The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

How do we categorise the people we meet? By what we see? By ethnicity, colour, gender, age and in the UK those tiny indicators of class. Whole systems of exploitation have been built on the genetic features, especially ethnicity and gender. 

In recent years we have been encouraged to believe that our genetic composition determines our characters. Think of those people who look for criminal genes, or speak about inheriting certain characteristics from their parents, such as sporting ability. Think of the tv programme Who do you think you are? in which ancestors are traced, implying they can explain the person featured. 

The Vanishing Half questions these ideas about inherited attributes. It challenges how people are identified by ethnicity, or gender, and looks at some people who choose to ‘pass’. And it does this through a moving story of twins who ran away and their daughters.

The Vanishing Half

Twin girls, Desiree and Stella, are born in Mallard, a small town in the southern state of Louisiana. Their father was light skinned, and was murdered by white men in front of the twins. The town of Mallard is inhabited by light skinned African Americans, and its population values lightness above all. The consequences of maintaining the lighter skin tone in the town creates an oppressive environment. It was 1954when the twins ran away but 14 years later Desiree, returns without Stella. This is the starting point of the novel, for Desiree is escaping a violent marriage and is accompanied by her very dark skinned daughter, Jude. Stella has disappeared. Early Jones is a tracker paid by her husband to trace Desiree, but they become lovers and his attempts to trace Stella on her behalf produce no results. 

The story shifts down a generation. Jude suffers from her dark skin in Mallard and escapes as soon as she can, to LA on a university athletics scholarship. Stella lives in an exclusive, white neighbourhood, ‘passing’ as the white wife of a rich man, with a beautiful pale skinned fair haired daughter called Kennedy. They too live in LA and of course the paths of Kennedy and Jude cross. 

Stella, living as a white woman, is perpetually in fear of discovery. She is oppressed by  the consequences of her decision to be seen as white. She must be secretive about her early life, and does not mix socially. When her neighbours discover that a Black family will move into their exclusive community she leads the campaign of resistance. But she cannot resist befriending the wife of these incomers when their daughters play together. Kennedy does not know her mother’s secret, but when the cousins meet Jude works it out and tries to convince her.

Jude, in the meantime, has fallen for Reese, who has his own secrets. And they are friends with Barry, who has a successful drag act, while being a teacher in his day job. So many lies. So much acting.

There is no happy ending to this novel. Each of the characters must find their own way to live. Stella returns to Mallard to visit her mother and her twin only once and then resumes her wealthy, secretive, white life. Her daughter becomes a soap actress, recognised as the character she plays, not as herself.

Kennedy’s role in Pacific Cove as girl-next-door Charity Harris serves her well when she retrains to become a realtor:

A model home was nothing but a set, if you thought about it, the open house a grand performance directed by her. Each time, she stood behind the door, bowing her head as jittery as the first time she had ever taken the stage, knowing that her mother would be out there in the audience watching. Then she put on a big Charity Harris smile, opening the door. She would disappear inside herself, inside the empty home where nobody actually lived. As the room filled with strangers, she always found her mark, guiding a couple through the kitchen, pointing out the light fixtures, backsplash, high ceilings.
‘Imagine your life here,’ she said. ‘Imagine who you could be.’ (319)

So what is identity? Can you make up your own identity? Does your genetic heritage determine who you are? Or are you who you choose to be? It is not only the actors who have to pretend a role in life. Don’t we all have to do this to some extent? 

It’s a good novel that can pose pertinent, important questions and carry a compelling story at the same time. 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, published in 2020. I read the paperback edition from Dialogue Books. 366pp

Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021.

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One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

The ‘long nightmare’ is over but everything is changed. This wonderful novel captures one glorious summer’s day in 1946 around the village of Wealding near the south coast of England. We follow Laura Marshall as she contemplates her life now that the Second World War has been over for a year. She ends her day on Barrow Down, where she has gone to retrieve her dog and sits down to look at the view.

She had had to lose a dog and climb a hill, a year later, to realize what it would have meant if England had lost. We are at peace, we still stand, we will stand when you are dust, sang the humming land in the summer evening. (143)

One Fine Day

The structure of this book is very simple. We follow Laura on this day, and through her concerns, activities and from her interactions with other people we are shown a view of the country as wide as her view from Barrow Down.

Laura, 38, is married to Stephen, who, since his return from the war after years of separation, has caught the 8.47 train up to his job in the City of London every weekday morning. Their daughter, Victoria, is ten years old and something of an alien species to Stephen as he last knew her as a toddler. His dismay at his daughter is summed up in his reaction to finding her dental brace in the bathroom. His time at home is dominated by the garden as Chandler, their pre-war gardener, was killed in Holland and the replacement, Voller, is a very old man with limited capacity. Some of Laura’s day will be spent trying to find a better gardener. 

When Stephen has gone for the train (taking the car) and daughter to school (taking the bus) Laura settles down to a morning of housework with her ‘help’ Mrs Prout, and for some shopping in the nearby town (also taking the bus). Mrs Prout does well in these post-war years. She is not slow to make comments about the neighbours, or Laura’s single child. She is the subject of the first cameo, a deftly, sparingly drawn portrait, which tells us so much.

Mrs Prout obliged several ladies in Wealding, conscious of her own value, enjoying glimpses of this household and that, sly, sardonic, given to nose-tapping and enormous winks, kind, a one for whist tables and a quiet glass at the local, scornful of the floundering efforts of the gentry to remain gentry still when there wasn’t nobody even to answer their doorbells, poor souls.  (18) 

Returning to Wealding after her shopping trip, Laura visits the Porter family to see whether George, recently returned from India, can take on their garden. The scene at the Porter’s door draws in many of the threads of the novel. George sees no future in Wealding, so is off to the city to find a job, girls, cinemas and dancing. Laura is chastened to find that to him she is akin to an old sofa. She is aware that she is losing her youth. Mavis Porter, formerly of the WAAF, has added to the Porter brood as a result of a liaison with a Polish airman. She too will soon be gone. 

