Monthly Archives: April 2017

Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen

Eva Trout was Elizabeth Bowen’s last novel, published in 1969. It is a daring and extravagant novel. The main character, Eva, is not a very sympathetic one and although her story has great comic scenes, she behaves in a way that the author refuses to judge. The reader is left with work to do, and I admire Elizabeth Bowen for that.

 

The Story

At the start of the novel Eva Trout is the heiress to a huge fortune, her parents both being dead. She is still the responsibility of her guardian, Constantine, her father’s former lover. She has endured a motherless and peripatetic childhood, and two boarding schools. As she approaches the birthday on which she will inherit she is living with her former teacher Izzy Arble and her husband, and has befriended the family at the vicarage, the Danceys. This is how Mrs Dancey sees Eva, who was very tall, in the opening chapter.

The giantess, by now, was alone also: some way along the edge of the water she had come to a stop – shoulders braced, hands interlocking behind her, feet in the costly, slovenly lambskin bootees planted apart. Back fell her cap of jaggedly cut hair from her raised profile, showing the still adolescent heaviness of the jawline. (12)

Mrs Dancey’s observations show us a character not interested in how she appears to other people, and one who has not studied how to look feminine. It emerges that Eva has few social skills, little awareness of what others think or feel and so creates chaos around her. Her guardian and Izzy consult about their difficult charge. Eva disappears, as she does frequently in the novel. As soon as she comes into her money she runs away to Broadstairs, Kent, to a broken down house by the sea. She is found by Eric Arble, who has a bit of a thing for her, and by Constantine. So she disappears again, announcing that she is pregnant.

In Chicago she meets some old school friends and acquires a baby illegally. Returning to London after 5 years she sets off another chain of events for the Arbles, the Danceys and Constantine, whose lives have all changed while she was away. The baby Jeremy, is now growing up both deaf and mute. She escapes to France in search of treatment for him.

As her relationship blossoms with Henry Dancey, the vicar’s son, she returns to London and they stagger towards a decision to marry. The final scene assembles all Eva’s circle at Victoria Station as the couple prepare to depart for a wedding on the continent. But a shot is fired …

Adventurousness of the novel

There are many daring features of Eva Trout. In the first place, the heroine is unusual and behaves in a way that challenges the other characters and the reader. Her name is a little off-putting, suggesting fishy features. However, she is not unpleasant, simply unaware. This provides comic possibilities, as when she interacts with Mr Denge, who manages the property in Broadstairs. He is out of his depth in dealing with her, and is frankly afraid of her and her wealth. In contrast, while Jeremy is clearly important to her, she has no dilemmas that we are told of in acquiring him illegally, and is rather cavalier in her attempts to bring him up.

The plot itself is unusual. The events become more and more extravagant, beginning with a claim of an engagement, phantom, and culminating in the shooting on the final page. The narrative makes no attempt to explain, or to explore the inner lives of the characters. We learn about their actions, and surmise some motivations, from their conversations and letters. The action is revealed in scenes that are rich in description and sensual perceptions.

The narration is largely sequential, although Eva’s time at the two schools is revealed in an extended flashback. While it is mainly sequential it leaps forward from time to time, and the reader must find what has happened to the characters in the intervening years or months from the dialogue.

Much of the plot and delight of this novel comes through the dialogue. In this extract Eva is talking to a priest, Father Clavering-Haight. He is trying to put her right but she remains innocent while not unravelling the situation. Having discussed her father he asks whether she resents anyone else.

‘Yes, I resent my teacher.’

‘We’re not speaking of the subsequent Mrs Arble?’

‘Then you do know.’

That’s a business, apparently, that nobody can make head or tail of. What – exactly – took place?’

‘She abandoned me. She betrayed me.’

‘Had you a Sapphic relationship?’

‘What?’

‘Did you exchange embraces of any kind?’

‘No. She was always in a hurry.’

‘Good,’ he said, ticking that one off. (184)

Elizabeth Bowen is famous for her ‘prickly sentences, resisting conventional word order’. This too can slow the reader and force her or him to consider the meaning contained and what is revealed by the prickliness. The description is from Tessa Hadley who wrote the introduction to the Vintage edition.

