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Like many people, I eagerly read Michelle Obama’s memoir “Becoming” as soon as it was published this week. It’s important that this book has come out now and there’s many reasons to be excited about it. I’m not only excited about it because she’s a former first lady as well as being an icon in her own right or her historic importance as the first African American First Lady who is the great great granddaughter of a slave. And not just because this book finally gives insight to her own private thoughts on things ranging from her evolving romance with Barack or the painful transition to the current presidency after they left the White House. And I’m not even excited just because I have silly fantasies about what it’d be like to be Michelle’s best friend and closest confidant and listening to the 19 hours and 3 minutes of the audio book meant Michelle was speaking about her private reflections directly into my ear. I’m excited about this book because I need a dose of wisdom and optimism in a period of time when the world seems so bleak and I feel so uncertain and frightened about my own future and the future of our society that I sometimes feel a creeping cynicism overcome me.

Having just read the book I’m filled with emotion and admiration and, yes, more hope because of the striking insights and heartfelt openness of Michelle’s story. This is someone who has been put under such brutal public scrutiny because of who she is and her position but I love how she emphasizes the importance of telling our own stories. She describes how through this book she is “slaying the caricatures and stereotypes with my own words.” So she tells the story of her life from childhood up until moving into a new home after leaving the White House. And through this she reveals her qualities as well as her flaws, her triumphs and disappointments, her difficult compromises and forthrightness (of being a girl who bravely talked back to her cantankerous grandfather – while realising in retrospect that he was grappling with his own disappointments in life.) She also reveals how throughout her life she’s continuously asked herself the worrying question “Am I good enough?” In being so candid she restores the humanity of her being which endless media and tabloid scrutiny have taken from her.

I think this is really important because I was just at a book prize ceremony the other night and as a nonfiction award was being given out the presenter announced how he hoped the broadening interests being covered in nonfiction published today would hail the death of the celebrity memoir. And, of course, I think a diversity of nonfiction is great and there are plenty of sensationalist celebrity memoirs which probably aren’t worth our time, but the huge response to Michelle’s book being published is a sign that we’re desperate for an intelligent role model we can look up to whose had a significant political and cultural influence in world history.

Here is a favourite quote which gives a glimpse about why I find this book so inspirational: “So many of us go through life with our stories hidden feeling ashamed or afraid when our whole truth doesn’t live up to some established ideal. We grow up with messages that tell us that there is only one way to be American. That if our skin is dark or our hips are wide, if we don’t experience love in a particular way, if we speak another language or come from another country then we don’t belong. That is until someone dares to start telling that story differently.” So this book does give us a different story and one many of us are desperate to hear.

I found it so fascinating reading about how she grew up in Chicago and how her neighbourhood slowly emptied of white and affluent families when it was labelled a “ghetto”. When her academic achievements landed her in a well-regarded school she gradually learned that there exists an African American elite and a ‘Jack and Jill’ club. And I found this particularly fascinating having read Margo Jefferson’s memoir Negroland a couple years ago which goes into this subject in a lot more detail and coincidentally covers a lot of the same time period living in Chicago in the 50s and 60s. An insight Michelle takes from this period of her life is learning about the “apparatus of privilege and connections. What seemed like a network of half hidden ladders and guide ropes that lead into the sky.” She gains a deeper understanding of the world and its secret privileges which exist from the smallest community all the way up through the mechanism of government.

We discover about how she learned to play the piano from a young age, about her father’s growing disability (multiple sclerosis), of going to the drive-in to watch Planet of the Apes movies, being good friends with Rev Jesse Jackson’s daughter in high school which was her initial early brush with politics, the pain of breaking with her first important boyfriend on leaving to study at Princeton. And there’s little personal insights like how she loves the “tidy triumph delivered by a home makeover show”, the panic of re-election night when her phone service goes out and she assumes it’s bad news when no one responds to her text messages, sneaking out of the White House with one of her daughters to see it illuminated by rainbow lights after same-sex marriage becomes a right after a Supreme Court ruling. There are encounters with famous world figures like chatting about uncomfortable shoes with Queen Elizabeth and having a private conversation with Nelson Mandela. She confides how she’s not someone naturally drawn to politics and she found a supreme simple comfort in making cheese toast in their new home after moving out of the White House.

Of course, there’s also all the wonderful insight into meeting Barack and their relationship. How she wasn’t impressed by him on their very first (professional) meeting because he was late. She was assigned to be his mentor at the law firm she worked for (even though he’s 3 years older than her) and how she told him off for smoking cigarettes on that first meeting. How Barack spent any spare change he had on books and reads political philosophy for pleasure. And there’s all the romance of how they left halfway through a production of Les Mis because neither were enjoying it, how she calls him a unicorn and fact man (since he has an almost photographic memory), the sexual tension when she allows the thought of a romance with him and their first kiss over ice cream. She notes how she gets him to watch Sex & the City. And there are also insights into how their different types of personalities complement each other: where she’s fastidious and fast moving, he’s laid back and patient. About how they had differing views on marriage and how she found living with someone with a strong sense of purpose was something she had to get used to. It’s really powerful how she writes candidly about having a miscarriage and receiving IVF treatments. The real difficulty of balancing a work and home life as a mother which leaves her feeling like she’s only doing things half well. Many female friends of mine have described being in similar positions as young mothers.

So the book is filled with these specific but very relatable details. And it’s great because it reveals how she’s a much more dynamic individual than most people give her credit for. For instance, one of her big platforms as first lady was to dissuade obesity in children by encouraging nutrition and she establishes a garden at the White House, but she also reveals how she occasionally enjoys a Chipotle meal or McDonald’s cheeseburger. Of course she does! So many people do but rather than see this as a contradiction it shows that she’s just human but really cares about trying to be more healthy and conscientious about what she eats as well as inspiring real change in school lunches across America and lowering the sugar content in mainstream foods. And she explores how many of her initiatives grew out of a really personal place for her from establishing mentoring programs for girls and young women to speaking out for stronger gun control laws and introducing a poetry and spoken word event at the White House – at which Lin-Manuel Miranda performed workings from what would become his show Hamilton.