As the day progresses Laura has interactions with the Vicar, ‘a saint who had the misfortune to sound like a bore’ (54); her mother who lives in Cornwall and was almost untouched by the war and its consequences; and the Cranmers. This is the family whose house has dominated the village, not just because of its size, but also in economic terms. Mrs Cranmer is the local landowner and many of the local farmers are her tenants. The big house had provided employment for the villagers, and during the war accommodation for Canadian soldiers. But Mrs Cranmer and her silent sister are to move to the stables and the house is sold to become some kind of institution. They invite Laura in for tea.

She continues on her way to fetch Stuffy the dog, climbing up the lower slopes of Barrow Down where a gypsy lives in an old railway carriage. She is intrigued by this man who lives apart from the village and is known to have a special way with animals. She is particularly struck by the fact that he doesn’t own a radio. In many ways his quiet, peaceable life appeals to her. She feels again the overwhelming demands of her nice house. 

She climbs the rest of the way up the barrow and sees the wonderful landscape bathed in evening light. She contemplates her options, unable to live lightly as the gypsy does. But she thinks of the fun she and Stephen had before the war, and begins to see the possibility that her life with him and Victoria can be more than drudgery. And Stephen returning home from the city is also reminded of what he still has, despite everything. And that he and Laura can still find happiness with each other.

There have been frequent examples of references to the world beyond Wealding and Bridbury: Cornwall, London, Poland, Canada, India and even the view from Barrow Down brings a wider perspective. It is one of Mollie Panter-Downes’s skills to show so much from that moment, those people, in that place.

Mollie Panter-Downes

Mollie Panter-Downes was born in London in 1906. Her father was killed in the First World War and she grew up with her widowed mother in a village in the south of England. She began her writing career at 17 with a successful novel The Shoreless Sea. During the war she published Letters from London in the New Yorker every two weeks and many short stories (see Good Evening, Mrs Craven). They form a cumulative account of the Second World War for Americans, from the perspective of London and the Home Counties. By the time she came to write One Fine Day after the war she had honed her journalist skills of observation and of drawing meaning from everyday incidents. 

One of the charms of this novel is the way she shows us people is so few words, from passengers on the bus to the people in the big house. Her observation of dog behaviour is so familiar that it must have been drawn from life. Her love of and familiarity with the countryside and the natural world is also a feature. Her descriptions of the demanding garden, other people’s gardens and the hedgerows are enchanting. Here she summons up a wonderful view and Laura’s reaction as she looks out.

She did not stir. The golden eye blinked again, far out in the warm haze. Yes, it was a car, for it was moving. She watched it half-sleepily, listening to the hum floating up from the great bowl. It was the summer voice of England, seeming to say in the rattle of hay carts, the swish of the blades laying the sorrel and clover in swathes, the murmur and buzz of the uncut fields, the men’s deep voices calling peacefully across the dead quiet. We are at peace. An aeroplane flew south, trundling along, flashing a silver blink to the gold blink below, and Laura watched it go as idly as she had watched the car crawl and dip along the unknown road. Planes were no longer something to glance up at warily. The long nightmare was over, the land sang its peaceful song. (142-3)

In following Laura’s day we have observed the changes brought by war, especially to the middle classes. For Laura, the loss of servants could chain her, as so many women, to the domestic duties required by their houses as the servants will not return. Some people have been lost in the war, killed, moved away for better opportunities or new partners. The war has widened the perspective of the villagers. 

Stephen and Laura will have to deal with the separation forced by the war which took Victoria from toddler to near-adolescent, and now lands them back together without the social structure upon which they relied. Laura is perpetually tired (she falls asleep on the barrow) and going grey at 38. Stephen wonders whether he fought the war in order to continue his daily commute. Both Laura and Stephen come to see what they liked and still like about each other, and about the countryside in which they live. The three of them will find their way we are sure and the novel finishes as they all return home.

And I am left wondering what we, in 2021, will see when our long Covid-19 nightmare is over. Will we rejoice in what we have and adjust to what we have lost?

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, first published in 1947, reissued as a Virago Modern Classic in 1985. 179pp

Related links

Good Evening Mrs Craven and London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes (war-time stories from the New Yorker)

Wave me Goodbye (short stories from the Second World War)

In Praise of Short Stories

Three bloggers, whose views I respect, have all praised this novel: Heaven AliStuck in a Book and Jacquiwine

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Matilda Windsor is Coming Home by Anne Goodwin

It’s 1989. Matilda Osborne is in Ghyllside Hospital in Cumbria. She has been there for about 50 years. She is being moved to Tuke House, half-way accommodation established to help the residents transfer to semi-independent living as part of the new policy – Care in the Community. Matty, as they call her, is 70 years old. The staff are not sure that she will manage the transition.

This is the 54th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. The author, Anne Goodwin, has also contributed to my posts about older women writers. You can find the links at the end of the post and you can find the complete list of 100+ suggested books in my series with links to the reviews here.

Matilda Windsor is Coming Home

The reader follows Matty’s story from three perspectives. The first is of her half-brother Henry, 57 at the time of the story. He was 7 when Tilly (as he knew her) was sent away by her step-father. Both Tilly and Henry were devastated by the separation. Tilly’s mother, a widow, had married Mr Windsor and Henry was their son. But she died in childbirth, so Tilly had raised Henry. He has spent the years since she left searching for her. 

His job with the council is at risk as he does not see the point of using computers and refuses to be retrained. As he is approaching retirement he is transferred to humiliating positions where this is not an issue, which include organising a party for the local old people and dressing up as a Christmas elf, in a hilarious episode. He has not realised how close he is to his sister when he is enrolled into the local campaign to prevent the inhabitants of Ghyllside being rehoused on his doorstep.

