Monthly Archives: April 2018

Who was Changed and Who was Dead by Barbara Comyns

So there’s this odd family, the Willoweeds, who live in a village some time around 1900. Things happen and after that some of them are changed and some of them are dead.

Many readers have enjoyed this short novel since it was published in 1954. I have seen it called idiosyncratic, biblical, quirky, dark, surreal, strange, macabre. Is it a fairy tale? Or an allegory? It’s certainly engaging.

The story of Who was Changed and Who was Dead

The focus of the short novel is the Willoweed family who live in a big house in a village near a river. Grandmother Willoweed dominates the village, although she has taken an oath not to set foot on land that is not hers. This creates a problem when she must attend a funeral, but it is solved by putting her in a boat. The title implies that the reader will see how this family are affected by events.

Here is how the novel opens.

Time: Summer about seventy years ago

Place: Warwickshire

Chapter I

The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night. (1)

So from the start, the world is awry. The time is also awry, for the book was published in 1954, which would put the action in the late 1880s according to the heading. But the novel also takes place in 1911, coinciding with the coronation of George V. Time and place are awry. So is the Willoweed family.

The grandmother has a forked tongue and a nasty, selfish personality. Her son Ebin is disappointed and disappointing, having been sacked from his post as a journalist, cheated on by his wife who then died giving birth to her third child. Ebin is cowed by his mother, and unkind to his children. He ignores Emma, the oldest, takes every opportunity to belittle Dennis, and makes a favourite of Hattie, who is not his daughter. The household also includes a pair of sisters, long-suffering maids and Old Ivor, who owns the ducks and looks after the gardens and is determined to outlive Grandmother.

Following the flood, which causes chaos, kills livestock and changes the appearance of everything, more troubles assail the village. Villagers begin dying, experiencing painful and maniacal episodes before death, symptoms of ergot poisoning, associated with rye flour. In the village various people are afflicted, including the baker’s lascivious wife. One of the maids becomes pregnant, but is able to pass off a miscarriage as an episode of the same illness that afflicts the villagers. At Willoweed House little Dennis succumbs.

After so many goings on, so many funerals, so many escape attempts, so much affliction and falling in love, conversion and boredom, it is rather disappointing that the novel concludes with Emma adopting a conventional and happy life in Kensington. The young doctor who attends the family falls for her and they get married, despite the opposition of the old woman.

Reading Who was Changed and Who was Dead

One of the delights of reading Who was Changed and Who was Deadis the descriptive and imaginative power of Barbara Comyns’s writing. Here are some of the guests at Grandmother’s annual birthday whist drive.

Grandmother Willoweed always declared the clergyman took opium, perhaps because he rather resembled a Chinaman. His mother was a little frightened bird of a woman, who held her twisted claw-like hands clasped near her face as if she was praying. This made it rather difficult for her to play cards and they would fall around her like petals from a dying flower. The three old maids from Roary Court would come on their tricycles. Their pet billy goat would trot behind them as they rode down the village street, and they would tether him where he could be seen from the drawing-room window. (23)

The hostess receives her guests.

Grandmother Willoweed wore a magenta gown trimmed with black lace, and on her head three purple plumes attached to a piece of dusty velvet. The magenta gown was split in several places; but she considered it was the general effect that mattered. (24)

And the story moves on at a good pace. There is no lingering over events, not the butcher’s suicide, the appearance of Doctor Hatt’s splendid new yellow car, the many funerals nor the illnesses in the village.

I experience the events of Who was Changed and Who was Deadas a child might, to whom nothing is strange or remarkable; things happen or don’t and the world just goes on turning. Events succeed events, some are linked and some are not. Some are changed and some are dead.

Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns (1907 – 1992) was brought up in Warwickshire on the banks of the River Avon in Bidford-on-Avon. She wrote many novels, published after the Second World War, perhaps the best known being Our Spoons Came from Woolworths(1950) and The Vet’s Daughter(1959).

