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Rattlebone by Maxine Clair

Rattlebone is a black neighbourhood in Kansas City. This novel is set in the city in the 1950s when Maxine Clair was growing up there. It follows the childhood of Irene Wilson and draws in events from the lives of others in the community. I find myself wanting to use words that imply concepts of tweeness, sweetness, naivety and so forth in thinking about this book. But this novel packs quite a punch. It contains little about relations between different ethnic groups. But we are aware that the families who live in Rattlebone have a hard life, do some of the worst jobs and for rubbish wages. At the same time they have built up a strong and developing sense of community. When the high school is destroyed by a rogue aeroplane, local communities contribute to its reconstruction. 

The incident is the most dramatic in the novel. This extract gives us a sense of Maxine Clair’s skill as a writer. Irene is watching the planes from her high school classroom.

They were coming in dangerously low, coming, coming. The pilot in one plane must have been trying to urge the other to pull up. Then the one climbed the sky in a sharp angle, exposing its silver belly to the sun. The other appeared to be locked into a steady plunge. Mr Cox spun around and yelled ‘Run!’ The plane had rotated slightly, so that it seemed to be coming broadside straight for us. By the time we considered running, it was too late. The whole room exploded in a fury of glass. (216)

The incident is included in the final chapter of the novel and leads to a new beginning for Irene, outside of Rattlebone.

Rattlebone

Looked at one way, this is a collection of short stories, but they are all connected to Irene and to the suburb of Rattlebone which makes this more than a collection. There are eleven stories, some of them very short, others extended. Some are retold by characters who appear elsewhere and some are given some perspective by being told in the third person. Some, like the final episode, are narrated by Irene. 

The first chapter is also narrated by Irene and features her new teacher. Interestingly it links her community of Rattlebone with the child herself by starting off in the first-person plural: ‘we’. Here is the first sentence of the opening chapter.

We heard it from our friends, who got it from their near-eyewitness grandmothers and their must-be-psychic ladies, that when she was our same age, our teacher, Miss October Brown, watched her father fire through his rage right on into her mother’s heart. (1)

October Brown comes from outside of Rattlebone, and she immediately begins to change the orderly pattern of Irene’s life. She introduces current affairs and French into the classroom, and her father leaves the family to pursue an affair with her. She appears in other stories, with another errant husband, but also she finally provides Irene with a route out of her narrow life in Rattlebone. 

The perspective in the stories changes as Irene matures, not always making her the focus of the episode. For example, her father is caught up in a flood after work and goes to help with others to build up the levées to protect their families. In another dramatic episode he is forced to face up to what is important in his life. In later stories we find he has returned home, and how his troubled relationship with his wife is resolved, not to Irene’s satisfaction. 

Some of the most touching stories involve the fate of the children of Irene’s age, who experience accidents, or who are so challenged that they are removed from Rattlebone, much to the sadness of mother and sister. The children have considerable leeway over their lives for their parents are always busy working. There is the strange story about the visits of ‘the white woman’. The children are out playing, observing their elders, and enjoying an ordinary day.

Then she drove up in a raggedy-trap, old-time car with no top, black slits in the side of the hood, running boards, rumble seat stuffed with what looked like broken furniture, and a horn blasting Aah-hooga! Aah-hooga!
She stepped out of the car, unfolding her flat self to be taller than any of our mothers. Except for her face, all of her was covered up in white: a long-sleeved, church-ushering dress, white nurse’s shoes, white stockings, white gloves, white thing twist-wrapped around her head with no hair showing. She was the whitest – not beige, not pink, not rouge or lipstick – white woman we had ever seen. (26)

Sister Joan is preaching some kind of religion, but the mothers see her off. She disappeared as suddenly as she arrived.

I have quoted several times from the book because I find Maxine Clair’s prose and her descriptions and the voices she uses to be strong and vivid and entirely suitable to her material. 

Maxine Clair

Born in 1939 and raised in Kansas City, Maxine Clair was 55 when Rattlebone was first published. It received good attention but was not a best-seller. She had been pursuing a career in medical technology, but changed to creative writing, publishing poems and a novel called October Suite, featuring the schoolteacher October Brown – not available in the UK. She is still teaching creative writing. 

The Guardian Review by Nick Duerden in June 2023 refers to Rattlebone as ‘a small perfectly formed classic’.

It was also reviewed on her blog by Heaven Ali in August 2023. You can read that review here. She says, ‘What Maxine Clair does beautifully though is to give us a snapshot of a place in time, that sense of time and place is present in every word she writes.’

Rattlebone by Maxine Clair, first published in the US in 1994. Now available in the UK, published by Daunt Books in 2023, with an introduction by Okechukwu Nzelu. 138pp 

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The Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg

Natalia Ginzburg was a writer with a very direct and precise style. Here are the first lines of The Dry Heart:

‘Tell me the truth,’ I said.
‘What truth?’ he echoed. He was making a rapid sketch in his notebook and now he showed me what it was: a long, long train with a big cloud of black smoke swirling over it and himself leaning out of the window to wave a handkerchief.
I shot him between the eyes. (1)

Just over 100 pages later this scene is retold. In the pages between the unnamed narrator describes her meeting with Alberto, their walks together, how they married and how the marriage fell apart, all within four years.

