This is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.
There was a time when it was hard to get away from Kathryn Harrison’s name in the books pages. Her memoir about her estranged father, with whom she had an affair when she met him for the first time as an adult, made sure of that but I first came across her via Exposure about a woman whose sexually explicit photographs, taken of her as a child, are about to be made public. I’ve read several more of her books but the one that stands out for me is The Seal Wife which explores the nature of erotic obsession and its near-hypnotic power.
In 1915 a twenty-six-year-old meteorologist finds himself posted to the new settlement of Anchorage, Alaska. While picking up supplies, he spies an Aleut woman: self-possessed, silent and intriguing. Bigelow follows her to her house and is soon in the grips of an obsession. Mere physical gratification cannot satisfy his desperate urge to possess this strange, unyielding woman. When she leaves the town, Bigelow is desolate, his only consolation the building of a kite large enough to track the northern storms. Trying to fill the emotional chasm left by the Aleut woman, he finds himself first robbed by a female pickpocket then tricked by the local storeowner and his daughter. When the Aleut woman reappears, a small hope springs in Bigelow and eventually a hard-won but still silent agreement is reached.
I found this book captivating, not a word I tend to use very often. Its spare yet vivid descriptive writing took me to another world entirely. I haven’t come across anything by Harrison for quite some time although when writing this post I found that she’d published a novel six years ago. It seems she’s no longer flavour of the literary month.
What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?
This is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.
When I was in bookselling I knew that if a rep showed me a book on the Franklin expedition we were likely to be on to a winner. There seems to be an enduring interest in polar exploration – anything on Shackleton or Scott was also likely to be a sure-fire bestseller. There’s an air of romance about it: even though the expeditions were failures, they’re seen as magnificent failures. Andrea Barrett’s dramatic, vividly expressed novel, which follows Zeke Voorhees in his search for the remains of Franklin’s expedition, seemed to me to capture the spirit of the time and its overriding desire to extend the bounds of knowledge, either for its own sake or, in this case, to further secure Britain’s mercantile ambitions through the discovery of a new trading route.
Zeke sets off on his ill-judged voyage in 1855, ten years after Franklin, accompanied by his future brother-in-law Erasmus Darwin Wells, an amateur naturalist. As Zeke’s enthusiasm transforms itself into a lonely despotic command of the voyage, Erasmus becomes more and more uneasy about the outcome of the adventure. When Zeke strikes out on his own, Erasmus has no option but to try to guide the crew of the Narwhal – much depleted by the hardships of facing a winter ill prepared – to safety. On his return, he finds himself estranged from his sister who blames him for leaving Zeke behind, and derided by the public for the failure of his mission. When Zeke does reappear he brings with him two Eskimos, as the indigenous people were then known. Erasmus is at first delighted and then appalled by his plan to stage a lecture tour featuring the Eskimos as exhibits. What follows is heartrending.
Franklin and his crew’s disappearance remained a transfixing mystery for the public with many expeditions launched in search of their remains. In 2014 the Victoria Strait Expedition announced that it had found Erebus, one of the Franklin’s two ships, an announcement confirmed by the Canadian Prime Minster in Parliament.
What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?
I was undecided about Billie Livingston’s novel at first. There was something about the jacket that made me think it might be a little slushy, a little too ‘heartwarming’. Then once I’d started it, every character seemed to have so many punches thrown at them that I faltered again but Livingston somehow managed to draw me in to this story of a couple, struggling to deal with the worst tragedy life can deal a parent. Maggie and Ben have separated after losing their child, each of them trying to find a way to cope, neither of them managing to do so.
Ben is a chauffeur, ferrying around the rich and not so famous while Maggie cleans houses for elderly women and keeps them company. Both have faced a great deal of difficulty in their lives. Ben’s mother walked out on the family when he was ten, unable to put up with his drunken father, leaving Ben with his younger brother now constantly in some kind of trouble. Maggie’s parents were killed in a car crash when she was fifteen leaving her and her older brother Francis to fend for themselves. Regularly rescued by nuns from the neighbourhood bullies, Francis has become a priest albeit one incapable of remaining celibate or sober. Ben and Maggie are dancing in their kitchen, a little the worse for wear, on Ben’s thirty-fifth birthday when their two-year-old son falls from a window. When the novel opens, Ben is on a psychiatric ward with a bullet hole in his head while Maggie is attempting to find her way back into employment. Returning from her first interview, she finds that Francis has disgraced himself, inadvertently becoming a YouTube star into the bargain. Livingston’s novel teases out Ben and Maggie’s stories raising the hope that somehow these two will find a way back to each other.
Livingston deftly weaves vivid memories from their childhoods and their life together into Ben and Maggie’s alternating narratives. Of the two Maggie’s is the more engaging with some star turns from her brother Francis, the deeply flawed priest adored by his parishioners despite his drunken YouTube hit. Maggie’s memories of her little boy are particularly poignant but Livingston steers well clear of the sentimental keeping her narratives sharp and gritty. For me there was a bit too much in the way of misery for both of these characters but it’s leavened with a few hefty helpings of redemption and a little dark humour. Altogether an enjoyable read, and not in the least bit slushy.
I’m fascinated by fiction about the immigrant experience. From Meera Syal’s Anita and Me and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane to Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Americanah and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, novels can tell you so much about the way immigrants see their adoptive country and the way it sees them, helping the rest of us understand the dislocation of not quite belonging to one culture or the other. This is the territory that Chitra Viraraghavan’s The Americans explores through eleven immigrants – both first and second generation – scattered across the USA, all with a connection to Tara Kumar who is visiting from Madras.
For some reason I’d thought The Americans was a set of linked short stories when I included it in my September preview but it’s firmly introduced as a novel on its jacket and that’s how it reads, although not the kind that lends itself to the usual brief recap. It roams far and wide across the US – from Chicago to Portland, Boston to L.A. – telling the stories of a widely disparate set of people. CLN is an elderly widower with whom Tara strikes up a conversation on his way to his first visit to his daughter in Chicago. Lavi is the fifteen-year-old niece – all hormones and crushes – Tara goes to Kentucky to look after while her sister takes her autistic eight-year-old son for treatment in New Jersey. Shantanu is the uncle, illegally in the US and entangled in the criminal web of his boss, who Tara hopes to visit. Akhil is the misfit whose worried parents have asked Tara to check on while Madhulika is the friend in Portland whose arranged marriage is floundering. These are a few of the characters in Viraraghavan’s wide-ranging novel, each of whom has a story to tell – some run-of-the-mill, others not so – all linked back to Tara who, of course, has her own tale. The novel is set in 2005, sufficiently distant from 9/11 for its full effects to be felt on anyone with a brown skin, many of whom find themselves regarded with even more suspicion than they did before.
With so many interwoven narrative strands, each busy with characters, there’s a danger that The Americans might have run away with itself but Viraraghavan manages to keep it all under control, neatly linking each strand back to Tara’s. Only Akhil’s seemed a little strained perhaps because it’s both more dramatic and tangential than most of the others. Viraraghavan explores a wide range of experience, from Tara’s wealthy sister who employs both a housekeeper and a cleaner, to Shantanu, who risks everything despite his expired visa to protect a trafficked young woman. Instances of casual racism, both directed at the Indian characters and by them at others, are all delivered convincingly and with a light touch. While the typescript book reports scattered through the narratives jarred a little, they’re neatly tied in to Tara’s own story at the end of the novel. Well worth reading, although I suspect that it won’t get the attention it deserves. And well done HarperCollins for publishing it straight into affordable paperback.