A second perspective from which we see Matty is a social worker’s. Janice is newly qualified and her job at Ghyllside is her first. She is optimistic about the new policy and schemes to get Matty onto the first programme for relocation. She has been charmed by Matty. Waiting in the hall for an interview Janice meets the old lady for the first time.

Janice watched her pluck a jelly baby from the packet, bite off its head, and add its body to the tail of a procession snaking the bench.
Engrossed in the etiquette of a parallel universe, she seemed unaware of Janice, too self-absorbed to shimmy along for her to sit or deposit her bag. Yet the woman raised her gaze. “Did you run away from the circus?”
“Pardon me?” Janice would have been less shocked if the walls had addressed her. And, had she credited the patient with a voice stronger than a whisper, and the will to use it, she’d never imagined her speaking like royalty. (16)

Matty’s own perspective is also gradually revealed. She has spent half a century in institutions. She treats everyone as if they were her guest or her servant at her grand house. Her key nurse is her maid, for example. Any difficulties are explained away by the necessities of war. While Matty appears to be a dotty old woman, we can see that she has developed coping mechanisms. She is frequently overcome by thoughts of ‘the Prince’, who it emerges is her step-father. I imagined the prince of darkness. She has many very attractive qualities: a way of speaking her mind, generosity, hospitality, courtesy and resilience.

There are more than 60 short chapters in this novel, so the stories of Matty, her brother and Janice, bowl along with some amusing episodes and some which are more shocking. The past is a dark continent, and as we understand Matty’s story, we can see the difficulties for Janice and the new policy.

Humour in this novel comes from observing the professionals, the social workers and care staff for example. Or from watching Henry pursuing an adulterous relationship once a week with a hairdresser and she is getting fed up with him. Or seeing Matty cope with her life.

“Thank you, dear, that was delicious.”
Au contraire, the food is barely palatable but that is no fault of the maid, or the cook, given the challenges of producing an appetising menu in wartime. Indeed, it would be perverse to eat cordon bleu when the men suffer so dreadfully at the front. Besides, flattering the staff pays dividends. If theyare happy, so are the guests.
“Could you manage some jam roly-poly and custard?” (96)

As readers we are asked to consider the challenges of rolling out the policy of care in the community, including reactions to it. NIMBYism is a feature. We can also see how in the past attitudes to unwelcome behaviour, especially pregnancy of unmarried women, involved removal from the community. At the end of the 20thcentury racism and homophobia work their evil. 

And through these events we can see some of the damage done by long-term institutionalisation. They take your name. They take your past They take your history. They take control of your accommodation and movement. They treat you like a child yet you are not safe from sexual predation. Exploitation of women has a very long history, of course.

Matilda Windsor is Coming Home by Anne Goodwin, published in 2021 by Inspired Quill. 405pp

Related posts

Is there Discrimination against Older Women Writers? December 2015

Let’s have more older women writers  February 2020

Why we need more Older Characters in Fiction by Anne Goodwin. Her recent blog post on Inspired Quill Blog

At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey

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Beowulf 2, in which he meets a feminist

A few months ago, I posted my first piece on the ancient poem Beowulf, saying I would have more to say later. I referred to versions of the poem that I had on my shelves, two of which were designed for children. The post featured versions for present-day readers by Seamus Heaney, Rosemary Sutcliff and Michael Morpurgo.

Beowulf is a poem that delights in masculine power and it is a story told by men about men for men. Maria Dahvana Headley suggests that we can look at Beowulf another way. In her novel she gives a name to Beowulf’s second opponent, Grendel’s mother, and tells a modern version of the story, avoiding depicting her as a monster.

Maggie Gee, in an article in The Author reminds us that ‘female monsters and villains have been an avenging presence in myth ever since human story-making began’. Some of them have been half animal and half human. We need them, she suggests, to counter the apologetic behaviour encouraged in women.

On to the page they stride and out across the landscape, laughing maniacally, axes in hand. The tact we try to display in real life is equalled by the dark side of our fictional monsters. [The Author Autumn 2019] 

Her own monster can be found in Blood, published in 2019. 

Maria Dahvana Headley challenges the idea of Grendel’s mother being monstrous. The avenging threat of Grendel’s mother is just that – a mother who has lost her son, ‘carried on a wave of wrath, crazed with sorrow, looking for someone to slay, someone to pay in pain for her heart’s loss’ (l. 1275-7). She is a much more interesting character than the tactful and conforming Willa (a version of Wealhtheow).

At the time of my first post, I was not aware of the Backlisted Podcast on Beowulf, which referred to several versions, and mentioned an upcoming translation by Maria Dahvana Headley and her novel The Mere Wife. Since then (February 2021) I have read both books by Maria Dahvana Headley, attended an on-line event with her, and listened to the podcast.

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

The novel is a feminist telling of part of the Beowulf story, focusing in particular on Grendel’s mother, set in a place and time which is something like present-day America. Dana Mills, a marine, was filmed being executed in a desert war but she somehow manages to return home. She is pregnant and gives birth secretly to Gren, who she sees will be categorised as an enemy to be destroyed. She finds refuge in the caves in the mountain above her former home. They had been part of a railway system, long since abandoned and forgotten. 

Herot Hall has been built over the previous settlement where Dana had been brought up. It is a gated and privileged community run and profited from by the Herot family. Willa Herot has a son and is concerned to keep up appearances for the rest of the community. 

