Elusiveness of Existence: The Hour of the Star

“But Macabéa in general didn’t worry about her own future: having a future was a luxury.”

Although Clarice Lispector’s final novel, The Hour of the Star (translated by Benjamin Moser), is a slim volume, no less than the creation of the cosmos serves as its opening. Author Rodrigo S. M. (the book’s narrator), unable to decide where he should begin recounting the tragic tale of his young character, Macabéa, chooses prehistory. It’s all the more a remarkable place to start, given that the narrator emphasizes how insignifcant Macabéa is: she could be readily replaced by any other girl like her. But in Lispector’s contemplative work, this signals the novel’s philosophical concerns with poverty, identity, and existence itself. Because if Macabéa is practically interchangeable with countless other poor, northeastern girls of Brazil, she also symbolizes them and becomes something akin to an archetype whose ancient roots are difficult to pinpoint. Rodrigo seems to ask: Have girls like her existed since life has?

“Make no mistake, I only achieve simplicity with enormous effort.”

From this perspective, it’s little wonder that Rodrigo suffers as he writes about Macabéa’s humble life. Lispector’s dichotomous characters illustrate both the difficulty in truly understanding another’s existence and with communication.1 In many ways her opposite (well-educated, clearly older, and affluent), the narrator anxiously strives to pare down his linguistic excesses, because they don’t suit Macabéa’s circumstances. Yet, Rodrigo often fails to retain this simplicity as he expounds on his writing process or as he struggles to explain Macabéa’s “delicate and vague existence”. His attempt to bring himself closer to the virginal Macabéa’s level—by swearing off sex and sports—is undermined as he dines on fruit and sips on chilled wine, luxuries unavailable to her. Here, Lispector entertains the possibilities of empathy while delineating its boundaries. Though pained by his efforts to relate Macabéa’s tale, Rodrigo acknowledges that he writes because he “has questions and no answers”. Macabéa, in contrast, questions nothing and is happy simply because she believes, though not in any specific deity, person, or thing. Rodgrigo’s attempts to define this young woman and her elusive grace seems only to cause him to question himself instead (“Am I a monster?”).2

“But Macabéa in general didn’t worry about her own future: having a future was a luxury.”

As the unlovely Macabéa’s tale finally takes shape, her existence proves to be as undernourished as her body is: orphaned as a child and suffering from rickets, raised by an indifferent aunt, and transplanted from her rural town to Rio de Janeiro, where her life (once her aunt dies) is a lonely one. This young lady’s life is also circumscribed by its material lack. Possessing only three years of education, listening to the radio is a source of unexpected beauty (when she first hears opera) and confusion (when radio hosts discuss unfamilar words/concepts such as “culture”). Lispector’s point that she resembles thousands of girls like her, underscored by Rodrigo’s ineffective guilt that he should do something for this fictional girl, makes a grim point about the haves and have nots.3 Unfortunately for Macabéa, no forthcoming rescue or deeper connection forged with another occurs. Although she briefly attracts the attentions of Olímpico (another northeasterner), he leaves her for her more attractive coworker, Glória. Glória’s guilt prompts her to help Macabéa in some way, but this assistance unintentionally imperils Macabéa. Without revealing too many details, Macabea’s life explodes into that of a “thousand-pointed star” as she departs it, leaving behind Rodrigo—an author powerless to save her—attempting to divert himself from thinking about his own eventual demise.

Summary

The Hour of the Star recalls a certain adage about judging books by their appearance. As someone new to Lispector’s work,4 I wasn’t sure what to expect from such a slim book (under 80 pages), but I was pleasantly surprised to discover this serious meditation on life, death, poverty, writing, etc., complicating a seemingly simple story. The Hour of the Star is a must for a thinking readers, as it gives its audience much to mull over long after its cover is closed.

