10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World: A Novel by Elif Shafak

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The possibility of an immediate and wholesale decimation of civilization was not as frightening as the simple realization that our individual passing had no impact on the order of things, and life would go on just the same with or without us. Now that, she had always thought, was terrifying.

We begin at the end for Tequila Leila, ‘as she was known to her friends and her clients.’ Working, before her sorry death, at one of the oldest licensed brothels in Istanbul she is no longer in her apartment, now she lays dead, vanishing further away from the here and now, ‘inside a metal rubbish bin with rusty handles and flaking paint.’ How did she end up discarded like trash, less than trash? Her group of misfits and best friends  Sinan, Nalan , Zaynab , Humeyra  and Jameelah don’t know yet what has happened, they intend to find out. Her friends, nothing more than garbage themselves according to the country and times they live in, the sole family she has left-at least that will acknowledge her, are the ones left behind to care about what has happened to her, just another dead prostitute to the citizens, but so much more to them. They don’t have rights, they must find a way (of course it’s a crime) to give her a proper burial, they may be her true family, but not legally.

How did you get here Leila? The mind sticks around and soon there is an influx of memories, the earliest is her birth and through that ‘slippery passage’ the transgression that followed against her own mother is recalled. In fact, though this novel is about outcasts, and many will focus most on the transvestite Nostalgia Nalan and Zaynab the dwarf, whose stories are very engaging, it is Leila’s mother, aunt and uncle’s sordid tale that clutched at me. It is here that everything went awry, where the hope for a different sort of life, one free of ‘shame’ was made impossible. Here lies the wreckage, and how my heart broke for Lelia’s mother, all the lies that darkened the family. We learn who truly bears the mark of shame, and it isn’t in Lelia’s decomposing body.

Her first mistake was being born a girl to her father’s second wife, and what are women if not vessels to deliver cherished sons? And if they cannot, well the elders assured Leila’s father that the Qur’an allows a man to have up to four wives. What good are wives who have only miscarriages? God help you, woman, if you are a flawed. This time Binnaz (second wife) took care to heed old wives tales and superstitions, leaving nothing to chance. Yet it is the shock of how she is rewarded for her efforts that has lasting effects on Lelia, who has two mothers. What rights does a second wife have? None. She must be an obedient wife, who is she to complain? No one, nothing, just a mere woman. All Leila’s father Houran wants is for his baby girl (though he desires a perfect son) to one day make him proud, “true to your religion, true to your nation, true to your father.”  But how do you measure loyalty, pride, obedience, and chastity when others are bent on fouling the waters? Just who truly is a shame to their religion, to Allah? Rather than an example of piety, she is a challenge to her father, a thing to be cast away and disowned and surely through no fault of her own.

As her heart ceases to beat she recalls only the lonely child she was. The severity of her father, the odd behavior of her deeply trouble, sad, mentally unstable aunt and the complex relationship her mother had with her. It was a house of whispers, the women controlled by her father’s beliefs, and the simmering anger a confusion to Lelia who is sheltered from the truth.  After a terrible abuse, Leila loses both her family and love….

The streets are mean, it is in the brothels where hustlers bring her to find refuge and here Leila loses all hope of ever being a proper Muslim woman. It is also in this life where she finds her true family, and so begins their heavy stories, no lighter nor happier than Leila’s. These are the people tourists don’t see, and the ones the citizens would rather ignore or use, the disposable women. What happens to Leila is brutal, meant to expose the violence against women, but if you go back, isn’t what happened to Leila’s powerless mother just as violent in it’s own godless way? There is hypocrisy particularly in religious fervor, in the existence of these sinful places that are denied, and her friends lives are heavy, take “Osman” Nalan’s transformation, it is hard to contemplate in a time, place against women. Imagine trying to survive in her shoes.

It’s not solely those born native to the soil who face being subjugated by men. Some arrive there through trickery, as Jameelah’s story has her forced into our modern form of slavery. If you’re not forced into marriage, another brand of slavery for some as Humeyra can attest to , then you’re trafficked like Jameelah. Too, women subjugate each other as much as they uplift. We see this in the hatred between Jameelah’s stepmother and the cruelty Suzan heaps upon Binnaz, because I can’t think of a crueler thing. So while the tight bond and love Leila and her friends have, even despite death, there is shame too between women within this tale.

