Category Archives: Reading

The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta

This is a story of so many tensions. Set in the years before Nigerian Independence in 1960, a young girl is deprived of the care of her father by his early death. Her family come under the protection of her ambitious uncle, and because she is educated he can demand a high bride price for her. 

This is a fairly short book, but I took my time reading it because I was enjoying the detail with which the story is told. From life in Lagos, a funeral ceremony, travel in the mammy lorries of the 1950s, the rural community and its traditions to the celebrations and customs of the Ibo people of Ibuz; I had so much to learn. I read a number of novels by Buchi Emecheta in the 1970s, but these mostly concerned Nigerian women living in London. 

The Bride Price

Early in the novel in Lagos Ezekiel Odia dies, and a funeral begins.

At the first announcement of his death, the traditional crying began. This was an art in itself. There were expert professional criers, who listed the good deeds performed by the departed and tactfully left out the bad. His lineage would be traced out loud, the victories of his ancestors sung and their heroic past raised to the winds, amidst the groans of other criers, the screams of women and the heart beats of the men. Such force was put into these cries. The first storm of them rose like and angry thunder, in different deafening pitches. The high, penetrating shrieks of the women somehow managed to have a touch of apathy in them, as if their voices were saying: “We do our share of the crying because it is expected of us, but what can one do when faced with death? It is a call we must answer however busy we are.” Their noises of protest against death were followed by low howls, like those of a slave who knows he is to be sacrificed for the life of his sick master. The men’s howlings were of a lower key, charged with energy, they hugged themselves this way and that like raging waves on a gloomy day, and on each face ran two rivers of tears which looked as if they would never dry. (29-30)

The story follows Aku-nna, the 13 year old daughter of Ezekiel, a respected man, who dies in Lagos. During the war he had been conscripted into the army to fight in Burma. His injuries lead to his early death. His family, wife and 2 children, become the property of his brother in Ibuza. Because she is educated, Aku-nna has a high bride price, which will allow her uncle to achieve his ambitions to have the title of Eze.

Aku-nna is attracted to the schoolteacher, Chike. But Chike is from a former slave family and so is regarded as lower caste and not suitable for Aku-nna. He is young, good-looking and saving to go to university. His father is generous and well-off but not accepted by the Ibo people. Meanwhile Aku-nna joins with the other girls in the traditional activities expected of them, and she prepares with them for the outing dance.

The girls talked and dreamed about their outing dance. They worked and saved hard to buy their jigida, the red and black beads which they would wear above their bikini-like pants. Apart from these, their tops would be bare, displaying the blue-coloured tattooes that went round their backs, then under their young breasts and met at the heart. Their feet would also be bare, but small bells were to be tied round their ankles, so that when in the dance they jumped, or curtsied, or crawled in modesty, the bells would jingle in sympathy. It was to be the great moment of their lives and they knew it. In their old age, with their clay pipes in toothless mouths, they would turn to their grandchildren and say, “When we were young and our breasts were tight as tied ropes, we did the aja dance. It was the best dance in the whole land, and we did it.” (103)

Chike and Aku-nna are soon in love and plan to marry when she is 16. But others have been waiting for her to start menstruating, a sign of becoming a woman, and when she does they begin to pay court, encouraged by the uncle. One night she is kidnapped by the family of one of her admirers, but she resists, telling her ‘husband’ that she and Chike have been intimate. Okoboshi rejects her and she escapes with Chike to another part of the country. Her uncle refused to accept the bride price offered by her father-in-law and, as tradition would have it, tragedy follows.

Tensions and oppositions

The story sets up a number of oppositions: Lagos is compared to Ibuza and the city against the rural setting. In Ibuza the community is very traditional. This provides a great deal of support for the family who lose their breadwinner but makes high demands on women. The wants of the individual are set against the practices and expectations of the community. 

The possibilities for boys and men are in contrast to those for girls and women. Traditional culture is in opposition to more modern attitudes, for education and health care for women in particular. 

Buchi Emecheta continued to explore the themes of race, gender and colonialism in her subsequent writings.

