Daughters – Paule Marshall (1991)

I can’t help it. I really adore Paule Marshall’s work, and so I’m lucky that she has a good backlist of other titles to read and enjoy. Perhaps when I’ve finished that last read, I’ll just cycle back through them to enjoy them again. 🙂

Paule Marshall was an American author with immigrant parents from Barbados, so it’s easy to understand why several of her characters in the titles in her oevre straddle the two different worlds.

In this title, Daughters, her protagonist, Ursa, has spent her first fourteen formative years growing up on the fictional island nation of Triunion, and then is sent to the U.S. to continue her education there. Her father and US-born mother had met in the US earlier and then the couple had moved back to Triunion where her father had a career in governmental politics.

This political position influences everything and everyone throughout the novel, and just as a career based on election results can be unstable, Ursa remains conflicted about who she is: a serious research analyst or a father’s rock-solid support for his never-ending elections… Or can she be both?

The title, Daughters, also reflects the scope of the plot accurately as well as Ursa is not the only daughter who is involved in the narrative. Her mother, Estelle, is a daughter who grew up in a different country from where she lives, and Ursa’s life overlaps with other women who are daughters.

It’s also arguable that the idea of the fictional island of Trunion could also be a young daughter in terms of the nation only having earned its independence from England in the not-so-far past. So – who can a daughter be when she wants to be herself?

The story starts with Ursa returning to her apartment in New York after having just had an abortion at a local clinic. As she’s buttoning up and going home, she worries whether the doctor really completed the procedure and perhaps left a piece of a medical device inside her. (Again, this idea of children….)

Ursa’s really concerned about whether the fetus is really gone and this concern continues through the narrative – how much of her is all hers? It’s a question of identity that threads through this novel for most of its characters, and as the reader follows these characters chapter by chapter, so Ursa goes on a journey of discovery of herself, her life choices, and the people who surround her.

Ursa is currently unemployed but anxiously waiting to hear whether a grant proposal has been funded by a private foundation. It’s a project that continues from her earlier work about studying a small city in New Jersey and how its heavily African-American population is faring in terms of economic prosperity and other QOL issues. (Interestingly, it could be argued that the people of this town are also undergoing their own journeys, along with the town itself.)

With her unemployment period overlapping with her father’s upcoming political election, Ursa is torn. Her pattern of the past is that she flies down to Triunion to support her political parent at each of the elections that occur, and up until now, she has been content to play that role but she’s now wanting to break away from that.

As Ursa gets older, she is realizing that perhaps her father, always worshipped by most people (including her), isn’t the perfect person that she had thought he was. Age brings distance and clarity to some issues, and Ursa’s removal from Triunion has given her the necessary space to evaluate her perspective and it is this new view that is uncomfortable for her.

Ursa is an independent twentieth century woman, unattached for the most part (except for current boyfriend although this is not a deep attachment for her). Without a regular job and with questions about her future, she feels uncomfortably unmoored about her life and her future.

In contrast, she relies heavily on her best friend, Viney, for advice and consolation and a steadying influence and Marshall uses the instability of the lead character to compare and balance out the more anchored life of Viney, who has roots in the city. She has a son, no partner, and has just bought a house in Brooklyn so, to Ursa, it seems as though she herself is the one who is behind the curve and who needs to choose and then commit to how her life will pan out.

How will this play out for her in the end? That’s the big question.

Loved this read just as I’ve loved Marshall’s other titles so far (Praisesong for the Widow, Merle and Other Stories,  and Brown Girl, Brownstones).

A good solid read that kept me thinking way after I’d finished the book.

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Beloved – Toni Morrison (1987)

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Chosen off the TBR for being a classic, Beloved was a good read although quite challenging in some ways. The beginning of a trilogy* set by Toni Morrison, the book is based on the history of an African American slave, Margaret Garner, who escaped slavery in Kentucky in 1856, although I’m not sure how much creative license has been taken by anyone. I haven’t read any of Morrison’s work before, so had little idea of what to expect but loved it in the end. It’s not the easiest work to read and you have to concentrate on the plot and the characters (or at least I did), but the effort is so worth it at the end of the day. Just be prepared for quite a ride, reading-wise.

So – to the story. It revolves around Sethe, an African-American woman born into slavery and who has now escaped that life. However, eighteen years later, she is still not free from the ramifications of her prior slavery life at a plantation called Sweet Home, an idyllic name for a ghastly place and one that still maintains a tenuous hold on Sethe, despite her best efforts at unshackling herself and her family. The book plot delves into her life so readers can better understand the choice that she makes, and how that choice impacts her days for the remainder of her life. (I can’t really tell you any more about the plot without giving spoilers, and it’s the plot that makes this book such a good read. Well, the writing too, but the plot definitely plays a role.)

There is a dreamy gauzy quality to this narrative, and it’s not a logical or chronological retelling, mainly because the events that occur are of the most terrible kind and hurt where it hurts the most – the heart. There is a lot of poetry in this novel in terms of how it’s been written and how it flows, but once I gave up trying to impose order on it, it was a much better read. You will need to let go of the typical structural expectations, but if you do, what was once surreal and puzzling becomes more understandable and predictable. (Well, I’m not sure about predictable, but at least one can see some rationale for why the characters behave as they do.)

