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2017-05-15 01:40 pm

Shuffle 4: Amy Sackville, The Still Point (2010)

The still Point cover"Let's not break the bounds of the day. It is exhausting enough, snatching at the past as it slides through the present, without letting the future interfere."

At the turn of the 20th century, two bold people fall in love: Emily, a woman of vigor and intellect, and Edward, an ambitious man poised for an Arctic expedition. It's an affair out of a romantic legend: they part at their conclusion of their honeymoon, Edward to his death near the top of the world, and Emily to a long life of waiting and grief. Over a century later, Edward's sweetly romantic great-great-niece Julia is curating the family archives she inherited, living in her family house full of treasures and testaments, all while she and her husband Simon--both quiet, private people--struggle to overcome their own fears and disconnections.

The Still Point is a story about intimacy: the loss of it, the retrieval of it, and how it can sour in banal ways. It's also a story about creating narratives, especially about the past, and how that influences the present. What lifts such thematic material is Amy Sackville's elastic use of the omniscient POV. At the start of the book, in the contemporary timeline, the omniscient narrator teasingly pokes at the characters' dreaming minds and their sleeping bodies with equal parts invasion and imagination:

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2017-04-23 01:49 pm

Shuffle 3: Leila Aboulela, Minaret (2006)

Minaret cover"I am touched by her life, how it moves forward, pulses and springs. There is no fragmentation, nothing stunted or wedged. I circle back, I regress; the past doesn't let go. It might as well be a malfunction, a scene repeating itself, a scratched vinyl record, a stutter."

Leila Aboulela's Minaret elegantly weaves together multiple narrative threads: a coming-of-age story, a class story, an immigrant story, a story about discovering faith. The sections of the book alternate between Najwa's contemporary life as a domestic worker in London and Najwa's earlier, more privileged life. One of Minaret's particular strengths is the way these two timelines inform and echo each other, and the way they demonstrate the changes in Najwa's life as well as the ways she hadn't changed: what desires and values have been there all along, waiting to be unearthed or forged, and why did they go undeveloped before? In what ways might she still be stuck?

One of the most painful aspects of the book is Najwa's continual longing to return to safety of childhood and innocent parental love. Her repeated dream of childhood sickness and being cared for by her parents, being loved and treasured, was pretty heartbreaking. And Aboulela makes it clear that this isn't something Najwa's faith fixed or took away; it remains with her to the last page. But what faith, and becoming coming part of the religious community, does give Najwa is a way to understand and frame and not be defeated by what she cannot have:

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2017-04-22 09:02 am

Shuffle 2: Sarah Waters, Fingersmith (2002)

Fingersmith cover"She has made a fiction of herself!"

Sarah Waters's Fingersmith revolves around a Victorian heist: a charming con man aims to marry Maud Lilly, a reclusive and naive heiress, then commit her to a madhouse and steal her fortune. Seventeen-year-old Sue Trinder, an orphan who grew up among a band of London thieves, is drafted to play the role of Maud's persuasive maid. She'll facilitate Gentleman's courtship of Maud and insinuate herself into Maud's confidence, where she would help squash any doubts Maud might have about the love affair. In serving and becoming close to Maud, however, Sue finds that both her mark and her feelings toward her are more complicated than she expected. What ensues is a Victorian sensation novel's worth of twists and dirtiness and melodrama. And, also, love.

Fingersmith consists of layers of stories: secrets and lies, histories and retellings, interpretations and misinterpretations, the constricted narratives of bloodlines and diagnoses. Stories manipulate and control the listener; they're tools of the trade for the thieves and liars that populate Sue's world. But even the tellers of stories can be tricked by their own narratives. Tellers, convincing themselves, can create their own blindspots. Waters plays with those gaps in the construction of her intricate plot. Even though I saw the BBC adaptation and so knew the twists (though it was years ago, and I was fuzzy on some of the details), I still enjoyed reading the book, because Waters choreographs her subterfuges elegantly. For all the awfulness in this book--and it's full of poverty, abuse, and injustices of all kinds--it's still utterly gripping, in true sensation novel fashion.

In defense of the timelessness of the written word, as opposed to the blunt and inescapable context provided by photographs, Maud's uncle says at one point, "But words, Hawtrey, words—hmm? They seduce us in darkness, and the mind clothes and fleshes them to fashions of its own." It's part of a debate the characters are engaged in, but it's also a wink to the thematic heart of this book--to the stories and the lies being woven, and (mis)interpretations and assumptions of the characters and of the reader. The in-book seduction of characters, the out-of-book seduction of the reader. Waters knows what she's doing. And that made this an excellent read.

Spoilers follow! )
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2017-04-03 06:38 pm

Shuffle 1: Yewande Omotoso, The Woman Next Door (2017)

cover shows two illustrated, contrasted houses separated by a hedgerow"She had teeth in her heart. Marion knew they shouldn't be there, but there they were: teeth in her heart."

Hortensia James and Marion Agostino share a few similarities: they're both of a certain age, they're both widowed or nearly widowed, they both worked their hearts out to get to the top of their respective professional fields, and for different reasons, they each started living small--making themselves smaller, smothering a part of themselves--years ago. You wouldn't know this self-repression or their similarities from looking at them, as it's their decades of venomous bickering that's left a very public impression: "Their rivalry was infamous enough for the other committee women to hang back and watch the show. It was known that the two women shared hedge and hatred and they pruned both with a vim that belied their ages."

When the two are forced to live together following an accident, the forced intimacy allows them to both re-trace the grooves of their antagonism as well as create some new connections. It allows secrets and truths and confessions to grow.

The Woman Next Door is a tightly-focused character study of two elderly neighbors in South Africa. I'd particularly recommend this to readers who love periodic deep dives into backstory--frequent if graceful shifts between the present and the past--because that's where the magic of Omotoso's storytelling lies. She shines a light on what history is, and how things get lost, and how we fail to be as brave as we ought to be, and what we do as a result.

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