This is a world where fathers seek spiritual masters, where women are defeated, and being an outcast can end in brutal murder. Where unless you have family, you are buried like a pauper, trash. It’s an interesting blend of family, abuse, mental illness, politics, religion, feminism, society, poverty, wealth -there is a hell of a lot happening here. It’s hard for those of us living in the Western World to comprehend being punished for crimes against us, living in fear of religion. I hate to say this too, but in how men are teased by their elders it certainly fuels the fire, that man feels a push to punish his women… Women still have a long way to go when it comes to feminism, but in other parts of the world, you die for your dissension towards those in power. The filth upon you, put there by rape, is your fault and can never be washed clean. It’s unconscionable. These are places you do not speak up, as you see when Leila tries, look how that ends.

Her friends stories are told, and in fleeting memories Leila speaks but I was far more interested in her as a child. I felt I lost her when she grew up, however her friends fill that hole. They make up the ‘immodest sinners’ of these ‘immoral times’. Still, what they are forced to do is a freedom from where they escaped, lives among the ruins. Elif Shafak gives voice to those never heard, after-all, they don’t exist right?

Publication Date: September 24, 2019

Bloomsbury USA

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Once Removed: Stories by Colette Sartor

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But it was exhilarating to be fearful, to feel something other than an endless cycle of impatience, hope, grief, rage.

Once Removed is a collection filled with moments in our lives that threaten to spill over, overwhelmed with quiet suffering, desperate need to clutch at what is falling away. Sometimes the ugly, means things we think get exposed here, but full of raw honesty. In Bandit, Hannah finds it easier to form an intimacy with a young boarder named Rune than face the desperate hope and need on her husband’s face after a stunning loss. Sometimes it’s easier to reach for strangers when what needs to be faced is a pain like swallowing glass, our shared tragedies pushing us apart. How do we just ‘move on’, there is no timeline to healing.

In Daredevil, Grace is a sad mother trying to build a new life coming out of the storm of a broken home, fractured family. Her yearning to bond with her son, wounded and fragile is upended all the more by a sickly little girl named Noreen, whom she teaches along with her son in Sunday school. “Forgive me, Grace prayed sometimes after receiving Communion, forgive me for being thankful she’s not mine.”  All Grace wants is to lift she and her son out of this pit, this pain of ‘a family in ruins’, a shame she can’t repair the landscape of her own home but she tries, lord knows she tries. Why is her eight year old son always trying to get away from her? Why is he accepting dares, doing things that are always to his own detriment, turning away from her boundless love for him? Why can’t she protect him?

These are families with insurmountable distances between them, favorites who have jumped ship and left the least admired child behind to keep parents afloat, as in Jump. The pain of comparison that is born within families, the terror of one day creating your own family, always armed to defend oneself because no one else ever has your back. Could you, dare you attempt motherhood? Carrying the dead-horse of your own childhood, fearful you just don’t have it in you to be any good at parenting. Marney juggles the viciousness of jealousy, betrayal and need for her family to be intact, but her needs are never considered. How do you chose one over another, seems her mother certainly always chose her brother Winston first. Winston who has gone away, who holds his grudge tight. Marney’s love life isn’t any easier, as she butts heads with her boyfriend’s mother, relationships feel like a continuation of one’s own family saga. How is it some escape the madhouse and others are entrapped by it?

The stories are connected and when I got to Once Removed, it was a gut punch. How did we get here, something I think a lot of us ask about the awful moments we encounter in our lives? We try to be better people than we are, wedging ourselves into stories that were playing out before we stepped in, because everyone is anchored somewhere we are an uninvited, unwelcome guest. The push of wanting to heal what life breaks, the ache and sacrifice of parenting, the strange little families we must make in lieu of tragedy. Once Removed was a lump in my throat, being afraid when challenged, longing for things that seem forever outside the boundaries of your current reality, the cruelty of fate. Too, the silence we hold just to keep our family intact, the unsaid always a bigger fissure than what we explain.

What a collection! Families, how do we survive them? How do we survive without them? Hope that feels like disease, hope demands so much of us. Mothers and daughters, the push and pull of resentment and love, loyalties and how we divide them, the ache of it. Colette Sartor is an author to watch, she writes beautifully about the intricacies of relationships, imperfect situations and everything that follows the impact of tragedies. Yes, read this collection.

Publication Date: September 15, 2019

University of Georgia Press

 

 

 

 

Searching for Sylvie Lee: A Novel by Jean Kwok

 

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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

 

 

 

 

 

Jacob’s Ladder: A Novel by Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Polly Gannon

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I feel that if I don’t write this down it will all evaporate, disappear into oblivion. 