Willa’s son Dylan is intrigued by what he sees out of his window: Gren, Dana’s son. The two boys form a secret friendship, but at her Christmas party Willa finds evidence of Gren, and Dana, watching the party from outside, sees that her son is in danger and tears through the party. The outcome is that Willa’s husband is killed. The tall, blonde, muscular chief of police – Ben Woolf (say his name) – is believed to have killed Dana by drowning her in the mere. In fact, Dana and Gren have retreated to the underground railway station inside the mountain. Later Dylan runs there too and then the hunt is on.

I really liked the way that the author used the details of the original story. The dragon that emerges from the underground lair is here represented by the restored train. The policeman is seen as a hero because he is big and golden and appears to stand between the comfort of the Herot community and danger represented by Dana and Gren. 

We see that those who define others as monsters have power and authority. They include the police, but also the important families, and the press. At play here is the destruction of the history of the US, gender struggles and the damage done by wars. 

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley published in 2018 by Scribe. 306pp

Beowulf: a new translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

In this new translation of the poem, Maria Dahvana Headley refutes Tolkien’s suggestion that the language used in its translation must be ‘literary and traditional’. Instead, she brings to it a modern idiom, the boastful, male fraternizing tradition of the ‘dude text’. Here’s the opening.

Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of kings! In the old days,
everyone knew what men were: brave, glory-bound. Only
stories now, but I’ll sound the Spear-Danes’ song, hoarded for hungry times. (l.1-3)

Compare with Heaney’s translation:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns. (l.1-3)

The original Old English poem begins with the word Hwæt. Listen to the podcast for a discussion of its possible pronunciation and meaning. 

This is how the boastful Beowulf introduces himself to Hrothgar, offering to defend the hall against Grendel. 

I’m the strongest and the boldest, and the bravest and the best.
Yes: I mean – I may have bathed in the blood of beasts,
netted five foul ogres at once, smashed my way into a troll den
and come out swinging, gone skinny-dipping in a sleeping sea
and made sashimi of some sea monsters.
Anyone who fucks with the Geats? Bro, they have to fuck with me.
They’re asking for it, and I deal them death. [l.416- 422]

Beowulf is all male and aggression, like the hero of an action movie or a video game. 

Her introduction on translating the poem and her interest in it, through Grendel’s mother, is a good explanation of the approach she took and the decisions she made for this new version. One of the interesting things about the text of Beowulf is that it seems to be a very adaptable text, and to have relevance to many different times. I have some thoughts about why that might be which I am saving for a future post.

Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley published in 2021 by Scribe. 140pp

Relevant Links

Beowulf 1 on Bookword.

The Backlisted Podcast on Beowulf

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Summerwater by Sarah Moss

To create her compelling fiction Sarah Moss places her characters out of their usual location, often on holiday. The characters are tested, by each other and by the environment and having wound them up she sits back and lets the drama unfold. This is something of a pattern in her books and it is very effective.

In Summerwater the characters are staying in log cabins in a holiday park in Scotland beside a loch. It is summer and it should be beautiful, but it is raining. It is raining so much that it feels like the end of the world. They have no phone signals and no nearby shops. The rain and the random selection of guests at the holiday park isolate the cabins’ occupants from each other.

Summerwater

We begin with the rain.

the sounds of blood and air

Light seeps over the water, through the branches. The sky is lying on the loch, filling the trees, heavy in the spaces between the pine needles, settling between the blades of grass and mottling the pebbles on the beach. Although there is no distance between cloud and land, nowhere for rain to fall, it is falling; the sounds of water on leaves and bark, on roofs and stones, windows and cars, become as constant as the sounds of blood and air in your own body.
You would notice soon enough, if it stopped. (1)

Short interludes, such as this one, separate the chapters. But pause a moment before getting into the story to notice the quality of the writing, the observation that rain in these circumstances gets everywhere and distorts the landscape (the sky is lying on the loch … no distance between cloud and land) and feels visceral. 

The occupants of the log cabins emerge into the day slowly, for what is there to do? Justine takes an early morning run. As she creeps out of the cabin, leaving husband and children sleeping, we learn about her frustrations, the lack of money, the lack of opportunities for families like hers. Her observations about the other occupants of the holiday cabins are revealed, including the Rumanians who held another loud party the previous night.

We meet a young lad who goes kayaking and ventures out on the loch and whose trip nearly ends in disaster. He does not tell his parents. A young teenage girl climbs out of her bedroom window to find a phone signal or to visit the ex-soldier in his tent. Here she is as she escapes from her parents for a while.

She goes along the side of the gravel track, not that anyone would hear her footsteps over the weather, past the cabin with the sad woman who never goes out and the two kids. They’re still having their tea, and the scene reminds her of her old Playmobil dolls’ house, the stiff-jointed figures you could arrange around a green plastic table, the tiny plastic cutlery Mum was always telling her not to lose. The rain is seeping through her leggings and Alex’s hoody is beginning to cling to her hands at the cuffs. (150)

A couple spend most of the day in bed as they pursue his ambition of simultaneous orgasms. An older man, with his increasingly disabled wife takes her for a drive. He muses upon the happy times they had in the park when the holidaymakers owned their own cabins and came every year, providing consistency and friendship. Those times have long gone, and he must take care of his wife in the face of the limitations of the cabin, the park and the weather.

There are nearly middle-aged women who, like Justine, are finding life hard, and this cheap holiday is no holiday for them. Children are bored. The men are bored. Only the Rumanians appear to be enjoying themselves, although some of the holidaymakers think they might be Bulgarians and other that they might be Russians. What’s more, they appear to have phone connections, for as evening arrives so do visitors with drink and music and another party starts.

Here is a nightmare scenario: rain all day, nothing to do, nothing to see except your neighbours, the only thing to think about is your sad life and then loud music at night prevents sleep. Resentment is building and the partygoers are clearly going to be the object of judgements and aggressions that are building up. The men decide to go and ask the Rumanians, or Bulgarians or Russians, or Shit-chenkos, (according to one family) to turn the sound down. 