Here is the link to the review on HeavenAli’s blog that led me to read this novel.

And here’s another enthusiastic review, this one by Simon on Vulpes Libris.

Who was changed and who was deadby Barbara Comyns, published in 1954. I read the Virago Modern Classic edition, published in 1987, with an introduction by Ursula Holden. 146pp

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The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

This post about The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy celebrates the birthday of another neglected female writer. Born on 23rdApril 1896 Margaret Kennedy was well known between the wars. Her most famous, even infamous, novel was The Constant Nymph. It was made into a stage play, a silent movie, and two further film adaptations in 1933 and 1943. Among people I asked, the book is well known but not well read.

The story of The Constant Nymph

Albert Sanger is a composer who dominates his family. He has rejected England and has taken his Circus, mistress and seven children of two marriages, to live in the Austrian Tyrol. The children grow up rather wild, living a life of freedom, running away, swearing, bathing in the nude, on familiar terms with adults.

Lewis Dodd is a composer as well as a disciple, who also enjoys the unpredictable Sanger family life. During Lewis’s visit Sanger dies and the Circus is broken up. Florence, the aunt of some of the children, arrives to resolve the issue of what to do about the children. The two older children go off to earn their living, and four of the younger ones, Pauline, Sebastien, Teresa and Antonia, are to be taken in by their mother’s family. But Antonia, who has recently returned from a short visit to Munich, where she lost her virginity with Jacob Birnbaum, decides instead to marry Jacob.

Lewis falls for Florence struck by the order and control in her life. She in turn is attracted to the bohemianism she finds. They marry quickly and organise the remaining children into schools in England.

Although initially in awe of Florence, her poise, her capable manner, the children find school impossible and run away to find Lewis, the only sympathetic person they know. By now it has become clear that Teresa although only fourteen is in love with Lewis.

With so many conflicting outlooks, in particular the cultivated versus the bohemian, relationships do not work out well. Florence soon comes to distrust Teresa, and then becomes jealous of her. Lewis will not conform to her life and expectations for him, and comes to disregard her.

Over time the love grows between Lewis and Teresa, becomes acknowledged, feared and finally overtakes them all.

Reading The Constant Nymph

The contrasts and tensions that play out in this novel begin with the title. A nymph, after all, is not normally regarded as constant, more as a flighty creature. But Teresa is steadfast in her affection for Lewis. She is presented as naïve and innocent in this.

Even when she has had some contact with the civilising influence of school and London she remains innocent as her uncle observes.

He found her very entertaining. Her way of talking had a turn that was at once innocent and shrewd, infantile and yet full of observations, adorned with quaint, half literary idiom, and full of inflections borrowed from other languages. She was refreshing, after a long surfeit of cultural provincialism. He saw ignorance in her, and childishness and a good deal of untutored passion, but of pose there was no trace and she was without small sentimentalities or rancours. (251)

The novel explores the many contrasts between convention and nature, art and practicality, and above all education in the proper ways of cultured society and the acceptance of feelings as an honest basis for action.

And, as the extract suggests, the tensions are not only between the characters, but also within them. Florence, for example, is the epitome of acceptable culture, but is challenged by her attraction to Lewis the composer, and by the children’s lack of appreciation of the proper way to do things. Lewis only begins composing again when Florence brings order to his life through their marriage, but he loathes her conformity and longs for the anarchism of the Sanger Circus.

The bohemian household of the domineering Sanger in The Constant Nymphreminds us of the notorious arrangements of the artists Augustus John and Eric Gill. Forty years later, in 1968 Elizabeth Taylor portrayed a similar household in The Wedding Group.

And what challenges accepted norms more than the sexual transgressions of bohemians? This is the core of the novel. Teresa’s sister Antonia had just escaped social opprobrium. She was sixteen when she ran off with Jacob, so not a minor, and they were pressured into marriage. In contrast, Teresa is fifteen when she and Lewis abscond, and he is already married. Although we are invited to have sympathy for their rather innocent involvement (he has not ‘made her his mistress’ before they leave England) Margaret Kennedy was not able to allow them to continue with their misadventure. However the failure of their escapade will bring no satisfaction to anyone.