This intense and rather shocking novella is newly available in the translation from the Italian by Frances Frenaye, published by Daunt Books. Here is my response to it as part of Women in Translation Month 2023.

The Dry Heart

This novel was first published in 1940, in Italian. The blurb makes a great deal of the anonymous narrator’s apparently casual attitude to the murder she commits, (‘she shoots her husband and walks to a café for a coffee’) – cool as you like. But it quickly becomes clear that she is not level-headed, or cold-blooded. She has been suffering in an exceedingly dreadful marriage. Unlike many novels containing murder, this one does not leave you wondering who committed the crime, or how it was done. That cleared out of the way, the narrator goes to have her coffee and the reader gets to think about why she might have done such a dreadful thing. What is the truth of this event?

In concise, spare and unbroken narrative, the anonymous wife describes their meeting, four years before, their subsequent marriage, and descent into awfulness. Alberto has a long-term lover and is unable to stop himself leaving the narrator periodically to meet up with Giovanna. 

They appeared unsuited from the start. He is much older than her: 40 to her 26. She is much taller than him. She is lonely in the city where she has come from a rural background to teach in a school. He is a confident city-dweller and enjoys showing her around. She finds pleasure in her time with Alberto, and believes she is falling in love. She is surprised that he makes no affectionate move towards her and challenges him. He too has enjoyed their talks and walks together and is lonely himself as his mother has just died. He agrees to marry her. They live in his mother’s house.

In due course they have a daughter who, like her mother, is never named. But although Alberto is affectionate towards the child their lives become more separate, until the death of the child when she is about 2 years old. Alberto comforts his wife in her grief, but soon takes up his old ways. As he is about the leave her again for time with Giovanna the narrator challenges him. She asks for the truth, and not getting it she shoots him between the eyes. Thus it begins and ends. A tough novella about a marriage that should never have happened and ended in murder.

In part it is a novel that describes loneliness, of both husband and wife. Here she describes being alone and without confidence when she first arrived in the city.

When a girl is very much alone and leads a tiresome and monotonous existence, with worn gloves and very little spending money, she may let her imagination run wild and find herself defenceless before all the errors and pitfalls which imagination has devised to deceive her. I was a weak and unarmed victim of imagination as I read Ovid to eighteen girls huddled in a cold classroom or ate my meals in the dingy boarding house dining room, peering out through the yellow window panes as I waited for Alberto to take me out walking or to a concert. (6-7)

After spending her summer holidays with her parents she returns to the city. She has not heard from Alberto. He does not call. She explains that this is how she fell in love with him: imagining his life, what he is doing, becoming obsessed with him, ‘sitting all powdered and primped in my boarding house bedroom’ waiting for him to appear. 

Alberto is older than his wife, but no wiser, and unable to extricate himself from his lover. They live two lives separately, in separate beds after the birth of the daughter. He disappears periodically. She sees her life narrow to the care of their baby. She has little idea of an alternative to her life. Her cousin Francesca tries to persuade her to leave Alberto.

‘Let’s go for a trip somewhere. He’s a little rat of a man. What good is he to you?’
‘I love him,’ I said, ‘and then there’s the baby.’
‘But he’s deceiving you. He does it in the most blatant sort of way. I see them together sometimes. She has a behind like a cauliflower. Nothing much to look at.’ (54)

The spare, intense prose makes direct contact with the reader. There is little reported speech, and few names. Not only do we never discover the names of the narrator and her daughter, but the city is not identified either. And although the Second World War had been over for three years before the book’s publication, it seems to have left no shadow on this book, not on the story anyway. No one is reported to have died, or been imprisoned, and the city has not been damaged. The war does not appear to have been in any character’s backstory.

Leone and Natalia Ginzburg before February 1944 when Leone Ginzburg died. Source unknown via wikicommons

The absence is strange, for the author had not had a comfortable time during the war, being known to have left-wing tendencies, and to be Jewish. Her first husband was tortured for his activities against the Fascist regime resulting in his death in 1944. They had three children.

There are also some lighter moments in this bleak account. In the boarding house where the narrator lives when she first came to the city, she imagines the pleasures of her own establishment as a contrast to how she lives.

The boarding house was gloomy, with dark hangings and upholstery, and in the room next to mine a colonel’s widow knocked on the wall with a hairbrush every time I opened the window or moved a chair. I had to get up early … The colonel’s widow knocked furiously on the wall while I moved about the room looking for my clothes, and in the bathroom the landlady’s hysterical daughter screeched like a peacock while they gave her a warm shower which was supposed to calm her down. (6)

Such vivid details add authenticity to this account.

