Feral, North Carolina, 1965 by June Sylvester Saraceno

41c5RV83zNL.jpg

It’s a project I have, trying to get grown-ups to talk about things they won’t tell kids. You have to sneak up on it, come at it sideways- if you straight out ask, they’ll send you outside to play, or if it’s night time, tell you to say your prayers and get to bed. That’s true most of the time anyway.

Feral, North Carolina, 1965 is a coming of age about a little girl who is all fire and spit! She isn’t a good girl, not if it means being neat and delicate. None of your beeswax doesn’t apply to Ten-year-old Willie Mae, she is nosy and incredibly perceptive. She longs to burrow beneath the surface, to seek out every family secret, but has no qualms about spying on her neighbors either. What else is there to do but hop on your back and see what sort of fun you can rustle up? She is a child with ants in her pants, far too much spirit and lord but it sometimes seems like the very devil has her ears.

In the 60’s children weren’t bombarded with knowledge with the click of a mouse. The adults didn’t barrage them with answers to every question. That naivete is long gone, children were in the dark and if they were good little darlings, they held fast that ‘mother and father know best’. If you were a feral child, you resorted to any means you could invent to uncover mysteries. Curiosity killed the cat may apply to someone like Willie Mae, but she is witty enough to realize cats have nine lives and all the fun happens in secret!

Long stretches are spent in the company of her beautiful grandmother, Birdy. Birdy who loves to talk of the past, especially about her charismatic, handsome, beloved older brother Billy until Willie comes around, as she always does, to the subject of his death. Then it’s the silence of a grave. It’s burning inside of her, to know how someone could die so young… why, why won’t Birdy tell her how he died! Sure it was a tragedy that occurred before her birth, decades  ago, in dusty olden days, but he is still family, surely she has the right to know?  Why, why won’t Willie Mae let the dead rest? Too curious for her own darn good!

Willie Mae will fight dirty when she has to, like dealing with her big brother Dare, whom everything is a competition against. She may be a girl, but she is just as strong as him, just as fast! All her mother wants is for her to act like a little lady, but that just ain’t her way! It’s all dolls and frills when she wants to be like her brother, shooting at living creatures, why do boys get to do all the fun stuff?

God fearing children do not spy on others. They sure don’t know what happens between a woman and a man. Aunt Etta wants Willie Mae and Dare to be ‘witnesses for the lord’ because it’s certainly the end of days. “Half the time I didn’t care that I was a sinner, but I kept it secret.” It’s so hard to be a perfect, good little girl when so much action calls to your soul.

Death, racism, family secrets, God, sex, and nature are just a few things that occupy Willie Mae’s thoughts. She has so many questions bubbling inside of her. Maybe Willie Mae isn’t the only free spirit ever born into her family. Maybe she isn’t the only one who had to be tolerated. This is childhood, the lull before one’s rough edges are smoothed. Ten, a time when the secrets you poke at and prod change the way you see the world, and more importantly, your family. The world spins, and it is changing too, the old folks need to get used to it!

This is a time that no longer exists, children running through the streets at play, wild little savages with scabby knees and snarls in their hair. There was an ugly side too with racial divides, children caught in the middle of the confusion. Clinging to old ways, what happens when someone is ‘different’ be it skin color or something else, something that isn’t tolerated. The bigger issues are always just above a child’s head, but they feel the wrongness of things, we see that with Willie Mae and her ever questioning mind. I enjoyed that Willie Mae sounds like a child, she can be a nasty little whip of a thing and sweet in the center, children really are neither good nor bad. Like all of us, they sway between the two.

Yes, read it.

Publication Date: September 17, 2019

SFK Press

 

Advertisements

Searching for Sylvie Lee: A Novel by Jean Kwok

 

41716679.jpg

Often there’s a dichotomy between the beautiful sister and the smart one, but in our family, both of those qualities belong to my sister. 

The sadness of this novel is like ants under the skin. There are choices we make because of this enormous love we have for our children that end up tearing apart their universe. It was only meant to be a year, as Ma and Pa tried to make a place for themselves in the Beautiful Country. But New York is so much harder than they realized it would be, with their meager savings soon exhausted, and no hope for work anytime soon, it is with a heavy, shameful heart that Ma decides she will do right by Sylvie and accept the offer from her cousin Helena. With Grandma living with her cousin in Holland, caring for Helena’s young son therefore, unable to come to America and help with her baby girl, Helena has ‘kindly’ offered a place for Sylvie to live. Her mother writes her, “if you were to entrust your most precious fruit to me, perhaps it might alleviate your burden.”  After much internal struggle, and the reality of their hardships in America as immigrants who cannot even speak the language, it is decided- but it is a devastating decision.