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama - painted by Amy Sherald

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama - painted by Amy Sherald

I appreciated the way she captures how being a First Lady is not technically a job and she has no executive power but she has (as she describes) a “soft power” to influence and change through her speeches, her actions and her demeanour. And, of course, this comes with a lot of ridiculous unwanted things like the public’s obsession with her clothes when she really wants to focus on issues. It’s interesting how she points out that every powerful women in the public eye needs to have a stylist, hairdresser and makeup artist and that this really is “a built in fee for our societal double standard” where Barack only has to wear a suit but so much more is read into the way she looks. So she shows in a really powerful way how she’s aware of the responsibility and privileges of her position, but also demonstrates how she handles it with intelligence, strength and faith – and how her optimism is a form of faith.

For all these reasons, I found this memoir so inspiring and insightful. And I don’t want to spoil it but she does sadly mention in the end how she has “no intention for running ever” because she really isn’t naturally drawn to politics. But we can live and hope that maybe Michelle will won day be America’s president. If not her, than I hope someone equally inspiring and optimistic as she is will one day come forward to lead because the country desperately needs what Michelle embodies.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMichelle Obama
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I love it when a novel surprises me. I’m not specifically talking plot twists – although, this book does have a big one towards the end which I didn’t anticipate. It’s more that feeling when I’m reading a book and the writing is fine, but I’m not sure I see the point of the story. But then it gets to a section where it emotionally grips me and breaks my heart and pieces it back together bit by bit. The best example of this I always go back to is Colm Tóibín’s “Brooklyn” which made me flip and fall in love with it halfway through. But now I can say the same about Kit De Waal “The Trick to Time”. This novel slides effortlessly between the early and later life of Mona, a girl from Ireland who eventually moves to England and spends many years making elegant handcrafted dolls as well as emotionally assisting bereaved women in their grieving process. It’s a deceptively simple story that makes big statements about loss, relationships and the power imagination can play in rescuing us from the ravages of time.

One way this novel really pulled on my heart strings was by portraying some characters who are outwardly “difficult” but their prickliness is really a defensive guise shielding hidden psychological pain. A woman named Sarah visits Mona at one point and, though she is quite rude and dismissive, Mona persists in helping her because both women have experienced a similar sense of loss and Mona can sense how much she’s in pain. This astute, empathetic manner is really touching, but it’s also heartening to read about a character like Mona who is so essentially good that she’d selflessly give her time and attention to someone else rather than become embittered by her own anger and despair. This is something I also found so striking about another novel I read recently called “The Ninth Hour”.

Mona and Karl visit Packington House, a 17th century mansion in Warwickshire

Mona and Karl visit Packington House, a 17th century mansion in Warwickshire

This novel also meaningfully engages with a question I’ve grappled with a lot in my life. It’s difficult not to let ourselves become preoccupied with thoughts about what might have been if we’d made different life choices or if chance had made us take a different path in life. Usually I’ve felt that getting lost in such musings is counterproductive as its taking you out of your immediate existence or the moment you’re living in. But this novel posits a different slant on this issue. Early in Mona’s life her father explains to her that there is a trick to time and throughout the book there are multiple examples of how people can indulge in imaginatively building alternate timelines for themselves – not necessarily as ways of escaping real life, but overcoming grief which feels otherwise insurmountable. So when Mona’s mother is very ill she engages her daughter in picturing how Mona’s life might play our or when a neighbour named Karl takes Mona to an antique fair they engage in playful musings about a luxurious lifestyle where the furniture around them fills an imagined stately home. It feels like this way of allowing ourselves to be manipulated by fantasy and the imagination can be a way of building a stronger sense of self as it allows us to simultaneously inhabit all the multiplicities of life.

I also really appreciated how this novel frankly deals with the subject of miscarriage in such a complex and moving way. It’s always felt to me like a somewhat taboo subject that’s not often talked about or perhaps it’s something I’ve never been that aware of as a man who has never been with a pregnant partner. But several years ago I was startled to find that some women close to me had experienced miscarriages which I hadn’t previously known about. It’s entirely understandable that something so sensitive isn’t brought up except in certain contexts and, of course, this is why many pregnant women don’t tell many people about their pregnancy until a certain stage, but it feels important that there’s more dialogue about something which can have long-term emotional consequences. “The Trick to Time” handles this beautifully and in such an effective way. I was entirely engrossed in the novel and moved by its very touching ending.  

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKit De Waal
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I first read Henry James’ “The Portrait of a Lady” when I was in college, but reread it several years ago (one of the only “classics” I’ve ever reread) for a book club I was in. Part of me has always dreaded picking up a novel by Henry James because his style is so dry with complicated (albeit beautiful) sentences that demand a lot of concentration. On my second reading I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting James’ story about Isabel Archer who travels to Europe while batting away suitors, becomes an unexpected heiress and marries the wrong man. So I was fascinated to hear that one of Ireland’s greatest living writers John Banville wrote a sequel to James’ influential novel. “Mrs Osmond” picks up on Isabel’s story immediately after the end of “The Portrait of a Lady” where she’s gone to England to be beside her beloved dying cousin even though it’s against her husband Gilbert Osmond’s wishes. It’s entirely ambiguous in James’ novel whether she’ll return to her domineering husband, but Banville gives the answer in this story. But, more than resolving a plot point, this novel is a moving meditation on the meaning of personal independence.

Banville does something really clever and fun near the beginning of this novel. He writes about Isabel dining alone in London and how she becomes aware of a man across the room staring at her as if she were a portrait. Banville writes Henry James in to his story in this playful way and once she leaves the restaurant its like she’s been liberated from his authorial control: “It was as if she were an invalid making her feeble way over difficult terrain, who had found suddenly that a hand that had been sustaining her for so long she had ceased to notice its support had suddenly been withdrawn, leaving her to totter alone.” This is an ingenious post-modern trick as if the character has been granted independence - but, of course, it’s not really true because now James’ heroine has been absorbed into Banville’s artistic vision.