Jacquiwine’s review in July 2023 is enthusiastic and points to the humour in the novel.

The Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg was first published in Italian as È stato cosi in 1949. The English translation by Frances Frenaye was published in 1949. I used the edition by Daunt Books published in 2021. 108pp

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Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

Manhattan – the last time I was there was in 1969. It was so unfamiliar to me when I picked up this novel that I had to relearn the names and order of the Avenues, and look up the position of some of the most famous landmarks. I also had to use a Google map to follow Lillian Boxfish’s path through the city. I am not surprised that Daunt Books published this, as a bookseller Daunt’s is associated with travel books and the novel is so strongly set in the city of New York. 

I remember New York as a lively city, full of excitement and strangeness. It was noisy and dirty and I imagined I would be back soon. This was my return. And it was such fun. Lillian Boxfish was an ideal walking companion, a flâneuse with class.

This is the 49th novel in the series championing older women in fiction in order to make them more visible. You can find the complete list of reviews and suggested books in the series here.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

The book is set in 1984/5 beginning on New Year’s Eve. Finding herself alone on an evening which is typically celebrated in company, Lillian decides to take a walk. She has lived in Manhattan since 1921 and so now she walks first to her usual Italian restaurant, then to another in south Manhattan, then to a party in Chelsea and finally home. On the way she passes some landmarks of her life and we learn about her history.

The plot is tightly focused on Manhattan. Lillian does not stray further north than 42nd Street. The city has changed since she moved there in the 1920s: muggers, skyscrapers, the new World Trade Towers, loft conversions, Korean-run bodegas and so forth. We also get to reflect on how the city has continued to change since then.

Lillian Boxfish

Lillian is 84/5 and inspired by the real life Margaret Fishback. Like her inspiration,  Lillian has worked as a copywriter for Macy’s store, becoming rich and successful as a result of her poetic sales pitches. She also wrote books of guidance for young women and verse, often humorous, including for greetings cards when she lost her job at Macy’s. She was successful, she was well paid and had a lively social life. Unlike her contemporaries did not want to get married. But Lillian fell in love and married Max, and later became pregnant. 

Of course she lost her job when she became pregnant. This was the late 1930s. Her husband, being Italian-speaking, spent the war years away, and their lives were not the same on his return. They became less happy together and he was unfaithful. She descended into alcoholism, and an attempted suicide before being sent to a sanatorium and receiving electric shock treatment. 

By the time of this walk Max, her husband, had been dead for many years. His second wife is dying and her son Johnny lives with his own family away from the city in Maine. Her best friend also died a few years earlier. Her new friend is welcoming, but their shared interests are limited. She has no-one to share her New Year’s meal with.

Despite her isolation Lillian is a very sociable person, speaking to many strangers on her perambulation. She is also not your stereotypical elder, not scared of the city, even at night. When she meets a group of three muggers as she returns home, she stands up to them and a curious and successful bargain is struck. The incident reminds us of a conversation with her son early in the novel. He requested that she should not walk on the streets and reminded her about the Subway Vigilante who shot four young muggers when they asked him for five dollars. What if she had taken her grandsons on the subway? The people of New York are idolising him, she says.

‘I walk everywhere dearest,’ I say. And it’s true: I like the exercise, and the subway cars are graffitied with so much text it’s like being screamed at, like the voices inside my head and everyone else’s have manifested their yelling outside, ill-spelled with spray paint. ‘And we weren’t on that train. And he isn’t shooting elderly ladies and adorable tots.’
‘But guys like the guys he shot are everywhere. Hoods. Gangs. Toughs. Whatever you want to call them.’
‘I would not resist if young thugs approached me for money,’ I say. ‘I would acquiesce. I agree with Governor Cuomo that a vigilante spirit is dangerous. Rude, too.’
‘Rude?’ he says.
‘Yes Gian. Incivility is not incivility’s antidote. […] New Year is bigger than any mugger, the way it makes people feel. Being old is depressing. The Subway Vigilante is depressing. But I love it here, this big rotten apple. I’m near my old haunts, my sycamore trees, my trusty R.H. Macy’s.’ (11-12)

We can see she is a woman of considerable spirit, although her breakdown which we learn about half way through was so serious she needed shock treatment to recover. And we learn at the end of the book, she did not acquiesce to the muggers, but together they struck their own bargain. She’s a lively creature, who maintains her standards, especially of honesty and of engaging respectfully with others. 

The extract above also illustrates a feature of this book. The reader is given insight into her thoughts, which are often witty ripostes or reflections on the world as she sees it. We notice by this means the rich inner life she has cultivated for herself, that she has not been diminished by her experiences or by her age. She has loved many aspects of her life, and been as much in charge of it as she could be.  

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney published in 2017. UK publisher is Daunt Books. 277pp

Recent posts in the Older Women in Fiction Series

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail

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