A child in between places her entire life, at the age of nine Sylvie finally returns to live with her biological family. Unlike Amy, born after the difficult years and her parents assimilation into American culture, Sylvie feels like the cast off, a stranger. Torn from the only home she has ever known, feeling more that they wanted her back only so she can babysit her little sister (the longed for cherished daughter), she feels as unwelcome here. Thrust into yet another world where she doesn’t fit, painted as ‘other than’ for her accent alone, suffering the humiliation of a corrective eye patch that only adds more fuel to her awkwardness, hurt by the racist barbs from her peers, her mind still embedded in all things Dutch, she is the one who never truly assimilates into one culture nor one home. In both houses, in both countries she longs for the things she has been forced to abandon. All a child feels is rejection, for a child’s heart doesn’t understand the reason of the adult world, a hungry belly is nothing compared to the hunger for a mother/father’s embrace. A grown woman now, Princeton and MIT educated, a management consultant, more than surpassing her parents humble world, “how did a brilliant creature like Sylvie arise from such mundane stock as our ma and pa?” she is called back to what she feels  is her true mother’s deathbed, her grandmother. It is here where she mysteriously disappears.

It is Amy’s turn to be the brave sister, “Amy, so much like Ma, had eaten from frightened hare meat”, who Sylvie said needed to broaden her horizons.  Despite her fear, she travels to the Netherlands, her sister needs her! As Amy tells the story from her perspective, we see a different side of the mother that Sylvie feels never wanted her. Helena and Willem aren’t as warm and welcoming as she expected, cousin Lukas exudes a mixture of anger and sorrow, there are implications, accusations about Sylvie from the moment Amy lands. This isn’t the life she had imagined for her big sister, how could ma and pa have given her away, sent her to this cold “Grimm’s fairy-tale world?” She doesn’t really know her sister, Sylvie has never opened up about the heart of her childhood here, with this other family, “The enormity of the existence my Sylvie had before me yawns at my feet like an abyss.”  She must dissect Sylvie’s life, and every single person who has their part in it. Sylvie’s secretly unhappy, inner life is spilling open, even her enviable marriage to Jim was collapsing, her return to Holland a chance to ‘leave everything behind’ only forges her deeper into old family dynamics, roles her calculated Aunt Helena created. Her old wounds throb, the past revealed to the reader, no matter how much she has made of herself, she still feels like nothing. Entrusted to her aunt and grandmother, no one ever gave a thought that maybe the ‘better life’ robbed her of every happiness. Never understanding just what it is about her that rubs Helene the wrong way, wondering what has soured her aunt’s heart so much that the niece she has been entrusted to raise she treats more like a burden, beneath her contempt. This callousness burdens Sylvie with the insurmountable task of trying to prove her worth, long after she has been gone. But surely too there were brief moments of kindness? What of the distance within’ her real family? Do her ma and pa ever get her fully back? She wonders if they ever loved her at all.

This novel is incredibly heavy, of course it’s about the sister’s relationship but as we delve deeper into ma’s pain a raw side of the immigrant experience is exposed, even in the “curtain” between mother and daughters. Sylvie surpasses every expectation and in doing so the divide grows wider and wider between she and ma. Such strength and independence in a child makes ma fearful,  the inability to be a mother in a way other american women can, language an insurmountable obstacle, there is comfort in shrinking oneself but it’s a temporary one when the true cost is affection, bonding. Sylvie is gone again, but she never seemed to ever return to begin with, and it is an earth shattering reality that things would have been different, had they only kept her in the first place. Just what was her goal?

Amy doesn’t really know her sister, failed to understand how having another family entirely affected her, for better or for worse. Jim and Sylvie fought before she disappeared? Why would she run away? Helena accuses her of taking her family inheritance, but Sylvie wanted for nothing, why would she? Greed fills Helena’s heart more than concern for Sylvie who could be hurt somewhere, all alone, in need of rescue. Just how did she survive this cold woman who raised her? What does she know? What of Grandma’s ‘jewels’, who did she intend have them, if they even exist at all? Who is suspect? What is Amy missing? Maybe Sylvie isn’t the only one she didn’t really know at all.

