The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates – Book

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates – Book

For me, it’s official, Mr. Coates can write. In The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates proves he can write fiction that is just as deep and accessible as his nonfiction. In The Water Dancer he writes about slavery (which he calls the Task) and abolitionists and the Underground, a subject that has had some good authorial attention in recent years. But, although the movement is present in the story, for Coates it is the people affected by slavery, the families torn apart, the histories lost, that matter. It is the inspirational struggles to create new family ties and to hold on to traditions, even if they had to be formed anew in a strange and terrible land.

Virginia is the state where the Lockless plantation tries to maintain an idle lifestyle, maintain a genteel veneer which rests on the shoulders of those who are tasked to do anything that might even vaguely be considered work. Every white person even has a personal maid or valet, a slave, who bathes them, grooms them, and dresses them.

These white plantation owners were supposed to be farmers but they were so greedy and so tied to the payouts from their tobacco crops that they refused to believe that the crops they depended on were depleting the land they were planted in. Some of those who “tasked” on the land understood what was happening but either no one listened or, as the land produced less income, those who understood the land and the crops were sold away south and west – to Natchez and beyond. Slaves really were sold away to Natchez but Coates also uses Natchez as a symbol for family separation, for sorrow, for harsher conditions, for loss.

Plantation owners, slave owners, sold off the most valuable “taskers” first so the family members who remained were left without the strongest among them, perhaps the most characterful, and the older slaves who kept the stories of celebrations and family ties alive. Sorrow that is never given time to abate collects and turns “the task” into a sadder, even more burdensome duty to preserve a failing white lifestyle even as the “taskers” see the community of their own, that they have been able to create in their captivity, disintegrate daily into grief and tearful good-byes.

Hiram Walker is a mixed-race son of Howell Walker, who also has a son by his white wife. Hiram who finds a home on the Street where the “tasked” live, a home with Thena, a women he is not related to, is a child with an excellent memory. He remembers every detail of what he sees and hears. But he cannot remember his mama. He knows her name is Rose. He knows she was a water dancer. He has seen her dancing in a vision on a bridge. A water dancer can dance joyfully and gracefully with an earthenware jar full of water on her head and not spill a drop. He knows his mother was a beauty, and he knows she had a sister, Emma – also a water dancer – because his “adopted” people have told him so. But where his own memories of his mother should be there is a hole.

Hiram also has a special talent. He can conduct himself across distances without being seen. In a land where no slave can walk off the land of his/her “master” without a pass, and where running away can be punished by near death (slaves are valuable property and so are rarely killed outright), someone who can “conduct” himself unseen has a very great gift indeed. But Hiram cannot control his talent and this is somehow related to what he does not remember about his mother. His love for another Lockless slave, Sophia, has grown over the years and it allows him to also accept and love her mixed-race child. Hiram needs to learn how to control his talent so that he can take the two women he loves and the child to freedom in the North.

Whether or not Hiram learns to control “conduction” and how he uses it is at the heart of this story but for me toil and survival, family and heritage; anger and sorrow and the mistaken idea that one person can “own” another – these things are the true heart and soul of this story. Conduction is part of an almost-lost origin story which never died even though the people the story belonged to were kidnapped, abused and held without freedom (in a land that supposedly treasured freedom).

I happen to be reading the Frederick Douglass biography by David Blight at the same time as I am reading Coates’ novel. These two book pair very well and one book seems to riff on the other. If white folks ever hope to understand not just why slavery was wrong but how the repercussions of this aberrant human behavior will echo forever in the souls and families of our fellow Americans of African Descent then The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates should add depth to your quest for understanding. I cannot speak to how black and brown people experience Coates’ novel but I hope to get exposure to some of their reactions.

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie – Book

Quichotte, Salman Rushdie’s most recent book is chock full of India-Indian Americans who seem as at home and doomed, with lives as empty as any American whose family has lived here for decades, or even centuries. Why are we here, not in America, but on this planet? Why are we intent on destroying the planet that is our home? What do we want? What does it all mean? We seem, in Rushdie’s tale as aimless as five dice in a Yahtzee cup.

Thematically Rushdie covers a lot of territory. Immigration or at least transplantation is in there, as are journeys, tilting at windmills, nostalgia, despair, guilt, hate, love, forgiveness, human failings, cultural failings, Planet B, apocalypse, dystopia and more, sort of an I Ching of modern pathologies.

