“The Love of a Good Woman” by Alice Munro

Inspired by Buried in Print‘s indepth and illuminating story-by-story analysis of Alice Munro’s collections, I’ve decided to read Munro’s The Love of a Good Woman (1998, McClelland & Stewart) in same spirit of individual story appreciation, delight and scrutiny. I’m beginning with the first (and titular) story of the collection, “The Love of a Good Woman”.

This is how my introduction to the world of Alice Munro’s writing begins – with a drowning. A man, an optometrist named D.M. Willens, loses his life to the Peregrine River in 1951. The reader learns this through the object that opens “The Love of a Good Woman”: a red box of optometrist’s tools, which contains, among other things, an ophthalmoscope.

Munro wields this object with dual stylistic purpose – in her deft hands, it is both a promontory and a point of multiple divergences. We are allowed to trace the history of the ophthalmoscope backwards through time, to the quiet, sturdy town of Walley (in whose museum of quaint domesticities the device is housed). We get to breathe Walley in; we’re allowed to take its unremarkable temperature. We peer into the lives of three boys who, while surveying their riverbank domain, happen upon Willens’ car, buried in pond mud like a light blue absurdity. We stay with each lad awhile, privy to the small and considerable distresses and merriments of their lives, until they tell Walley that the optometrist has drowned.

Time passes. The boys grow up, and Willens’ death becomes part of Walley’s remembered history. We meet and spend time with a woman who is admonished by her mother for throwing herself towards sainthood. She’s called Enid, and she is tending to Mrs. Quinn, who is dying of a rare illness whose symptoms are both grotesque and medically fascinating. On her deathbed, trapped in the resentment of her prolonged, focused misery, Mrs. Quinn contains secrets. When she shares one of them with Enid, certain things once held as true begin to fray, threatening to dredge up old drownings with new, sharp interrogations.

Majestic flourishes of language don’t typify how Munro tells this story. It’s more like the language is majestically suited to a series of nimble purposes. She captures the impetuous shock (and its robust aftermath) that goosepimples the skin of the boys, who dive into the Peregrine:

“So they would jump into the water and feel the cold hit them like ice daggers. Ice daggers shooting up behind their eyes and jabbing the tops of their skulls from the inside. Then they would move their arms and legs a few times and haul themselves out, quaking and letting their teeth rattle; they would push their numb limbs into their clothes and feel the painful recapture of their bodies by their startled blood and the relief of making their brag true.”

Alice Munro, it turns out, is like this stealth rogue who shivs you with at least ten difficult-to-name emotions when you weren’t even expecting to feel your heartbeat race. A full repertoire of individual sorrows and contemplations, plus the collective memory of a town that’s no quieter than its ghosts are silent and well-mannered, resides in this telling. There’s the consideration of all these lives from multiple, age-tiered perspectives. Munro feeds us slices of devil-may-care, boyish bravado, and injects us with doses of a nurse’s calm equanimity; she does both while winning our absolute belief that she keenly sees each person we meet in her pages.

The writer shows us that the boys aren’t just brash; they’re also beset by varying degrees of domestic trauma, over which they may or may not feel duly traumatized. She peels away the nurse’s graceful routine by night, summoning up for her a host of sleepless hours, and private agonies over choosing what’s right, what’s useful, what future might be hers based on speaking, or else saying nothing at all.

“The Love of a Good Woman” ends as so much of it is conducted, with quietness blanketing one’s orbit, while the world continues its indifferent geographical circuitry. There is no easy way to know how Enid will fare, at the story’s close – what is clear is that she won’t end. The ambit of her drama will continue to lope, and loop; one feels intensely that her life is happening to her even now, while dinners are being made in the real world, while blog posts are being written. She is the real world, Alice Munro tells us, and her life is just about as unremarkable and miraculous as any of ours, whether we are helping someone breathe, or watching them falter, seeing them sink with other secrets to the lake’s still bed.

Here’s Buried in Print’s incisive analysis of “The Love of a Good Woman”. Next up, I’ll be discussing the collection’s second story, “Jakarta”.

Fictive Folk with Whole Words: A Reading Project

The title, admittedly, might need some work, but I’ve had this essential premise brewing for some time now: exploring books read by your favourite television and/or film characters, who may or may not be based on characters from books themselves. Fictional men and women reading fiction (or non-fiction, too) — the thought alone opens up endless possibilities for interpretation. For instance, how much can we glean about the character of True Blood‘s Tara Thornton, when in our first glimpse of her, she’s reading The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, and studiously ignoring an admittedly-obnoxious customer at the Super-Sav-A-Bunch?

She’s not messing around, either — that’s a hardcover.

The genesis for this idea probably began stirring with my teenaged Gilmore Girls obssession. I wanted to read everything Rory had ever read, and it secretly pleased me that, in fact, so much of her library was *my* library, too. I wouldn’t dare try to claim this as an original concept: a simple Google search for “Rory Gilmore Reads” will return several well-conceived book blog challenges and meticulously-moderated reading lists. It’s heartening, in fact, to see how we flesh and bone bibliophiles adore and support the reading habits of our fictionalized archetypes, wherever we may find them.

Rory Gilmore reads James Joyce’s Ulysses, and The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. What would hook me, back then (and even now) were the rapt looks of concentration on her face — like there was truly nowhere she’d rather be, but there with the pages and print. 

I don’t know just yet the specific form that this reading project will take, but it feels freshly promising to embark on it, in the fine company of all you Novel Nichers. Feel free to shower me with suggestions, or links to images of your favourite fictional characters cuddled up to their treasured tomes.

If you were a character in a film or episodic series, what book would you most want to be caught reading?