The police don’t seem to give Amy hope, and Amy knows in her heart it’s time to ‘step up’ and be the sister Sylvie has always needed. She must shuck of her inborn cowardice. “Sylvie, where are you?” She must discover the who Sylvie is first. Every revelation gives rise to more questions. Anyone could have been involved, no one is as they seem, certainly not Sylvie’s husband Jim who has his own deep secrets and is unraveling, nor even Sylvie herself. How could so many terrible things have been happening in her big sister’s life, kept so neatly contained, that Amy didn’t see the fissures? How could two sister envy each other’s lives without understanding the pain humming beneath the surface? How did Amy miss so much of her family’s history, the bitterness?  She is navigating Sylvie’s Netherlands, hoping to feel her big sister return to her in this way, trying to uncover what chased her away. She may discover a heart that was more vulnerable than Sylvie ever let on, a woman far more fragile than her bravado implied. Love can sneak in even when hate wants to assert dominance, all of our intentions can destroy the very family we seek to protect. What about ma and pa? Surely the blame must be smeared all over them too, for ever sending Sylvie away. She must discover the one thing that has led to her sister’s mysterious vanishing, if she ever hopes to find her. But she may discover a darker family history, exposing long buried shame… will there be any love left for forgiveness.

Published June 2019  Somehow I kept putting off this review to meet with the release date, and am kicking myself for not posting it!

William Marrow

Harper Collins

 

 

 

 

 

The Grammarians: A Novel by Cathleen Schine

 

43684727._SY475_

There was something wayward in the twins’ relationship now, a devious shift Sally sensed but could not catch in the act.

Much like their father Arthur and his brother Don ‘were like trees that had been planted too near each other”, redheaded, identical twins Laurel and Daphne Wolfe have a bond that begins with a secret shared language until even their love of words pushes them apart and the relationship feels like a confinement. As in all sibling relationships, there is always one sister/brother that rises above the other. One who rushes head first into things, the default leader. Laurel begins to long for autonomy, to resent the ‘we’ that follows Daphne’s thoughts, decisions.  Daphne’s childhood has been one spent as the second born “Laurel was older by seventeen minutes. Daphne hated those seventeen minutes” sure “I’ll never catch up” and maybe shocked when she surpasses Laurel.

Laurel clings to the interior life she can keep for herself, thoughts she doesn’t have to share, weary of her life being lived in equal measure with her twin. Daphne, on the other hand resents when her sister keeps secrets, hates change. She despises the ways Laurel distances herself from their twin-ship. They’ll always have their shared love of words though, right? The balance shifts when Laurel marries, has a child and Daphne becomes a career woman. Suddenly, Laurel no longer feels like the ‘top dog’, her days spent with her child treated as less than the work Daphne does, though ‘she knows just as much about language’. When she returns to teaching, inspiration is born. Daphne’s successfully popular career as a columnist “preserving the dignity of and elegance of Standard English” is interrupted by Laurel’s revolt of the language rules through her poetry. It is like a smack in the face of everything Daphne has worked so hard to keep pure! Really, who is Laurel fooling, just as obsessed with the proper usage of language since birth? Just like Laurel’s mission to differentiate herself through her physical features, here she goes making yet another division in a world they once shared! Anything to always come out ahead, at Daphne’s expense!

The sisters relationship comes crashing down. Their mother, who has never been as close to her girls as they are to each other, now must witness the unraveling of their bond. Then there is the dictionary which remains “the subject of bitter controversy”, an inanimate object that is also, the subject of custody. It all returns to their daddy’s gift of the biggest book imaginable, ‘an ocean of a book’, placed upon a stand like an altar, Merriam Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition. It is where the sisters “two little faces pecking at the musty pages of a dead man’s discarded book” were always found, the very thing that united and divides them. Their wordy little world is precocious which can sometimes come off as annoying or exhausting in a novel, instead I was tickled. I just kept thinking ‘oh you little bluestockings you!’ Will their mother ever see the day when they come back together? There truly are far worse vices for children than an obsession with words and yet to think they could cause so much trouble!