Nor does Banville try to liberate the story from James’ oracular style of writing which closely imitates The Master. His assimilation of James' manner of writing is an impressive feat, but also somewhat detracted from the experience for me. Banville’s typical prose are exquisite and, given the choice, I’d rather read a novel of his over Henry James. But this book is more James than Banville. When I read his last novel “The Blue Guitar” I noted how parts of it distinctly reminded me of Samuel Beckett; so although Banville is incredibly talented maybe he’s more like a talented mockingbird. However, I’m extremely glad I stuck with the density of prose in this novel for both the story twists and the way Banville expands Isabel’s character in a more dynamic way.

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Like in a Henry James novel, there is a scant amount of action in this story. Every journey Isabel takes and every meeting she has with someone is inevitably accompanied by the protagonist’s considerations about identity and society. As ponderous as these might become, there are real flashes of brilliance in some of these tangents ranging from thoughts about money “that must not be mentioned, that must be passed over in the strictest silence, if the necessary norms of civilised society were to be maintained and preserved intact” to the way we naively project ourselves into the people we fall in love with “What she saw was that it had not been Osmond she had fallen in love with, when she was young, but herself, through him. That was why he was no more to her now that a mirror, from the back of which so much of the paint had flaked and fallen away that it afforded only fragments of a reflection, indistinct and disjointed.”

Often where the story really shines are in the brief insights into Isabel’s character made by other characters particularly the rambunctious American journalist Henrietta Stackpole who remarks at one point “Oh, I know you, Isabel Archer. The most monstrous ghouls might parade before you,  clanking their chains and keening, and not a hair on your head will turn, but set you square in front of a looking-glass and you will start back from your own image with piercing cries of fright.” This is funny and there are some great bits of social humour in this novel especially in the way Isabel tries to awkwardly befriend her maid. But Henrietta also gets to the heart of Isabel’s real dilemma: not whether she should remain with her husband Gilbert Osmond or choose another suitor, but the degree to which she can escape the image she’s built of herself and pursue what she really wants in life. Banville provides some clever turns in the story which had me gripped to discover what happens. It takes a lot of courage to follow in Henry James’ footsteps and there are few writers such as Alan Hollinghurst and John Banville who are talented enough to do so.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJohn Banville

Surely the Greek myth of warrior-king Agamemnon and his downfall must be the story of the most dysfunctional family in history. In his most recent novel “House of Names” Tóibín reenacts this dramatic tragedy, but doesn’t focus on the perspective of the great conqueror of Troy who horrifically sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to the gods in order to ensure his victory. Instead he flips between the accounts of Agamemnon’s scheming wife Clytemnestra, imperious daughter Electra and young son Orestes. Moving between their points of view he shows how their downfall is fuelled by their various ambitions and craven need for revenge. If you’re not familiar with the details of this myth I’d advise you not to search for their stories online prior to reading this novel (as I unfortunately did) or you’ll ruin the blood-soaked plot. However, the power of Tóibín’s invention isn’t in plotting out this ancient story (whose details he seems to mostly stay faithful to) but in how he vividly imagines the points of view of these more marginalized figures of the myth and letting their voices color the well-worn tale. 

It’s somewhat funny looking back to my last review of a Tóibín novel when I read “Nora Webster” a few years ago. In the first line I comment that “his stories seldom involve high drama.” It’s like the author took that challenge and recreated a story with nothing but wickedly sensational drama! Tóibín’s great talent has traditionally been in writing domestic dramas where nothing much happens but we feel the angst of the characters’ life decisions so intensely that their stories become utterly profound. However, in recent years, he’s changed his tactic by harkening back to classic tales to expand our understanding of these old stories and imbue them with a modern sensibility. This is what he did by taking on the daring and weighty task of writing “The Testament of Mary.” Strangely, this brief novel where the mother of Jesus gets to have her say had little impact on me - although I absolutely loved the staged monologue starring Fiona Shaw holding a live vulture! However, I was enthralled reading “House of Names” for both it’s fiery action and sensitive take on a family ripped apart amidst their power struggle.

Agamemnon mostly comes across as a blandly driven man who “was an image of pure will.” The real conflict exists with his wife and children who are understandably overwrought by emotions because of the heinous actions of their family members. It’s interesting how the stories of Clytemnestra and Electra turn to meditations on faith. They separately struggle with their belief in the gods and how the gods’ actions play upon human emotions. Clytemnestra considers how “they distracted us with mock conflicts, with the shout of life, they distracted us also with images of harmony, beauty, love… And when it ended, they shrugged. They no longer cared.” Whereas Electra thinks “Perhaps the gods keep the memory of death locked up in their store, jealously guarded. Instead, the gods release feelings that were once pure or sweet. Feelings that mattered once. They allow love to matter since love can do no harm to the dead.” Tóibín intensely portrays their struggle between being servants to the will of the gods and exerting their own willpower in changing the course of fate. The narrative also charts what seems to be a societal shift from a polytheistic civilization to one which is more atheistic – as well as a change from feudalism to one which isn’t so domineering towards serfs and slaves.

Pierre Narcisse Guerin's 1822 painting 'Clytemnestra and Agamemnon'

Pierre Narcisse Guerin's 1822 painting 'Clytemnestra and Agamemnon'

Probably the most sympathetic character in this drama is young Orestes who finds himself a pawn in his family’s scheming until he’s a bit older and takes things into his own hands. Strangely, his account is the only one which isn’t actually narrated in the first person. Like Madeline Miller’s beautiful novel “The Song of Achilles”, the character of Orestes allows Tóibín to highlight this character’s homosexuality (which is suggested in some versions of this myth, but which Tóibín makes overt). There’s no question that Orestes falls in love with a man in this story, but he’s unable to explore the romantic implications of this due to societal constraints. While it’s considered quite natural in this society for leaders to have late-night rendezvous with guards, these affairs are never carried out in domestic partnerships. Tóibín powerfully depicts the tragedy and isolation which results from this.