The description of Jacob Birnbaum, who is frequently referred to as a Jew, is shocking, and of its time. He is a generous and perceptive person, who supports his wife and friends in practical and emotional ways. But his portrayal, and that of some of other characters are of stereotypes. Linda the slatternly mistress of Albert Sanger, the fat Russian choreographer Trigorin and even Sanger himself are much less nuanced as characters than Lewis, Florence and Teresa. Margaret Kennedy demonstrates psychological insight into the conflicts of these characters.

This novel deserves to be better known, even if we are less shocked by some of the activities of the children, instead would condemn Lewis and his self indulgences.

Margaret Kennedy

Margaret Kennedy, Smithsonian Institute via WikiCommons

Born in 1896 Margaret attended Cheltenham Ladies College and then shared her time at Somerville with Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby, Hilda Reid and Naomi Mitchison among others. Her first book was a history book and she went on to write 15 novels. She died in1967.

Related posts

Jane on beyondedenrock blog posted A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authorswhich caught my eye. I support her suggestion that we celebrate birthdays of the more neglected women writers.

The Constant Nymphby Margaret Kennedy, first published in 1924. I used the edition published by Vintage in 2014, with an Introduction by Joanna Briscoe. 362pp

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Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

Born in 1893 Vera Brittain struggled against her father’s opposition when she applied to study at Oxford. She gained a place and began her studies, but the First World War broke out and all the young men she knew and cared about had to decide whether to join up. During the Great War she lost her lover, her brother and their circle of friends and worked as a Red Cross VAD in London, Malta and northern France. By the time the war ended in 1918 her world was utterly different and her youth ‘smashed up’.

In the ‘70s, when I first read Testament of Youth women were coming to understand that the personal is political, and reading Vera Brittain helped me to see that history is personal and political. She wrote this in the Foreword to the autobiographical study:

Only, I felt, by some attempt to write history in terms of personal life could I rescue something that might be of value, some element of truth and hope and usefulness, from the smashing up of my own youth by the war. (11)

Testament of Youth is my choice for the 1930s in the Decades Project on Bookword.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

The book’s subtitle is: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925. Vera Brittain’s childhood was mostly spent in Buxton, in a middle class family with limited expectations of young women. She wished to study at Oxford but had to battle with her father about this before being ultimately successful and awarded an exhibition at Somerville. She took her place to read English Literature, but then the First World War broke out and everything changed.

She lost her lover Roland Leighton in the first months, two more friends from their circle in the next two years and her brother in Italy in 1918. She decided to join the Red Cross VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachment) partly to match the potential sacrifices of her circle but also to do something meaningful and distracting while those she cared for were at The Front.

copyright held by British Red Cross and used with permission.

She began nursing in London, volunteered to serve overseas in Malta following Roland’s death, and finally at Etaples in northern France, close to the action. She returned to work in London in the final months of the war. Following her brothers death in June 1918 and with no one else to lose she described the final months.

And now there were no more disasters to dread and no friends left to wait for; with the ending of apprehension had come a deep nullifying blankness, a sense of walking in a thick mist which hid all sights and muffled all sounds. I had no further experience to gain from the War; nothing remained except to endure it. (458)

After the war she returned to Oxford, where she found her experiences were ignored as she describes in a chapter called Survivors not Welcome. Until she met Winifred Holtby she found life very hard, but their friendship brought new direction to her life and following graduation they planned to earn their living writing and lecturing. They shared flats and campaigning activities, often travelling abroad to find facts for the League of Nations Union. And finally she began a correspondence with an academic specialising in politics. George Caitlin is not mentioned by name. She married him in 1933 and survived until 1970.

