Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Last Train to Zona Verde by Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux, starting in Cape Town and only taking land transport, makes his way through Namibia and into Angola, a place not known for its travel hot spots. He offers a compelling, and starkly realistic portrait of this part of the world - from its small, hopeless towns, ringed by poor slums and townships, to decaying, corrupt cities such as Luanda. He probes the meaning of slum tourism in Cape Town - where busloads of tourists pour into the townships, gawking at the poor who live there – presenting both sides of the debate.

He writes: “This sort of tourism has been denounced as ‘poverty porn’ and exploitation, monetising the misery of slum dwellers who had nothing else to offer. For some day-trippers, the experience was an extreme example of curiosity bordering on voyeurism, the leering intention of the alien tourist to feel the shiver of difference, the horror interest that was indistinguishable from slumming. But there were others - sympathetic, charity-minded outsiders - who were moved to contribute money as well as to gape, and having seen the slum they were contributing with a degree of understanding.”

Taking local transport, such as decrepit 4x4 taxi  that breaks down in the Angolan bush, Theroux is right in the heart of nowhere, offered a glimpse of life there. Chewing on a piece of leathery, inedible chicken baptised by clouds of flies, he takes out his notebook, curiosity intact to ask what the drums in the distance symbolises. It turns out the young girls in the village are undergoing an initiation of sorts.

Earlier on the narrative he meets up with the San-speaking “real people” in far east Namibia, the Ju/’hoansi, a people caught between two worlds, that of the ancient hunting-gathering world and this modern world and finds them hurtling into the present, donning T-shirts and embracing the now, skins only put on for the display of tourists and curious travellers such as Theroux.  

He writes: “They observe the seasons ... years have no meaning, history has no meaning; the past is simply gone and largely unremembered. ...

Paul Theroux
Leaving them he observes the duality and the Western longing to return to ancient times through our image of these people: “The image of the Ju/’hoansi we cling to – I did anyway – is that of a wild-dwelling, self-sufficient people. We seem to need them to be that way, not merely different from us, and purer, but more different than they really are – tenacious, resourceful, generous, peaceful as if inhabiting Eden. They are reminders of who we once were, our ancient better selves. At one time, long ago, all of us were foragers on earth. What a relief it is in a world yearning for authenticity to know that though we have blighted our habitat, there is an unspoiled place on planet, and a people who have defied modernity by clinging to their old ways. The past recaptured. Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

He visits Windhoek, a clean orderly city, but like so many in Africa, ringed by poverty in the form of slums. He visits a game lodge, rides elephants in the Okavango Delta, ponders the ethics of this, and visits Etosha, home of the mass tourist in Africa, here to see the game and believing they have found the real deal. Which, as he points out, they haven’t.

Finally arriving in Luanda after a spell in the smaller city of Benguela, he alights from his rickety transport in the suburb of Benfica, “a district of heavy traffic and ugly buildings, stinking of dust and diesel fumes”. He witnesses the crash of a small car, a driver emerging with bloodied hands and face, “bystanders laughed. The bloody-faced man staggered, his arms limp, his mouth agape, like a zombie released from a coffin. He was barefoot. No one went to his aid. He dropped to his knees and howled.

Idiota,’ a man next to me said and spat in the dust.”

His entry into Angola’s capital city is a harshly true portrait of the heartlessness that some cities sear into their people, and cities are not where he wants to be, he concludes. Luanda lives on the proceeds of its oil-rich reserves – but little of that wealth reaches the majority of its citizens.

And it is here that Theroux’s journey will end – disheartened by the grinding poverty and the dust of corruption that sees a culture of bribery rise up and batter its people into submission; he acknowledges that there is no more left to see. 

The Last Train to Zona Verde is powerful portrait of a part of Africa.


Sunday, June 7, 2015

Invite to the launch of Beyond Touch, the new poetry collection of Arja Salafranca

Beyond Touch, a new poetry collection by Arja Salafranca

Arja Salafranca's third poetry collection, Beyond Touch, published by Modjaji Books and Dye Hard Press, June 2015. 

Review of The Thin Line

Real people have complex lives. The ones who, from the outside, look as though they are enjoying idyllic stress-free existences are often the sources of the most conflict. It takes work to look fine all the time. That’s often why love is such a respite – it’s an opportunity to relax the guard we construct for others. To breathe above the water, if only for a moment. But, it is reckless to believe in stability, always.

The Thin Line, a collection of short stories from South African writer Arja Salafranca, provides snapshots into the lives of real, flawed humans. Short stories seem to place more pressure on a sentence, and Salafranca’s prose is tight. Many of her descriptions had me nodding jealously, aptly capturing some characteristic of South Africanisms.

That is because these short stories are not only about people, but also reflect the changing context and themes of South African middle-class existence. The theme of crime, emigration, the fear of violence travel through many of the stories, revealing the characters through their reactions to these themes. Her devices are slick and impressive.

This collection is well-worth a read, especially for anyone who wants to write short fiction. I definitely learned a lot from her use of style and descriptions.

