most visually stunning graphic novels I’ve ever come across. Not only that, but it’s based on a fascinating family story: after her grandmother’s death Yelin, a Munich-based artist, found a box of diaries and letters that told the story of a budding love affair that was not to be and charted a young woman’s gradual capitulation to Nazi ideology. How could her grandmother go from being a brave rule-breaker to a cowed regime supporter in just a few short years, she wondered? This fictionalized biography is her attempt to reconcile the ironies and hard facts of her ancestor’s life.
In 1934 Irmina von Behdinger arrives in London for a cultural exchange, attending a commercial school to train as a typist. One night she accompanies a friend to a fancy party and meets Howard, a young Barbados native she initially assumes to be a bartender. It turns out he actually has a scholarship to study law at Oxford. He’s learned, dignified and charming, and soon he and Irmina begin spending a lot of time together. Although she wishes she, too, could study at a proper university, women’s education is not valued in Germany.
Irmina and Howard’s carefree explorations of Oxford and London contrast with the increasingly bleak news coming from Germany about Hitler and his treatment of Jews. As her host family decries Nazism, Irmina tries to protest: “they are not MY Germans … this is politics! It doesn’t affect the average person.” She dreams of being an independent working woman and pursuing a relationship with Howard, but a change in her financial circumstances means she has to go back to Stuttgart instead. Promising to return to England as soon as she can raise some money, Irmina bids farewell to Howard at Portsmouth harbor in April 1935.
Back in Germany, she finds a translation job with the Ministry of War, hoping desperately to be transferred to the German consulate in London once she proves herself. But as the years pass and German relations with the rest of Europe grow strained, her dream seems increasingly unlikely. Having recently lost touch with Howard, she meets Gregor Meinrich, an architect for the SS, and gives up work when they marry and have a son. With the rare exception of a shocking event like Kristallnacht, it’s all too easy to ignore what’s happening to the nation’s Jews and absorb the propaganda that says they have earned their misfortune.
The novel is in three parts: London, Berlin and Barbados – Irmina gets a brief, late chance to see what her life might have been like with Howard. Yelin’s usual palette is muted and melancholy: grays, charcoal, slate blue, browns and flesh tones. However, in each section she chooses one signature color that adds symbolic flashes of life. For London it’s the bright blue of Irmina’s scarf, mirrored in Oxford’s sky and river, as well as in the occasional shopfront and lady’s dress.
In Berlin the red of the Nazi flag crops up in lipstick, dress patterns, flowers, wine and the décor of a ballroom. In the most poignant scene of all, though, red is equated with the spilling of Jewish blood. As a friend discusses what she doesn’t want to hear – “they’re taking them all to the East now, where they kill them” – Irmina is getting a jar of berry preserves down from a high shelf and drops it, spattering scarlet everywhere. On the other hand, to evoke the calm and natural beauty of 1980s Barbados, the featured hue is a seafoam green.
I was particularly impressed with the two-page spreads showing city scenes. They range from Impressionist fog to Modernist detail, reminding me of everything from Monet to Modigliani. Although the artwork stands out a bit more than the story, this still strikes me as a fresh look at the lives of ordinary Germans who were kept in the dark (by themselves and others) about Hitler’s activities. In an afterword, Dr. Alexander Korb, Director of the University of Leicester’s Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, reflects on Irmina’s motivation:
Irmina had a full range of possibilities. Yet the fact that she chose the Nazi path from the wide variety in front of her, encompassing feminism, internationality and individuality, makes her story typical of this time. It was just as typical that she failed to find happiness in fascism, like millions of others.
For the out-of-the-ordinary window onto Third Reich history and the excellent illustrations, I highly recommend Irmina to graphic novel lovers and newbies alike.
With thanks to the publisher, SelfMadeHero, for the free copy. Translated from the German by Michael Waaler.