Buchi Emecheta

Born in Lagos in 1944, Buchi Emecheta was orphaned when young and although educated married young. Her husband came to London and she followed soon after in 1962 with two children. More children were born and she became unhappy in her marriage. When she began to write her husband burned the manuscript of her first novel. She decided to leave him, taking the children and to earn her living and continue to gain degrees in the next few years. She also rewrote the novel, which was The Bride Price, which was published by Allison & Busby, a company that promoted African writing.

She went on to publish 16 novels as well as several autobiographies, children’s books, plays and articles. She died in January 2017.

The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta, first published in 1976 by Allison & Busby.  I used the Fontana African Fiction edition (1978). 168pp

Related post

Celebrating Margaret Busby, who promoted African literature in the publishing house that bore her name. (On Bookword December 2020)

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My Career Goes Bung by Miles Franklin

I had known about this book for many years, but I had been put off reading it by the rather colloquial title: I got the sense of going bung, but in my prim way thought it was a bit vulgar. I found a copy in a second-hand bookshop soon after I had reviewed My Brilliant Career and was intrigued. I so wish I had come across it earlier, because it was fun and I would have enjoyed it as a much younger woman too.

My Career Goes Bung

My Brilliant Career was not a sophisticated novel. The storyline follows the history of the Australian writer, written with a great deal of energy and brashness. According to the introduction by Carmen Callil, Miles Franklin said that she ‘conceived and tossed it off in a matter of weeks’. It was published in 1901. The reception of this novel caused her to refuse to allow it to be reprinted. 

She wrote My Career Goes Bung in 1902, when she was in her early 20s, but felt that it would be unacceptable to readers until much later. It wasn’t published until 1946.

In My Career Goes Bung the first novel having earned much notoriety for its young author, Sybylla has to deal with the reactions of people within her limited community, and then later from the cultural set in Sydney. Both novels are based on what happened to Miles Franklin. 

I loved this second volume. The heroine/narrator exposes so much hypocrisy about the role of young women at the start of the twentieth century in Australia, even though women had gained the vote by 1902. The surprising success of her first novel is regarded as below comment in ‘Possum Creek, although she becomes the centre of gossip and attention. There is no local person who takes her talents seriously, except her father. He is not a successful businessman and is interested in politics, but not very successful at that either. 

Her mother tells her that if she is against marriage she will have to take up a profession. Sybylla considers her options:

This brought me to consider my prospects and to find that I hadn’t any. I loved to learn things – anything, everything. To attend University would have been heaven, but expense barred that. I could become a pupil-teacher, but I loathed the very name of this profession. I should have to do the same work as a man for less pay, and, in country schools, to throw in free of remuneration, the speciality of teaching all kinds of needlework. I could be a cook or a housemaid and slave all day under some nagging woman and be a social outcast. I could be a hospital nurse and do twice the work of a doctor for a fraction of his pay or social importance, or, seeing the tremendously advanced age, I could even be a doctor – a despised lady-doctor, doing the drudgery of the profession in the teeth of such prejudice that even the advanced, who fought for the entry of women into all professions, would in practice “have more faith in a man doctor.” I could be a companion to some woman appended to some man of property.
I rebelled against every one of these fates. (20-21)

Sybylla finds it impossible to stay at home, for there is no one with whom she can be friends.

From ‘Possum Gully to Spring Hill and round about the Wallaroo Plains there wasn’t a real companion of my own age, nor any other age. The dissatisfaction of other girls stopped short of wondering why life should be so much less satisfactory to them than their brothers, but they accepted it as the will of God. None of them was consumed with the idea of changing the world. (31)

The opportunities for a feminist are limited at home, especially for one who does not wish to marry and would rather change the world. So Sybylla’s mother arranges for her to spend time in Sydney with an old lady who would be pleased to have her to stay. Here her notoriety is the object of considerable interest, and Mrs Crasterton’s standing in Sydney society is enhanced by the presence of her curious guest. Men seem to find her fascinating, and it takes her a little time to work out how to deal with them, their attentions and their offers of marriage. 

She demonstrates great perceptiveness at the hypocrisy of the society which still believes that a woman’s duty and calling is marriage and motherhood, while playing court to her originality. She is determined not to marry and escapes all attempts to lure her. Most of them think she will grow out of writing when she is married. But it was to stand up for herself, young, female and without much ‘EXPERIENCE’. She rejects all their suggestions and returns home, her writing career going nowhere.