Links of Interest:
Tumblr: Fictional Characters Reading Books
The Reading Lists of Your Favourite Fictional Characters – Flavorwire
What’s on Rory Gilmore’s Bookshelf? – Bust Magazine
What Does Don Draper Read? – Black Book
♣ Tumblr: The Lisa Simpson Book Club
♣ 10 Fictional Bookworms And What They Imply about Real Bookworms – L.B. Gale

Jess Mariano reads Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude at a moment in the Gilmore Girls plot that’s poignantly apt. He was, admittedly, a first class bumscullion, but his earnest devotion to literature made him well-nigh irresistible. That, and Milo Ventimiglia is gorgeous.

35. Is Just a Movie by Earl Lovelace

Published in 2011 by Faber & Faber.

Winner of the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature.

On the islands named Trinidad and Tobago, it is the 1970s, and the Black Power uprising has come and gone. The men who led it with courage and determination have seen their dreams of social change shattered, their purpose suddenly uncertain. Among these former revolutionaries is KingKala, a poet-kaisonian returning from detention to find that his former comrades-in-arms have either fled or adapted strange new personas. KingKala is joined in bemusement by Sonnyboy Apparicio, a fellow songster and man of action who no longer knows in which direction his fortune, to say nothing of his responsibility, might lie. When the chance to perform roles in a promising foreign film emerges, KingKala and Sonnyboy leap at the opportunity, only to learn that the parts in which they have been cast, that of exotic tribesmen, are to be short-lived. Faced with this dilemma – of whether to die the complacent on-stage deaths they have been assigned, or to challenge this assumption – the two men begin to grow closer. Their camaraderie sets one of the multiple backdrops for the events in Earl Lovelace’s Is Just a Movie, a novel of myriad contemplations on life, love, and the issue of identities on a personal and national scale.

Winner of the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, Is Just a Movie is Lovelace’s first published novel in over a decade. A work marked by much anticipation, it is told in that signature style of an ease in storytelling, of a writer’s tongue primed in the rich awareness of local landscape and local concerns. The characters who populate this novel strike the reader as people known throughout a lifetime, their stories, dreams and grievances akin to those overheard at the market, the mosque, in Woodford Square or on the streets during Carnival Tuesday mas. KingKala, self-avowed “maker of confusion, recorder of gossip, destroyer of reputations, revealer of secrets”, does not so much preside over the happenings in the fictional village of Cascadu as he observes them, sometimes in silence, sometimes chiming in, but always vigilant.

It is Sonnyboy who more often claims the focal role; in his frequent forays into different jobs and titles, he is a portrait of a nation’s expectancy; he channels the frustration of his unrealized dreams, along with his ever-persisting desire to be seen in his community not as a badjohn, but as someone more: as a man capable of rising above the weight of old, unwise decisions.

Perched on the shoulder of the narrator, KingKala, the reader can expect to shift seamlessly through decades, major occurrences, seasons of both nature and politics. The Prime Minister who rules both uneasily and assuredly over the nation is seen at one instance in the heyday of his governance; in a later scene, he appears to still be in power, far past his expected due. The everyday grit of ordinary circumstance is pitted against the suggestion of otherworldly happenings. This subtle marriage of the literal and the fantastical is woven together with an unblinking skill; it convinces utterly, making no digression seem unnecessary, no tall tale excessive. It feels perfectly natural for villagers to be playing cards in one chapter, then lining up to officially sell their Dreams for money in another. Ancient historical figures are invited to celebrate the nation’s successes; prime ministers declare their intentions to live forever; miracles remain within the realm of hope. A multitude of voices accompany single encounters, acting as a reminder that there are a whole host of ways in which reality can be perceived. Not every story needs to be told within rigid lines; Is Just a Movie benefits from the intricate tapestry of its structure, presenting a reading adventure as ornate as it is serenely guided.

The narrative never focuses doggedly on Sonnyboy alone, allowing the stories of the other inhabitants of Cascadu to be told in vivid, enduring detail, with equal measures of humour and sobriety. Through Sonnyboy’s experiences are filtered the hopes and dreams of unforgettable figures: of Franklyn, whose unmatched prowess at batting causes an entire village to creak to a standstill; of the beautiful Dorlene, whose near-mishap with a falling coconut prompts her to literally turn her life around. Daily events shape the fabric of everyday communal life, ranging from the commonplace to the fantastic: the swift decline of corner shops, the disaster of a flambeau-lit political party’s campaign, the unexpected miracle accompanying a funeral.

Told in language that soothes and thrills, Is Just a Movie is a novel replete with symbols by which Trinbagonians can map their multiple places in history. When Sonnyboy hears the sound of steelpan for the first time, “the notes flying out like flocks of birds…like a sprinkling of shillings thrown in the air, like a choir of infants reciting a prayer,” he is attuned to a timeless magic. Not every revelation is meant to be comforting, however – as a Laventille shopkeeper grimly comments, “What was performance in Carnival is now the reality of life. The devil is no longer in the make-believe of Carnival; he is right here on our streets. The Midnight Robber is not a character in our fiction, he is in possession of real guns.”

In this most recent offering from a master literary craftsman, the abiding messages of resistance, and of the pride one earns from self-recognition, illuminate every page. It is writing that unhurriedly allows us to see ourselves as we are, blemishes and beauty marks alike, and to grow in the power of that incredible knowledge.

This review first appeared, in its entirety, in the Trinidad Guardian‘s Sunday Arts Section on September 2nd, 2012. You can view it here.

This book, and 11 more, are part of my official reading list (which can be found in my sign-up post here) for the 2011 Caribbean Writers Challenge.

23. After the Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld

Published in 2009. This Edition: Random House Australia, 2010.

Winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, 2009.

Shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, 2011.

“He was still whole, there were still things that one man alone was worth.” 

