Kindred by Octavia E Butler

Every now and again someone I respect recommends this novel. It has a reputation of being a sci-fi story, and indeed Kindred is based on time-travel. Dana, the main character is a Black writer living in Los Angeles in 1976, who finds herself pulled back into Maryland in the years before the US Civil War. The story is narrated by Dana, and the reader follows her story as she tries to negotiate her way back to 1976 from the experiences of the Weyland Plantation on which she finds herself. Her colour determines her fate.

I delayed reading it because it was labelled as sci-fi, but I should not have delayed. It is a convincing and fearsome exploration of the practices and tools of enslavement and racial inequality.

Kindred

When Dana finds herself thrown back into Maryland in the years before the US Civil War, she takes with her the experience of racially integrated California in the ‘70s. Much of the novel, therefore, is a contrast between Dana’s contemporary life and the experience on the Maryland plantation in the early part of the 19th Century. One of the first contrasts is the language, for she is routinely described using the N word. The Black people she meets are mostly enslaved, and even the free Blacks are in danger of being forced into slavery one way or another.

I found the first few chapters rather wooden as the scenario was set up. She is at home when goes dizzy and comes round to find herself rescuing a small redheaded boy from the river. She gives him artificial respiration so that he is saved from drowning. She returns to 1976 when the boy’s father is about to shoot her. Not long after, she returns to find the same boy, but older, in mortal danger from a fire. And so it goes on. Dana – and on one occasion her husband – spend longer and longer in the past saving Rufus. As a Black woman with no papers she is assumed to be a slave as she repeatedly visits the Weyland plantation and treated as such. 

No explanation or mechanism is ever revealed to explain this time travel, but the first few chapters must convince the reader that Dana is going back in time. As the story progresses, we get more caught up in Dana’s experiences and her time on the plantation. After a few visits to the Weyland Plantation, Dana realises that her visits are arranged to keep Rufus Weyland from death. Dana realises that one of Rufus’s slaves, Alice, may be her ancestor. She also must keep Alice alive to ensure that she will be born. The mechanics of her travel became less important than seeing slavery through the eyes and experiences of a woman from the ‘70s. 

Her contact with the Black Power Movement led Octavia E Butler to investigate why the black people of the past apparently acquiesced to their enslavement. One of the strands of the novel is to show how different characters made choices which meant adapting to the conditions to avoid whipping, sexual assault, their family being ripped apart, or being sold to passing traders: choices for their survival. 

Kindred is a searing explanation of how the slave economy was maintained, highlighting the violence, dehumanising violence, and for Black women there was the added threat of sexual violence. Slaveholders were not required to pay any attention to family ties, and children and partners could be sold away from the plantation to coerce or to punish or for economic benefit. 

Another form of control was to keep enslaved people in ignorance, prohibited from learning to read or write. Dana, as an educated woman, in ante-bellum South posed a great threat to the white masters. In secret she taught some of the children to read.

Octavia E Butler’s sources for Dana’s experiences were the many accounts by enslaved people who escaped. She felt she had to tone down these narratives to make it more believable to her readers.

Eventually Rufus is killed, and Dana loses an arm in her final return to 1976, which reminds us of the physical danger that reaches out from the past. Today’s readers have to add their own present day to their understanding of Dana’s time travel. How much have things changed for Black people in the half-century since 1976? The past continues to provide a legacy of physical damage and social and economic inequality. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is a testament to that. What this novel said to me so bitterly was that those instruments of enslavement and repression were still employed in the US in the ‘70s are still used today. The violence, the sexualisation of black women (and men in a different way), the economic differences (starkly revealed by the Coronavirus epidemic) still exist. Poorer housing, poorer health care, poorer education and violence. 

Octavia E Butler

Born in California in 1947, Octavia E Butler was raised in Pasadena, Ca which was racially integrated, although the lives of the inhabitants were very different based on race. Her mother worked as a maid, and her father died when she was eight. She was a shy child and took to writing and visiting the library. She had early success as a writer and met both encouragement and challenge. 

One of her achievements was to widen the scope of sci-fi stories to include the experiences of woman and people of colour.  She claimed, ‘I began writing about power because I had so little’. She won Hugo and Nebula awards for her novels and short stories, and Kindred, in particular, is regarded as a classic.

First edition cover of Kindred 1979

Kindred by Octavia E Butler, first published in 1979. I read the paperback edition from Headline, published in 2018. 295pp

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The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

With its strange title, and its impressive author, The Blue Flower has a fine literary reputation. For some it is Penelope Fitzgerald’s best book. It’s been called a masterpiece (Candia McWilliam, Hermione Lee and AS Byatt), a jewel (Carmen Callil), was the most frequently chosen Book of the Year in 1995 and so on, and so on.  My response is that it is an odd book, compelling, funny and ultimately not your run-of-the-mill novel.

The Blue Flower

In this novel the blue flower appears in a chapter of a novel written by Fritz. He reads the opening section to his story twice, once to Karoline and then to Sophie and her sister the Mandelsloh. He asks them to tell him what they think is the meaning of the blue flower. He does not get an answer, and the reader is also left to find their own understanding. The blue flower, the motif of European romanticism, signifies desire, love and the impossibility of perfection.

Fritz is the young man who would eventually adopt the name Novalis, a German romantic poet, who died of consumption in 1801. Penelope Fitzgerald imagines his life during the years before he became famous: 1790-1797. In these years he was studying a variety of subjects at various universities and was sent to learn administration from an old friend of his father. This was the time of great upheaval in Europe as a result of the French Revolution. Scientific and philosophical ideas were spreading amongst intellectuals like Fritz and his circle. 

