Tag Archives: faber and faber

Women Talking by Miriam Toews

What an amazing writer Miriam Toews is. I read A Complicated Kindness over a decade ago on the recommendation of another writer on an Arvon course, who admired the voice of the narrator. I was fascinated by the Mennonite community and the narrator’s childhood. And then there was All My Puny Sorrows. This is how I introduced that book on an earlier post.

This is a novel that holds you tight, makes sure you don’t escape. Look, it says, look! What do you do when someone you love really, really wants to end her life? Someone like your sister? Do you help her? How do you help?

I reread it earlier this year for my reading group. It had the same effect on me all over again, as if I held my breath from start to finish.

Women Talking

Women Talking takes the Mennonite community and extraordinarily difficult circumstances for its starting point. The women of the Molotshna community gather in secret to decide whether to leave or stay. Even this small act of meeting without permission is transgressive. It has not been sanctioned by the menfolk.

The events that have led to this meeting are drawn from real life and they are shocking. In 2005-9 in a Mennonite community in Bolivia it was found that many of the women and girls had been repeatedly raped at night by men within their community. The women and girls were drugged with animal anaesthetic and when they woke, sore, bloodied, bruised and confused their injuries were put down to visits from ghosts, demons, or as divine punishment for their sins. But one day a young man was caught. He confessed and implicated others. Because of the seriousness and extent of the crimes the community elders decided to hand over the matter to the police, despite usually handling matters of law and order themselves. 

Women Talking is both a reaction through fiction to these true-life events, and an act of female imagination .[From A Note on the Novel by the author]

In Women Talking the women are facing the return on bail of the men, needed for the farm work on which the community depends. All the able men of Molotshna have gone to the nearby town to provide the bail money. In their absence the women meet to discuss two options, having rejected the choice of doing nothing. They can stay or they can leave.

The novel is presented as the notes of a sympathetic man, who had been invited by the women to record what they say. The women have not been allowed to learn to read or write. August Epp is something of an outsider in the community, having lived outside it. 

Eight women meet in secret in a hayloft to arrive at their decision before the men return. They have suffered from the nighttime attacks and some of them are pregnant. Together they consider their options and the implications of anything they do. The reader has some sense of the limitations placed on the lives of the women up to this point, how the community and their men determine what they can do. Now for the first time they must make decisions.

Most of the book is Epp’s report of their conversations. Miriam Toews has said that she found it hard to write, keeping track of the women and making it digestible to the reader. The two youngest girls are teenagers, and often up to mischief together

Autje and Neitje, I notice, have removed their kerchiefs and braided their long hair together, into one braid, so they are conjoined. (59).

Ona is favoured by Epp, and is playful and determined in equal measure.

[Greta] asks: What will happen if the men refuse to meet our demands?

Ona responds: We will kill them.

Autje and Neitje gasp, then smile tentatively. (58)

As the discussion goes on, exploring every possibility, the women pose themselves a question: is leaving their husbands to save their children an act of disobedience, and if so according to what authority? They come to see that, because they cannot read, they have relied upon the men to tell them what is in the Bible. It is the central point of their discussion. They discuss disobedience.

It’s a word that the men of Molotshna would use, not God.

That’s true, says Mejal. God might define it otherwise, our leaving. […]

(I am struck by a thought: Perhaps it is the first time the women of Molotshna have interpreted the word of God for themselves.) (159)

The manner of this discussion is striking. As they explore the possibilities, they reason and support each other. They do not try to score points, nor come to the discussion with their mind made up. This is a dialogue, their attempt to arrive together at a decision they could not reach on their own through their shared explorations. This is women talking.

Another aspect of their discussion is how philosophical it is. The women are in new territory, so it is not surprising that they arrive at a point of questioning the authority of the men. 

I won’t reveal what the women decide to do. The future of all members of the community is uncertain. As it always is for everybody.

Talking about her purpose in writing this book Miriam Toews said

I know the book could be viewed as me making a political statement through a fictional narrative, which wasn’t really my intent. My goal is always to tell a story and to create characters that will move the reader. But I’m of course a feminist. I have a need to challenge that status quo that I’ve experienced. [From an interview with Katrina Onstad in the Guardian 18.8.18]

You won’t be surprised that the book is endorsed on the cover by Margaret Atwood.

Women Talking by Miriam Toews (2018) Faber and Faber216pp

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Transit by Rachel Cusk

A few months ago I reported on my reactions to the first in Rachel Cusk’s trilogy, called Outline. I found myself appreciating that the novel was daring, experimental and challenging to the reader. I noted an absence of story, at least in the usual sense of a narrative beginning, middle and end. Yet the attentive reader is rewarded with a perspective on the world that is moving and intelligent. 

Now I have read Transitwhich shares a narrator, Faye who is a fiction writer, and also reports the stories told to Faye by the people she meets.

Transit

The title suggests the passage of people from one situation to another. The narrator herself is moving from the end of her marriage to establishing a home with her sons in London. Her house is being transformed. The stories she is told provide illustration of transition, movement, passage of all kinds: stages in life, from one country to another, the process of writing, relationships between people over time, from one marriage to the next and so on.

Faye is to a great extent the passive filter of these stories. She offers them as if to challenge the reader to find the themes, the communalities, the differences, their own meanings. But although the fiction is that the original narrators of the stories are people Faye has met more or less randomly, this is a conceit. Rachel Cusk has chosen them, crafted. This is consciously and carefully wrought writing.

Questioning the assumptions of the novel

I was intrigued by the novelist’s suggestion that ‘character does not exist anymore’. This was more than intriguing, challenging even, as my major work on my own novel at the moment is in the development of the character of one of the protagonists. 