Watching from the neighbouring cabin the little girl see what happens when they knock on the Rumanians’ door.

The Shit-chenko woman steps back into the cabin and a man comes out with two bottles dangling from between his fingers and nods and hands one to Dad and one to the other dad, and then all of them go inside. (193)

By now the tension is very high and the novel’s resolution unfurls very fast, rather surprisingly and very badly. The little girl witnesses the events. She sees the tragedy, but also the community that is suddenly created in response. 

Sarah Moss writes so well, so succinctly, with detailed observations and, in this novel, fully inhabiting the range of characters in the cabins. 

Observing the way we subtly edit ourselves and one another – the limits that puts on us, as well as the strengths it creates – is Moss’s metier. [Melissa Harrison in a review in the Guardian in August 2020]

It is bleak, and harsh and almost apocryphal. It captures the current generally depressed mood and seems to be a comment on the modern world.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss (2020) Picador. 202pp. A paperback version is available.

Related post about books by Sarah Moss on Bookword

Night Waking by Sarah Moss (2011) in a post of two short reviews

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (2018)

Names for the Sea: strangers in Iceland (2012) in a post called Bookword in Iceland

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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

My spotty teenaged informant seemed to think his information in some way mitigated the wickedness of the slave trade. I was at school, half a century ago, and he informed me that, in case I didn’t know, Africans ‘themselves’ sold Africans to the White traders. Last week I read a tweet by the historian David Olusuga.

Literally everyday someone too lazy to read my books accuses me of ignoring the African slave traders that are explored in my books in detail. Black historians are routinely accused of being ‘activists’ rather than historians – an attempt at delegitimisation and a form of racism (11.6.21)

Then and now the involvement of Africans makes no difference to my opinion that the slave trade was an abomination, that it tainted those who came into contact with it and that we still live with its problematic outcomes today.

Homegoing

Homegoing is an ambitious account of the long history of the slave trade and its outcomes. A Ghanaian by birth, raised in the US, Yaa Gyasi has chosen to show the reader stories of individuals from this long history, the damage to their lives, relationships and bodies. The novel is the story of the descendants in eight generations from Maame. She gave birth at the end of the 18th century to two sisters, who never met. One marries a white trader and lives in the white castle on the Gold Coast. Her descendants remain in Africa. The other sister is transported across the ocean from the same castle, and her descendants are enslaved, then imprisoned and finally become educated African Americans searching for their history and roots.

Cape Coast Castle via WikiCommons, Kwameghana, February 2015

The structure of this book allows Yaa Gyasi to consider a broader perspective than, say Beloved by Toni Morrison. Reading the accounts of the generations on either side of the ocean, we note some key moments: American Civil War, Britain’s colonisation of the Gold Coast, the struggle for independence. She avoids the trap of taking key moments in Black history, rather explores the impact of the previous generation upon the individual in each section as they struggle with their own lives. Her skill is in creating 16 very different but nevertheless authentic characters with contrasting strengths, attributes, beliefs, sense of identity and so forth. One sings beautifully, another has great physical power, a third has beauty, a fourth has terrible scars and so on.

For example, there is H. He is the eighth child of Kojo and Anna, but she had been seized as a runaway while pregnant and died after giving birth, so H never knew his parents. The reader does, however. H is a huge and powerful man, angry that he has been picked up by the local police, falsely charged with studying a white woman, and as a convict sold into another form of slavery in a local mine. His strength helps him survive, and he becomes known as ‘two-shovel’ because he uses his strength to protect another man who was struggling to fulfil his quota. 

And there is Abena, from the same generation but living in Africa and falling foul of the marriage practices of the time. Abena is rejected by the man she hoped to marry because he was forced to promise to pay the bride price for another woman as part of a deal to save the village by planting cocoa. Pregnant, she leaves her village and seeks shelter with the white missionaries in the nearby town of Kumasi. Her decision to seek shelter there has consequences for her daughter Akua.

It is not necessarily better to have stayed in Africa. The wars between Fante and Asante are bitter, and the area’s prosperity is reduced by the war with the whites. They suffer too as the whites behave more and more badly, especially in the name of Christianity and colonialism.

The reader often knows more that the characters about their antecedents. This is not a smooth full narrative. Stories are broken off, never to be narrated to their conclusion. But the reader can develop a kind of rhythm as they progress. Each episode has subtle differences in the way it is told: reported by a character, straight forward third person narrative, episodically, and so on. Form reinforces content. Separation and disruption are key themes in this novel. And it ain’t over yet.

Yaa Gyasi

This novel has garnered much praise. I used the Penguin paperback and there are no less than 46 little blurbs of praise included on the endpapers. It also won some awards. Her second novel, Transcendent Kingdom, was published last year.

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana in 1989 but moved with her family to the US in 1991.  Recently she wrote a piece in the Guardian which stung me into replying to her charges in a post called Reading Black Authors, taking our medicine?

In that article she refers to her belief in ‘the power of literature to challenge, to deepened, to change’ and this novel certainly did those things for me. With its long sweep of history, I was made more acutely aware that this is not over. Today in the UK, as well as the US, we have a disputed history (see David Olusuga‘s comments at the start of this post, think of the statue of the Bristol trader Edward Colston) and a government that issued a report denying institutional racism. Stop and Search impacts disproportionately on Black youth. The #BlackLivesMatter protests of last summer are treated as an anomaly of the Covid Lockdown, rather than the voicing of a legitimate protest from people who want a change. 

I can recommend Homegoing for this long perspective, but also for the humanising of the very dehumanising practise of trafficking people of colour.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi published in 2016. I used the paperback edition published by Penguin Books. 305pp

Related post

Reading Black Authors, taking our medicine? (May 2021)

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The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins wrote in the late 19th Century, publishing The New Magdalen in 1873. He had very enlightened ideas about the treatment of women for his time. His most well-known novel, The Woman in White, revealed the practice of inconvenient women being placed in lunatic asylums for the convenience of their families or their husbands. 