NOTES:


  1. In Macabéa’s case, she often is misunderstood or unheard even when speaking quite clearly (eg, “As for the future.”). Also of interest, Rodrigo reveals here that he lived in the northeast as a boy. 
  2. Lispector can be somewhat playful in considering identity. Rodrigo, in observing that no one would miss a poor girl like Macabéa, realizes he, too, could be replaced—but only by a man, since a woman “would make it all weepy and maudlin”. Certainly, it’s an amusing idea in an unsentimental novel written by a woman, one that also permits  Lispector to draw a line between herself and Rodrigo and subtly indicate that, though they’re both from the northeast, they are not one and the same. 
  3. In keeping with Lispector’s desire for empathy (whatever its limits may be), Rodrigo encourages wealthy and middle readers to step outside themselves and attempt to experience her life. He assumes poor readers will need not do so. 
  4. This novel appeared on several recommendation lists associated with #witmonth, the month (August) dedicated to reading works by women in translation. 

Review of The Chicken Soup Murder

The Chicken Soup Murder, Maria Donovan’s debut novel, is a moving story about loss and justice. It focuses on a close-knit band of neighbors whose lives are upended by the young deaths of two of their own: first, Janey’s father to cancer and then Irma to “natural causes”. But was Irma’s unexpected death a murder? Michael, her 11-year-old neighbor and the story’s narrator, is stubbornly convinced that Irma’s boyfriend—a police constable, no less—murdered her. No one else, even his Nan, Zene—who worried about Irma after previous electrical mishap occurred following her boyfriend’s DIY project—shares Michael’s suspicions. Although Michael argues she “can’t just have died”, it can happen as his Nan and others point out. Donovan neatly balances Michael’s certainty with adult doubts about his reliability in a manner that leaves readers nonetheless sympathetic to Michael.1

But the heart of Donovan’s novel isn’t its mysteries, but in how it truly inhabits the world of the grieving and how it traces the aftermath of these deaths. Irma and Zene’s decision to live life more fully2 following the loss of Janey’s dad leads Irma to Shawn Bull and his son, George. The perhaps too-aptly-named Bulls become entrenched in Irma’s life, damaging her friendships with her neighbors as she adopts Shawn’s rather less empathetic views.  Michael and Janey are instantly recognizable as youths on the cusp of maturity, a triumph on Donovan’s part (her careful characterization even shows how Janey’s year ahead in school makes her less naïve than Michael). Both are caught in this tide of grief even as their lives go ever onward, the seasons marked by sports and school. Michael is perhaps literally haunted by Irma’s loss and is pained that his grief is unacknowledged by the greater community that doesn’t understand he had a closer relationship with Irma than George did. Janey struggles to cope with her dad’s loss and her mother’s resulting deep depression, alternates between parenting her mother and being infuriated with her—and occasionally, Michael as she worries that he’s forgotten her father (he hasn’t). Among the more poignant moments stem from Zene’s counsel to Janey “The league tables of grief. But it’s not a competition, Janey. Nobody wins.”3 Indeed.

Michael is a remarkable character, a generally sensitive boy whose love for Irma propels him into the awkward role of avenger. But it’s his determination to do right by Irma that raises questions about the lengths to which it’s appropriate to pursue truth or protect loved ones. The degrees in which the novel explores right and wrong here, range from childhood misdemeanors to adults behaving badly, with shades of grey in between. Michael, once bullied by George, in turns is accused of (and occasionally does) torment George. Shawn isn’t above threatening Michael or Zene to protect his son, even after Michael rescues George from certain death. Zene’s decision to keep mum about Michael’s parents and their incarceration (“Best left alone”4) proves to be problematic in several ways. Without giving too much away, her decision to do what she “thought was best” leaves her in a vulnerable position because she has kept secrets from her grandson.

The Chicken Soup Murder lets us coexist in the sometimes messy lives of the bereaved and wronged. Satisfyingly, it doesn’t have easy resolutions or simple fixes for strained relations. Nonetheless, the novel ends on a hopeful note that things will at least be addressed and may change for the better.

Summary: The Chicken Soup Murder is an engrossing, well-paced novel. An unconventional mystery, it features believable characters whose heartbreak is palpable and who occasionally infuriate us with their choices. Narrator Michael is an engaging and often funny, particularly when he doesn’t get adult references. Much like life, there are no easy fixes but hope persists.

