In which there is talk of novels which were read too quickly to allow for extensive note-taking and snapshots: good reading.
Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door (2017)
Longlisted for the Women’s Fiction Prize this year, this story about two women in their eighties, neighbours in South Africa, is quietly mesmerizing. The prose is straightforward, the action inward, but something about Hortensia and Marion made this unputdownable for me.
Hortensia is living in the house which Marion designed when she was an up-and-coming young architect (before she gave up her career to focus on raising her family). Now both women are widows for Hortensia’s husband has recently died, and while she and Marion are at odds – and have been for, well, always – their conflict plays out against a backdrop of a more distanced conflict, in which a family who was unjustly removed from their land generations before is seeking permission to bury a loved one’s ashes in their community.
Both women married white men and benefitted from the prestige this alliance secured or protected (but also suffered from different kinds of injustice). When Marion comes to learn some of the community’s history, she longs to apologize – to her housekeeper, Agnes and even to Hortensia – but she cannot find the words. Her history of malice and cruelty leads her to dark places, and she is stunned to discover that Hortensia is not naturally superior anymore than she was declared naturally inferior under Apartheid, for Hortensia, too, is capable of cruelty.
How we refuse one another the simple (and complicated) kindnesses, when or whether it is to late to correct longstanding wrongs, and how we cope when we are in desperate need (and on an everyday basis, when we are not): these big ideas made me admire Yewande Omotoso’s novel, but those two small characters were what kept me turning the pages (especially Hortensia’s smart mouth).
Rachel Cusk’s The Lucky Ones (2003)
Beginning with an unforgettable sequence involving a first-time mother’s particularly intense labour sessions (rather than spoil it, you can imagine what conditions might make labour even more intense), this is a startlingly tense novel, especially given that most of the action is psychological and relational.
There are many brief but disturbing dramatic scenes (some outright violent, some unfolding in a hostile environment) and the characters who inhabit them are linked, but the connections between them are not fully understood for some time. This collection of linked stories (blurbed as a novel) is not as tightly constructed as, say, Simon van Booy’s The Illusion of Separateness (2013) but nor is it as loose as, say, Katie Ward’s Girl Reading (2012).
What does excuse the ‘novel’ billing however is that the work is also linked thematically. The characters do intertwine but the even stronger sense of connection is, ironically, the pervasive sense of disconnect. Whether a 61-year-old woman is confronting her husband with year’s of (mostly) swallowed bitterness or a 20-something young woman is disappointed in a vacation which hasn’t turned out as she’d hoped, these characters are disappointed and adrift, even those who seem most determinedly rooted.
The work opens with a quote from Katherine Mansfield: “The firm compact little girls were not half so brave as the tender, delicate-looking little boys.” Katherine Mansfield readers will take the hint: not a lot happens here, not in a traditionally-plot-soaked sense. Other readers will be left just as aswim: is it better to be firm or tender, brave or delicate-looking? Any answer that you think you might spot, by squinting between the lines, will be contradicted in just a few pages. Which is what makes this story so challenging. So comfortable. So tragic. And exhilarating.
Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo (2010)
Storytellers in the world of Karen Lord’s debut novel seek out drama, as “excellent observers of humanity, professional harvesters of gossip and scandal”. If readers assume they’re in for a romp, they’re right. This does not necessarily mean a tidy resolution: “Now I have come at last to the end of the story. For some in my audience, a tale is like a riddle, to be solved at the end. To then I say the best tales leave some riddles unanswered and some mysteries hidden. Get used to it.”
Infused with elements of Caribbean and Senegalese folklore, the characters feel both strange and familiar. (Although here an immortal can have not only wisdom and a sharp tongue but a sense of humour as well.) Not all of the main characters are human, but every one of them faces some disadvantages as well. (Well, how many of us know any immortals well enough to have conversations about their daily lives and their work, their responsibilities and to-do lists. It can’t be all fun and games.)
“’‘It must be nice, not to have to eat, or sleep, or get cold and wet,’ Paama complained, shaking the drizzle off her grey wrap.
‘It must be nice,’ the djombi parroted in reply, ‘to taste, to dream, to feel the wind and the rain in your face.’”
The storyteller’s voice is direct and playful, and readers never forget that they are being led on this journey. “We are going to leave Paama and Giana for a while, because there are other things happening elsewhere that we should examine now lest they surprise us later on.” These directions (which some readers might feel to be intrusions) are scattered lightly through the text, but the chapters are short and the pacing solid, so that they feel like friendly nudges.
Although warned that in “stories as in life, it is an impossible task to please everybody”, Redemption in Indigo is enchanting, appealing directly to the sense of wonder in each of us. Her second novel is reputed to be every bit as satisfying, and I’m really looking forward to it.
What books have you been reading too quickly for note-taking?