Asylums, diagnoses of madness and incarceration have a long history as a method of dealing with inconvenient people of whom the powerful disapprove:

  • Dissidents in Soviet Russia,
  • Unmarried, pregnant women in Ireland
  • Refugees and asylum seekers in the UK today.

In The New Magdalen Wilkie Collins takes up the issues of women who are deemed to have fallen, and in particular how society at that time did not understand how women in poverty might become prostitutes and did not allow her to redeem her reputation. She was forever judged by the lowest point of her life, not by her character.

The New Magdalen

Wilkie Collins was known as a sensational writer, that is one who could provoke sensations or emotions through writing. Since the novel was originally published as a weekly serial there needed to be many cliff-hangers. The novel is full of will she/will he? moments, or of people listening outside doors, decisions needing to be made immediately, and if only she had known moments.

Mary Magdalene is a New Testament character, who travelled with and supported Jesus and the apostles. Very early commentators interpreted her as a reformed prostitute or a promiscuous woman. Mercy Merrick is the new Magdalen, and her character is contrasted with Grace Roseberry. 

We meet the two women as their paths cross in a cottage in France in the middle of a French war with Germany. Grace is returning to London after the death of her only close family to find refuge in the household of a wealthy relative. Mercy is a nurse caring for some French soldiers. She tells Grace her story and her despair at being a permanent social outcast.

‘… Society can’t take me back. You see me here in a place of trust – patiently, humbly, doing all the good I can. It doesn’t matter! Here, or elsewhere, what I am can never alter what I was. For three years past all that a sincerely penitent woman can do I have done. It doesn’t matter. Once my past story be known, and the shadow of it covers me, the kindest people shrink.’ (16)

The able-bodied French retreat and Mercy and Grace remain with the injured until a bombardment is launched by the Germans. Grace is wounded and pronounced dead by the French surgeon before he flees to escape the German advance. Mercy is rescued by a journalist who provides her with safe passage. Despite some misgivings she has decided to take on the identity of Grace Roseberry. 

And so the scene is set for the contrast between the two women to emerge, and especially for reactions when the real Grace appears, having been restored to health. In the interval between her escape and the second section of the book, Mercy has established herself as a much-loved companion to Lady Janet Roy and the fiancée of her nephew, Horace, the journalist who rescued her. But when the real Grace arrives to claim her position in the household the dilemmas and tensions begin.

Around the same time as Grace reappears, so does Julian Gray, an unconventional preacher who has previously inspired Mercy. He too is a nephew of Lady Janet Roy. The true Grace is at first dismissed as a mad woman, so convinced is Lady Janet that Mercy is her relative, and Horace that his fiancée is who she says. But Mercy finds that her honesty will not let her maintain the fiction for very long, even if Grace is spiteful and vindictive and judges her according to the history she heard in the cottage.

‘Lady Janet! Lady Janet! Don’t leave me without a word.’ Illustration by George du Maurier

When Mercy finally confesses, each of the characters in turn must decide how they react. Lady Janet Roy wants to sweep everything under the carpet and maintain the fiction that Mercy is her ‘adopted daughter’. Horace is horrified and cannot imagine being married to such a woman, influenced in part by his mother and sisters who would never accept a wife from a disreputable background. Julian Gray supports her, and eventually falls for her, inspired by her bravery and determination.

It falls to Horace Holmcroft to articulate the prevalent view of society at the time in a letter in the epilogue which he writes to Grace Roseberry.

‘The existence of Society, as you truly say, is threatened by the present lamentable prevalence of Liberal ideas throughout the length and breadth of the land. We can only hope to protect ourselves against imposters interested in gaining a position among persons of our rank by becoming in some sort (unpleasant as it may be) familiar with the arts by which imposture too frequently succeeds. ‘ (374)

In the first scene, in the French cottage, when Mercy had told her story to Grace, the reader is reminded of the Christian attitude to sin. Mercy tells Grace that she had heard Julian Gray preach and it gave her the courage to persist in trying to make a good life for herself.

His text was from the words, Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over nine and ninety just persons which need no repentance.  …From that time I have accepted my hard lot, been a patient woman. (18-19)

Even when she becomes the wife of a man of standing and good reputation and is supported by Lady Janet Roy, Society does not relent. Mercy and her husband are forced to emigrate from England because she is not acceptable.

The novel was also produced as a play, and many scenes of the book can be visualised in this way: the French cottage, the room through which people can pass unseen, or hide from those meeting there. Some of the speeches were designed for theatre audiences.

Wilkie Collins

It is not irrelevant that Wilkie Collins himself ran two households, two women and their children, marrying neither woman. Both were acknowledged in his will: Caroline Graves was his ‘constant companion’, Martha Rudd as the mother of his children.  I suspect that such an arrangement would still be frowned upon today.

The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins, first published in 1873. I read the edition from Persephone Books, published in 2020. 397pp

Related post

Fallen Women about ‘fallen women’ in fiction, on Bookword October 2015

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Help! Send reinforcements: Women are taking over literary fiction

I’m not sure what Johanna Thomas-Corr is saying in her recent article published in the Guardian. Is she complaining about women writers’ success in sales and prizes? Is she noting, even celebrating women’s achievements? Is it a warning? Is this patriarchal pushback? 

The headline, provided by a sub no doubt, is misleading and hooks in readers with a martial, competitive angle: 

How women conquered the world of fiction

The word conquered is misleading. You can read the article here

What is this?