The most significant thing that happened to Fritz, during those years, was to come across Sophie, the daughter of an associate of his mentor. He instantly becomes obsessed with the girl. He told his friends, ‘something has happened to me.’

Fritz is Friedrich von Hardenberg is the son of minor German nobility. Sophie is the step-daughter of an opportunist of much lower rank. Neither family are well off. There are many arguments to be made against any match between Fritz and Sophie. As well as of lower social status, Sophie is only 12, and has not a great deal to recommend her. She does not return Fritz’s passion; she lacks education, beauty, poise and intellect. 

Here is her diary from 1795:

January 8
Today once again we were alone and nothing much happened.
January 9
Today we were again alone and nothing much happened.
January 10
Hardenburch came at mid-day.
January 13
Today Hardenburch went away and I had nothing amuse me. (133)

Penelope Fitzgerald is rightly praised for her detailed research. I referred to it recently when I reviewed her novel of an English family in Moscow before the First World War The Beginning of Spring. In The Blue Flower we have great details about the domestic affairs of impoverished landed nobility in Germany in the late eighteenth century, and about other matters such as an operation without anaesthetic. The opening scene is a good example. Jacob Dietmahler has come to visit Fritz but finds the courtyard full of washing. Dietmahler is a medical student and he reappears at the end of the novel.

… Dietmahler ‘s own mother supervised the washing three times a year, therefore the household had linen and white underwear for four months only. He himself possessed eighty-nine shirts, no more. But here, at the Hardenberg house in Kloster Gasse, he could tell from the great dingy snowfalls of sheets, pillow-cases, bolster-cases, vests, bodices, drawers, from the upper windows into the courtyard, where grave-looking servants, both men and women, were receiving them into giant baskets, that they washed only once a year. This might not mean wealth, in fact he knew that in this case it didn’t, but it was certainly an indication of long standing. A numerous family also. (1)

I love this scene. The ancient house, the ‘dingy snowfall’ of the laundry, already creating a contrast with the stone walls, the long list of items, the ‘no more’ added after the enormous number of shirts owned by Dietmahler, the involvement of different people and the final clause of that long rhythmic sentence they washed only once a year. So we have the domestic routine of a large house at that time, some knowledge of the family and Fritz’s friend arriving at a bad time.

I wrote in May 2008 when I first read it:

The pleasure of the novel lies in the juxtaposition of the high-minded philosophising, new ideas in medicine and the meaning of life, alongside the everyday. On the whole the women represent the everyday – especially Karoline and the Mandelsloh. They cherish Fritz. His father, brothers, friends represent the outside world and the grappling with new ideas. But in the end, one is not convinced of the love for Sophie, or the beliefs in the new ideas. The material world seems to win out in the end.

Now I think that his obsession with Sophie is not intended to convince the reader. Fritz is a man of ideas and many connections. He delights in them. His engagement to Sophie is both a reflection of the new romantic ideas and an interruption to Fritz’s life. But even after Sophie’s death they bring him little reward. In the end, we all have to deal with the material world and the finality of death.

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, first published in 1995. I used the edition published by Flamingo in 1996. 290pp 

Related posts

The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald (Bookword January 2022)

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald (Bookword January 2014)

Bookshops in Books (Bookword January 2018) 

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A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson

The reader is drawn into this novel by Clara’s distress. She lives in the town called Solace in Northern Ontario, Canada. Her world is all askew because her sister Rose, who is sixteen, has disappeared. And now a strange man appears to have moved into the house next door. This is Mrs Orchard’s house. 

Clara is eight, and we find ourselves hoping that things will come right for her and her family, especially given the new development of the man in Mrs Orchard’s house. Is he connected with Rose’s disappearance? What will happen when Mrs Orchard returns? 

A Town Called Solace

In A Town Called Solace three people are suffering. The story unfolds to follow each of them until their stories run together and are resolved.

Clara wants her sister to return, but she is disturbed by the man next door, for she has the responsibility of feeding the cat. Mrs Orchard was a friend to her before she was taken into hospital.

Mrs Orchard’s story is told from her hospital bed. We find her to be a sympathetic patient, helpful to the nurses and the other women on the ward. But she comes to see that she will not recover. The reader discovers that she came to the town many years before, trying to escape her reputation. Something happened in the past. We also discover that she has given her house to the man seen by Clara.

Liam is the man in the house next door. He received notification of the gift of Mrs Orchard’s house just as he was leaving his life, his wife, and his job in Toronto. His first plan is to repair the house and sell it to raise money so that he can start again somewhere else. He must do this before winter sets in.

As the absences of both Rose and Mrs Orchard become extended, Clara begins to trust the adults in her world less and less. Her father has used an ‘abnormally normal voice’ since Rose disappeared. 

Her father couldn’t stand an argument. If people were arguing he had to sort it out, he couldn’t help himself. He’d wade right in the middle of it (‘wade’ was Rose’s word). ‘Whoa there,’ he’d say, making soothing patting motions with his hands. ‘Let’s cool things down a bit, see if we can find a compromise.’ Or, ‘Let’s see if we can strike a bargain. Who wants what, let’s start with that.’ It drove both Rose and her mother crazy (according to Rose, being infuriated by him was the one and only thing she and her mother had in common). He waded in at school too, Rose said, and it made people want to kill him. But in fact he was pretty good at it, at least in Clara’s opinion. All problems had solutions, according to her father; it was just a question of finding them, and he always did find them in the end. (15-16)

Clara’s mother retires to bed and pays scant attention to Clara. Neither of them tells her the truth about Rose or Mrs Orchard. They were trying to protect her, but it causes her great distress.