This is a story loosely based on the Don Quixote story and Quichotte (Key-shot) is on a journey from Motel 6’s to Red Roof Inns across America peddling meds for his distant relation, Dr. Smile. Our Quichotte is a man with a big hole in his memory, a retrieval problem. He follows meteor showers from one magical western rock formation to another as he distributes his samples. Dr. Smile and his wife Happy Smile don’t think of themselves as drug dealers, but they are – so is Quichotte although he can barely be considered as capable of peddling anything.

Dr. Smile has created a new form of fentanyl to help cancer patients with breakthrough pain. It is sprayed under the tongue killing pain instantly. But it is very seductive and dangerous, the perfect pairing to make it beloved by those who abuse drugs. It is opioids on mega-steroids. Of course the drug escapes the medical boundaries of its designers and gets prescribed to just about anyone who wants it.

Quichotte does not know he is a drug dealer. He is just working for his relative and fortunately he gets fired before his job becomes an issue, fortunate because he has many other issues, one of them being that he is in love. Dr. Smile and Quichotte cross paths again though.

If you have seen a mirror that reflects the same scene back to a vanishing point, mirror after mirror, then you have some idea of Rushdie’s story structure. Or perhaps it’s like a set on nesting dolls. We have brothers, sons, fathers, sisters, all over the place, all estranged, all seeking to reconcile. Everyone is questing to bind wounds from the past. Everyone is looking for love, mostly of the sibling variety, except for Quichotte who has fallen in love inappropriately with a young TV star, and has created a son (Sancho) from a fervent wish on a meteor shower. Also, the world is starting to flicker around the edges like an old film that is fading in spots or dying from overexposure to light or heat in others.

I always say that India and America are soul mates but it is perhaps more likely that the people of our two nations are the actual soul mates. Thanks for the trip Salman Rushdie. I hope this story, Quichotte, which seemed to say farewell, will be followed by more Salman Rushdie productions in the future. Maybe despair is our present and our future, but maybe not. Perhaps we can turn our own planet into Planet B and soon, before we destroy each other along with the planet.

Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone – Book

Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone – Book

A space opera of world building, world destroying, planet eaters, strange goddesses who stride across space, like the Suicide Sisters, and a “ragtag” group, united by a mission – Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone is a mashup of Star Wars and a complex video game, all brought to life with words rather than actual graphics.

Viv knows only Earth. She is a businesswoman. She has not been truly ruthless, but she has been heedless of other’s feelings as she climbed her way to the top of the business world. Just as she is in an enormous server room about to finish uploading a program which could give her dominion over her world, the Empress of Forever, very green and powerful in ways Viv has never even imagined reaches in and grabs ahold of Viv’s heart and zaps her into a place in space called High Cacereal. How is Viv still alive? How will Viv get home? How will she get back to Magda to make sure she is safe? How will she find out what happened when she sent out her virus before it was completely loaded?

Well the answers to those questions will not be quick in coming. Viv first saves the Empress’s enemy Zanj, a feisty space pirate who has been imprisoned for 3,000 years, one of the once-famous Suicide Sisters. Zanj, never one to sit still can use the Cloud to travel through space. The first of the group hunting the Empress that Zanj and Viv meet is the loveable Hong, a monk with lots of courage and common sense. Then Xiara of the piloting Ornclan is added, and Gray of the Grayframes. Of course our band of Empress-haters must travel to every corner of Max Gladstone’s  and Zanj’s world to see the damage the Empress has wrought.

Since Viv arrives in this world from the world of business she brings with her the wisdom success in business has taught her. This blend of How-to-Succeed-in-Business book lore, self-help psychological teachings, warcraft, and science fiction is kind of dazzling. How do people think up this stuff? It’s Linked in, Instagram, and World of Warcraft all rolled into one.

Despite this odd marriage of disciplines, Max brings his fantasy-built world richly alive for us. The novel is fun to read and as Viv learns the lesson that would have sealed her success as a businesswoman or made winning irrelevant, so do we. There is no I in team, but having the support of a truly connected team allows you to realize the very best version of yourself. Empress of Forever introduced me to a whole other kind of fantasy/science fiction novel for the computer age, perhaps intended for younger readers. Still, I found it fascinating to see how the genre is being transformed, and I made some new fictional friends.

