Conjure Women: A Novel by Afia Atakora

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More profit to be made in curses than in her work mixing healing tinctures. More praise to be found in revenge than in birthing babies.

Slaverytime 1854 we meet Miss May Belle, a slave woman well known for crafting curses, because as she tells it, “Hoodoo is black folks currency.”  What other power is to be found than in such things? It’s another form of hope when drowning in desperation. In a time when other slavefolk were forced to work in  the fields, or on carpentering and cooking Miss May Belle has her hoodooing and healing (for various afflictions) as well as midwifery skills. She is the one the slavefolk turn to, and sometimes the white man as well; when what ails him is a shameful thing. Her own daughter Rue comes of age at her side, learning more than healing wounds, and birthing babies. She learns first hand about true love and passion watching her parents during her father’s brief visits and the abysmal pain and suffering of its loss. She also learns about the cost of freedom and ownership. Then she witnesses the consequences conjures take on a person’s body and soul. Through her mother’s gifts and skills she is able to weave in and out of the lives of their people as well as the home of their master and his family, prosperous landowner Marse Charles.

As a playmate to his spoiled daughter Varina, Rue has more freedom than afforded girls like her and is privy to a different life. Yet Rue learns her place well, always watching from afar the life that she knows divides them. When she forgets her place her mother is sure to do the reminding. Miss May Belle may be freer than most, but she still must abide by the unspoken rules of the white-man. The master’s child Varina loves to be wild and who better to be an “accomplice to witness her rebellion” than Rue. It always turns into punishments for her alone, for her mamma Miss May Belle has eyes and ears everywhere, and an uncanny way of knowing everything her girl gets up to. In order to keep her safe and under the care of Marse Charles she must teach her everything she knows, whether Rue wants to learn or not and that includes behaving properly, and colored little girls can’t run around fancy and free like Varina.

The story goes back and forth between slavery and freedomtime, Rue’s childhood and her turn at caring for the people her own mother gives up on after a horrific tragedy. Superstitions seem to guide the people, especially when a baby is born more like a pitiful creature, something that everyone feels is more like a curse than a bundle of joy. She has birthed every child in town since the end of slaverytime, more intimately involved in all their lives than anyone. But she knows firsthand how fast praise can turn to hatred, more so when a religious man comes to town. Everyone needs someone to blame their bad luck on, it’s so much easier than looking within. When the old ways no longer save you, maybe God can, but the bible doesn’t take with Hoodoo. Love itself can be as potent as a curse, as too can harboring secrets about the people in the town and Marse Charles’ family. Someone is always scheming, there is little comfort to be had. Gossip can cost anyone their standing, especially Rue. Running away can be dangerous but so can ‘digging in’, making a stand and fighting for your small place in the world. Rue will not run, even if Bruh Abel is set on her ruin. Even if the bible marks her as evil, fallen, in need of redemption. Maybe Bruh Abel isn’t so pure either?

Fear runs rampant among the people, curses aren’t enough, and every affliction can’t be cured. The woods are not always silent nor still, they too are haunted by memories, and possibly something else. Secrets seems to go there. So many decisions Rue is forced to make to protect others, so many wrong moves and yet nothing for herself. Will it ever change? Is she forever trapped in this life rooted in whispers, secrets, gossip, grief, curses, and conjures? What will the price of freedom be for Rue? Life is a heavy weight and what comfort can be found in her mother’s words? “Fix what you’ve done. Or live with it quiet.”

There are some things that one cannot live with and everything you have done will rise up. It’s an interesting historical fiction with a taste of magical realism, people help each other but also harm one another. Rue carries many burdens and tries hard to make things right. It’s written from the perspective of slavery, rather than ownership and it lends a far more authentic experience. This is a writer to watch! For those who are into cover love, how beautiful is the book cover? As I read it, I kept thinking someone will make this into a movie. Who knows? It’s a fantastic debut!

Publication Date: April 7, 2020

Random House Publishing

 

 

 

Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History by Jaipreet Virdi

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It is easy to be swept away by promises of miraculous cures for incurable diseases.

