On this bleak, gray December morning, I’m sitting with my cup of chai, feeling less-than-energetic as the rain pours down outside. Since this is a perfect day for reading, I’m trying to decide what to read next, as I just finished a book last night and have the whole day of reading opportunity ahead of me. Hmmm... it may help to think about what I’ve just read.
I mentioned last post that I was reading Tell It To The Trees by Anita Rau Badami. Well, I finished that novel very quickly, as it was so compelling. It tells the story of an inter-generational family from India who are living in northern B.C. The body of a woman is found on the road at the beginning of the novel, and the reader is drawn into the domestic story of this secretive, dysfunctional family. The novel is told from alternating points of view. Varsha is the 13-year-old daughter of the father, Vikram, and the first wife, Helen, who died in a car accident as she was making her escape from the family. Suman is the second wife and mother of Hemant, the younger son and Varsha’s brother. Other characters that comprise this household are Akka, Vikram’s invalid mother and Anu, the Canadian-raised Indian woman who is renting the backhouse for the year. This novel was so compelling for me that I finished it in just a few days (I would have finished it in one sitting if I hadn’t had to fit my reading time around the rest of my life!). This was the same reading excitement I remember feeling when, so many years ago, I read Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees for the first time. I read that 600+ page novel in just three days, even while working and living. I remember walking to work and back on the streets of Toronto and reading while I was walking, it was that good! I actually found many similarities between Fall On Your Knees and Tell It To The Trees. Daughter Varsha reminds me of Mercedes, with her overprotective ways and motherly attitude towards her younger brother, and her antagonistic behaviour towards her abusive father, whom she nevertheless loves in that conflicting way that is common to young children of abusive parents. Then there is Hemant, the frail younger brother who resembles Lily in MacDonald’s novel. Both are weak figures who are made weaker by their overbearing, overprotective older sisters and treated as possessions rather than siblings. This again is probably common siblings, but is intensified in abusive situations, making it increasingly damaging to both parties. There is a real sense of isolation in both Canadian novels, although MacDonald’s novel takes place on the East coast in the 1930s and Badami’s is set on the West coast in the 1980s. The haunting scenes of Anu at the window for Hemant towards the end of Trees is reminiscent of Old Pete (I think that’s his name), the scarecrow that haunts Lily’s dreams in MacDonald’s novel. And Other Lily is like the lost little brother in Trees, who are nearly as present as characters in the novels as if they were both actual living, breathing characters. The abuse is present in both novels, suspected in the communities but not spoken of, and the honour of the families is placed above the safety of the wives and children. In both novels, you know something really bad is going to happen, but you feel compelled to keep reading. I read a review of Trees which criticized the novel for having “no mystery”, but in my opinion, that is the best, or at least most interesting, part about this novel, that you know it’s going to end badly but you keep reading because you must, you can’t put it down. While I am comparing it to MacDonald’s novel, I must say it is much shorter and less complex, which is not meant to be a criticism. While Fall On Your Knees was an amazing literary achievement and a wonderful, horrible, fascinating book, it was so complex and lengthy that it was sometimes difficult to keep track of all the characters and events. Trees, on the other hand, is more compact, but still extremely interesting, and perhaps less daunting to first-time readers. A last similarity I wanted to point out before I move on is the use of the description, “making sounds like a puppy”, which is used by both of these authors. I don’t recall ever hearing that exact description used in another novel, although I’m sure it has been. I guess when I came across that phrase in Trees, it brought to mind Knees and I started seeing the similarities between the two novels. Anyway, I would highly recommend this excellent novel. And now I feel like I should Read MacDonald’s novel again. Hmmm...
I also read The Cat, by Edeet Ravel, another Canadian novelist, but one with whom I am not familiar. This short novel tells the story of a woman who loses her 11-year old son in an accident, and her move from grief to acceptance. The reader really feels like she gets inside the head of the main character, Elise, as she deals with this tragic even in her life and struggles to find a way to cope. It is heart-wrenchingly sad, and I don’t know if I would recommend it without that caveat. I certainly went through plenty of tissues while I read it. Well-written, but heartbreaking.
And I finished listening to The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry. It was a good story, which would probably have been more interesting if I knew more about the history of Ireland, but interesting nonetheless. It is told in alternating narratives, “Roseanne’s Testament of Herself” and “Dr. Grene’s Commonplace Book” (I think that was how each section was announced). The novel recalls the life of long-time patient of a mental hospital, Roseanne McNulty. Dr. Grene is particularly interested in Roseanne’s story, as her own account conflicts with the documentation he receives from the hospital where she was originally housed as he is trying to assess her case. His obsession with this patient, and her unwillingness to recount her history, form the basis for this novel. The narrator used two very different accents when narrating each section, which this listener appreciated, as she gave real life to the characters. I’m not sure how I felt about the ending of the novel, and I’m not sure if I would enjoy reading this or other books by Barry, but I definitely enjoyed listening to it. And it was so different from the types of books I usually choose to listen to. It really was all about language and character, not about plot at all. The descriptions were often lengthy and the language sometimes excessive, but these were absolutely necessary to the story – this novel couldn’t have worked any other way. So would I recommend it? Well, as an audiobook, sure, give it a try. It’s worth it just t to hear the narrator speak in Roseanne’s Irish brogue.
That’s all for today. I will go a peruse my bookshelves to find something to read on this rainy day.
Bye for now!