First published here

Monday, May 25, 2015

Three Seasons by Mike Robbins

Three novellas about
life in the 1980s
Three Seasons is an accomplished, highly readable collection of three novellas by a writer whose a master of the novella – that “almost” Cinderella of the literary world. Subtitled Three Stories of England in the Eighties, all are connected only by being set in three seasons, spring, summer and autumn.

I love reading novellas – longer than short stories, shorter than novels, yet long enough to be immersed in a world that is slightly simpler than that of the more convoluted novel.

And these were engaging indeed.

In the first, Spring, a middle-aged Hull trawler skipper, sixtysomething Skip has one last chance to make it big. Kevin, an eager young working class teen joins the crew on the boat that early morning, oozing enthusiasm and eagerness. And then there’s the young twenty-two old reporter, Katherine, reporting on the events of the fishing village. How each story edges alongside the other is part of the beauty of this piece filled with fishing and trawler detail, the vessel bobbing on the cold seas. But there’s a disaster at the heart of this story, and Robbins’ skilled hand leads us onward, breathlessly to its inevitable conclusion.

In the second, Summer, we’re in the heart of the booming merciless 1980s. Terry strides into the story, ambitious, adulterous, his eye on the booming Thames Valley property market. Terry was the least likeable or sympathetic of the characters, but nevertheless holds interest despite his bravado and arrogance. In a story that epitomises the worst of eighties greed and immorality, the story ranges across a weekend, while its roots stretch back ten years. An allegory for a decade long gone, yet immorality can never be confined to a single time.

The last, Autumn, is a mediative piece that centres on the Master of an Oxford College, Makepeace. Long married to Christine, he’s settled into a rigid severity: “Makepeace’s face was lined and rather severe, the eyes themselves of mid-blue, the hair wiry, strong, grey now of course, but complete and slightly curled.”
His two grown-up and very different sons are coming home for a viist Tim, home from working abroad in Africa and the Amazon, and James, arriving with his new wife of two weeks. Still living at home is their impressionable teen daughter, Liz. The story takes place over the night and morning of the sons’ visit, playing out against each of their histories, roving from Makepeace to Tim to James to the new wife, Tamsin with the exotic aura of being an actress about her. The story loops into the past, shedding light on how the man grew into his and how the past has the ability to not only to erode with its corrosiveness, but also how memory helps us to heal, to bend. How it is possible to release the pain of the past and ultimately learn to forgive and learn new ways of being and relating.      

Salad Anniversary by Machi Tawara

Machi Tawara's first book of fifteen poems, Salad Anniversary was first published in 1987 in Japan where, remarkably for a poetry book, it sold over two million copies. In this slim, but delightful volume, she combines the classical ‘tanka’ Japanese form of short poetry, consisting of 30 tone syllables in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern) to document a doomed love affair.

The poetry is sensuously beautiful, yet pared down, the language deceptively simple, yet talking in unsentimental tones about the beginning and the ending of love.

In August Morning the narrator is with her lover: “You and I on a night beach face to face in silence – a sparkler softy sputters. /Breaking your hesitation, I watch you hunt for words to break the silence/Your left hand/exploring my fingers one by one – maybe this is love.” Or is it? Later on in the same poem, the narrator says simply: “Now that I wait for you no more, sunny Saturdays and rainy Tuesdays are all the same to me.” 

Longing suffuses these poems, moments are briefly captured as in the title poem Salad Anniversary: “Folding towels,/I wrap the smell of the sun – /perhaps one day I too shall be a mother.”
The love affair continues in Baseball Game, but the signs are there: “You have your future, I mine, and so we take no snapshots”, and later in the same poem, “Cooking an omelette/flavoured with tears/of coming morning and farewell.”

This achingly beautiful set of poems is accompanied by an afterward by the translator Juliet Winters Carpenter. Highly recommended.  

A Wilder Rose by Susan Wittig Albert

A Wilder Rose is the story of the
Little House books and the possible literary
deception behind them
This extremely readable novel tells the story of Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of The Little House books (Little House on the Prairie and others in the series). Or was Laura really the sole and accomplished author of the books?

Lane was already a successful popular writer when she returned to her parents’ Ozark farm in Rocky Ridge in 1928. Divorced from a husband, she had also lived abroad and had rich experiences behind her. She had a plump portfolio of investments behind her. There she imagined she would both add to her portfolio as well as build her parents a modern farmhouse wired with electricity and indoor plumbing. She was making money with her writing – and her income was going through the stock market roof. Life was good. She was accompanied by her friend Troub, with whom she had a relationship – although this is somewhat opaquely referred to in this novel.

Writer Albert re-imagines the events of these years. With a foreboding known to us through history only we read as Lane and her companion experience the horrors of the stock market crash of 1929. Lane finds herself stuck through circumstance and desperation on the farm; finds her relationship with Troub withering away bewilderingly: “We had prided ourselves on enjoying each other, without obligation. And now that we reached the end, neither of us gave way to tears – not then, anyway.” Troub would later go on to write children’s novels penning the Sue Barton and Carol Page series.