Man Booker International Prize nominee, Ludmila Ulitskaya’s novel Jacob’s Ladder tells us the story of Nora Ossetsky and her family, as far back as her grandfather (a third generation Swiss watchmaker) Pinchas Kerns, who moved to Kiev in 1873 to open a branch of watchworks and instead opened a watchmaking-and-repair shop. Despite his lack of interest in communism, and capitalism “he placed a high value on his craft, and viewed commerce almost with contempt” and “the watchmaker never read the Bible of communism” his children assimilated the ‘progressive ideas of humanity’. The family is one of close knit siblings, educated, happy until October of 1905 and a pogrom against Kiev’s Jews alters the course of their lives.

Fast forward to 1974: Nora is with her married lover, renowned theater director Tengiz where she is working as an artist in theater set design. Their days are filled with creative work, love and undying passion for each other. Seldom does Nora take an interest in her mother Amalia, whose own life seems to orbit around Andrei Ivanovich. The two seem nothing alike at times, and this exchange really moved me, as it seems Nora is irritated by her mother Amalia’s joy and it’s telling of Nora’s more cynical nature.

‘Amalia had positively bloomed from country life, and she laughed constantly”…

“What are you smiling about?” Nora asked.

“About everything,”Amalia answered, suddenly very serious, her smile gone. “Learn now, Nora, before it’s too late.”

Abruptly, the Chekhov play Nora and Tengiz are working on is shut down on the eve of its premiere, he flees back to the arms of his wife and child in Tbilisi, “the love cloud had vanished.” This is their sixth parting, and Nora can’t moon over losing him for long, after all going away ‘forever going away’ is what he is best at. He always finds his way back to her. For now, she has a new project and she turns to Vitya Chebotarev and here a fork, the story reaches back to their meeting and the link between them, one that fires up his mother Varvara’s hatred for Nora.

The characters are complex, Yurik ( Nora’s child) and his wonder often tickled my heart as I pondered ‘where do these beings we birth come from, similar to us in some ways carrying their ancestors in their DNA with similar features of those long departed and yet the things their strange little hearts think and say, their longings so different from our own?’ We try so hard to understand each other while sometimes not even fully aware of ourselves. Of Nora: “Nora was pitiless to everyone, not least to herself.” Of Vitya: Despite his unusual memory and his innate abilities in logical thought, he was emotionally rather backward , and had not an iota of a sense of humor. 

The family saga includes Nora’s grandfather Jacob Ossetsky’s diary entries, a man of musical passions, and desire for a beautiful girl named Maria (Marusya). The pair will join together, and spend their love in a life of letters, separated for so very long. Later those same letters collecting time in a willow chest, ignored, nearly forgotten. Simply another link in a tangled family chain that goes back and forth between the past and present. A heavy sorrowful tale of separation, isolation.

Nora becomes a single mother to her son Yurik, a strange child whom sometimes seems more her equal than her little boy. Of course Tengiz is always on the periphery of Nora’s life and Yurik’s. There was theater, now there is film! He always has something on the horizon. Vitya too is an important player, but half in and half out. He seems led about by Nora, resigned to whatever plans befall him, for a time anyway. Like an echo from past, Jacob’s love of music is birthed anew in Yurik’s very cells, a lifelong passion. Where will it take our strange little fellow?

With Vitya’s ‘trained mind’ and interest in the computer revolution, it is through his mathematical brain and the whims of fate (or his mother Varvara’s fervent hopes) that he is invited to a conference in the United States of America, where life finally blooms, maybe even love is in the stars? So too Nora and Tengiz find themselves in America when Western audiences become ‘ecstatic’ over their work, but only for a visit.  How changed Vitya is!  Back home, Nora worries about her son and how he needs something to occupy his heart and soul fully.  Time flows, death has come to her door as it must for us all, teaching her things she didn’t understand about her mother and father. Yurik finally makes it to America, is ingesting more than music, and changes his life, but is it for better or worse?