Success of Eva Trout

Elizabeth Bowen’s style of writing, the absence of explanations force the reader to ask questions: she says, look at this unusual person, and these people and think about what they are doing and why, how they are reacting to each other and why, and watch how this unfolds. What forms a person’s life, she asks. Izzy, the teacher, has an interesting conversation about the possible effects of nature and nurture. Chance seems to play a very big part as well, according to the author. Perhaps that is what we are to make of the novel’s full title: Eva Trout or Changing Scenes.

I liked the audacity of this book, the challenge it presents to the reader, and recommend it as I do all her novels that I have reviewed so far on Bookword. It was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1969 and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize the following year. It is a shame that it has rather slipped the public consciousness since then.

 

Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen, first published in 1969. I used the Vintage edition of 1999. 268 pp

Related posts

Cosy Books blogger reported that Eva Trout had swept her away, like previous novels by Elizabeth Bowen.

And reviewed on this blog:

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen in February 2013

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen, her first novel, in May 2013

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen in September 2013

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen in June 2014

Friends and Relations by Elizabeth Bowen in June 2016

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Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

More tales of people on the move. We learn from Exit West by Mohsin Hamid that despite restrictive policies by governments, dangers of migration, intense loss when leaving home, people move. People move, their lives change and move on. Even in times of great upheaval people pay attention to little things. Think of Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky.

This is the second paragraph of the new novel from Mohsin Hamid, Exit West:

It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class – in this case an evening class on corporate identity and product branding – but that is the way of things with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does. (1-2)

Stories of migration have both universal and individual significance. The individual lives are made up of ‘pottering about our errands’ even as we are ‘teetering at the edge of the abyss’.

The story

The story of Exit West follows Saeed and Nadia from their first meeting in the evening class, through their escape to Europe, to their eventual separation in the US. It begins like this.

In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her. For many days. His name was Saeed and her name was Nadia and he had a beard, not a full beard, more a studiously maintained stubble, and she was always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe. Back then people continued to enjoy the luxury of wearing more or less what they wanted to wear, clothing and hair wise, within certain bounds of course, and so these choices meant something. (1)

Saeed meets Nadia in an unnamed city where they begin their careful courtship. We are probably in the Middle East, their religion is probably Islam but we are not given any more details. As they fall in love the political situation begins to turn bad, until eventually insurgents take over the whole city and they live in a time of difficult communication and separation.

In the city there are rumours of escape routes through black doors. These doors also provide a route into the city for some insurgents. Saeed and Nadia escape through a black door and arrive first in Mykonos, then London and finally on the west coast of the US, in Marin county. During each difficult episode the couple have been very loyal and careful of each other, even as their experiences undermine their love. They part and make new lives.

We also read cameos of other escapes through the doors, reminding us that the story of Saeed and Nadia is only one of thousands of stories of people moving about the world.

The writing

Mohsin Hamid’s writing is controlled yet relaxed. The tone is not quite as conversational as in The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) when a man sits down beside a foreigner and tells his story with increasing tension. In a novel writing class two of the 10 participants chose the opening paragraphs of that novel as most impressive.

In Exit West the style is more mythic. The two extracts I have quoted reveal a narrator who claims a longer perspective than we have. ‘Back then’ he says several times knowing what happened in the years following the story he is telling. In the same way, he explains the behaviour of the characters to us. I especially enjoy the juxtaposition of ‘corporate identity and product branding’ with the impending violence in that first extract.

Measured, usually slow, told in very long sentences (that’s just one sentence that begins ‘It might seem odd …’ in the first extract) the story that emerges is relentless yet not hard to read despite Mohsin Hamid’s refusal to dodge the difficult moments. The death of Saeed’s mother is vivid, horrific, but almost everyday, for example.

My response

Read from one perspective Exit West is a profound criticism of the failure across the world to acknowledge and do anything good about the movements of people, or to deal with ‘the nativists’. There is, however, a strand in the novel that is hopeful, as the nations manage to draw back from genocide and adopt a policy of controlled work camps instead.