‘Smashing up my youth’

The cost of the war for Vera Brittain was very high indeed, and her enduring pain is very evident to the reader. To reveal some of this she draws on the many letters her circle wrote to each other, and also her own poetry. Her poem To My Brother provided the title for the only collection I know of First World War poetry by women. (see below).

Your battle wounds are scars upon my heart … (434)

Her analysis includes the cost of the loss of so many men to public life in the1920s. Writing near the end of the book she recalls the situation in 1924 as she travelled through Europe, and wrote this about the rebuilding of civilisation after the war.

… the men who might, in co-operation with the women who were not too badly impaired by shock and anxiety, have contributed most to its recovery, the first-rate courageous men with initiative and imagination, had themselves gone down in the Flood, and their absence now meant failure and calamity in every department of human life. Perhaps, after all, the best we who were left could do was refuse to forget, and to teach our successors what we remembered in the hope that they, when their own day came would have more power to change the state of the world than this bankrupt, shattered generation. (645-6).

Testament of Youth was published in 1933. In 1939 Britain was again at war.

It’s a long book and very detailed about her state of mind and her many experiences over its 25 year span. Her reactions to the treatment of VADs, her experiences of nursing wounded soldiers, including German prisoners, are vivid and shocking.

Her feminism is evident throughout and set against the wider context, especially of events in Europe during and after the war. Her struggle to get into Oxford against her father’s wishes, becomes almost insignificant once the war began. But she was still summoned home to care for her mother towards the end of the war, the duty of the daughter. After the war she notes that she was, for a while, a ‘surplus woman’ but writes to Winifred Holtby that she does not regret her single status.

Her friendship with Winifred Holtby is like a gold thread in the account of her post-war years, a new friendship that supported her writing ambitions and political involvement and thawed her emotional state.

Testament of Youth Lives on

Testament of Youth is a book that seems to be rediscovered every 30 or 40 years. In 1979 it was serialised in five parts on BBC tv with Cheryl Campbell in the main role. In 2014 a film was made with Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain.

Robert McCrum put Testament of Youth as #42 on list of 100 best nonfiction books of all time in the Guardian. Here’s his assessment from November 2016.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, first published in 1933. I used the edition published by Fontana in 1979. 661pp

The Scars upon my Heart collected and edited by Catherine Reilly published Virago in 1981. I drew on this collection in a post on women’s poetry of the Great War.

The Decades Project

For 2018 I decided to find non-fiction by women for each decade in the project having focused on novels in 2017. I select one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc). Suggestions are always welcome.

Here are the links to the first three books in the Decades Project:

Ms Jekyll and her Garden (1900-9) and

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst (1914)

Another look at A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1928)

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Image credit: copyright held by British Red Cross and used with permission.

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The 1977 Club: Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

There are no sweet old people in Quartet in Autumn. Barbara Pym takes an unflinching look at two women and two men as they end their working lives, and face their futures in London in the late 1970s. All four are single. All four have small lives.

I originally read and reviewed this book for the Older Women in Fiction series on this blog. It was the 17thin that series that now has more than 30 contributions. What follows is a reworking of the original post. It’s my contribution to the 1977 club, hosted by Kaggsy’sBookishRamblings and StuckinaBook.

The Story of Quartet in Autumn

The quartet share an office and are dispensable. We never find out the purpose of their jobs or the nature of the business in which they work. Whatever it is, computers will replace them. We are introduced to the foursome through their lunchtime habits and learn something of the smallness of their lives as they contemplate the prospects for their summer holidays. Their plans reveal that their connections to the world outside the office are almost non-existent. Edwin has church activities, and Letty a widowed school friend with whom she plans to live when she retires. Marcia always spends her leave at home.

Change moves slowly through their lives. The women retire and Letty’s plans to join her friend fall apart. Edwin and Norman miss the women as they wait for their own retirement but take their time to invite them to lunch.

