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There are innumerable unsung and compelling figures from history who never quite achieved the fame or long-lasting influence you’d expect. One of my favourite books from the past few years is Megan Mayhew Bergman’s collection of short stories “Almost Famous Women” which fictionalizes the stories of several striking women who were figures of marginal significance in their times but not widely remembered. A couple of her tales deal with people around the notoriously vibrant art scene in Paris between the Wars. In Rupert Thomson’s wonderful new novel he reimagines the lives of two particularly fascinating women from this period. Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe were a life-long couple both born into prosperous intellectual families in France near the turn of the century. They were artists and progressive thinkers who questioned static gender roles in the way they presented themselves and by adopting the gender-ambiguous names Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. We follow their lives from childhood to mingling with significant Parisian artists to their dangerous anti-Nazi activism in occupied Jersey to the post-War years. It’s a sweeping and thrilling novel that gives an entirely new perspective of early 20th century Europe and a powerful account of a significant long-term same sex love affair.

It’s clever how Thomson chooses to narrate his novel through the perspective of Suzanne/Marcel becomes she’s in many ways the more stable and practical partner of this intriguing pair. Lucy/Claude is daringly defiant in her opinions and actions, but she’s also erratic and if the narrative were steered by her voice it would probably grow too unwieldy. Instead we follow their experiences through the dogged and perceptive point of view of Suzanne who is enthralled by Lucy’s radical ideas and cavalier attitude. At one point she recounts Lucy declaring “Masculine, feminine,’ she said. ‘I can do all that. But neuter – that’s where I feel comfortable. I’m not going to be typecast or put in a box. Not ever. I’m always going to have a choice.” It’s impressive how forward-thinking and brave this couple were to live in a way which so stridently defied the gender norms and conventions of the time. While this spurred their artistic visions in writing and the visual arts, their refusal to be categorized and the fact it was a male-dominated milieu probably contributed to the fact that this couple’s work isn’t as well remembered as that of some of their peers.

Something I love is the empowering self-determined way these women choose uncertainty over a safe and predictable life. In practical terms it would have been much easier for them to settle down into stable lifestyles, but they chose each other and they chose to question instead of being complicit. They declare their stance as such: “The path I had chosen was the one that I could not imagine.” Given the time period and sex they were born into it’s very easy for them to imagine straightforward conventional lifestyles, but they strike out into uncharted territory in their love affair as well as dealings with the founders of the Surrealist movement and in undermining the imposed authority of the Nazis. Although they are faithful in their love for each other, this refusal to adhere to convention also includes not settling down into a strictly monogamous relationship – something which naturally becomes a source of friction for the couple over the years.

Anyone enamoured with the glamorous intellectual circles which have been frequently mythologized in fiction and nonfiction accounts of the interwar periods of Paris will take pleasure in the many cameos of noteworthy eccentric figures. These include Gertrude Stein and her “melancholy lover, the one with the drooping eyelids”, Salvador Dali who is “a dapper, narrow-shouldered man with slicked-back hair and a moustache… up close, he smelled of old gardenias, their petals browning at the edges” and Andre Breton who “wore a green suit and a pair of spectacles, and he carried his famous cane on which were carved vaginas, erect penises and slugs.” There’s a strong sense of how these groups were self-consciously fashioning legacies at the time. Also, the warring egotism of different artists meant that “The movements came and went more quickly than the seasons, and the rifts between people we knew were perennial and vitriolic.”

Claude Cahun & an unknown woman

Claude Cahun & an unknown woman

However, this novel comes most grippingly alive when Suzanne and Lucy move to Jersey seeking stability and quiet, but find the war comes to their doorstep. Their actions are incredibly brave and it leads to some very tense scenes. There are also some funny observations about how easy it was, in some cases, to fool the Nazis by simply signing their anti-German fliers as if they were a soldier because “No one looking at the word ‘soldier’ would think of a woman.” However, the very narrow-minded misogyny which ironically allows them to get away with their subversive activities for so long also gets them into hot water when the Germans refuse to believe they were simply two older ladies acting alone. The fact that I had no prior knowledge about this couple and how their lives would play out added to making this novel such a tense read for me.