The most poignant aspect of “House of Names” is tied to its title. Amidst all the devastation and bloodshed in this society, people’s existence doesn’t end neatly with their deaths. Instead they literally carry on in ghost-like forms to haunt the spaces where the intense dramas of their lives occurred. The way in which Tóibín portrays this is unsettling and strange and much more subtle than the raucous and magnificently-rendered graveyard found in Saunders’ recent “Lincoln in the Bardo.” But while Tóibín’s characters are still alive they frequently emphasize and assert their names as if everything about their being is tied up in these monikers. If their names are lost or forgotten then they will be lost to history and this makes the characters question if their existence has any significance at all. Through this Tóibín meaningfully probes if it’s better to be remembered for your actions (whether heroic or hateful) or if living without notoriety and letting your name be forgotten is preferable. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesColm Toibin
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Elizabeth Strout’s new novel “Anything is Possible” is the follow up and something of a continuation of her 2016 novel “My Name is Lucy Barton.” In a way it feels as if she is self consciously playing with the structure of the novel to capture an individual’s state of being from different angles. While the former gave fragments of Lucy’s life all centred around the recollection of a hospital visit from her mother, this new novel works more like a collection of interlinked short stories revolving around individuals connected with Lucy’s early life. These are people from the place of her deprived youth in rural Illinois. Many are struggling with issues of continuing poverty, obesity, isolation or emotional insecurity – even those who grew to be financially successful or married someone wealthy are still scarred by the privation of their younger years. Lucy Barton is the big local success story as she’s been in the media because she has a new book out (something of a memoir) which is also displayed in the local bookstore. She hovers in the consciousness of many of these characters prompting feelings of admiration, tenderness, jealousy or resentment. Around the gravitational pull of the (mostly) absent figure of Lucy, we’re given snapshots from these people’s later lives to create a tremendously powerful portrait of a community.

It would be somewhat useful to have a chart to plot out all the links between people portrayed in this novel as I found myself flipping back and forth to get the connections. This wasn’t a problem for me, more like an engaging puzzle. It will also be especially interesting to go back to the first novel to see where some characters have been mentioned previously. However, I don’t think it’s necessary to read “My Name is Lucy Barton” before reading this new novel. It can quite safely stand on its own as there’s no vital information lacking and each individual’s story is complete in itself. Some have nothing to do with Lucy at all, but others lean heavily on memories or opinions about Lucy. However, for readers who want to know more about Lucy Barton, there are some startling and heartbreaking revelations about her past. But overall the stories are wide-ranging from a celibate guidance counsellor to a Vietnam War vet involved in a complicated relationship with a prostitute to a B&B owner who is not to be trifled with. This is one of those books like Sara Taylor's “The Shore” or Yaa Gyasi's “Homegoing” that deals with characters individually so that it might feel like you're reading interlinked short stories, but an overarching conception and worldview binds the text together as a novel.

Set right in the middle of the novel is the story of Angelina, a grown woman who is estranged from her husband and goes to visit her seventy-eight year old mother Mary who lives in Italy. The pair converse about their lives, family and local gossip while awkwardly realigning their mother-daughter relationship as they haven’t seen each other in a number of years. Their intimacy stands out in sharp contrast to “My Name is Lucy Barton” where the extended conversations between mother and daughter were considerably icier. Yet, Mary and Angelina’s relationship is also strained as it feels like the daughter (the youngest in their large family) has never been able to grow out of her childish role. She desires something intangible from her mother just like Lucy Barton, but neither of these women can ever fully articulate what this thing is. The way that Strout relays their interactions and meditations about this strange state of being is moving and thought-provoking. I can’t help but feel she’s making a grander statement about mother-daughter relationships by juxtaposing Angelina & Mary's conversations with Lucy & Lydia's, but I feel like I’d need to reread both novels to fully grasp the implications of this.

Mary always believed that Elvis Presley was her secret friend though she had never once seen him.

Something that Strout does so exquisitely in this novel is portray the way in which people quietly maintain private beliefs throughout their lives. For instance, a man in one section believes that the disaster of his barn burning down was the will of God. Another woman believes that when her final daughter was born she recognized her instantly – whereas her other children felt like strangers at birth. These beliefs are intensely private and it would feel profane for the people who possess them to utter these ideas aloud. They are acknowledged to be totally illogical, yet they seem to guide their lives and influence their value systems like some private form of mysticism. It feels to me like many of us maintain these whimsical beliefs or superstitions which are admittedly absurd but still inform the core of our being. Strout illuminates how these occur in several of her characters' lives. They're examples of why a somewhat fanciful inner life exists simultaneously with the stark reality of our outer lives.

Although many of these stories are filled with vicious conflict there are intensely beautiful examples of kindness and sensitive reflection. Strout gets people's gritty characters while also recognizing the elegance with which everyone imagines a better future for themselves, but inevitably falls short because the world is never what we really believe it to be. One character muses “How did you ever know? You never knew anything, and anyone who thought they knew anything – well, they were in for a great big surprise.” Lucy Barton is viewed by many in her town as a success story, but part of the price of that success is never being able to return to the past. No matter how hard Lucy tries to reconnect with her origin or write about the “truth” of it, she can't fully engage with it. If she'd had a different constitution her story could have been the stories of any one of these people from her humble hometown. But she was determined to make her own way forward.

 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Something about the liquid imagery and cryptic title drew me to this novel. London has a big Brazilian community so I was curious to read about that cross-cultural experience as well. The novel centres around Andre, a Brazilian man in his later years who has lived his whole adult life in the UK. But he was raised in a privileged white upper-middle class family in Rio de Janeiro. There his family had a maid or an “empregada” named Rita and her mixed-race daughter Luana who also served the family. Andre hasn’t had contact with Luana for many years, but recently he’s received letters from her and it’s forced him to revisit a past which he’s denied throughout his life. Gradually the story of his tumultuous teenage years is revealed and the reason why he’s so stridently distanced himself from his country of birth and his family. It’s a novel that comes with a gripping twist which creates a complex picture of love.