The assertion is reported in the transcript of a conversation that appears in the New Yorker: “I don’t think character exists anymore.” A Conversation with Rachel Cusk by Alexander Schwartz (18thNovember 2018). 

What I understood from her responses to the lengthy questions about all three novels in the Outline trilogy is that she is attempting to challenge or even to violate the traditional novel and those assumptions that have been handed down from our Victorian forebears. She says that this meant she had to break her own style, which she employed in her previous novels and which have been described as conventional.

By changing the style, for example at the level of the sentence, reducing the idea of the self then ‘other things change their proportions and relationships to each other and to you.’ Her purpose is to consider what remains or appears when the assumptions of the old forms of fiction are challenged and replaced.

She goes on, for example, to question our assumptions about the connections between how we live our lives and what we call character. We no longer live our lives, she suggests, through the ideas of character which we inherited and have never questioned from the Victorian ideas of writers and our ancestorss. 

So what emerges from this revised form? This is a novel for the thinking reader. Not a tightly plotted novel where the conclusion must not be revealed (‘I don’t believe in suspense.’) In Transit we are again exposed to some important themes about relationships, especially between women and men, about hate, about control and responsibility, and, of course, of the purpose of a writer and of writing fiction. 

Transit by Rachel Cusk, published by Faber & Faber in 2016258pp

See also Outline by Rachel Cusk, on this blog in October 2018.

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5 books for World Book Day

Thursday 5th March is World Book Day. At my grandson’s pre-school they are asked to dress up as a favourite character from a book. I wonder what people would think if I accompanied my Gruffalo to pre-school down the village street dressed as Elizabeth Bennett.

Remove that thought and consider instead five world books – my contribution to the celebrations.157 book pile

  1. Stone in a Landslide, by Maria Barbal (2008) Peirene Press. Translated from the Catalan by Laura McGoughlin and Paul Mitchell

The story concerns Conxa who at the age of 13 leaves her too-big family to live with her childless aunt in a nearby village in the hillside. It is the early 1920s. She lives a patient and level headed life, marries Jaume and has three children by him. The village community is everything, with its customs, rituals, tolerances and slow change until the Civil War intervenes and her husband is taken from her.

157 Stone coverThis is the quiet story of a woman living close to subsistence level, valuing family connections, friends, differences, and respect built up by years of honouring and community. Large events shape life, as do poverty, seasons, the demands of land, family and animals.

Each stone in the landslide is necessary to the existence of the landslide; each stone is affected by others around them; a landslide is dangerous.

One of my bookish pleasures is my subscription to Peirene Press, which each year brings me three novellas, translations of European fiction. Here’s a second Peirene publication.

  1. Under the Tripoli Sky, by Kamal Ben Hameda (2011) Peirene. Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

157 Triploi coverA boy grows up in Tripoli before Gadafi comes to power. The heat of the city, the poverty of many families, the iron conventions that ruled the lives of women are all evoked. The child is lonely and spends much of his time with women. The novel is suffused with affection for women, their humour and warmth (including physical warmth), their resilience and their resolution in the face of bad treatment and abuse by men. We are treated to the physical sweet smelling environment of women, together with much spicy and tasty and sweet food. This is a book about the divisions of life between male and female, and adults and children in Libya at the time.

  1. Zebra Crossing, by Meg Vandermerwe (2013) Oneworld

157 Z Crossing coverFrom the southern end of the African continent comes a novel by a Zimbabwean about migration into South Africa. It’s a grim story of exploitation of immigrants and life on the underside of poverty.

Chipo is an albino Zimbabwean, who following the death of her mother from AIDs escapes with her brother George by crossing to South Africa. They live in a shared room with twins from their home village.

It is the year of the World Cup and there are rumours of xenophobic violence after the final. Chipo and her brother cook up a scheme with Dr Ongani to use Chipo’s appearance to cast magic for people who bet on the World Cup. This leads to her exploitation, imprisonment and eventual abandonment.

Recommended on Annecdotalist’s blog.

  1. In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs (2012) faber and faber

148 Orchard coverI reviewed this book in January 2015, recommending it for its fragility and poetic qualities.

In northern Pakistan the unnamed narrator has returned to his family farm and the pomegranate orchard, which he loved as a child. Everything has changed for he has been in prison for 15 years, since he was a boy of 14. He sits in the orchard and writes.

The novel asks, what sustains people in extreme pain? And what heals them?

  1. Americanah, by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie (2013) 4th Estate

Shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014.

This is a long book about Ifemelu and her childhood boyfriend Obinze growing up in Nigeria at the time of military dictatorship. Both aspire to escape as soon as possible. Ifemelu goes to America where she stays for 17 years. Obinze tries to follow her, can’t get a visa, so goes to the UK and is deported. At the time of the story Ifemelu is planning to return to Lagos, and Obinze is a married man, made rich by some suspect property deals for a man known as Chief.

The story is framed by Ifemelu’s trip to get her hair prepared for her journey home, which takes hours and she has to travel from Princeton to a less salubrious part of New Haven to find the right shop. She reflects on her life in America, as a student, attempting to find work, even taking some sex work, and then beginning her blog, which is successful enough to bring her an income.

Obinze in the meantime has had to demean himself in the UK, rent the identity of another person to work and live in pretty squalid conditions. He is on the point of getting the right to remain through marriage when he is deported.

157 Americanah coverThe more interesting themes of this novel are to do with identity and home country, race, blogging, the effects of life on relationships, and vice versa. Much of the story is about the on-off communications between Ifemelu and Obinze during her absence, and then when she returns. In the end … Well it is a love story.

 

What world books would you recommend?

 

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