And into this chasm her mother, a pioneer girl, comes to her with a scrap of a story of her early years. It’s poorly written, hardly publishable, hardly even a book, but Lane sets out to fix the writing, and it’s eventually published with more books promised. The literary deception, begun so innocuously and innocently, is in full force. Her mother will be known as the author of the children’s books – even though the truth is, it’s more of a collaboration between mother and daughter. Or is it? 

This is a novel of that collaboration, although there is still some doubt as to the veracity of that claim, as well as of the complicated knot of the mother/daughter relationship between Laura and her only child, a tie that Lane sometimes felt like a stranglehold, and of how Lane shaped her mother’s story into publishable books.

The world of 1930s small-town America is also intricately recreated in this book – a time when modern conveniences such as electricity and plumbing were still luxuries in rural areas; and pioneer women could still remember the wagons and wildness that permeated their youth.  But it’s a bleak time in history with the country decimated by the disaster and the great dust storms. When Lane travels the country, writing a book on it, the harshness edges through: “Dust, dirt, wind. ‘We know where the dust comes from by its colours,’ one farmer’s wife told me, holding her apron across her face.”

But it is also a story of Lane herself – little known now beyond the history books – and it’s a fascinating story. A woman who lived by her own rules in a time when most women married and subsumed themselves in that bond; a woman who took up her pen and wrote her way to fortune and kept on writing even when that pile disappeared. A woman who had been born in poverty, who managed to move beyond her life’s circumstances.  Lane is an spirited woman and one of the treasures of this novel is how enormously likeable she is; with Wittig creating an empathy that leads you through the book.  Lane’s life is at times unrelentingly hard in those years: trapped, failing dental health, growing older, her life moving away from her. But I found myself compulsively reading to the end, drawn on, entranced by this woman’s strength and vigour.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Peculiar State – single short story

Thought-provoking short story by
South American writer 
Patricio Pron

In this thought-provoking story, The Peculiar State by South American, Patricio Pron, we’re introduced to the world of a lapsed writer living in Homburg with his statistician girlfriend. 
Unnamed, the protagonists are simply referred to as he and she – which lends the story a bare, stripped down essence. 

Although once a successful novelist, the muse hasn't visited for some time and he spends his days as a “creative consultant” answering questions on his first impressions of chocolate and other mundane objects, trying to get as far away as possible from the problems of “the death of the novel and the peculiar state of the short story”.   

But the real meat of the story takes place when he and his girlfriend go away to various foreign cities to play a game the girlfriend has made up. They go to the same city – but travel separately, stay in separate hotels – neither knows where the other is. The game consists in finding each other in these European cities – deducing where each might go, based on their own interests, and of course, knowledge of each other. In many ways it’s a dangerous game – what if they don’t find each other in these places and return home alone, having failed? The consequences would be serious: it means they don’t know each other as well as they would have hoped – and what does that, in turn, mean for their coupling?

“She remembers something he said to her one day, maybe after the first or second they’d played their game: that the day they can’t find each other is the day on which everything between them will be over... She realises she’s about to cry because she feels herself capsizing from within.”   

The story is shot through cleverly with a number of statistics – referencing the girlfriend’s interest in the subject – which also has inspired the game. What are the probable statistics that they will find themselves in such and such a city, for instance? This is a question with more meaning than recounting such obvious facts as: “women cry an average of 5.3 times a month; men 1.4” or that he is part of the 41 percent of the German population that hasn't read a single book in the last three months.”

In this story the couple go away to Berlin – searching for each other over the roughly a week they are there? But what happens if they can’t find each other? Is the “losing game” as she’s thought of dubbing it, a way back into their relationship, or a chilling arrow pointing out something more sinister in their relations?

This short story throws up so many questions and possibilities about the probabilities in our lives, the people who are there in it, or not, and whether numbers on a page, those endless statistics should really be used to measure our happiness and progress through life.

This endlessly interesting and inventive short story comes from Pron, one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists and the author of a debut novel, My Fathers’ Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain, described as a daring and deeply affecting story of one Argentine family’s buried secrets. When a young writer returns home to visit his dying father, he finds himself drawn into an obsessive search for a local man gone missing.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

PEN SA’s Q&A with Arja Salafranca

Favourite South African novel / poem?
I don’t have a particular favourite South African poem or novel and that does change with every new book read – but I do enjoy novels by South African novelists such as Damon Galgut and Ingrid Winterbach, for instance. I’m looking very forward to reading Craig Higginson’s just published The Dream House, andFinuala Dowling’s The Fetch... Read more.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Art of Unpacking Your Life by Shireen Jilla

Set on a luxury game farm in the Kalahari,  Shireen Jilla’s The Art of Unpacking Your Life is an entertaining, although at times flawed novel type of read about a group of old university friends from England celebrating a birthday.

