Monday, September 14, 2020

Relative Fortunes and Passing Fancies by Marlowe Benn

Recently, it was suggested to me that I buy two novels as companion pieces; Relative  Fortunes, and Passing Fancies, both written by Marlow Benn. They are indeed companion novels, and so I am recommending them to you as a pair. 

While in one sense, they are light reading, in fact there is much substance to each of the novels. They take place in 1920s Manhattan. You should read Relative Fortunes first, and I suggest that you then move directly to Passing Fancies. The heroine is an elegant and fiercely intelligent character by the name of Julia Kydd.  She has returned from Europe to Manhattan in order to collect her inheritance which has been held in trust and meted out in increments by her much older half-brother Phillip. She is to gain control of the inheritance when she turns twenty-five, and there is much made in the novel about the ridiculous laws that make it difficult for women to control their own money without the need of a male (husband, father, relative) to advise and control. 

For some reason (and Julia really does not understand what it is), Phillip has decided to contest the will that his father made leaving a small fortune for Julia, who was born to his second wife. Phillip does not need the money, since he already has a much more considerable fortune, and yet he makes it clear he intends to challenge the interpretation of the will, and to deny Julia her portion.

Since she has no residence in New York, she is invited to stay at Phillip’s brownstone, and the repartee between the siblings is witty, intelligent and captivating. The two discuss events of the day, the foibles of so-called high society, and women’s suffrage.  Julia insists she is not political at all and she wants only to launch her own private press with the emphasis on the beauty of the books more than  the content. 

While Julia claims not to be political, when it comes to the treatment of women, she cannot and will not be quiet. When a famous suffragist, Naomi Rankin dies suddenly, and it is deemed a suicide, Julia is more than skeptical, and suggests to Phillip that she may have been murdered. This thread in the novel makes it read like a mystery, and the repartee between siblings reminds me a lot of Dashiel Hammet’s delightful Thin Man

The reader comes to discover that Phillip is, in fact, very sympathetic to the suffrage movement and to the emancipation of women. He is also (if somewhat secretly) really enchanted by his young half-sibling. He proposes to her that if she can prove that Naomi’s death was in fact a murder, he will drop his challenge of his father’s will.

Clearly,  author Benn is more interested in the history of the period than in  simply writing a good mystery. The combination of mystery, comedy, and serious social political content make this a delightful read.

Without revealing the twists and turns of the mystery in the first volume, let me turn to the second, Passing Fancies. The political content of this second novel is obviously the controlling theme. Julia’s desires to launch her publishing company lead her into what is now called the Harlem Renaissance, described on the novel’s jacket as “a literary movement…where notions of race, sexuality, and power are slippery, and identities can be deceptively fluid.’

This second novel, published in 2020, is remarkably relevant to current issues. Julia becomes acquainted with a singer, Eva Pruit, who has written a book that is rumored to reveal ”lurid details about the Harlem nightlife.” A nightclub owner is furious about the book, because he thinks his character is the inspiration for it. When he is murdered and the manuscript and Pruit are nowhere to be found, Julia Kydd steps in to solve the mystery.

During a police raid on the nightclub, Eva is treated very badly, and would have been treated worse if Julia and her brother Phillip had not been present. Julia’s friend Christophine is informed of the raid:

Christophine was angry but not shocked to hear of Eva’s treatment. The police she knew were not white-lady police.

It was a horrid term, crawling with implications. It suggested there was no such thing as what Julia had always referred to as simply “the police” (Didn’t everyone? Or rather, didn’t every white person of her acquaintance?). The definition she considered standard and universal—a helpful force for public safety and well-being—was apparently only one version of a widely varying realty. Even more unsettling to consider: Eva’s experience might be the more common, and Julia’s the more rare. The notion upended something foundational.

Eva is an African-American woman who has passed for white, but once she is outed, she is treated as simply another Black troublemaker. 

I hope I have not given away much of the intricate plots of either of these novels, and yet said enough to encourage readers. The greater distance I got from my own reading, and the more I heard from reader friends I passed them on to, the more I felt it important to recommend them to Old Mole readers.

Monday, August 31, 2020

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare

I want to talk to you today about a truly extraordinary debut novel by a Nigerian author. The title of the book is, The Girl With the Louding Voice and the name of this incredible new voice in literature is Abi Dare. The book won the Bath Novel Award for unpublished manuscripts in 2018, and fortunately for us readers, it was published in 2020.

It is the story of a fourteen year old Nigerian girl, Adunni. When her mother dies young, her penniless father takes her out of school and sells her as a third wife to an old man. It had been her mother’s dream that Adunni would stay in school and get an education. As her mother told her before she died:

“In this a village, if you go to school, no one will be forcing you to marry any man. But if you didn’t go to school, they will marry you to any man once you are reaching fifteen years old. Your schooling is your voice child. It will be speaking till the day God is calling you come.”

That day, I tell myself that even if I am not getting anything in this life, I will go to school. I will finish my primary and secondary and university schooling and become a teacher because I don’t want to be having any kind of voice…

I want a louding voice.

Certainly this poetic and lyrical novel is in a louding voice. It takes a bit of getting used to the verb tenses and expressions used, but within not many pages, what seemed awkward and difficult to follow becomes a marvelous look at the world through the eyes of a girl who wants above all to get an education. 

…he [her father] was telling me three years ago, that I must stop my educations. That time, I was the most old of all in my class and all the childrens was always calling me “Aunty.” I tell you true, the day I stop school and the day my mama was dead is the worst day of my life.