Warned by a loyal suitor back home that she might become despised as an old maid Sybylla responds:

Despised for being an old maid, indeed! Why are men so disturbed by a woman who escapes their spoilation? Is her refusal to capitulate unendurable to masculine egotism, or is it a symptom of something more fundamental? (227)

Finally, she decides to go wider than Sydney, to the world beyond Australia, to London.

One my strongest pleasures in this vibrant, heart-felt novel is the language she uses, with such freshness. Here’s a favourite as her mother pours cold water on any idea of Sybylla going on the stage.

She finished me to squashation like a sucked gooseberry. (44)

I loved her observations and wit, her determination not to be seduced by the dominant ideas about women, love, marriage and motherhood. Miles Franklin largely kept to that. She never married and before returning to settle in Australia in 1932, encouraging Australian writing, she spent more than two decades in America and in England.

My Career Goes Bung: purporting to be the autobiography of Sybylla Penelope Melvyn by Miles Franklin, first published in 1946. Republished by Virago Modern Classics in 1981. 234 pp

Related posts

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin on Bookword January 2020

Heavenali included a review of this novel on her blog in September 2015.

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Sister of the more famous …

Many women have had their creative spirit doused because they were women, and some more have been eclipsed by their more famous brothers. Here are a few examples.

Judith Shakespeare

Let me imagine, since facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say. [A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf 48]

Judith Shakespeare was invented by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own in 1928 to consider the question of ‘the possibility of any woman, past, present or to come, to have the genius of Shakespeare’. A bishop, no less, had declared it impossible Virginia Woolf charts a life for Judith, beginning with her lack of formal education.

She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books or papers. (49)

She imagines Judith faced with the prospect of marriage arranged for the benefit of her parents and resisting until she decides to run away to London. But hanging around the stage doors of London theatres was not a safe place for a girl of 16, and she fell pregnant by Nick Greene, the actor-manager who took pity on her. So she killed herself … 

… and lies buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle.
That, more or less, is how the story would run, I think, if a woman in Shakespeare’s day had had Shakespeare’s genius. (50)

Famously, Virginia Woolf claimed that Judith Shakespeare, and the many other women who put pen to paper were not successful because:

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. (6)

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. First published in 1928. I used my Penguin Modern Classics edition. 112 pp

Another Look at A Room of One’s Own on Bookword (2018)

Dorothy Wordsworth

Dorothy Wordsworth was much missed by her brother William after her death as recorded in these lines on the occasion of being surprised by joy:

Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind—
But how could I forget thee?—Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

Dorothy was a diarist, letter-writer and poet herself. But she was not interested in being published.

‘I should detest the idea of setting myself up as an author,’ she once wrote in a letter, ‘give Wm. the Pleasure of it.’

Sister and brother were close, living together, walking in the Lake District, sharing accommodation even after William’s marriage. Occasionally Dorothy’s writing was used by her brother, for example in his guidebook to the Lakes. More famously William relied on her detailed accounts of nature scenes and borrowed freely from her journals. For example:

I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing [Dorothy Wordsworth, Grasmere Journal 15 April 1802]

Not so lonely then.

Anne Brontë

Anne Brontë, author of Agnes GreyThe Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and poetry had two sisters and a brother. The reputations of Charlotte and Emily have grown over the years. Who takes account of Anne today? Even her wretched brother Branwell is better known than her. It has been claimed, however, that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was the first feminist novel. She died aged just 29.

Fanny Mendelssohn

Born into a musical household, Fanny Mendelssohn was known to be as talented as her younger brother. She was a noted pianist and composer and she contributed to the musical atmosphere of their house which fostered the talent of her brother, Felix. She composed over 450 pieces of music and some were published, but under her brother’s name to satisfy the ideas of the time and the reservations of her family. Fanny’s father wrote to her: ‘Music will perhaps become his [i.e. Felix’s] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.’

The death of Fanny Mendelssohn was the stimulus for one of her brother Felix Mendelssohn’s greatest string quartets: No 6 in F minor Op. 80. You can hear the raw grief in every bar. Felix died six months after his sister.