Liam finds his way gradually in Solace. Clara visits his house when he is out to feed and play with the cat. He is unaware of the cat and Clara’s visits until he finds her there one evening.  He understands her need for straightforward talking and for her physical world to be consistent. He gets a job with the local carpenter to expedite the fixing of the house, makes friends with the local policeman who is very concerned about Rose’s disappearance, and he becomes a friend to Clara and helps her untangle the mystery of Rose’s whereabouts.

Mrs Orchard’s story felt out of kilter to me. Her episodes are not sequentially placed. She has died in Liam’s section, but we meet her in hospital before that event. She contributed to Liam’s wellbeing, but her story seems over-complicated.

In time, Clara and Liam manage to gain information to track down Rose. We learn what happened to Mrs Orchard. Liam eats pies and drinks coffee and takes up with the librarian who makes excellent ice-cream that you have to dig out of its box with a hammer and chisel. And the cat reveals that it feels at home with Liam.

I did get caught up in the story and wanted to know what would happen next. It is a feelgood book, and it will go down well with book groups, as her previous novel Crow Lake did. Mary Lawson is good at describing her characters so that, for the most part, they are rounded, not tokens. This is particularly true of the secondary characters, an example being Clara’s father quoted above. But we come to be familiar with the man who fixes shingles, the librarian, the woman in the diner, Clara’s school teacher, the policeman and so on.

The town itself is bleak, and well evoked, with the right details. Here is Liam, fresh from Toronto, exploring the town. 

The stores, ranged along the two main streets, consisted of the basics plus a couple of extras aimed at tourists. There was a small grocery store with a liquor store tac ked on the back as if hiding from the authorities, a post office, a bank, a fire station, a Hudson’s Bay store with parkas and snow boots in the window already. …
Set back from the road was an old church graced by a couple of maple trees, and beside it was an equally old primary school. Both looked too big for the town’s needs. They’d be relics, Liam guessed, of the long-ago days when the North with all its riches looked like a place to be if you wanted to get ahead. Nowadays, apart from the lumber, it was probably only the tourists that kept the place alive. (31)

When he thinks about going into a café he finds that both of them are closed. ‘Just after seven on a Thursday evening and the place was a ghost town’. But Solace has human warmth, decent people, with a willingness to pitch in to help those who need it. Liam soon adapts to the ways of the town, helping resolve the mysteries.

A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson, first published in 2021 and in paperback by Vintage. 290pp 

Longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2021

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The Tie That Binds by Kent Haruf

I admire Kent Haruf’s writing greatly, so when I found a copy of his first novel, The Tie That Binds in a second-hand bookshop in Chichester recently I did not hesitate to buy it. I am not alone in my admiration. I was first introduced to his novels by my co-author Eileen. And I was pleased to find that another hero, Ursula le Guin, also rated him very highly. Not quite as polished as his later novels, and a little drawn out in places, I nevertheless found myself gripped by this story of attrition on a farm in Holt, Colorado.

The Tie That Binds

Edith Goodenough (pronounced Good-no) is eighty years old and in hospital, guarded by a police officer, likely to face a charge of murder if she survives. It is 1977. A newspaper man from Denver finds her neighbour Sanders Roscoe and wants some quick, juicy information to flesh out what the police chief has told him. Sanders send him away, because it is impossible to understand Edith without going back to 1896, the year Edith’s parents moved from Iowa to Holt, Colorado, and the year before her birth.

Hating the flashy, quick story of a newspaper, Sanders Roscoe offers to tell us about Edith as if we were across the table from him, drinking our coffee as we listened.

… if a person just wanted to sit down quiet in that chair across the table from me and, since it’s Sunday afternoon, just drink his coffee while I talked, and then if he didn’t want to rush me too much – well, then, I could tell it. I would tell it so it would be all, and I would tell it so it would be right.
Because listen: (13)

We are told of the long connection between the Goodenough and the Roscoe families, from the time that Roy moved with his wife from Iowa to the farm near Holt, Colorado. It is a sad story of Edith, born to a deeply unhappy mother and a domineering father. She had a brother Lyman. The families were neighbours, but as Mrs Roscoe was of first nation descent they kept apart until Mrs Goodenough needed help in childbirth.

After the death of their mother, Edith and Lyman are exploited by their father to help him run the farm. Roy suffers a horrendous machinery accident in which he loses most of his fingers. He becomes dependent upon Edith and her brother to manage the farm. After the old man cuts off his remaining fingers Lyman runs off to see the world. The Roscoe’s son, father of the narrator, must offer help to protect Edith, with whom he is in love. Edith refused to leave her disabled father to marry him. She is bound to him.

Lyman sends back postcards from his travels around the US and an annual wodge of $20 bills to Edith, but he is away for twenty or so years. Roy Goodnough eventually dies. And when his father dies Sanders takes over helping Edith, despite going through a very wild patch himself. The Roscoes are bound as neighbours to provide help. 

When Lyman eventually returns, he and his sister have six good years together before he gets dementia. When Edith can no longer manage her brother she plans a violent and final escape from the farm.

There is much in this story about neighbourliness, community, hardships of farming, growth of the town. But through it runs the requirements of duty, the tie that binds: duty to parents, family and neighbours. All the sympathetic characters understand this, none more than Edith who believes in this very strongly and sacrifices her own happiness and eventual safety to duty. 