Johanna Thomas-Corr begins the article as if she is making a complaint. Most of the buzz in fiction, she says, in the last twelve months ‘has been around young women’. She mentions the successes of Yaa Gyasi, Rachel Cusk, Gwendoline Riley, and Odessa Moshfegh among many others, including some being revisited such as Anita Brookner, Zora Neale Hurston and so on. 

The energy, as anyone in the publishing world will tell you, is with women.

And one reason for this domination is that women have taken over the publishing of fiction. She quotes some statistics. 

Poor men?

I read this far and began to think to myself, oh diddums. In my family, as in others, this means that you are complaining about something that you may have responsibility for, or you ignored it when someone else complained about it. But I chided myself. If it was wrong when women were so excluded, it can hardly be acceptable when men are.

But then, I said to myself, hold on a minute there. Just for a while it would be good if a few men understood what it feels like to be excluded or on the margins. Women experienced it forever in literature. And still do, by the way, in terms of getting reviewed and being employed as reviewers. See all that VIDA data.And what is more, women are still kept in a minority in most spheres: sport, government, parliament, film (apply the Bechtel test, which asks whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man), music, orchestras, tv, business, seniority in most professions, and on and on. For a few moments, just take the experience of fiction and then, oh complaining men, imagine what it must be like to meet this kind of dominance in every walk of life, everywhere, all the time.

So what’s the problem?

Having expressed myself on that matter I return to fiction. Here is what I was not clear about: what is the problem caused by this dominance? Perhaps it is not a bad thing that women have ‘conquered’ fiction. Some publishing and writerly people Ross Raisin spoke to do not see it in terms of difficulty. 

[Rob Doyle] sympathises with readers who are turning away from fiction by men, partly because “the whole 20th century was a pretty close examination of male sexual desire.”

And if they are pandering to what they believe to be women’s tastes in fiction “they are in danger of rendering themselves even less worth reading than they are already”. Others felt that they were witnessing a realignment. 

Consider the effects of the commercialisation of publishing as the smaller companies have amalgamated or been swallowed into the big five. As a reader it is clear that the bigger houses are not taking any risks with fiction, reaping the rewards of the big names of today as they did those of the (largely male) famous names of previous generations. It is with Indie presses and self-publishing that innovation is promoted. 

One publisher, Sharmaine Lovegrove, founded Dialogue Books to spotlight writers from marginalised communities, excluded from mainstream publishing.

She argues that publishing has become a monoculture, dominated by “white, middle-class, cis-gendered, heteronormative women” who feel that they are themselves victims. “Because it’s all about dismantling the patriarchy, men don’t get a look-in.”

That’s me, a bit. Although I do not dominate the publishing world, and would not regard myself as heteronormative, and I am certainly not defining myself as a victim. I am a reader and I feel quite able to pick books by all kinds of writers, and promote novels by writers from marginalised communities, or writing about marginalised communities. On this blog I promote books about older women in fiction and by women of colour and translated fiction by women.

I agree that there is a danger of a hegemony emerging in newly published fiction. It is based on “comp titles” by which publishers consider a submission by comparing it to other similar books. 

The reliance on that as a mode of thinking leads to publishers reproducing what already exists … It doesn’t allow publishers to innovate. [Kishani Widyaratna, editorial director of 4th Estate]

This approach is part of the favourite culture, encouraged by the if you liked that book you will like this one or people who bought that book also bought this one sales pitches, made possible by digital marketing. The pursuit of profit in literature is not compatible with innovation and new perspectives. And anyway, promoting sales based on previous commercial success is unlikely to favour hegemony of what Sharmaine Lovegrove calls ‘white feminism’ when you consider the number of titles containing the patronising use of the noun GIRL or novels which feature women being brutally murdered.

A Quite Read by Frank Jameson

Karolina Sutton (agent at Curtis Brown) says that readers will continue to read novels by men, but the literary space has changed. Their status is no longer dominant, she says. The challenge for publishers is to continue to surprise readers because literature and culture do not stand still.

Are you worried, dear reader? I’m not clear whether Johanna Thomas-Corr is.

[Note: this post is an amended version of the original.]

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Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

What is Hamnet, or a hamnet? Is it a small cigar, a misspelling of the title of a famous play, a Persian cloak, the winner of the of Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020? The latter of course. It won from a strong field that included Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo and The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. 

I am not interested in whether this book is better than those others on the shortlist, (which you can find here). I am concerned to look at the merits of this novel and to explore its craft. It is the story of a family, how they are tied together and how those ties are stretched when the son dies aged eleven. 

Hamnet

The family lives in Stratford-on-Avon in the late sixteenth century, the father is away in London where he has success as a playwright. There are three children, Susanna and the twins Judith and Hamnet. The novel starts on a summer’s afternoon. 

A boy is coming down a flight of stairs.
The passage is narrow and twists back on itself. He takes each step slowly, sliding along the wall, his boots meeting each tread with a thud.
Near the bottom, he pauses for a moment, looking back the way he has come. Then, suddenly resolute, he leaps the final three stairs, as is his habit. He stumbles as he lands, falling to his knees on the flagstone floor. (3)

This is Hamnet, desperate to find assistance because Judith is very sick.

The story does not unfold in a straightforward chronological way. Not much about the construction of this novel is straightforward. Here are four aspects of the novel worth noting.

First, the family is inspired by Shakespeare’s. But the name is never mentioned. Not even the playwright’s first name. He is always ‘the husband’ or ‘the father’. This emphasises the family relationships and it allows the author some freedom in imagining how this family lived. So few documentary records survive of his life that we have enormous gaps in our knowledge. We know about land purchases, education at the Grammar School and his will in which he left his second-best bed to his wife. (The mystery of this bequest is explained in passing.)

Second, Hamnet died of the plague, or pestilence in this novel. There is, of course, a resonance with our own experience of a pestilence. I found myself comparing symptoms, transmissibility, precautions and so on. It’s like noting that people in films are not wearing masks or observing social distance guidelines. 