NOTES:


  1. The adults in the novel lean towards dismissing Michael’s views—partly because he’s made up stories in the past and partly because he doesn’t get disclose all he observed immediately after Irma died. Since the readers know more, it would be difficult for them to so casually dismiss Michael’s concerns. 
  2. Ironically, this seems to have indirectly led to Irma’s death. 
  3. For the non-sporty/confused fellow Americans, league tables refers to football (soccer) stats. Football is very much present in this chapter, so it’s an apt metaphor. 
  4. This point is particularly infuriating when Zene points out Michael never asked about his parents, as though her earlier discouragement might not have played a role! 

Summer Reading and Women Writers

Summer seems to finally be here, and it looks promising for reading more works written by women writers.

Summer seems to finally be here, and it looks promising for reading more works written by women writers. Recently, the Women’s Writer Network held their second Twitter chat of 2018 on June 5th. This time, our discussion focused on women writing the city, and we had an engaging conversation about how the urban landscape appears in writing. You can check out the highlights here and find our reading recommendations lists here.1 These chats tend to be inspiring, both for generating ideas about and for writing as well as providing opportunities for discovering (or rediscovering) authors. I’ll be sure to announce the next Twitter chat (planning already underway!) when details become available.

Additionally, Reading Women is celebrating their second year podcasting. As I discussed last year, Reading Women, dedicated to reclaiming half the bookshelf, focus on works written by and about women. In additional to the #readingwomenmonth photo challenge (I’m participating again this year), they are debuting a Mrs. Dalloway read along (incidentally, one of the books mentioned during Women Writer’s Network Twitter Chat) as well as other events described here.2

Finally, another opportunity to read more women writers will be in August, which is Women in Translation month. Founded by Meytal Radzinski in 2014, this event seems to grow every year. In addition to Meytal’s 2018 #witmonth resources page, you can check out the Translationista blog run by Susan Bernofsky and the Women in Translation blog (run by women translators) for more ideas and information. I’ll be discussing more about #witmonth when we get closer to August.

The Recs Lists

If you need additional suggestions for your reading list, I’m recommending several books I’ve read. Links will takes you to post I’ve written focusing on the books or their writing approaches.

Finally, check out these articles that list more amazing works by women writers:

For more ideas, you can also take a look at last year’s recommendations. Happy reading, everyone! And as always, feel free to share your suggestions!

NOTES:


  1. You can see the highlights for this year’s first Women Writer’s Network chat on Women Writers and the Environment here. The Goodreads list is available here
  2. I’ve just won a giveaway from Reading Women! 

Lifting The Bell Jar

Plath dispels the notion that people with mental illnesses are monstrous (think Bertha from Jane Eyre). She also demonstrates that psychological distress can occur even in fortunate circumstances.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise involved with properly reading Sylvia Plath’s novel,1 The Bell Jar, is discovering how a coming-of-age story set in the summer of 1953 manages to seem contemporary even as it remains so firmly rooted in its own period.2 Undoubtedly, there are timeless aspects to story arcs that move characters from innocence to experience, just as we find that the issues women grapple with in this book (the double standard, for one) are all too familiar. But what makes The Bell Jar so relatable is its captivating protagonist, Esther Greenwood. Esther is witty, sensitive, occasionally angry, often funny—and not at all what a reader expects to discover in a novel renowned for its suicidal heroine.3 But as The Bell Jar often proves, our assumptions don’t always match our expectations.

“There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.”

The Grim and the Glamorous

From the outset, the sharply observant Esther is aware of how appearances might mislead. Plath’s narrator, an older Esther, describes the morbid thoughts she had about executions and cadavers when she spent part of her summer in New York City at age 19. But from the outside, Esther’s life seems to have all the hallmarks of an American success story: Hailing from an impoverished middle-class background, she’s a “scholarship girl” who wins a position as a summer intern at women’s magazine—an incredible opportunity for someone with writing aspirations—where she attends parties and receives gifts. As she explains, anyone would assume she was “having the time of [her] life” when she instead struggles to get “[her]self to react”. Just as Esther wryly undercuts the image of the glamorous party the interns attend by pointing out the male guests were hired for the photo shoot, Plath exposes the invisible illness haunting a smart young woman’s New York adventure. Plath’s handling here is sure: stereotypical portrayals of mental illness4 are eschewed by showing Esther as nearly indistinguishable from the other smiling interns (significantly, they’re dressed alike) in the magazine spread. In doing so, Plath dispels the notion that people with mental illnesses are monstrous (think Bertha from Jane Eyre). She also demonstrates that psychological distress can occur even in fortunate circumstances.