“Never Anyone But You” is also an especially compelling and heartfelt novel. It’s wonderful reading about a historical same sex relationship portrayed in such a compassionate way. There is an intensity and beauty to breaking taboos to be with the person you’re naturally drawn to, but there’s also a sense of isolation which comes from finding love which cannot be celebrated within the larger society: “Since we were excluded, we became exclusive.” This is a powerful sentiment that’s also echoed in Matthew Griffin’s novel "Hide" about a long-term gay relationship. I also admired how Rupert Thomson avoids sentimentality in how he presents the bond between these women: “It’s a mistake to think that a long relationship is boring. The longer you’re with someone, the more mysterious they become.” Following the harrowing story of this dynamic couple which is brought so vividly to life in Thomson’s novel made me appreciate how complex these women were and grateful that they’ve been rescued from obscurity.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRupert Thomson
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Last year I read Louise Erdrich’s novel “LaRose”. It's the first book I’ve read by Erdrich. One of the things I found fascinating about it was the mixture of styles she uses and how one story line is quite fantastical/surreal where a pair of characters are continually chased by a decapitated head. So I was interested to find out how she would write about a future-set dystopian landscape in her new novel “Future Home of the Living God” where evolution reverses. People and animals start giving birth to more primitive beings so it’s like nature is winding back to some earlier genetic code. What follows is a suspenseful tale of society’s breakdown where pregnant women are sequestered as the rogue government desperately tries to discover why the next generation has this primitive condition. Readers will naturally liken this story to “The Handmaid’s Tale” for the way it explores through one woman’s perspective the way women’s bodies are controlled and used by a fascist regime. It definitely has those elements, but it reminded me more of Megan Hunter’s recent post-apocalyptic literary novel “The End We Start From” for the way it explores the meaning of family in a time of crisis. Erdrich succeeds on giving a compellingly new take on these issues as well as raising intriguing questions about faith, nationality, race and biology.

The story is told from the perspective of Cedar, a woman in her early thirties who is pregnant and writes this account to her unborn child (even though she fears her child could be born as a being too primitive to be able to read/understand it.) Cedar was raised by a white couple who adopted her and decides to go meet her birth mother for the first time in order to know if there are any genetic conditions that she and her unborn baby should know about. Since her birth mother is a Native American who lives on a reservation this also gives her an opportunity explore the heritage she’s had little contact with. Soon after, news starts coming in about women giving birth to primitive beings. With the central government’s collapse, society fragments into different factions and Cedar goes into survivalist mode. It also becomes necessary for her to go into hiding because all pregnant women are being seized by officials. Tension steadily builds over the course of the story – not only because Cedar fears being captured, but because the reader wonders what the baby will be born like as her pregnancy progresses.

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It felt confusing at some points of the story as I didn’t quite understand who was in charge of the country amidst the crisis, why women were being so forcibly corralled and what was happening in larger society. But Erdrich eludes having to create a laboriously detailed picture of the broader scenario she’s created by telling it all through Cedar’s limited second-person narrative. Cedar herself understands little of what’s going on, the internet and phones have stopped working and she’s only desperately trying to survive/give birth to her baby. It’s commented that “The first thing that happens at the end of the world is that we don't know what is happening.” So, while this story gets a bit unwieldy in some parts as it feels like the author could have gone into a lot more detail, the bulk of the narrative is a meditative account on Cedar’s part as she contemplates the meaning of motherhood and heritage.

Cedar also naturally considers the meaning of what's happening and broader issues concerning the development of human history. The story provokes an interesting look at the state of our current world as society struggles with issues of over-population, depletion of resources and large-scale environmental disaster. It's been said by some scientists that our intelligence as humans might have given us a temporary evolutionary advantage to become top of the food chain, but this could be a short-term aberration because in the long run its more primitive species which have the ability to survive over millennia: `'Dinosaurs lasted so much longer than we have, or probably will, yet their brains were so little. Meaning that stupidity is a good strategy for survival? Our level of intelligence could be a maladaptation, a wrong turn, an aberration.” So that evolution winds backward in this story might be a way of nature correcting our unfettered domination of the planet. Cedar contemplates how faith and artistic expression figure into our survival as a species and at one point surmises “I think we have survived because we love beauty and because we find each other beautiful. I think it may be our strongest quality.” The story creates a space in which to thoughtfully consider all these issues and how the choices we make will impact future generations.