An entertaining read about the
choices we make in our lives 
The birthday is that of forty-year-old Connie, who has been responsible for bring them all to South Africa. It’s set on Gau, a fictional lodge, but one that closely resembles those in real life, lending an authenticity to this novel. The story opens as the group arrive on the reserve, with a “sociable weaver bird nest splayed across the acacia thorn tree like an ancient, sun-damaged headdress”.

Jilla’s writing is evocative and descriptive, bringing the sun-baked yet mysterious Kalahari desert alive through the story, from descriptions of the typically thatch lodge to the burning sands, to the wild animals who survive there.     

At first it’s a little hard keeping track of the characters, but each soon emerges in their own right as strongly well-developed individuals. There’s Connie’s philandering politician husband, Julian, devoted to her, certainly, but with each infidelity he wounds her further, although she’s long got used to it, or so she thinks. There’s Sara, an ambitious single barrister who’s come away on this trip harbouring a guilty secret about her latest case. Lizzie bemoans the path her life has taken – no man, and a low-end job in which she’s failed to advance.

Author Shireen Jilla
There’s sensitive Luke – newly divorced – and an old flame of barrister Sara, and Matt, having a surrogate baby with his new wife, which he confesses soon after they all arrive. Daniel wants to settle by buying land, but his partner Alan is less sure about that, which highlights a crack in their relationship.

And then there’s Gus, the game ranger, who will add further spice to the mix with his own blend of romantic allure.

The story of their individual dramas and a series of revelations plays out against the backdrop of the days at the lodge, the game drives, a night spent in the dessert for “the girls” of the group, and the sightings of the animals, which lends further excitement and tension to the story. This is what I like to call a “travel novel” in which the action is set against a place foreign to the protagonists, in which place is both character and mover of the action as that of the characters. And Jilla writes well about the African bush, bringing it to vivid real life.

At times the plot development becomes a little too obvious, a tad trite, but by then you’re so well engrossed in the story that you barely notice. This is a well-written, entertaining read about the choices we make in our lives, and the hope that can undo those decisions we thought were written in stone. 

The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg

I am in agreement with Goethe, who said that every day one ought to ‘hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words’. I would add to this the need to love. Without it, the rest is dust.”

"The need to love. Without it, the
rest is dust"
Nineteenth century writer George Sand lived life on her own terms. Born in 1804 in France, she married young, and badly, as they say. After two children and trying to make it work, she separated from her husband, and moved towards a creation of herself that was constantly evolving. She’d already taken a man’s name to publish her works under; and then had affairs with many. She finally settled into a long-term relationship with the composer Chopin. A disagreement over his attitude towards her daughter, hardened her towards him, and the sick composer died not long after.

These are the facts. Elizabeth Berg has fashioned the bare bones of Sand’s remarkable life into a highly readable novel that throws a very human light on the woman behind the fame and the reputation.  Written in the first person, Berg creates a credible Sand persona. 

The narrative alternates between  Nohant, the family home where Sand was brought up in the French countryside under her grandmother’s tutelage, and the years of her adulthood, ranging from Paris, back to Nohant, where Sand lived out her ill-fated marriage and then subsequent years. 
Elizabeth Berg re-imagines the life of
nineteenth century writer George Sand

It also touches on what Berg suggests was Sand’s great love – for the actress Marie Dorval. In truth this lesbian affair was only rumoured, but Berg imagines the brief affair and the life-long consequences it would have on Sand, with a longing that suffuses the text. Love, and its many nuances framed much of Sand’s life. Referring to Dorval, she writes: “‘Love has given me a new virginity,’ she said from the stage that night, and the line seemed directed at me.” And, “Being loved let me breathe, let me work, let me live.”

And that a nineteenth century not only lived life on her own terms, made an independent and successful living as a writer, and took her love wherever she felt she needed it, is remarkable. 

As Sand moves into middle age, the novel loses detail, and fades further as Sand enters old age. The Dream Lover is a beguiling read; full of interesting detail and the novel brings this fascinating character and her world to gentle life.   

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Under This Beautiful Dome: A Senator, a Journalist and the Politics of Gay Love in America by Terry Mutchler

"A jolt of electricity passed
through me"

When journalist, Terry Mutchler, then AP Statehouse Bureau Chief in Illinois saw Penny Severns, an Illinois State Senator, for the first time in 1993, “a jolt of electricity passed through me”.

Captivated from the first, she didn’t even know what the woman’s name was: “It didn't make sense for me to be so captivated. Yet this unknown woman held my attention. I could not, and still can’t explain it but when I saw her, I felt something inside me shift.”

From the beginning their relationship was both circumspect and circumscribed. Both were dealing with a gay relationship in the political landscape of the America of the 1990s – not so far away, but yet a million years away in attitude perceptions, as we look back. And in addition, Mutchler’s profession as a journalist meant that she supposed to be neutral and objective. Dating a senator, let alone becoming involved with her, was dangerous stuff.

