Nothing Belongs to You by Nathacha Appanah (transl. Jeffrery Zuckerman): No denying the past

Cover image for Nothing Belongs to You by Nathacha AppanahI remembered enjoying Nathacha Appanah’s beautifully crafted The Sky Above the Roof last year which prompted me to put up my hand when a proof of her new novel was offered. Nothing Belongs to You is about a young woman, recently widowed, who buried her traumatic past when she married the doctor who helped save her life fifteen years ago.

When the boy’s there, there’s a wall between particular words and me, between particular events and me, I try my best to reach them but it’s as if they no longer exist.  

Not wanting her stepson to find her living in uncharacteristic squalor in the flat she shared with his father, Tara tries to put herself and her home back in order but finds herself dancing for the boy who seems to have been following her for the past three months, then collapsing half dressed. Shocked and concerned, Eli sets about cleaning up as Tara sleeps on the sofa, worried enough by what he finds to make a hospital appointment for her. When he leaves, Tara reflects on the past she withheld from her husband to whom she had told a more acceptable version of the truth, omitting the madness that had overtaken her after the murder of her mother and her dissident father, and the seduction in which she had taken comfort the consequences of which had resulted in judgement and disgrace. Caught up in a devastating natural event, she had been fleeing another terrible grief, waking in hospital severely injured. Beginning a new life in a different country with a new identity, she buries her childhood trauma so deeply she no longer acknowledges it to herself until, grief-stricken again, it begins to reveal itself.

The moonless nights when my parents and I, lying on the grass, looked at the sky full of stars, and we named the constellations. I wanted those nights to last and last.

The novel opens with Tara’s nightmarish present haunted by the boy who appears across the street, in the cinema, the park and now in her living room, seemingly watching her descend into madness, before switching to Vijaya whose story illuminates Tara’s, revealing an idyllic privileged childhood destroyed by violence and years spent in a ‘ruined girls’ refuge stripped of everything including her identity. Appanah’s language is gorgeously poetic, her descriptions of Tara’s childhood when she was Vijaya vividly evocative, the punishment dealt out to the girls in the refuge heart-wrenching. Much is left for readers to infer, always tricky for a translator, I imagine, but Jeffrey Zuckerman manages it beautifully. Weighing in at less than 150 pages, Appanah’s brief, lyrical novella packs a powerful punch.

Maclehose Press: London 9781529422832 144 pages Paperback

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