Boats to other shores, love letters, loneliness, diary entries, Russian theater, progressive single mothers, here we feel the ravages of time and place upon one family. It may not engage everyone, as we spend time with each generation the history is rich, the letters feel genuine with details some may find mundane, but what are days of life spent absented from all you desire if not mundane? The shackles of politics don’t often give us the freedom for fun and thrills. The characters are all wildly different from one another, as people are. The “storms of love” between Nora and Tengiz are imperfect and yet fitting somehow for this creative pair. The love story of her mother Amalia and Andrei is beautiful, yes even old folks can have sweet stories, even if it comes late. Where you live alters the course of your life, how can it not? But the promise of a new place, say America, isn’t always fruitful for everyone either. There are traps we can all fall into, even if the true obstacle is ourselves. We carry on, that is our only true job. The past has its tragedies through revolutions, upheavals, politics, and with the demands of the fatherland breathing down your neck how can any one person fulfill their future hopes? How can love and family ever be together, in their right and proper places, nice and safe and free? Must we look to the future, instead, our children and their children after them, even if we never meet them? Can our descendants carry on our desires? For one family, yes and no.

Old age comes for Nora “youth ended, never to return”, for those of us lucky enough to live full lives into our ‘dotage’ so to speak, that is a given. Will she finally find happiness in ways her ancestors could only hope for in the Russia they knew? You must read.

Publication Date: July 9, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 

 

Mrs. Everything: A Novel by Jennifer Weiner

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“This life,” Cal said. “You have to give up a lot, I have family who won’t see me. It’s hard. It’s not for everyone.”

In the beginning, it is older sister  Jo “tall and gangly and everything she did was wrong” and little sister Bethie ” chubbie and cute” a child who “always said exactly the right thing” that complete the makeup of the Kaufman family.  Where Jo is closer to her father, Bethie is Mommie’s perfect darling, a child who doesn’t behave in the unnatural manner her older ‘tom boy’ sister Jo does. It is 1950’s Detroit and their new home is surrounded by families just like them, “birds of a feather” all perfectly flocking together in rhythm and God forbid you are “different.” No one tests their mother more than Josette, who doesn’t mean to be so difficult and really cannot explain why things that come easy to others is so hard for her. She can’t help but be herself, even when she tries to be the good girl her mother desires, catastrophe follows and boy does her mother make sure she knows just how much she fails to be the daughter she wants.

It isn’t only within her family that her nature brushes against societal norms. Friendships with other girls mean more than they should, her wants and desires for her future are thwarted by the times Jo lives in, and will chip away at her dreams of freedom. An athlete, a writer, liberal minded coming of age in a conservative world will whip her into an acceptable shape. Through betrayal of those she loves most, and of course responsibility to her little sister and impossible to please mother, Jo (like countless women before her) will forget herself in order to fit in. Marriage, children… she is finally a good girl, right? The world isn’t ready to accept a woman like her, to let her live freely. It’s not safe to be her true self.

Bethie’s beauty should make her world a tasty confection and guarantee her most fevered dreams come true. Her mother knows she’s meant to be something special one day!  A girl who everyone loves immediately, the perfect lil’ helper, people pleaser, someone whose very nature charms everyone in her orbit, why… what could possibly derail her future? Sometimes, a girl with so much appeal attracts nothing but danger, through no fault of her own. Bethie learns nothing stays sweet in an ugly world, and before long becomes the subversive daughter that Jo once was, refusing to settle in one place nor with a man. There is so much to taste in the forbidden elsewhere! If Josette wants to spend her life being content, tied to convention… well bully for her. No one is going to tame Bethie. Let Jo pretend!

This is a book about women, their options, the opportunities and lack thereof. The shaming when a daughter, mother, sister dares to look beyond the plans other’s have made for her. The disapproval she will encounter when she strikes out on her own, against the will of her mother/father or husband. The ever looming threat of losing your family if you chose anything for yourself that isn’t ‘approved’. The lessening that is expected when one becomes a wife, mother. Before long, you’ve lost yourself. Too it is about the abuse that girls welcome (according to the world, at least) or have to accept for the sake of survival.

The sisters who once had to support each other drift apart, each denying themselves their true natures. Life happens, it brutalizes and punishes in unequal measure. From an early loss both find themselves sacrificing their dreams and even innocence. It is a story about sisterhood, motherhood and in a sense, self-hood and how every choice or the transgressions of others, and the demands the world puts on us makes us who we are, for better or worse. The question is, can we come back to the self we once buried in order to be accepted?