Their first date included five people, including themselves – an intimate dinner that simply expanded. Mutchler was to learn that the demands of a politician’s life were beyond what she could have imagined. A politician truly belongs to the people who elect him or her, and Severns was committed to her job of serving her constituency. The relationship had to remain secret – and so, the five-year relationship did, but at huge cost and hardship to both. The consequences of “loving in secret” are spelled out here in a way that is almost unbelievable to read about. Of sneaking out of each others’ homes at some ungodly hour of the morning so as not to be seen, parking a far distance away overnight – these are the physical, every day difficulties. But there was also the fact that their families never really knew what role they played in each others’ lives. There never seemed to be the “right” time to talk. Both also grappled with their religious sensitivities – concerned that what they were doing was against their religion and God.

Author Terry Mutchler
When they bought a home together, and lived in it together, with Mutchler being described as her “press secretary”, only Severns’ name was on the bond, out of necessity. To add both names to the bond – which could be accessed by publically – meant possible discovery. So in this as so much else, Mutchler’s role and part was secret. Only when travelling overseas could they be freer in their relationship. And yet although their bond was strong and powerful – and the jolt of electricity lasted throughout their coupling, “the best years of our life were written in invisible ink”. 

When Severns was diagnosed with cancer, neither knew the end was coming. A cancer that not so slowly made its way through her body. Severns died in February 1998. Not only did Mutchler have to announce her death on TV, but also had to contend with hiding her grief from so many, both publically and privately. In addition Severns’ family  cut her out of the inner circle, denying her not only recognition, but her share in anything she had contributed towards with Severns.  

"Sad too, to see the effect of prejudice and stigma on the lives of just one couple living in secret."

It all happened so long ago in terms of attitudes and yet we’re only looking at the 1990s from a distance of two decades. Same sex unions were stigmatised, and same sex marriages a seemingly long way into the future. When more and more high profile people are coming out, and it’s increasingly accepted in our more “permissive” society, it’s mind-boggling to believe that a same sex relationship could spell the end of a career. There’s a sadness in reading this account because of this. Mutchler and Severns seemed to share that rare love – and the fact that it was cut short by cancer, and so sadly hidden – is cause for sadness. And sad too, to see the effect of prejudice and stigma on the lives of just one couple living in secret.

Mutchler writes the story of their love, and her subsequent unravelling after Severns died, with a fresh immediacy that brings the past alive vividly and compellingly. The pain is there, but never threatens to overwhelm the telling of the story. The story is told is beautiful, although sad; and also illuminates and reminds us how far we have come in the past few decades. The story ends full circle, as it were – with same sex marriages being signed into law in the state of Illinois. A remarkable, hauntingly told story. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

Vanessa and her Sister is
a fictionalised
 imagining of some of the
events in their lives.
There are some secrets that haunt us forever. We vow to never repeat it, but still, the mistakes keep on haunting us, becoming a thread that runs through our lives.

Such an event is at the heart of this wonderful novel, based on the lives of the writer Virginia Woolf and her painter sister, Vanessa and is a fictionalised account and imagining of some of the events.
Vanessa and Her Sister opens in 1905 when the sisters and their two brothers, Thoby and Adrian Stephen, have just moved into 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, after the death of their father, their mother having died some years before. At home in the Bloomsbury district, they will soon come to scandalise “polite society” with their unconventional ways. They will start a “salon”, giving rise to the moniker the Bloomsbury group, and will have men and women conversing in their home at all hours of the night. Throwing convention to the winds and living free from the strictures of Victorian society is more appealing.

Painter Vanessa Bell,
sister to writer Virginia 

“And what if people are shocked that we have no curtains and hold mixed at home and invite guests who don’t know when to leave? Only we live here, and we can do it how we like,” says Vanessa.
This is long before Virginia marries, and the two are still the young and beautiful Stephen sisters, desirable and desired.

The story is told through Vanessa’s diary – although in reality Vanessa never kept a diary. Instead it was Virginia who kept famously kept one. 

But this is primarily Vanessa’s story and the story is told through her prism, and the fictional device is an effective one here. Vanessa’s imagined diary is like a painting – light seeps in through the lines, and there’s a poetic feeling to her words. Vanessa is a gentle, artistic sort – and this is rendered through the writing.

Interspersed through the diary entries though are letters and telegrams sent from the Stephens and the friends who orbited them and also formed part of the group – and so these move the narrative along too. This also provides another view of the group and the events, including some letters from Virginia as well, presenting another, sometime oblique view of things.

For those with an interest in the Bloomsbury group, there’s a frisson of delight in reading about them all in this fictionalised way. 
Lytton Strachey, member of
the Bloomsbury Group

There’s Lytton Strachey, biographer and writer, instrumental in getting his friend Leonard Woolf to seriously consider Virginia as a wife, socialite and literary hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell, poet Rupert Brooke, art critic Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, and so on. 

