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.