The universe has a strange sense of humor, as I am writing this I am getting over a virus and I’ve temporarily lost hearing in my right ear going on 3 weeks now. For me, it’s fluid behind the eardrum, but for this reason I finished this novel thinking about how important losing your hearing is for those born with it. I’ve had several family members lose their hearing due to cancer, old age, as well as damage from working around loud machinery. Most of us are ignorant when it comes to disabilities that don’t directly affect us, in fact before reading this I hadn’t really understood that people need to learn to hear when they get a cochlear implant. It’s hard to understand that a person, with the aid of hearing implants, doesn’t hear the same as those of us with properly functioning ears do. Before my own father started using a hearing aid I didn’t know how it distorted some sounds, magnified others and how awful it is for him to hear when more than one person is talking. As with anything else about humanity, there are different ways of being deaf and ‘cures’ and ‘aids’ don’t work for everyone, nor are they necessarily desired.

The conversation about embracing Deaf culture is a personal one, particularly to those born deaf. To many people, it’s not a matter of ‘curing’ something they never lost in the first place. Other people’s expectations of what makes a person whole doesn’t take into account their needs, their decisions. Reading about parents searching for cures it’s heartbreaking for both the child and the parents. For those who want to restore their hearing every new invention and scientific breakthrough can just be one more disappointment to bear, some more dangerous to one’s health or outright deadly. While Jaipreet Virdi shares a history for the deafness cure, too she interjects her own personal trials and tribulations in defining her own place in the Deaf community. Jaipreet was not born deaf and therefore her hearing loss doesn’t “ fit with the discourse of deafness and Deaf culture, because most Deaf people were born deaf and thus, never had any hearing to lose.” Her goal is to “enrich our understanding of an unrepresented aspect of deaf history: that of the medical and technological avenues for “curing” hearing loss.” These cures involve everything from airplane dives, chunky devices, and all sorts of  “Electrical Wonders.” Even advertisements that shame women for their unfashionable hearing apparatuses is simply just another way to demean a person and make a ton of money off a medical condition.

There are, of course, those in the medical community who made discoveries that were great strides in medical science but for every genuine, qualified doctor there were quacks and frauds. Factor in the exuberant cost for treatments, cures, and hearing devices and people have no other option than to purchase what they can afford, generally for products that did more harm than good if they worked at all. Loving parents that were well meaning hunted for cures largely because in the past the fear their child couldn’t manage in a world that doesn’t support disabilities caused alarm about their child’s future. Society tends to attack anything that is ‘different than’. Their fear that their child couldn’t survive without the ability to communicate as the majority demands placed them on quests to try anything to cure their Deaf child. But what of the child forced through treatments that are often more painful than not? As an aside, this happens with all sorts of illnesses, defects, disabilities that are physical or mental. The truth is, most parents want to make their child’s future one where their child will be safe, functional long after they are no longer around to care for them, it often comes from a place of love. Yet there are two sides of this coin.

What of the child like Jaipreet Virdi who has had to learn how to live between two worlds, that of hearing and the deaf, feeling she isn’t planted firmly in either? People often forget how important hearing is to language, for it is through hearing others speak as well as our own voice that we can pronounce and enunciate.  A not so simple skill most of us take for granted. Hearing, in the end, matters and is just something most of us don’t think about. As we age, hearing as much as sight is a sense that tends to go. All of us are prone to illness and injury, that can easily end in the loss of hearing. It’s easier to not think about our senses, until we or someone we love loses them.

How can we not empathize with the need those born Deaf have to embrace their own community, feeling whole as they are? Sometimes we fail to understand that all over the world people have their own way of existing, it may be different from our own, but it’s not less. How much of oneself is anyone expected to give up to fit in, particularly when you lose more of yourself? We all must measure our own happiness, and create a place for ourselves, why should it be any different for someone with a disability? With that said, it wouldn’t hurt to educate ourselves about the difficulties others confront, to at least try to understand each other better and respect personal choices.

This book is full of hearing history, which is shocking and sad as well as fascinating. It’s part memoir and medical history/science. Maybe I was more interested in this book having witnessed the frustration of those who have lost their hearing. Seeing firsthand how someone is dismissed when they can’t communicate what they need to. I don’t always think other people are cruel (though such people do exist) I think they just don’t know any better, which again comes down to “unrepresented aspects” of hearing loss and many other disabilities. In a world as populated as ours, there really isn’t an excuse not to educate ourselves. There is a line that stayed with me, “We marvel at how people pass as normal by hiding the signs of disability.” Why should they have to hide?