“So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about as numb as a slave in a totalitarian state.”

Psyche Under Pressure

Having stripped away Esther’s smiling veneer, Plath better acquaints the reader with Esther’s background and aspirations. Esther, as magazine editor Jay Cee quips, “wants to be everything”: writer, academic, editor, traveler, lover, wife and mother. And while they are the most socially acceptable choices, Esther feels most ambivalent towards marriage and motherhood. Raised by a widowed working mother, Esther sees the pitfalls of marriage (financial vulnerability, drudgery) more clearly than fellow intern, Betsy, a naïve Midwesterner who wants a traditional marriage. Doreen, in contrast, rebels against deadlines and social mores alike in her quest for adventure in New York. While Esther shares Doreen’s cynicism and humor, she finds Doreen’s seemingly violent sexual encounters repellent and untenable given her limited means. Esther is left with uncertainty, as neither model suits her.

This pattern holds true when Esther examines her options for the future, since her unconventional ambitions don’t mesh well with social expectations for women in the sexist 1950s. Evoking the image of a fig tree with diverging branches, Esther sees her choices as being mutually exclusive. Certainly, the various people attempting to influence her future path imply as much: instructors indicate family must be sacrificed for career, her mother pressures her to learn a marketable skill (dictation) instead of gambling on a writing career, society and family insists her proper role is that of wife, and chauvinist Buddy Willard, the boy she’s dating, insinuates a few kids might cure that urge to write poems.5 Coupled with her ongoing pressure to excel academically,6 Esther appears to experience herself almost as two fragments: the outwardly cheerful achiever and the angry hidden self who chafes against her limitations. Approaching her final year of school, she finds herself filled with crippling indecision and feels that her successes thus far are meaningless outside college.7 While there’s no definitive explanation as to what precipitates depression, Plath could be arguing that society is what ails Esther.

“I hated the very idea of the eighteenth century, with all those smug men writing tight little couplets and being so dead keen on reason.”

The Bell Jar Descends and Lifts

It is, however, apparent that an attempted rape rapidly followed by a serious academic disappointment serve as the triggering events for Esther’s mental health crisis. Although Esther’s breakdown is foreshadowed, the change it brings in her startles: she stops bathing, sleeps poorly, and, alarmingly, cannot write. Plath spends the latter half of the novel exploring misconceptions and stigmas surrounding mental health issues as well as critiquing how this illness is treated. Mrs. Greenwood, for example, fails to understand that Esther’s condition is not a choice and believes Esther could get better if she just tried or instead helped out others suffering greater misfortunes. As a layperson, her erroneous views are understandable, whereas Dr. Gordon (her first psychiatrist) disinterest in discussing her issues almost seems negligent, particularly after her prescribed shock therapy is administered incorrectly. Esther, desperate to avoid another traumatic shock session and convinced that her case is impossible, attempts suicide. Still alive and agitated, Esther is placed in a series of asylums. As it becomes clear to Esther once her scholarship sponsor pays for her to move to a better institution, money determines the quality of the patient’s care.

Not long after Esther settles into the new asylum, Esther meets Joan Gilling. Not only do they share the same hometown, church, and acquaintances, but they’ve both dated Buddy (neither are fans) and attempted suicide. While foils Betsy and Doreen represent extremes of sexual values, Joan serves as a near double to Esther since her journey through mental illness darkly mirrors Esther’s own until Joan succeeds in killing herself. While it’s never clear why one lives and the other does not, Joan’s death reminds readers and Esther’s alike that might also have been Esther’s fate. Esther, however, continues improving. And though some remain wary of her or wish to move on as though nothing happened (her mother in particular), Esther accepts that her illness is an important part of her history that she cannot ignore as there’s no guarantee that the bell jar wont’ descend again. It’s with this sobering, but clear-eyed acceptance that Esther moves toward whatever her future holds.

