Monday, June 24, 2019

The Things We Don’t Say by Ella Carey

Those of you readers who have read earlier works of Ella Carey know that she has had a lifelong love-affair with France (as is manifest in Paris Time Capsule and The House by the Lake).  In her 2018 novel, The Things We Don’t Say, the action switches back and forth between London and a country farm house in Provence. As Carey is quick to acknowledge, this novel was inspired by the Bloomsbury group, and although she insists that all characters are spun from her imagination, in her acknowledgements she says,
“I have long been intrigued by the artist Vanessa Bell and her beautiful relationship with her fellow artist, Duncan Grant.” In the novel, Emma Temple’s story has as its background this intrigue Carey had with Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, and other writers and artists in the Bloomsbury group.

Emma is an artist who establishes a kind of sanctuary in Provence for the unconventional bohemian young artists who she makes into her family. It is 1913. She lives there with her husband, Oscar, who is really more like a brother or companion than a husband, and among the other guests is a famous painter by the name of Patrick and his lover Rupert. It is really the deep love between Patrick and Emma that is central to the story, although he is homosexual and she is not.

The second strand of the story is told by Emma’s granddaughter, Laura, who is studying violin at the Royal College of Music. Thus the reader is taken back and forth between London in l1980 and Provence in the years leading up to and including World War I and beyond. While Patrick and Emma are not sexual lovers, there love is profound, and Patrick spends years painting a portrait of Emma though he has refused in the past to do portraits of anyone he knows. The painting is his tribute to their love. 

Patrick becomes a famous artist and his works are a huge commercial success. For that reason, the paining Ella has is of great value by the time Laura enters the story. Indeed, his work is so famous that Ella is able to secure a loan using it as collateral—a loan large enough to support Laura’s expensive education at the the Royal Academy. Just as art and color are everything to Emma, music is everything to Laura and intensifies the bonds between her and her grandmother.

Alas, a well-respected art critic who is considered an expert on Patrick’s paintings, publishes and article in the Times claiming that the Emma portrait is not his work. All the rest of the novel is occupied with this issue. At first Ewan, the art critic, refuses to divulge to Laura how he knows the painting is not genuine, although he insists that he is absolutely certain that it is not. 

While the story of the painting and of the threat to Laura’s music education is the thread that weaves together the lives of Ella and Laura, what I found to be the overarching significance of the novel was the descriptions of how the so-called bohemians lived their lives in a world that did not at all share their values. Not unlike the young people in the 6os and 70s, Ella’s ‘family’ believes in free love, is open to homosexuality and to all races, and they are also by and large pacifists in a world just about to be engulfed in a world war. 

Because Ella knows all too well how parents can smother the dreams of their children by refusing to support their endeavors, she empathizes completely with Laura when Laura’s parents refuse to support her musical endeavors. Emma’s father had likewise refused to support her love of art, and it is only his early death that allows her to continue with her painting. 
Color was what inspired her, drawing her away from the coldness of her home life. Her childhood walks with her siblings and their nanny in Kensington Gardens every afternoon had started it, and she’d embraced getting out of the dark and stuffy house close to the park. Her delicate senses became assaulted and captivated, drawn in by the blowsy, rain-soaked greens and the whites of meadow flowers, the deep reds and brilliant oranges of spring tulips, the fresh air, the blossoms and blue sky and birds. She’s wanted to capture it, bottle it as soon as she returned home, so it didn’t get lost. Nature seemed the opposite of rules, so that was what she drew and painted early on. 
She’d learned to put men off by seeming distant. She preferred, by far, to be thought cold and aloof than to get caught in any way, having to spend the rest of her life stuck as the wife in a repressive Victorian-style household. 
Painting is her refuge and what gives her life meaning and direction. Her older brother Frederick gathers around himself a group of Oxford intellectuals, and when he dies at a very young age, it is she who becomes the keeper of the group, providing a gathering place for the bohemian misfits. 