If you’ve ever been curious about the world of the hearing impaired or Deaf (which is the same world you share) this is an informative read.

Publication Date: May 1, 2020

University of Chicago Press

Breasts and Eggs: A Novel by Mieko Kawakami Translation by Sam Bett and David Boyd

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We had no relatives to call for help, and zero chances of marrying into money. Less than zero. Lottery odds.

Breasts and Eggs is about being oppressed through poverty but also it’s about the female body as an instrument for survival or a vessel for motherhood. It begins with Natsu’s older sister Makiko and her silent daughter Midoriko arriving by train for a visit. While silent in her mother’s presence for over half a year, her mind is a hive of anxiety about her changing body, but she doesn’t share these thoughts with her single mother; their communication solely through written words on paper. Nothing is wrong with her, she speaks perfectly normally at school and with friends, ‘she just refused to talk at home’. This is just another strain between Natsu and Makiko, especially after news that her elder sister wants to get breast implants, which will certainly improve her working life as a hostess. Spending her nights slaving in a less than glamorous location with ‘no shortage of vagrants and drunks’, women with bigger breasts make more money. While Midoriko ponders how awful it must be to menstruate for decades, her mother looks really old, and she isn’t even forty yet. Natsu is at odds with the way Makiko is behaving like everything is okay. As if her daughter’s self imposed silence is a rite of passage. She is more disturbed by Makiko’s obsessive plan to improve her body.

Soon, Makiko is sharing colorful brochures that are the guide “to be more beautiful”.  Hers is a life without prospects, there wasn’t anyone helping make her life better. The sisters past losses turned their lives to one of poverty and struggle. Survival in it’s rawest sense, and at a young age. Welfare, not an option. Before them, their own mother struggled. Even now, there isn’t enough money to stretch, let alone for breast implants! What about the health risks to her body? When they visit a bathhouse its a perfect example of women comparing themselves to others and how imperfections can be fixed. Natsu is helpless to make her sister see reason. For young Midoriko, the body is beginning to feel like a thing she has no control over, her future will just be a lifetime of bending to it’s demands, and seeing how making money every day just to keep it alive has drained her mother of youth and vitality makes her feel very afraid. Too, why would anyone want to create another life, just another body (like she herself is for her mom) that is more weight to your financial woes? She is horrified, feeling captive to her body’s changes, much like a runaway train she can’t stop or maybe like an approaching monster? Most women forget how scary leaving childhood behind is, when the body first begins to bud. It’s not always an easy progression, though a natural stage. Natsu herself is single in the most severe sense. No child, no partner and what does this lonely state say about her? With the visit from her family, memories are being brought out of the dark again about the sisters hard past. Natsu too thinks about the body and beauty, expectations, how to define happiness which seems much easier for those who please the eye. Worse, she sees her dream more as a hobby, herself as a failure having moved to Tokyo to become a writer ten years earlier and yet not a great success that can bring money in to help her elder sister and niece. It’s only a matter of time before Midoriko erupts emotionally about how her mother is effecting her and the strain between the sisters comes to a head.

In Book Two Natsu is found giving her everything in her writing, which to some doesn’t seem good enough. Through celebrity interest her luck changes and finally she tastes success. She finds support through an editor Sengawa, for a time who nudges her to reach deeper. She wisely informs her that it’s the real readers of literature she must reach. She wrestles with her own anxieties, the fact that in a relationship her body refuses to enjoy the physical fusing most people long for and don’t just ‘endure’. What sort of woman is she? To feel stunted in this way? A woman who retreats from such affection? She never feels more alone than when entwined with a man. What if she decides to have a child after-all, maybe better as a single mom, subtracting a man from the equation altogether?  It’s possible and a problem many single women face. There is always sperm donation. This quest brings her closer to children, now adults, born impacted by donor conception. Not everyone feels being born was a blessing. How will this effect her decision? This novel is a deep exploration into not just motherhood but the very nature of womanhood itself. For Midoriko when she is young in book one, her body feels like it’s gone rogue, for another character in book two, it stood out to me that with illness, it is the same. The body taking over. Choices are weighted in the entire story, there is no right or wrong path, and every decision they make effects someone. Parenthood and what a mother or father is reaches deeper than blood too through the novel. Natsu doesn’t feel normal, the way you should in relationships, but should she have to feel that way in order to create a family? Does she want to? As she ages, the question if she wants to remain alone is a heavy one.