NOTES:


  1. Unlike the first time I picked it up and partially skimmed it during a busy term (I was studying abroad), which really didn’t do it justice. 
  2. And that includes the period’s casual racism and homophobia. Significantly, Esther kicks the only non-white character, a black worker at a mental institute, with little provocation. While her disturbed mindset plays a role in her aggression, she nonetheless appears to have at least some latent prejudices regarding race and sexual orientation. 
  3. While The Bell Jar is Plath’s roman à clef, I won’t be discussing making any comparisons with Plath’s life (something which has been done extensively anyway) as it tends to divert attention from discussing the book. 
  4. Plath makes this point repeatedly, particularly after Esther is institutionalized, that the mentally ill do not appear different from saner individuals. 
  5. So much is wrong with Buddy. Presented to Esther as a desirable marital prospect, he acts like the spiritual heir to the physician doctor from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” when Buddy tells Esther that her stuffed nose is psychosomatic and claims she’s neurotic. More reprehensibly, this “fine and clean” young man who focuses so much on Esther’s minimal sexual experience happens to be a hypocrite since he’s actually had a sexual affair. Although Buddy’s hypocrisy incenses Esther, it’s his paramour who is described as “some slutty waitress”, a detail suggesting Esther’s internalized misogyny. 
  6. Fearing that she will fail a chemistry course, Esther manipulates her image as a good student to escape taking this course and earns accolades for her intellectual maturity, something which she later feels crushing guilt for doing. 
  7. Esther potentially suffers from impostor syndrome: she describes an incident in which Jay Cee questions her focus and career plans as unmasking her. 

Loneliness and Grief in Yoshimoto’s Kitchen

“I got dressed to begin another day. Over and over, we begin again.”

The heart of the home truly is the kitchen for the young protagonist of Banana Yoshimoto’s debut novel Kitchen (translated by Megan Backus). University student Mikage Sakurai loves kitchens, which become her refuge when the death of her grandmother making her an orphan twice over.[*] Stunned by her utter solitude (“It’s total science fiction. The blackness of the cosmos.”), she only can sleep next to the humming refrigerator. Other obligations also press on her. While her grandmother left her money,[†] she nonetheless must downsize her apartment to stretch her funds. Still grief-stricken, the thought of moving and house hunting paralyzes her. Fortunately, Mikage also inherits her grandmother’s friendship with Yuichi Tanabe. Yuichi, a younger university student, works part-time at the floral shop her grandmother frequented. He and his mother, Eriko, offer a much needed respite by opening their home to Mikage, complete with a beautiful kitchen (“It was a good kitchen. I fell in love with it at first sight”).

Grief, Connection, and Magic

Yoshimoto’s novel (as well as its novella companion “Moonlight Shadow”)[‡] contemplates grief and loneliness with a delicate touch. While these emotions predominate, they are offset by moments of joy and connection. Yoshimoto uses light and dark imagery symbolically to reinforce these feelings: in the novel’s second half, “the telephone was glowing” in Yuichi’s mind whereas Mikage felt the line to Yuichi was submerged in deep, dark water, respectively suggesting his need for her companionship and her recognition of his grief. Part of the novel’s charm in negotiating such difficult topics involves its subtle use of magical realism that confers an almost fairy-tale quality to the story. Yuichi appears at just the right moment to offer Mikage a place to live while she sorts out her affairs. Both young people share a remarkable dream that takes place in the grandmother’s now empty kitchen, in which Yuichi implores Mikage to stay at his family’s apartment. Mikage even intuits which hotel room belongs to Yuichi before scaling the wall to deliver him katsudon. (This latter example also represents a brilliant gender role reversal, as Mikage plays—albeit comically—the traditionally male role of rescuer for a distressed Yuichi.)

Katsudon
You had me at katsudon. (Yōfū Katsudon [Western-style pork cutlet on rice] at Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, Japan. Siriusplot at Japanese Wikipedia. CC-BY-SA-3.0-migrated.)

