In Iris Murdoch’s Henry and Cato (1976), Henry Marshalson inherits the family estate when his brother Sandy dies.
Henry returns to the home where his mother Gerda still lives, with her kinda-sycophantic admirer, Lucius.
Cato lives nearby.
So does Colette.
Stephanie does not, but, because of her pre-existing relationship with Sandy, she becomes just as entwined with the characters’ lives too.
When readers meet Cato, he is tossing a gun into river, which is just how quickly things can turn in this story and how, even when things seem to be turning towards stability (say, away from the gun), chaos might ensure.
So many of these characters are struggling with matters of devotion (whether to the church or to a childhood sweetheart, to social expectations or to a fragile dependent).
Young and old, wealthy and poor: each of these characters confronts change:
“Have I come to the end of being a busy active sensible woman, and am now to become a useless whining spiteful old hag?”
It’s occasionally melodramatic, often sad, and sometimes funny – but always awkward.
And, as always, I came to this Murdoch novel expecting ruminations on philosophy, riffs on determinism, and rumblings about religion – but I left sniping and griping about broken hearts and selfish choices and letters that would have been better burned in the fireplace.
And I continued with Nuns and Soldiers (1980), which I also enjoyed.
Catherine Lafferty’s memoir, Northern Wildflower (2018), tells her story of growing up Dene in the northern reaches of the country currently called Canada, in Yellowknife. Raised mostly in the care of her grandparents, she found the security with them, particularly her grandmother, that she could not find with her mother.
In the photographs which are interspersed with the narrative, young Catherine is always smiling. In one she has a Hallowe’en costume on with face paint and in another her mouth is stained with juice, but, yes, always smiling.
Behind the photographs? Less smiling. “In those days, between hanging out on the streets and sitting at the top of the steps of the old abandoned building across from the arcade, there was nothing much else to do but to get into trouble and experiment.”
Young Catherine does experiment and she does get into trouble. When she recounts it, her style is unadorned. She is simply telling her story.
When the decisions she makes have unfortunate consequences, she writes about those too.
She takes responsibility for her part in things and there is an air of authenticity and fairness to her narrative: another person is not ready to undertake a challenge which she was left to face alone (and she doesn’t tear them to bits) and someone else behaves selfishly which forces her to make an uncomfortable choice (and she acknowledges that she missed the signs which heralded that disappointment before it unfolded).
When I borrowed this from the library, I expected it to be a convenient read to slip into my bookbag: there are many short chapters sectioned into small segments and it seemed like an ideal book to accompany a commute.
Instead, I fell hard into the story and read it in a single sitting. It is forthright and organically introduces so many important aspects of indigenous experience that it would serve as an excellent introduction for readers looking to widen their reading horizons but also for readers who are more familiar with stories from southern communities than northern.
Longtime readers of Anakana Schofield will know not to expect a cozy story. Not even to think of story, first, in picking up Bina (2019).
Although she does tell stories, Anakana Schofield’s specialty is inhabiting characters. And not the Lizzie Bennet sort either. One has the sense that it’s as much about a creative challenge as it is about a narrative.
For instance: What would it be like to envision an entire backstory and lifetime worth of experiences for a character who only made a brief appearance in a previous novel’s footnote?
That’s Martin John, not Bina. For Bina actually appears more frequently in Schofield’s debut novel, Malarky.
You might not remember her though. Partly because Our Woman stole that literary show. Partly because these are not the sorts of characters that the world readily remembers.
These are the kinds of characters who, if not relegated to a footnote, are resigned to the margins and the gutters of bound books. But each of them does, indeed, have a story. And, in this case, readers experience Bina’s framing of hers. Because “[t]hose left behind will want explanations.”
Because something has happened and Bina needs to make sense of it, to order it:
“See how I heed the warnings now
See how I finally paid heed to my own warnings.
Which was the only good use for them
Other than writing them here.”
The syntax is fragmented, the narrative is fragmented, but Bina’s intentions are all-of-a-piece. She is there for her friend.
“If you start crying, I’ll start crying, she said, and neither of the two of us will be any good to the other.
That was when we ate a basket of chips with ketchup and agreed to stop all tears.”
Which is why I’m there for Bina. And also why I’m there for Anakana Schofield’s next book. Not so much because I like it. But because I share her compulsion towards understanding.