There is so much happening in the novel, and it’s intelligently written but I sometimes wished the pace picked up. However, there is gorgeous writing within. “People are strange, Jun. They know nothing lasts forever, but still find time to laugh and cry and get upset, laboring over things and breaking things apart.”  One of the most beautiful moments in the novel is when Aizawa (you’ll meet him between the pages) talks about the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 space probes. It moved me.

Women’s bodies are as complicated as our lives can be, every single stage from puberty to the end, and every decision we make from whom touches us to whether or not we carry a life within. There are illnesses, emotional obstacles, careers (some grand, others necessary for survival), and always memories of all that came before. How Kawakami fit so much in the telling, I can’t say. I lived in Okinawa, and I think I read books written by Japanese authors a little differently having a bit broader understanding of the culture than someone who has never visited or lived among the people yet I think anyone can relate to what happens to the characters. This is perfect for readers who enjoy other cultures, and women’s issues too.

Publication Date: April 17, 2020

Europa Editions

Love is a Rebellious Bird: A Novel by Elayne Klasson

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“Judith, sometimes it’s hard to be objective when it’s someone we love.”

With the years gone faster than the blink of Judith’s eye, she finds herself thinking about the same person she has since childhood, the one person whom has occupied the biggest room in her heart, Eliot Pine. The most pressing question of all, beyond why and how we love the people we do, is can you love someone who doesn’t love you with the same devotion and passion you feel for them? Is true love only measured in equal parts? Worse, can you stop yourself from loving a person who can never return your own? Judith is over seventy, and “trying to make sense of what I did with my life”, knowing her obsessive love was “consuming, painful, and, ultimately, unsuitable.” Here she presents her story of unwavering love for Eliot through her marriages, births of her children and her career.

Judith first meets Eliot Pine, a beautiful boy, when she is ten years old and transfers to Pratt Elementary School in Chicago her fifth grade year. The reader learns, just like Judith, through a fight he is in that his mother is in the mental hospital, again. His pain and sorrow becomes Judith’s own. Immediately her heart belongs to Eliot. First it’s love from a distance, each with their own little boyfriend and girlfriends until they begin to compete academically. Impressed by her intelligence, the two become fast friends, earning her even a special nickname from Eliot that sticks for life. She inserts herself in his passionate causes to be closer to him, getting to know even his mother, for a time. But she always seems to be asking him for more than he can give, their relationship one of imbalance. A terrible tragedy takes place, and Judith is only too eager to be Eliot’s solace. Through the years and difficulties of life, Eliot and Judith turn to each other as something far more undefinable than friends.

As growing up does, experiences change Eliot and Judith just can’t seem to keep up. As he changes, Judith longs for him in the Ann Arbor Gloom, focusing on her education, waiting for that ‘some day’ he always promises when she can finally, fully give herself to him, body and soul. Judith immerses herself in psychology and social work. The two meet up again and again through life, keeping in touch through letters before emails take over, their life circles different as Eliot’s in more affluent, and yet there are times they are unavailable to each other as he graduates Harvard Law and she travels the world with someone else.

Judith and Eliot’s life paths split in different directions, he with a career in law, she with a career in social work and later raising children as a single mother after a tragic turn. Eliot gives her mixed signals even after he is married to someone else, and all she can ever feel is “if only” about everything involving Eliot. Is Eliot moved more by their shared history and her utter devotion and attention to him? In love with the intensity of her love for him? She promises him to always be there for him, even when they’re old and she keeps that promise, which in fact may be the most beautiful part of the story and the most pure example of love.