By beginning the story more than seventy  years before the drama that the newspaper reporter wanted to capture, Sanders Roscoe is providing a long and deep context for Edith’s actions.

Kent Haruf

Born in 1943, Kent Haruf was 41 before he published The Tie That Binds, his first novel. He had taken on many different jobs in that time, no doubt providing him with insights into the people of Holt, Colorado which was the setting of all six of his novels. 

Writing in her essay in his praise Ursula Le Guin noted that he lived far from the glamour of New York so that he could avoid all the publicity hooha and ideas about literary success:

… he could go on stubbornly being Kent Haruf, doing his job, keeping his defences up. He could go on writing about how hard it is to go on doing what you see as right when you aren’t sure how to do it, or even whether it’s right – how hard we are on one another and ourselves, how hard most of us work, how much we long for and how little we mostly settle for. [p234 from Kent Haruf: Our Souls at Night in Words are my Matter]

The theme she identifies here is appropriate to Edith Goodnough. And also, perhaps, to Sanders Roscoe. It’s hard, this life.

Sanders Roscoe tells his story in a leisurely Sunday afternoon fashion, and in colloquial terms and with engaging detail about the characters. and with real love for Edith. He manages to convey the attrition of Edith’s life, as well as her pleasures and the depth of their friendship. 

The Tie That Binds by Kent Haruf, first published in the US in 1984 and by Picador in the UK in 2002. 246pp

Related Posts on Bookword

Eventide by Kent Haruf from May 2021

Plainsong by Kent Haruf from September 2018

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf from June 2017

He also wrote Benediction and Where you once Belonged.

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The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter 

People displaced by war, people in fear of political imprisonment, people fleeing as a result of colonialization, people are on the move. And they always have been. But it is a feature of our world because politicians and others try to contain them. As a result, many borders are dangerous places: fences, walls and the sea. 

And to leave your country is to gain much, freedom, safety, new opportunities perhaps. But there is always loss, serious loss: language, familiar landscape, music and other cultural opportunities, clothes, family members, friends, dreams, hopes, dignity and more. These losses may be passed on through the generations.

It is not possible to know in advance whether the journey’s difficulties and the losses incurred will outweigh the dangers and costs of remaining. That’s why there is always a dilemma: stay or leave. There will be loss either way.

The Art of Losing is a long novel following one family, from Algeria, over three generations. From a traditional life on an olive farm, they are caught up in the. Was for independence, leave for France, where they have citizenship but little respect, and finally the third generation are making their lives in present day Paris. 

The Art of Losing

The title of this novel is taken from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem One Art, quoted in large part at the end of the novel. With considerable sharpness Elizabeth Bishop claims that the art of losing ‘isn’t hard to master’. 

This is a long novel, in three parts, one for each generation. It begins with Ali, who was decorated for fighting in the French army in the Second World War, and notably at the Battle of Monte Cassino. 

But on his return to Algeria he finds that he must question his loyalty to the French colonial power, and face the dilemma of continued loyalty, and the threats of the growing power and violence of the FLN (National Liberation Front). His main concern is to father a son and then to keep his family safe. He must lose the livelihood the olive farm provided, and much more if he chooses to leave for France.

Ali chooses to become a harki, the derogatory term for an Algerian who supported France during the brutal war for Algerian Independence (1954 – 62). The harki were able to continue to claim French citizenship and expect help when they escaped to mainland France as the war ended. 

The honouring of the harki was permeated by racism by the authorities and the areas where the harki were settled: first terrible refugee camps, later ghetto like cités, slums. Healthcare, education, all services were scant for many years. The focus in this central section is Hamid, Ali’s son, who finds himself defined by his family’s experiences in Algeria. The only way to make a life for himself, Hamid decides, is to escape the cité and leave his family. He visits Paris one summer and stays on with Clarissa, with whom he eventually has four daughters.

Naïma is the focus for the final section. Her uncle is critical of the women of her generation:

They claim they are going there to study. But just look at them: they’re wearing trousers, they’re smoking, drinking, behaving like whores. They’ve forgotten where they come from. (4)

Naïma is Ali’s granddaughter, and she does indeed behave like a modern young woman, but she realises that neither her grandfather, nor her own father have told her much about their history. Her ideas of ‘where she came from’ are confused for she has never been to Algeria. Her own mother is a white French woman and her grandmother only speaks her own dialect. The moment comes when Naïma must discover her own family’s history by visiting Algeria.

The journey is painful and full of discoveries and welcomes. Naïma discovers more about what her family has lost. But this does not lead to a resolution. The novel ends with this sentence:

At the moment when I chose to end this text, she has not arrived anywhere, she is movement, she is travelling. (469)

Alice Zeniter has shown us the dilemmas, turmoil and unresolved issues resulting from colonialism (in France, but also everywhere), which affected (and still effects) so many people in the world and she has given her readers understanding of these as human stories through Ali and his family. Sure, there are policy issues, historical economic, demographic problems to be resolved from movements of peoples, but above all the questions they pose are human, too often problems of human tragedy. No wonder the prestigious (and lucrative) International Dublin Literary Award was given to Alice Zeniter and her translator Frank Wynne this year. It’s a remarkable and superb book.

The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter, first published in French in 2017. The English translation from the French by Frank Wynne was published by Picador in 2021. 472pp. Winner of the International Dublin Literary Award for 2022.