On the human level, as in the tiny stories of escape, Exit West shows that humans are generous, loyal, helpful. Ultimately it is a hopeful novel.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Published in 2017 by Hamish Hamilton 228pp

My walk and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom from Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the eighth post in the series. You can read more about this on the page called My Challenge (click on the page title below the masthead).

At the time of writing I have almost achieved my target thanks to readers’ and supporters’ donations. But donations are still acceptable.

April walk

The Walking Group

I dedicated one day on my walking holiday in Italy to the challenge. The route on the Gargano Peninsula, in Puglia, took us through limestone hills, and scrub before following a Mediterranean coastal path to the bay of Fontana delle Rose. This walk was about 13.2 km (8.3 miles).

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, walk 7 in Hertfordshire in March

Refugee Tales Ed David Herd and Anita Pincus, walk 6 in February

A Country of Refuge Ed by Lucy Popescu, walk number 5 in January 2017.

Dartmoor, Hay Tor and Freedom from Torture, an extra walk in December, supported by about 20 walkers.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. My fourth walk in December

Do Refugees need holidays? My third walk in November

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes, the second walk in October

Lost and Found, the first walk in September 2016

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

 

The next post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in May

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Bookword walks in Gargano, Italy

Reading in Gargano

In April I went walking for 7 days in the Gargano Peninsula, Puglia, on the heel of Italy. We had brilliant sunshine and many beautiful walks through wooded hills, olive groves, along beaches and strada bianca. There were twelve of us in the group – a captive sample for a reading survey. And everyone had a book to talk about.

The Walking Group

My survey

My idea to ask everyone what they were currently reading was inspired. I got to talk to people about my favourite topic – books. I was given many recommendations. And it was a brilliant opening to talk with the other walkers.

What I found out

The only thing the 12 readers had in common was the ability to forget the title, author or both when responding to my questions. ‘Errrrm,’ they replied, every one of them. Some titles and authors we worked out together, some were produced later. It was a salutary corrective to my anxieties about titles and their importance. I blogged about that some time ago: On the tricky topic of titles.

Non-fiction

Three people were reading non-fiction:

  • A biography of Modi,
  • Francis of Assisi: a revolutionary life by Adrian House, and
  • Daniel Kahneman’s book called Thinking Fast and Slow (2011).

Since the conversation often opened out to discuss other reading habits I wasn’t surprised to hear that one walker read books about bridge and another told me about her success with the elimination diet in The Virgin Diet by JJ Virgin.

Fiction

Most of us were reading fiction. Many of these choices were linked to places people had visited.

  • My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman (a possible candidate for the older women in fiction series?). The original is in Swedish.
  • Snowleg by Nicholas Shakespeare (2005)
  • The Cashmere Shawl by Rosie Thomas (2011)
  • House of Birds by Morgan McCarthy (2016) (a possible candidate for the older women in fiction series?)
  • A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman (2015) (already in the older women in fiction series)
  • Stone Cradle by Louise Doughty (2006)
  • A novel by Lee Child

Fiction for Southern Italy

The Night Falling by Katherine Webb (2014) was my choice for the holiday, a historical fiction based in Puglia (but not Gargano) in the 1920s when times were very hard and the Fascists were beginning to gain power through violence. I enjoyed the story of our heroine less than the historical context, revealed in the countryside we walked in.

Support for our walk was provided by Matteo, who was keen to provide some recommendations for reading about his part of the world. I have to admit to ignorance about the history of the people of Italy, good enough on political change such as the Unification, but lacking any detail. Carlo Alianello has reinterpreted the Risorgimento and the Unification of Italy.

Matteo also recommended other Italian writers: Giovanni Verga (1840-1922), one of the first Italian realist writers – verismo. His novella Rosso Malpelo (evil red hair in English) is well known. Zola is thought to have learned from Verga. Gianrico Carofiglio is a writer of legal thrillers, based on his career. Translated by Patrick Creagh he has written Involuntary Witness and A Walk in the Dark.

It was my idea of a perfect week: walking, reading, talking, good food, sunshine and all in the beautiful country of Italy. Many thanks to my all my fellow walkers and ATG holidays.

Vieste coastline

Related posts and websites

Tripfiction is worth a look before a journey.

Earlier this year I posted about Bookword in Iceland.