The novel is Judith’s journey through life, always on the edge of Eliot’s as he goes on to do great things. Using her other loves and marriages as a means to have a life of her own, separate from Eliot. Her own love life comes with it’s own issues and temptations like any marriage. There are betrayals and losses, brutal days. It is with startling honesty that Judith tells her story of how she humiliated herself for love, which a woman once she reaches old age at some point has done over someone. Not every great love story is mutual nor mutually exclusive. Love is sometimes one sided, but is it any less true? Even when she tries to push away, there is always her heart beating for Eliot and it is tender until the end, loyal if not returned. Eliot, again and again ‘not choosing me’ and yet not quite ever releasing her either. She is the constant friend, and in old age, let her children think she is crazy, she will not refuse Eliot when he needs her the most. It may be painful to recognize yourself either in Eliot or Judith, the worshiped or the devoted. The end was tender and sad, dare I say beautiful?

Published November 12, 2019

She Writes Press

 

 

 

The Dominant Animal: Stories by Kathryn Scanlan

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His tolerance for looking at the unattainable was so much lower than mine, which felt boundless, untested. It was the only thing I wanted to see.

Scanlan’s collection casts an errie fog over the ordinary. There are people remembering cold parents who have died and a dog who abandoned love and home for another family. Men with groping, rough hands and a girl whose ‘curiosity often led her into troublesome situations’, and doesn’t seem too worry much over the danger, though she should. A couple who lives in cramped quarters slobbering over the abundance of wealth the affluent take for granted, people trying to sink themselves into death and a mother who watches a family friend with a hawks eye around her daughters.

Threats always lurk, either from within or without, beasts not entirely animal. Human beings are at their worst or alerted to predators in these tales. Some are liars, like the Master Framer and some men will never be rescued, because how can you save someone from what goes on in their own head, as in The Rescued Man.

The Poker was an interesting title, because what do females do but dodge poking and prodding from birth? The mother isn’t allowed to feel her pain, she is ‘greedy’ with her baby girl when protecting her from the arms of a ‘family friend holding her child wrong’, and nothing in the world, not even pills can keep her little girls safe from the violence beyond the door and the world’s flippant response to a woman’s reaction to insults and injury. In Mother’s Teeth a woman cares for her needy, sick mother, though really after her childhood owes her nothing.

As in The Candidate, a person is an animal among the domesticated of our species. Sometimes even a family dog can have more pedigree, ‘expensive heritage’ than us, and we are the sticky, messy animal never to be as sleek and refined as others.

The stories are both ordinary and strange, and the people in the tales are just trying to ‘live’. Oh, it hurt, something I did nearly cost you your life, well just like the woman in The Poker was told, ‘You survived didn’t you?’ As if that’s enough. My favorites were The Poker and The Rescued Man, in fact I the latter would make an interesting novel. I didn’t love all of them, but Kathryn Scanlan excels is in digging through the hum of the average, ordinary days and it’s people; sometimes finding things to abhor about them or admire.

Publication Date: April 7, 2020

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

MCD x FSG Originals

 

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker

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Mary’s mother is well practiced at laughing off moments like these, behaving as if nothing is strange. To do anything else would be the same as admitting that she lacks any real control over the situation- that she cannot understand what is happening in her house, much less how to stop it.

Hidden Valley Road is the story of a family, created by Don and Mimi Galvin (ten boys and two girls) picked apart by the ravages of schizophrenia, a disease that takes the foundation of the family and ‘permanently tilted it in the direction of the sick family member’.  What happens when it appears in several family members? When, like the fear of it’s contagion, the parents aim a laser focus on each child afraid they may be next? How does this attention harm every sibling? How can the parents possibly dodge the terror of, ‘who will be next’ ? Is it any surprise that fear of odd behavior in their own children will follow the siblings later in life?

In the beginning, Mimi and Don envisioned a life full of ‘limitless hope and confidence’. Don was ambitious, and war bound after joining the Marine Corp Reserves, before heading out near Okinawa where he was to be stationed during the war in 1945, he married Mimi. While he was away, Mimi gave birth to their firstborn son. Soon followed more children, born while her husband  came and went for his career, at times he was home from Georgetown (finishing his degree) and Rhode Island to the Navy’s General Line School. Focused always on his career, which came first, Mimi was left either trailing after him with the children or awaiting his return alone with their offspring. She with dreams of a lawyer husband and a life where she could raise their brood alongside their family in New York, bided time until the war was over. Don was using the military as a means to his end, a career in law or better yet, political science. The end of his service came but he reneged on their plan and instead joined the Air Force, which lead them surprisingly to Colorado Springs.