Nannerl Mozart

The Mozart family on tour: Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl. Watercolour by Carmontelle, ca. 1763. Via WikiCommons

Another musical prodigy had a sister: Nannerl Mozart. She too was something of a prodigy and toured with her father and brother, performing to the courts of Europe. It is thought that she also wrote much fine music, but like Fanny Mendelssohn, she was not allowed to continue when she reached adulthood. Mozart mentions her compositions, but there is no record of them in her father’s papers. Mozart wrote many duets for himself and his sister, and they kept up a lively correspondence when he went on tour without her. 

Some have argued that she was the more talented musical artist. The Other Mozart is a play by Sylvia Milo, review in Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/sep/08/lost-genius-the-other-mozart-sister-nannerl

Sisters ….

I acknowledge the theft of my title from Barbara Trapido’s novel: Brother of the more Famous Jack.

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Refugee Tales IV Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus

How can we still be here, after 70 years?

On 28th July 1951 26 countries signed the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Why do we have to continue arguing against the expulsion and return of refugees when it is counter to the terms of the Convention? 

The Convention states

Article 23: Prohibition of expulsion or return (‘refoulement’)
1. No Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Why do we have to continue arguing that indefinite detention is illegal, against human rights and inhumane and contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

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

How much longer will we have to walk, and talk, and tell the stories, retell the stories of refugees?

Refugee Tales IV

In this volume there are 14 stories, many detailing the spread of indefinite detention in other countries. Contributions are made by detainees as well as by Shami Chakrabarti, Robert Macfarlane, Bidisha, Rachel Seiffert, Dina Nayeri, Philippe Sands and Christy Lefteri. 

These are stories of refugees’ experiences of seeking asylum, mostly about young men, shunted around the system, escaping only to be caught again in the endless battle to gain accepted status. Lives are wasted. Time spent studying is wasted. Conditions for living are terrible. Spirits are dashed. Help is well-meaning but often inadequate against the mysteries and convolutions of the legal processes. Each story is distressing in its own way. Each story reveals a small part of the system that makes up the hostile environment.

From the Advocate’s Tale

Put yourself in the shoes of those people fleeing their home, seeking refuge here in the United Kingdom, or in neighbouring countries. Once you made it here you would expect to receive some sort of help or protection, right? Well, in my case it was the opposite. My experience in detention was worse than I can describe. (122)

It is a terrible waste of people’s lives to be in indefinite detention. The accumulation within the four volumes of Refugee Tales is a terrible indictment of UK policy. Refugees have to wait, and wait some more, and are not allowed to work, or to be useful members of their community. It is difficult to promote their case, to access legal help, to access and help. And at any moment they might be released or put on a flight back to the country which tried to kill them.

It takes a terrible toll on people’s mental health to be in indefinite detention. In the first place, there is the injustice of being imprisoned when they have done nothing wrong. Then they must endure being powerless to resist. But worse, much worse, is the uncertainty, of the wait, lack of knowledge of the twists and turns of asylum law and what their fate will be. Several refugees report that they suffered more in indefinite detention than from the events that forced them to flee their country.

And don’t let’s even mention how refugees have been abandoned to the coronavirus in the Napier Barracks, and how fear is being stoked about those who try to reach the UK across the English Channel, or against those who are dubbed economic migrants. Or the Nationalities and Borders Bill of 2021

This is not what a decent society should do. This is not what a country that signed up to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugee and to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should do.

And there are good people doing the right thing: rescuing people from drowning; welcoming refugees on arrival; providing material help; providing advice; and campaigning; collecting stories to share. 

Refugee TalesGatwick Detainees Welfare Group and Comma Press are doing the right thing. 

Yet here we are: still arguing against indefinite detention; still walking; still talking and telling stories. There’s only one thing for it: we must persist. We must work towards making the UK a place where refugees can ‘expect to receive some sort of help or protection’.

Refugee Tales IV Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus published in 2021, by Comma Press. 161pp

Refugee Tales Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus (February 2017)

Refugee Tales -2 Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus (March 2018)

Refugee Tales III Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus (June 2020)

Walking and crossing bridges for Refugee Tales in June 2020

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Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

It’s a good story – a journalist investigates a claim of a virgin birth. It’s 1957 and the world is a different place. There were local newspapers and no knowledge of DNA and no internet to help with research. Everyone smoked. London was frequently obscured by fog. At work it was a man’s world, and the story was seen by the editorial group of the North Kent Echo as a women’s interest item and was therefore given to Jean to investigate. 