Last year I went to Cevennes, France and reflected on the journey of Robert Louis Stevenson with his donkey.

Over to you

Do you have any Southern Italian reading to recommend?

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Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. (1)

These are the famous opening words of the fourth novel in my Decades Project, and we are into the 1930s. It’s the era of the talkies, threats of European war, the country house and its hierarchical servants. We have moved from the cosy village whodunit of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, set in an unchanging village society in Devon to a large house in the next county. Cornwall is the setting for this psychological-romantic thriller.

The Story

A young girl, (we never know her name) is plucked from nothing. She narrates the story of her marriage to Maxim de Winter and the brief period when they lived at Manderley. From her dream in the first chapter we know that something bad happened here and that she no longer lives in the beautiful house. And from the second chapter we learn that she is still devoted to her husband, Maxim de Winter, but they live a solitary life in continental hotels. ‘Manderley is no more’.

The narrator met Maxim in Monte Carlo while she was employed as a companion to the most awful Mrs Van Hopper. Her employer is a snob, who sees the narrator as a nothing. Indeed, the narrator looses no opportunity to tell us she is poor, unremarkable to look at with lank hair and a flat chest, and with awkward social manners resulting from shyness. Maxim is 42 but despite the difference in their ages they enjoy each other’s company while Mrs Van Hopper is ill.

Maxim rescues the girl from her employer, marries her and takes back to Manderley. In her new home everything serves to emphasise the young bride’s differences to the previous Mrs de Winter, who died about 9 months earlier in a boating accident.

The most sharply drawn character is Mrs Danvers, the Manderley housekeeper. Our heroine is disempowered by Mrs Danvers, the expectations of their social group, and the unfamiliarity of a large country house. In her mind she builds the picture of Maxim’s previous idyllic marriage, and lives in her mousey way under Rebecca’s spell, increasingly believing that Maxim does not love her and is still in love with Rebecca.

When Rebecca’s boat is recovered, her noxious cousin and lover raises the possibility that Maxim murdered her. Maxim tells his new bride what actually happened and that he loathed Rebecca and loves his new bride. Eventually the tensions are allayed when it became clear that Rebecca was gravely ill and engineered her own death.

Reading the story the reader is caught up with the naivety of the young bride, feeling her gaucheness, her uncertainty about her new life, the pernicious influence of Mrs Danvers, and her inability to understand Maxim’s behaviour towards her. It is a kind of Jane Eyre, Cinderella, or imposter syndrome story. The poor wee little girl gets her man and his wealth in the end.

There is an alternative way of looking at this story, and readers who wish to retain the idea that Rebecca is a lovely romantic novel should read no further.

Menabilly House, Fowey, Cornwall, in 1920s – the inspiration for Manderley. via WikiComons

What Daphne du Maurier asks us to believe in Rebecca

The romantic view of Rebecca asks the reader to accept the following more cynical and less romantic reading might lead one to asks how the author gets us to accept the following:

Maxim is a neglectful and unkind older man who picks an innocent young woman to marry. Maxim is a man of the world, and at 42 on a few weeks’ acquaintance marries a gauche girl with very little polish or anything else to recommend her. He gives her very little help in her new responsibilities at Manderley. This is left the agent Frank Crawley.

The hero treats his wife badly. He is bound up with himself and his concerns and gives her no help in unfamiliar social engagements, the running of the house, her relationship with Mrs Danvers or, crucially, the nature of his previous marriage. He allows her to founder and she suffers.

Maxim is a murderer. He murders a woman who has just told him she is pregnant.

The narrator is especially feeble when confronting the house that has been moulded by Rebecca. She does not change the furniture, the food, the flower arrangements, acquiesces to everything Mrs Danvers or Maxim has arranged. Rather prone to imagining how things might be, she never even drams of putting her mark on the house or on Maxim’s life. I found her very feeble, always twisting her handkerchief in her fingers.

When Maxim confesses to murder his second wife hears only that he did not love Rebecca. He is a murderer. He is a wife murderer. But he loves her not Rebecca. She stands by him, excuses his crime, supports him in the efforts to pervert the course of justice.