It’s really not about the words, it’s about all the years between them, it’s about the closeness of their twin-hood that begins to feel like an incarceration of their independent selves. Perception is everything, it makes or breaks you. Even in the unsettling feeling their uncle Don feels being around them, and their mother’s jealousy of the distance she is kept at because of their congenital bond, it follows such roles become suffocating. It’s so silly, our escape routes from family. This isn’t an explosive fall out, so much of the destruction is a slow chipping away of their sisterhood, how they see themselves and each other, how roles define us, something completely different in twins. You can’t be any closer, can you? The ending is perfect, maybe their mother Sally doesn’t share their genius for words, but she sure as hell understands her children, it’s a bittersweet ending, and I like how Sally tells a story better.

There is just something about this novel that clicked with me, it’s a quiet smoldering sisterhood, all the things we say and do as much as what we hold back. That hunger for independence, to be something other than the younger, or the older sister. Just an entity unto oneself, so much harder when twined with another.

Publication Date: September 3, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Sarah Crichton Books

 

 

Devotion: A Novel by Madeline Stevens

41088578.jpg

Did I have a suspicion that she might not be real? Was I grasping for evidence?

Devotion, more the mask of it, tells the story of Ella’s envy for Lonnie, whom has hired her as Nanny for her sixteen-month old son, William. Hungry and broke, this is a step up from wondering where her next meal will come from, no more would she have to be a smiling fool (hostess), suffer part time jobs girls with an unfinished college education migrate to, sleep with rough older men just for a meal, now she would know how the privileged lived. It isn’t long before Ella is caught up in the magnetism that Lonnie exudes, simply by existing. She doesn’t yet know Lonnie is hungry too, but for some elusive thing that her abundant life can’t seem to give her. Nor can her husband James.

Ella studies the nature of Lonnie with a keen eye, it’s almost scientific, from how she smells, the nuances of her beautiful face, the carelessness of her impulses (the first being hiring Ella in an act of blind faith), the magnetism that draws everyone into her orbit. Why she begins writing everything down about her days spent in the home, she cannot say. Stealing objects that would never be missed, as if taking pieces of Lonnie and her glorious life with her could rub off on Ella, make her own less mediocre. Watching… always watching.

With husband James by her side they make the perfect couple, and how can someone who struggles just to keep a roof over their head and crumbs in their belly not resent such easy wealth? Not feel jealous of the freedom to ‘dabble’ in her talents the way Lonnie does? How can Ella do anything other than be seduced by every bit of Lonnie  just like everyone else? She’s looking, she’s trying to find the cracks. She doesn’t fully believe anyone can be this perfect, this happy, right?

Upon meeting family friend Carlow, she notes the desire he feels for Lonnie smoldering in his eyes and it dawns on her that maybe Lonnie has some things to hide. Lines between friendship and hired help blur as Lonnie confides in Ella, welcomes her into the circle, urges her to emulate her even. At times, it seems Lonnie would cast off her skin and let Ella walk off in it, anything to be free of all her blessings, privilege. When she and Carlow escape into a room upon his visits, when James is away at work, it is unspoken that Ella won’t say anything, will be the keeper of her betrayal. She can’t blame her, attracted to Carlow herself, longing for a taste, to know what it feels like to be wanted as much as Lonnie.

Lonnie misses her carefree days, when she had the freedom to “do things”, not like her life now, motherhood, being a wife,  just stuck here in the brownstone bored.  She has to  grab for the thrills when they present themselves and Ella is someone she can have fun with. Both being motherless , in a sense, and the same age they find a common bond, but their worlds are wildly different, that of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. The things Lonnie seems to innately know make Ella feel inferior, are the wealthy just born knowing how to navigate the world? It doesn’t matter if Ella slips on Lonnie’s clothes, or kisses the same men, she will never belong, never be able to emanate whatever it is the gives Lonnie her allure.

It is when the women travel to an artists’ retreat, staying in a cabin on a lake in the Adirondacks that Lonnie really lets loose and tries on a different role for size, that of the help. It’s all fun and games, but makes Ella all the more aware of the vast divide between them. There is some sort of sadness, some nameless thing lurking beneath Lonnie’s surface that troubles her. At times silly and playfully childish, as when they play with a Ouija board, and other times sullen, distant.  As closely as Ella has studied her subject, she doesn’t understand anything. Lonnie uses her, but so too does she use Lonnie. She isn’t exactly the loyal subject a seemingly spoiled princess demands. She has reckless moments, many of which Ella wants wants nothing more than to be a part of, anything to escape sober reality. It’s so much easier to bury herself in this life of effortless pleasures. She doesn’t want it to end, to go back to her dull life.