Despite Mimi’s disappointment and after many shed tears, she began to appreciate the beauty of their surroundings. Together, she and Don discovered a passion for falconry, one which they shared with their boys, coming of age in the 1950’s. (I found this fascinating). Mimi rushed headfirst into raising her children all on her own without the help of nannies, family anyone. She would raise her boys to be cultured through art, music, nature and as more children came (if Don had his way Mimi would be pregnant forever) she worked even harder at being the best mother anyone could be; their clan would be the ‘model’ American family. Her passion for motherhood knew no bounds! It fed her ego, there was a special pride in ‘being known as a mother would could easily accomplish such a thing’, raising such a brood with unwavering determination and love. Why such a large family, well if it made Don happy, it was her joy to provide more offspring. Personally, as a mother with two children I found her enthusiasm and energy incredible, I get tired just thinking about it.

The dynamic in the couples marriage changed, Don’s career in intelligence yet another thing to keep Mimi at a distance, while she remained the rock for the children through the years, the one left to supervise, a ‘happy warrior’. But her dream of perfect children, everyone in line, the ‘model American family’ was about to shatter. Battling the common childhood illnesses like chicken pox, everyone knowing their chores, cooking, cleaning, for a large family is a mean feat but battling a little understood mental illness in a time where there wasn’t much compassion to be found in anyone straying from the social norms was a terrible mark against you. When the cracks first appeared in the eldest, most adored son (the namesake Don Jr.) who often watched his siblings, bullying them, setting them up against each other, it was largely ignored. The busy family didn’t have time for squabbles, the father’s favorite was believed. Even when he would smash dishes, and act out with violence, Don and Mimi behaved as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening, confusing and horrifying the other children. Something was wrong, no one knew it more than Donald himself. He would take the mental disturbances with him away to college, where it would soon show itself.

With the two older boys eventually out of the house, and Don Sr’s professional prospects, order had to be maintained, there could be no admittance of anything being off kilter. Such a thing is a stain that could ruin Don’s career and the Galvin’s social standing. Maybe the boys wreaked havoc, ending in bruises when they were home visiting, but ‘boys will be boys’ and need to become men and stand on their own. Then Don Jr fell apart, again and again, and it was no longer easy to deny something was wrong, not when it could no longer be hidden from the public too. He would never climb out of his illness, despite medicine, science, doctors best efforts. Worse, the abuse their daughters suffered in silences, denial. The embarrassment of their brother’s illness a thing they felt ashamed about and resentful of.

I can’t do justice in a review, it’s hard to summarize what the entire Galvin family went through, the hope, the fear, the denial and sexual abuse. I think about those decades, where mothers were often blamed for any sign of mental decline, where shame was all that mental illness bought you. When turning to doctors often did more harm than good, even now medication that is meant to help navigate mental illnesses do the body, all it’s organs so much harm, but there aren’t many alternatives beyond avoiding medication altogether and that leaves you exactly in the same abyss you started from. It victimizes the person coping with the illness, but you can’t ignore the voices of the family members that are forced to cope with the illness too. Children that are neglected because the illness consumes so much energy within the family, the physicality of it. Science isn’t moving fast enough, despite leaps like studying the Galvins and why schizophrenia claimed some of the children and not others. It feels too late for the Galvins in many ways. As much as we make judgments about Mimi and Don’s attempt to pretend everything is normal, how can we not empathize, imagining being in their place. Parenting is difficult enough, much of what we deny is fear motivated, comes form a place of love, and sure sometimes our own egos.

I’m always drawn to stories and studies about mental illness. I have a schizophrenic uncle, my own son is on the autism spectrum (he isn’t the only one in our extended family)… but for my uncle, I have seen how people fear mental illness, the hopelessness of my grandmother (when she was still alive) and yet immense love and support for her son who would not take his medication, and lives the life of a loner, often taken advantage of and there is nothing anyone can do. There is so much we do not know, and it’s hard for many to trust doctors when some of their treatments have done more harm than good. It can feel overwhelming and hopeless, your choices limited. Of course we aim to fix things, who wants to watch their family member suffer. It is reality still that with diseases people often find public support, compassion yet where there is mental illness most reactions are fear based and the public often judges those coping with it a ‘lost cause’. It’s the terrible result of little education. Doctors can only treat as well as the scientific discoveries and breakthroughs, but behind the illness are very real human beings.

