Sunday, September 10, 2023

A Study for Obedience, by Sarah Bernstein


Knopf Canada
193 pp


I meant to get this post done much sooner, but sadly another death has darkened our doorway so it's been a few rough weeks around here for the two of us.  But it's time to move forward.

The narrative in Study for Obedience is related by an unnamed narrator (whom we find out later is Jewish, which has more than a small amount of bearing on her story), who, as she reveals, was the youngest child in her family, and that since childhood, her role had been to provide her siblings 
"with the greatest possible succour, filling them up only so they could demand more, always more, demands to which I acceded with alacrity and discreet haste..." 
In other words, her life had been one of putting the needs of others ahead of her own, the consequences of which were her slide into a life of self denial and solitude, "pursuing silence to its ever-receding horizon."   She has no sense of belonging, and her "pursuit" of offering "the most careful consideration to the other, to treat the other as the worthiest object of contemplation" has left her "reduced, diminished..." and in her words, ceasing to exist.   It is not surprising then that when her brother calls her to come to his home because he needs someone to look after his house while he is away for long periods on business, that she accepts his request. His wife has left him, along with their children, and so for our narrator, it is a chance to live in seclusion and to "be quiet."  His house is in a "remote northern country" which happens to be where her "family's ancestors" had lived before being "dogged across borders and put into pits," and indeed was once owned by those who had led the "historic crusades" against them.  It is with her arrival that the story begins in earnest, especially once she decides to venture out into the town and discovers that the people, who seem to have no issues with her brother, want nothing at all to do with her. Perhaps, she thinks,  it is because she can't speak the local dialect. Anyway, for whatever reason, she decides to volunteer for community service by putting her name on a rota sheet of chores the locals share. Despite her misgivings afterwards about doing that, her brother sorts things out for her long distance, on condition that she does her work quietly and alone.  Not at all a problem for our narrator, but troubles begin just shortly after, when strange events alluded to at the beginning of this book start to happen, including a dog having a "phantom pregnancy," a sow who had "eradicated her piglets," and things that "were leaving one place and showing up in another." 

Just when I was convinced that we're venturing into a sort of folk horror zone here, the brother returns home not quite himself and there is a major shift that occurs which moves  Study for Obedience into different territory altogether, one which gets to the very heart of this book.  While I won't discuss what that shift is or exactly or how it comes about, suffice it to say that the novel deals with the acquisition, uses and misuses of power;  the complicity of silence and the weight of history, both personal and otherwise, are also key ideas that run throughout this novel.  And while not the horror story I thought it was going to be, this is still quite a disturbing tale that I couldn't stop thinking about for days after I'd finished reading it. 

It wasn't until the second time through that the proverbial light went on in my head.  While  Study for Obedience is short, coming in at just about 200 pages, it is most certainly not your average plot-driven novel requiring more time on my part to get through it.  Toward the end it becomes much more philosophical in nature than I had expected, making the reading a bit on the difficult side, and I'll be honest here -- it became a bit cumbersome languagewise for a while.    However, the patient reader is definitely rewarded and quite frankly, once I cottoned onto what was going on here, I was completely in awe at this author's talent, making it a book I can certainly recommend.  

Thursday, August 24, 2023

This Other Eden, by Paul Harding


W.W. Norton, 2023
210 pp


"Terrible how terribly good intentions turn out every time." 

I love finding novels that are based on, or in this case "inspired by,"  real events,  especially when I am completely ignorant of the facts behind the fiction.  The story found in Paul Harding's This Other Eden, now longlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize, is one of these, with the action taking place in Maine on a small island, "hardly three hundred feet across the channel from the mainland."   

Back in 1793, Benjamin Honey " -- American, Bantu, Igbo -- born enslaved -- freed or fled at fifteen..." and his wife Patience, "nee Raferty, Galway Girl..." arrived on what would later be called Apple Island,  and after settling in planted the apple seeds he'd so carefully cherished and taken care of over the years.   He had come there with a childhood memory of his mother and time spent in an orchard, also remembering the "fragrance of the trees and their fruit," as well as a "vision of the garden to which he meant to return."  For Benjamin, that garden was Eden, "no mystery."   Fast forward to 1911; Esther Honey, Benjamin and Patience's great-granddaughter, now has the role of family matriarch.  Since Benjamin's time,  other people outside of the Honey family had come to live on the island as well, with blood running "from every continent but Antarctica."   The children help out with the chores and also roam freely, often with the island's three dogs which are fed from whatever scraps the families can muster.   It is a small but close-knit, mixed-race community where the living is on the hardscrabble side, yet for the reader, there is every sense that Apple Island is some sort of haven, a refuge from the outside world for these people.   
Also on the island during the summers is Matthew Diamond,  a missionary who serves as  teacher at the small school there.   Esther finds herself with misgivings about the situation, certain that 
"there would not be a soul left on the island within five years. She'd heard it all before, threats and promises both, threats being far more common than promises, but either way no one had actually set foot on the island to see out their intentions, well-meaning or otherwise."
She also believed that