Ella is getting too involved in the couple’s marriage, and lines will be crossed that she can’t come back from. Lonnie scares her with how careless she can be, and she doesn’t know how to help her, if she even should. She is starting to feel like she will be cast off at some point, and it would mean nothing to Lonnie,  to people like her it never does. At turns attentive, caring and a second later envious, jealously imagining she could easily eclipse Lonnie’s talents “if only I’d had the time and resources.” There is a competitive beast within many female friendships, more so when one has so much more power.

No one likes those who encroach on their privacy, the rich even less. Lonnie isn’t as together as she seems, in the end she may surprise even Ella.

The novel was engaging, everyone is self-destructing in their own special way, but I hoped for more from the ending. I felt I was left adrift, wondering… okay, now what? Much like Ella.

Publication Date: August 13, 2019

Harper Collins

Ecco

The Reckless Oath We Made: A Novel by Bryn Greenwood

 

43800180._SY475_.jpg

Let those who suffer an illness of the mind do so and prosper of it, but I do not and I will not.

If you told Zhorzha “Zee” that a knight was her destiny, she would smack you silly. Zee isn’t a delicate princess, and no one has ever saved her from anything. Her life has been a lesson in catastrophe, first in early childhood dealing with a criminal father and a mother devoted to him, now as a grown adult she is keeping her family afloat. Sharing an apartment with her sister LaReigne whose little boy Marcus depends on her, she spends her days hustling in any way she can to get money, for bills, for the roof over their head, for food. Her hip injury from an accident on her exes Harley is the least of her pains, nothing causes her more grief than discovering her sister has been taken hostage during a prison break where she volunteers.

Who knew her ‘stalker’ as she calls him isn’t a stalker at all, but a knight in shining armor. “I am her champion. I watch that I might her serve.” So okay, Gentry won’t look her in the eye, walking around speaking like a traveler from medieval times, but there is something chivalrous about him. Gentry brings both she and Marcus to his home, their only refuge, considering her mother doesn’t have an inch of space safe enough for them to stand let alone sleep. She occupies more than her share of space, along with all her junk. Mountains of it, hoarded like precious treasures! Her family is chaos personified. She surrenders to Gentry, why not? Her options have run out. Once surrounded by the kindness of his parents, she begins to see Gentry as more than just some weirdo, stalker and slowly begins to fall under the spell of his charm.

Her sister LeReigne’s abduction escalates into violence, and Zee isn’t going to wait on the cops to do anything, especially when they suspect her sister of aiding in the prison break considering their family’s criminal history, so it is on her shoulders (isn’t it always) to bring her nephew’s mommy home safe! Gentry will serve his Lady, more loyal than blood, even if it means breaking laws, maybe even risking his own life. The voices in his head have foretold of his mission, his life’s purpose, to serve this damsel in distress. Zee isn’t the most admirable, nor likable woman in any book but life has burdened her, made her sour, bitter, suspicious and cynical.  Some would say rightly so. One visit with her infuriating mother is enough to understand the bite that comes natural to Zee. This isn’t your typical warm family, they have more than a smattering of mental issues and poor judgement when it comes to their love life, controlling their impulses. They demand a lot of her, but don’t give much in return, certainly not a lot of affection. She is the sort of woman who rubs those who have mastered appearances the wrong way, because she makes you confront your own hypocrisy, imperfections. She doesn’t pretend her family or she herself is anything other than a wreck, she doesn’t make excuses for her ‘hustling’, no. She is more the ‘take me as I am or to hell with you’ sort of gal. It is a strange pair Gentry and Zee make, but there are similarities once she meets his biological mother. Not so different at all.

Love blossoms in the strangest of ways, and maybe we aren’t always worthy of the devotion Gentry shows Zee, who is to say? Maybe someone who hasn’t known tenderness has a hard time opening themselves to it?  I was frustrated by what many would call a quirk, Gentry’s medieval knights and castle obsession, his Middle English speech that feels like a riddle half the time, but then it became a natural part of his character that I couldn’t imagine him without it. Bryn Greenwood knows how to create relationships that make us scratch our heads, because in the real world, that’s often how love works. It doesn’t always make sense to outsiders why two people band together. There is a lot of blind devotion from the heart in this novel, and I am not just talking about Gentry. In fact, he may be the only character with logic on his side, no matter what psychiatrists think! “Let those who suffer an illness of the mind do so and prosper of it, but I do not and I will not.” Bless his heart!

