Tag Archives: Goldsmiths Prize

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

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

Morayo de Silva

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

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

Later she tells us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun

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

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

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

Sarah Ladipo Manyika

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

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

Recent posts in the older women in fiction series:

Penelope Lively How it All Began

Velma Wallis Two Old Women

Tillie Olsen Tell me a Riddle

Yewande Omotoso The Woman Next Door

Please make suggestions for further fiction for this series.

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

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews

How to be both by Ali Smith

Even if you haven’t read How to be both, you probably know two things about it. First, it has been getting noticed for many literary prizes:BWPFF 2015 logo

  • LONGLISTED FOR THE BAILEYS WOMEN’S PRIZE FOR FICTION 2015
  • WINNER OF THE GOLDSMITHS PRIZE 2014
  • SHORTLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2014
  • WINNER OF THE 2014 COSTA NOVEL AWARD
  • WINNER OF THE SALTIRE SOCIETY LITERARY BOOK OF THE YEAR AWARD 2014
  • SHORTLISTED FOR THE FOLIO PRIZE 2015

The second thing you may have heard about this book is that it is in two halves and it is a matter of chance whether your copy starts with George’s story or Francesco’s. The reader cannot escape or answer the question of how it would have been different to start with the other story. And the reader must also ask themselves about the relationship between George’s and Francesco’s halves. This is the idea I enjoyed most about the book – its exploration of ambiguity. Are you looking at this? Demands Ali Smith, asking the reader to do some work.

What is the book about?

160 How to be bothPart One (in my copy) is about George, a teenage girl in the present day, who has recently lost her mother. Her father’s grief is expressed in drinking and the care of her younger brother Henry falls to George. It is narrated in the present tense as we follow George undertaking rituals and activities in response to her mother’s death. We also see the closeness of her relationship with her mother. So here’s a ‘both’. Her mother is dead but also very much part of George’s life. ‘Because how can someone just vanish?’

Despite her grief George is able to make relationships with Mrs Rock, her school counsellor, and with Helena Fisker, aka H, a school friend who is also something of an outsider. And her search to hold onto her mother leads her to follow the mysterious white haired woman, Lisa Goliar, and to Room 55 in the National Gallery, where there is picture by Francesco del Cossa of St Vincent Ferrer.

One of the joys of Ali Smith’s writing is her description, her ability to evoke a picture in words. This extract is from George’s close examination of the frescoes at Ferrara, also by Francesco del Cossa.

It is like everything is in layers. Things happen right at the front of the pictures and at the same time they continue happening, both separately and connectedly, behind, and behind that, and again behind that, like you can see in perspective, for miles. Then there are the separate details, like that man with the duck. They’re also happening on their own terms. The picture makes you look at both – the close-up happenings and the bigger picture. Looking at the man with the duck is like seeing how everyday and how almost comic cruelty is. The cruelty happens in among everything else happening. It is an amazing way to show how ordinary cruelty really is. (p53 in version starting with George’s story)

160 St VincentThe other Part One opens with the spirit of Francesco del Cossa emerging from the canvas to see a boy sitting in the Gallery in front of the painting of St Vincent Ferrer. The arrangement of the text on the page clearly tells us that Francesco’s story has a tortuous beginning. It recalls the mouse’s tail/tale in Alice in Wonderland. And the ‘boy’ is of course George, and there is a point to Francesco mistaking her/him.

Francesco’s biography is told in the first person; childhood talent with drawing, mother’s death, modest success as a jobbing painter, including the frescos at Ferrara which so enchanted Ali Smith (as they did George’s mother). You can find Francesco del Cossa’s April here.

Francesco captures a beautiful moment near the end of her part, observing George as she keeps watch outside her mother’s friend’s house. She has been doing this for many days, and previously an old lady has brought her tea or a blanket. The prose is odd because it is from a renaissance artist after all, but it is tender.

Today there will be blossom in the study the girl will make cause the trees in the street round this house she is looking so hard at have the beginnings in them of some of the several possible greens and some, the blossoming ones, have opened their flowers overnight, some pink among the branches, some loaded with white.

Today when the old woman came out of her house she brought nothing but for the first time sat down on her own poorly made wall behind the girl in silence and companionable.

There are bees : there was a butterfly.

That blossom will smell good to those who can smell blossom.

How the air throws it into a dance. (326 in version starting with George’s story)

Both parts subvert the idea that the world is divided into binary categories: male/female, dead/alive, old/young, gay/straight. Even your identity can be muddled with another’s, for example on a mobile phone.

What’s to enjoy about this book?

There is so much to enjoy in this book. In our book group, half the readers began with George’s story and the others with Francesco’s. Both liked the way they had entered the novel although we agreed that Francesco’s story has a more challenging opening.

We found the main characters, George and Francesco to be very sympathetic and wanted to know what would happen to them as they confront their difficulties. Although there is not a great deal of action, the novel is carefully plotted, without being obvious, and the structure echoes the theme of ambivalence and ambiguity, simultaneously being different things, being both.

I enjoy a novel that treats the reader as intelligent and makes demands. I also enjoy wit, cleverness and intriguing titles, dialogue and names. I hope you noticed the names. And the prose, even when it needs close attention, is inventive and lively. There are many small linguistic sparkles.

This book took me to Room 55 in the National Gallery to consider Francesco’s painting of St Vincent Ferrer. And now I would like to visit Ferrara as Ali Smith described in an article in The Observer. Some of fresoes are reproduced in the article.

I enjoyed this review of How to be Both on the blog called JacquiWine’s Journal.

I have enjoyed two previous books by Ali Smith: The Accidental and There but for the. In both these novels existing social groups and ordinary lives were disrupted by intruders. Look, she says. Can you see that.

 

How to be both by Ali Smith (2014) published by Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Books) 371pp

To ensure you are notified of future blogposts please subscribe to email notifications by entering your email address in the box.

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews