Book Review: The Gathering by Anne Enright

Readers will simply fall into this story—its events; its place. The writers among us might read beneath the beautiful words to think about how Anne Enright untangles memory and truth.

I do not know the truth, or I do not know how to tell the truth. All I have are stories, night thoughts, the sudden convictions that uncertainty spawns. All I have are ravings, more like.

The Gathering by Anne Enright is a provocative family saga that delves into questions of secrets, memory and truth. At its heart is the story of a sister and her brother, their intense attachment within the milieu of a big Irish, multi-generational family.

I know, as I write about these three things: the jacket, the stones, and my brother’s nakedness underneath his clothes, that they require me to deal in facts. It is time to put an end to the shifting stories and the waking dreams. It is time to call an end to romance and just say what happened in Ada’s house, the year that I was eight and Liam was barely nine.

It is also the story of marriage and children—the people we choose to live our lives with and the ones we don’t—the choices we make and decisions (or circumstances) made for us.

This sounds like a tangled, complicated story, but Enright’s writing is smooth and lyrical. The novel moves forward, while conversely it slips back into the lingering puzzles of childhood—with extraordinary and enviable storytelling skill.

The Gathering is an Irish story as only Irish writers write (think Joyce, the poetry of Seamus Heaney). It is grounded in Ireland. About three-quarters of the way along, Enright says,

This is what shame does. This is the anatomy and mechanism of a family—a whole fucking country—drowning in shame.

But if you’re not a political or history buff, don’t let that stop you from reading this unflinching look at life, life’s struggle for love. I am not alone in finding The Gathering a story to read; Anne Enright won the Man Booker Prize in 2007.

Reading as a Writer, pay particular attention to the pace of the story, how the author keeps you turning pages. Think, also, about the opening sentence:

I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen.

As you read, be aware how Enright stays constant to this thread, weaving the elusive “thing” and its consequences through to the last sentence.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Gathering

Book review: Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (by Jane Hirshfield)

Jane Hirshfield’s words perceptively reveal the seduction of poetry, of art. They open windows of clarity while simultaneously celebrating ambivalence and paradox. Ten Windows provides both a brilliant journey and practical guidance through the world of poetry for both readers and writers.

Poetry’s addition to our lives takes place in the border realm where inner and outer actual and possible, experienced and imaginable, heard and silent, meet…In a poem, everything travels inward and outward.

The essays in Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World lead us from what is inherent in poetry (and the other arts) through metaphorical windows of language, image, sound/music, hidden/unsaid, ambiguity, surprise, transformation, and more. Throughout, Jane Hirshfield reminds us of the importance of poetry in our lives, how it reflects culture, and how it can even change cultural borders.

In “Seeing Through Words: An Introduction to Bashō, Haiku, and the Suppleness of Image” (Chapter Three), Hirshfield writes, “…if you see for yourself, hear for yourself, and enter deeply enough this seeing and hearing, all things will speak with and through you.” Haiku was not new when Bashō came around in the 17th century, but he changed it and influenced writing since. Bashō sought more from the form than did his predecessors. He sought

…to make of this brief, buoyant verse form a tool for emotional, psychological and spiritual discovery, for crafting new experience as moving, expansive, and complex ground as he felt existed in the work of earlier poets. He wanted to renovate human vision by putting what he saw into a bare handful of mostly ordinary words, and he wanted to renovate language by what he asked it to see.

Even for poets who veer from the Haiku form, this goal is an ambitious one. In this small poem of image and sound, Bashō excels in meeting the challenge:

seas darkening

the wild duck’s calls

grow faintly white

In Ten Windows, Hirshfield reminds writers and readers to see what isn’t said, to read between the lines. To me, this poem speaks volumes beyond what Bashō saw; it stirs emotions of darkness, of the fleetingness of experience, and of things disappearing/lost. Hirshfield notes:

“The reader who enters Bashō’s perceptions fully can’t help but find in them a kind of liberation. They unfasten the mind from any single or absolute story, unshackle us from the clumsy dividing of world into subjective and objective, self and other…. 

In a chapter about uncertainty, Hirshfield reminds us:

Poetry often enacts the recovering of emotional and metaphysical balance, whether in an individual (primarily the lyric poem’s task) or in a culture (the task of the epic). Yet to do that work, a poem needs to retain within its words some of the disequilibrium that called it forth, and to include when it is finished some sense also of uncomfortable remainder, the undissolvable residue carried over—disorder and brokenness are necessarily part of human wholeness.

