AWAY! AWAY! A Novel by Jana Beňová, Translated by Janet Livingstone

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He’s growing from the most hidden and softest parts of my own self. Wild flesh. My own desire.

This is the latest novel from Jana Beňová, the Slovak author of Seeing People Off,  of which you can find my review here:  https://bookstalkerblog.wordpress.com/2017/04/13/seeing-people-off-a-novel-by-jana-benova/  In Away! Away! Rosa leaves her husband behind, the story is short and yet packs a lot of punch in the telling with a few pages of prose. There is a bit of her youth in snippets, such as how much she cried during her first days of high school. Of how yearning is born, be it for Paris (even if it’s just a city within herself) or red wine, cigarettes. Her frustration is evident in her head scratching and intolerance of all the cuckoos, those women who always have something to say, you have to read it. She seems hungry for escape, from work, from her husband, wishing only to distance herself from the struggle of adapting to everything expected of a woman. “And there’s the fear that someone will come along and utter the truth: she’s a fake.” An endless cycle of cuckoos.

Then there are the kisses from which she can’t catch her breath. She is Away Away and on the road, she can’t truly escape can she? She meets Pierre, who wants to join her and Corman on the road taking his puppet’s to put on The Snow Queen.  The characters swirl through Rosa’s mind, which character does she resemble, will she remain as wooden as a puppet forever, doomed to be imprisoned by the body of the man she loves, the memories that travel with you even if you attempt escape, because in the end there is no such thing, really, as Away! Away!

It is fiery passion always at the start of love and slowly, with familiarity comes the disenchantment, the want for freedom, to return just to the self again without the restrains of love. The writing is different from other styles and you have to really be still and quiet to catch what is being said. It is a bit like pillaging someone’s private runaway thoughts. Conflicted emotionally, striving for rebirth that never comes because once you’re hatched, well you’re hatched. I know my thoughts are running off the train tracks here, but it’s the mood I am in after finishing this unique book. The writing reminds me of someone purging their thoughts on scraps of paper and just walking away. I have to give a nod to the book cover too, it’s fabulous!

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The Embalmer by Anne-Renée Caillé, Rhonda Mullins (Translation)

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You have to be true, to be faithful to the photograph the family sometimes leaves. I am surprised to find out this is not done consistently.

Most of us don’t like to think about what happens after death, how the embalmer prepares the body, the work required to make our loved ones look as they did in life, our ‘last look’ at our beloved who is both present in body and yet not. In this literary fiction, Anne-Renée Caillé’s narrator plumbs the depths of her father’s experiences during his time as an embalmer. What seems like a macabre subject is handled with a far more matter of a fact manner. We modern-day people are removed from death, out of sight, out of mind. While a book of only 96 pages, some of the telling made my skin crawl, not so much for gruesome horror but that lives end in the strangest and saddest of ways.

Her father, at times with ‘a list of cases on hand’,  makes some of the deceased become more real by saying their names. His job, to make them who they were before the ravages of disease, accidents, murder, or even combat had his work cut out for him, and certainly there are cases where there isn’t the possibility of make-up saving the day, because only a closed casket is the option. There are indignities in dying, most of us just have to look away and let others handle the ugly details, never once giving it a thought yet knowing our time will come. Who can bear to ponder such things with so much living to do?

“The story is sensitive, they all are, but some are more disturbing.”

Through listening to her father, she wants to understand him, his choice of jobs where things are underground. Then there is illness in her own family, in her father just like his father before him but death’s movements can’t always be tracked and sometimes surprises us with the age old question, “Who is next?”

I can’t wait to read more by Anne-Renée Caillé. She is an author I will be following. I read this in one night.

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Coach House Books

Mother Country: A Novel by Irina Reyn

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She preferred to think of herself as an observer, a temporary traveler, someone waiting for a new life to begin, rather than who she really was: a worker executing an invisible task within the neighborhood’s complex ecosystem.

