Monday, 14 November 2016

Star’s Reflection by Gail Nyoka (Book Review)

Star’s Reflection by Gail Nyoka (2016) – YA Fantasy

I have just read a wonderful book. A beautiful book. A compelling mystery, with romance, magic, and a serene reverence that is rare in novels, particularly adventure novels, as this one is. My only disappointment is in the cover. Actually, I like the cover. It's just that a) They should have chosen a different colour for the title, as it blends into the woman's face too much and b) this woman does not look like a person of colour. Which the character is. However! On to the review.

Star's Reflection is Gail Nyoka's second novel. Her first, Mella and the Nanga, was shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award (Children) in 2005.

Vida and Sammi are friends in modern day Toronto, Canada. Their maths teacher is rotten to them, as their art teacher was a couple of years before. Nothing new there, and nothing fun, except that they can bemoan together their persecution by him. But when he wrestles violently with a strange woman over a package outside of their school, she throws it to them and tells them to run. They catch it and flee, and with that decision the two friends find themselves inexorably drawn into a dangerous and beguiling drama that stretches over millenia, from the present day back to the time of Queen Nefertari of Egypt.

The package, which they of course open as soon as they get home (wouldn’t you?) is of an ancient mirror, with an ivory handle shaped like a woman whose upstretched arms hold a mirror. The woman’s ears are those of a cow. She is, they learn in time, the goddess Het Heru, or Hathor.

The rest of the book follows two linked lines: the two girls as they cope with the real time danger, and the gradually unfolding story of a young priestess of Het Heru, revealed to them through the mirror, as she lives and learns and loves in a temple in ancient Egypt. In her time, too, there is danger, and the beauty of her desert world and the wonder of dedication to a deity who is celebrated in music, ritual, study, and prayer. How Vida and Sammi react to what they witness in the mirror, and the two groups who vie for its possession, and how the young priestess Little Star confronts the challenges in her own life, form the greater part of the story. But there, too, is struggle over a religion thought dead for thousands of years.

Nyoka’s spare, elegant prose and clear-eyed understanding of both worlds come together in a young adult novel that is as easily attractive to this aging lady. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in girls and their lives, ancient Egypt and its religion, romance, friendship, jealousy, and understanding. Very nicely done.

Friday, 11 November 2016

The Humour is Lonely: a review of The Hills is Lonely by Lillian Beckwith (1959).

 I am sad about this book. I came to it an innocent, knowing nothing of its provenance, expecting to laugh, to learn something about the Hebrides in the 1950s (we have ancestors who came from there, so it’s cool to learn a bit), to enjoy some good writing. It came off of a friend’s shelf. She had three of Beckwith’s books, and is herself of Scottish heritage. I felt safe.

I did laugh. Sometimes quite hard. I did learn things about life in the Hebrides, and was reminded of places and people I knew many years ago—it was good to remember being with them. And yes, there is some excellent writing.

What breaks my heart is the endless caricatures, sometimes bluntly ugly, made of people who welcomed her into their lives. True, she has “fictionalized” it, but it doesn’t matter. Even if every person in the book is unlike anyone she met there, even if no one could think, my God, is that me she is writing about?!, even if every situation is patently not something that happened there, even if she has (and she has) made herself out in as unflattering ways as she has anyone else, it doesn’t matter. She has characterized the whole culture as dirty, foolish, unconsciously gross. She has missed the elegance of other writers who will lightly lampoon themselves and one or two others and let the other characters have their dignity. Why didn’t anyone tell her?

I do not entirely blame the author. She was a person of her times and had not the insight to recognize that just because the rest of the world thought it was okay to lampoon a whole people (or any person), it doesn’t mean it IS okay. There are intimations that she did care about the people whose world she entered and remained in for some years. And yet she was too foolish to realize that THIS KIND OF HUMOUR HURTS. It hurts an individual, and it hurts a culture by upholding stereotypes that dismiss and demean, it hurts the children growing up knowing that this is how they are seen, it hurts the children growing up thinking there is a division between themselves and someone else just because they have different manners, different ways. It hurts any possibility of true friendship between the classes and peoples involved. It hurts.

One of the realizations I had as I read in alternating delight and creeping horror, was that these ugly stereotypes were the reason, or at least part of the reason, that I grew up learning to dislike and distrust the English, the ones with perfect grammar and chilling mannerisms, and to always feel clumsy and ridiculous in comparison to them—because they despised us. I have pretty much healed from that. The world is not black and white to me as it was then. But this book is a sad reminder of that rift, one that extended, and extends, to people of all colours, all classes, all differences.

There are hints here of the damage this does to the person in the oppressor role, too. The obvious one is that she must be annihilating the goodwill of the people she lampoons, and yet she blithely and unawarely does it anyway, when she could as well have written the same book without the ugliness. It is like watching a slow motion train crash. You can see it coming, you know what is about to happen, you see the nose of the train ploughing dully into the mountain side, but the engineer cannot or will not make it stop, and all are doomed. Engineer, passengers, standers-by.

But read this. She has gone back to England for a few weeks after a couple of years in Scotland. When she returns the three elderly people she has been living with welcome her with great enthusiasm.

“The fervour of the welcome from all three of them was impressive and made that which I had received in England seem frigid in comparison (pg. 234).”

