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I came across Swamplandia!, the first novel from young US author Karen Russell, in a letter   written by Michael Cunningham on behalf of the 2012 Pulitzer jury, whose shortlist was exasperatingly rejected by the Pulitzer Prize Board. Though he had misgivings about some narrative elements in the novel, he said, “… it seemed very much like the initial appearance of an important writer, and its wonders were wonderful indeed. …. One is not necessarily looking for perfection in a novel, or for the level of control that generally comes with more practice. One is looking, more than anything, for originality, authority, and verve, all of which “Swamplandia!” possessed in abundance.”  After reading it I have to say I wholeheartedly agree with Cunningham’s assessment. Russell is an immensely talented writer, something that is evident from the opening pages.

The heroine of Swamplandia! is Ava Bigtree, an isolated thirteen year old , who lives with her quirky family on an island in the Florida everglades where they run a dilapidated alligator theme park called Swamplandia!  They claim they are part Indian and dress as such for photos that promote the park, despite not having ‘a drop of Seminole or Miccosukee blood’.  After Ava’s mother – who is the star attraction of their daily shows with the alligators – dies of cancer, Swamplandia! begins to fall into the mire of dwindling customers and rising debt. Her father, known as ‘the Chief’, is a mostly absent dad with no idea of how to run the park or look after his children. To make matters worse, a new, rival theme park known as ‘The World’ opens up on the mainland.  Drawn to the new attraction, their customers disappear. The mounting debt is  crippling, but the Chief doesn’t seem to understand the severity of the problem or how to resolve it – a metaphor for current America if ever there was one. Wanting a taste of mainland freedom and hoping to get a high-school diploma, her brother Kiwi takes off to work at The World, while her sister Ossie starts dating ghosts and eventually elopes with one. Meanwhile, the Chief shoots through for his annual jaunt to the mainland, leaving Ava to look after herself. Missing her big sister she goes off in search of Ossie with the strange ‘Bird Man’ whose job it is to shoo away buzzards from the islands but is perhaps more an attractor of them than anything.

Russell’s writing reminded me of Dave Egger’s debut A Staggering Work of Hearthbreaking Genius.  There is a level of confidence and control.  There is humour amidst the heartbreak and despair. The setting is lovingly captured, with the summer humidity of the everglades dripping off the page; breathing feels “like drowning in a liquid you couldn’t climb out of.”

Russell’s similes are what legendary Australian Rules commentator Dennis Cometti might call: ‘centimetre perfect’. Suffering from dementia and housed in a care facility on the mainland, Grandpa Sawtooth and his fellow patients are issued with “pastel pajamas that made them look like Easter eggs in wheelchairs.”

Elsewhere, “moths jumbled tunelessly above our heads, kaleidoscoping in this way that looked like visible music”.

A character’s laughter rises “like the bubbles in the aquarium of coffee behind her, rich and aromatic.”

And how’s this for a passage that depicts Ava’s fear of the mainland:

I would vanish on the mainland, dry up in that crush of cars and strangers, of flesh hidden inside metallic colors, the salt white of the sky over the interstate highway, the strange pink-and-white apartment complexes where mainlanders lived like cutlery in drawers. 

Elsewhere, the sense of tragedy is indelible.  When Ava leaves with Bird Man to search for Ossie, the “Bird Man’s pole kept clanging over rocks, his song like a cog in his throat, and I watched my home pull away from us.”  We know that whatever is to happen on the skiff with Bird Man, Ava will never be the same again.

It’s a sparkling, wonderful debut. There are missteps, but based on Cunningham’s assertion of what to look out for in a new author, Russell ticks all the boxes.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

2011

Chatto & Windus

316 pages

ISBN: 9780701186029

Source: the local municipal library

 

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The Color Purple has been on my ‘To Be Read’ (TBR) list for some time and after another recent recommendation I seemed to see its name pop up everywhere as if some unseen force was urging me to read it once and for all.  Winner of The Pulitzer Prize and the US National Book Award, it is widely regarded as a modern literary classic.  It is the life of Celie as told by Celie in the form of diary entries, letters to God, and correspondence between her and her sister, Nettie, as Celie grows into womanhood in the deep south of rural Georgia.  In this setting of poverty, The Color Purple explores the social rank of black women, and the violence and exploitation they experience at the hands of black men and white-folk more generally.

In much the same way that the narrative ‘voice’ of Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is pitch-perfect, so-too is the narrative voice of Celie, an uneducated black girl of fourteen.  Set from the 1930’s onwards, Walker immediately sets a depth of meaning, setting, character and atmosphere in the harrowing opening.  We know where we are, and what trouble our protagonist is in.  Like many classics, the opening line is wonderful and memorable:

You better not never tell nobody but God.  It’d kill your mammy.”