What is more heartbreaking than thinking about the deaths we suffer, internally, of our many selves? The times Josette and Bethie came of age in were full of strife and civil unrest. Children who questioned their parents ways, be it a mild irritation such as why the fuss of dressing like some cookie cutter family, or the heavy, senseless, shameful weight of their parents racism weren’t exactly the ideal child. Children didn’t question the ways of the adult world, period. Step out of line, and you will be tarred and feathered. You were not free to love where you wanted, with so many constraints, this is why free love (social, sexual movement) was born. Many people bucked convention. Yet children eventually want to please, to have their mother/father’s love, sadly at the expense of their real selves. Other little boys and girls, they get too much unwanted love from some adults. It’s hard to write about this novel without giving away everything that happens, but it truly is a novel full of heartbreak and hope. When it’s your turn to be a parent, despite promising yourself you will do better than your mother/father, you can bet a child will introduce you to your weaker self. Life happens, and comes full circle and at heart it is a tale of two sisters that find their way back to each other.

Publication Date: June 11, 2019  Out Tomorrow!

Atria Books

A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, Ann Goldstein (Translator)

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I had nothing else, in that darkness inhabited by breath.

After thirteen years, a young girl who has lived with the love and privileges of an adored single child learns that she is being returned to another mother. No more will she live by  the ocean, with beautiful clothes and clean bedding, now her sleep will be warmed by the body of a sister and bed-wetting. Her life is like a dark fairy-tale, a princess forced to live in poverty, as if punished for some unknown deed. What has she done to be punished so? What sense in living in such filth and destitution, with parents who don’t even really seem to want her back? No longer will she spend happy days in the sun with her best friend Patrizia, nor can her friend’s family save her from this senseless exile.

Her little sister Adriana may be uncultured and ignorant but she is fierce and has a hunger for the the world, more she longs for a closeness with her big sister, the  Arminuta (girl returned). Vincenzo, the eldest brother is a mystery, who causes an eruption of confusing emotions within her when he isn’t off with the gypsies or getting beaten by his father. Each day, she longs for her ‘other mother’, she must have had a reason for giving her back, she was ill, could she be now on her deathbed and in desperate need of her care? All she knows is, her ‘real mother’ doesn’t seem to care about her at all, this useless city daughter who can’t even pluck a chicken nor perform domestic tasks. Her real family lives in a foreign world, boisterous, crude, sometimes violent and leaving her deeply lonely despite the presence of many siblings. This feels like a house of shame, parents who have more children than they can afford.

She wants to return to that other life, for now the only way is to relive the memories, telling Adriana about the delicious fresh fish from the market, fish her sibling has never had… no, for them it’s only tuna from a can. Her sister longs for nothing more than to be shown a glimpse of that life, the freedom. Then there is the baby, the youngest of the brood, a child that aches with sickness caused by desperate hunger. A different child, there is so much she doesn’t understand nor perceive about this family, swallowed as she is by her own grief and rejection. Then there is the school, here she is as much an outsider as at home, far more educated than her peers. This is yet another opportunity for her devoted sister to look out for her, whether she likes it or not. Her sister will take hits for her at home too, has protective leanings for her ‘special’ sister, who mustn’t ever be beaten. She can’t do anything right by her mother, doesn’t have the practical sense vital to their existence. Her mother is gruff, meaner than her ‘seaside mamma’ but it’s been a hard life, one that misery has seen fit to hover over. Tragedy isn’t finished with her family. There are also many things she doesn’t know about her biological mother and the story of why she was initially given up.

She must learn to get used to this new life, one that she knows she doesn’t belong in, despite her dream of returning to her true mother. “It’s an enduring emptiness, which I know but can’t get past.” What is mother? Will she ever know again, it’s meaning? Strange to come to love the siblings she learned of so late in her life, regardless of their differences.

It is a story of family and of identity, but one could say class too. Adriana is the heart of it and the beauty of the tale is more in sisterhood, at least that was my takeaway. This is the English debut of the Italian author Donatella Di Pietrantonio, it is beautifully written and engaging. We feel as equally lost and determined as all the characters. Our narrator’s mother does seem to resent her Arminuta, as if it’s easier to feel disgusted by her ‘city, upper class ways’ than own the reasons why her child doesn’t fit into their hardscrabble surroundings. It is a sad novel, and I look forward to more by the author.

Publication Date: July 2, 2019

Europa Editions

 

Keeping Lucy: A Novel by T. Greenwood

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She’ll be feeble-minded, no more intelligent than a dog. The hardship she will bring to your family- women never realize the impact that raising an imbecile has on a marriage. On the other children. You must think of your son.

