Tag Archives: childhood

Homesick by Jennifer Croft

This looked like a good book to read. It was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year and the author was known to me as a translator. It is a coming-of-age novel, and its main charm is the depiction of Amy’s childhood, isolated by her sister’s illness and her own precocity that takes her to the University of Tulsa when she is really too young to cope with the student experience. 

What adult doesn’t look back at some aspects of their childhood with feelings of regret and loss? If home is where the heart is, and Amy’s heart was with her sister Zoe, then homesickness was often with her.

Homesick

The novel closely follows Amy as she and her younger sister grow up in Oklahoma and forge a close bond from Zoe’s birth. Their intimacy is threatened by Zoe’s serious illness, which includes a brain tumour, and requires her to undergo extensive hospital treatment. On her return from hospital the necessity and inconvenience of caring for Zoe means that Amy must leave school and the girls are home-schooled. Amy is cut off from her age group as a result. Both girls decide to learn a new language and Sascha is employed to teach Zoe Ukrainian and Amy Russian. Amy, in particular, demonstrates an aptitude for languages. 

The theme of photography weaves its way through the narrative. Amy seems to need to freeze an image or a scene as protection against loss. 

Amy has taken one Polaroid picture of each room at her grandparents’ house, including the garage, the backyard, and the front yard, and two of the staircase, since they don’t have one at home. (9)

In the four years since she’s had her camera, Amy’s taken fifty-one more pictures of her sister, seven of which feature their dog Santa gave to Zoe last year. The dog is a scruffy Scottish Terrier with a black plastic-looking nose … Amy discovers a way of civilizing both creatures, of teaching them to sit still. They even learn to play dead. (9)

Amy becomes a prodigy, attending the University of Tulsa aged 15. After such a cloistered childhood she is pretty naïve about many aspects of student life, not least drink, drugs and sex. Not surprisingly Amy is not good at it, and the first section, entitled Sick ends with her hospitalised.

The much shorter second section, called Home, takes up Amy’s story several years later as she travels around, mostly in Europe. She takes up many jobs and learns more languages. She seems rootless and it emerges that she is rarely in contact with Zoe. But eventually they are reunited, in Paris, where Amy is currently living with her boyfriend Javi. This is how the novel ends:

The last portrait Amy takes of her sister is a picture of some hot pink letters on the thick transparent railings of the Pont des Arts.
Amy and Javi and Zoe are ambling from the Louvre to the Left Bank. Zoe’s health is reasonably good right now, although she is in pain and still has little seizures, along with strange, fiery, snakelike sensations that course through her veins. It is Sunday; it is summer. Glints and reflections scatter out along the Seine. Amy glances back and says, Un Segundo.
Zoe and Javi draw to a pause as Amy removes her camera from its case. Cradling it in her left hand, she takes a deep breath, studies her subject, and then, very gently, she presses the shutter button down. (219)

The format of the book emphasises the juddery nature of Amy’s childhood and early adolescence. Although it the narration is in the 3rd person, it is written in the present tense, and without quotation marks, all of which give it an immediacy and sometimes an urgency. The text is arranged in short sections, usually about 2 pages long, sometimes 3, sometimes only 1. The first sentence of each section is presented in bold like a chapter heading but despite appearances it is part of the narration.

Much of the novel describes the tightness of Amy and Zoe (A to Z), and the angst of watching her sick sister, or dealing with the sudden death of a friend. The detail of the experience of childhood is excellent. The intensity of being a sister to a very sick sibling, of growing up, of losing childhood and childhood relationships, reminds adults that adults don’t see the world from a child’s point of view.

Jennifer Croft was the translator of Flights by Olga Tokarczuk in 2018.

Homesick by Jennifer Croft, published by Charco Press in 2022. 219pp

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, translation

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

We have reached the 2000s and my choice for this decade is Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. In the previous 10 posts I have reviewed a variety of novels. This choice is a memoir in graphic form. The graphic form was new to me in the 2000s. And the book came out of Iran, which had seemed very mysterious since the revolution in 1979. Persepolis reminds the reader/viewer that real people live through such historical events and their lives can be shaped by them.

Persepolis: the story of a childhood

Marji’s family are connected to a former ruler of what had been called Persia and her parents are Marxists with a liberal attitude towards their only child. The memoir follows her life through the time of the revolt against the Shah when she was 10 years old, the Islamic revolution and the long war with Iraq. What did it mean to live in Tehran in those days? For some of the time the borders were closed, and for much of the time Iran was besieged by Iraq. There were extreme dangers for those who supported the old regime, for those who did not embrace the Islamic revolution and for anyone who broke the rules on the streets.

Even as a child Marji is not sheltered from the tumultuous events. Her family are implicated in the early struggles of the 20th century. She is on the streets when many are killed in a demonstration against the Shah: Black Friday. And she hears all the stories about the friends and relatives of the family as the Islamic Revolution takes hold. Always there is talk, especially after the clamp down, borders are shut and the long war with Iraq is on.

We Iranians are Olympic champions when it comes to gossip, says Marji (135) as the family discuss Iraq’s military range.

We follow Marji growing up challenging and defiant, wanting jeans, posters of western pop idols, and willing to take risks. Finally her parents decide she must leave in order to continue her education in Europe.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi was published at the same time and also revealed the horrors of being a young woman, a reader of western literature, during the Islamic revolution. The young women readers come to understand their situation through the books they choose.

Reading Persepolis

The black and white graphics, the simple drawings of Persepolis are distinctive and effective. They allow us to see through the eyes and assumptions of a child, and to cut through much of the posturing to identify hypocrisy, weak arguments, the use of force and so forth. For example, when very young she is convinced that she will grow up to become a prophet and so has a relationship with God, whom she realises resembles Karl Marx.

The simple drawings, the avoidance of colour suggest that Marjane Satrapi is reproducing the regime’s desire for conformity. In fact it also emphasises the individuality of her characters. Marji, at the beginning, has the features of a young child but she matures over the course of her memoir. I am impressed by how the artist manages to convey so many different faces and emotions in a space the size of a 5p coin.

For many western readers, especially in the UK, Persepolis was our introduction to the graphic form. It is still not as embedded in our reading culture as, say, in France where bandes dessinees have been popular for decades and have acquired accepted cultural status. In the UK they are regarded as ‘comics’ and therefore an inferior cultural form. Perhaps graphic fiction is gaining ground. The graphic short story has had its own prize in the UK for ten years, as was reported recently in this Guardian article: ‘I was in shock!’.

Marji lives on

Marji’s further adventures were recorded in Persepolis 2. Marjane Satrapi also made a movie from the original. She now lives in Paris.

Persepolis: the story of a childhood by Marjane Satrapi Published in 2003 by Pantheon 153pp

Translated from the French by Mattias Ripa and Blake Ferris.

  • ALA Alex Award WINNER 2004
  • Booklist Editor’s Choice for Young Adults WINNER
  • New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age WINNER
  • School Library Journal Adult Books for Young Adults WINNER
  • YALSA Best Books for Young Adults WINNER

The Decades Project

For the Decades Project I selected a book from each decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here. The idea came from my library’s Reading Passport scheme.

Previous posts in the Project

The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx, 1993

Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner, from 1984

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi, published in 1975

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, published in 1969

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, published in 1950

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

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

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

And now …?

In December, at the end of my first year of The Decades Project, I will reflect on the experience of blogging on this topic and reveal the theme for next year’s Decade Project.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, short stories, The Decade project