This ‘advice’ from her father-figure ‘Pa’ inspires Celie’s letters to God, for she has no-one else to turn to, letters that begin with her harrowing rape as a fourteen-year-old girl by ‘Pa’.  It is an uncompromising opening.  Celie subsequently bears two babies as a result of these rapes.  Her letters continue as she tries to understand her life’s misery.  When her children disappear, Celie believes Pa has murdered them – that is until she meets a young girl sometime later in town one day who she believes might be her own Olivia.  Celie is forced to marry a man she refers to as “Mr ———.”  He originally wanted to marry her younger sister Nettie.  His treatment of Celie as his wife is terrible, often beating her, explaining to his sensitive son Harpo that he beats her “cause she my wife.”  Nettie comes to live with her married sister to escape the troubles of ‘Pa’, but finds life with Celie and ‘Mr’ no better.  ‘Mr’ tries to seduce her and upon failing, Nettie is forced to leave, promising to write to her sister.  Yet Celie never receives any letters and assumes that Nettie has died.

Meanwhile Harpo has married Sophia, a strong-willed woman, who fights back when Harpo tries to beat her – following the example set by his father.  For poor Harpo, who is portrayed as a real simpleton, (some would say, buffoon!), this is the expected behaviour for a husband.  But Sophia fights tooth and nail with him and he always comes off worse-for-wear.  Celie initially encourages Harpo’s behaviour; she is both envious and inspired by Sophia’s defiance, but initially envy wins.  Celie soon recognises her error and is indeed confronted by Sophia.  They soon become friends and Celie has a welcome ally.

But it is only with the arrival of Shug Avery, a showy singer and Mr’s lover – the woman he always wanted to marry – that Celie begins to see a different path for her troubled life open up before her.  Shug has arrived sick and initially treats Celie with the disrespect that ‘Mr’ constantly displays to her.  But when Shug finds out that ‘Mr’ beats Celie, she decides to stay and protect her.  Their burgeoning friendship, indeed love, finds root.  Shug stands up to ‘Mr’ and Celie is beguiled by this larger-than-life spirit that has come into their midst and the power she holds.  Shug helps Celie to realise her inner strength, her sexuality, and her spirit.  A great bond is built between them, a bond which is further strengthened and threatened by Shug’s later relationships with Grady and Germaine.

Things with Celie and ‘Mr’ reach a turning point after Shug asks Celie about her sister Nettie.  Nettie’s letters have been intercepted by the cruel ‘Mr’ and hidden in a trunk which Shug knows about.  The finding of her long-lost sister Nettie’s letters, so cruelly hidden by her husband ‘Mr’, is particularly moving, and marks a pivotal segment of Celie’s story.  Enraged by his deception, Celie is propelled to confront ‘Mr’, and with Shug leaves him, bound for Memphis where Shug sings and Celie begins to make money from sewing pants.  These pants are worn mostly by women reflecting their increasing power and status in a time when women wore dresses; it is a further emblem of their liberation.  There are other truths and Nettie’s stories of Africa in her letters, as well as other characters (such as Harpo’s relationship with ‘Squeak’ which further serve to highlight the gap between men and women) which I won’t explore here, leaving them for you to enjoy.

Much of the book deals with Celie’s path toward a more empowered life.  Much of it also deals with her search for God and a form of God that fits with her understanding of the world.  It is something she and the liberated Shug Avery talk about a lot:

“Well, us talk and talk about God, but I’m still adrift.  Trying to chase that old white man out of my head.  I been so busy thinking about him I never truly notice nothing God make.  Not a blade of corn (how it do that?) not the color purple (where it come from?)  Not the little wildflowers.  Nothing.

“Now that my eyes opening, I feels like a fool.  Next to any little scrub of a bush in my yard, Mr —–‘s evil sort of shrink.  But not altogether.  Still, it is like Shug say, You have to git man off your eyeball, before you can see anything a’tall.”

Celie’s ‘old white man’ contrasts with Shug’s view of God:

I believe God is everything, say Shug.  Everything that is or ever was or ever will be.  And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found it.”

It is an awakening that allows Celie to truly find her own liberated self and is a large part of Celie’s transformation.  At first, God is a separate male being from her existence, whereas in the end, God is an ‘It’ and is part of everything around her and in her.  Her letters stop being addressed to God and are instead addressed to Nettie, right up until the final letter which is again addressed to God, in thanks for her life and the good that has come into it.