October 1969, Ginny Richardson gives birth to a baby girl born with Down Syndrome. While still in a haze from the drugs administered, the doctor, her husband and his family make the decision to send Lucy away to Willowridge, a school that can serve the ‘many many challenges’ she will face. Some of which, they convince her, are heart defects, vision and hearing difficulties just to name a few. She will never be a normal child, she will never be able to interact, no better than a dog, there is no point in being involved in the child’s life.  It’s too late to protest, it’s all been arranged, the child is already gone.

Life goes on, Ginny raises her first-born son Peyton while Ab’s time is eaten up by working for his father’s firm, the path set for him to become district attorney. No one runs her family quite like her overbearing father-in-law, the force behind her husband Ab’s rise. All of that is about to be threatened when her friend  Marsha calls to inform her that Willowridge, the very “school” institution her baby Lucy was placed in, is being sued after a local reporter in Amherst went undercover, exposing the horrors within. Ginny’s first thought it “Ab can fix this”, he has the legal knowledge, the power of his family… surely he will know what to do, he won’t risk their own child being abused, living in the squalid conditions the exposé revealed, will he? Maybe her own marriage should be examined, maybe she doesn’t really know her husband at all.

With the support from her friend Marsha, she will journey to the school and see for herself just what is going on, visit her child for the first time in two years since she was taken away, her father-in-law be damned! Imagine the shock when Lucy isn’t quite the ‘feeble minded child’ they swore she would be. Naturally readers will be horrified at the very idea of a mother giving up, and without a lick of fight, her own newborn baby girl. Times were different, I remember my mother telling me how poorly she was treated as a young mother in 1971 when she birthed my sister, how condescending doctors could be, and that’s with a healthy delivery. It was a lot less inviting and open as it is today, women were often put in a ‘twilight sleep’, and it was a sterile, surgical setting then, a far cry from birthing rooms now where family can support you. Doctors were far more authoritative, patients were in the dark often and it is no surprise women would cave to their ‘superior knowledge’. It’s hard coming from a time where we are swamped with knowledge and advocates, fierce about the rights of those with special needs to fathom how a mother can be talked out of keeping her child, but it happened. Ginny bends to her husband and his father, highly educated men themselves are sold on the idea that all hope is lost and it’s impossible to keep such a child alive… in fact, they are sure baby Lucy is lucky if she lives only a few years. If she does survive, surely it will only be because of the full care she will receive at Willowridge, care and time Ginny and Ab could no way manage to give their needy child. Ginny has no reason to not believe them.

The truth is, such a child shames her father-in-law, doesn’t fit in with his perfect family. The beauty of the novel is the moments Ginny begins to fall in love with her little girl and finds the courage to fight for her even with every resource out of her reach, the law and family against her. Her husband infuriated me through much of the novel, but how do people become victims? They are often raised under the thumbs of tyrannical parents, cowered, lacking confidence, certainly it seems that Ab, despite his success is still trying to attain his father’s respect. Ab isn’t the only one in the family who has submitted to his father’s rule.

When Ginny learns the secret of who the people defending Willowridge against the parents who have filed a class action suit are, her fury grows. How can she fight when the law isn’t on her side, when she doesn’t have money. Despite this swell of love for her child, so too does she love her husband, her six-year-old son Peyton and her good life, but sometimes you have to make a choice, especially when your child has no voice of their own! People are either with you, or they are against you. Sometimes, you have to find the strength to go against those who know best.

These are imperfect characters, and shamed by their choices. The truth is, the only characters my love went to was Lucy and Peyton. I would love to see a lot more interaction between them, he went from being an only child to suddenly being big brother to a special little girl who will need him for the rest of her life. It’s a unique relationship. I think I would have liked to see more fight against husband and wife, I wanted to see Ginny in all her avenging glory, especially towards her father-in-law, but maybe that’s just my thirst for drama and justice. Ginny was too much the type of woman who just floated along and let others decide everything and I can’t think of a horror worse than that. I just couldn’t understand how in two years, as a mother, she didn’t go visit her child. I understand she was bullied into giving her up, but in all that time after the birth she wouldn’t be raging against being denied the chance to see her? Feeble minded or not, hell couldn’t keep me away from my child. It would eat away at my mind, soul every day of my life. It’s hard to relate to such a weak character, but at least she finally finds some backbone.

Strange, our throw away society, that takes anyone who is different and tries to forget they exist at all. Times are changing, in many parts of the world, but the true horror is that abuses happen all the time, not just to children with special needs, but to the elderly and ill more often than we want to admit. This novel will be a great choice for serious discussion.

Publication Date: August 6, 2019

St. Martin’s Press