In retirement Marcia retreats into her house, continuing to neglect it, the garden and her self. She has recently undergone surgery and the focus of her life is her visits to the surgeon, Mr Strong. She is a troubling older woman, ill and somewhat odd. She cherishes her milk bottle collection. She troubles the voluntary social worker who has decided to take her on. Janice, a do-gooder, is determined to get her to become more connected to other older people and is unable to understand Marcia’s resistance.

However, she is not cut off entirely having perceived Norman’s lack of resources to deal with life while they worked together. Her kind bequest releases him from his retirement difficulties and makes choice and change possible for him. Her death brings together the other three for only the second time since the women retired.

Ultimately Letty learns that her friend Marjorie has been jilted and now wishes to revive their plans of cohabiting. She has a choice of where to live for the first time and understands that this means she is significant in the lives of others. It is Letty who will do best in this quartet, for she has created a situation where change is possible and it is about her story that Barbara Pym makes that final observation that her ‘life still held infinite possibilities for change’ (186).

In many ways Quartet in Autumnis a dismal story, as no one seems to care about these older people.

Reading Quartet in Autumn

The darker themes of Quartet in Autumndo not obscure Barbara Pym’s close and humorous observations of the small but significant moments in life, which skill brings inevitable comparison with Jane Austen. She admired her and studied her technique. And like Elizabeth Taylor she has an undeserved reputation for being rather twee. Both are quiet and perceptive in their observations of social interactions.

Here is a delightful example that tells the reader and Letty everything about Father Lydell, Marjorie’s fiancé who has come to the country for his health. When they are introduced Letty asks if the country is doing him good.

‘I’ve had diarrhoea all this week,’ came the disconcerting reply.

There was a momentary – perhaps no more than a split second’s – pause, but if the women had been temporarily taken aback, they were by no means at a loss.

‘Diarrhoea,’ Letty repeated, in a clear thoughtful tone. She was never certain how to spell the word, but felt that such a trivial admission was lacking in proper seriousness so she said no more.

‘Strong drink would do you more good than the eternal round of parish cups of tea,’ Marjorie suggested boldly. ‘Brandy, perhaps.’ (34-5)

In the 1970s there was much talk about ensuring that less fortunate members of society should not ‘fall through the net’. All four people will fall through the social net, even if they do not need the welfare state. Barbara Pym herself knew what it meant to be overlooked in later life, when her publisher turned down a novel because it was not adequately commercial. In Quartet in Autumnshe describes a general attitude towards older people as they came to retire:

If the two women feared that the coming of this date might give some clue to their ages, it was not an occasion for embarrassment because nobody else had been in the least interested, both of them having long ago reached ages beyond any kind of speculation. Each would be given a small golden handshake, but the state would provide for their basic needs which could not be all that great. Elderly women did not need much to eat, warmth was more necessary than food, and people like Letty and Marcia probably either had either private means or savings, a nest egg in the post office or a building society. It was comforting to think on these lines, and even if they had nothing extra, the social services were so much better now, there was no need for anyone to starve or freeze. And if governments failed in their duties there were always the media – continual goadings on television programmes, upsetting articles in the Sunday papers and disturbing pictures in the colour supplements. There was no need to worry about Miss Crowe and Miss Ivory. (86)

This passage draws attention to assumptions about older people, and especially about women: their uninteresting social lives, their needs, their financial circumstances and that other people would look out for them. Older people are perceived as ‘other people’. Elsewhere Barbara Pym suggested that single women, like herself, need to be ‘drearily splendid’. How little has changed in 40 years. Barbara Pym makes it impossible to accept the prevailing view by showing us life from the perspectives of the four older people. By referring to the continual horror stories in the media she warns us that we doneed to worry about Miss Crowe and Miss Ivory and the two men.

Famously neglected, Barbara Pym’s reputation was resurrected when Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil both nominated her as the most under-rated author in 1977 in the TLS. Quartet in Autumnwas published later that year and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Related posts

An appreciation of Barbara Pym’s novelson the centenary of her birth by Philip Henscher was published in the Telegraph in June 2013

From the LA Review of Books 16thJuly 2015 by Mayotte, A Nice Hobby like Knittingsurveys Barbara Pym’s career and novels.