Transformations

However magical her delivery may be, Yoshimoto does not shield her characters from pain. Eriko explains hers (and the novel’s) philosophy to Mikage: we must experience “true despair” to understand joy. Mikage also comes to accept that, even when we are with others, we are always alone. While she despairs that we’re “always defeated”, this knowledge lets her live more fully. Grief, therefore, is transformative in Kitchen. Having discovered a passion for cooking while living with the Tanabes, Mikage leaves university and successfully embarks on a cooking career despite her limited qualifications. Eriko’s own experience of grief literally changes her. Watching his wife slowly succumb to cancer forced Eriko to understand that “the world didn’t exist for [his] benefit”.[§] Becoming aware that he disliked being a man and realizing he would never love again, Eriko transitioned to a woman and opened a gay nightclub,[**] thereby straddling roles of provider and nurturer. Her story essentially serves as a loose guide for Mikage who also bridges these roles: cooking is her profession but it is one that nurtures.

The kitchen, of course, serves as an extended metaphor throughout this novel, representing that which sustains people through terrible loss, both in terms of sustenance (food, nourishment) and refuge. Kitchen creates this space as a haven for healing and connection, perhaps even new beginnings. And it’s this uplifting spirit that makes Kitchen a story that satisfies indeed.

NOTES:

[*] Mikage’s grandparents raised her after her parents died. Her grandfather subsequently died while she was in junior high school. Hence, she’s doubly orphaned by losing two sets of guardians.

[†] Discovering an orphaned character who isn’t destitute is a pleasure.

[‡] “Moonlight Shadow” (also translated by Megan Backus) typically accompanies Kitchen. My focus here is on the larger work.

[§] My pronoun usage mirrors that of the novel, using female for post-transition and male pronouns for pre-transition Eriko (formerly called Yugi).

[**] It’s worth observing that most characters seem to respect Eriko’s gender identity, even though it’s mentioned on occasion that Eriko is “really a man”. Given that Eriko’s fate is common for transgender women, a content warning is appropriate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soul Searching in Swing Time: Identity and Friendship*

Throughout the novel’s course (spent shuttling between the narrator’s upbringing with Tracey and her later career), Smith’s characters act as foils for each other in ways that make us question identity.

In Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, the unnamed narrator finds herself with time for self-reflection following a scandal that leads to public ignominy and unemployment. The scandal itself, however, is the least interesting part of this novel that travels between time and place while the narrator comes to terms with whom she is. Of course, much of whom the narrator might be depends on perspective, place, and the unevenness of memory. Smith’s novel, short on plot, delves into notions of identity, with emphasis on how class and race intertwine.

Family

Part of the narrator’s shifting identity stems from being the daughter of contrasting parents. Her mother, a black woman from Jamaica, is ambitious and intellectual, while her white, working class English father is the nurturer, determined to give his child a more stable, loving home than he had. The narrator wryly notes that her upbringing in the estates occurred “in the widening gap” between her parents who eventually divorce. She is neither parent’s child exactly, a sentiment that, in her father’s case, is exacerbated by meeting his white children from a previous relationship. To the narrator, they seem to be more genuinely his children than she is despite her father’s clear devotion. Smith gives her character unenviable insight: she could view this scenario from the opposite perspective but is unable to do so even as an adult. It’s this self-awareness and paralysis that make this character both frustrating and compelling.

Fiction and “Fitting In”

Throughout the novel’s course (spent shuttling between the narrator’s upbringing with Tracey and her later career), Smith’s characters act as foils for each other in ways that make us question identity. Shared skin color, for example, draws the narrator and Tracey (another biracial child) together when they meet in a dance class. Alike and different at once, both aspire to be dancers but only Tracey has the talent and drive for it. Yet Tracey longs for a loving father: she romanticizes her own abusive father’s absences—a tactic the narrator adopts when discussing her white siblings. Of course, such tactics and uncertain memory also complicate matters of identity. The epiphany that Smith’s narrator has about herself is inspired by watching Astaire’s performance in the movie Swing Time again. Yet, her realization (now wearing glasses and in good light) that she forgot Astaire performed in blackface disrupts this moment. And we are left to question: What is forgotten, what is untrue?