Frank Collard turns to the wild, and his grandparents’ rustic outpost in the swamplands, when an abusively disastrous relationship shatters his heart. Lonely, he gradually inches away from being corralled by the teeming landscape that surrounds his shack, to becoming a part of it, blending gracelessly and gruffly into the local milieu. Though he adapts the semblance of a normal life, rooted in work and earnest, albeit thorny, social interaction, he shares little of the past he’s fled. His reluctance to unburden himself of old hurts mirrors the journey of his father Leon, an extraordinary maker of cakes who found himself hard-pressed into military service, feeling it change him perhaps irreparably, as it did his own father, who volunteered eagerly, yet found vital parts of himself effaced by the reality of war.

There is the distinct impression one sometimes receives, when reading of something grand, or sweeping, or otherwise elaborately contrived, that a character has just done in the book one’s reading. The feeling is akin to furrowing the brow and exclaiming, “Well, that’s just not how real people behave, is it?” It is worth noting right here that Evie Wyld’s book is built on the structure of something unflinchingly honest—even the way it flinches is honest. While reading, one gains the impression of absorbing something stripped to barebones and left in the sun to roast, of prose subjected to a rigorous, flinty syntax, studded through with alarming pinpricks of raw beauty.

Wyld is at her best, here, when discussing grief, and the book could be considered a generationally unfolding sorrow-documentary, of a kind that dampens our eyes and makes us suck in our breath, with the laughter we laugh when things are good and proper miserable, so that to laugh about it is the only sane recourse. What is particularly laudable is the manner in which Wyld inserts gut-spasming woe into the most domestic and non-extraordinary of settings. Witness, for instance, Frank’s messy navigation of girlfriend-withdrawal, in the aftermath of a nasty confrontation that effectively seals their rupture:

“The toast pinged up, and, crying, he buttered it and daubed it with jam, inhaling deeply and letting out long shaky breaths. He ate it breathlessly between hiccups. His mouth, which at that moment had nothing to do with him, would not stop making the sound ‘Aaaaaaaa’ like a stiff door opening. He lay on the floor, a smear of jam on his cheek, and mashed the last of the bread into a wet pap with an open bawling mouth. The crusts sat on the floor. He swallowed and breathed in sharply, then cooled his crying to a whimper, then to sniffling and then just to staring. The sun moved across the kitchen floor, regardless.”

The author writes this so convincingly that we accept a grief so cavernous as to unman Frank, a relentless sadness that chokes, rendering useless the elegant protestations of studied melancholy. There are no fainting couches here, no dainty snifflings into handkerchiefs. I especially love the way in which Frank’s mouth “…at that moment had nothing to with him…”, reminding us that when we are this transported outside ourselves with a surfeit of intense emotion, even our anatomy feels remote, conducted by another, out of our sight, outside the realm of interest.

Though Frank and his father lead separate, near-diametrically opposed lives on the page, the ways in which Wyld unites their divergent stories with lashings of past trepidation, of an unquantifiable sense of void, are skilful and subtle. Both men feel themselves hunted and haunted by the nigh-unassailable sensation of being pursued into unknowns. Nothing in their resentment-riddled, mysteriously ill-articulated communion, or lack thereof, allows for the sharing of this unified phobia; neither of them knows the other suffers in a language so well suited to his unique understanding. The reader wonders, for the duration of the reading, whether or not it would make a difference to their relationship if, for instance, Frank were ever told of the dreadful doubts Leon nursed while at war:

“Tears on his face, he felt the teeth of a terrible thing on the back of his neck, breathing through its nose on him, in, out, hot, pant.”

Some may find it unrewarding that the exact cause of the father-son malaise remains largely unearthed. It can be galling to consider that Frank and Leon might have fallen out over some poorly edited snafu, a minor discrepancy that wounded both their masculine prides; perhaps Frank’s girlfriend wonders at this, as she tries to sift through the rubble that nourishes a long-term vow of silence. Personally, the ambiguity marshalling the quietness between these men works admirably; it leaves it to the reader to devise reasons, grand or minute, and it prompts speculation over how much of the events of the last chapter of the novel coloured Frank’s perception of Leon, and Leon’s musings over Frank. This is good writing, the skilfully underscored balance of omitting just enough, of never bludgeoning the reader over the head with detail; those of a discerning, thoughtful bent will notice appreciatively (while those inclined to fast-food in their literature will probably have put the book down by now).

Grief and terror couple and uncouple against a background of settings one would initially think too bland (save for the backdrop of Leon’s outpost and battlefield, which Wyld blesses with no war paint, just irksome bush scratching the legs and loosing the bowels of boys pretending at soldiers) to support their movement through the chapters. Yet none of the settings read as anything less than exquisitely suited to the unfolding of each private, stunted drama. The dirt and insect-framed jungle wilderness that surrounds Frank’s shack, the family bakery in Parramatta to which Frank returns, despite himself, in search of his father (the same bakery in which his father once turned out elaborate baked goods in a thorough, calm manner; the very bakery in which he courted Frank’s future mother), the home of Frank’s sole friendly family unit, in the unkempt northlands: all these locations in the novel are implacable, inviting themselves near-perfectly for Frank’s fumbling self-discovery. The author infuses as much detail (without rendering her landscapes in a saturated style) to these places, making them represent geographic markers as well as placeholders for the full range of human emotional discord and desire, as if to suggest that cartography remains immune, for the most part, to the petty dramas with which we map our time on earth. This makes Frank’s sadness and stubbly conflicts simultaneously relevant to him, and gloriously, disturbingly irrelevant, given the sweeping dismissal of Enough Time: a fact of which Frank himself seems all too cognizant for much of the novel.