About the Older Women in Fiction series.

Quartet in Autumnby Barbara Pym, first published in 1977. I used the Pan/Picador edition. 186pp. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize

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Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan

‘This is a story of luminous beauty and rambunctious joy, of dark secrets and silences, revelations and, ultimately, the unknowability of those closest to us.  An in the face of the unknowable, personal history becomes fiction.’ (From the blurb on the cover of Nothing Holds Back the Night.) This is as good a description as any of this prizewinning book.

Every month I read and comment on a book by a woman in translation. Mostly they have been works of fiction. This book is a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, an attempt by the French writer Delphine de Vigan to explain her mother’s life and death.

Nothing holds back the Night

Nothing holds back the Nightis an attempt to understand the life and death of the author’s mother, who she calls Lucile. Her mother committed suicide at the age of 62 in Paris. While a suicide often defines a life, in this case Lucile’s life appears to be shaped by her long history of mental ill health, bi-polar disorder. By setting her mother’s story within her network of relationships – family, lovers, friends, neighbours and work mates – Delphine de Vigan shows us so much more than one person’s life. We see how families and society respond and react to damaged people.

Delphine de Vigan was already a recognised writer when she decided to write this book. She drew on interviews with the surviving family members and friends, on documentary evidence including Lucile’s own writings, on a tv documentary made about the family when Lucile was a teenager, and from her own memories. That which she could not discover from these sources has been created by her. This means she is adding to the same family mythology to which she refers.

Every day that passes I see how difficult it is to write about my mother, to define her in words, how much her voice is missing. Lucile talked very little about her childhood. She didn’t tell stories. Now I tell myself that that was her way of escaping the mythology, of refusing to take part in the fabrication and narrative reconstruction which all families indulge in. (115)

She also wrote this book to get beyond the fear with which Lucile’s life infected her and makes her fear for her own family.

I am writing this book because I now have the strength to examine what troubles and sometimes assails me, because I want to know what I am passing on. I want to stop being afraid that something will happen to us, as though we were living under a curse, and to be able to make the most of my good fortune, my energy, my happiness without thinking that something terrible is going to happen to destroy us and that sadness is forever waiting in the wings. (231)

Lucile’s Life

Born to French parents in 1946, Lucile grew up with a total of 8 brothers and sisters. She was the 3rdchild. She was 8 when a younger brother died in a terrible accident by falling into a well. The family were knocked sideways by his death. As the years went by death and suicide affected other siblings and friends.

The first part of this book recounts Lucile’s life in a big family. In a large family the dynamics are always changing, always difficult, always mediated by parents. Lucile was exceptionally pretty and used as a photographic model, especially in the commercial world. The family was in the public gaze but they were dominated by an opinionated and demanding father and a lively and loveable mother. There was never enough money.

It is likely that her father abused Lucile when she was a teenager, drugging and raping her. Lucile’s revelation of this event some years later was simply ignored by the family. Soon after the incident Lucile met Gabriel, fell in love, became pregnant, married and gave birth to Delphine. She was not out of her teens. A second daughter was born and later Gabriel left and Lucile brought up the children more or less alone.

The episode in which Lucile was hospitalised is horrifying. It was witnessed by 12-year old Delphine, who retells the events of her mother’s restraint and removal as she saw them. The children were sent to live with their father and barely saw their mother for a while. They were later reunited but the fear of a relapse was always present, even when the two girls became adults. After years of psychotherapy Lucile recovered enough to retrain as a social worker and develop a new life for herself. But the fear remained and ultimately she took her own life.

Of everything in this detailed book, this quotation from her own writing, in 1979, shocked me for what it reveals about Lucile’s inner life.

