Historical fiction. Such a great genre. Have I said it before? I have? Well, I’ll say it again: such a great genre. Something about the space to explore the impossible problems of the present in the safety of the past. Not sure what we should do with the right to abortion? Worried about the lasting impacts of a global pandemic? Fretting about the crumbling of institutions like Church and marriage? To the past! Where we can hod these problems and turn them around without the delightful haze of knowing these are both immediate to our own lives and yet so distant as to be cute: how sweet, they just figured out they should wash their hands before surgery.
So right, what’s the book, Erin. It’s Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars, released in summer of 2020, but written pre Covid. Though someone should by Donoghue a lottery ticket (or start calling her prescient instead of
Atwood) for the cluster of issues explored in this book. Set in Dublin in 1918, it is the height of the influenza pandemic. Our protagonist, midwife and nurse Julia Power, is on her own on the influenza maternity ward, where we meet a series of women who have had too many children for want to bodily autonomy or reliable birth control. Julia trades off her duties with another nurse, a nun from a neighbourhood ‘house for women and babies’ where unwed mothers are sent and their children then taken into servitude, and so the narrative probes the consequences of Church and moral absolutism on women’s bodies and family. One of these grown children, Bridie, comes to help on Julia’s ward, and (I’ll admit somewhat unexpectedly – my fault as a reader or that of Donoghue?) introduces questions of sexuality and redemption as she and Julia come to find one another. Which is to say, it is a book thick with Issues for Discussion.
And while I expected to be struck by the similarities to our present moment with respect to the pandemic – the eerie familiarity of advice to keep distance, the shuttering of schools, the terror of a loved one with a cough – and I was, it was the exploration of women’s ability to choose the course of their lives that I found most relevant. The series of women that pass through the maternity ward come as a type: married woman subjected to domestic violence; married woman with 10 babies already; unmarried ‘fallen’ woman bound to a life of shame and exclusion; married woman has stillborn baby but must go home and Carry On. Each of them share in small descriptions of their lives the ways the babies they carry are – whatever else – expected – that even if they are unplanned (as in our ‘fallen’ woman) that there should be a baby born Out of Wedlock, is itself a certainty. That there would be a choice about having the 10th baby or an ability to decide instead of staying with an abusive partner you might… not. These women are contrasted with Julia, of course, but also the woman doctor on the ward – Kathleen – who is literally on the run from the police for her involvement in political ‘crimes’ while she cares for patients with compassion, competence and curiosity.
This contrast serves to sharpen the sense of oppressive constraint and claustrophobia following all of these women. That even those who appear to have the most freedom – Julia who can for some pages ride a bicycle! – are limited by institution and by expectation.
And while it is a wildly topical book that would serve your book club discussion well, it wasn’t fabulous. Parts dragged and some of the passages read as too aware of their own Significance. And there are better (much better ) books about reproductive choice to read right now. But if you find yourself with this one you I suspect you’ll find a certain relief. Things feel bad; things are bad. And perhaps they’ve always been that way.
Nothing fancy or personal here, folks, just a ringing endorsement for Sarah Leipciger’s Coming Up for Air, a fantastic book about… drowning? But really – the writing here is extraordinarily good, so good the interwoven plots don’t need much to hold together – though they do. Like chapter 24 that details Pieter in his fishing boat and a *spoiler spoiler* Event is some of the best writing I’ve encountered in years. Hair raising.
I may have been predisposed to like this one because it’s historical fiction and Canadian, but given my recent spate of not being able to read anything serious or well-written, I think this one had its fair share of odds to overcome. Threading three plot lines – that of the 19th century woman who kills herself by drowning in the opening chapter, a mid-century man who moulds plastics and a contemporary woman living with cystic fibrosis and writing – the reader sets out wondering if and how these plot lines come together. And while they do eventually, sort of, connect in terms of plot, it is their thematic and symbolic notes that connect them most meaningfully: water, breath, filial and affilial love.
As a creature of the water myself I was hypnotized by the descriptions of swimming and submersion. As the three characters navigate water-filled worlds they raise questions about the thinness of the line between life and death, and the hubris of humans in swimming this line.
So now that libraries are fully reopening you have no excuse. Get out Coming Up for Air and I promise you won’t be disappointed.*
*Promises are not valid if you have bad taste.
It took me two times to read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. On my first effort I made it about a hundred pages in and decided it wasn’t for me. I was distracted when reading, I guess, or missed what was certainly in front of me: a tremendously good novel of (historical) fiction.
Set in the 19th century we follow Cora on her escapes from a slave plantation in Georgia. If you know anything about this book you know that it features a literal underground railroad: think boxcars and steam engines moving along metal tracks. And Cora does take that physical railroad with many stops along the way. The function of the railroad as a mode of transportation is one also to transport us to different scenes of racial inequality, white supremacy, brutality and horror – demonstrating the ways racism manifests in physical chains and in refusals of opportunity. That is the novel unravels what is ‘structural’ about racism, even while making structured the metaphorical railroad of history.
The novel explores these scenes and the complicated ways white characters live, exercise and wield their privilege with nuance. The efforts of sympathetic abolitionists are complicated by their own fears for their lives or standing in the community; the abhorrent beliefs of slave catchers are revealed as explanatory by the circulating ideas and belief structures of their time. Individuals are culpable, though their actions are positioned in relation to, or explained through, the wider structures that surround them in ways that offer if not empathy or absolution, than a profound recognition of the ways in which the readers’ present beliefs and actions must similarly be filtered through imperfect and unjust structures that are both bigger than and constituted by individuals.
Cora herself is great because she comes in to the narrative as a woman relying on no one, willing and able to exert power in the limited ways she has available to her, and sensitive to the dependencies and needs of those around her without being defined by them.
So yes, if you haven’t read this one yet (you probably have!), go! make haste! And if the first 100 pages don’t grip you… keep on.
Reading the description on the back of Strangers With the Same Dream, I was skeptical. I felt no immediate urge to read about Zionist settlers in the 1920s and the kibbutz movement. But a little part of me thought, hey, isn’t this what reading fiction is all about? Reading about topics and people and places you find no immediate interest or resonance with? Or might have existing assumptions about? So I let the small part of me take over, and I thought, I like Alison Pick, I’ll put myself in her capable hands and see where this goes.
So glad I did! The novel is beautiful, told with an inventive narration and thoughtful about how it positions the Zionist project through self-conscious reflection from its narrators on the relationship with the Palestines the group is displacing. The story is told in three parts, each narrated from the perspective of a different character recounting the same events. The shift in narration has the effect of inviting the reader to see how – even within the same community with shared politics and ambitions – the truth of the story, the beliefs about motivations and goals, are malleable and personal. Wikipedia let me know there’s a name for this phenomenon – the “Rashomon effect,” which were I a trivia player or better at life, I’d already know about (and you probably do). In any case, tis’ when the same event is told differently by the people who were all there. Underscoring the point I suppose, that if history/fact is contradicted even by those who all shared the same experience, what little doubt is there that those of us encountering the event from a distance – whether geographic or historic – are only ever going to get a partial (both incomplete and biased) version.
I did find the introduction of a ghost in the first chapter, and the recurrence of this ‘character’ distracting and irritating. The ghost of the murdered/suicide character doesn’t offer much to the narrative, instead layering a heavy-handed Doom and Gloom vibe, as well as Aura of Mystery that I found myself all too happy to ignore. And it was easy to do so as the ghost would (seemingly randomly) appear and make some Ominous Statement and then disappear again and I was like who cares.