Emma’s only romantic love is for Patrick and when her friends scold her for not living with a man who desires her. Since she can choose anyone, why not choose someone who can love her fully. Her reply to Rupert, Patrick’s lover, when he puts a move on her and suggests a menage a trois:
Love chooses us, just as birth chooses us, just as death chooses us. These things are entirely random…I am unable to sleep with anyone without an emotional connection to them.
She continues:
You are being irrational. You just told me that Patrick loves me. And as for the way I choose to live—is there something wrong with a woman wanting to live life on her own terms? I acknowledge that love is beyond our control, that so much in the world is random, but I insist on the dignity of being able to run the aspects of my own life that I can run myself. And that includes saying no to love affairs that will ultimately go nowhere. 
Much like those of us who really came of age in the 60s, Ella’s self-made family decides that sexual jealousy is irrational, and therefore is to be rejected. Since cool rationality should be the guide in life, whatever is irrational can simply be denied or ignored. Didn’t work out quite that way for us or for Ella’s circle; still I find their arguments cogent, and I believe we often give up way too much in our lives (including significant relationships) in the name of monogamy and sexual fidelity. 

Is the famous painting a fraud, and will Laura have to give up her music? These and other plot questions you will have to answer by reading the book.

Monday, May 27, 2019

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

I’ve been waiting for years for a new book from Jhumpa Lahiri, but somehow missed her latest novel, The Lowland, published in 2013. Like her other three books, this is a masterful piece of writing—lyrical and lovely, but telling a very somber story. 

Two brothers Subhash and Udayan are just fifteen months apart, and their bond is incredibly strong. Although Subhash is the older of the two, Udayan is the more daring and much more likely to lead them into mischief. Subhash “…was uncertain whether he was more frustrated by Udayan’s daring, or with himself for a his lack of it…But he had no sense of himself without Udayan. From his earliest memories, at every point, his brother was there.”

Both brothers do well in school and have real talents for math and science. But their primary interest is in politics, and especially in the communist parties that battle with one another over whom to follow, and which has the truer line.

 Much of the lowland they live in is covered with water during great parts of the year.
The English started clearing the waterlogged jungle, laying down streets. In 1770, beyond the southern limits of Calcutta, they established a suburb whose first population was more European than Indian. A place where spotted deer roamed, and kingfishers darted across the horizon.
Both brothers are admitted to college and plan to attend graduate school once they graduate. But as it turns out, only Subhash goes on to graduate school in America. Udayan loses interest in continued academic training, and remains behind in India becoming more and more involved in revolutionary politics. The novel jumps back and forth between Rhode Island and India, and as in her earlier collection of short stories, Lahiri describes in great detail the difficulties in straddling countries and cultures. Neither brother is married, though both expect that eventually their parents will arrange marriages. Udayan begins to see the sister of a student friend, and when she, Gauri, becomes pregnant, they marry and move into his parent’s house—a house they keep enlarging so it will accommodate their sons’ wives and eventual grandchildren. 

Without telling too much more of the story (which Lahiri spins out slowly and patiently), Udayan is eventually killed by the police, and Subhash returns briefly to India. Although Gauri is allowed to stay in the home of her in-laws, they ignore her once Udayan is killed. Subhash wants to get to know his sister-in-law, but his parents discourage any real contact. He buys a shawl for his mother and decides to get on for Gauri as well. 
He gave his mother the shawl he’d bought for her. Then he showed her the one for Gauri.
I’d like to give her this. 
You should  know better, she said. Stop trying to befriend her.
You’ve taken away her colored clothes, the fish and meat from her plate.
These are our customs, his mother said.
Eventually, Subhash decides he needs to get Gauri out of the hostile environment of his home, and the only way he can do that is to marry her. Gauri is a brilliant student, and although she cares for little once her husband is dead, she still has a powerful urge to learn, and she consents to go back to America as Subhash’s wife and they decide they will simply treat the baby she is carrying as their own. No decision is made as to when, or even if, the child will be told the truth.

The remainder of the novel is primarily the story of Gauri, Subhash, and their daughter Bella, whom Subhash adores and from whom Bella get most of her nurturing. Subhash takes Bella for a visit to India, but Gauri remains behind committed to her studies and to teaching philosophy courses. For many and complicated reasons, Gauri decides that her husband and daughter are better off without her, and she takes a teaching job across the country in California.

While the description of family life, of what counts as love, what counts as loyalty and what betrayal is the crowning achievement of the novel, there is so much that Lahiri tells the reader about India, its past, its many wars and political unrest. As the author notes, very little of this history gets covered in American press, and most of us know very little about the complexity of the country. That is certainly true of this reader.