Yet the mission statement of Wyld’s book, if there can be said to be but one, is not as reductive as “Life causes despair to run roughshod all over you; therefore, despair.” The gnarled, honest interactions he shares with Sal, the precocious child of the aforementioned family unit, are some of the best passages of the book, and attest to the contrary of prevailing desolation. Their unlikely bond speaks instead to the surprising friendships that can be worked at when embarrassment and artifice are cast aside. Beset at every dirty, suspicious corner with the long arm of the past, Wyld’s grittily redemptive novel seems to whisper, “This is the way you come back to yourself; this is how to banish spells of unremitting dark: gracelessly, naturally, with pain—the only way possible.”

This is the third book I’ve read and reviewed on my personal reading list (which you can see here) for The Bookette’s British Book Challenge 2011.

18. The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas

Published in 2006 by Mariner Books.

Longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2008.

“So if we’re all quarks and electrons …” he begins.


We could make love and it would be nothing more than quarks and electrons rubbing together.”

Better than that,” I say. “Nothing really ‘rubs together’ in the microscopic world. Matter never really touches other matter, so we could make love without any of our atoms touching at all. Remember that electrons sit on the outside of atoms, repelling other electrons. So we could make love and actually repel each other at the same time.”

Many a bibliophile has been quoted as saying, ‘Give me books before bread!’, but Ariel Manto’s acquisition of an ultra-rare 19th century tome literally lands her near to poverty. Yet, for a copy of The End of Mr. Y, a literary work with which Ariel is obsessed, the decision is effortless. The fact that everyone who has read the book seems to have disappeared (including Ariel’s Ph.D. advisor, who once gave an academic talk on this ‘curse’) does not dissuade her. Once she reads The End of Mr. Y, she is left with more questions than answers, and a burning desire to follow the journey of Mr. Y himself. Her own journey, replicated on the steps that he—and Ariel believes, her absent advisor—took, sends her spiralling into an alternative realm of reality, called the Troposphere, in which she is able to spatially manoeuvre by piggybacking on the thoughts of others. However, Ariel soon realizes that (a) not all in the Troposphere is as it seems, and (b) she is not alone in her mindsurfing odyssey.

It is hard to figure out whether or not Ariel Manto deserves the reader’s respect. At several points in The End of Mr. Y, attempting to love Ariel can feel like an effort in loving the most (under)doggedly dismal parts of ourselves, the ones we feed with cheap alcohol, too many cigarettes and a lifetime’s dingy disappointments. This doesn’t mean that the novel’s protagonist is poorly-drawn; quite the contrary—she shines by her very lack of lustre. Insofar as a character’s convincingly-rendered moments of unlikeability make her eminently more likeable, Ariel Manto’s a gem.

Emblazoned across the cover of the book is Jonathan Coe‘s assertion that you’ll finish The End of Mr. Y “a cleverer person than when you started.” Unless you are well-versed in quantum physics (and are, in fact, formidably read across the sciences), then this is likely to be true. The novel strikes a deft balance between those things that scientific research has already established to be beyond contention, and those things over which it still debates and troubleshoots.

This is no obvious science textbook distilled into fiction, however, for which we may be glad. Thomas is just as concerned about portraying the ways in which faith coalesces or collides with rational data and quantifiable proof. For example, the concept of multiverses, and the validity of time travel in and among these, is crucial to the novel’s structure. Attention is also paid to communication, to language and speech, to literature and expression, the conduits that determine how we interface with the world, and the reasons why what we perceive to be real may or may not be so.

We wrestle with the grey space between absolute conviction and staggering disbelief, as Ariel does. We watch her mind absorb new ideas, new frameworks for comprehension, and while observing those expand, alter, shift dramatically or incrementally as the novel progresses, we realize we’re hooked. At her lowest ebb, Ariel asks herself whether or not she would do it all again: to have forsaken so much, including a tangible future with a mysteriously familiar man, in search of knowledge, and she knows that she would. Fellow learning junkies will admire the eminently accessible, academic chops of The End of Mr. Y. It’s like summer reading for the unabashedly nerdy logophile and bookish scientist, both.

Reading The End of Mr. Y led me to contemplate the successful sell of gimmick-harnessed literature, which I mean in the most innocuous way possible. The ‘go-thou-no-further’ approach has worked admirably in this novel, as both strategy and context. Thomas prompts us to peer beyond each tarnished veil, which we do, each time, without hesitation. (I’d like to challenge at least one person who tells me that they weren’t tempted to conduct the exact experiment that Ariel does, since I’m reasonably certain they’d be lying.) Telling people not to do something, in the hope that they will proceed to do it, may seem like the easiest sell in literature, as in life. On the contrary, this technique has been so often and so ill-employed, that when it functions in the hands of a talented writer, we tend to take notice. Some of the success of books like these, and this, surely hinge on the adroit manipulation of that very concept.

The author engineers Ariel’s dalliances in the Troposphere (i.e. the parallel realm of thought in which she must mindsurf to progress) in fine and credible style. These passages of the novel often feel to be the most poised and crisply detailed. Whether Ariel is trespassing on the mind of a fundamentally insecure teenager, or that of her unlucky, morose neighbour, or the shadowy agents who’re tracking her down, each windowed interlude is a miniature showcasing of the author’s talent for capturing unique voices.

The end of The End of Mr. Y is unambiguous and indefinite, all at once. Odds are you’ll loathe it, or beam in satisfaction as you close the back cover. Either way, few contemporary novels astutely define “conversation piece” so well as this one. Be they silly talks, long-reaching rambles or heated dialogues, if you don’t have much to discuss, then consider that you just might have left your critical mind in another plane of existence.

This is the second book I’ve read and reviewed on my personal reading list (which you can see here) for The Bookette’s British Book Challenge 2011.