So what of the colour purple itself? Why purple?  Purple is the colour of many subtle things in the novel – the eggplant bruises of beatings, the colour of Celie’s private parts (and thus a place of both violation and liberation), the colour of wildflowers in the fields, and the hinted-at regal purple of God too.  It is an undercurrent to Celie’s life and part of her final transformation noted above where she wonders at where this colour has sprung from.

Eventually, Celie and ‘Mr’ reconcile, and whilst he misguidedly asks her to ‘re-marry’ him, she declines, deciding instead for friendship, and so they sit on the porch and sew, he helping her with her endeavours.  The transformation or enlightenment of ‘Mr’ after Celie and Shug’s departure is stunning and raises some interesting debating points.  Indeed, the characterisation of men has been criticised by some for its single-dimension, portraying men as either abusive (‘Pa’ and ‘Mr’), or stupid (Harpo).  I’m wavering on this point – I feel as though the abusive behaviour of these men to the women in their lives is, unfortunately, convincing, albeit so universal, it seems, in all men.  However, I found the transformation of ‘Mr’ from mean-spirited bastard to cuddly, wisdom-sharing knitting partner of Celie as bordering on improbable, and wildly simplistic.

I also found the co-incidental view of God shared by both Shug and the distant Nettie to be a little forced, almost as if Walker’s view of God had to be shared by all her characters.  But this is a quibble, and acceptable given Shug’s free-wheeling exuberance and Nettie’s experiences of the Olinka tribe.  Also, for me, the section on Africa seemed overly long (though not indulgent by any means).  What it does offer though, is a different perspective on the theme of displacement – racial, economic, and familial.  The Olinka tribe, their view of God – the roof-leaf, so crucial to their sense of self, its destruction emblematic of their plight – allows Walker to explore the source of slavery and the disempowerment of a whole people – a disempowerment which in both Walker’s and my own world-view affects humanity as a whole.  But, all-in-all, these are very slight drawbacks for me.

For those who love a happy ending, particularly for a protagonist whose life is so ‘impoverished’ when we meet them, you will love The Color Purple.  It is beautifully written, and the female characters really ‘sing’.  It is suffused with a humour that perhaps only women can muster in lives of such difficulty.  It falls short of being a true masterpiece for me, but the story of Celie’s triumphant transformation, from uneducated, impoverished, and violated girl, to a woman of empowerment, independent economic means, and spiritual liberation is an inspiring one, full of the power of the human spirit, and well-worthy of the praise the book has widely received.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Phoenix

ISBN: 9780753818923

262 pages

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Winner of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award (2007) and The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (2008), and, for what it’s worth, Time Magazine’s #4 rated book of the decade (2000-09), The Brief Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz came to me with a reputation very much proceeding it.  And right from the first few pages you know you’re in for one hell of a ride, with rippling humour, narrative pyrotechnics and boundless energy that draws you happily into Oscar’s life and the Dominican world: a world of fukú – the strange curse or doom that seems to plague most families, of the infamous and ruthless dictator Rafael Trujillo whose reign of violence terrorises the country, and the Dominican Diaspora.  It tells the story of Oscar de León and his continual failure to find a girl, his sister Lola, their fierce mother Beli – and her traumatic childhood in the DR – and the story of their family’s ‘Fall’ as depicted by the brutal demise of Beli’s father Abelard, a doctor, who tries to keep his family safe from the lecherous Trujillo, whose spies are everywhere.  And thus it is very much the story of the Dominican Republic and its fraught history.

Narrated in turns by Yunoir de Las Casas – Lola’s sometime boyfriend – and Lola herself, we witness the childhood of Oscar de Leon, a “fat, sci-fi-reading nerd” growing up in Paterson New Jersey, a unique and very un-Dominican Dominican male.  This allows Díaz to explore the theme of masculinity.  Oscar is so much of a nerd that he: “Could write  in Elvish, could speak Chakobsa, could differentiate between a Slan, a Dorsai, and a Lensman in acute detail, knew more about the Marvel Universe that Stan Lee, and was a role-playing game fanatic.”  He is the ultimate outcast, shunned even by those who have similar interests and heartaches: he soon realises “his fucked-up comic-book-reading, role-playing-game-loving, no-sports-playing friends were embarrassed by him.”  It is his complete lack of success with girls – as marked by his early ‘golden age’ zenith when he is but seven, and a much slimmer version of the fat adolescent he would become, when he has a short ‘relationship’ with two girls at the same time – that continues to define his search for love in his teenage and college years.  In high-school Oscar falls in love with Ana, but she maintains her relationship with her Army boyfriend who continually beats her; Oscar can’t give her up.  Getting into Rutger College, nothing changes.  Not even the proximity of Yunoir – who volunteers to look after Oscar during college as a means of courting favour with his sister Lola – works.  It is this ongoing search for love that ultimately spells trouble for Oscar when he finally gets his girl.  He finds that escaping the grasp of history and cultural expectation is a tough and often impossible task.

