Kim over at Reading Matters has decided to devote her reading life to OzLit this year and I’m looking forward to discovering some Aussie writers hitherto unknown to me. We in the UK tend only to read the headline acts such as Peter Carey and Tim Winton, I suspect. The same could be said of Canadian fiction but a visit to Naomi’s Consumed by Ink will introduce you to a whole bunch of vibrant writers, although if you’re like me and have long sworn off Amazon you may have trouble in tracking some of their books down. Not so with Kim Echlin I’m pleased to say. Under the Visible Life is the first novel of hers I’ve read but if this engrossing tale of female friendship set against a backdrop of tumultuous social change and cultural difference is anything to go by I’ll be hoovering up her entire backlist shortly.
In 1950 Mahsa’s Afghan mother ran away with her American father, finding sanctuary with an uncle in Karachi. Mahsa’s is an idyllic childhood, music running through it like lifeblood as her parents dance and sing caught up in their love for each other and their daughter. When the uncle dies Mahsa’s parents are left without protection from the half-brothers intent on avenging their sister’s honour and the inevitable happens. Mahsa becomes the ward of a much stricter uncle, one who has no truck with the idea of independent women. When she wins a scholarship to study in Montreal, she reluctantly leaves her young lover for the freedom she knows she’ll never have in Karachi. There she finds liberation, fulfilment and adventure, eventually meeting Katherine with whom she shares a musical affinity. Katherine is the child of a white mother, jailed in 1940 when her baby daughter was a mere three months old for ‘incorrigible’ behaviour. Deserted by her Chinese father, life is tough for Katherine and her mother but, like Mahsa, music offers an escape. She carves out a place for herself, playing piano in a jazz band, pursuing music, love and family with a passionate determination. When these two meet, an indissoluble bond is formed which endures through love lost and won; marriage, arranged and otherwise; and raising children in the most difficult circumstances. Music is the breath of life to Katherine and Mahsa, running through their story like a constant yet ever-changing refrain.
Echlin takes her time, unfolding Katherine and Mahsa’s stories using alternating narratives to round out these very different characters through their distinctive voices: Katherine’s sharp, passionate and frenetic; Masha’s gentle, quietly determined, almost poetic at times. Race and identity inevitably flow through a novel in which each narrator is of mixed race but perhaps the strongest theme is the friendship to which they form a backdrop. This is an intensely romantic novel at times – there are four love stories running through it but the most powerful is the platonic fifth. It’s a complicated, nuanced portrait of a friendship between two strong women, able to withstand all that’s thrown at them from forced marriage to a philandering junkie husband, always finding their way to each other through music even when one fails to understand the other’s behaviour. There’s so much to admire about this novel, not least Echlin’s beautifully polished writing: marriage could be ‘playing solos at the same time and ending up together’ observes Katherine while ‘teenage boys are warriors without armour’ and her mother’s last days ’haunt me like a dark, unfading bruise’. So many striking phrases to quote but my favourite is Katherine’s pronouncement to Mahsa, still locked into her forced marriage: ‘The most radical thing a woman can do is live.’ Amen to that!