Jean is the character whose fortunes we follow in this book. Her life has been going along evenly, with considerable boredom, until she has to investigate Mrs Tilbury’s claim of parthenogenesis.

Small Pleasures

Jean is nearly 40 and sees her life slipping away, having failed in the matter of finding a husband and establishing a family and a home. Instead, she looks after her dependant and neurotic mother in their semi in the suburbs south of London. Theirs is a life governed by routine and modest expenditure. Quiet desperation, one might almost say. 

Small pleasures – the first cigarette of the day; a glass of sherry before Sunday lunch; a bar of chocolate parcelled out to last a week; a newly published library book, still pristine and untouched by other hands; the first hyacinths of spring; a neatly folded pile of ironing, smelling of summer; the garden under snow; an impulsive purchase of stationery for her drawer … (328)

And then Jean goes to see the young woman who claims that there was no father involved in the conception of her child. Gretchen Tilbury is an attractive young woman and a competent seamstress. It is unclear to Jean why Gretchen wants her story investigated. Gretchen tells Jean that at the time when the baby would have been conceived she was in a private clinic, St Cecilia’s Nursing Home, being treated for rheumatoid arthritis. Since Margaret’s birth Gretchen had married Howard, who believed her story. Jean decides to visit the husband at his shop near Covent Garden, and to meet with the matron and fellow patients who occupied the ward in St Cecelia’s alongside Gretchen at the time when the baby would have been conceived. 

As the investigation proceeds Jean is befriended by Gretchen and her much older husband. And she finds Margaret, the child at the centre of the story, very appealing too. Jean begins to spend time at the weekend with the family. Gretchen makes her a dress and Jean buys Margaret a pet rabbit in return. She also finds herself being drawn to Howard Tilbury. And it begins to look as though there was a virgin birth.

I love this about fiction: I know that there has been no proven case of a virgin birth, but I was prepared to accept the possibility that Gretchen Tilbury had a good claim, because it was within a novel.

As Gretchen’s claims become harder to dismiss the reader comes to see that trouble lies ahead for Jean: she and Howard fall in love; her mother has a turn and goes to hospital for a few days; the doctors’ tests continue; Jean begins to hope for a better future than one only enlivened by small pleasures. I won’t relate the rest of the story. It is well told, and tension is kept to the end.

There is a lot about duty and decency in this novel, what was expected of people in the 1950s and what had to be hidden. The author shows the sexism of the time, but the most attractive male characters are those that treat women well: Roy Drake the editor of the North Kent Echo; and Howard Tilbury, the stepfather of Margaret. The sexism of the other reporters, the headmaster she meets and the doctors conducting the tests is pretty dreadful, but it reminds us of how much has changed in 50 years.

Small Pleasures has been chosen by my book group for discussion soon. I am sure we will find that there are many aspects of this novel that we can discuss. It was also longlisted for the Women’s Prize 2021

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers, published in 2020 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 350pp

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Father by Elizabeth von Arnim

It is fitting that gardens play such an important part in this novel, for I read it while relaxing in mine. At last the sweet peas have arrived, the poppies are dropping their petals and the honeysuckle is drooped over the fence like a chatty neighbour.

For the couple at the heart of this novel gardens represent freedom. Jennifer will find her garden in the Sussex countryside, even if she has to battle with her spade against brambles and snails. For James, a country vicar, it is the only place where he can escape the expectations of his sister and his parishioners.

Father

Gardens were important to Elizabeth von Arnim too. Her first novel was called Elizabeth and her German Garden. And who can forget the magical qualities of the Italian castle gardens in The Enchanted April?

Gardens represent freedom, and in opposition is duty. Both Jennifer and James are caught up in duty’s coils.

Jennifer Dodge is already in her thirties but unmarried. She is one of the nearly 2 million ‘surplus women’ of the interwar years. At a time when marriage was the purpose of a woman’s life, the failure of so many women was an important social issue. She promised her dying mother that she would look after her father and so she is bound by a promise and the sense of duty imposed by father. She has spent the years maintaining a household to his liking, and assisting with his well known, but not well-read, books. He is a man of frigid habits. There are no gardens to enjoy at his house in Gower Street, London. 