They run away to Europe despite being exonerated. The house is destroyed by fire, probably by Mrs Danvers at the instigation of Rebecca’s foul cousin, so the De Winters go abroad and hide, desperate for news and the old rituals of Manderley. They are not happy.

Daphne du Maurier’s writing

Rebecca is a classic novel, loved by many. But it invites the reader to collude in the unassertive behaviour of the narrator and in the acceptability of a heinous crime. It is a crime even if Rebecca was a monster. (We never get to see her except through Maxim’s and Mrs Danvers’ accounts.) It is a crime even if it is suicide by enraged husband (a variation of the American suicide by police) Maxim did not know that Rebecca was ill and that she feared a slow and painful death above all else.

Perhaps we are distracted by Mrs Danvers and the other vivid characters. Mrs Van Hopper is a delight, a stupid version of Mrs Catherine de Burgh. Each of the Manderley servants, Maxim’s sister are all believable characters, and sometimes very humorous.

I got a little fed up with the endless speculations of the narrator on the possible explanations or outcomes of every situation. It’s a long novel and many of her fears could have been reduced or avoided I felt.

Hitchcock’s film

Any reading of Rebecca is influenced by the 1940 Hitchcock film starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. Hitchcock did not allow his hero to shoot Rebecca, by the way. Her death during a struggle was accidental.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) Virago Modern Classics (2003) See the afterword by Sally Beauman 441pp

The Decade Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped on completion of a book from a different decade. I like the idea of selecting a book from every decade from 1900 onwards. I am reading one a month, from 1900s in January, from 1920s in February and so on and review them here.

Previous posts in the Project

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905.

The next decade: 1940s

I am still musing on what to read from the 1940s for May’s choice. I am tempted by They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1950s and 1960s.

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Re-Introducing My Inner Critic

It was four years ago that I exposed readers of my blog to my inner critic. The feisty critter is still doing his thing, but I have to admit that I quite enjoy the antics, and naming them. I love my inner critic more now, because I have learned to trust that judgement.

I still haven’t finished revising my novel. Perhaps very soon …? I offer this slightly revised version of a post first published on Bookword in March 2013.

My Inner Critic appears on a train

I retrieved the first draft of my novel from the drawer after two months and prepared to revise and redraft. First, I engaged in some pencil sharpening-type activities such as printing out good copies of several chapters, buying a dark green ring folder, punching holes, placing all 22 chapters in it and lining up the pages to achieve an impressive manuscript.

I had decided to read it on a train journey. I frequently read drafts of writing by my students’ and coachees’ on train journeys – three hours to Totnes and three hours back to London Paddington. (My grandson believes I live in Londonpaddington. I think I live on the train.) So, I had a three-hour journey to read the first draft of my own novel.

He’s a bit of an animal

I began, reasonably enough, with Chapter One. At this point, my Inner Critic flopped down in the adjoining seat. You’ll need me! he announced. My Inner Critic always turns up and demands attention when I am reading my own drafts. He looks a little like that spicy peperami sausage with threadlike arms and jerky legs and a sharp voice featured on adverts a few years ago. He’s a bit of an animal. And he smells! [IC: Oi!]

I read Chapter Two. I had decided to read the novel all through to get an overall sense of it, before considering the more detailed revisions and redrafting. My Inner Critic kicked his spiky legs back and forth and took in a few sharp breaths. If I had succumbed and looked at him I am sure I would have seen him wincing in a stagey look-at-me-wincing kind of way.

Chapter Three. You started your novel in the wrong place, announced IC. I tried to ignore him and made a note on the third page of the chapter (‘start here’). The barracking continued. Too much summary! Get on with it! I squiggle a line in the margin and made a note on the manuscript. (‘Replace with action?’)

By the end of Chapter Four IC was jumping up and down in the seat like an over-excited schoolboy. He managed to tip up the folder and it fell onto the floor. Some of the pages were creased and others smeared with a little mud. IC jumped to his feet and ran down the aisle whooping loudly. It was the quiet carriage and I am usually on active duty in the Quiet Coach Vigilante Squad so I was a little embarrassed. IC stood at the very end of the carriage, the place where the train manager, as she calls herself, has a little office with a PA system and quite possibly an easy chair or two. IC had his bottom on the door and was bending over with laughter. I reclaimed the folder, and tried to return to my work. But I couldn’t even start Chapter Five because my Inner Critic was stamping down the aisle and when he came to our seats he stopped and held his sides like a comedy clown, jerking with laughter.