In its concept this book is somewhat similar to Julian Barnes’ novel “The Sense of an Ending” for the way the story forces a man to radically reconsider the dramatic choices he made in his youth. It also teasingly questions our perception of what’s happening around us in relation to how those events are cemented in our collective idea of history. Andre reflects “Young people don’t know the importance of things when they’re happening, but when those images still play in your mind long after your hair’s gone grey and your belly slack, that’s when you know.” It’s fascinating the way events which seem trivial or circumstantial can inflate into having a greater importance we never could have attributed to them at the time. Andre discovers certain facts about the past and what was lost which make him see his life in a more rounded way and develop an empathy for other people’s perspectives.

Chico Buarque 'Tatuagem' - Andre's mother's favourite song. "She sang 'Tatuagem' often; sometimes whistled it. Its melancholy tune could be heard, distantly, all over our flat in Ipanema."

Part of what motivated Andre’s emotional decisions in his youth was the sudden death of his mother which we learn about quite early in the novel. It left a teenage Andre and his younger brother to be raised by his workaholic father Matheus so that they lived in an entirely male household. Andre’s sharp memories of his mother are beautifully rendered: “Even now, I can see my mother and hear her loud voice, her heels clicking on the floor. She’s like a pop song, the melody and lyrics imprinted in my mind.” There also existed in their household the female presences of Rita and her daughter Luana, but there’s an awkward tension here as they navigate the intimacies of home life, the formality of the women as servants and the developing sexual attraction between Andre and Luana. The dynamic of these relationships highlight the strident class system in place in Brazil at that time.

Matheus worked as a plastic surgeon and it’s also interesting to see the way the class of people their family socialized with was so obsessed with appearance and beauty. However, Andre’s father also had a clandestine after-hours job delivering abortions. Abortion is a controversial issue and laws concerning it are in the process or being amended – where traditionally abortion has only been legal there if the pregnancy puts the woman’s life in danger or if that pregnancy was the result of rape. However, these issues aren’t explored in the novel and I would have been fascinated to read about them – especially as a counterpart to my recent reading of Joyce Carol Oates’ novel “A Book of American Martyrs.” The middle of Sauma’s novel lags somewhat as its concerned more with mundane details about tensions in Luana and Andre’s relationship rather than these more complex social issues. However, I can see why the author chose to focus exclusively on the issue of their affair because otherwise it would have become a very different kind of novel. And when the twist comes in this book I was wholly invested and thoroughly gripped. After this point the revelations unfold thick and fast. It’s a promising debut novel and I hope to read more by Sauma in the future.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLuiza Sauma
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It's deeply frightening and upsetting how politically divided society is at the moment. When different factions are so convinced about the certitude of their own ideas and beliefs conflict is inevitable. Religion continues to be at the centre of many battles, yet in her new novel Elif Shafak creates the character of A.Z.Azur, a controversial Oxford professor who encourages dialogue across religious belief systems as he believes that too many people suffer from what he calls “The Malady of Certainty”. Every term he holds a selective seminar whose sole purpose is to probe the philosophical meaning of God. However, at the centre of this story is Peri, a highly intelligent Turkish woman who is confused about what God means to her. Enrolled in this seminar alongside her are friends Shirin, a bisexual woman with an Iranian background who considers herself “as British as a treacle tart but as out of place as a stuffed date cake” and Mona, a politically-engaged woman of Egyptian descent who is an ardently devout Muslim. These three women are referred to as “the Sinner, the Believer, the Confused.” They are individuals caught in a state of flux between different nations, faiths and ideologies. Shafak creates a deeply meaningful, extremely relevant and riveting tale about the role belief plays in these modern women's lives.

The novel opens on a typical day in 2016 when Peri is living as a mother in Istanbul driving with her daughter to a high-class dinner party. It's been over fifteen years since she studied at Oxford and the life she's settled into is very different from her idealistic university years in England. She and her husband socialize with powerful businessmen (some of whom are involved in dodgy deals) and an image-conscious class of women who “paraded their handbags like trophies won in faraway battles.” When caught in traffic Peri puts her own handbag in the backseat where it's stolen by a thief. Rather than accept the loss, she decides to do something drastic about it and this sets off a chain of events that prompt her to take action in life. The narrative switches back and forth between this extraordinary day and the back story of Peri's life. It recounts the sharp ideological divides which existed in her family home between her devout mother and non-practicing father as well as her elder brother Umut who is a Marxist targeted by the government and younger brother Hakan who is an “irredeemably religious and excessively nationalistic” journalist. Endearingly, Peri escapes from the dramas of her household by voraciously reading because she “found solace in literature… Books were liberating, full of life.” This leads her to do exceedingly well in school and secure a place studying at Oxford.

In Peri’s childhood home “There were portraits of the national hero everywhere; Atatürk in his military uniform in the kitchen, Atatürk in a redingote in the living room, Atatürk with a coat and kalpak in the master bedroom”

In Peri’s childhood home “There were portraits of the national hero everywhere; Atatürk in his military uniform in the kitchen, Atatürk in a redingote in the living room, Atatürk with a coat and kalpak in the master bedroom”

At the heart of the novel is Peri's quest for answers to irresolvable questions about her identity and faith. She's haunted by a jinni or spirit in times of distress which takes the form of a child's face. There is a dark truth about her past which she can't surmount and move on from despite trying to fashion a new future at university. A dramatic event in Oxford causes her to abandon her progressive life there and settle into a more traditional role as a wife in Istanbul. This is very different from how she envisioned her life, but she's not blind to the contradictions and hypocrisy of the society around her – especially those who are zealous in their nationalism and religion. Humorously she observes that “There were plenty of people who fasted during Ramadan both to renew faith and to lose weight. The sacred dovetailed with the profane.” The inequality between men and women remains a particular concern where she wonders “Was religion an empowering force for women who otherwise had limited power in a society designed for and by men, or was it yet another tool for facilitating their submission?” Peri desires to proudly be an active part of her faith and homeland without submitting to the oppressive dictums of those in power.