16. Sections of an Orange by Anton Nimblett

Published in 2009 by Peepal Tree Press.

“God, that’s sexy as hell.”

This is what I thought as I sat in the audience of the Paper Based bookshop at the Hotel Normandie, a fortnight shy of one year ago, listening to Anton Nimblett read from the titular offering of his short story collection, in which the narrator shares a highly unusual post-haircut pleasure at his stand-in barber’s basement. I know the oft-deceptive spell that a writer who reads his work well can cast, though, so I purposed to find out whether or not, frankly, the sex was sustained as convincingly on paper as it was in person. I was not disappointed.

There are eleven stories in Sections of an Orange, some of which are connected by the same characters, telling different sides of the same, or different, tales.  In “Visiting Soldiers”, we confront the peculiarities of a quietly devastating loss, as we learn exactly what one bereaved mother carries in her purse. We nod in agreement at the description of the busybody neighbour in “Into My Parlour”, who feeds on gossip and forces doubt, with one well-timed suggestion. “On the Side” swerves between dual expositions: a gory car accident and the bonds of food and familiarity that link the two men entangled in it. “Time and Tide” traces the retreat of one of those men to Trinidad, where he allows himself to trade past hurt for the present of easy talk on Maracas beach, and the very definition of one pleasant surprise. In “Just Now”, we learn that there’s more to that pleasant surprise than a body that blesses a crisp white shirt with a bit extra beauty—we meet his wife, and the everyday voodoo love that anchors him happily to her side. We attempt not to cry at the miracle that dwells in the simple gift of “Marjory’s Meal”. “How Far, How Long” has us shake hands with Ray, and his man… and his other man, and how they’re all simultaneously incredible, but not quite enough. “Sections of an Orange” juxtaposes snippets of a hit-and-run news brief with one of the most tantalizing trips to the barber ever recorded. That barber, a misunderstood creative close to implosion, seals his fate with a trip to Van Cleef and Arpels, in “Ring Games”. In case we’d forgotten, we’re reminded  of the soothing balm avoidance can bestow, when we read what one good woman does for love in “Mr. Parker’s Behaviour”. The collection closes with the heart-thudding narrative of a man who’s best recognized for everyone, and everything, he isn’t, in “One, Two, Three – Push”.

A familiarity of place, persona and situation abounds in these tales of Trinidad and New York, but I have found that it takes more than mere recognition in fiction to make the writing sizzle. Thankfully, the familiarity in Sections of an Orange is partnered with both subtle and audacious (but never mawkish) wit and whimsy. I could not imagine saying to Nimblett, “You, sir, are out of touch.” Nimblett knows. He writes with the voice of a writer who sees, who spends a lot of time, maybe all the time, looking. Listening. Feeding off the vibe of strangers and best-beloveds alike—and if that sounds malicious, then it ought to be asserted that eavesdropping, observation and a good old Trini maco are the polished trade-tools with which the hottest literature is churned out.

I like the unpredictability of this collection, the way that the oeuvre defies pigeonholing with no mean spirit. You might watch the cover of the novel and instantly formulate your best-intentioned prejudices, but the writing will smack you on the cheek, whisper archly, “So yuh thought I was a book of gay stories, eh? Well, yuh damn wrong…”, but even this revelation is not cruel in the way it caresses your senses. Yes, within these pages are the travails and the merriments, the hassle and hustle and delight of men who love men, but to say that this encapsulates the work Nimblett has done is poor praise, if it can be called that. Yes, the work provides a fresh, relevant point of access to disenfranchised gay Trinidadian and Caribbean men. It also treats with grieving mothers, with the weight of suspicion surrounding non-heteronormative behaviour both home and away. It peers into the isolation experience, the journeys of Trinidadians to the United States, the sense of community away from the island hearth, and the voices of remarkable people as they plot their place in a society that does not share their several secret languages. There would be no shame, I think, if Sections of an Orange were a book devoted solely to the queer masculine perspective of the Trinidadian-American citizen, but the wealth of its multivalent concerns pre-empts that, soundly.

Readers, I am hunting for a quote from these pages, from any of these eleven productions in loss, longing, hunger, and the cry of the fettered Self, and yet… I find that I want to present entire pages of prose, instead. The passage that describes the magicked yet terrestrially gritty encounter between barber Glen and our unnamed narrator, who is given the honorific of “Chocolate Man” by the former, is lip-bitingly potent.

The two men succumb to the allure of fresh fruit in their pageantry of lovemaking:

“This time he grabs a section of the orange, holds it six inches in front of my face, and steadying himself with one hand right next to me, he squeezes with the other hand. Juice falls through the air, hitting my chest, pooling at the centre and trickling down my belly. He waves his hand around, still squeezing, so that juice hits my face and shoulders, collecting in the hollow at my collarbone and forming a liquid necklace at my throat. His eyes follow the movement of his hand, a hand that seems to follow the orange, tracing some deliberate pattern that only he knows. His fingers, smooth dark peninsulas that end in crowns of perfect pink nail, are wet now, and I want him to touch me.”

(from “Sections of an Orange”)

Landscape is just as vividly rendered—we feel that we are walking with the tormented Push as he struggles towards claiming his identity, as he paces the city streets.

“A thin breeze greets Push in the Brooklyn night — cooler than earlier. Red Hook buildings carve skeletons against an indigo sky, like dinosaur exhibits in a museum after hours. Telephone wires sag from wood poles, recalling yesterdays. Uneven cobblestone patches poke history through asphalt streets.”

(from “One, Two, Three – Push”)

When landscape and character meld so seamlessly, finessed with the talent of subtle strokes, we can read lines like these, wherein a man surrenders himself to the grief of an inevitable loss, in the midst of preparing a tribute that rivals coffers of precious metals.