This is a story about the madness of family loyalty and love. Yes, read it.

Publication Date: August 20, 2019

Penguin Group

Putnum

The Worst Kind of Want: A Novel by Liska Jacobs

43565351._SY475_

I have not thought about my wants in so long that the flood of them makes me light-headed.

Priscilla “Cilla” is only 43 but feels like life has aged her beyond her years, living with her mother whom is now in rehabilitation at a nursing home. Mother, needy, bitter and resentful, forcing her to placate her demands. Every visit feels like drudgery, reminding her of how stifling her life has become. Since the death of Cilla’s sister, her brother-in-law has lived with their daughter, her niece Hannah in Italy who is acting out, ‘Cilla, please. You will come, won’t you?’ It’s been a year since Hannah lost her mother, surely acting out is noraml, right? Yet if she goes, it would be an escape from the dullness of her life, but the idea of caring for yet another person is the kiss of death. Yet even the thought of ‘babysitting’ her fifteen year old niece is better than dealing with her impossible mother and her demands. It’s been a full year of dealing with her mother’s bottomless grief and ill health. Then there is her longtime boyfriend Guy, who spends his time directing tv series, once her own deceased father’s protégé who hungered after her all those years ago. He is distracted by all those young actresses dripping in dewy youth. How can she possibly shine by comparison when time takes it’s toll on the body? Italy it is!

Hannah is becoming quite the young woman, and with the son of family friends Donato’s attention she beams with youth and joy, infusing Cilla with life. Spending time with the pair feels like a seduction what with all the confidence, the freedom, indulging in the pleasures of Italy. Cilla is meant to be looking out for Hannah, keeping her on the straight and narrow, instead she is the one throwing caution off the cliff. Her adult confidence, and Hollywood ties makes her fascinating in Donato’s eyes.He longs to impress her, he is beautiful, could himself be a celebrity, right? Basking in the days and nights beside them feels erotic, as if she is going through a second awakening by accompanying the pair through their own. If she was a ‘better’ woman, she wouldn’t smudge the lines between moral and immoral, she wouldn’t succumb to the charm of a teenage boy but her body is so hungry, and the chemistry is electric, who would it really hurt if no one ever knows?

The scenery itself begs to be explored, it urges release, to abandon one’s every inhibition. She hasn’t given a thought to her own desires, needs in so long, how can anyone blame her for finally thinking of herself first? She should stop what is happening, but she doesn’t want to deny herself one second of it. “Romans love to have a good time at any age…”, so when in Rome… Why should she ‘behave’, nothing interesting comes of that, being old doesn’t make a person dead, we still long for the thrill of things.

Being around Hannah takes her back to the beginning of her relationship with the much older Guy. When she was ‘no longer a little girl but not yet a woman’, same phase her niece has entered, playing grownup. How easy it is to play at being a sexual creature, emulating womanhood. The carelessness of her own parents in the past, too much freedom for she and her sister,Hannah’s mother, youthful flirtations gone too far. Maybe Cilla isn’t the best choice in caging a teenager’s impulses, especially when in her shoes she didn’t cage her own. Maybe despite being so much older now, she is just as likely to jump into the lion’s mouth.

A woman will be punished for letting herself go, for indulging. Cilla isn’t going to be the dutiful aunt, she is going to taste life while she still can even if it could hurt those she is there to protect. Like so many human beings, despite what we know will follow, we still act on impulses. “How easy it is to ignore the darkness in the distance.” All she has is here and now, to focus on what could come of her ‘reckless abandon’ would be a betrayal, especial to herself. But indulgence and deception always comes at a price, is considered downright criminal when a woman of a certain age misbehaves. It’s an indulgent and shameful novel, as most things we know better than to partake of are and engaging because of it. We know the entire time, this isn’t going to end well.

Publication Date: November 5, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 

Ordinary Girls: A Memoir by Jaquira Díaz

42152409.jpg

And the girls I ran with? Half of them I was secretly in love with. Street girls, who were escaping their own lives, trading the chaos of home for the chaos of the streets.