A newspaper has previously remarked that “Erdrich is the poet laureate of the contemporary Native American experience.” This story also fascinatingly engages with issues of a reservation and how society's fragmentation allows the Native Americans on this reservation to reclaim land that originally belonged to their ancestors. So the novel also makes a wry social commentary on how such regression might allow an opportunity to correct the wrongs of past generations. Cedar herself grapples with feelings about her heritage and where she fits in society. Her journey through the oppressive circumstances of this story gives an interesting perspective on the propensity for violence within our species: “I know this: there is nothing that one human being will not do to another. We need a god who sides with the wretched.” This is a suspenseful, thought-provoking novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLouise Erdrich
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I haven’t read any of Jennifer Egan’s fiction before although I’ve always meant to get to her Pulitzer Prize winning “A Visit from the Good Squad” – especially after enjoying so much the varied selection of stories found in the “Best American Short Stories 2014” anthology which Egan guest edited that year. I’ve heard the way Egan handles time in her writing and her method of structuring a story is quite experimental. So it was somewhat surprising to discover that “Manhattan Beach” is constructed like a much more traditional historical novel, but one that is done so powerfully well it reads as a totally innovative and striking take on NYC life during WWII.

The story centres around the life of a young woman named Anna who works in the Naval Shipyard factories and her determination to become a diver working on the submerged hulls of ships and underwater pipelines. Running through the novel is the mystery of what happened to her father Ed who vanished from their family life leaving Anna and her mother Agnes alone to care for her severely physically and mentally disabled younger sister Lydia. She seeks answers about her father’s fate from Dexter Styles, an influential local gangster who, despite his power, finds himself precariously caught between a godfather-like crime boss whose network of schemes he oversees and his respectable high-society father-in-law. Anna and Dexter’s lives intersect and they separately reach a crisis point which requires them to radically alter their lives. It’s an atmospheric tale bouncing between sparkling star-studded gangster-run clubs to the plight of shipwrecked sailors to the murky bottom of Wallabout Bay. It’s as captivating in its portrayal of a working class single woman as it is in the way it shows larger American societal shifts amidst cataclysmic wartime losses.

Egan’s descriptive prose are so engaging. These include evocative observations about life working in a wartime factory, the social order of navy life and the complex workings of the criminal underworld. But there are also subtle portrayals about physical development. For instance, when Ed is an adolescent it’s remarked: “He’d turned twelve, tall and scrawny, fastened together with muscles like leather thongs.” It’s especially poignant when Egan shows Anna’s attempt to form an emotional connection with Lydia who is physically limited in how she can communicate. There are also beautifully profound moments when Anna finally dives underwater and experiences an entirely different world free from the complexity of life on the surface. It’s almost like the readers’ senses are adjusted alongside Anna’s so we can experience a vision of clouded water and the sounds inside her diver’s helmet.

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Something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently are the ways prejudice is portrayed in novels and the degree to which we can distinguish a character’s perspective from the authorial voice. There are several scenes where uncomfortable remarks are made about different immigrant communities in NYC, but it was clear that these are mediated through the perspective of Dexter and are bound with this character’s social prejudices. It becomes even more evident that this is the case when Dexter at one point comes to interact with Lydia and he refers to her only as “the cripple.” This shows how he really doesn’t consider her an individual and can’t see past her disability or consider her humanity. It’s all the more tragic when Ed recalls spending time with a young Lydia and the acute shame and disgust he feels towards his daughter’s condition. Egan also writes compellingly about the complex commanding order of shipmates and how traditional social orders amongst different racial groups are scrambled in this unique environment.