When art critic Clive Bell sets his sights on the Stephen sisters, he sets in motion a chain of events that will alter all their lives. Virginia is strangely distant and aloof, and he begins to court Vanessa. There’s no great love though for him, a fact she repeats to herself over and over, “I like him. But it stops there. I do not think I could love him. I remember Stella when she decided to marry Jack. I watched her with the critical eye of a younger sister but I could find no flaw in her certainty. ... She recognised him. ... She had been waiting for him. I do not recognise Clive. He is not mine.”

The young Virginia 
Woolf, whose attachment  
to Vanessa is beyond
the ordinary
And she’s able to resist his efforts, until suffering grief over the death of their brother Thoby, she gives in. There will be a wedding, Clive has his Stephen sister. But when his infidelities push to the fore, after she has given birth and isn’t as attentive to him as he’d like, she’s told that they are different and theirs is to be an open, more unusual marriage.

And when his eyes start roving towards her sister, we sense the delicate balance of the sisters’ love for each other might be threatened. Vanessa is protective of Virginia, ever watchful too that Virginia doesn’t slip back into her periodic bouts of madness: “It is when she is in a quiet mood one should be careful. The stillness that presages that squall.” 

And, “I could feel Virginia pulled taut, on the brink of something, and I was not up to a mad scene today.” 

Virginia with her intense attachment to her sister has not taken easily to Vanessa’s marriage or to her involvement with her two children. There’s a line where they ask if Virginia is Sapphic, and indeed her attachment to Vanessa seems to go beyond ordinary sibling love. Busy with her children, and her painting, Vanessa watches as Clive pursues Virginia, and Virginia dances dangerously on the edge of this precipice.
Virginia Woolf and
Clive Bell in 1910

Throughout Vanessa’s voice is carefully matched and measured against the others who will watch this scenario play out. The years play on, and the book comes to its dénouement with Virginia’s marriage to Woolf.

A delicate and fine study of sibling love with all its complications, this finely written novel brings the Bloomsbury Group to life in a way that is masterful and astonishing. Vanessa’s soft voice beautifully holds the thread of the narrative, and we’re left contemplating the complicated bonds of sisterhood, as well as the broader complications of the relationships that encircle us.

A fine, beautiful novel, a definite highlight. Priya Parmar’s research is worn delicately, lightly, yet brings this historical period to wonderful, broad life.

First published in the Pretoria News, February 1 2015 

Friday, January 30, 2015

Across a Green Ocean

Across a Green Ocean by Wendy Lee

A journey through the past
This charming novel by Wendy Lee opens with widow Ling Tang contemplating her derelict garden almost a year after her husband Han has died, segueing through her memories of him, of living in their house in the suburbs, both emigrants, he from mainland China, she from Taiwan. 

In the US, they had two children, Emily and Michael, raising them in the home where Ling looks at her long-forgotten lawn. Moving across to Emily – a hard-working lawyer, married to a filmmaker Julian. When she receives a call from her mother, worried about Michael, who hasn’t answered his phone in days and his voice mail is full, Emily reluctantly and worriedly heads off to the apartment Michael rented in New York, setting in motion a ripping apart of the layers that have held this family together.

Michael has absconded to China, it turns out. And when Emily arrives at his apartment, secrets start to unravel. She encounters his lover, David, she didn’t even know he was gay. Michael meanwhile is having his own adventures on the mainland and we follow him as he unwraps the mystery of his father’s silences, a legacy of his past that is soon revealed as he meets an old friend of his father’s. 1960s China and the legacy of a time of darkness is recounted. Michael has to come to terms with finding out what his father did in the time before he emigrated.

Secrets were kept and held tight
Back in America, Emily is struggling through her own ambiguous feelings about her long-term marriage and her husband, and seeing her unable to reach out to the man her daughter loves, but seems unable to connect to, Ling can only watch. She has no words to begin this particular conversation with her daughter. This has been a family watched over by a silent, almost autocratic father. Secrets were kept and held tight, the net such a thing demanded growing tighter.

But Michael’s actions and sudden journey is the catalyst that will throw a door wide open.

This is charming read, as I said, as the action follows all three across their journeys, Ling’s interior journey into her past, and her own momentous day, Emily’s growing understanding of herself and her marriage, and Michael’s very visceral journey through China, evoking a modern-day country so dramatically different from his own in a vivid way that is a delight to read, while leading him through to the past as well. Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Review of Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology volume 6

This is the sixth anthology of stories published from stories submitted to the Bristol Short Story Prize. This is an an annual international writing competition open to all published and unpublished, UK and non-UK based writers. Of forty short stories on the longlist, judges Ali Reynolds, Anna Bitten, Bidisha and Christopher Wakling then selected twenty to be published in this volume, with three writers receiving prizes for best first, second and third prizes.  Deadline for entry to this annual prize is April of each year, with 2014 winners announced this year in October.  The anthology is published in both print and e-book format, along with helpful bios and photos of the writers. Stories must be 4000 words, or less to be eligible .. Read more

Friday, January 16, 2015

From the Fifteenth District by Mavis Gallant

The late Mavis Gallant's stories
are beguiling to read
The late Mavis Gallant’s stories are beguiling to read – they creep up on you slowly, until you find yourself devouring each mostly lengthy story, wanting more. This collection, first published in 1979, and now re-released at the end 2014 by Open Road Media, is peopled by ordinary characters, ordinary but for the fact that they are caught at the crossroads of European history, and their lives are shaped by the lengthy shadow of the second world war.