Richard Dodge diverts from his normal path and marries a young and beautiful girl called Netta. He has done this because his novels have been criticised for being too sensual, so he plans to use up this sensuality in his life and keep it out of his books. This act frees Jennifer from her duty to father and it allows her to set out to find her own cottage with a garden, which she does as soon as they have gone on their honeymoon. (A nice comedic detail is that father plans to take Netta to Norway.)

James is ‘entangled in his own canonicals’ (224). His sister Alice, a mirror image to father, brought him up and is now his housekeeper in the little Sussex village of Cherry Lidgate. She manages everything for him, and manages him through emotional blackmail. It is owing to her annoyance at him that she lets Rose Cottage to Jennifer. But when she sees that there is a danger from her brother being attracted to Miss Dodge she uses all her powers to separate them and to bring him to his senses – as she sees it. She takes him to Switzerland, and while there the hotel manager asks him to provide a Sunday service for the English guests. James realises that he does not wish to be a vicar.

Really it was a terrible, a horrifyingly lonely thing, thought James, gripping his head in his hands and staring at the Bradshaw on his knees, to be all by oneself in the middle of other people’s determinations and conventions, and having to behave as though they were one’s own, having to put on one’s surplice every Sunday and talk as if one agreed, and talk as if one upheld, when all one wanted – (224)

Alice has a very annoying habit of saying, ‘Bosh!’ when she doesn’t agree with something. She says it once too often to James while they are traveling back to England. She plans to remove the tenant from Rose Cottage and he to propose. The reader cheers to realise that James has thrown off the dreadful Alice. And when she finds a soulmate, thinking herself inconsolable by the loss of James, we think this is entirely fitting for both parties.

While they have been in Switzerland, Jennifer has been getting on with her new life, mostly working in her garden. But she is interrupted by Netta, who has not gone to Norway (because her lap dog would have had to quarantine on their return) but to Brighton. Although marriage to Richard Dodge is not at all to her taste she is persuaded to return to Brighton. She is followed a day or two later by father. Netta has left him and he requires Jennifer to return to Gower Street and care for him again. 

The scene between the two of them is brutal. He believes that Jennifer sped to Rose Cottage to punish him for re-marrying. She cannot persuade him that she loves her life there. She tries to explain to him, but he only listens silently, unable to understand her. 

Such nonsense, too; such grievous nonsense. Stuff about beauty, and independence, and the bliss, he gathered, of nothingness. To have nothing – to be nothing – it appeared to amount to that – was the only freedom, according to his absurd daughter. If she had declared that to be dead was the only true  freedom, it would have made quite enough sense.
But, pitiably and confusedly as she talked, and insulting and ungrateful as her implications were, it did somehow emerge from the welter that the theory of a vendetta for his remarriage was incorrect and she was here because she liked it. (203)

There is much that is farcical about this novel, which lightens the pervading sense of oppression and wasted lives. Few people are honest with each other, preferring to make assumptions about; there are attempts to escape Switzerland that are thwarted by other escapes from Switzerland; meanness of spirit is employed to communicate the fault of other people. Who could forget the description of a lover’s first attempts at a romantic kiss to be ‘gobbling’? Some of the comings and goings are remind me of French farce.

The story reaches a happy-ever-after, but not before we have seen the full extent of Jennifer’s duty and obligation to her father. 

Father by Elizabeth von Arnim, first published in 1931 and reissued in the British Library Women Writers series in 2020. 296pp

Related posts

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim

Father has been reviewed by two bloggers I respect: Heavenali, who says it is glorious, and Stuck in a Book, who also wrote the helpful Afterword which illuminates the plight of ‘surplus women’.

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The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

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

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

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

The Vanishing Half

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021.

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One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

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

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

One Fine Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mollie Panter-Downes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related links

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

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

In Praise of Short Stories

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

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Summerwater by Sarah Moss

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

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

Summerwater

We begin with the rain.

the sounds of blood and air

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related post about books by Sarah Moss on Bookword

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

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (2018)

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

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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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

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

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

Homegoing

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

Cape Coast Castle via WikiCommons, Kwameghana, February 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Yaa Gyasi

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

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

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

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

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

Related post

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

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