“The tears came drop by drop, pooling until they flowed, and flowing more and more until they bloomed into sound — one low, deep sob and then another and another, until his body was shaking. Then he had to set the knife down as he crumbled from his middle, folding at the gut and catching his head in his hands. There, with the breeze still gently stirring the leaves, with the birds still singing sweetly and the waves still lapping on the shore, he cried alone.”

(from “Marjory’s Meal”)

You could shelve this book with your queer literature anthologies, sure, but I daresay your hand would hesitate. You’d look across at your trove of Caribbean lit., of course, and glance meaningfully at your American contemporary fiction, almost as if in reflex motion. Let’s not even think about that cross-section of diaspora writing you’ve accumulated over the years, or your favourite social commentary-related writing… or, in fact, let’s. Perhaps, in the end, you’ll  file Sections of an Orange with the books that best remind you of home, the books by which, if you have allowed yourself to live, you can shake your head at your own damn foolishness, swallow a lump of pride at your better intentions, smile and remember all the inventions of mind and heart you pioneered, for love.

The author discusses his work, influences and his indebtedness to a sense of community in the article Anton Nimblett Responds, at The Signifyin’ Woman’s review site, here.

This book, and 11 more, are part of my official reading list (which can be found in my sign-up post here) for the 2011 Caribbean Writers Challenge.

14. How to Escape from a Leper Colony by Tiphanie Yanique

Published in 2010 by Graywolf Press.

An S. Mariella Gable Book (an award given by the College of Saint Benedict for an important work of literature published by Graywolf Press)

Winner of the Fiction Category Prize, OCM Bocas 2011.

Shortlisted for the overall OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature 2011.

“I get her arms in front and see words written on them. It freaks me out. But it’s just words. ‘Stop looking,’ she says. ‘Stop reading.’ Lord Harry the Judge. I lay back in my seat and I just ask, ‘This is stupid. You couldn’t find no paper?’ She shakes her head, ‘I left my notebook.’ I open the golf and show her the roller paper, like a small notepad. ‘I didn’t think of that’ she say with her voice going all Yankee now. And then she crying like I hit her or something. She sit on her hands the whole drive back. Keep her arms tight by her side. Tonight, I think, I going kiss those arms. I going lick every word if she let me.”

from “Street Man”

I loathe exaggeration, especially when it comes to enthusiasm. I prefer my praise to be as precise as possible. Sadly, this means that much of my best loved phrases must languish, unused, waiting for true beauty to capture them. One such is borrowed from a film: to feel something “like a riot in the heart, and nothing to be done, come ruin or rapture.”

Tiphanie Yanique’s premiere publication is impressive. A collection of short fiction and a novella, How to Escape from a Leper Colony is remarkable in that it feels neither solely craft nor character-driven, yet reads as a spellbinding marriage of both. Here is short fiction to get you excited about the genre entire. Here is a novella you will want to reread until the people in it are achingly familiar to you, a novella which shows its full lustre in its unabridged format, as opposed to the more dim showing it made in Akashic Books’ 2008 anthology, Trinidad Noir. At a handful of pages shy of the two hundred mark, Yanique’s prose begs to be read in one sitting. I  read it cover to cover in bed, bleary-eyed with intensity, and when I reached the last line of the last story, “Kill the Rabbits”, (which I would have loved to see even further fleshed out) I felt that I had not had enough.

How to Escape a Leper Colony features eight pieces. The titular story will show you some of the reasons why an island of lepers and the nuns treating them walk into the sea. “The Bridge Stories” is a compendium of narratives that tells the same story, marking it multiple ways for tragedy and release. “Street Man” reads like a tale you’d hear from the man himself, in a crowded bar, over beers and your interjections of, “Nah, man!”, “Oh gosh, man!”, “For real, man?”. In “The Saving Work”, two white women who’ve moved their lives to the Caribbean puzzle out the truth at the root of why they hate each other so (with a burning church providing the backdrop). “Canoe Sickness” offers a retrospective of a young boy’s thwarted dream of pro-football glory (the least evocative of the pieces, for me). Mason finds a hideaway chapel in Houston that reminds him of his Jamaica home (in strangely erotic tones, too) in the exquisite “Where Tourists Don’t Go”. In the vein of “The Bridge Stories”, “The International Shop of Coffins” is a multipart exposition of grief, distance and the things we’ll do for love. Finally, “Kill the Rabbits” (as authentic an account of the sweet madness that is Carnival as ever I read one) introduces us to three seemingly-different people in the Virgin Islands, and the unusual ways they are fettered, to each other and to love.

Straddling a swinging bridge betwixt magical allegory and gritty realism, these stories are superbly-wrought. Yanique’s eye to detail is exceptional; her attention to a credibility of tone and voice—to the way a person speaks, or internalizes a situation—is finely-tuned. There are numerous delights here for the careful reader that will be missed, and no mistake, by any page-skimmers.  Unearthing sleight of hand contradictions, such as the difference between what characters say and what they do or mean is a particular treasure. What makes it sweeter is that Yanique never contradicts herself; we spend no time running after her sentences, filling in plot holes with frustration. There are no perfect, sparkle-toothed island exotics waving for the approval of tourists here, and this is a relief.

For all that How to Escape from a Leper Colony is a debut offering, nothing about Yanique’s work heralds it as mawkish or sickly desperate to please. Can my desire for this book to have been a longer collection truly be a complaint? Hardly not, though I do wonder how two or three more stories would have affected the impact of the reading. That is a bold-faced hypothetical, however, so I will precisely declare: I love this writer’s writing, and I look forward, impatiently, to reading another riot in the heart from Tiphanie Yanique.