We also trace the relationship between mother and daughter, Beli and Lola, how Lola finds her mother’s breast cancer.  Told from Lola’s point of view, theirs is a troubled relationship, Beli is very cruel, and it is Lola who brings up both herself and Oscar, though only because Beli is working multiple jobs.  Eventually, Lola runs off with a dead-end boyfriend to a dead-end town, until Oscar gives her away.  Lola is sent to her grandmother, La Inca, in the Dominican Republic as punishment.  It is here that we are drawn further into the distinctive Dominican world and the family history: the childhood of Beli and the father she never knew.  The portion of the novel that deals with Beli and her relationships, including her pivotal love of ‘The Gangster’, is particularly engaging; it alternates between witty-hilarious and fizzing violence.  The story of Abelard’s sorry fate – of being a father to attractive girls in the reign of Trujillo – is also wonderfully depicted though, perhaps if I’m allowed to split hairs, slightly long.

The narration is punctuated throughout by streams of colloquial Spanish and strides atop many various – and often long – footnotes which deal mostly with the terrible nature of Trujillo and his henchmen.  These historical notes bubble along beneath the surface of the Dominican story.  The Spanish that is liberally dispersed throughout might not be to everyone’s taste.  There were many times where I could have done with an English-Spanish dictionary or ready-access to babelfish  – I’m sure it would have added to the experience.  For example:

And then the big moment, the one every daughter dreads.  My mother looking me over.  I’d never been in better shape, never felt more beautiful and desirable in my life, and what does the bitch say?  Coño, pero tú sí eres fea. 

We non-Spanish speakers are left at a loss as to what Beli says to her daughter, though we can guess at its direction given our understanding of her character. (Roughly translated:  ‘Coño, but you are ugly’.  I’m still not sure what Coño means!).  In the very next paragraph we get another helping as Lola reflects:

Now that I’m a mother myself I realize that she could not have been any different.  That’s who she was.  Like they say: Plátano maduro no se vuelve verde. 

Translation: ‘(A/The) mature banana does not become green.’  This is a wonderful little expression, but unless we have our translation handy, we lose out.  This gives rise to a debate about how much a writer should demand of their readership.  The book would undeniably be lesser had it not contained the Spanish because it adds Dominican flair and personality to the story and its characters.  However, it does seem a little excessive at times.  But there is so much energy and heart in the writing, so much to admire, that you forgive the excess and are swept along in its dizzying force.  Yunoir’s narrative voice is particularly energetic and spirited, and of course, what with Oscar’s sci-fi interests, the literary and cultural references from the likes of: Star Trek, Star Wars, the Watchmen, Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons, Ursula Le Guin, Akira & anime, DC & Marvel; the list just goes on and on, the references too numerous to note.  Even the title of the book is a nod to Hemmingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, and Oscar’s pet name of ‘Oscar Wao’ is given to him in mock homage of Oscar Wilde.

Another point worth noting is the choice of the name Oscar.  It is perfect for the character, and makes me think of other famous fictional Oscars, such as the eponymous Oscar of Peter Carey’s Oscar & Lucinda, and the truly wonderful Oscar, (little Oskarnello!), of Gunter Grass’s mighty The Tin Drum; (apparently Carey loved The Tin Drum so there is no surprise he wanted to create his very own Oscar).  There is something in the name Oscar that attaches certain character traits to its owner without, it seems, the need for depiction – a certain amount of pluck and courage, the ability to ‘punch above one’s weight’ – (which for Oscar Wao is saying something!).  Of course, that could be just me!  What do you think?  I’d love to hear your thoughts – are there any other famous fictional Oscars?

Díaz reportedly took ten years writing this book, and I’m sure during that time there were moments of doubt regarding whether it would ever see the light of day, perhaps even whether a manuscript might be finished at all.  It is endurance – an endurance that Oscar’s family and all Dominicans have in abundance as they fight the scourge of poverty and the weight of history.  For those of us who love great reads, I thank him for persevering and showing us all what it sometimes takes to achieve a dream, to see a vision come to life.  As Díaz himself might write: The beauty!  The beauty!