It’s a good read, and all the more powerful for not being written or structured in a straight-forward narrative style as that fits the story being told: unreliable narrators, this dream-like quality, the nightmarish events, the resilience of the human spirit…

It’s a super book (obvs since it’s won loads of accolades including the Pulitzer Prize in 1988), but it plays with reality and with dreams, it plays with time and space, and it can all get a tad confusing if you’re not paying close attention. (This was my situation. I was picking up and putting down this book all over the place, and in retrospect, I think the book is best read in huge long chunks of time for immersion into the narrative and characters. I bonded with the story much better when I could dedicate some time to it.)

This is one of those books where the reader may need to work a bit at the story, but in this case, it’s so worth it. If I was going to compare it, I would pair it with “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston. I loved this on its own rights though, and I think you will as well.

  • I had no idea that Beloved was part of a trilogy. In case you’re wondering, # 2 is Jazz (1992) and #3 is Paradise (1997).

Swabbing the Decks…

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It’s been awhile since I’ve done one of these type of posts, and it’s high time for another one and a good tidy up all around, don’t you think?

So – been working. (Still pretty demanding, but I enjoy it.) Been working out. Been reading some and “falling asleep whilst I’m reading” some. (This is a new skill that I’m crafting, but it’s just because I’m pretty busy at the moment.)

book351Finished off a fun quick read of Agatha Christie’s “Sad Cypress” – I am thinking that it’s hard to go wrong with a Christie especially when you’re looking for a read where everything gets nice and tidied up at the end with a lovely cup of tea. I’m starting to see the attraction of the Cozy Mystery genre now.

book342I’ve been mentioning my read of “Saddlebags for Suitcases” by Mary Bosanquet (1942) for ages without actually reviewing it. Sorry about that, but here it is. This was an equine travelogue (who knew there was a sub-genre for that?) which was written just before the outbreak of WWII and from the perspective of a young privileged woman who decides to ride across Canada on horseback. She’s able to do this through her parents’ generosity, combined with the generosity and hospitality of people she meets along the way. It seems that, back in the 1930’s, no one had written about riding across this huge (and wild in places) country from a female perspective, and so Bosanquet wanted to change that. She also really didn’t have anything else to do: she had finished up school, she wasn’t married, she was already out in the social circuit with not a lot going on, no job or responsibilities, her parents could financially support her… So why not?

I started this read thinking it was going to be the Paris Hilton of female adventuring but ended up being pleasantly surprised that this author had a good sense of humor, understood her privilege and appreciated it. This really was a pretty hard journey to make at that period of time so it’s not anything to sneeze at.

The tale takes us from west to east and takes more than a year to complete (as she lay over in the winter months at a friendly home on her way), and she embraces her hardships and joys along the way.

It was more of a lark than a serious trekking project, and so this attitude is reflected in how she really doesn’t seem to worry that much if things go a bit awry. Her parents would have been able to financially rescue her should she have needed that, a fact that doesn’t take away from her accomplishment of being the first female (white) horse-rider to record her journey, but it does rather remove the element of fear from it. And you know, thinking about it, I’m pretty sure the First Peoples in Canada had done the trek before, but just hadn’t written it down for a book publication deal. Sigh.

This was ok, started well but then went on a bit. I think you may need to be really into horses to appreciate this one, but I’m glad I read it as I was looking, as previously mentioned, for a female adventure memoir of some kind.

book356 In the meantime, I’m reading a fun sensation novel by Victorian novelist M. (Mary) E. (Elizabeth) Braddon called “Aurora Floyd”. Braddon was the author of “Lady Audley’s Secret” which was another sensation novel, but good one, and it’s the same in this case as well. “Aurora Floyd” involves a beautiful women with a mysterious background and history, more horses, rigid class division, and overwriting the likes of which is hard to find. (Very typical of sensation novels of the time, and if you take it with a grain of salt, pretty entertaining.) It’s also running into three volumes which is a surprise to me, but that’s ok. It’s still good reading.

Braddon is also one of the most literary writers I have ever read (apart from the current read detailed below). She mentions lashings of literary references, most of which I’m not familiar with and therefore probably don’t see the clever links between the plot and the refs, perhaps. However, she is fairly light-handed with these refs and to be honest, it does fit in with the over-writing of the time.

book355 The other book I’m reading (and almost finished) is the more recent “Unnecessary Woman” by Rabih Alameddine, the story set in Lebanon and from the view point of an old and rather crusty woman who has worked in a bookstore in Beirut for years and now is struggling to live her life with as few obligations, familial and otherwise, as she can. Her years in the bookshop mean that she is also chockfull of literary references (mostly obscure to me, I’m afraid, but interesting all the same). I did feel massively under-read at times, but goodness gracious me – who would know all these refs off the top of your head (apart from the author)? Don’t let that put you off though. This is a thoughtful and literate read.

So — I’m reading away and enjoying life. Can’t really ask for more than that, can you?