When her first old husband dies, she is sold again to a younger man and has to move to her husband’s family house where she is lorded over by a tyrannical mother-in-law. She escapes that house and husband, and is secretly sold as a domestic servant to a wealthy household in Lagos. The woman of the house sells fabrics to other wealthy women. Adunni addresses her as Big Madam. Subjected to the frequent rages of Big Madam, and always on guard against the lecherous advances of the shiftless man of the house, fortunately one of the servants, Abu, takes pity on the girl and manages to slip her food and aids her in other ways as well.

Her dreams of an education seem doomed until she meets a progressive and enlightened Nigerian woman at one of Big Madam’s parties. Ms. Tia slips books to Adunni and helps her with her English. Adunni is sure that if she can learn to speak ‘good’ English, she will somehow, someday be able to pursue her dreams of an education. The author quite subtley makes fun of the very notion of proper or good English, although it takes Adunni years to discover just how really good her English is.

Ms. Tia is from abroad, and while Adunni has little idea of just what that is, she senses that is the direction she needs to follow. 

I didn’t too sure I understand what Ms. Tia is talking about, or why she is calling her Abroad peoples white and black when colors are for crayons and pencils and things. I know that not everybody is having the same color of skin in Nigeria, even me and Kayus and Born-boy didn’t have same skin color, but nobody is calling anybody black or white, everybody is just calling us by our names: Adunni, Kayus, Born-boy. That’s all.

This wonderful book is peppered with  what to me are amazing facts about Nigeria and its place in the world. In a short prologue to the novel, Dare tells her readers:

Nigeria is a country located in West Africa. With a population of just under 180 million people, it is the seventh most populous country in the world, which means that one in seven Africans is a Nigerian. As the sixth largest crude oil exporter in the world, and with a GDP of $568.5 billion, Nigeria is the richest country in Africa. Sadly, over 100 million Nigerians live in poverty, surviving on less than $1 a day.

As I was looking over the book again yesternight (one of Adunni’s many so logical uses of the language), I was swept away again by the passion of this louding voice, and hoping I could to justice to the novel in reviewing it. 

Abi Dare succeeded in getting an education; she holds degrees in law, project management and creative writing and lives in the UK. 

Adunni is a character I will not forget. Her louding voice sings to me, whispers in my ear, and should give hope to many young girls all over the world who want to learn and to choose their own futures.

Monday, July 27, 2020

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

I want to talk to you today about a 2020 novel by Brit Bennett entitled, The Vanishing Half. It is the story of twin girls who run away from a small town when they are sixteen, and only one of them returns fourteen years later; the vanishing half, Stella, is missed and searched for by Desiree, the twin who returned.

The small town from which they run is named Mallard.

It was a strange town.

Mallard, named after the ring-necked ducks living in the rice fields and marshes. A town that like any other, was more idea than place. The idea arrived to Alphonse Decuir in 1848, as he stood in the sugarcane fields he’s inherited from the father who’d once owned him. The father now dead, the now-freed son wished to build something on those acres of land that would last for centuries to come. A town for men like him, who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes. His mother, rest her soul, had hated his lightness; when he was a boy, she’d shoved him under the sun, begging him to darken. Maybe that’s what made him dream of the town. Lightness, like anything inherited at great cost, was a lonely gift. He’d married a mulatto even lighter than Himself. She was pregnant then with their first child, and he imagined his children’s children’s children, lighter still, like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream. A more perfect Negro,. Each generation lighter than the one before. 

Like Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Bennett takes on questions of race, gender and identity.

It is Desiree who is the restless one and feels compelled to escape the small town, but since the twins are inseparable, Stella agrees to leave with her, and it is Stella who does not return.  Their mother and other town-folk are sure they will return soon. “They’d run out of money and gall and come sniffling back to their mother’s porch. But they never retuned again. Instead, after a year, the twins scattered, their lives splitting evenly as their shared egg. Stella became white and Desiree married the darkest man she could find.”

Although Stella is bright and has many skills, when she applies for office jobs and honestly identifies herself as Negro, she is turned away. But when she allows employers to see her as white, she is hired. “At work, Stella became Miss Vignes, or, as Desiree called her, White Stella.

Bennett spends a lot of time describing the many shades of color of negroes, from clabber white to blue black. Ironically, Stella doesn’t really decide to pass for white, she simply lets others see her as they choose.

But what had changed about her? Nothing, really. She hadn’t adopted a disguise or even a new name. She’s walked in a colored girl and left a white one. She had become white only because everyone thought she was.

But then Stella begins to date a man from her office, and eventually they marry. Of course she cannot let her husband find out; now she must disappear completely into her new white life. She has a daughter, and it is the daughter who eventually discovers Stella’s secret and despises her for it. 

Because of a photograph of the twin sisters that Stella’s daughter discovers, Stella is finally forced to acknowledge her true history. In order to find her estranged daughter, Kennedy,  she returns to her hometown and to Desiree. “Like leaving, the hardest part of retuning was deciding to.”

I have focused primarily on questions of color and race, but this is also the story of a family, from the 1950s to the 1990 and all the political turmoil of those times, the assassinations of the Kennedys and of Martin Luther King. Author Bennett mainly simply observes and describes, but the descriptions make clear where her allegiances are. 

I think this is a wonderful, important and insightful novel. It sent me scurrying back to Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. I hope I have not given away too much of the plot, since this is partly a kind of mystery story along with its social commentary. 

I intend to go back to Bennett’ earlier novel, The Mothers. She writes with great heart and wisdom.