Nadia splits her time as a Nanny to the privileged little girl of a Russian born woman who demands she teach her child Russian, even if she cannot speak it well herself and as a caregiver at VIP Senior Care, tending to the elderly.  Often feeling invisible in the eyes of her employers  “That she had her own family on the opposite side of the world? That her life was far rounder than the reflection in the woman’s eyes?” she pushes on through her days, biding time until everything she has worked for finally comes to fruition. Relying on Skype, Nadia can keep contact with her beloved daughter Larisska whom she had no choice but to leave behind with her mother in Ukraine, a fractured country that has gone to war. Larisska, feeling abandoned, has her own acts of defiance, barely coming to the video call, refusing to answer her mother about her  level of health, to say whether or not she is keeping up with her insulin injections but even that is preferable to the dead silence of unanswered calls and the fear that they could have died, and if they are alive, how will she get her medicine if everything has ceased to function? Then there is no hope as America isn’t granting asylum, everything on hold thanks to Homeland Security.

There was a time when Nadia worked hard as a  successful bookkeeper in Ukraine, a diligent employee who caught the eye of the married midlevel manager at their manufacturing company. A place where she was respected, proud to do her work, had her own routines like meeting up with her childhood friend Yulia and their old schoolmates often, then the brief affair (if a moment of bliss and passion can be called an affair) that leaves her pregnant with Larisska. Understanding that he will never leave his wife and children for Nadia and their unborn child, or acknowledge Larisska as his, surely he must know she bore his fruit, Nadia is happy just to be in his charming, handsome presence. She is sure that each extra kindness he gives her is his way of showing he loves her and knows about Larisska. Then changes begin in her country, subtly at first. Storefronts altering signs from Russian to Ukrainian, government documents changing to the Ukrainian language, soon currency being phased out and then, payment at work in mandarins. How is Nadia, a single mother, going to keep her child and mother alive on mandarins?

Her daughter Larisska, ” such an adorably willful little thing,” a neighbor once told her of her newborn was stubborn from the start, refusing even to nurse from her breast. Then, the diabetes diagnoses when Nadia couldn’t possibly afford the insulin. Their only hope is America, but the years pass and when it’s finally Nadia’s turn and her application is approved, there is a flaw in the plan, Larisska at 21 is too old (has aged out) to be approved. Nadia makes the hard decision to go anyway without her girl, leaving Larisska feeling at once betrayed and discarded. To Nadia’s way of thinking, it is the only hope she has of keeping Larisska healthy, her medication supplied and she will get her daughter to America, once she herself is settled in. Larisska thinks they should stay together, it’s too late anyway to move away. Nadia knows America is the land of opportunity, the prize! It is a hard transition, a land with so many different people of many colors, some she had only read about before, and at first, she fears them all but she has no choice but to adapt if she is going to get Larisska there.  America, however, has other plans. Applications continuously get declined and Larisska’s life goes on without her. With the fighting between western Ukranians, separatists and Russians her fervent prayers that they leave her homeland aren’t enough to make it happen, soon access to medication stops, and Nadia devises a brilliant plan to save her Larisska after a night out on the town with her friends. With no man in her own life, her thoughts are never focused on her own loneliness, and instead of love for herself, she will find a man for Larisska, in America! Mother knows best, always.

This is a story about mothering when you’re pinned to a wall with threats coming at you in all corners. When you don’t have the luxury of choices and war turns your world upside down, when I love yous aren’t easy to utter because you are just trying to stay afloat, love is obvious in your actions, don’t need to be stated. That sometimes in trying to be your child’s salvation, you may just forget that they too have plans of their own and time doesn’t stand still when you leave. It is terribly missing your ‘Mother Country’ while trying to adapt to your adoptive one, because the country you left never remains the same nor do the people you had to leave behind. It is about sacrifice but will it all be worth it in the end, will Larisska ever make it to America? Will she continue to resent her mother? Will Nadia forever be stuck mothering someone else’s child while her own is sick on another continent in desperate need of her?

I thought this was a wonderful novel, it is not solely about the immigrant experience, it is also about motherhood, and crumbs of love some people delude themselves into accepting, as we see with Nadia and the technolog (the manager who fathers Larisska). Nadia seems to spend much of her life making assumptions about people. She is a woman who really needs to learn to let go, that sometimes you have to just flow with what destiny has in store for you. Not easy when she has had to figure out so much on her own. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: February 26, 2019

St. Martin’s Press

 

The Murmur of Bees: A Novel by Sofia Segovia, Simon Bruni (Translator)

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“Nana. What else do you have there?”