Like all great historical fiction, this novel has something to say about the world we’re living in right now. When Dexter’s father-in-law is speculating about America’s position in the global community he surmises “our dominance won’t arise from subjugating peoples. We’ll emerge from this war victorious and unscathed, and become bankers to the world. We’ll export our dreams, our language, our culture, our way of life. And it will prove irresistible.” Today, consumerism has run rampant and personal debt threatens to throw us all into a tailspin again at any moment while stripping the environment down to the bone. It’s interesting to consider the ways in which America’s global influence could have been different after the war if the forces in power were motivated by something other than profit.

“Manhattan Beach” was overall a joy to read and it includes a sassy, free-thinking aunt named Brianne who ultimately became my favourite character.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJennifer Egan
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Like a lot of people, I have a real affection for foxes. I guess it’s something about the bushy tails and that beautiful red/copper colour of their fur that makes them so attractive. One of the things I love most about London is coming home late at night and seeing a fox trotting down an empty street. At the heart of Fiona Melrose’s debut novel “Midwinter” is a female fox that lives on the periphery of a farm inhabited by a father and son. She’s only seen occasionally by the father Landyn who feels a connection to her and a growing sense of protectiveness as he notices her becoming ill. The fox is just a small part of the story but she seems to represent something much bigger. The missing part of this family is the mother Cecelia who died in a brutal way while they were living in Zambia several years before. Landyn and his son Vale never discuss the emotional repercussions of this traumatic loss, but a horrific accident between Vale and his friend Tom which happens at the start of the novel forces the father and son to confront their shared grief. “Midwinter” is a beautifully written novel that movingly shows the way lives become embittered when communication breaks down and how new routes for connection can be formed over time.

I really respond to fiction that sympathetically deals with individuals and families facing hard economic realities – something many of us struggle with in our everyday lives but I find that this is often left out of contemporary literature. Like many British farmers, Landyn Midwinter finds that his profits are steadily dwindling over a number of years to the point where he’s facing bankruptcy and this has a painfully difficult impact upon his home life. It’s astutely observed that “Everyone has a fine and deep-bedded family when the cash is rolling in but take that away, and you’ll find out soon enough how well the centre holds.” In a desperate attempt to save his family and make a new start he uproots them and responds to an ad seeking people experienced in agriculture to manage farms in Zambia. Here his family faces a whole new set of challenges which build to the tragic loss of Cecelia.

It’s impressive the way Melrose so fully explores the particularly masculine way the father and son deal with their feelings. The story alternates between Vale and Landyn’s perspectives which gives a rounded understanding of the individual emotional pain each man is suffering from and why they aren’t able to express this to the other. Many men deal with emotional suppression through drinking and violence. This is what Vale resorts to because he can’t rationally explain the residual anger he feels towards his father over the loss of his mother and it leads to unfortunate consequences. But there is also a touching tenderness to the way he is aware of his father’s peculiarities and does small things to support him. Although Landyn has a really nurturing personality and fiercely protects the welfare of animals, he’s not able to bring himself to discuss his son’s anger or openly express his own mourning.

A fox I came upon when walking home recently one night.

A fox I came upon when walking home recently one night.

One of the most moving passages comes when Landyn contemplates the way both he and his son are acting irrationally because of their grief. He reasons that “Hauntings aren’t about being afraid, they’re about longing. If you don’t crave the thing that stalks you it’s just a thing, or a person or a fox, maybe, because it has no meaning. What a haunting is, though, is all your longing for someone in a shape you can wrap your brain around.” The mental projection of the mother looms large in their present lives and the reason she torments them both so much is that they’re not acknowledging to each other that she’s there. Vale longs for her guidance and Landyn is steeped in loss, but without openly discussing these difficult issues they give in to destructive impulses.