“One of my teachers once said that history has no influence on land, that land is outside of history. He lied or he was mistaken. History has carved down mountains. History has drenched out rivers. History has made the land, and the land has, when under duress, made history. […] No one and no thing is unmoved by human history, and it is a sad, sad truth. But that Carnival the land had decided to defy history. And this, like my body, was a bit of an impossible thing —  but an admirable thing as all impossible things are.”

from “Kill the Rabbits”

This book, and 11 more, are part of my official reading list (which can be found in my sign-up post here) for the 2011 Caribbean Writers Challenge. 

13. His Dark Materials I:The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Published in 1995. This Edition: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

Winner of the Carnegie Medal, 1995.

Winner of the 70th Anniversary Carnegie of Carnegies (the UK’s favourite Carnegie Medal winning book of all time)

The Golden Compass is bone-chillingly good ( a statement that surely holds some water, when you consider that I read it in decidedly non-frosty tropical temperatures.) Still, I felt the cold—the unmistakable ice-kiss of fear and awe that assails you when, and where, you least expect it.

Lyra  Belacqua has been perfectly content to play at full tilt on and around the premises of Jordan College at Oxford, for the entirety of her eleven year-old existence. Brought up in a well-intentioned yet scatterbrained way by the college academics, Lyra has been accustomed to being orphaned, with no blood relations save her oft-absent uncle, Lord Asriel. Though she lacks parental guidance, Lyra is never alone. She basks in the constant company of her dæmon familiar, Pantalaimon. Both her helpmeet and her best friend, Pantalaimon is of Lyra herself: neither she nor he can fathom a reality in which they exist separately. This bond between human and dæmon exists between all humans—to not be thusly companioned would be beyond the realm of belief, and of decency.

Lyra has long dreamed of accompanying Lord Asriel on his mysterious expeditions to the North, but she cannot predict that she will journey there under the oft-terrifying, fantastical circumstances that do take her. The Golden Compass charts her journey to the bitter-cold roof of the world, where Lyra and Pan must confront an evil beyond imagining, from even the most unexpected of sources.

If you are wary of the magical, mythical, extra-terrestrial or para-normal, The Golden Compass (originally entitled Northern Lights, which I prefer) is not the book for you. If you cannot abide an iota of speculation or criticism concerning organized religion, or discomfiting questions about why we believe what we do, then I strongly urge you to read elsewhere. Still, if you’re even the slightest bit curious, and are not averse to the very real possibility of a paradigm shift, then yes… reading this book could well change your life.

Each of the characters of Pullman’s novel is exceptionally well-crafted, whether they be major or minor. We meet and are awed, cowed, wooed and enraged by a host of extraordinary creatures, including my personal favourite, a fallen bear-sovereign, deprived of his ennobling armour, who dulls his bitterness with drink and hard labour. We also encounter a kindly gypsy seer, and the proud, sorrowful witch with whom he shares a storied past. We scoff at the wizened academics of Jordan College; we weep at the tragedy of a young boy’s loss of innocence, and we marvel, open-mawed, at the depiction of one of literature’s best-drawn, ruthlessly ambitious power couples.

Yet for all their fantastical elements, there is no awkwardness about this cast, no barrier separating them from us. They, too, obsess and are filled with equal parts regret for that which they have done and that which they failed to do. They, too, fall prey to vanity. They, too, are hurt for love, and not one of their stories compels you to narrow your eyes in derision, declaring, “Hmph. Only in a fantasy book.”

Set in an age of invention, discovery and conquest, The Golden Compass is littered with marvellous machinery, with vivid descriptions of barges, airships, of hot-air balloons, of instruments hewn with wicked and wistful intent. The most remarkable of all the creations we discover in this novel, however, is the titular object itself, otherwise called the alethiometer. Entrusted to Lyra to give to her uncle, she is told only that it tells the truth, and that she must learn herself how to decipher it—and learn, she does. The descriptions of the alethiometer attest to its beauty, and Lyra’s interactions with it show us, and her, that parsing the truth is an intricate, highly subjective process.

The novel is written in prose that seems, at times, plucked from the pages of a bygone era’s texts, such are its curious lilts and cadences, the peculiar goodness with which something is said, that enriches the very description of it, elevating it from the commonplace. Pullman truly is a turner of phrases. He subjects language to his particular purpose: to charm and captivate us. By my reckoning, he succeeds at that.

I think there has been some sad compromise over the literature to which we expose children, and I wonder at that. Who says that books for young people must be patterned with every prettiness, every convenient lie, every smiling face and sunny sky we can conjure? Detractors will, of course, posit that there is nothing natural about The Golden Compass, but the heart of the novel is filled with every natural feeling in the world, from grim despair to raging passion to lonely, determined resilience. Lyra becomes a benchmark for ourselves, as we wonder, at all that we would or would not do, with our destinies plotted out against the unforgiving, glorious Northern Lights.

‘You speak of destiny,’ he said, ‘as if it was fixed. And I ain’t sure I like that any more than a war I’m enlisted in without knowing about it. Where’s my free will, if you please? And the child seems to me to have more free will than anyone I ever met. Are you telling me that she’s just some kind of clockwork toy wound up and set going on a course she can’t change?’

‘We are all subject to the fates. But we must all act as if we are not,’ said the witch, ‘or die of despair.’

Enjoy another consideration of The Golden Compass by my dear book reviewing colleague, Jennifer of Books, Personally, which examines some issues and concerns that this review doesn’t directly address, here.

This is the first book I’ve read and reviewed on my personal reading list (which you can see here) for The Bookette’s British Book Challenge 2011.

12. Fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy

Published in 1999. This Edition: Headline Review, 2000.

“I became nervous waiting for the poet to start. I was thinking, ‘Please be good, please.’ The poet became my dad, my brother, he was the unknown black faces in our photo album, he was the old man on the bus who called me sister, the man in the bank with the strong Trinidadian accent who could not make himself understood. He was every black man – ever.”

