“It was a mystery story she had got out of the lending library for her father, and she was not fond of mystery stories. Nobody in them ever seems to feel sorry about murders, she had said.”
How unfortunate that Lucia is not especially fond of mystery stories, as she about to inhabit one.
The Blank Wall takes an ordinary housewife, feeling apart from the rest of her family and facing middle-age, and asks whether she, herself, will feel sorry about a murder, even when it causes her nothing but trouble trying to cover it up. (She believes a family member to be responsible for the death, whether directly or indirectly but certainly out of necessity.)
Her efforts span the length of the novel, sandwiched between ordinary concerns, like rationing and household management, an ageing father, a husband overseas, and self-absorbed young adult children. Like her daughter, Bee:
“I’m not going to have a life like yours. If you can call it a life. Getting married at eighteen, right from school. Never really seeing anything or doing anything. No adventure, no color. I suppose you like feeling safe. Well, I don’t want to be safe.”
Bee couldn’t be further from the truth, but Lucia has little idea of what’s transpiring in her daughter’s life either. And by the time Bee begins to see some darkness in the corners of her mother’s life, there is little she can do to assist. Fortunately, Lucia has read a few mysteries.
“They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time. No need to hurry out here. They are seventeen miles from a town which has ninety miles between it and any other. Hiding places will be plentiful in the Convent, but there is time and the day has just begun.”
In the first few pages of the novel, readers move through the old house in the tracks of the men. But, then, readers shuffle to the side and inhabit the stories of the women, one after the next.
Although it’s impossible to forget the story’s predatory launch, the women’s stories are told with such fervor that my expectations that the novel would end in a massacre shifted; so many of these women had already escaped bloody and sorrowful situations once, to end up together in this old house, that I began to believe that survival was still on the table.
When the townfolk rage about the conflict between tradition and innovation and when the women relive aspects of their painful pasts, this is a challenging story; there is also humour (especially in the scenes between Mavis and Gigi) and comfort (whenever another woman arrives and is adopted into the fold).
Although I had the idea that this was not one of her more accomplished novels, I found it immediately and completely engaging and every bit as rewarding as the others.
Tommy Orange’s There There (2018)
One of the characters in Tommy Orange’s debut novel reads Louise Erdrich and another reads Stephen King and Elmore Leonard. Some readers find strength in storytelling; some readers find escape. Some look to see their own experiences reflected on the page; some to temporarily step into experiences they haven’t had in the real world. Tommy Orange’s debut is ambitious, seeking to pull a wide variety of readers into his kaleidoscopic version of Oakland, California.
The writing is rooted in a community event, which all of the characters will attend. Readers are introduced to them one after the next, some obviously layered with others and some seemingly disconnected (some of those actually disconnected beyond their attendance and some more connected than they realise). Each in the panorama of perspectives is clearly identified and the use of dialogue and scenic storytelling keeps the story in constant motion
“We all came to the Big Oakland Powwow for different reasons. The messy, dangling strands of our lives got pulled into a braid – tied to the back of everything we’d been doing all along to get us here. We’ve been coming from miles. And we’ve been coming for years, generations, lifetimes, layered in prayer and handwoven regalia, beaded and sewn together, feathered, braided, blessed, and cursed.”
This is pulled from the interlude, from a voice which operates like a chorus, which also offers succinct summary statements about the history of indigenous peoples in North America, for those readers unfamiliar with the legacy of genocidal practices and policies which have fundamentally impacted these communities.
The interconnecting narratives represent a variety of indigenous experiences, which is something one of the characters also seeks in a different kind of narrative-driven project.
“That’s what I’m trying to get out of this whole thing. All put together, all our stories. Because all we got right now are reservation stories, and shitty versions from outdated history textbooks. A lot of us live in cities now. This is just supposed to be like a way to start telling this other story.”
This is a powerful and delicately constructed piece and will be an unforgettable read for those who are new to indigenous stories, an impressive read for those who are deliberately exploring this literary landscape.