Then the bundle burst into wails and frenetic movements.

“He’s hungry, boy,” said Nana Reja as she carried on with her constant swaying.

“May I see?”

As he unrolled the shawl, Francisco and his men at last saw what Nana had in her arms: a baby.

Their horror made them step back. Some of them crossed themselves.

An abandoned, disfigured baby boy mysteriously protected by a living blanket of bees is rescued by Nana Reja in a small Mexican town, October 1910. The woman as old and weathered as a tree, with a long, exhausting life a servitude behind her, has chosen to live out the rest of her days in one spot in a rocking chair outside the storage sheds on the Hacienda Amistead. Her past shed as wet nurse and caregiver for so many children that it’s hard to remember her own baby, so long departed from this world, it’s a miracle that Reja heard the abandoned child’s cries from under a bridge, so far away. It is ominous, unnatural! With fierce determination burning fire in her old heart, she refuses to budge in her plan and thus changes the course of the Morales family when she brings the ‘monstrous’ Siminopio infant home, demanding he is baptized despite the ugly, hateful whispering of the village that the boy is a bad omen. To some, like Francisco’s bitter employee Anselmo Espiricueta, he is “the devil”, will be the downfall of them all. Others are ashamed of their first reaction as they come to care for the strange child.

Francisco and Beatriz adopt Siminopio, whose bees beat within him as strongly as his own heart, guiding and protecting both he and the Morales family as he grows under their care. Soon there is war in their Northern Mexico, men of wealth are a prime target and with pretty young daughters, Francisco knows his girls must be sent away. With the war’s army wanting land, and taking his crops, he has time for his family now like never before and wonders if buying land is an answer.He begins to believe Siminopio and his bees are important to his family, for surely there is a reason he came. He will see that he remains unharmed. Over time the people who are a part of or near the Morales house come to get used to the boy, his deformity less terrifying, his affinity for nature making him a sweet boy one could even feel affection for. Unable to communicate due to his deformity, people underestimate his keen intelligence, his ability to see in others what most people overlook. It is not without sorrow that he lives his life in step with his bees, wishing with all his might he could sing or speak, express himself in ways most take for granted, but it is not to be.

It isn’t a story solely about Siminopio though, every character has their story told, like Beatriz and her youthful longing for a good, solid man for a husband  and finds the best partner in Francisco, so much luckier than other women of the times. But revolutions and epidemics have a long reach, she will endure as she always has, just like the times after the tragic loss of her own father, in years to come. She clings to the past, she is a loyal wife and mother but the fear of giving up her family lands, starting over in an unknown land, shucking off all the old traditions for a new way is not something she wants to entertain. Then comes the fever, and it comes for Siminopio.

Influenza and the Mexican Revolution rip through every character in this novel and no one is unscathed. When fortune takes a bad turn and illness befalls the people, there isn’t time to properly grieve. Survival swamps sorrow, when death is hungry and pity becomes a luxury, because you are all under the same threat. Soon there are more dying or dead than alive but through the stink of death, a miracle gives the people hope, even if the doctor doesn’t believe in such things. The Morales family line is safe, and they owe it to Siminiopio’s fever and Francsico’s swift thinking, abandoning Linares and it’s people just in time. This decision is their salvation, but also inflames an enemy.

It is a story of  one family’s evolution and knowing when to let go , even if it means abandoning the old ways, it is about seeing past your own nose, understanding that fear can cloud your judgement and that beauty and salvation are sometimes found in the strangest of places, and people. It is a window into how animosity is often easier to nurture than accepting  the nature of your own failings, as we see with the envious Anselmo. Tired of waiting for good fortune to smile upon him, disgusted with Francisco’s benevolence, with ‘hand outs’ and making due, working land that will never be his that seems to be taken over by orange groves, helping only the Morales wealth grow while his own life is consumed by loss, he devises a scheme of his own, nurturing too the hatred he feels for the ‘devil’ Siminopio.  It is a story of love, war, illness, nature, revenge and bees. There is magical realism with Siminopio and his beloved bees, but this is more historical fiction. There are many voices telling the tale, a lot of story to sort through but worth the effort. There is beautiful writing and wisdom within, I particularly delighted at the chapter about houses, how they “die when they are no longer fed the energy of their owners.” How houses leave echoes in us, as we leave echoes in them. The invisibility of old age, the ghosts of the past that visit us as memories, even the horrors of time, it’s all written so beautifully.