Other recommended winners of the International Dublin Literary Award:

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (2021)

Milkman by Anna Burns (2020)

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker (2010)

Out Stealing Horses by Per Pettersen (2007)

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School for Love by Olivia Manning

This short novel has been on the Older Women in Fiction list for some time, years. On holiday in Sussex recently I spotted a copy in a second-hand bookshop, supporting the Roman Archaeology at Fishbourne. And, because I associate Olivia Manning with the rather fearful idea of double trilogies, I was surprised and pleased at how accessible it was. It cost me all of £2.

This is the 59th novel in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the link at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to those I have reviewed on Bookword Blog.

School for Love

At one level School for Love is a coming-of-age novel, as the central character is a 14- or 15-year-old boy. We are never told his exact age. His family was living in Iraq, but his father was killed in fighting there in the war, and soon after his mother died of dysentery. Felix has to travel from Baghdad to Jerusalem in the early days of 1945, where it has been arranged for him to stay with Miss Bohun until he can get a passage from Palestine (as it then was) to England. Miss Bohun is loosely related to his father by adoption.

The pension where he is accommodated has a very varied set of people living there. This reflects the movement of people through the Middle East during the war years. Frau Leszno and her handsome son Nikky are from Poland. They had been running the pension but got into financial difficulties. Miss Bohun arranged for them to stay on as servants, while she took over. There is old Mr Jewel in the attic, and later Mrs Ellis, a pregnant young widow, who take rooms. One room in the house is always kept empty, but ready.

Very much on his own in this adult household, Felix grieves for his mother and learns to think about a life without her. He observes the behaviour of the adults and is inclined at first to credit them with good motives. Gradually he learns that they mostly have mixed motives. He develops a kind of puppy love for Mrs Ellis, which at first she indulges, but then tires of. And he learns about how sex is viewed. And he learns to love the Siamese cat, Faro, who seems to be the only creature who pays any attention to him in all the world. 

It is thanks to the scheming and comings and goings at Miss Bohun’s house that Felix gradually learns something that is encapsulated in the title of the novel: School for Love. Mrs Ellis quotes Blake to him:

And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love … (166)

Felix asks her what the lines mean.

‘I suppose it means that life is a sort of school for love.’ (166)

Another major theme of the novel is that of the time and place: Jerusalem at the end of the Second World War. The hostilities end in Europe in the summer months that Felix spends in the city. People are on the move. And the young Palestinians are waiting to regain their country from the British Protectorate. Israel does not yet exist. The novel captures the sense of a year of change, and a year after which things will become very different in Jerusalem. There is a quiet theme of the destructiveness of British colonial power, and the uncaring behaviour of the administrators. 

Miss Bohun

My interest was in the characterisation of Miss Bohun. She is almost a comedy villain, but not quite. For she does hurt people. As we see her through the eyes of Felix, we are at first inclined to treat her as slightly eccentric, but basically kind, as she has provided a home for him when no one else would. But a conversation about the rent and her treatment of Frau Leszno are early warnings for the reader. 

When Felix first meets her he is struck by how tiny this woman is. He has arrived just after a snowfall and expresses his pleasure at the snow.

‘You wouldn’t think so if you had to do the housework.’ Miss Bohun moved ahead with irritable quickness so Felix could not keep up with her. She paused on the stairs. Her face – featureless, like a long egg, in the gloom: her hair the same colour as her skin – was turned towards him but Felix was sure she was not looking at him.
‘I’m so busy,’ she said. (10)

And she leaves him abruptly. 

It emerges that Miss Bohun has many schemes for apparently doing kindnesses to people, but then exploiting them and kicking them out. She appears to be something of a miser, but generous when there is an advantage to her. 

She teaches English to adults, while getting them to do jobs for her, like harvesting the mulberries. These scenes are among the most comedic in the book.

Among her most arcane occupations are the ‘Ever-Readies’. This is something of a cult that flourished in the Middle East, a cult that expected the second coming any day. It is for this purpose that Miss Bohun keeps her empty room. She holds some kind of office and is often just off to preach to the group she calls ‘my Ever-Readies.’

Gradually the reader, and then Felix, come to see that Miss Bohun is not a nice character. But as Felix gets ready to leave, she is prepared to let him take the cat and she is about to take in Mr Jewel again. Felix has managed to track down the old man’s inheritance, but Miss Bohun is taking the credit for this. Miss Bohun’s behaviour towards the very young Mrs Ellis, pregnant and alone, is quite terrible. 

One explanation for Miss Bohun’s monstrous character is provided by Mr Jewel: no-one has ever loved her.

Olivia Manning

Born in 1908, Olivia Manning spent her childhood in Portsmouth and Ireland. In 1939 she was introduced to her husband, and they married and immediately left for Romania where he worked in the British Council. She spent the war years moving from Romania to Greece, on to Egypt and finally to Jerusalem where she spent three years. Their itinerant life was determined by the advances of the German and the Axis armies in the area. She fictionalised her experiences in the six volumes that make up The Fortunes of War.

She and her husband returned to London after the war where she continued to be a very prolific writer. She was always rather a diffident person and envied the recognition given to other writers. She died in 1980.

School for Love by Olivia Manning, first published in 1951. I used the Penguin edition from 1982. 192pp

A new edition was published by NYRB in 2009 which has a very lovely and fitting cover.

Related posts

The Bookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here.

JacquiWine’s blog review can be read here. She describes Miss Bohun as ‘a manipulative monster’.

HeavenAli’s review refers to Miss Bohun’s behaviour as ‘monstrous’. You can find that review here.

Stuck In a Book blog also reviews this novel, here.