Comprising nine stories, the collection opens with ‘The Four Seasons’ which sets the tone for the atmosphere of these stories. They are located in a Europe battling to come to terms with the destruction wrought by the war, and the displacement of those lives affected profoundly by it.

In ‘The Four Seasons’, we are introduced to Carmela, somewhere on the French/Italian Riviera – the borders shift depending on who is in power, domestic maid to an English couple, the Unwins, and their three-year-old twins. Carmela becomes intertwined in their lives – to the point that towards the end she is no longer even receiving her salary. Chronically short of money, they promise when war breaks out that they will send her wages on, but we know that will never happen. Not quite friend, a maid who becomes entrenched in the family, the nervous Mrs Unwin relying on her more and more, Carmela draws on strengths the more privileged Unwins apparently have no access to. A compelling piece.

The effects come almost as a post-script

‘The Moslem Wife’, the second piece is a novella length tour de force. Netta Asher, the ‘Moslem wife’ of the title, takes over the lease of a hotel her father has run for years in the south of France. She marries her younger first cousin, Jack Ross, against her family’s wishes, but theirs is a happy marriage, bound by her loyalty to the business her father started, and Jack’s acceptance of life as the husband of a hotel manager, dabbling in his music. The atmosphere of a hotel on the French Riviera in the 1930s is vividly brought to life, and life flows slowly on, with its cast of characters, hotel guests, eccentrics who live at the coast and then Jack’s ailing mother who comes to stay. But war intervenes, once more, and as usual it will have a calamitous effect on all. The effects come almost as a post-script, long before that we are caught in the dramas of this world, Netta swirling at the circle of it all, and we, in turn, circle closer and closer to her.

In equally astounding ‘The Remission’ we are once more on the Riviera – this time with another English couple – Alec and Barbara Webb in the 1950s. Alec is dying and the National Health can do nothing more for him. And so they bring their three children with them, with Alec preparing to die in the sun.

A crumbling Edwardian home is purchased for them by family members, and they go down for what they believe will be a short time there. But the years drag on. Alec grows weaker and weaker; the children grow older and it’s the girl, Molly, who will be responsible for bringing another man, a part-time actor, into their mother’s lives. When Alec goes, as he will, he will barely be remembered, life carries on as it will, some lives leaving nothing behind but wisps. The hapless Barbara is not a conventionally attractive character with her reckless abandon, her laissez-faire attitude towards money and her children, but such is the strength of Gallant’s writing that we’re drawn to her despite all these failings, compulsively reading on, the light of the Riviera shining throughout the story, illuminating love, and the growth we all twist through as we go on through our lives.

It’s a squalid, post war world, where the bath is rough enough to scour you and the flat reeks of tiredness and poverty
Equally brilliant was ‘The Latehomecomer’. Here we are introduced to Thomas Bestermann in 1950, recently released back to Berlin after being a prisoner of war and being caught up in bureaucratic delays in France, like so many other ‘late homecomers’. He returns to the flat his mother now shares with her new husband, a detail she only tells him about when they are standing at the front door. It’s a squalid, post war world, where the bath is rough enough to scour you and the flat reeks of tiredness and poverty. His brother is still missing, and his mother, in her early forties, is tired and resigned, covering her smile when she laughs, hiding the missing teeth. Strangers now to each other, they must navigate that awful space between them, a place where words can’t correct the chasms of the past.

Gallant's talent shines in this collection of post war lives 

‘Potter’ meanwhile focuses closely on a fortysomething a Polish poet and translator who falls for a feckless twentysomething Canadian girl/woman, Laura. Piotr, called Potter by her, watches as Laura routinely disappears, goes off with another man to Venice, with reassurances that he’s only an ‘old friend’ although they might find themselves in bed together. Piotr has a wife back in Poland, but while that relationship continues to wither away, Laura rips him in two, and we follow his agonising destruction as love tears him apart: “He hesitated; where love was concerned he had lost his bearings.” A beautifully told story that gets to the heart of unrequited love and lust and takes us right into Piotr while also providing a glimpse into the enclosed world of an ex-pat Polish community in Paris.

A meditative piece, a story that moves slowly across a day – Christmas

In ‘His mother’ we peer through the glass inside a Budapest flat: a woman lives alone after her son has managed to get out to Scotland, this is back in the Communist days. He marries, has children and his mother watches from afar, her life filled with memories, the past, letters from her son, “the insignificant sadness of a lifetime” while she shares her flat with a grandfather, and his pregnant granddaughter. She cannot kick them out, they are too powerful, know too much.