It feels particularly important to read dynamic and complex portraits of Muslim women's lives right now. Considering that the US has just enforced a policy temporarily blocking border entry for anyone from specific Muslim-majority countries, reading about the perspectives of Muslim lives prevents them from becoming a faceless other. I related to a lot of the specific and general conflicts Peri faced in this story despite her background and life being so different from my own. Elif Shafak writes a wonderfully immersive story with complex, nuanced characters. Irrespective of the current political climate, this is a compelling and accomplished novel in its own right. But I particularly admire how this novel and others such as Chinelo Okparanta's “Under the Udala Trees” and Ali Smith's “Autumn” address the current political climate of their societies and artfully suggest practical ways to create dialogue between fractious groups. “Three Daughters of Eve” is an original and memorable story.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesElif Shafak

There's something about a well-told family saga that I find so immersive and emotionally moving. It gives not only a powerful sense of people's lineage with aspects of personality, physical traits and heirlooms passed through those generations, but also the movement of time. By following the flow of passing generations in a way that we're unable to locked in the immediacy of our own lives, we're keyed into what might have been, the struggles endured and the sacrifices made so that we can live. Novels can anchor these stories of multiple generations in larger themes about the way society has changed over the years as in Neel Mukherjee's “The Lives of Others” which portrays the impact the Naxalite movement in Bengal had upon one family, Matthew Thomas's “We Are Not Ourselves” which shows the lasting effect of alcoholism in an Irish immigrant family in NYC, Sara Taylor's “The Shore” which shows the transformation of an island over many generations and Joyce Carol Oates' “Bellefleur” which gives a sense of capitalism's connection to the American dream. Now, Yaa Gyasi has created such an inventive well-written debut novel which follows the lineage of two African sisters separated at birth and the history of the slave trade over centuries.

One thing I find so moving about a family saga like this is the way it conveys the tremendous fragility of life and importance of personal choices. Not only do these things affect an individual's destiny, but also the destiny of all the generations which will proceed that person. This shows how the element of chance has such a strong impact upon the world. It's observed at one point “How easy it was for a life to go one way instead of another.” “Homegoing” really begins with a calamitous event which sees two sisters separated – one grows up in a semi-prosperous family where the daughter is promised in marriage to a powerful man and the other belongs to a tribe where she's captured and forced into slavery. It's only through a twist of fate that one thrives and the other suffers horribly. But just because the progeny of these women were born in particular circumstances doesn't mean they are fated to a certain path in life. Through acts of will the subsequent generations shape their own fates and fortunes which consequently heavily influence their own children.

Even though Gyasi follows the individual stories of more than a dozen members of this family through the centuries I was so impressed how it never felt overwhelming or confusing. It's a mark of a great writer that can introduce characters who feel fully formed and already familiar. This is true not only for the family members but also many notable periphery characters including Cudjo (an athletic man with latent same-sex desires) and Esther (a wonderfully garrulous woman who coaxes a historian to express his emotions more). The narrative switches back and forth between each subsequent generation of the sisters' family lines. Many stories build a sense of suspense as you discover the fates of the previous generations during the course of each new family member's story. Key objects such as two stones given to the sisters at the beginning travel through the generational lines as well as songs which are passed down from one child to the next. The initial meaning of an object or song might be lost, but the connection to that family history remains. Certain images also poignantly recur over the stories; it's observed of one early family member Fiifi that “he wore his silence like a golden crown” and then, many generations later, a woman named Willie sings “I shall wear a crown”. These references all add tremendously to the pleasure of the overarching story which the reader is keyed into when the characters are not.

It's fascinating learning particular details about the history of warring tribes (primarily the Asantes and Fantes tribes) in Ghana and how some tribes worked with the white colonialists to capture and sell slaves. A physical colonial castle in Ghana (Cape Coast Castle) which the slave trade was facilitated through becomes a focal point for the families involved in this story. In a way it takes on a fairy tale quality like Bluebeard's castle where some inhabitants live a privileged life unaware or wilfully ignorant of the horrors within the locked subterranean dungeons which hold many captured black people waiting to be sold into slavery in America and the Caribbean. This castle has subsequently become a significant destination where people from the Americas and Britain return to in order to contemplate the significant rift in identity which is colonialism and slavery's legacy. It's a fascinating coincidence that a visit to this same castle also takes place in Zadie Smith's recent novel “Swing Time”. The fact of this historic structure really drives home the reality of the true horrors and long-lasting impact of slavery. Both authors show the quixotic feelings this landmark induces for visitors in contemplating our connection to that history, but also the way it is ultimately unknowable to us.

I had the pleasure of meeting Yaa Gyasi last September at a literary salon in The Savoy.

I had the pleasure of meeting Yaa Gyasi last September at a literary salon in The Savoy.

Later generations meaningfully explore the legacy of slavery in America in particular and its history of racial conflict. When British slavery comes to an end, it's observed how “They would just trade one type of shackles for another, physical ones that wrapped around wrists and ankles for the invisible ones that wrapped around the mind.” Gyasi powerfully shows how this legacy is borne out over generations leading to disproportionate amounts of black people in America experiencing poverty, discrimination and imprisonment. It leads one character to find that “he knew in his body even if he hadn't yet put it together in his mind: in America, the worst thing you could be was a black man. Worse than dead, you were a dead man walking.” The novel portrays the consequences of this state of being and conveys what an important influence the past has upon the present.