These three bloggers were contributing to the 1951 Club, featuring books published that year.

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Stitching up the Patriarchy

Feminism can be hard work sometimes, but when it involves collaboration, creativity and wit it can also be joyous. I have been rediscovering some creative ways in which women have been challenging the patriarchy. It began with a recently published book and took me back to an experience in the 1980s that has been very influential, and on the way, I had occasion to revisit a quilting exhibition, the Magna Carta and to remember Vienna.

Unravelling Women’s Art

For several years I have been following the twitter account of #WomensArt (@womensart1) because all kinds of imaginative visual treats are available: ethnic art, weaving, crochet, tapestry, quilting, painting and more. Her recent book discusses women’s textile art and covers a great deal of ground. The chapter that I enjoyed most was the Politics and Textile Arts featuring many acts of activism (craftism). She features women suffrage campaigners, Sojourner Truth, quilters from many projects, including the Broken Treaty Quilts of Gina Adams, banner makers, rug weavers and embroiderers.

Unravelling Women’s Art: Creators, Rebels & Innovators in Textile Arts by PL Henderson, published by Supernova Books in 2021. 279pp

Judy Chicago and The Dinner Party

Of course, PL Henderson’s book refers to Judy Chicago’s installation The Dinner Party. For anyone unaware of this seminal work, it is a combination of ceramics and needlecraft, displayed on a huge triangular table, set with individual places for 39 women, and with the names of many more women written on the ceramic floor.

I saw this work when it was displayed in White Lion Street in Islington, probably in the early 1980s. It was so impressive: a collaborative piece, a celebration, a display of superb needlework and ceramics, and an affirmative experience as well as a visual treat. It can be seen today at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.

A review of Judy Chicago’s second volume of autobiography, The Flowering: The Autobiography of Judy Chicago(2021) in a recent edition of LRB, and PL Henderson’s remarks, sent me back to my copies of the two catalogues that accompanied the exhibition.

The Dinner Party: a symbol of our heritage by Judy Chicago (1979) published by Anchor Books. 256pp

The Dinner Party Needlework by Judy Chicago (1980) published by Anchor Books. 288pp

Quilting

An exhibition of quilting at the V&A, before Lockdowns, was another treat. The exhibition featured quilts from many parts of the world, from different times, and made by different people for different reasons. One I recall was a coverlet made in Changi Prison by 20 Girl Guides in 1943. They secretly made 72 rosettes out of any scraps they could find around the camp, and the girls signed and embroidered the central hexagons. 

That exhibition was very enjoyable, attended by so many women interested in the construction, stitch work, materials used, and the context of the quilts on display. Many members of my family are quilters, excellent quilters, and so are some of my friends. They have different styles and techniques, and use different colour schemes. I love their creativity.

Magna Carta

So much of the needle craft I have referred to is created collaboratively. This was the case for a splendid work displayed at the British Library in 2015, celebrating the 800th year of the Magna Carta. I wrote a post about it, which you can read here.

It was the brainchild of Cornelia Parker, whose work I very much admire. And these aspects of the 13-metre-long embroidery of the Magna Carta’s wikipedia page appealed to me:

  1. The aesthetic pleasure of the embroidery itself. Even the underside gives needlewomen great pleasure. 
  2. The democratic nature of the enterprise, celebrating the combined efforts of many to secure the rights and freedoms of the people of the UK and beyond. Most of the stitching was done by prisoners (see Fine Cell Work website below).
  3. The work was created by and realises the principles of freedom, collaboration, creativity and democracy.
  4. Our Human Rights Act is in danger
  5. Needlework can be a political act.
  6. Words have power. Ideas have power. Words, and embroidery carry ideas. 

I can’t find out where the embroidery is now. The ideas it represents are more important than ever.

Vienna woolbombing

And one of my favourite surprising, joyous, and creative activities is yarn bombing. Here’s an example I came across in Vienna in 2012.

Knitting

Sue Montgomery is a Canadian Mayor who liked to knit during meetings. She knitted in red when men spoke and green when women spoke. She tweeted her first day’s results in May 2019. 

I knit in city council because it helps me to concentrate. Tonight I decided to knit in red when men spoke; green for women. Day 1 results. #reclaiminghertime #women power #listen

Sue Montgomery – knitting/talking

More embroidery

I bought this wall hanging in Zimbabwe, soon after Independence. I love the way it depicts so many of women’s roles.

I could have mentioned the banners made for the suffragette marches before the First World War. Can anyone recommend a good book about them? 

And I remember seeing a great deal of textile art at Greenham Common. But again, I have no resources on them. Recommendations please.

Related posts

Stitching up our Rights (Magna Carta)

As good as a Book in Bayeux (Bayeux Tapestry) 

Inspired by the Writings of Virginia Woolf (an exhibition in Chichester 2019)

Fine Cell Work (hand made in prison)

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Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022

And the winner is …

The Book of Form & Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

Congratulations to the winner.

I posted my review of the winning book a few days ago, full of its praises. You can find that post here.

27 years of the Women’s Prize

Here are forty-two brilliant books, all written by women, from the short- and long-list for this year and all the previous winners. I have included links to the books I have reviewed on Bookword Blog. 

The six shortlisted books for 2022:

  •  Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
  •  Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
  •  The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki
  •  The Bread the Devil Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini
  •  The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak
  •  The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

The sixteen longlisted books in 2022:

Previous winners of the women’s fiction prize. 