A writer, he gasped, pointing at me. Call yourself a writer when you produce chapters like those! And off he ran again, bouncing on the empty seats and jumping up to swing on the luggage racks.

I smoothed down the pages and then stared out of the window. IC approached. Hope I haven’t offended you, he said, possibly noticing my inability to continue reading. On a post-it note I wrote ‘start chapters with dates’. He peered at what I had written. That wont fix it! he announced.

No, I say, it won’t fix it. But it’s a start. Now sit down, be quiet and behave like a grown-up Inner Critic. Huh! he snorted. But he did.

Living with your Inner Critic

Stephen King suggests that reading your draft after a break will be ‘a strange and often exhilaration experience’ (in On Writing, p253). He offers some valuable possibilities: being able to see glaring holes in plot or character development; asking questions about coherence, the work of the recurring elements; finding the resonance in the novel. While he does say ‘if you spot a few of these big holes, you are forbidden to feel depressed about them or to beat up on yourself’ he gives no advice I could apply to my Inner Critic. [IC: Stephen King doesn’t need an inner critic, whereas you …]

But in Jurgen Wolff’s Your Writing Coach I have found a chapter called Tame the Wild Inner (and Outer) Critic. And there’s a seven-step programme for dealing with this harshest of all critics. [IC: tremble, tremble, NOT!] Actually, there is no trembling required because I already know that my Inner Critic has some really useful ways of helping me. I just hate it when he goes wild.

And since then?

And since I first posted this in March 2013 I have a second grandson, but no students or coaches, I’ve moved down to the West Country and I’ve co-written and published two more books (not novels). I have also learned to quieten the worst excesses of my Inner Critic, even to put him in a drawer [IC: Oi Again!]. But I have also learned to take account of what my Inner Critic is saying, and to improve my writing through this.

Over to you

Has anyone got any more advice about calming and enjoying my inner critic? What does your inner critic do?

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The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

We called him Tran. Apart from being tall he had Vietnamese characteristics: thin, dark haired, dark eyed, quiet. He held himself aloof from the other young people in his Year 9 class. He caused no trouble until one day I was summoned as his Head of Year to an incident in which he had turned on another boy. ‘All I did, Miss, was this.’ The other boy mimicked holding an automatic weapon, aiming at me. ‘He just flipped.’

Tran was one of the boat people. We knew very little of his story. He spoke so little. But he told me that his response has been a reflex action to the attack by his class mate when he turned the imaginary weapon on him. PTSD was hardly recognised in the early 1980s. Who knew what horrors he had witnessed? Looking back I do not feel I gave Tran enough support. So Tran, this is for you.

Viet Thanh Nguyen may have had some idea of what Tran had been through. The stories in the collection all concern refugees of Vietnamese origins.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

This is collection of eight short stories, which have in common the effects on families and individuals of the Vietnamese refugee exodus of the 1980s. Published in 2017, they describe the enduring effects of the experiences of migration, and the specific experiences of the characters. Children might be thought to be more capable of adapting to change and new countries and sometimes are ignorant of their parents’ past. But children thread their way through this collection and some have had experiences that will damage them forever. For some refugees the healing will be slow and we come to see their truth – that the new life in America may not be so great.

The stories are written with great care, sympathy and tenderness, yet they are never sentimental or melodramatic. It’s a little like watching wildlife: look, Nguyen seems to say, look quietly and you will see beauty and endeavour and brutality and you will learn.

The sparseness of the title is indicative of the tone of the stories. They are also intense in their depiction of what the experiences of migration can mean for identity, relationship within families, between generations, within the American-Vietnamese community, and with the people who remained in Vietnam.

The narrator of The Black-eyed Woman is a ghost writer, haunted by the brother who exchanged his life for hers when their boat was threatened by pirates:

These fishermen resembled our fathers and brothers, sinewy and brown, except that they wielded machetes and machine guns. (14-15)

Her dead brother has swum across the Pacific to re-join their family, to keep company with the survivors. His sister was destined to retell stories, her own, her mothers, those of famous people.