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner – Book

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner is a sort of a “cover” of the classic book Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. This time there are only two girls in the Kaufman family who live in a little “Dick and Jane” house on Alhambra Street. They are named Jo (Josette) and Beth (Bethie) – the mom is Sarah and the dad is Ken.

My initial negative reactions to Mrs. Everything were decidedly generational. In Alcott’s book Jo and Beth didn’t have sex. Jo had ambitions that were not considered feminine, and she was aware that she would find it difficult to fulfill those ambitions, but she did not seem to struggle with her sexual identity, hardly an acceptable topic when Alcott wrote her novel.

However I got over myself. After all I am a child of the sixties. I did not find Bethie’s “rebirth” odd. I heard more than a few primal screams in my time. What bothered me more was the stereotypical presentation of the two sisters differing prepubescent personalities. Not every girl who likes sports and doesn’t care to play with dolls or wear dresses is a lesbian or has a sexual identity anywhere on the LGBTQ spectrum. The only saving grace for the lack of research into the subject can be found in the fact that the characters were intended to parallel the character differences between Alcott’s Jo and Beth.

Modern Jo knew that she was attracted to girls when she was in high school and she had quite a long relationship with her best friend. Her heart was broken for the first time when her first love got married to her high school sweetheart, a boy. Jo could never have pleased her mother by being as feminine as her mother wished her to be, and once her mother learned of Jo’s true sexual orientation, Sarah’s constant disapproval insured that Jo would be happy to leave for college.

Bethie (Beth) was every bit as feminine as her mother would wish her to be. She got lots of positive reinforcement. However, the lives these sisters actually lived most likely will not match the trajectory you think they are on.  They were born in a decade of change. Trite but true, life happens.

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner is about identity and reality, bravery and duty, social pressure, love, and broken hearts. It did not push the button in me that said “eureka, this is a great book”, but perhaps the way readers experience the quality of this book will turn out to be generational.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – Chicago Tribune

Look for me on nbrissonbookblog.com and Goodreads.com as Nancy Brisson

Normal People by Sally Rooney – Book

Normal People, by Sally Rooney

Two people, two Irish people, one male, one female, one from a wealthy family, one from a working class family, child of an unmarried mom are the focus of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People. Marianne’s and Connell’s worlds would not naturally connect, but in this case Connell’s mom cleans the house that Marianne’s family lives in. Connell’s mother is supportive and loving, doing all she can to provide for her son and to let him feel that he can talk to her and rely on her. Marianne’s father was abusive towards his daughter and his wife. Even with her father gone, Marianne’s family provides no haven of security. Her brother continues the abusive pattern of the father through a campaign of constant criticism and actual bullying which the mother refuses to intervene in. The absence of loving parents leaves Marianne alone to contend with her brother, although it is obvious she has no strategies to help her succeed against him.

Connell is a success in high school, despite his absent father. He is a football player and he’s an excellent student. Marianne uses awkwardness to keep everyone at bay in high school because she has no faith in her appearance or in her social skills. She does not try to look attractive or to make friends, but her isolation adds to her lack of self-esteem. She and Connell begin a secret and, at first, sexual relationship, but as they also talk to and confide in each other the relationship deepens and they begin to become more than friends but not an actual couple.

Connell’s academic skills and his relationship with Marianne give him the confidence to imagine escaping his working class roots and he goes off to the same upper class Trinity University that Marianne will attend, instead of going to Galway where his accent would not set him apart, instantly telling his schoolmates his background. He is a sort of fish out of water at Trinity, however.

Marianne is in her element at Trinity and she begins to fit in. The abuse she was subjected to in her family still has her choosing partnerships where she submits to cruel men. In fact as Marianne seeks out men who will treat her badly, she physically becomes thinner and thinner, frailer and frailer. (I did not like the idea that as she became more invisible, almost disappearing, she also, according to the author, became more and more beautiful. This equation which says the thinner you get the more beautiful you become is not necessarily either true or healthy.)

Connell and Marianne come together and part. They try to have relationships with other people but their unfinished business with each other keeps bringing them back into each other’s orbit, while their personality challenges keep driving them apart. It is a dance that is less about love and more about therapy. Can people repair childhood damages in each other? Can they do this without forming a lifelong commitment to each other? Maybe. Is this a bit frustrating to a reader who always wants characters this addicted to each other to find a happy ending? Of course.