Laced with envy, the girls’ friendship is rocky. Sexuality, here, also affects identity and belonging. Although the narrator remains Tracey’s friend when the “nice” girls at school ostracize her for early sexual maturation, time spent together occurs only on Tracey’s terms. And Tracey sneers when the narrator socializes with the other girls, suggesting that the narrator’s presence among them is pretense. While playtime with nice girls like Lily Bingham offers the narrator relief from Tracey, it also invites alienation. Lily—white, middle class and “color blind”—is hurt when the narrator shows her a film scene featuring only black performers. The narrator doesn’t understand what Lily means by “we” when Lily claims “we” would be displeased if only black children were allowed to attend dance classes, both casually conferring and negating her friend’s black identity. This alienation is echoed in Africa. There, the black residents are impressed that “white women” like the narrator and her employer, Aimee (an actual white woman), can dance like black people do.

 

Book Review of Swing Time

 

Career: Celebrity and Erasure

Aimee, an Australian pop idol, is the least intriguing of the Smith’s characters, partly suffering from being too similar to a certain real-life pop idol and partly from her resemblance to a force of nature. To be fair, the latter also represents a comment on celebrity. Smith, however, permits Aimee to be personable, unafraid to cut through emotional morass, and more emotionally available to the narrator than her own mother. Possessing her mother’s social awareness, the narrator cannot ignore how her identity may be used to avoid charges of insensitivity when she raises concerns that Aimee’s “carnival” versions of  African dances could be interpreted as cultural appropriation. She’s ignored, of course: her work involves making Aimee’s life smoother, not disrupting it as she eventually does.

Cooperative or not, Smith narrator fails to inspire admiration the way other women in her life might. Overly apologetic, she lacks a dream to chase or a cause for which she fights, instead laboring in the shadows for others: her mother (recruited to participate in social marches), briefly Tracey (working as stagehand where she helps Tracey deal with costumes and love affairs), and Aimee, as her always on-call assistant. Over time, the narrator’s existence is at last subsumed: she cannot maintain her own social circle or romantic relationships while she services Aimee’s life. The resulting scandal, while not an attempt to quit, nonetheless betrays her discontent.

Shadows and Belonging

In the aftermath of the narrator’s scandal, watching Astaire’s dance with three shadows of himself causes the narrator to realize that she “experiences [herself] as a kind of shadow”. Dismissing these shadows, the question remains will she dance on as Astaire did? Swing Time is a thoughtful meditation on identity that meanders but never loses it way from this concern. Whatever path the narrator decides to take with the revelations about herself, however, lie with Tracey, her left-behind sister who happens to be the one person that evokes belonging.

Book Review: All the Living

“That was what she wanted. That more than family, that more than friendship, that more than love. Just the kind of day that couldn’t be called into premature darkness by the land.”

All the LivingAll the Living by C.E. Morgan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

“That was what she wanted. That more than family, that more than friendship, that more than love. Just the kind of day that couldn’t be called into premature darkness by the land.”

Wreckage of What Was

All the Living, a novel that debates whether a young woman should “submit to love” (as the cover put it) or find her way in the world, offers readers a tension-filled love affair. When Aloma arrives at the farm Orren inherited, she sees the mountains that she hates, that remind her of postponed dreams to go far beyond them and play piano without being lost in their shadow. The house, the first in which she’ll ever live, is dilapidated just as the piano Orren promised that she could use for practice is ruined. The tremendous change in Orren, wrought by grief, surprises her. Her own orphaning occurred when she was too young to recall anything but her parents’ absence,  thus leaving her unprepared for Orren’s new emotional distance. Her ignorance of farm life and lack of cooking and cleaning skills, the duties she is preparing to take on, too suggest future difficulties.

Young Lovers at Cross Purposes

To these disadvantages, Morgan adds her characters’ youth (Aloma is around 21 or 22; Orren is three years older)—something which becomes more concerning as the details of their courtship unfolds. They met at the settlement school, where Aloma worked as the staff pianist since her graduation. Their dates consisted mostly of driving near the school and sex, which means they didn’t share in each other’s daily existence. Orren, an “Aggie” student at a college three counties away, planned to own a large farm one day and wants to marry her. She responded to his suggestion with humor, as her plans involved leaving. With their goals at cross purposes, it’s not difficult to envision how this relationship might falter over time if they couldn’t compromise on their goals. Meeting his family at the farm might have her eased into the lifestyle there—or at least given her an opportunity to walk away from that life with less at stake. With tragedy spurring their decisions, their relationship has the potential to founder badly.