Others stories also explore the effects upon a family of their migration, not least in the final story, Fatherland, in which the father of a new family are called by the names of the children who were left behind. The American Phuong takes a new name, Vivien, and when she comes to visit her older sister it is clear that despite the presents, the ease of the Americanised identity, Vivien is as adrift as her sister.

Identity is robbed or altered. In a startling story, I’d Love you to Want Me, an old Vietnamese professor with Alzheimer’s begins to call his wife by the name of a another woman. She is distraught at first, but comes to see that she can provide comfort by adopting the identity of this woman.

We read of the former B-52 pilot, whose views are challenged by the new Vietnam and his own half-Vietnamese daughter.

The flat fields behind the homes were mostly devoid of trees and shade, some of the plots growing rice and the others devoted to crops Carver did not recognize, their color the dull muted green of algae bloom, the countryside nowhere near as lush and verdant as the Thai landscape visible from Carver’s cockpit window as his B-52 ascended over the waters of Thale Sap Spngkhla, destined for the enemy cities of the north of the Plain of Jars. There was a reason he loved flying. Almost everything looed more beautiful from a distance, the earth becoming ever more perfect as one ascended and came closer to seeing the world from God’s eyes, man’s hovels and palaces disappearing, the peaks and valleys of geography fading to become strokes of a paintbrush on a divine sphere. But seen up close, from this height,, the countryside was so poor that the poverty was neither picturesque nor pastoral: tin-roofed shacks with dirt floor, a man pulling up the leg on his shorts to urinate on a wall, labourers wearing slippers as they pushed wheelbarrows full of bricks. (136-7)

I like the way that the romantic but destructive view of the landscape is compared to the reality of the poverty. We in the west had Carver’s view from his cockpit in our evening news on tv. This is from the story called The Americans.

A Life in Books considers The Refugees in February, alongside another collection of short stories I have also reviewed, Breach.

There is an excellent review of The Refugees by Joyce Carol Oates in New Yorker in February 2017.

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Born in Vietnam, living in California his previous novel The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This novel also featured transition from Vietnam to the US, but in very different circumstances. 25 Great books by Refugees in America in the New York Times in January includes The Sympathizer.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, published in hardback in 2017, by Corsair 209pp

My walk and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom from Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the eighth post in the series. You can read more about this on the page called My Challenge (click on the page title below the masthead).

At the time of writing I have achieved 75% of my target thanks to readers’ and supporters donations. Please help me reach my full target, which is £1800, by making a donation.

March walk

My good friend Marianne arranged March’s walk near her home north of St Albans. Three of us met on a beautiful day at the end of March, and walked Three Burys Walk in the Ver River Valley, from Harpenden, along the Ver River to Roman St Albans and home. This walk raised about £100. It was about 14.5 km (9 miles).

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

Refugee Tales Ed David Herd and Anita Pincus, walk 6 in February

A Country of Refuge Ed by Lucy Popescu, walk number 5 in January 2017.

Dartmoor, Hay Tor and Freedom from Torture, an extra walk in December, supported by about 20 walkers.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. My fourth walk in December

Do Refugees need holidays? My third walk in November

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes, the second walk in October

Lost and Found, the first walk in September

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

The next post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in April

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Filed under Books, Freedom from Torture Challenge, Reviews, short stories

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

I was attracted to The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso when I found it in a list of recommended books by women of colour. It was the topic of the feud between two older women that attracted me. Here’s a novel with not one but two older women. Published in paperback in February 2017, it has been long-listed for this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

This is the 26th post in the series of Older Women in Fiction on this blog. You can find plenty more titles by clicking on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

The Woman Next Door

Hortensia and Marion are neighbours in Katterijn, an enclave of 40 houses in a nice suburb in Cape Town South Africa. Set in the present day, the Apartheid era is behind them, although of course its legacy is still present. These macro tensions are not the focus of this novel. Rather Yewande Omotoso looks at the small scale of individual relationships, antagonisms and antipathy.

