Monday, January 03, 2022

The Invisible Life of Addie Larue by V.E. Schwab

Invisible Life of Addie Larue
Try to imagine what it would be like to not be remembered by anyone. Adeline Larue has made the mistake of praying to the dark gods to be free and to live without fear of death. The title of this Faustian tale is The Invisible Life of Addie Larue, by V.E. Schwab.

The author warns us in a prefatory note which she attributes to Estele Magritte, 1642-1719:

The old gods may be great, but they are neither kind nor merciful. They are fickle , unsteady as moonlight on water, or shadows in a storm. If you insist on calling  them, take heed: be careful what you ask for, be willing to pay the price. And no matter how desperate or dire, never pray to the gods that answer after dark.

I am not a big fan of fantastical literature, but this novel raises so many fascinating philosophical questions  about personal identity and its link to memory that I continued to ponder the questions long after I had finished reading the story, a story which stands on its own even without the philosophical meandering, but which is so much better as a book because of the reflections on personal identity.

Adeline is a girl who lived at the cusp between 1698 and the eighteenth century. Much loved by her father, a woodworker, he always takes her with him when he takes his wares to market. “Adeline is seven, the same as the number of freckles on her face. She is bright and small and quick as a sparrow.” She continues to leave her small village three times a year to go to the city of Le Mans, but when she turns twelve, her parents decide she should no longer be allowed to go to the large town, that it is unseemly for a young girl to wander the market. 

“You are not a child anymore.” 

And Adeline understands and still does not understand at all—feels as if she’s being punished for simply growing up.

And then she is sixteen and, against her will, betrothed to a man more than twice her age.

I do not want to marry.

“I do not want to belong to someone else,” she says with sudden vehemence.  The words are a door flung wide, and now the rest pour out of her. “ I do not want to belong to anyone but myself. I want to be free. Free to live, and to find my own way, to love, or to be alone, but at least it is my choice, and I am so tired of having no choices, so scared of the years rushing by beneath my feet.  I do not want to die as I’ve lived, which is no life at all.

This she tells to a shadow, a handsome man with dark curls and green eyes, a man she comes to call Luc.

The novel jumps from France in 1714 to New York City in 2014. Addie’s wish has been granted and she has lived for over three hundred years. The curse for her freedom and apparent immortality is that no one remembers her. She is forgotten simply by turning her back or walking away. If she takes a man to her bed, she knows he will awaken in the morning startled by the stranger in  bed with him. Although she can get money, usually by stealing, landlords will not rent to a lone woman. It is only when she begins to wear trousers and a buttoned coat, a hat that is pulled down over her face  that she can roam freely. 

The darkness claimed  he’d given her freedom, but really, there is no such thing as freedom for a woman, not in a world where they are bound up inside their clothes, and sealed inside their homes, a world where only men are given leave to roam.

I will return to the story in a moment, but  let us first ask about the connection between memory and personhood. Oliver Sacks describes a man who has no short-term memory at all, but only a hazy recall of a distant past. If philosophers are right, memory is a necessary condition of personal identity, of being the same person over time. Sacks tells of tricking a client (he does not like the word “patient”) into looking into a mirror and seeing not the person he thinks himself to be, but a much older man. He is horrified and confused, and Sacks chides himself for such a cruel trick.

I agree with Sacks and others that memory is crucial to personal identity. But what of Schwab’s clever trick of asking whether a person not remembered is really a person. Will they feel as Addie does, that she is really invisible because unknown.

Eventually, Addie wanders into a bookstore, The Last Word, and steals a copy of The Odyssey, in Greek no less. She knows that even if the clerk sees her theft, by the time he confronts her on the street, he will have forgotten who she is and what he is doing with her. Imagine the shocked surprise when she returns to the shop a few days later asking to exchange to book for an English copy, and the clerk says, “I remember you” and scolds her for her impudence in trying now to exchange the stolen book for another. But all Addie can hear are  his words, “ I remember you.”

Finally she is known, remembered, but how can this be so, how can the clerk, Henry, remember her in spite of the curse? To discover the answer to that question as well as the fates of Adeline and Henry, you will have to read the book.

While this novel will more than stretch your ability to suspend disbelief, I think it will also enchant you and lead you to ask  questions about your own identity and what it depends on. 

Monday, December 13, 2021

The Hidden Child by Louise Fein

Hidden Child
If you are one of the many who believe that eugenics was a tool only of Nazi Germany, you should read the excellent and thoroughly researched historical novel by Louise Fein entitled, The Hidden Child.

Often, the best way of really bringing home the horrors of a practice is to embody it, to show how real people are affected by the practice. Louise Fein has done just that in her sad but wonderful novel. As Eleanor is watching over her beautiful five year old child, Mabel,  frolicking  in a park, suddenly and out of nowhere Mabel begins to act in a most frightening way. A postman has just dropped his bike in shock as he points to the beautiful child in front of him. 

Eleanor turns in confusion.

Mabel! Sticks scattered around her, she’s sitting on the dusty ground, face twisted, her eyes weirdly rolling back. Her chin drops to her chest, once, twice, hands twitching. 

Eleanor’s feet are rooted to the ground in horror. Her daughter looks as though she’s been possessed, her normal sweet expression vanished behind the contorted features of her face. 