This year, in November, I will be thirty-three. A rather uncertain age, I think, if one were superstitious. I am a beautiful woman except that I have rotten teeth, which in a certain way I’m very pleased about, sometimes it even makes me laugh. I wanted it to be known that death lies beneath the surface. (213)

Delphine de Vigan, in Nancy (Le Livre sur la Place 2011) Ji-Elle via Wikicommons

It is shocking, today, that Lucile’s revelations about her father, considered to be true by her daughter, were ignored, perhaps because they did not fit the family’s mythology. The book leaves the reader with a sense of sadness for Lucile, who suffered so much. And sad too for the others touched by her life, not least her two children. Yet Lucile died on her own terms, while still alive. It’s a difficult read, but one that honours its subject.

Women in translation series

Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.

Notes of a Crocodileby Qiu Maojin, translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie.

The Winterlingsby Cristina Sanchez-Andrade, translated from the Spanish by Samuel Rutter.

Memoirs of a Polar Bearby Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Go, Went, Goneby Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Over to you

Do you have any recommendations of books by women in translation? Next month (May) I plan to read Loveby Hanne Orstavik.

Nothing holds back the Nightby Delphine de Vigan, published in English by Bloomsbury in 2013. 342pp. Winner of the Prix FNAC and the Grand Prix des lectrices de ELLE.

The French title is Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit. Translated by George Miller

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Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun is the longest title so far in the Older Women in fiction series. The title is not the only outstanding feature of this book. Among the pleasures of the series are researching books to read, and following up recommendations by other readers. Recent posts have taken me out of the usual Western literary tradition and into other cultures. Two Old Women draws directly on Alaskan traditional stories from the Yukon, predating European arrivals. The Woman next Door is set in modern day South Africa. For the 32nd novel in the series Sarah Ladipo Manyika brings you a woman of 75, living in San Francisco and of Nigerian origin.

Morayo de Silva

Our first impressions of Morayo da Silva are from her own narration. Her voice begins the novel with these words.

The place where I live is ancient. ‘Old but sturdy,’ our landlady tells us. (1)

Later she tells us

For I, like the building am ancient. Ancient if you are going by Nigerian standards, where I’ve outfoxed the female life expectancy by nearly two decades. (2)

Here is a nice set of contradictions. By African standards, buildings in San Francisco are not ancient. Nor yet by European standards. Yet in the rich US, life expectancy has surpassed African norms. In her mail that morning she receives a notification that she must have medical and sight tests to verify her fitness to drive, now she is turning 75. She is aware that her sight is failing. We also learn that she is a flamboyant dresser, has travelled widely and is well educated.

She was an English Professor but these days she arranges her books not alphabetically but according to which characters should be talking to each other.

That’s why Heart of Darkness is next to Le Regard du Roi, and Wide Sargasso Sea sits directly above Jane Eyre. The latter used to sit next to each other but then I thought it best to redress the old colonial imbalance and give Rhys the upper hand – upper shelf. (23)

This is eccentric, but has a logic. Books are treasured and she is upset when a well-meaning friend causes some of her books to be thrown away.

As she walks on the streets of San Francisco we are shown different aspects of Morayo by other characters. We see her talking with a Palestinian stall holder, a gay man who pays her a compliment, a homeless girl, and we see that she notices these things, loves the city that is so friendly, loves to stand out in it. Later she meets and talks with more residents of the American melting pot.

Morayo has a strongly independent spirit, but when she falls and is injured she has to go to a care home to recuperate. The staff find her independence threatening, but she makes friends with the Guyanese husband of a resident who visits every day, and with the substitute chef called Toussaint whose food is tastier than the regular diet.

And when she returns home she accepts her physical limitations but is defiant in her response. Not for her the acceptable behaviour of aging women with failing sight. She has a last fast drive in her beloved old Porsche, Buttercup.

Reading Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun

The changes of point of view take a little getting used to. But the writing is direct and immediate and the main character so full of life that it is easy to enjoy. These different perspectives confirm the reader’s impression of a great character, and also provide insights into her interactions.

There is not much story to this short novel, but it moves along as people meet and talk which add up to small and important stories. The reader also learns more about Morayo’s rich past. Like a Mule is less a story, more a portrait.