In Jaquira Díaz’s memoir, Ordinary Girls, readers dig into the influences that shape the life of a young juvenile delinquent. She is more than that, she is first a confused, lonely, little girl who lives with a mother whose mental illness is spiraling into a deeper, darker place. As she grows up, she escapes her broken home or the ‘chaos of home’ and takes it out on the streets, with her tough as nails approach. She finds a sisterhood of girls who have suffered as much, or worse, and makes them family of the heart. It is all about escapism, what else is there in poverty and abuse then reckless abandon? What else is there for them to do but get high, drunk, fight til they draw blood or find themselves knocked out?

Living with a parent that suffers from schizophrenia is difficult even when you have extended family and friends, doctors willing to help, but imagine when the children are left to wonder at their mother’s strange paranoia, behaviors, rages? When a mother’s delusions are real to a child, and no one explains or fixes anything, what is to become of you? Worse, one who is a drug addict on top of it all. How can there be stability when the rest of the adults have fled? From her early childhood in Puerto Rico to their move to Miami, Florida- Jaquira is subject to very adult situations, and always leaving behind the love and support of her beloved abuela, the one person who loves and cares for her. At a young age the shock of what her father sells (drugs) makes no sense to her. Naturally with the people who come around, the children are exposed to the foulest of behavior. She doesn’t know any better about how poor they are, everyone seems to be just as bad off. The shock of violence in the streets is even more horrific, how can anyone maintain their innocence in such a place? Government housing projects full of shootings, stabbings, drug raids, and mouths full of stories that plant the seeds of terror in any child. You toughen up or you don’t make it out alive. You learn fast.

Her parents destructive love, her mother is a woman who ‘obsessively, violently’ loves Jaquira’s Papi (father) who is nothing short of a womanizer, seems fated to ruin. Was it his disinterest in her mother, the crack or coke that caused her to hear voices, or was it this very love that destroyed her? Certainly it was a catalyst, and it made life for Díaz nothing short of hell. Can kids get used to mugs flying over their heads during their parents jealous rages, fights? Doesn’t it follow then that maybe her brother’s bullying and meanness might be born through it too? Like it or not, we learn from our families, and our environment. It’s hard to imagine a softer world if yours is loud, painful. It’s hard to serve kindness when all you have been served is bitter, spitting hatred while your belly and heart rumble for sustenance.

Split between families she has one loving, accepting abuela and another grandmother, the white one, who made  feel ashamed of her ethnicity, using her hair as a means to punish her for being ‘other than’. She made sure Jaquira knew she would never be as beautiful as her mother’s side. Strange to think there was more violence in that than all the ugliness she is submerged in, but that really cut me to read. This woman who should lift her grandchild up, make her proud of every cell of her body instead is the first to really make her feel that who she is supposed to be is shameful, low. It’s the same with fear, the adults are supposed to assuage a child’s deepest terrors, not become the monster.

Then Mami begins to see a man, lurking, looming like a murder waiting to happen. Her terror hums inside of Jaquira, all she wants is her parents to be together again, for her to be safe and loved with her abuela but god or the universe doesn’t seem to listen to the cries of a child like her.  Just like everything else not meant for children such as she and her siblings, wishes and prayers are ignored. Her father comes and goes, and they behave as if he had never left. “The five of us were the kind of poor you could feel in your bones, in your teeth, in your stomach.” You can only imagine such a poor, if it’s never been your reality.

She is never happy nor in a stable environment for long, her mother steals her back and forces her madness on them- worse, Papi doesn’t seem to care, no one is ever coming to save them. It’s only a matter of time before she grows up, much too fast, and as a teenager becomes a hood rat. Then it was a desire for a violence she could never come back from, because she and her friends would never be ordinary girls who make their sadness seen through “sleeping pills and slit wrists”, if she is going to self-destruct it’s going to be a wild explosion! Beat downs, drugs, gangbangers, court dates, this is how someone will finally take notice, maybe her papi? This is how she lets her age out of it’s cage.

Must Jaquira remain in this state and either end up imprisoned or one day as mad as her mother? Or worse, dead? This is a tale of sadness so dark and overflowing that it becomes rage. This isn’t who she wants to be, she isn’t going to accept this battered, beaten down version of a girl. She will have the last word in who she is! She will fight and make it out, but not without mourning for those who didn’t. Through writing this very book she is reaching those who need to hear that someone has been there, she is a voice in the dark shouting alongside you, someone who wants to see all the girls, who are anything but ordinary, crawl out of the ruins.

A heavy, brutal journey.

Publication Date: October 29, 2019

Algonquin Books