A couple of paragraphs on, she continues developing her idea: “The most serene works on the bookshelf are…in the lineage of Scheherazade’s stories—art holding incoherence and death at bay by invention of beauty, detour, and suspense.” In the colloquial, we say show, don’t tell; leave something to the reader’s imagination; tie up loose ends, but leave the door open.

A work of art is not color knifed or brushed onto a canvas, not shaped rock or fired clay, a vibrating cello string, black ink on a page—it is our participatory, agile, and responsive collaboration with those forms, colors, symbols, and sounds.

Later, in the transformation chapter, Hirshfield writes:

The experience of art takes place within and under the skin. When we read the word “orange,” neuroscientists have found, our taste buds grow larger, more so if we are hungry. A mountain in a poem is known by what has been motionless and stony in us, and by what we have internalized of rock and steepness through legs and eyes. The characters of a story or play are lent our lives’ accumulated comprehensions and history, in order to make theirs our own.

Writing and reading is collaborative. “Poems are made of words that act beyond words’ own perimeter because what is infinite in them is not in the poem, but in what it unlocks in us.” This can be said of all art forms. Jane Hirshfield’s words perceptively reveal the seduction of poetry, of art. They open windows of clarity while simultaneously celebrating ambivalence and paradox. Ten Windows provides both a brilliant journey and practical guidance through the world of poetry for both readers and writers.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Ten Windows

Of Mothers and Daughters (Tamarind Mem by Anita Rau Badami

“I called my mother every Sunday from the silence of my basement apartment, reluctant to tell her how I yearned to get away from this freezing cold city where even the traffic sounds were muffled by the snow.”

The novel opens with this bit of narrative. Kamini is studying in Calgary (what her mother, still in India, calls “that Calgary North Pole place”), but most of the story unfolds in India, beginning when Kamini is only six years old.

Tamarind Mem (published in the U.S. as Tamarind Woman) is the first of four novels by Anita Rau Badami. The novel languished on my bedside table for a very long time, always being resorted to the bottom of an ever-changing pile of books. Then, I picked it up and didn’t put it down until immersion into a life I can barely imagine was sated. It is the story of women, of mothers and daughters and all the complexities those relationships hold (and bury). It’s a story of horoscopes (iffy ones) and memories (steeped like tea). Our protagonist Kamini says,

I was never sure about Ma’s feelings for me. Her love, I felt sometimes, was like the waves in the sea, the ebb and flow left me reaching out hungrily. A love as uncertain as the year that I was born, when the Chinese had marched across the border into India making a mockery of the slogan “Hindu-Chinee brothers-brothers.” That year the price of rice shot up, a grim famine swept across the north, and nothing was the same again.

Not a great beginning for a girl-child.

Like The Painter of Birds by Lídia Jorge and Birds of Passage by Robert Solé (both previously reviewed), Tamarind Mem is a family saga, although somewhat smaller in its reach. These three novels explore place (Portugal, Egypt, and India) and movement away (migration). They are also stories that seek understanding about a character’s place in the family.

Badami probes memory and cultural heritage – and the experiences and values conflict from time-to-time in the mother-daughter narrative. The women, often at odds, are joined by love, stubbornness, and folly too. Men are scarce: Kamini’s father is a “railroad man” who travels all over India and who is seldom home and there’s also the auto mechanic. The men come and go, leaving bits behind. The father leaves a railroad pass after his death. On it, Kamini’s mother, Saroja, travels across India, retracing her husband’s path. Kamini travels to Calgary to study, her sister, Roopa, marries and moves to Toronto; an old nursemaid Linda Ayah and extended family of aunties are left behind.

This is a book blessed with many reviews. What new can I offer? Little…except to pose the question: what is the value in reading any novel? For me, magic lies in the flow of words, of how each story unfolds. I want my curiosity satisfied, to learn a fact and to gain an insight. The story need not to be “hot off the press,” to borrow a cliché, or on any “10 best” list. It needs to show me something I didn’t know I needed to see, needed to understand. Tamarind Mem provides a glimpse into a distant world, migration, the conflict of generations and of cultures, the universally felt experience of mother-daughter impatience, misunderstandings, and love. This story is sensitively and beautifully told, a first novel worthy of a read.

Available through your local bookstore or online: Tamarind Mem

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Review (Poetry): Lines…and what’s between them (What the Soul Doesn’t Want by Lorna Crozier)

What the Soul Doesn’t Want is a new collection, the most recent of 17 books by Lorna Crozier. Five of her poetry collections live on my bookshelf and are frequently pulled off and carried to the oversize, plaid wingchair in my library/office to be read again. However, the poems in What the Soul Doesn’t Want are new to me; I haven’t had the time to ponder them, to return on a different day in a different mood to discover what they might offer. But it’s easy to see they are pure Lorna Crozier.