Susanna Clarke: Piranesi (2021)

Maggie O’FarrellHamnet (2020)

Tayari Jones: An American Marriage (2019)

Kamila Shamsie: Home Fire  (2018)

Naomi Alderman: The Power (2017)

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies (2016)

Ali Smith: How to be Both (2015)

Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2014)

A.M. Homes: May We Be Forgiven (2013)

Madeline Miller: The Song of Achilles (2012)

Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife (2011)

Barbara Kingsolver: The Lacuna (2010)

Marilynne Robinson: Home (2009)

Rose Tremain: The Road Home (2008)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun (2007)

Zadie Smith: On Beauty (2006)

Lionel Shriver: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005)

Andrea Levy: Small Island (2004)

Valerie Martin: Property (2003)

Ann Patchett: Bel Canto (2002)

Kate Grenville: The Idea of Perfection (2001)

Linda Grant: When I Lived in Modern Times (2000)

Suzanne Berne: A Crime in the Neighbourhood (1999)

Carol Shields: Larry’s Party (1998)

Anne Michaels: Fugitive Pieces (1997) 

Helen Dunmore: A Spell of Winter (1996)

Here is the link to the website of the Women’s Prize for Fiction: https://womensprizeforfiction.co.uk

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The Book of Form & Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

I loved reading this book. Previously I had read and hugely enjoyed A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. It was a great pleasure to settle down with her new novel for hours at a time. But I have been puzzled about how to present it on this blog. It is so full of ideas, of writing skill, of adventurousness, of themes that resonate with our predicaments at the moment that I haven’t known where to start. 

The Book of Form & Emptiness

Perhaps a good place to start is with the story, for the narrative drive is strong in this book, despite everything else she gives us. Benny Oh is twelve when his father dies, killed by a rubbish truck in the alley behind his house. Benny lives in a city near the Pacific coast of the US. Locations in this novel are vague, unlike the timeframe: Trump’s election as President features, for example. But we are never given the name of the city Benny inhabits.

Benny’s father was a Korean-Japanese jazz clarinettist. His mother is Annabelle, who works as a scissors woman, clipping newspapers for a media organisation. Benny is mixed race, and one theme of the novel is how he negotiates this in present day America. 

Grief overcomes mother and son. Benny hears voices, or rather voices speak to Benny, things speak to Benny, but he resists them. The scissors that tell him to stab his teacher, for example, he can only resist by stabbing himself. This reaction brings Benny to the attention of his school’s mental health services.

The significance of things, what they mean to us, their existence, their connection to the environmental problems of our world, these are also important themes of this novel. Annabelle becomes something of a hoarder, packing her news clippings in plastic bags, keeping Kenji’s shirts to make a memory quilt, storing her craft materials in the bath until the flat is stuffed with things and the only tidy space is Benny’s bedroom.

Then a little book, Tidy Magic: The Ancient Zen Art of Clearing Your Clutter and Revolutionizing Your Life, jumps into her shopping trolley one day, and leads her, and us, into a different world of ideas about things, especially domestic possessions. Ruth Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest. 

Meanwhile Benny’s behaviour having attracted the attention of child psychiatrists, means he spends time in a Pedpsych ward where he meets the Alef (see Jorge Luis Borges’s short story) who is following in the path of the Fluxus avant-garde art movement. I looked that one up too. One of the Alef’s messages takes Benny to the Library, where much of this novel is located. Here he meets the B-Man who is a Slavic poet in a wheelchair, the small librarian, and even Ruth Ozeki who is typing away in a remote corner of the library. 

An older woman sat in the other [carrel], typing very fast on her laptop computer. She looked to be in her fifties or sixties, part Asian like him, maybe, with black-framed glasses and gray-streaked hair. She must have sensed his presence, because she lifted her head and looked at him, and all the while her fingers typed on, never pausing. (141-2)

And now a word about one of the narrators

Some of the story is told by an omniscient narrator, where it concerns Annabelle’s actions, or slips into the concerns of the doctors, or librarians, or retells the life of the Zen Buddhist priest Aikon, who wrote Tidy Magic.

But Benny’s story is told to him by his Book. Benny introduces it:

Shhh … Listen!
That’s my Book, and it’s talking to you. Can you hear it?
It’s okay if you can’t, though. It’s not your fault. Things speak all the time, but if your ears aren’t attuned, you have to learn to listen.
You can start by using your eyes because eyes are easy. Look at all the things around you. What do you see? A book, obviously, and obviously the book is speaking to you, so try something more challenging.  … (3)

And the Book continues to tell Benny’s story, from Kenji’s death to the final pages which are a collaboration between Benny and his narrator some 500 pages later.

The novel is full of ideas about books, quotations from Walter Benjamin, including the story of his final, lost book as he fled from the Nazis to Spain; about the physicality of ‘real’ books; about writing and the writer (think the woman in the carrel in the library) and the reader; and about finding one’s feet in a shifting and dangerous world.

For example, Slavoj, the Slavic bottle-man ,who is writing an epic poem called Earth, tells Benny about writing poetry:

“Let me tell you something about poetry, young schoolboy. Poetry is a problem of form and emptiness. Ze moment I put one word onto an empty page, I haf created a problem for myself. Ze poem that emerges is form, trying to find a solution to my problem.”: He sighed. “In ze end, of course, there are no solutions. Only more problems, but this is a good thing. Without problems, there would be no poems.” (276-7)

We have taken in some jazz, some theories of poetry, the randomness of Fluxus, ideas about connectedness, and the ecological dangers we have created for ourselves. And I haven’t even mentioned the crows.