Publication Date: April 16, 2019

AmazonCrossing

Lake Union Publishing

What We Did: A Novel by Christobel Kent

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Isabel, Isabel: in the deep dark she remembered the girl’s innocence, her admiration, her glee at being special, it blazed. Bridget had been special once, as she frowned down at her instrument, the instrument burnished and warm from her touch, trying, trying, trying, her heart in her mouth. Him watching her, impatient.

Bridget’s world is on the verge of collapse all due to the return of her former music teacher Anthony Carmichael. Every soiled memory she has buried from that horrible time rises to the surface when he comes into her dress shop with a pretty, eager young girl named Isabel. Suddenly, the life she has been living is ripped from beneath her feet, is it possible to run, to move from the threat of him? The possessive, guiding way he was touching that little girl, the intimacy is like poison in Bridget’s veins. She should stop him, she should speak up but she is frozen in fear.

The days move on, she collects her senses and begins to relax into her daily routine sure that as a ‘visiting professor’ he won’t be around for long. Until she discovers he will be at the University her own husband works at, for much longer than she hoped. 2 years, if they can keep him, and the school is ‘lucky to have him.’ There is Isabelle, so much the same as Bridget once was, trusting, talented, open to the attention and charm of an adult. Though Bridget is no longer a child, everything about Carmichael brings chills, fear into the very cells of her being. Closer, closer he advances and then she snaps, from there an even bigger secret takes hold, but can she carry on as if nothing happened?

Bridget goes from sheltering her shameful past, which many sexually abused children feel responsible for, to hiding a criminal act. Then the story descends into a nightmare about her own son, who is keeping secrets about his own new relationship. There is also Gillian Lawson, who is looking for Dr. Carmichael, as she is digging into the past and alive with the chase of a story. She knows too that Bridget is a link, and with her husband working as the computer officer at Rose Hill, she has a way to reach her. Too, what of the husband, Matt? Is he a ‘genuinely nice man’, or is he the type to marry victims, to further abuse them? How much of a coincidence, she wonders, is it for Carmichael to end up where his former student’s husband works? It just figures a journalists is chasing truth when Bridget has something the size of…. Carmichael to hide.

The strength of the novel is in the emotional state Bridget’s abuser returning into her life puts her in. That a wife, mother, competently running her own dress shop can turn into a terrified wreck after having a run in with the man who sexually abused her, many years after it happened can explain just how debilatating sexual abuse is.  Her instinct is to uproot her life, which of course is not plausible, but that thought alone conveys just a drop of the fear and remnants of damage one person can wreak in another’s life. The fact she hasn’t told her husband anything, ever, that it’s remained bottled up inside of her all this time speaks volumes for how abusers walk away unscathed. The adult always has an edge, knows how to make a child believe that every viloation is mutual desire, and he/she is just as much to blame. If a child has a special talent, or is hungry for attention, how much easier it is for the abuser to manipulate them, to have access, to learn the family dynamics and use it against the child. I was expecting to see Carmichael exposed, to see him stripped for once of his power, publicly tarred as would seem just, but this was a completely different novel. What a strange turn. Not to say he doesn’t get punished but not what I expected. The ‘grooming’ is bigger than just Carmichael. I’ve read quite a few books that explore this very issue, one good thing is straight away there is no romanticized storyline. In fact, he turns your stomach from the very start. I sometimes felt all over the place, and the things that happen after the big moment between Bridget and Carmichael, which is very early in the novel, seem a bit hard to pull off, but truth is stranger than fiction and having a sister whose norm is chaos can come in handy, at least for Bridget.

Publication Date: February 5, 2019

Fararr, Straus and Giroux