Third, in telling the story Maggie O’Farrell leaps from one time zone to another, we go forwards and backwards within the family’s life. This results in the reader knowing more than the characters: about the death of Hamnet, or the father’s success in London, for example. We are not being asked to wonder whether a child will die. Instead, we are asked to focus on the relationships, the strength of the ties and how individuals will deal with the grief. She also tells the story in the present tense, which brings us close to the action and to the characters. 

Fourth, Maggie O’Farrell’s writes exceptionally well about place, and her descriptive powers recreate the Warwickshire countryside, the town and houses in which the family live, even the bustle of London’s Southbank. In my copy (perhaps all copies?) there is an afterword about how a visit to Stratford allowed her to recreate the first scene, Hamnet jumping down the stairs, and the geography of the house informs much of the novel. 

Grief and Loss

Hamnet is about grief and loss within a family. For Judith losing a twin is a special kind of loss. She cannot believe that he will disappear completely from her life, and searches at night, following a suggestion from one of her mother’s customers. Agnes and her husband are both distraught, finding it hard to go on with their lives in Stratford and in London. They have been a strong unit, despite separation, up to this point, but Hamnet’s death nearly breaks their partnership. The novel challenges the idea that when infant and child mortality were high and part of everyday life, death was not as difficult for parents as it is today. 

Agnes

Agnes, the wife and mother, is the spine of the novel. One friend suggested she is a bit too hippy-dippy bare-foot new-age herbalist for her taste. I found her ability to read people and to experience the dead and see the future rather irritating. This kind of mystical otherworld capacity always challenges my belief in a character’s authenticity. 

On the other hand, she is perceptive, strong, individual and rebellious. She is not too bothered by how the people of Stratford see her, nor by her stepmother’s disapproval. She is more discerning than his family about her husband and his talents. He has not distinguished himself when Agnes disappears when she is about to give birth to their first child. He seeks out her brother, Bartholomew who tells the young husband what Agnes had said about her choice of husband.

‘… you had more hidden away inside you than anyone else she’d ever met.’
The husband stares, as if he can’t believe what he is hearing. His face is anguished, pained, astonished. ‘She said that?’
Bartholomew nods. ‘Now I can’t pretend to understand her choice, in marrying you, but I do know one thing about my sister. You want to know what it is?’
‘Yes.’
‘She is rarely wrong. About anything. It’s a gift or a curse, depending upon who you ask. So if she thinks that about you, there’s a possibility that it’s true.’ (162-3)

Bullied by his father, no trade to follow, a family to support, the young man has not demonstrated much potential. We understand that Agnes’s support was crucial.

The playwright

Agnes’s husband is never named and Maggie O’Farrell has had to create his early life from the scant documentary evidence. We know little of how he got on when he first went to London, or how he maintained his relations with his family, nor what he did when the plague closed the theatres in London. 

But there is the play that bears the name of his dead son (Hamlet and Hamnet were interchangeable in the 1590s, it seems). Her marriage appears to be at breaking point when Agnes finds that her husband has used their son’s name as the title of a play. She travels to London with Bartholomew to confront him about this heartlessness and finds that he has channelled his grief into a recreation of his son. 

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, published in 2020 by Tinder Press 386pp

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Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler

Here is another writer who takes everyday difficulties seriously. (The ‘other’ is Kent Haruf, recently reviewed on the blog). Typically her main character is socially inept in some way, but has carved out a life in which they manage. Her novels are concerned with what happens when their world is challenged. Who can forget Macon in The Accidental Tourist, trying to deal with grief and being forced into a wider set of social interactions? Or his family of grown up siblings who store their groceries alphabetically: elbow macaroni belonging in a different place on the shelf to noodles or ordinary macaroni! Wonderful!

She is kind to her characters, affectionate even while providing a little amusement at their expense. This is as true for Micah Mortimer as it is for Macon Leary.

Redhead by the Side of the Road

Micah Mortimer lives in Baltimore, working as a janitor and he also provides computer services. He lives alone having had a small number of failed relationships. He is a man of routine, but also of kindness, but with no insight into the impression he makes on others. The title refers to what he glimpses every day on his daily run, which quickly resolves into a fire hydrant. The novel begins when his latest woman friend, Cass, tells him that she may be made homeless. She gives up on him when his response is not what she wanted.

Anne Tyler is at her most perceptive when she observes the young man who turns up after an argument at home. Brink claims, even hopes, that Micah might be his father as his mother was Micah’s first girlfriend. The youth seems to have no plans beyond finding Micah, who is able to say categorically that he is not Brink’s father. Her description of this awkward youth is very apt and illustrates his inability to deal with the problems he has caused.

Meanwhile Micah’s large family are dismayed at Cass’s departure. He also finds it hard to understand why she left. And he is not sure what to do about Brink when the boy first runs away and then returns. But he does the right thing and manages to reunite Brink with his mother and stepfather. The occasion helps him to gain some insight into how other people see him when his ex-girlfriend explains a thing or two.

Between scenes that move the plot on we follow Micah to his various jobs, see other isolated and incompetent people. There are some rich cameos and typical computer problems which allows us to see that Micah is a thoughtful man and a good problem-solver when is dealing with technical things. But personal problems seem beyond him until he helps resolve Brink’s problems and going in search of Cass.

Micah makes it through with affectionate support from his family and some understanding he gains from the episode with Brink.  Life goes on. Its upsets are not great. Her main characters have some kind of flaw which enables one to view them sympathetically. In fact one may even identify a little with these people.

Anne Tyler’s novels on my bookshelves

Related posts

The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler, published in 2020. I read the paperback from Vintage 178pp

Longlisted for Booker Prize 2020

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