This insight, which candidly illumines something she has been hinting at in her self-deprecation throughout—her depiction of herself as humourless, arrogant, rude—is poignant. But it is instantly extinguished by her next, rallying-back-from-awareness, blunt instrument of humour:

“It was difficult to repress a feeling of elation, for the geniality of the Gael, despite its lack of sincerity, is an endearing trait (pg. 234).”

Oh, Lillian. How must you have hated yourself to shove that last spike in.

Having written this review, I find out a little bit more about Lillian Beckwith, both from LibraryThing itself, and from her Wikipedia page:

“Her life on the island provided the basis for seven books published between 1959 and 1978, although allegedly, some of her neighbours later felt that the somewhat comical characters on Beckwith’s fictional island of Bruach were too close to real persons, causing Beckwith to become something of a persona non grata in her former home.[citation needed] She moved to the Isle of Man in 1962 and died on 3 January 2004 aged 87.[1]”

If true, it doesn’t surprise me at all that she had to leave the Hebrides.

What shocks me is that (LibraryThing tells me) Pan Books put out a 2016 edition of this work. It shocks me that generations of people both English and, if you believe the reviews on her bookcovers, Scottish, have thought these warmly realistic and hilarious depictions of Hebridean life. 

It is just like the caricatures of First Nations people, and similar to, if more heavy handed than, that of the Newfoundlander, that I grew up with in the same era that she was writing. But surely we don’t sell those images anymore? Surely??

I could be angry—thirty years ago I would have been. Now I am simply sad.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

So, Amos Barton...Thoughts on a Short Novel by George Eliot

So, Amos Barton

A number of years ago an unknown neighbour left a massive copy of Middlemarch by George Eliot on the table in the lobby. (Strictly against the rules, I might add.)

Against my better judgement, knowing I would never read it, yet with a flicker of wishfulness that I wasn’t so intimidated by old and difficult books, so sure that I would find them dull or “beyond me”, and thus confirm my doubt that I had anything but the most pedestrian intelligence, I picked it up.

And put it down.

It remained on my shelf, amongst unread Hardy and untouched Austen, for a period of time. I don’t remember how long or how short. I do remember hefting it off the shelf one brave day and taking my usual reading position and starting in on the first page.

The language was enormous. Never mind that it was nearly a hundred and fifty years old. It was the tongue of an energetic master, a whip-strong language with a mind behind it bursting with energy and observation and thought. At first I was astonished, and thrilled, and moved, but then, wandering into chapter one, I was soon well lost. There was too much I couldn’t understand, too much I had to fight to put any meaning to at all.

I put the book away.

Sometime later, I picked it up again. And then again, always getting at most thirty pages in. I knew that if only I could get over the hump, I would love this book. Or at least, I hoped so. Finally I did the only thing left to me.

I took it to my mother’s in Manitoba, with only nonfiction besides, and stretches of time when there would be nothing else to do. It came alive.

I stopped worrying about the odd bit I didn’t get. I got into the music of her way of expressing herself. I allowed myself to be swept into poor Miss Brooke’s life. I thrilled at the way the author was able not only to collect together all the elements of a world but to make true sense of them, and to do it with words and phrases that seemed plucked out of heaven itself. It was an epiphany.

Fast forward ten years or so. In my cupboard wait two more Eliot books, Silas Marner and The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton. Both much shorter books than Middlemarch, though in an omnibus edition the three do fill the hand and weary the arm. Nevertheless! I had been holding onto these as after dinner mints—the kind long forgotten in pocket lint—and the time had finally come.

I got through Silas Marner unscathed and happy, though it had been a near thing. Poor old Silas. A good man, and I’m glad things worked out. But Amos Barton, now, that was another kettle of fish.

I finished it last night. I am going to tell you, sort of, how it ends, but I am also going to tell you how it begins and how it middles.

This is a very short tale, the earliest of the three, and perhaps Eliot was just learning her craft. Maybe no one had told her that you don’t write books like this. Her betters would surely not let her get away with it now.

We float into a thought-line, that of an opinionated and powerful narrator, identitiy never disclosed, the author herself, of course, who muses on the place and people, takes us into and out of their conversations as the subject matter pertains or fails to pertain to Amos Barton himself. She shows his strengths and his foibles equally, shows the people around him—those who love, those who mock, and those whose loyalties wobble when times are tough. She shows his wonderful wife and their thoughtless friend and the slow diminution of his wife’s health. And then the wife dies.

At this terrible moment, all of these (or many of these) ordinary gossiping not helpful people are touched by his grief and pitch in to buoy him through his poverty and sorrow. At last he is redeemed in their eyes, and his future, though bleached with loss, seems sure.

And then he loses his position as curate, and goes away. We see him once more and he seems at ease with his lot, but his daughter, his eldest daughter, has devoted her life to his care since she was ten years old. She has traded her own life for her mother’s, and though at least she is spared the whole health-whittling thing of childbirth ... it is not a happy end.

It is not so much a story as a wandering character study, though of course it is a story, too, and as with the others, Eliot’s voice is sublime. But for Amos Barton you must not skip the annoying characters or just find the plotline and ignore the descriptions (as of course I would never do) because this book is just life, unfolding in all its meaness and all its happiness and all its regrets, and the author pulls no punches, and no great lesson is learned, and we all just get older in the end.

So I can’t get it out of my head. She didn’t fix things. Not at all. She just laid them out.

Brava, Madame George.