In the last story, ‘Irina’ we’re in central Europe now, where a woman who was once married to a powerful man now lives out her days in a flat with a new companion. When her grandson Riri comes to stay, he discovers that life has changed even for her. This is a meditative piece, a story that moves slowly across a day – Christmas – in lives that are quiet, yet no less ‘insignificant’ than any others.

Gallant’s talent in this wonderful collection shines a powerful beam over these lives, over moments, days, decades where the world turns, and lives spin and change in the tumult of the times and all that’s left is to hold on, and accept.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Mrs Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing

Mrs Stevens ... 
Its homosexual revelations 
were considered scandalous 
when first published 
Mrs Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing is re-published by Open Road Media in 2014, with an introduction by Carolyn G Heilbrun. It first appeared in 1965, and was her first openly gay or lesbian novel. Sarton, the poet, diarist and novelist, tried to reject the label “lesbian writer”, preferring to consider herself a writer who plumbed the depths of emotions and relationships, whatever the nature of the relationships being described.

Reading the novel 50 years after initial publication certainly reveals that some books are of their time: what might have been frank and almost shocking back then reads tamely now. The “lesbian” parts of the novel are meek indeed – blink, you feel, and you’d almost miss them. The story centres around the poet and one-time novelist Hilary Stevens, who had success with a novel when she was in her twenties, but has since turned to poetry. The novel takes place within a day of her life as she waits for interviewers from a literary magazine who are coming to talk to her that afternoon about her life and work. Within this framework, Hilary returns to episodes in her life.

"Love opens the doors into everything

Memory forms a counterpoint and backbone to the almost quotidian story of a writer waiting for interviewers, pushed to re-live her life through the past while anticipating their questions. The book reads as a mediation through a writer’s mind – the story weaving and meandering through her past, as she wakes, talks with a young man, Mar, who helps her with her garden, and goes through the hours until the interviewers come. We learns of Hilary’s young marriage, her novelistic success as a young woman in England at the time and her subsequent widowhood.

“Love opens the doors into everything, as far as I can see, including and perhaps most of all, the door into one’s own secret, and often terrible and frightening self,” she tells the young, questing Mar, searching in his own way through his own burgeoning alternative sexuality. The interviewers, Jenny and Peter, are young, polite, conscientious readers of her work, bringing a respect to the proceedings that Hilary has always craved.

Poet, novelist and diarist May Sarton in later years 

They also open the door on another pre-occupation that seems quaint to debate now: whether women can truly be artists given the demands on them to wives and mothers, and the debate runs right through the past, through Hilary’s reminisces into the present day interview. Says Jenny to Peter while they drive down to Hilary: “I guess women pay a pretty high price for whatever talents they have. I guess it’s harder for them than it is for a man, always.” 
Peter counters with his belief that, “A writer’s life is obsessed, driven ... I just don’t believe you can do it with your right hand while your left hand rocks a cradle, Jenny!” The debate will come up again, and seem antique reading them from a distance that includes the feminist movement of the 1970s when so many barriers holding women back in the western world have tumbled, and being a woman writer or a woman anything is not quite the struggle it was back in the mid 1960s.

You have to read it rather differently 
Antique too, in its way, is Hilary’s assertion that she loved both men and women – as did Sarton herself. There are no tell-all passages in her reminisces or her comments in the interview with Peter and Jenny – the comments are almost an aside, even, barely there. Yes, they might have been more shocking back in that less frank and more straight-laced era. But reading them against a background of the 21st century means you start wondering what the fuss was about. But that’s the thing with reading this novel – you have to peel away the layers and read it rather differently than a contemporary novel.

An old paperback edition of Mrs
Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing 

The revelation of homosexual love was almost scandalous, shocking and Sarton’s publisher advised her against publishing it. That she did was an act of bravery, and meant she was forever after “outed” as a lesbian writer – which, as I mentioned, caused its own discomfort. I was curious to read this classic – having recently come to Sarton via her melodious, almost dream- like published journals. I found it somewhat meandering, with ironically, the past reminisces holding more interest, and containing more meat than the present day narrative.

“Good God, boy, you’ve only just begun!” 
The older Mrs Stevens comes across as somewhat pernickety, too cautious – a contrast to the younger, more daring woman who went on to choose writing as her life’s work. Perhaps that’s a consequence, so to speak, of age – the slowing down. When Mar complains of feeling so tired, at his young age, Hilary exclaims, “Good God, boy, you’ve only just begun!”

And yet, in many ways, this is a rich novel, a story that takes in the vicissitudes of time, what it means to be a writer, and one who lives alone, what it means to love, to survive, to live and question both the times you find yourself in, as well as to attempt to break out of those strictures, as the fictional Hilary Stevens attempted, and as Sarton herself so often achieved. Reading this novel against the biographical elements of Sarton’s life you can’t help comparing the fictional with the real life writer – there seems so much of Sarton transmogrified into the ageing Stevens, finally finding herself in her late, but welcome fame.