Points of Confusion

But I found myself puzzled at points while reading this story. Because Orren mentioned marriage before the deaths occurred, it seemed strange that he never brought her to meet his family. Eighteen months is a long time to date a person, let alone a potential marital partner, without introductions to the other important people in one’s life. And unless he hasn’t mentioned his relationship with Aloma to his mother at all (which puts his intentions in question), I’d be surprised if Emma wasn’t interested in meeting his girlfriend. For storytelling purposes, it’s important that Aloma doesn’t interact with his family so that she cannot share in Orren’s loss or see the expectations he might have for her as his future wife by visiting the farm. While it makes sense that Aloma belatedly realizes she should have met Orren’s kin (she, after all, has no family to think of), it seems to strange that Morgan drew attention to this point and chose not explain it however briefly.

barn-all-the-living-review-artful-sequenceAnother puzzling moment involved the time period in which the story was set, something which was more difficult to decipher than it should have been. In fairness, Orren’s note and Aloma waiting for his arrival (instead of texting or calling) could suggest an era before widespread cell phone use (something which continued into the 1990s)—or just bad reception. For me, it certainly did not clearly signal the decade of the setting (1980s), which would have created the correct expectations for Aloma’s trip to the grocery store. Although the farm is isolated, the nearby community is small enough that most people know each other’s business. Since Aloma is charging her purchases to the Fenton account, the clerk mentions Emma “Sure had a lot of opinions”, which seemed odd (Heaven forbid a woman have opinions!). Her next remark was to ask whether Aloma and Orren were married. Aloma lies, but her blush betrays her and the clerk’s cordiality disappears from her face. Knowing that this story occurs in the 1980s would have explained the cultural attitudes towards women in general and marriage specifically. In a scene following the grocery incident, I eventually located one specific cultural landmark that places this story during the early 1980: the “Where’s the Beef?” posters, presumably referring to a Wendy’s ad campaign. I missed its significance in my initial reading, and I can see how somehow not familiar with this time would not understand it at all.

Mounting Tension

Were it not for Morgan’s prose (with rarely a word misplaced), Aloma’s efforts to conquer housework and cooking might have become tedious. The slow pace, however, allows the friction to arise between this disconnected couple. While submerging herself in work helps Aloma focus on Orren’s wants instead of her own, she becomes cognizant of how little she knows Orren. And the lack of piano coupled with not being married grates on her and they quarrel often. Morgan shines in making their days contentious. Although I’m not fond of Morgan’s tendency to provide conclusions about Aloma that the reader could be gleaned from the story, Aloma repeatedly shows that she’s “the girl who was always looking outward, getting to ready to leave”. Both Bell and Orren see this is in her: Orren accuses her of “fixin’ to leave”. Bell, the preacher who hires Aloma to play piano at services and who is unaware of her attachment to Orren, says she is cagey about whether she wants her freedom or to be “took in”. Her interactions with him represent that outward turn. Aloma does not intend to hurt Bell, but she’s lonely and wants the attention Orren once gave her, attention Bell now provides. She doesn’t think, however, how her behavior might affect Bell or consider the implications behind the attention he gives her even though she knows that he believes her to be single.

Once Aloma becomes the church pianist, the collision between these discontented forces seemed destined. To be truthful, I half hoped that she might call it quits with Orren, though I didn’t expect it. The book’s prevalent drift is towards submitting to love (the topic of Bell’s first sermon), which often reads to me as “the woman has to sacrifice her dreams”. I can’t say I agree with that drift under most circumstances. Here, it’s too easy to imagine Orren and Aloma unhappy together despite Aloma’s submission, even though it helps her bitterness dissipate. Still, Morgan’s conclusion doesn’t promise an easy future and is satisfactory enough. And it kept me thinking about what love requires of us in terms of selflessness over self-centeredness long after the cover closed.

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