Fiona Melrose artfully handles the oftentimes brutal reality of rural life and these characters’ violent outbreaks with a poetic and philosophical beauty. I was totally immersed in the story which slides back and forth in time to show the conflict and scarred existence of this father and son. Interesting James Kelman’s most recent novel “Dirt Road” also shows a father and son who find it difficult to emotionally deal with the loss of the mother of the family. However, the story and the statements Melrose make are very different. I highly recommend “Midwinter” – especially as an absorbing read as we enter the colder months of the year and it’s worth mentioning that as an object I think the book has an exceptionally beautiful cover.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesFiona Melrose
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Louise Erdrich is one of those well regarded American authors I’ve always meant to read, but never got around to. When I was sent a copy of “LaRose” I thought I’d dip in to see what her writing style was like. The story had me instantly hooked! It begins with a terrible hunting accident within a Native American community. A man named Landreaux accidentally shoots his neighbour/friend Peter Ravich’s young boy. To compensate for the loss he’s caused and in keeping with his tribe’s tradition, he offers his equally young son LaRose to Peter and his wife Nola to compensate him for his loss. There follows an emotionally complex series of events as the Ravich family struggle with their real son’s loss and Landreaux’s family adjusts to living without LaRose. Meanwhile the boy is caught in the middle. This extraordinary drama raises questions about the meaning of family, guilt and the role traditional Native American beliefs, practices and history play in modern day life making this a deeply engaging novel.

Erdrich has a special ability for writing compelling three-dimensional characters who stick with you. Peter’s wife Nola is a strict Catholic and a hardened woman with self destructive tendencies. The way that she and her strong wilful teenage daughter Maggie play against each other is wholly believable. They are combative characters that find themselves united by love in moments of real crisis. At one point Nola looks at her daughter and realizes “She had raised a monster whom she hated with all the black oils of her heart but whom she also loved with a deadly confused despair.” This compellingly conflicted relationship plays out in a way which shows deep layers of hidden emotions.

The unorthodox Father Travis is a fascinating individual who formerly served in the military. He finds that “Getting blown up happened in an instant; getting put together took the rest of your life.” Now he takes an active role in recruiting converts by trawling bars to preach to the most vulnerable and running a drug/alcohol rehabilitation group. Romeo Putay lives on the margins of the community, skimming prescription drugs off from the sick and elderly to use or sell at a profit. He also hoards discarded information to later leverage a sense of power over those he believes have wronged him. The story of his difficult childhood and orphaned life alongside Landreaux is particularly memorable. Romeo’s son Hollis has been raised by his former friend Landreaux adding another dimension to the sense of improvised family units and loose support networks formed to bring together a suffering community.

The individuals living on the Native American reservation in Erdrich’s novel engage in a self conscious struggle with problems that affect their community. A friend of Landreaux’s teaches Ojibwe culture and “Going up against demons was Randall’s work. Loss, dislocation, disease, addiction, and just feeling like the tattered remnants of a people with a complex history. What was in that history? What sort of knowledge? Who had they been? What were they now? Why so much fucked-upness wherever you turned?” The overall portrait is of a people strengthened by their traditions, but hampered by years of being inhibited by institutions that have slighted them and a history of oppression. Romeo has a conversation in a bar with his son Hollis where the teenager remarks about their people “When we fuck up now, we mostly fuck up on our own” to which Romeo replies “Are you crazy! That’s called intergenerational trauma, my boy!” The common problems of their people can’t simply be changed by personal willpower because they are the result of many years of systematic abuse and a conscious effort to eradicate their culture.

Writer L. Frank Baum once wrote: "The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians."

Writer L. Frank Baum once wrote: "The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians."

Within the novel Erdrich recounts the shocking fact of author L. Frank Baum’s chequered journalist past where he advocated for the extermination of Native Americans. I had never heard of his outrageous assertions but subsequently read about it in this NPR article and in other sources. Erdrich also incorporates elements of Native American folklore into her story in the form of a particularly unsettling and surreal section about a teenager named Wolfred who flees with a girl who is sold into slavery by her own mother, but the pair are continuously followed by the head of Wolfred’s boss Mackinnon in a way which is terrifying. These fantastical elements add a layer to the novel’s underlying messages about issues to do with guilt and possession which saturate the entire culture.

Erdrich’s way of writing about tricky moral dilemmas and very sympathetic characters reminds me of the excellent Canadian writer Joan Barfoot. She looks at complex issues and tests how they play out in extreme situations. I hope to read more of Erdrich’s acclaimed work based on the strength of this novel. “LaRose” is an absorbing and utterly fascinating read.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLouise Erdrich
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