The novel’s title is the last line of a poem, and seems to me to speak of those who take life, despite its obstacles and challenges and push on being alive. And Morayo does in her 75th year. You can read the poem by Mary Ruefle, Donkey On or see and hear the poet reading it on You Tube.

Sarah Ladipo Manyika

The author was born in 1968 and was raised in Nigeria. At one point in her life she taught English Literature in San Francisco State University. Her previous novel was In Dependence (2008). She has written about older people in fiction in an essay called For the Love of Older Characters in Good Books.

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika, published by Cassava Republic in 2016. 118pp. It was shortlisted for the Goldsmith’s Prize in 2016.

Recent posts in the older women in fiction series:

Penelope Lively How it All Began

Velma Wallis Two Old Women

Tillie Olsen Tell me a Riddle

Yewande Omotoso The Woman Next Door

Please make suggestions for further fiction for this series.

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Refugee Tales – 2 Edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus

A group of people walk in the manner of the Canterbury Tales. As they walk they tell their stories. The journey, in July 2017, started at Runnymede, where the Magna Carta was signed, and ended in Westminster, the seat of parliamentary democracy.

This is a collection of stories about abuses of Human Rights. The stories are about refugees and indefinite detention.

Real as the walk is, and acutely real as are the experiences presented in the tales, there is a significant sense in which Refugee Tales is also symbolic. What it aims to do, as it crosses the landscape, is to open up a space: a space in which the stories of people who have been detained can be told and heard in a respectful manner. It is out of such a space, as the project imagines, that new forms of language and solidarity can emerge. (115)

Refugee Tales – 2

Last year I read the first volume of Refugee Tales as part of my challenge to walk and blog about refugees, raising money for Freedom from Torture. Since the first walk and publication of the first tales, indefinite detention has become more prevalent. It the focus of the second book of tales, collected for the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group.

These are not exceptional stories, or only in the sense that they have been told to accomplished writers and written down and presented in a collection. Here are the tales of 11 people whose lives are bound up with the UK immigration practices: the student, lover, abandoned person, walker, witness, barrister, voluntary returner, support worker, soldier, mother and smuggled person.

Reading these stories made me ashamed to be a resident in a country where the policy is so mean-spirited and hostile, so lacking in generosity and humanity, which strips away peoples’ sense of self, their dignity and trust. Furthermore temporary indefinite detention can be seen as an abuse of Human Rights as these stories illustrate.

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law. (Article 6 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948).

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile. (Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948).

People are being prevented from making an appearance. They are being hidden, their stories denied. They are being detained indefinitely, and justice is thus abused.

And there are stories of people doing good, doing the right thing, offering assistance and kindness where it is needed. I know who I’d like to be, not on the side of creating ‘here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration’ (words of the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, in 2012). Rather I would support a policy that honours our commitments to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and our obligations towards refugees.

From the voluntary returner’s tale:

I’m here yet I’m not.

You’ll never know.

That I was here.

Nor that I still am. (65)

From the support worker’s tale:

It means being in but not of the world. Like a shade from the world below, you’re condemned to float outside, looking in on everything you can’t have, everyone you’re not. (74)

From the soldier’s tale:

Salim is relocated to Glasgow. He has to report in person to the local Home Office outpost every two weeks. At any of those visits he is liable to be detained and removed to Italy. He is still suspended in this purgatory, waiting and hoping and dreading. One could diminish a man to nothing, to chaff, to dust, with this; the only weapon you need is time. (89-90)

Read the stories. They are not going away. Migration remains, and is not halted by hostile environments. In fact it is caused by them.

Refugee Tales – 2 Edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus, published in 2017 by Comma Press. 138pp. Proceeds go to Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group and Kent Refugee Help

You can find my post about the first book of stories here. Refugee Tales, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus. Published by Comma Press in 2016. 150pp Profits go to Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group and Kent Refugee Help

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