Since this is a character-driven novel, do the characters ring true? Almost. They are just a bit too two dimensional for us to really care about them. This is not Anna Karenina. But of course modern Ireland, once quite as tragic as a Russia in transition, now has problems similar to those of any modern nation. These characters could come alive in a movie, but they are not quite that absorbing in Rooney’s book, Normal People. I did enjoy the rare occasions when Connell’s “Sligo” dialect was reflected in the text and I wished that we heard it more often. It is probably impossible to write a perfect book and although some authors come close it is always possible to find flaws, so despite my complaints this was still a novel that I enjoyed reading from cover to cover.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – NPR

Anathem by Neal Stephenson – Book

Although I have enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s books in the past I had a little trouble finding the best way to read Anathem. First of all, it uses the word “maths” a lot, and math is not my strong suit, although in the end no deep knowledge of math was required. Since Stephenson is building a world, the planet Arbre, the learning curve is a bit steep in the beginning. The characters have names that are almost familiar, but just a bit off. Main characters are Erasmus, Lio, Arsibalt, Jesry, Tulia, Ala, Orolo, (and many, many others).

So first I tried Audible, but I learned that listening to books puts me to sleep, which tends to destroy the continuity. I bought the paperback so I could read along but the print was just too small. Finally I reserved a hardcover copy from the library and that had another disadvantage. Once I started reading the hardcover edition I could not put this book down.

The book’s title, Anathem– a mash-up of anthem and anathema –  is a perfect example of the way Stephenson plays with our reality to make his invented world seem close enough to what we know in our own world that we can catch on to life in the Concent of Saunt Edhar fairly quickly. By the time we get to sample what is going outside the walls of the concent we are easily able to adjust.

Our characters are on the same clock-winding team. Since the Third Sack praxis (technology) is outlawed in the concent so mechanics are handled in old school ways. This giant clock at the center of concent life is connected to the observatory on the roof and must be wound with ceremony every day. Bells and weights all play important roles in the clock ceremony and in the community. The similarity to a combined monastery and convent helps us realize that our minds already have a schema for this world.

We spend a long time getting acquainted with the world of the concent and the maths that are scattered around the planet. We learn that these communities are not about religion though; they are about philosophy, geometry, history, astronomy, and physics. We also learn that the concents are surrounded by secular cultures lead by the Sæculua and that the concents open their gates at intervals and these separate populations visit each other. Erasmus, first among main characters has a cousin, Cord, who lives in town.

Just as we get familiar with these two adjacent cultures we learn through Raz’s “Fraa” (concent brother) – Orolo that something is going on with the Sun, something the members of the maths are not supposed to know about. But Erasmus is young and worried when Orolo is expelled from the Concent and he takes an enormous risk to find out what’s going on.

Worlds within worlds is a theme in Anathem. The concents share a design and ceremonies and titles. They all wear the bolt and chord and carry the sphere. Outside the concents where the people known as slines live differences vary by geography.

Eramus and his clock-winder group, in response to the emergency connected to what is going on with the Sun, get sent out of their concent to another, much larger concent for a Convox (a working conference). This does not go smoothly for Eramus who gets sent on a side mission by a Thousander prior to arriving at the Convox.

Eventually we see that Stephenson is headed to sucking us into a theory that says that there is more than one cosmos – there are cosmi. We also see that he is a unifier rather than a divider. Tag along with our heroes and see where this takes you and learn a whole new vocabulary along the way. (If you know your Latin roots you’ll have few difficulties.)

Neal Stephenson can transport me into one of his elaborate creations anytime and Anathem was no exception. The only problem is that landing back in my own reality requires an airlock (metaphorically of course).

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell – Book

Each section of The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell begins with the voice of a mosquito, or a swarm of mosquitoes- a fitting device for a tale of Africa.

“Zt. Zzt. (lots of Z’z) and a zo’ona And so. A dead white man grows bearded and lost in the blinding heart of Africa.”(Livingstone, I presume) “With his rooting and roving, his stops and starts, he becomes our father, unwitting, our inadvertentpater muzungu. This is the story of a nation – not a kingdom or a people – so it begins, of course, with a white man.”

 Colonialism, imperialism are words that inspire different emotions depending on whether you are the colonizer or the colonized. But whenever the European colonizers interfered in the natural development of the many places they felt would benefit from “civilization” (and supply untold riches to their imperial overloads) they diverted what might have been the history of an indigenous people into a new channel that forever combined native history with that of their colonizer. In this case, since we are in Africa, we have the further marker of skin color, which was often the case in colonization, as white Europeans (and later Americans) believed the white race far superior to any nation made up of folks with darker skin.