Hortensia and Marion have in common their age, both in their 80s, that they have achieved success in their careers, and that they are widows. But they disagree about everything and their mutual animosity is well known to everyone, especially the women who attend the Katterijn Committee.

An accident in which Hortensia breaks her leg and Marion’s house is badly damaged is the novelist’s device that brings changes in the relationship of the two women.

The older women

The title leads you to expect only one old woman, but the subject of the novel is the relationship of the neighbours, and how they have got themselves into their mutual animosity, and what will bring them closer together. Both women have become rather set in their ways, in their approach to life and to opposition.

Marion was formerly a noted architect, indeed she designed the house that Hortensia now occupies, which is one source of tension. At the outset of the novel she commands the committee meeting that is concerned about issues within the community, and it quickly becomes apparent that Marion retains some of the attitudes of the Apartheid era. She is a white woman and knows nothing of the life of her African home help. Issues of land, reclamation and compensation, are still of keen interest to the inhabitants of Katterijn and to Marion’s committee. The Committee allows Marion to bully the other women, as in this beautiful put-down of Sarah who had asked what the Lands Claims Commission did.

‘The Lands Claims Commission, Sarah, is one of those things with a self-explanatory name.’ (11)

Marion’s husband died without leaving her anything to live off and she must consider her options. She comes to see what has shaped her life but that a different future is possible.

Hortensia came to South Africa, via Nigeria, having been born in Barbados. She is a successful fabric designer. She came with her white husband, and at the start of the novel he is terminally ill. There is doubt in Hortensia’s mind about the value and honesty of their long marriage. Hortensia knew that her husband had had an affair that lasted for many years with a white woman, but she discovers that they had a child because Peter’s will requires Hortensia to acknowledge and meet this unknown daughter. This is very hurtful as Hortnesia’s lack of children was a burden to her.

Hortensia’s natural stance is oppositional. Here is an example of how she carried on.

The Constantinople Private Hospital staff didn’t take long to fear Hortensia. She’d arrived at the hospital on a stretcher but, on waking, had immediately managed to insult the paramedic. (85)

She offends the nurses who attended her husband, and later care for her when she breaks her leg. She questions every suggestion by Marion in the Katterijn Committee Meetings. Only the kindly Dr Mama and her own home help Bassey are able to tolerate her argumentative nature.

I wondered whether it wasn’t a bit of a cliché to portray women in their 80s as irascible, contentious, argumentative and difficult. However as the novel progresses we see what they have had to put up with in their long lives, their struggles, the opposition to successful women, their dubious marriages, Marion’s neglectful children and so forth.

The author is sympathetic to the difficulties, the physical incapacity the women encounter in their 80s. Both have been vigorous up to now. This is Hortensi before she broke her leg.

Her walk had been the first thing to go that really hurt. A dash of grey on her head, a slight dip in breasts small enough for dipping not to matter, an extra line on her neck had never bothered her. Her eyes were good, her teeth were hers. But the loss of her walk was the first sign that time was wicked and had fingers to take things. (37)

In the event, it is in the small things, the details of two lives lived in concrete setting that understanding and warmth is created: in the favours done, the help proffered, the companionship enjoyed together.

The author, Yewande Omotoso

The Woman Next Door is Yemande Omotoso’s second novel. You can read an interesting interview with Yewande Omotoso in June 2016 in Short Story Day Africa. She says that her novels confront not the macro aspects of hate, but explores it at the individual level, for example as neighbours. And about The Woman Next Door she says that she wanted to consider ‘what it might be like to have the bulk of your life behind you’.

Her first novel, Born Boy, came out in 2012. Both novels have received critical acclaim. She was born in Barbados, grew up in Nigeria and moved with her family to South Africa in 1992. As well as her writing she has an architectural practice in Johannesburg.

The Cover

The cover of the Vintage edition of the book, with its garland of purple flowers around green binoculars seems to suggest some kind of chicklit, perhaps for older readers (henlit?). I prefer the hardback cover, being more edgy and less pretty feminine.

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso Vintage (2016) 288pp

Related Posts

Most recent posts in this series

Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

Long-list for Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize

Over to you

Have you read this book? What did you think of it? What do you think its chances are in the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize?

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews