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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Love Anthony – Lisa Genova (2012)

book415After having read a couple of rather heavy-duty fact-laden books lately, I wanted something that read a little smoother – a “hot-knife-through-butter” book. In perusing the TBR shelves (wooh me!), I pulled off Lisa Genova’s issues-based novel, Love Anthony, knowing from past experience of prior Genova books that it would probably be a good read.

Genova structures the novel around a chance intersection between two women who both happen to live in Nantucket, and who have both experienced a loss of some kind. What makes this book more interesting is that Genova, a Harvard-taught Ph.D. in neuroscience, includes a character on the autism spectrum as well, a depiction that, according to some superficial research on the net, seems to be pretty accurate for families who have been impacted by this.

Anthony is a non-verbal child with autism*, and although he doesn’t end up with a big talking role in this novel (obvs), he does play a sentinel role in the narrative and is the overlap between the two women with the accidental friendship.

So, lots of drama here along with the story: one marriage breaks up, another is struggling with a terrible loss, and the plot focuses upon how the two planes overlap. I have to admit that I kept getting lost in the first half of the book as there were so many characters, and I kept forgetting who was who and in which family. However, if you persevere with the book, there comes a point where the two narratives overlap and then coalesce, and then it’s all a lot less confusing. But sheesh. I was completely perplexed up until then.

It’s well written, it’s an involving plot (especially once it joins together), and the author seems to know of what she speaks, but it did cross over into schmaltzy sentimental chick-lit at times with the relationship of the two women, and the other-worldly aspect of the child with autism. However, kudos to Genova for at least trying to bring more of a focus on the world of autism, especially through the voice of one who is on the spectrum.

So, an ok read in the end for me. I appreciated the insight into life with autism (assuming it’s accurate), but thought the book couldn’t decide whether it was chick-lit or should be a more serious look at a complicated condition.

  • Is this the preferred term for referring to someone with autism? If not, pls let me know. I’m happy to rewrite it.

 

Lantana Lane – Eleanor Dark (1986)

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We have lived round the corner from the world, with not even a signpost to betray our whereabouts… and if the treasure we have accumulated makes no show upon our bank statements, neither is it subject to income tax…

Picked off my much-neglected Virago collection bookshelf, I had absolutely no expectations for this novel, except that I wanted to read something off my own TBR. So, I had a very clean slate for this, and it ended up being a really good read. (By now, I should know that to be true for the vast majority of Virago titles.)

Set in a non-specified quite modern year in the countryside of Australia, this novel tells the stories and tales of a small group of inhabitants (called Anachronisms by the author, a perfect phrase) who live on (or just off) a dusty road called Lantana Lane. (Thus the title.) Lantana, if you’re not familiar with it, is a plant that grows quickly and widely. I didn’t know this, but I think Australians view this plant as a veracious tropical weed. In the U.S., I know that I’ve bought some from a nursery to plant in the garden as it’s one of those hard-to-kill plants… And amazingly, I haven’t killed one yet so perhaps it really is immortal. (See pic below.)

Image result for lantana

Anyhow, as with my last few reads, I would describe this book as a tapestry book, in that you’re introduced to a community of individuals with one thing in common (in this case, location), and then as you learn about everyone, their stories get combined (similar to how threads get combined to create a tapestry). (I know – I thought of that metaphor all by myself. 😊)

Most of the characters are linked somehow with farming or the land, with the common crop being pineapples (or “pines” as they are called in the book). Though not well off with money, the tiny community mostly get on with each other, are cooperative and collaborative, and all pretty interesting characters. It’s a very rural set up, and although each of these characters commonly refers to the drudgery and poverty under which they suffer, there is a lot of good will and common sense at the same time.

Wow. That makes it sound like an Australian version of Lark Green, but these guys are a bit more meaty and edgy than those characters.

And so the book is structured around fairly short chapters, each covering a slice-of-life that happens to each of the characters (and thus to the community). It’s an earthy book, revolving around land and weather, and the neighbors are all very down-to-earth without crossing into cute. Dark is a strong writer, and despite not having a very clear image of what this folk actually look like, I ended up with pretty clear images of how I imagined each character to look, and I was pretty engaged with the narrative and what happened in their lives.

It’s also a surprisingly witty book, drily written and frequently made me smile with the writing which took me by surprise but which I loved. (The humor matches the climate: very dry.) It reminded me of Thomas Hardy in some ways, since both of these authors have used agricultural workers who are pretty isolated from other communities, but closely formed within their own. This is similar, also, in the ways that although these characters may not be very experienced in the ways of the world, they are wise about themselves and each other, so it’s not written as a mean poke at anyone or such.

This was a great read from an author with whom I was unfamiliar, and I highly recommend it. Good one. (A cursory search on-line for other reviews found it be a rather rare title to read. Is that true?)

Waiting – Ha Jin (1999)

A beautiful sparsely written novel set in China and focused on an army doctor who lives in the city, while being unhappily married to his wife who lives in his old village. The doctor has been separated from his wife for years, and has an ongoing relationship with a nurse where he works. However, in Communist China at that time, it was very difficult to get divorced unless you have been separated from each other for at least 18 years.  Only then, could the husband get a divorce without consent from the wife.

So, this novel follows this story in 1970’s China, and gives a clear picture of life in that regime, where people lived under very strict rules and had to be wary about what they said and who they were seen with in public. It’s a hard life for ordinary people, as relationships were very public and if seen as inappropriate, could lead to severe punishment.

Lin Kong, the army doctor stuck in a loveless marriage with a faraway rural wife, would like to get a divorce and every summer, visits his old village and his wife to ask for one. However, he is torn about the separation as his wife, Shuyu, is an uneducated peasant who has helped to raise their only daughter alone and has also helped nurse his ailing parents in their later lives. She has basically done nothing wrong, and since the marriage was arranged, it’s not her fault. However, Kong is extremely embarrassed about her, about her uneducated ways and her bound feet. Every summer, Kong visits her village and asks for the divorce, and every summer, she goes along with it until they are in court, and then says no, not just to be difficult but because (a) she has no other way to live, and (b) her brother, also a villager, sees that when she divorces, he will lose power and land in the village.

In the mean time, in the city where Kong works, his girlfriend, Manna Wu, is becoming more impatient about having to wait for a divorce before they can take their relationship officially public. The delay puts a strain on their relationship as it drags on, and although Manna Wu asks Kong repeatedly to get a divorce, he is torn between his loyalty to Shuyu and her village life, and his love for the more worldly nurse. It is an interesting contrast between city and village life, where life is very removed and feudal, and both under the eye of Communist China which affected every facet of normal day-to-day routine.

Kong is not a man who feels that deeply about things: he likes his city girlfriend, he likes his village wife, and if he could swing it, he would leave things much the same. But it is not that easy. “Waiting”, the title of the book, refers to the endless months of delay of getting the divorce, and refers to everyone in the various relationships. I could also argue that it refers to everyday life in China where the ordinary person is waiting for life to change for the better, somehow, being powerless to affect any change right now. I think this is really interesting to ponder.

What I really admired about this novel was the style of writing: it was sparse, almost poetic in how Jin selected each word. There are few extraneous words hanging around, and each word adds in some manner. It’s closely structured, very controlled, and rather reminiscent of both the constricted life of Communist China and also the highly ritualized ceremonies such as the Tea Ceremony. Everything is carefully measured out, slowly completed…

I really enjoyed this. Ha Jin grew up in China, but has lived in the US since the mid-80’s. He based this story on a true story he heard when looking after his wife’s mum in a Chinese hospital where something rather similar was occurring. It was awarded the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award.