Namwali Serpell begins her tale of Zambia at a falls, mistakenly thought to be at the source of the Nile. They named the falls Victoria after the long-lived English queen. We hear the story of the first colonizers to arrive near the falls where the Brits who follow Livingstone to Africa set up their earliest town and drifted over Africa, and returned to settle near the Falls. Percy Clark was one of these early settlers. The Gavuzzi family owned and operated the Victoria Falls Hotel for a while.

Colonizers eventually decided they would build a dam at the falls, a dam which will flood the lands of the Tonga people. These people have their entire history and culture tied to this land and would like to stay and drown on their land when it floods. The colonizers will not allow this. They disperse the Tonga people and raise a revolutionary spirit in them which never dies out. Each section of The Old Drift is written almost as a short stories. These short stories drift forward in time, but the stories always connect. The book ends back at the falls where it began, but despite a kind of belated divine justice, Zambia lives on.

Serpell’s characters are colorful, plentiful, full of human failings and quite loveable (for the most part). The European Giuseppe Corsale who returns to Europe to party in a gone-to-seed salon meets a child born with hair over her entire body that engulfs her and grows and grows. Sibilla, who captivates both Giuseppe and his brother Federico, learns that she has her own Zambian connection. Her father and grandfather are the same Gavuzzis who ran the Victoria Falls Hotel. Federico kills his brother, takes over his identity, marries Sibilla and takes her to Africa. His position at the dam construction makes his family a wealthy family in Zambia.

Ronald, an African man, goes to England to study, and falls for the blind ex-tennis star, Agnes, daughter of the rich family who gives him a place to stay. He marries Agnes and takes her to Zambia. They also, through Ronald’s position as an engineer, become a wealthy Zambian family, of mixed race – a thing that probably never would have happened if Agnes could see. The children of these two families involve themselves in the life of their new nation (they know no other) with, as the author tells us, many errors made.

A revolutionary spirt buzzes through the entire story as do those mosquitoes, and the urge to freedom drifts through generations of Zambians. Ba Nkoloso gathers in Matha’s mother and Matha is practically pickled in revolutionary chants, speeches, and writings. Matha dresses like a boy to attend school. She takes part in the Afronaut program of her mentor which aspires to beat the Americans to the moon. Then she enters puberty and her fellow Afronaut, Godfrey, now with ambitions to be a rock star, impregnates her and sends her spinning off track for almost an entire generation. Her daughter Sylvia, beautiful and adventurous, takes the family back into their connections to the colonizers. The thrum of freedom is almost louder than the swarms of mosquitoes. So many great characters in this novel.

Freedom becomes less and less likely as Zambia becomes entangled in European and American capitalism and eventually computer technology through the “Digit-All bead” which turns hands into a computer interface. Addictive and enslaving, especially once government learns how to connect all to the cloud or the “swarm”. Those pesky mosquitoes are both inspirational and deadly.

The AIDS epidemic hits Zambia, the symbolic offspring of Ba Nkoloso, that original Zambian revolutionary and the children of Europeans alike. Are Zambians being used to test new AIDS drugs – are they the new lab rats? It becomes easy to understand the yearning for freedom. These young Zambians of the near future, create microdrones that connect and swarm, that drift wherever you direct them, called Mosketoze. They are used to convene a political rally and they bring about the ending that I cannot tell you about.

Although even to comment on this excellent novel, turns me into something of a colonizer, I will, as my ancestor’s did, drift into this Zambian space and bequeath TheOld Driftby Namwali Serpell to all adventurous readers everywhere.

Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami – Book

 

“Beware the double metaphors”, our artist, our main character, our guy in an early mid-life crisis is told by the Commendatore. Haruki Murakami bends our brains in fiction once again and his readers, and I, enjoy every minute.

Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami does something several books have done recently. It begins at the end and then fills us in. Of course by the time I immerse myself in this story I forget that it is all a flashback. The end of the story we get in the beginning is hardly definitive. But we do meet the artist, acting like a true artist in that little scene.