Faith Jackson has always been, for the most part, a good girl. She’s a dutiful, well-attired twenty-two year old university graduate, raised by black expatriate Jamaican parents who, according to the common account, came over to England on a banana boat. White boys heckled Faith about this during her childhood, but to her parents, nothing about that journey even remotely elicits shame. Here, early-established, resides Faith’s quandary: her existence straddles bi-polar states of embarrassment and defiance, of red-faced chagrin at her skin, and awful anger at the reactions it provokes in London, where her ‘kind’ are called ‘wogs, ‘nig-nigs’ and ‘coons’ by the various Caucasian whites with whom she interacts. After witnessing a brutal act of vandalism perpetrated by white thugs against the black proprietress of an independent bookstore, something in Faith gives in to despair.

Alarmed by their daughter’s detachment from her (ostensibly glamorous but unfulfilling) job, even by her withdrawal from the raucous bonhomie of her flatmates’ ambience, Faith’s parents devise a plan. They pay her airfare for a fortnight’s getaway in Jamaica, the home to which they’ve been contemplating returning. As Faith’s mother gently reminds her, “Child, everyone should know where they come from.”

While reading Fruit of the Lemon, it became quickly apparent to me that I was in the hands of a startlingly evocative writer. Levy rarely ‘lays it on thick’: there is none of that overindulgence, poorly executed, in exposition, description or plot progression. The ingrained racism Faith endures uneasily in England, her incremental malaise and mistrust of her own complexion, are subtly enforced at every turn, ‘til we feel like buckling beneath the pressure, ourselves.

Caribbean readers will not, I think, be disappointed by Levy’s depiction of Jamaica. Not being of Jamaican ancestry personally, I cannot claim a countrywoman’s expertise, but the testament of the life and people of the island never, not once, caused me to furrow my brow and say, ‘Eh?’ Odds are, whether you are from Jamrock, or Trinidad, or Barbados, or anywhere beneath our persistent and particular sun, you will recognize trademarks of your own growing-up stories. You will steups (loud and irritated sucking of one’s own teeth, referenced several times by Levy) at the description of a relative just like the one who drives you mad. You will sigh when Faith learns the saddest stories of her origins from her Jamaican family, because that sadness, that mad, mad history lies dormant in your family too, just waiting to be prodded uneasily to life again.

Fruit of the Lemon made me laugh uproariously, no small feat, considering that it takes comedic heft on the page to really send me reeling with mirth. Levy excels at marrying elements of the absurd with the lamentable. This is particularly well-transmitted in the presentation of Faith’s ridiculous yet endearing elder brother Carl, who proclaims his superiority over his sister, treating her with a mixture of gruff disdain and barely-veiled irritation, but sheepishly hides the face that he is only just doing his first A-level exam. Most, if not all, of Levy’s characters are drawn in this enviably well-rounded way, so that they things they do and say elicit both hilarity and mortification.

Perhaps most striking of the praises offered to Fruit of the Lemon is the Sunday Telegraph’s assessment that “…[readers] will recognize the truthfulness of the world which Andrea Levy describes”—and these truths, to my mind, have less to do with being Caribbean, and more to do with being an observant person, regardless of skin hue or geographical marker.

With a narrative that spans the reach of the Atlantic, Levy writes convincingly of home and abroad, of isolation amidst throngs and of togetherness where only a few are gathered. Fruit of the Lemon begins with a humbly tiny family tree of Faith and her nuclear family. It ends with the deeply-rooted history of multiple branches, each tier a story and a legacy all its own.

This review was initially featured on Baffled Books.

This book, and 11 more, are part of my official reading list (which can be found in my sign-up post here) for the 2011 Caribbean Writers Challenge.

British Books Challenge @The Bookette

For a while, I used to think of myself as more British in sensibility and temperament, than Caribbean. This is a feeling that’s been laid to rest with liberal helpings of common sense, perspective, and amazing West Indian food. (Just kidding about the food. It’s merely a bonus.)

Still, my love of phenomenal British literature abides, and so I could not resist from adding myself to the long list of participants in Becky (aka The Bookette)’s meticulously-organized and enthusiastically promoted British Books Challenge for 2011.

I’ll be entering in ‘The International Friend’ section, aiming to complete ‘The Royal Family’ challenge—that of reading 12 books by British authors. While doing up my final list, as with my Caribbean Writers Challenge ’11, I aimed to cover a wide range of genres, forms, concerns and literary voices.

The Challenge Shortlist (in no particular order)

{I will periodically update this list, as the books are read and reviewed.}

1. (Short Fiction) Books of Blood 1-3 by Clive Barker

2. (Novel) Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

3. (Novel) Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

4. (Play) Indian Ink by Tom Stoppard

5. (Novel) The Eagle of the Ninth – Rosemary Sutcliff

6. (Novel) Gold – Dan Rhodes

7. (Novel) The End of Mr. Y – Scarlett Thomas

{Read and reviewed in April ’11, here.}

8. (Novel) The Golden Compass – Philip Pullman

{Read and reviewed in February ’11, here.}

9. (Novel) After the Fire, A Still Small Voice – Evie Wyld

{Read in September ’11, reviewed in October ’11, here.}

10. (Novel) The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing

11. (Short Fiction) Free Love and other Stories – Ali Smith (one of the novels given in my Mother-Daughter Yuletide Exchange 2010.)

12. (Poetry) The World’s Wife – Carol Ann Duffy

[Official sign-ups are closed, but you can of course follow the challenge, if you wish!] This giveaway-packed challenge promises to be a pleasure, complete with far too many glorious cups of Earl Grey and (real or simulated) stormy-moor nights.