Yaa Gyasi is an incredibly powerful storyteller and I found the novel as a whole utterly gripping. However, even though I think the transitions from one story to the next are graceful and each family member is compellingly well-rounded in their own right, I found some stories more effective than others. In particular, the story of one woman's move to Harlem with her light-skinned husband who can pass as white felt too compressed and fast-moving to me. It seemed that this particular story needed an entire novel of its own to fully flesh out the conflicts it explores and the conclusions it comes to. But, on the whole, most of the stories work as single pieces in the grand puzzle of this dynamic and fascinating family. I grew really attached to some characters and wished the novel would stay with them longer, but the momentum of moving from one generation to the next creates a thrilling story in itself making me ultimately glad that Gyasi structured the novel in this way. As already observed from many sources after its much-lauded publication in America last year, “Homegoing” is a tremendously accomplished and intelligent debut.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesYaa Gyasi
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Standing for women’s equality is something I feel really strongly about. So reading Naomi Alderman’s deeply imaginative novel “The Power” which charts ten years of a matriarchy’s rise to global power is such a thrilling experience. The novel begins with groups of adolescent girls suddenly finding they possess special powers to generate and control powerful electric currents. They can train themselves to use this electricity as a weapon. As more and more women find this strength awakening within them, control at all levels of society shifts to favour women. But just because women rise to power doesn’t mean that this is a utopia. Soon the battle for dominance leads to the equally horrifying psychological, physical and sexual subjugation of men just as has been the case for women over the course of history.

The story concentrates on several diverse characters including an abused foster child who reinvents herself as Mother Eve to lead a religious following, the daughter of an English gangster who takes control of a lucrative drug trafficking business, a Nigerian man who discovers a flair for journalism in recording the women’s rise to power and a female US politician and her conflicted daughter. Much of the action of the novel takes place in an Eastern European country ruled by a queen named Tatiana. This at first seems like it will be the seed state for the new female order of the world, but it soon experiences heavy conflict in the chaotic tussle for power. These different characters’ stories come together in a dramatic and fascinating way.

There are some quite disturbing scenes in the novel with violence enacted against both men and women. But it’s interesting how I felt conflicted about certain scenes where men were being taken control of through humiliation, abuse and rape in the way many women have been in the past and continue to be in the present. I naturally feel repulsed by any violence, but part of me couldn’t help feeling that such punishment was only just after years of similar subjugation that women have experienced. It’s clever how the novel makes you question yourself and your own values in this way – as well as to what degree we blind ourselves to other people’s suffering when we’ve grown up thinking certain power imbalances are natural.

I found it really effective and moving how Alderman writes about women’s development and the formation of identity. She does this particularly well in describing adolescent girls and the radical changes which occur at this period of their lives. In one vividly dramatic scene she writes: “Nothing special has happened today; no one can say she was more provoked than usual. It is only that every day one grows a little, every day something is different, so that in the heaping up of days suddenly a thing that was impossible has become possible. This is how a girl becomes a grown woman.” This beautifully encapsulates the way we gradually change and how we find ourselves capable of things we didn’t believe we could do before. So the fable of women controlling an electric power can be seen more as the way physical and psychological changes occur in stages of development.

One of the difficult things about considering gender issues is not to fall into lazy generalizations such as women are nurturing and men are aggressive. Certainly all of us exhibit these traits at certain times. A character writes: “Gender is a shell game. What is a man? Whatever a woman isn’t. What is a woman? Whatever a man is not. Tap on it and it’s hollow. Look under the shells: it’s not there.” Our society operates so heavily based on gender binaries, but if you examine individuals closely gender just becomes another malleable identity trait. The story has an innovative way of questioning such categories.

Scattered throughout the text are drawings of artefacts which purportedly show how at certain points of history women have possessed this special power. This adds to the feeling that such an evolutionary change is natural. It’s quite a fun way of reconsidering history. The author also compels us to think carefully about what we don’t know about the past: “This is the trouble with history. You can’t see what’s not there. You can look at an empty space and see that something’s missing, but there’s no way to know what it was.” The novel is framed within a written correspondence between two friends Neil and Naomi. In doing so, Alderman cleverly changes the entire context which the novel’s text exists within just as Margaret Atwood did at the end of “The Handmaid’s Tale”. The way that the author has structured this novel elevates it out of a pure fantasy story to provoke compelling questions about the way society is organized and how we might think about it differently.

“The Power” is a thoroughly engrossing story that questions the meaning of gender and inventively inverts the order of society to suggest new perspectives.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNaomi Alderman

When I first started university I developed a real George Orwell fixation after discovering his writing encompassed so much more than his most famous novels “1984” and “Animal Farm”. I read through all his major publications in order and a favourite novel was “Keep the Aspidistra Flying”. This is the perfect book for cynical young adults who value high literature above all else and are frustrated by our money-obsessed society. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the group of rebellious young friends in Julia Rochester’s “The House at the Edge of the World” take this novel as their bible. The narrator Morwenna Venton and her twin brother Corwin come from a family that historically owned lots of land in their remote corner of England, but over the years it was sold off piece by piece until the family was left to subsist in a large house on a square of land near the ocean. The twins and their circle of friends plan to live lives of high ideals, but their reality is shaken when late one evening the Venton twins’ father John falls off a cliff while drunkenly pissing over the edge. The group becomes fractured and they settle into lives far different from the ones they dreamed about.

Morwenna finds a job restoring books in London and eventually meets a man named Ed who seems to share her principles. He’s on a mission to photograph CCTV cameras around the capital as an act of rebellion for the 1984-esque culture of surveillance. But she’s unable to settle into her job and relationship because she’s haunted by the image of her father falling off the cliff. Continuously drawn back to the family’s remote home, she and her brother delve further into what happened that fateful night. The case turns into a mystery which the twins are determined to solve. Through visits with old friends, their mother Valerie, her new husband Bob and the family’s reclusive and artistic patriarch Matthew, they uncover the dark truth about their father’s fate.