In present time (in the novel) he is feeling that his life has robbed him of the excitement and ambitions he once had as an artist. He, in a way, blames his wife. He rationalizes that he has had to be practical since he is a family man. He earns his living painting portraits and as his wife works away from home and he is often working at home, he does most of the housework. He feels he has “sold out” by painting portraits, which he considers a lesser form of art. He is feeling dead inside. Just when he is most dissatisfied with life and his art his wife asks for a divorce, says she is sleeping with another man and will not sleep with two men at once.

Yuzu’s husband (the artist) grabs a few clothes (very few) and begins a long journey in his car along the northern coast of Japan. Until he begins naming roads he could be living anywhere. He could be any modern man in any modern nation. He ends his journey months later when he has a very strange and concerning sexual encounter with a young woman and meets the possibly evil man in the white Subaru Forester.

His old college friend and fellow student Masahiko offers him the small mountain house where his father, the famous artist Tomahiko Amada, who is now in a nursing home with dementia, had his studio. Masahiko cannot care for the home as he works and lives in Tokyo.

Up to now. I must say, our artist (unnamed) seems more like an engineer. He has a very pragmatic approach to his wife’s confessions and his road trip. But Haruki Murakami paints his portrait with words. Our guy cannot have a boring identity crisis or get to know himself without going through an ordeal.

From the time he enters that mountain home his inner journey begins and it is a doozy. Temple bells ring in the dead of night with no temple nearby, a deep and magical pit is uncovered with meticulous and unusual stonework walls. There is a secret painting Tomahiko Amada has hidden in the attic with the pretty little owl, there is a collection of opera and classical music on vinyl, and there is a millionaire neighbor with a purring silver Jaguar (car) and many secrets. Then there is the young girl, Mariye, he meets in his children’s art class (about the same age as his beloved sister, Komi, who died as a young teen) and the older, married woman from his adult art class who we get to observe, along with the Commendatore, having satisfying illicit sexual relations with her teacher. Who is the Commendatore and how does he get killed? That I cannot tell you.

There is no blatant spirituality and our artist seems far too self-absorbed and modern to accommodate a deeply religious life, but, even so, in this novel the symbolism (the temple bell, the little shrine, the pit) and a certain sparseness in the prose give a religious tone to the artist’s inward journey. Whether it strikes you as spiritual or not, you can at least enjoy the novel as one great big entertaining Haruki Murakami double metaphor.

 

 

Milkman by Anna Burns – Book

Milkman by Anna Burns follows none of the rules for storytelling or literary fiction that we are used to. The novel seems to be written as one long sentence (of course it isn’t really). I enjoy reading authors who try something new, especially if they do it well. Anna Burns does it well enough.

Middle sister comes of age in a divided culture, almost a tabloid culture. It is a paranoid, male-dominated place in a perpetual state of war (although most of the fighting happens elsewhere) with the “over the border”, “across the waters” people. Readers identify this unnamed country as Northern Ireland because Middle sister speaks of the on-going hostilities as ‘the troubles’. Men are either renouncers, soldiers, paramilitaries or police. Terrorist bombs from unidentified groups occasionally plague the residents and acts of personal terror up to and including death happen frequently enough to keep people on edge. Toxic masculinity is the expected male behavior. Of course, not all men conform but those who don’t are not allowed much peace by those who enforce the convoluted code these folks live with.

Middle sister is also maybe-girlfriend to her car loving mechanic, maybe-boyfriend, who seems nice and who says he would like to not be a ‘maybe’ anymore. Middle sister has her own reasons for wanting to remain a ‘maybe’ for now. Middle sister does things that make her stand out in a culture where women especially are not supposed to stand out. She reads books while walking (nothing newer than the 19th century). Now that she is of marriageable age her behavior is considered deliberately provocative. She is not being properly observant of possible dangers. She is too self-absorbed. She attracts the attention of the creepy, middle-aged Milkman (who is not the real Milkman).

Around her in her single state swings the true chaos of this time and this place. Young people go to bars to drink and mingle – not to dance it seems. Some bars cater to only one group for example, the paramilitary, others attract a more mixed group –  a more dangerous situation with violent fights and explosions more likely. Once Milkman shows an interest in Middle sister other men in the bar scene back off and certain women begin to offer her tips about what to wear and how to act.

Her relationship with maybe-boyfriend continues as he is not part of the mainstream toxic male culture. Middle sister is seriously weirded out by Milkman. She no longer walks and reads. She now runs with Third brother-in-law rather than alone. She knows better than to get in Milkman’s cars or his van. Because of Milkman’s attentions Middle sister becomes an object of gossip because rumor has it that she is having an affair with this Milkman. Until her recent difficulties she did not see herself as belonging or identifying with these grown up mothers (including her own) and widows (lots of widows). As her fate gets more precarious she begins to learn of the subtle power these women have.