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Faber & Faber

ISBN: 9780571239733

335 pages

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Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

What would you write if, God forbid, you were faced with the task of writing a letter to a young son you knew you would not live to see grow up?  Words of advice, wisdom, heartfelt love, and farewell.  Perhaps you would also explore and explain family history and the links you had to a place, in this case, to the secluded town of Gilead, Iowa.  Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 & the National Book Critics Circle Award in the same year, Gilead is this letter, the fictional autobiography of Reverend John Ames who, knowing he is dying of a failing heart at the age of 76, writes this autobiographical letter to his son, who is aged ‘nearly seven’.  In the Bible, ‘Gilead’ means ‘hill of testimony or mound of witness’, (Genesis 31:21), and is an apt title for the Reverend’s testimony of a life lead from the pulpit.

For those of you who love to read a writer at the very top of their craft, one who creates and inhabits such a distinctive and pitch-perfect narrative ‘voice’, then Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is for you.  Set in 1956, the letter recalls the Reverend’s life and his memories of his father and grandfather – both of them preachers.  There are tales of his gun-toting grandfather, a radical abolitionist, who served as a Chaplain for the Union Army during the Civil War, and his pacifist father.  Needless to say these two characters rarely saw eye-to-eye.  Indeed, early in the story, the Reverend recalls his and his father’s search for his grandfather’s lost grave, a search that his father feels compelled to undertake owing to the final harsh words between them.  Robinson’s drawing of characters is superb; the grandfather is “a wild-haired, one-eyed, scrawny old fellow with a crooked beard, like a paintbrush left to dry with lacquer in it.”  Many of the early highlights of the book relate to the grandfather’s eccentricities, including his constant pilfering of family monies to give to the poor, even when his own family had nothing to give.

This is a tale of fathers and sons, both human and religious, as the Reverend relates his own family’s relationships as well as those of his neighbour and good friend, Old Boughton, also a minister.  We follow the Reverend’s internal struggle with his theology, revealed through a number of stories, such as his brother Edward’s atheism and his father’s loss of faith – both of whom leave this ‘backwater’ of a town.  The Reverend also recalls the loss of his first wife and child through illness, and his childhood loneliness, which are set against the bounty of Old Boughton’s growing family.  Yet the counterpoint to all this loss is the love the Reverend finds with a young woman, a woman who becomes his wife and bears him his own son, the son for whom the letter is addressed.

There is a recurring sense of the Prodigal Son too, as Old Boughton’s estranged son and the Reverend’s namesake, John Ames Boughton, better known as Jack, returns to the town.  It is the arrival of Jack together with a past that still casts shadows over the two families that drives much of the tension in the story.  We read the Reverend’s exploration and struggle of what Jack means to him, as a man of the cloth and, more directly, as a man.  He tries not to judge Jack, tries to forgive him his past actions, but he struggles with his presence, his perceived meanness, and his past – a past that stretches back to his earliest days, for it was the Reverend John Ames who baptised the infant Jack.  He is even moved to consider at one point whether it was a ‘cold’ baptism, one that in some way affected the person that Jack was to come, and is so doubting that he decides that he carries a burden of guilt about it.   The Reverend is troubled by the nagging question of whether he should warn his wife and his son about Jack and the harm he might do them, as he notes the growing relaxation that Jack and his wife share; it is, for Jack, a state of being that is unique to her presence.  Even Jack’s father, old Boughton, comes over to warn the Reverend, for ‘something is not right with him’.  But it is Reverend John Ames who eventually, after several failed attempts, finds out the secret truth of Jack, a secret so powerful that it cannot be shared with Old Boughton in his frail health for fear it might kill him.  And it is this truth that finally enables John Ames to forgive Jack and to settle his own stresses, both theological and familial; they become reconciled enough for the Reverend to offer Jack a blessing before his final entries in this diarised story are made.

Gilead has a wise and slow rhythm, and it takes a little time as a reader to fall into step with a book-long letter, but once made, the full splendour of the narrative – and its layering – can be experienced.  There is such lucid beauty in the writing, in its contemplative exploration of being, and the pensive faith and doubt of Reverend John Ames.  The ending is touching, the last few lines of a long letter to a son who may grow up to want to leave this little town of Gilead, just as the Reverend’s father left, just as his brother Edward left too, indeed just as many have left.  And that is ok; but for the Reverend John Ames, he will gladly sleep within its soil, for it is a place he loves.  It is apt that the Reverend’s thoughts often revolve around ‘grace’, the grace of the world where “there are pleasures to be found wherever you look”, the grace of being – for it is grace that is to be found on every page of Gilead; it is a wonderful book.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Virago

ISBN: 9781844081486

282 pages

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