January Reads

In the spirit of starting as you mean to go on, I’ve been rattling through the reads this month. It has helped slightly that I’ve had a holiday, a three hour flight to fill and then a week on the sofa under the weather – there was little else to do but read.

Sugar Money by Jane Harris

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I’m not sure I would have picked up this book of my own accord, but there lies the greatest joy in receiving books as gifts (this one, a Christmas present from Mum), you discover gems that might otherwise have passed you by.

You learn about slavery in school, you read novels, watch films and documentaries but every story hits you afresh. The narratives I know mostly centre on the deep south of America, perhaps a little on the UK, but I’m not sure I’d ever heard anything about slavery in the Caribbean so this opened my eyes to the horrors of inhumanity all over again. Somehow you feel that horror all the more when you see it through the eyes of a new character – in this case a boy, barely sixteen, who you might pass on the street with his school shirt untucked and his tie loose. Lucien is cocky yet so naive it makes you ache, and the way he looks up to his older brother Emile, determined to make him proud or prove him wrong, its odd to imagine that complicated familial relationships such as this still existed under the shadow of something much bigger, much more terrifying. But Lucien makes it all feel so real.

Ironically he is perhaps the greatest work of fiction in a narrative which seems so fantastical yet has roots in historical fact. Jane Harris writes in the Afterword of the history which inspired her wonderful novel – the political tensions and takeovers between the British and French forces in Grenada, the existence of the hospital run by a group of monks who had also established the hospital in Martinique, the plantations these friars ran in order to fund their work, the involvement of slaves in both the hospital and the fields. Even Father Damien Pillon, a brutal character who appears in the book.

The adventure around which this story unfolds is also based in true events and, spoilers ahoy, is all the more heartbreaking for the fact. In an attempt to increase the man power at their hospital plantation in Martinique, one of the friars travels to the old hospital site, Fort Royal in Grenada, now under the control of the British, to persuade the slaves there to return with him on the promise that they would be better treated and that is where they ‘belong’, not with, but to the friars. When the friar’s mission is foiled by the British forces he does not give up but instead sends forth a slave to do the dirty work. In Harris’ narrative this slave’s journey is taken by our two brothers, Lucien and Emile, for whom the errand has an added emotional significance – a chance to find Emile’s love, Celeste. Their journey, as slaves trying to smuggle slaves, is full of risk and throughout it all Lucien’s craving for adventure, his youth and inexperience brings your heart into your mouth while Emile tries desperately to protect him from the very real dangers which they face. The two brothers seem to juxtapose the fantasy and reality of Harris’ novel – Lucien narrates a tale of adventure while tutting at Emile’s anguish.

When they reach the old plantation and are reunited with the people they had once grown up with, the true horror of slavery hits home, not just in the physical punishments they observe which are grotesque in themselves, but in the sheer worn-down, hopelessness of these people. How could life in Martinique be any different to life here? Why should they take such a risk to escape their current masters just to run into the lashes of a new, potentially worse master? Fields are the same everywhere surely? And for those slaves who have easier, domestic roles with less risk of violence, why should they give up a good position for something unknown, and probably worse?

The heartbreaking truth which screams throughout is that there is no other alternative – it is slavery in Grenada or slavery in Martinique, there is no hope of escape, no chance of freedom. But testament to how unbearable the conditions and treatment were there, many of the slaves do agree to take the risk and accompany Emile and Lucien to Martinique. There the adventure truly begins and while I won’t drop any more spoilers I will finish on the discourse which probably affected me most. The conversation comes early on in the book, as Emile and Lucien are shipped across the sea by a deaf, drunk called Bianco and while he sleeps the brothers talk about the ethics of their mission.

Lucien seems to have a strong moral compass, albeit one tainted by the accepted terms of the era, he asks his brother: “Those slave in Grenada – who do you reckon they belong to?” Emile replies that it is impossible to saycomplicated. But Lucien continues:

“But les Freres (the friars) bought all our elders, did they not? Our mother – may God rest her soul in peace – and Chevallier and Angelique, all of them yes? … And when those slaves had their babies – like you and me, through the years – those infant belong to the same friars, did they not?”

Lucien’s understanding has of course been shaped by the reality of his environment – this is what he has been taught by the friar, but shockingly, perhaps also by his mother and the other elders. There is no flicker there of another possibility, that they shouldn’t belong to anyone, that they should be free. This is just the way things are.

And when Emile replies it is not to contest Lucien’s understanding but to expand on it – things are more complicated because of the loans.

All those slave, the friars bought with borrowed money … They took a loan from some merchant in London. Being the case, the French authority might say those Fort Royal slaves and their descendant belong to them. The London merchants might say the same. Of course, the friar would argue otherwise but some would say they lost the right to the slave because of the debt and their misdoings.”

This discussion, of two slaves contesting who owns them, who has the greater claim, whether or not their actions to smuggle their fellow slaves can be justified or condemned as criminal, feels to me one of the most affecting elements of the novel. Emile grasps the reality of this farce once again though, telling Lucien: “Cane is sugar, sugar is money. That’s all we are to them. But loan or no loan, the English will care not one farthing.”

Grief is the thing with Feathers by Max Porter

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I began this book at bedtime one evening during my sickly spell and fell asleep with it in hand. When I woke the next morning I just carried on, polishing it off before breakfast.