I found this to be a beautiful novel, full of heartache for sure, but also full of love and commitment. The relationship between Bella and Subhash is wonderfully described, as are the reasons that Gauri leaves them. 

I will remember this book for a long time, and it also led me to two even newer works of hers—a non-fiction autobiographical book, In Other Words which she wrote in Italian, and refused to translate into English, though she allowed a friend to do it. And a very small book (really an essay) entitled The Clothing of Books, which is really a book about dust jacket designs for hardback books and cover designs for paperbacks  and how little control authors have over such things.

I believe Lahiri to be one of the finest authors alive, and I recommend all of her work to you.

Monday, April 08, 2019

When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

It’s nice sometimes to read a book just for the delight of it; When God Was a Rabbit is full of delight as well as some wonderful observations on life. I’m sure a lot of you will remember Judy Blume’s wonderful little novel: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.  Winman’s novel is in that lofty company. 

It’s a book about a young girl, Elly, and her brother who is five years older than she. Oh, and about a rabbit she is given and without any intention of sacrilege, she names God. Elly often gets into trouble at church, questioning things she should not. When she asks her mother if God loves everyone, “’Of course he does,’ my mother replied.” But her mother is alarmed by the question, and questions further.
‘Do you want to talk about anything?’ she asked quietly, reaching for my hand. (She had started to read a book on child psychology from America. It encouraged us to talk about our feelings. It made us want to clam up.) 
‘Nope,’ I said again through a small mouth. 
It had been a simple misunderstanding. All I had suggested was that Jesus Christ had been a mistake, that was all; an unplanned pregnancy.
‘Unplanned indeed!’ screamed the vicar. ‘And where did you get such blasphemous filth, you ungodly child?' 
‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘just an idea’
When told that God does not love those who question his divine plan, she stops attending church. Elly’s father, a religious skeptic, encourages Elly’ rebellion against religion. “’You don’t have to go to Sunday school or church for God to love you ‘Or for anyone to love you. You know that, don’t you?’ 
‘You’ll understand that as you get older,’ he added. But I couldn’t wait that long. I’d already resolved that if this God couldn’t love me, then it was clear I’d have to find another one that could.
After befriending an 80 year old man in her neighborhood, she decides she’d like to be Jewish. She and her best friend, Jenny Penny, and her brother form an hilarious threesome as they skip through their youths. When her father wins a football pool and is suddenly a rich man, his life changes little except that he buys a new Mercedes with tinted windows. When Elly’s mother insists that the car is not them, says she won’t ride in it and then insists that either the car goes or she does, and she does.

I read this book several weeks ago, and one problem with putting off reviews is that by the time I got to this one, I had forgotten much of the story. Instead of simply going through my underlinings and notes, I started the book over, and was as delighted by it on second reading as on the first. This caused me to recall that whenever I used novels in my classes, I always reread each novel as my students were reading it for the first time, wanting not simply to refresh my memory, but to share in the emotional impact of the books which I could not do simply by writing a description. 

Winman was an actress before she became a writer, and it is obvious in the script quality of her dialogue. 
There was no great epiphany, no precise moment when I swapped the spoken word for the written word. I had been acting for twenty-three years and had always written, but mainly in script form, as most actors do.
Fortunate for us readers that she decided to write fiction, and fortunate too that her debut novel was this coming of age tale. While simply a lovely frolic for the most part, there are also darker passages when Elly describes the very different home-life of her best friend Jenny Penny. The simplicity of the writing  makes believable that it is the story of a young girl, but it also allows for a really lovely naivete, a refreshing and revealing innocence. Elly tell us that she divides her life into two parts, the first before she met Jenny Penny, and the rest after that friendship began to blossom. 
She featured not at all during this [early] period and I realize she was the colour that was missing. She clasped the years either side of this waiting and held them up as beacons, and when she arrived in class that dull January morning it was as if she herself was the New Year; the thing that offered me the promise of beyond. But only I could see that. Others, bound by convention, found her at best laughable, and at worst someone to mock. She was of another world; different. But by then, secretly, so was I. She was my missing piece; my compliment in play.
Elly could have been describing herself here rather than Penny, and for this reader, she opens up a new and refreshing world.