But this is not the first nor the last of these fits. Eleanor’s instinctive reaction is to brush of the momentary behavior, and she implores the postman not to fetch a doctor.  Besides her inclination to deny and hope the momentary aberration is just that, passing and of no significance, she is married to a psychologist who is a leader of the eugenics movement in the U.K., and who would be most embarrassed to admit his daughter is among the unfit who need to be weeded from society.

Fein skillfully weaves her story. Edward, the psychologist husband, insists that Mabel’s ailment must not be discovered, both to protect the child from being singled out and ridiculed, and to protect his own reputation within the movement. He insists that it will be best for all concerned if Mabel is locked away in a sanitarium and kept from public scrutiny. 

Although heartbroken, Eleanor cannot stand up to her husband and his professional stature and eventually defers to his judgment. Unable even to visit her young child, she slowly becomes more and more aware that her husband sees only what he wants to see and that he even skews his research to omit  evidence that would count against his theories regarding the improvement of the race via incarceration, sterilization and other drastic measures.

The story itself is compelling and so well written, but the controversy behind the theory is really the most important part of this novel. Fein, herself, has a child with epilepsy, and that no doubt adds to her careful and thorough research in writing this book. In her notes at the end of the novel:

I was therefore rather shocked that when I began to look into the ideas behind the inhumane treatment of people with disabilities, including epilepsy, in the 1920s, I found , in fact, that Nazi Germany took its lead in this area from widespread and accepted eugenics ideas circulating in both the United Kingdom and the United States. The eugenics movement had been born in England in the late nineteenth century and was extremely widespread in the first thirty years or so of the twentieth century.

The pseudo-science of eugenics and other theories such as craniology are thoroughly debunked by Stephen Jay Gould in his superb set of essays, The Mismeasure of Man. Like Edward in this novel, many of the experiments meant to support the theories were manipulated such that only confirmatory data was allowed and contra evidence swept under the rug. 

This novel and the story stand on their own quite apart from the eugenics controversy, but the social and political importance of the book  needs to be emphasized. 

I will end with another quote from the author’s end notes:

Legislation was proposed for compulsory sterilization and incarceration of those considered “weak-minded,” a catchall phrase for those with learning difficulties as well as epileptics, criminals, those with behavioral difficulties, alcoholics and anyone else considered “undesirable” and ruinous to the health of the population in general.

Monday, November 01, 2021

Oh William by Elizabeth Strout

Believe me, I am giving nothing away by beginning my remarks by quoting the last page of Elizabeth’s Strout’s new novel, Oh William

And then I thought, Oh William!

But when I think Oh William!, don’t I  mean Oh Lucy! too?

Don’t I mean Oh Everyone, Oh dear Everybody in this whole wide world, we do not know anybody, not even ourselves!

Except a little tiny, tiny bit we do.

But we are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean.

This may be the only thing in the world I know to be true.

Strout in her unique way, again reminds us that there are no ordinary people, that everyone is extraordinary, and that the simplest of day to day events is filled with mystery.

As she does in each of her novels, Strout revisits old characters. This time it is Lucy Barton who reappears. Like Strout, Lucy Barton is an author. Her most recent husband, David has died leaving her buried in grief. And she decides to tell us a few things about her first husband William with whom she has remained good friends after their divorce. They have two adult daughters together, and the two daughters have a half-sister from William’s last marriage. William has been married three times: Lucy, Joanne, and Estelle.

William has been having terrifying dreams and he finds it quite natural to confide in Lucy regarding those dreams. He wonders if the dreams have simply to do with getting older. 

“Maybe,” I said. But I was not sure this was the reason. William has always been a mystery to me—and to our girls as well. I said, tentatively, “Do you want to see anyone to talk to about them?”

Strout’s writing is so simplistic, so flat, and yet her readers understand they are being given a very wise view of the world.  At times her writing seems almost like the awkward journal jottings of a high-schooler. And yet, and yet there seem to be profound insights  about marriage, about raising children, about respecting old relationships and getting beyond petty jealousy.

Both William and Lucy have had sad, lonely childhoods and few warm feelings about their mothers. 

There is this about my own mother:

I have written about her and I really do not care to write anything else about her. But I understand one might need to know a few things for this story. The few things would be this: I have no memory of my mother ever touching any of her children except in violence. I do not remember that she ever said, I love you, Lucy. 

The rather complicated and often humorous plot of this novel is, I think, much less important than Lucy’s asides; asides about choice and loneliness and not being able to let go of past hurts.

People are lonely, is my point here. Many people can’t say to those they know well what it is they feel they might want to say.

The only other writer I can think of who is as skillful in uncovering the extraordinary in ordinary lives is Alice Munro, and like Munro who writes almost exclusively short stories, Strout makes her points in passing, in throw-off comments. Her insights cannot be easily summed up, her messages not easily articulated.

I will leave you with this heart-rending quote from Lucy.

There have been times—and I mean recently—when I feel the curtain of my childhood descend around me once again. A terrible enclosure, a quiet horror: This is the feeling and it was with me my entire childhood, and it came back to me with a whoosh the other day. To remember so quietly, yet vividly, to have it re-presented to me in this way, the sense of doom I grew up with, knowing I could never leave that house (except to go to school, which meant the world to me, even though I had no friends there, but I was out of the house)—to have this come back to me presented a domain of dull and terrifying dreariness to me.: There was no escape.

When I was young there was no escape, is what I am saying. 

Oh Elizabeth, you genius story-teller, please keep writing.