Morwenna gives her partner Ed an aspidistra plant - something that symbolized the common struggle for George Orwell

Morwenna gives her partner Ed an aspidistra plant - something that symbolized the common struggle for George Orwell

It’s interesting to read how the relationship between the narrator and her twin brother develops and changes over the course of the novel. Corwin is handsome, philanthropic and much adored - whereas the narrator Morwenna is more combative and difficult. People comment quite openly to her how they don’t like her and she’s not surprised by this. There is a shocking scene at a wedding where she confronts her mother and I love a good explosive scene at a wedding. But, as outwardly loved as Corwin is, it feels in some ways that Morwenna is more emotionally honest. She remarks how “Somewhere I had read that in a case of conjoined twins one tends to be stronger, sapping the other’s blood and organs. I wondered which of us was the parasite.” This relationship between close siblings goes into some dark territory and raises questions about how our personalities can be divided.

One of the most fascinating characters is their grandfather Matthew who for various reasons has shored up his life to the space around their house. His entire life he has been working on a single painting which represents their immediate surroundings and fills it with heavy symbolic imagery. In a fascinating way, his picture represents a mindset with an emotionally skewed sense of reality. Morwenna observes of Matthew that “In his world truth co-existed with invention, embellishment might be more truthful than fact, fact might be more magical than myth.” I enjoyed how his character raises challenging questions about whether a circumscribed life such as this hides someone from the world or helps them engage with it more meaningfully.

“The House at the Edge of the World” is a compelling, unique novel with a story that gains real momentum as it goes along. I appreciated how it explores issues of being an outsider in society and the dissolution of ideals as one grows older. It also has many meaningful things to say about relationships between friends and family.

I remember this book coming out last summer. I was drawn to the subject and beautiful cover, but didn’t get to reading it. I’m glad the Baileys Prize longlist prompted me take it up.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJulia Rochester

I always excitedly anticipate reading new books by Elizabeth Strout. I don’t know if this is because she writes powerful prose and striking characters with deep insight or if it’s because she often sets her stories in my home state of Maine so her narratives feel personally familiar and very real to me. Probably both. Whatever the case, her books are fantastic including her previous novel “The Burgess Boys” which came out a few years ago. Now she’s published a very different kind of novel “My Name is Lucy Barton”. It’s a pared-down short book narrated from Lucy’s perspective and, by this character’s own admission, she’s far from reliable and refuses to give the whole story. Through impressionistic passages we’re told about time she spent in the hospital “many years ago now” when her estranged mother visited her for several days. She meditates upon their conversations and other important moments from her life, but we don’t get the whole story – just haunting flashes of memories and meditative thoughts. They build to create a deeply-felt portrait of a life forged through perseverance and love.

Lucy is a successful writer in NYC who grew up in a very impoverished family in Illinois. She has little or no contact with her father or two siblings. She’s been married twice with two daughters from her first marriage. Beyond this, the full trajectory of her life is uncertain. Where some stories told from the point of view of a narrator who insists on being vague like the woman at the centre of Rachel Cusk’s “Outline” might frustrate a reader for deliberately suppressing detail and withholding emotion, Lucy is compelling and relatable for how forthright she is with her feelings. Cusk’s novel makes the perfect contrast where her narrator refuses to give her name (until it slips out towards the end) but Strout’s narrator firmly declares her name in the title. However, the texture of Lucy’s identity is more elusive. The story of her life isn’t straightforward because life isn’t straightforward. Memory is amorphous. This novel is filled with words like ‘maybe’ and ‘perhaps’ and ‘I think.’ Little is concrete. What really gripped me along her journey was this desperate need I felt she had to convey something important about her life. Her scattered story builds to something deeply felt and triumphantly inspiring.

Lucy finds a mentor and teacher in a writer named Sarah Payne who tells her that “we all have only one story.” It’s that singularity that Lucy strives so hard to describe. But, of course, there isn’t any one truth to the past and I felt this is why Lucy grapples to tell it. She also refuses to surrender some details like the break from her first husband William: “This is not the story of my marriage… I cannot write the story of my marriage.” It could be that the dissolution of her marriage isn’t the point of why she’s writing. Or she might be reluctant to divulge what really happened because she won’t come out well. Whatever happened, it’s now in the past. She meaningfully states: “when you write a novel you get to rewrite it, but when you live with someone for twenty years, that is the novel, and you can never write that novel with anyone again!”

What she reports on instead is the important momentary details of what have shaped her identity. For instance, she has an intense engagement with literature that feeds her desire to write: “the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone.” All these details build toward a “ruthless” declaration of freedom from her past: “This is me, and I will not go where I can’t bear to go- to Amgash, Illinois- and I will not stay in a marriage when I don’t want to, and I will grab myself and hurl onward through life, blind as a bat, but on I go!” There is something beautifully liberating about this assertive cry of independence even though it involves cutting free from those you once loved. It’s an affirmation that you can create who you really want to be.

"Insulation nailed against the wall held a stuffing like pink cotton candy"

"Insulation nailed against the wall held a stuffing like pink cotton candy"

Strout has an unnerving knack for triggering bouts of nostalgia and reflection for me. In one section she describes seeing a house’s pink insulation and how overwhelmingly alluring it is, but she is warned off from ever touching it because of the danger of fibreglass. At another point she describes an early incident in her marriage where she tried to cook for her husband without knowing whether a clove of garlic meant the full bulb or only a sliver from it. I had this same experience as a precocious teen cooking a “fancy” meal for my friends. A recipe I made called for five cloves of garlic so I stood in a supermarket piling enormous bulbs of garlic into a shopping cart while my mother looked on disapprovingly. I know these images won’t resonant for everyone, but it’s striking to me how often Strout tugs at my memories making me recall and feel things I haven’t experienced in many years.

The universal feelings Strout taps more into are to do with strained family relations. Lucy longs for a love from her parents which they aren’t capable of giving or not, at least, in any overt way. She states that “Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.” Her awareness of her difference cuts her off from those around her. The emotional and financial depravity take their toll causing her to write “I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep.” It’s interesting reading this so closely after reading Laing’s brilliant nonfiction book “The Lonely City” as Lucy is the embodiment of the kind of detached state of being that Laing describes so well. From her hospital bed, Lucy can see the Chrysler Building outside her window. It comes to stand like a beacon of all she’s come to stand for: a solid robust individual far from the desolate landscape of her upbringing.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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