Maybe-boyfriend, the car guy, wins ownership of a ‘Blown Bentley’ engine from over the water. Gossips claim that he got to keep the bit with the flag (not the right flag), but he didn’t. Eventually Milkman uses this gossip to threaten maybe-boyfriend whenever he runs into Middle sister – not often if she can help it. He talks about “car bombs”. He’s a real subtle guy.

Some may find this book difficult to read, although words, at first, tend to be short and simple. The breakneck pace lacks pauses or temporary stops, and the vague war between basically unidentified enemies, all the jargon of a carefully controlled society, gets repetitive and makes us long for some specificity. But Middle sister makes the perfect protagonist because, although she knows the rules, she doesn’t always follow them. She is bright, and cautiously adventurous. On occasion her internal dialogue breaks away from the monosyllabic argot and reveals some pretty sophisticated language skills. Of course she was a girl who read books while walking.

Creating a world, or even turning a real world place into something more generic, is not always easy if it is to be a believable world that readers want to occupy for a time. For me the world of Middle sister in Milkmanby Anna Burns was well done. But see what you think about that ending.

You can also find me at:

https://nbrissonbookblog.com/

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All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy – Book

Although All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy is narrated, as it begins, by Myshkin, a young boy, and is also narrated by this boy grown to be an old man in his sixties, this is actually a book that has its roots in a true story of a German artist who travelled in Asia between the Great War (WW I to us) and World War II. Walter Spies was a creative person (and probably a wealthy person) who was so unique and charming that he was considered accomplished and interesting wherever he went, although he was also perceived as somewhat out-of-place, a curiosity. He travelled extensively in India (the author imagines) but he fell in love with Bali and made that his home base in Asia for many years.

Anuradha Roy wrote two stories in one because she admired Mr. Spies and wanted to bring him to life. So she begins her tale not with Spies but with that young narrator in India, a young boy with a mother who was given a nontraditional upbringing by her doting father, a woman born with a passion for an authentic life and a talent for painting and drawing. She was a woman, Gayatri, married to a professor and political activist, who felt held back, held down, imprisoned by her conventional life and loveless marriage. Her husband tried to give her a modicum of freedom but they did not perceive life in the same way. Women of that time, of course, were expected to marry and raise families and did not go traipsing off looking for their bliss.

But Gayatri did run off and left her husband and her young son. She meant to take her son with her but he got delayed at school that day and she had to leave him behind. She is happy in her new life but abandoning her child put a shadow of grief on her happiness. She ran off with a man, Walter Spies, but not to be his lover, rather to be free and live an artist’s life in the way that Walter and his friend Beryl de Zoete were living theirs. Beryl travelled in Asia studying dance and movement.

In this way Anuradha Roy is able to talk about the way women’s lives are curtailed by cultural expectations and public censure. She is also able to tell us about an artist she admired, whose freedom was likewise eventually curtailed, but not by the Asians he lived among, rather the Europeans he had fled.

Gayatri’s boy grows up and becomes, to his father’s dismay, a horticulturist, but he always remains the boy who lost his mother. Years later, as an adult he read the letters his mother wrote to her closest female friend from her life in India. We find that life can destroy our dreams in more than one way.

“As an old man, trying to understand my past, I am making myself read of others like her, I am trying to view my mother somewhat impersonally, as a rebel who might be admired by some, an artist with a vocation so intense she chose it over family and home.”

“But then his father left too to go off on his journey to the center of his self.” Interesting that in India, as in other places, if you are rich enough, both parents can leave but servants and relatives keep the details of the child’s life stable, even at the sacrifice of the child’s heart. Fortunately for Myshkin the grandfather in this story is a kindly and solicitous soul who stands in for the father.

In this way All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy weaves the familiar daily routines of Indian life with the more foreign whims of European artists escaping from the daily routines of their own lives into a believable whole, a novel that explores the tension between art and cultural mores and rules. I just found myself wishing that both parts of the story were based on true events. However I remind myself that the author is an Indian woman and there may be kernels of truth in that fictional family’s portrayal. In the end I have always been happy so far when immersed in a story of India.

Photo Credit: Nancy Brisson