She writes with quirky wit and sensitive awareness. For readers, the poems provide pleasure and insight and the simple joy of the words she chooses. Her themes in What the Soul Doesn’t Want haven’t veered from past work, but the tautness and edginess are sharper here.

She draws from nature and not always what you might expect. In “Cockroach,” we get the sublime: “they creep from the baseboards, / climb the couch and burrow in her hair” which makes me involuntarily shudder. But I also learn that “In Japanese it’s gokiburi,” a word I expect my grandson teaching in Japan will be interested in adding to the personal dictionary he’s creating. Reading Crozier, one finds clear images and science next to odd bits of trivia and a telling that will cause you to smile and to think (even as you might shudder).

Aging and time are Crozier themes. My favourite poem in What the Soul Doesn’t Want is “When the Bones Get Cold.”

My husband sends me hummingbirds
from his eyes. Only he and I know
he’s going blind….
I am made beautiful by loss. The moon, too,

There’s a sweetness
that comes from accepting what I am,
not a mountain, not a river, not a tree.

Grief also ripples through her poems. In “Algorithm: The Way Out,” Crozier writes: “…Grief’s / a snowdrift that thickens / as you walk.” How simple. How brilliant. How true for all of us who have known sorrow and deep snow. It is this universality and, perhaps, the lightness (and the light) that gets the writer and the reader through the tough stuff she doesn’t shy from.

Crozier is an Officer of the Order of Canada, the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, and a three-time recipient of the Pat Lowther Award. After a long teaching career, she is now Professor Emerita at the University of Victoria (British Columbia). She must be the envy of poets everywhere.

 

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Lorna Crozier’s books are all available through your local bookstore or online: What the Soul Doesn’t Want

Review: Sine qua non cocktails (Evenings at Five by Gail Godwin, illustrations by Frances Halsband)

Evenings at Five is a tiny book, about the size of a diary, and scattered with sketches that lend a feeling of intimacy to a story that feels so real I wanted to classify it as autobiography and not fiction when I first read the book. I’ve read it many times since. It has not ceased feeling real and true; it’s the best kind of story – one that catches your breath and snags your heart. But don’t be mistaken, Evenings at Five is not even remotely sentimental. Gail Godwin is a master story-weaver.

Godwin begins, without preamble, with the five-o’clock cocktail ritual. Through actions like Rudy’s “cavalier slosh of the Bombay Sapphire” we meet the man and soon sense his wit and glimpse his moods and passions. We also meet Christina who “would cross her ankles on the Turkish cushions on top of the burled-wood coffee table and train her myopic gaze on Rudy’s long craggy face and familiar form reassuringly present in his Stickley armchair….” Here they connect, nip their tall gin and tonics (on a bad workday or a celebratory one Rudy might sip a scotch) and talk in the intimate way of intimate couples. This is the context in which most of the story unfolds.

The initial sketch shows Rudy’s empty Stickley chair. In fact, all of the sketches illustrate the home and personal things of Rudy and Christina, sans people. We see the “View of below from Christina’s study”; we see many bottles on Rudy’s medicine shelf; we see his downstairs study with the Yamaha grand. (“[H]e bought it the day after he watched Laurence Olivier’s deathbed scene in Brideshead Revisited: ‘What am I waiting for? If not now, when?’”) The home: a companionable room and two studies for a composer and a writer, everything pared down to essentials.

Evenings at Five is about a marriage between two artists (“’ah-tists,’ as the real estate lady who sold us our first house pronounced it”), about loss and grief, loneliness and reflection, and a story of longing for what was. But death is not the end of love; Christina continues the sine qua non cocktails, struggles to cope without Rudy, and reflects:

On some level of consciousness, Christina thought, I must have heard all those years of Rudy’s compositions forming themselves phrase by phrase, probably even note by note, but I told him the truth when I said I didn’t hear, that I was scrunched into some dark soundproof chamber behind my eyeballs, straining for flashes of images that then had to have words matched to them.

And, so, also regret for not being more present and guilt for leaving the hospital.

Perhaps, in the hands of a lesser-skilled writer, Evenings at Five would have become maudlin, given the themes and intense intimacy of the story. In Godwin’s hands, the story sings and evokes authenticity (sorry for this over-used word). As the cover copy states, the novel is “A fierce evocation of what – at some time or another – everyone is bound to endure…An amazing little volume that contains an explosive emotional wallop.”

 

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Evenings at Five