This book is heartbreaking, and I have great admiration for all the Galvin children  (those still alive are full grown adults now, of course). This is really their story. They own it, they live in the aftermath and each makes choices based on their own emotional compass. Their story broke my heart and it will stay with me. Yes, read it.

Publication Date: April 7, 2020

Doubleday Books

 

 

The Great Unknown: A Novel by Peg Kingman

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Nothing happens; and nothing happens; and still nothing happens. Everything remains the same… or so it seems. But the truth is that everything is changing imperceptibly all the time.

The Great Unknown set in the 1840’s Britain and France, forces one to confront the question that has haunted us all from the dawning of time. What does it mean to be me,  to be a human being at all? Who am I? What is meant for me? Where do I come from? What does it all mean? Am I superior to animals, after-all, aren’t I an animal myself? This was a time when everyone alive was challenging the religious beliefs in the name of scientific discovery. This could be seen as dangerous, questioning what we’re meant to blindly believe. Science vs God, even now is rocky terrain but then it could be downright sacrilege.

Then there is the Chartist movement, whose goal during this time was to gain rights and political influence for the working class, which naturally upset the upper classes. Surely you can’t let just anyone have sway in politics, how can the average man carry any weight in the important decisions of one’s time? Everyone has their own view on this.

The novel begins with wet nurse, Mrs. Constantia MacAdam, providing milk for an infant born to a merry, wealthy family- the Chambers. Welcomed into the fold more like a  friend than a servant, she grieves the loss of her own twin infant boy while nourishing her surviving twin daughter and the Chamber’s son, born with extra fingers and toes. We learn her name isn’t quite her own, for her past is shadowed by the loss of her mother when she was a little girl, while  no true history of her real father remains. Living in a household filled with people of a curious, questioning nature, it’s impossible to not be disturbed by her own bottomless pit of mystery. Separated from her own dear husband, in order to give birth to their twins,  and for reasons she will keep to herself, communication is precarious between them.  Tormented by her mother’s secrecy before her tragic death, her deep love and memories flit about, unable to secure any solid evidence of her own origins. Her beautiful mother, who lived a bohemian existence, raising her in India, keeping her past veiled left her with endless questions.  Is life a twist of fate, are we guided by god, is it orderly, disorderly?

Others think of Mrs. MacAdams as a French hussy, whose terrible fashion sense certainly speaks loudly for her worth, or lack thereof. Good women do not go by false names, and can it be trusted that she is even married at all? But Mrs. Chambers knows that “folk may have perfectly innocent reasons for preserving a discreet anonymity”. In this household too, children are permitted to read scandalous books, such as the Vestiges. An anonymous book published that dealt with speculative natural history, embraced by polite society, inspiring people’s thinking to turn towards science, before Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published. Naturally to the clergy minded, it was criticized. Nature should be proof of God’s existence, not an argument against it!  Throughout this book, evolution is a theme but so too is the strange happenstance that occurs in so many of our lives. Which do we cling to? Is it like Lady Janet believes? That “incalculable harm may be wrought by such a book”? Certainly there can be nothing evil about looking to fossils, to trying to find answers and meaning? Nothing wrong in studying the evolution of creatures, plants…  Just as intelligent and progressive as the family, she fits in perfectly- sharing a love of fossils with Mrs.Chambers.

It is a novel of not just self discovery but of trying to embrace some sort of order in this, the great unknown. Everyone in the book engages in the new discoveries, even debating geological matters. Each has their say. Political matters account for much of the novel too, as all men who work this earth should have a voice, and risk death to use it. To think what we read can be a threat to the old ways.

There is scandal and shame in Mrs. MacAdam’s single mother’s past, but she will, as the strange whims of fate have it, get to the root of the truth.

The book began slowly and eventually I began to be more invested in Constantia’s story. There are deeper questions that may exasperate some readers and it can feel like a lesson at school which is great if it’s your fancy and you want to learn about geology, and the shift of scientific thinking among the masses.

Publication Date: February 18, 2020

W.W. & Norton Company