This book is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Part novella, part essay, it feels like something which spilled out of the author’s mind in the early hours of the morning after a night’s drinking and a few week’s suffering. The idea is quite simple when you adjust to it – a mother had died, a father is struggling and two little boys are trying to come to terms with an unfathomable loss. They are visited by a crow, a sentimental bird who cares and antagonises, seeming to know the careful balance of compassion and challenge that the family will need to heal.

This story made me cry and giggle in equal measure and I desperately wanted to spread my own wings around that grieving family. There is a warmth and humanity to the crow which seems strange for such a creature but also so perfectly natural – the cracks which grief has knocked into the family are carefully stitched back together with small, gentle kindnesses but they cannot all be papered over. As time passes you see how and where those cracks will always show, how the two boys must grow with them.

And the boys were behind me, a tide-wall of laughter and yelling, hugging my legs, tripping and grabbing, leaping, spinning, stumbling, roaring, shrieking and the boys shouted I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU and their voice was the life and song of their mother. Unfinished. Beautiful. Everything.”

Oddly, I’ve realised that the copy I have found its way here to Booky Tower with me after the Christmas trip home. It’s my Mum’s copy which I bought for her one Christmas or Birthday in the last few years. I’m sure I’ll have to give it back to her eventually but I suspect this book will find its way into my sleepy hands again.

Your Blue Eyed Boy by Helen Dunmore

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Well.

Let me begin by saying that I’d only read one short story by Helen Dunmore before this and enjoyed it immensely.

I did not enjoy this book. So much of it grated on me, it felt like a precursor to the hideous Fifty Shades phenomenon which has been cluttering up charity shops these last few years.

Simone felt unfinished, like a stick-drawing of a woman of whom we are told things despite the first person narrative. The glimpse into a youthful summer spent in America, apparently awash with drink, drugs and a risque relationship with a man, apparently beautiful, charming and brooding, left me feeling bored and detached. I’ve read about similar ‘heated’ relationships, which unsurprisingly I also hated because they seem to justify an imbalance, a lack of respect or threat of violence, a sense of being used, dominated, even abused which can all be dismissed because the sex is that good. Bullshit.

Nothing about Michael in those dreamy summer memories fills me with anything other than disgust. So when he creeps back into pencil-drawn Simone’s life years later with compromising photographs that might bring down her new career as a district judge, I was neither surprised, nor interested. You’re a fucking judge, the legal system is at your disposal, if the photos are all that bad and the threat of them being leaked is all that terrifying (which is hard to believe in a modern world where celebrities and teenage girls alike face this shit on a daily basis) then do something about it. Don’t ignore it. Don’t pacify this prick, don’t be sucked into conversation with him. And when he turns up at your house RING THE FUCKING POLICE.

The feminist in me knows that I should be trying to understand this from Simone’s point of view, what point of vulnerability does this horrible, pathetic man have power over and why? But it’s tough because as roughly drawn as she may be, Simone does not appear to be a vulnerable character. She is a working mother dealing with the fallout of her husband’s bankruptcy. This woman is fierce. She shouldn’t be tolerating this overgrown American child’s bullshit. But perhaps that’s the crack which gives him a way in, that she’s had to be strong everywhere else, that life is real now and hard and exhausting and he is meant to represent the youth and carefree abandon which she craves. Perhaps, but still no.

No to lying to your husband, no to endangering your kids, and hell no to having sex with this disgusting creep on a beach in broad daylight. If the photos are that much of a risk to your family and your career I suspect getting your rocks off with him in public just a stone’s throw from your family home is also worth avoiding at all costs.

I’m happy to concede that I might have missed the whole point with this book. I’m content to live with that. I don’t want to read it again to really get to grips with it. I’m frustrated that Dunmore had to create this disturbing thriller around a narrative which should have been enough – a middle-aged woman facing a high-profile career change to save her husband from a breakdown and steer her two young sons through their difficult, formative years in a new place which honestly, sounds glorious. The house, the coast, the landscape are what compelled me, the characters of the two boys and their father Donald were so intriguing – this could so easily have been a meaty family drama about motherhood, about being a woman in a male dominated profession, new to the job at the age of 38, trying to balance domestic life with a demanding career. That would have been enough, Simone didn’t have to be caught legs akimbo in a tattered compromising Polaroid to make this worth reading, or publishing.

And Donald’s failed business, the emotional strain of that on a breadwinner, having to move, causing his wife to change career to keep a roof over the family’s head. How many sacrifices must be made by the whole family to attest for his sins? The reality of bankruptcy for a seemingly middle-class family. All that would have felt more real, more relatable just a couple of decades later, particularly considering the economic crash which was to shortly follow this novel published in 1998. But no, this book feels dated and of a time before the new wave of feminism which seeks to empower women.

Toward the end Simone does become empowered to act, but not by anything admirable. She hides the evidence of something which as far as can be seen was an accident. But she is covering up her own sins, unwilling to answer the questions which would inevitably be asked. It’s another disappointment, a compromise of her unfinished character.

The only two moments of real enjoyment I took from this book were when Michael perishes (I actually cheered) and I could close this book for the final time. Generally when I finish books they go back on my shelves, my lifetime’s library, but this book is going straight back to the charity shop.

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