Ruth Ozeki has explained her title by reference to impermanence and interconnection in this interview extract:

The phrase “form and emptiness” comes from the Heart Sutra, one of the core Mahayana Buddhist texts. The line we chant is “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” Emptiness, in this sense, refers to impermanence, and the way all things, all beings, are impermanent and exist in a perpetual state of interdependent flux, or dependent co-arising. None of us—human beings, animals, insects, books, stones, trees—has a fixed, essential self or identity independent of everything and everyone else, and this sense of interconnectedness is, I think, what Benny comes to appreciate in the novel. His relationship with his mother. His relationships with his friends. His relationship with his book. [From the Lion’s Roar, Buddhist Wisdom for our Time, an interview with Nancy Chu. September 2021]

There is so much in this book, so many ideas, such a call for the recognition and importance of difference and connection that I would like to encourage readers to pick it up and enjoy it as I did. This generous novel seems to be bursting out of its pages. 

Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki: WikiCommons LMU Library: 2016

Born in 1956, Ruth Ozeki was brought up in Connecticut. Like Benny she has mixed parentage. She has worked in film and has now published four award-winning novels and a short memoir. Since 2010 has been a Zen Buddhist priest. She teaches creative writing at Smith College.

The Book of Form & Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki published in 2021, by Canongate. 546pp

Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022.

Related post

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (November 2013)

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Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout 

The title of this novel is like a sigh of exasperation, borne out of familiarity. The sigh is repeated many times by Lucy Barton, the narrator of this novel. Lucy is a novelist, and Elizabeth Strout has already presented two novels narrated by her: My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible. Both these have been reviewed on Bookword (see below).

Elizabeth Strout enjoys revisiting her characters, developing their stories forwards or backwards to reflect further on their lives. She has also done it with Olive Kitteridge. However, knowledge of the previous two novels ‘by Lucy Barton’ is not necessary to enjoy Oh William! In this novel she is primarily focused on William Gerhardt, Lucy’s first husband.

Oh William!

William and Lucy were once married, and since their divorce both have remarried, William twice. At the time of the story, they are almost 70 years old. They have two daughters, now grown up, and remain on cordial terms. The action of this novel begins when William’s third wife leaves him unexpectedly, and when he discovers that his mother had hidden a family secret from him. He discovers this through a heredity website soon after Estelle left. The discovery leads William and Lucy on a road trip to Maine to check it out.

Before we get to this point in the novel, we have learned quite a bit about their back stories, in particular their married life, and their subsequent marriages. Both have been profoundly influenced by their childhood experiences: Lucy by the poverty of her home and the distance from her parents; William by his relationship with his mother, and her marriage to his father. There are some interesting contrasts: Lucy’s father experienced PSTD as a result of his experiences in Europe in the Second World War. William’s father was a German pow sent to the US.

The trip to Maine takes us into the decline of rural America; everywhere is closed, towns are deserted, farms abandoned, diners few and far between. The contrast with New York and their lives in the city could hardly be greater. 

We passed a sign that said: Welcome to Friendly Fort Fairfield.
William leaned forward to peer through the windshield. “Jesus Christ,” he said.
I said, “Yeah. My God.”
Everything in the town was closed. There was not a car on the street, and there was a place that said Village Commons – an entire building – with a sign on it: FOR LEASE. There was a big First National Bank with pillars; it had planks nailed across its doors. Store after store had been boarded up. Only a small post office by the end of Main Street seemed open. There was a river that ran behind Main Street. 
“Lucy, what happened?”
“I have no idea.” But it was a really spooky place. Not a coffee shop, not a dress store or drugstore, there was absolutely nothing open in that town, and we drove back up Main Street again where there was not a car in sight, and then we left. (133-4)

The theme of desolation continues. When William finally catches up with his mother’s secret, it is Lucy, not William, who investigates further.

The lives of these two are bound up through shared experiences, their children and a familiarity and affection that has remained. They both must come to terms with the departure of their most recent partners. In Lucy’s case this is her second husband who died, whereas Estelle, the mother of William’s third daughter, has moved in with another man. They are making sense of their lives through their understanding of the past, and their grasp of their parents’ histories too. 

Judgement about their lives will be left to the reader, as the opening sentence makes clear. 

I would like to say a few things about my first husband. (3)

There will be no judgement, it seems. She concludes

But we are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean.

This may be the only thing in the world I know to be true. (237)

That Lucy is telling William’s story feels right.

Because I am a novelist, I have to write this almost like a novel, but it is true – as true as I can make it. And I want to say – oh, it is difficult to know what to say! But when I report something about William it is because he told it to me or because I saw it with my own eyes. (4-5)

The novel is narrated as if we were sitting next to Lucy on a sofa. The style is conversational, but thoughtful too. One of Elizabeth Strout’s skills is revealed in that long extract: moving the action along through everyday speech. She is also excellent at detail. William peering through the windshield, the large bank now boarded up. We learn about his clothes (trousers that are too short) and his mannerisms (stroking his moustache). These details are again everyday, and they lend the story a certain pathos. 

Like all her novels, this is a very readable book, and one which respects the reader, and appeals to our imaginations. 

A word about the cover: I have the paperback edition, and I am charmed by the image on the front cover, especially the addition of gold and red to enhance the details. The inside cover is also very charming and a contrast of a rural scene to the Manhattan skyline of the front cover. No credit is given to the designer. 

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout, first published in 2021. I used the Penguin paperback edition. 240pp

Related posts:

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (March 2017)

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (February 2018)

Also

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (June 2016)

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (August 2020)

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