Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

The Inseparables, Tobacco Wars, I’m Still Here

Having stories narrated by – or assembled via – a number of voices is a popular way of  world-building. Each of the following books plays with this technique, allowing different perspectives to combine and create a more credible space for readers to inhabit.

Just as in Meg Wolitzer’s The Position, the matriarch in Stuart Nadler’s The Inseparables has published a book which provokes acclaim and shame. If Henrietta were not in financial straits, she would never have agreed to the reissue. She originally intended the novel is an act of rebellion, a “winking insult” to those women of her mother’s generation for whom the teapot had become “the family coat of arms”, but they worshipped her (and the volume’s explicit diagrams) instead. Now, years later, she has become a hero when she intended to be a rebel.

Little Brown and Company - Hachette, 2016

Little Brown and Company – Hachette, 2016

In Henrietta’s The Inseparables, the teapot is thrown through a windshield. In Stuart Nadler’s The Inseparables, Henrietta becomes a teapot lady: a widow, broke and lonely, who carries her anxiety “like another limb”. She seeks a “recurrence of mothering…perfect antidote to widowhood”.

Meanwhile, her daughter, Oona, feels the house is “less like a home and more like a gloomy, light-starved storiage locker”. She is a powerhouse as a surgeon, but struggles with the roles of daughter, wife, mother, and teapot wielder.

Oona’s teenaged daughter, Lydia, is coping with her parents’ divorce and a scandal of her own. A digital image circulated without her consent results in her expulsion and she begins to recreate her identity even while those of the women around her continue to unravel.

“Wasn’t this what mothers and daughter did? Erase, as they aged, the boundary between parent and child and become something close to friends? Or was this the exact oppostie of what to do?” But The Inseparables isn’t exactly about mother-daughter relationships.

Marriage is “habit, maybe” or “rhythm”, a “drumbeat going and going and then stopping”. And it’s not exactly about marriage either.

“Death is the only good subject, Henrietta. As a writer, you should know that.” While those digital images of Lydia will never perish, all the other characters in The Inseparables exist ephemerally, readers glimpsing them in the act of disassembling and reassembling, flailing in the direction of stability. The success of this narrative depends upon readers’ connections to the three women’s characters, acceptance of their credibility and the patterns exhibited across the generations.

Constructed scenically, with an abundance of dialogue, Stuart Nadler’s prose really moves. But whereas The Position allows for some ruminating and reflecting, a soft light cast into dark corners, chaos is caught in the glare of The Inseparables.

Readers have clearly emerged in a post-shattered world, everyone and everything is in motion, but if readers are not fully invested in the characters, it all plays out on the other side of the glass. We are not inseparable; we are not immortal; but, neither are we moved.

Companion Reads: Meg Wolitzer’s The Position, Elizabeth Crane’s We Only Knew So Much, and Meg Mitchell Moore’s The Arrivals.

*** *** ***

Seesequasis Tobacco Wars

Quattro Books, 2010

Paul Seesequasis’  is the fifteenth in Quattro Books’ Novella series, although it reads more like poetry than prose.

“In the beginning there was only a bear.”

And that is true of Tobacco Wars, too, but then there is Pocahontas.

“Pocahontas says nothing but watches as sack after sack of tobacco is carried up the plank of toiling backbones of sweating workers in the October sun and then passed down into the hold of the over-laden vessel.”

There she is, on the dock of Jamestown. This image is offered shortly after her marriage to John Rolfe, but readers glimpsed her earlier on, although always in the context of her position on the margins of white, “civilized” society.

Readers do not see Pocahontas in her original element, but then, neither do the history books record that part of her reality.

Never mind, for as striking a character as she is, there is another who claims centre stage in Tobacco Wars: Bear Woman.

She was there in the beginning, remember? “Bear Woman spits, her phlegm-addled missile sends an uproarious orange iridescent flame ball high into the night sky.”

Bear Woman is relentlessly alive and present in the narrative, simultaneously a devourer and a creator. Her segments are lush and sweeping, so that the formality and pretense of the parallel narrative is even more striking.

Nonetheless, Bear Woman’s scenes are skillfully intertwined with the later historical scenes, so that the prose swells beyond the conventional boundaries of fact and fiction, myth and history lumbering through the pages.

Companion Reads: Vivek Shraya’s She of the Mountains, Jordan Abel’s Injun, Katherena Vermette’s North End Love Songs,

*** *** ***

Grand Central - Hachette, 2016

Grand Central – Hachette, 2016

Clélie Avit’s debut novel, I’m Still Here, is available in English translation from the French by Lucy Foster.

The narrative is split between Elsa and Thibault. Else has been in a coma for five months, following an accident hiking on the glaciers. Thibault’s brother occupies a room in the same hospital, while he recovers from an accident.

Elsa is, obviously, isolated. She is conscious but silent, unable to move. “I deliberately remove myself for the rest of their conversation. I’m elsewhere. Rambling, almost delirious, alone with my thoughts. It’s enough to make you lose your mind, spending all your time talking to yourself. But listening to other people talk about you introduces even more chaos.”

Thibault wishes for solitude. “I spend so much time with them, the misery weighs me down. It’s like I’m a sponge, soaking it up.” He finds relief in Elsa’s room, sitting with her in silence, talking to her as though she can hear.

Occasionally the perspective of another visitor or friend introduces a new dynamic. “‘Everyone has a heart, Thibault. But it’s what they do with it that counts. Yours was in a thousand pieces after Cindy. And now it’s in a million pieces since the accident. You’re telling yourself that if there was something you could do to wake this girl up it might help you to gather a few of the pieces. You just need to forgive yourself for having negative thoughts about your brother.’”

The language is uncomplicated, with only an occasional metaphor. (Like, “The hospital turns over and over in my head, like clothes in a washing machine.”)

And although there is the potential to enlarge Elsa’s perceptions, it rarely happens. “My sister’s voice, brimming with lust and hormones as she recounts stories of her love life, is sickly red velvet. My mother is a sort of purple leather, trying to seem shiny and robust, but cracking and weakened all over, like a well-used handbag. This consultant is as cold and unrefined as a steel construction girder.”

The bulk of the narrative is preoccupied with the fact Elsa’s days on life-support are numbered and Thibault’s pleas are of no consequence. Every day, she tries again to awaken, to show signs of life to those evaluating her chances of survival. Every day, Thibault gives her a kiss. It’s an old story, but this time Sleeping Beauty can still think inside her coffin.

Have you read any of these? Is one of them already on your TBR? Have you been reading other mythic narratives or works in translation?

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