 "no good ever came of being noticed by mainlanders, which always meant being noticed by white people -- plain white, her mother and aunts and cousins called them, to distinguish them from the lighter-skinned Apple islanders..."

Diamond means well, and takes special interest in his students, including Tabitha Honey, who "took to Latin as if she were not learning it but remembering it,"  Emily Sockalexis, whose skill in mathematics has Diamond scrambling to "relearn" in order to keep up with her, and then there's Esther's grandson Ethan, who has a natural talent for drawing.   At the same time, as Diamond writes to a friend,  inasmuch as his faith tells him  that "all men are his brothers, all women my sisters, all souls my family,"  he has a "visceral, involuntary repulsion" when he is in "the presence of a living Negro."   But events begin to take a dark  turn when, as noted in the dustjacket blurb, Diamond's "presence attracts the attention of authorities on the mainland," many of them who subscribe to the contemporarily-popular pseudoscience of eugenics; journalists' photos also draw negative  attention to the islanders.   Trying to help, Diamond begs a friend to sponsor Ethan, whose light skin allows him to pass for white and secures him a spot off the island where he can continue to grow his artistic abilities. Esther is on board with this idea, knowing that he has a chance in the outside world, and Ethan makes his way off the island and to a life Esther hopes will be filled with promise and reward.  But Diamond's attempt at helping Ethan sparks tragedy; back on the island, this small community is rocked by  events that unfold quickly, all of which will result in devastating consequences for each and every person who lives there.  

children from the Malaga Island schoolhouse -- from
Greenhut Galleries

I've read this book twice now, once before I'd researched the reality behind the novel  and then after, and I have to admit that the second read with the knowledge I'd gained helped me to appreciate it more.   The historical material is horrifying and yet fascinating.*  The real and long-buried story belongs to the people of Malaga Island, who in 1912 were forcibly evicted by the state from their homes  due to "a chain of tragic events," as explained in Atlas Obscura, "spurred by the racist 'science' of eugenics married with political corruption."  It was also, in part, caused by ignorance and the contemporary  abhorrence of miscegenation.   Eviction of the living was bad enough, with some islanders being diagnosed as "mentally incompetent" and "remanded to" the Maine School for the Feeble Minded, but it got worse -- the small cemetery was dug up, the remains were combined and they were taken away from Malaga Island altogether.  While these events feature in This Other Eden, Harding doesn't exactly rewrite the story, choosing instead to focus more on a handful of people on the fictional Apple Island.  I haven't been there but his depiction of the island seems true to life, down to the old shell middens, and  he's bestowed his characters with distinct and individual voices along with the quirks that make them human.   I have to be honest here:  while buzzing through different online interviews with the author, I gleaned a bit of understanding regarding the author's focus on art in this novel  -- as he stated in an interview at Lit Hub
"As I do with all my novels, everything I'm reading, all the paintings I see, all the music I'm listening to, everything somehow or another gets thrown into the manuscript, in its earliest stages"

but in my own humble opinion, his time spent with Ethan's slowly-growing awareness of the beauty of the natural world and learning how to capture it in his art just went on too too long to the point where I actually lost interest, wanting to get back to the main throes of the story. I wasn't a huge fan of the biblical allusions/references either -- sometimes they felt a little strained as well as heavy handed.  But those are my particular niggles, and to each his/her own.  

I probably wouldn't have bought this book had it not appeared as part of the Booker dozen, but in the long run, and for many reasons, I'm glad I did. 

* Maine State Archivist Kate McBrien has an insightful and well-researched presentation on Malaga Island that is available on youtube. I recommend it wholeheartedly.  

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Hungry Ghosts, by Kevin Jared Hosein

"Moths see light and fly to it... Always searching for the border between deep darkness and the billows of the moon.  The moonlight to them is hope. But to a moth, there are many things that resemble moonlight.  It is that hope that turns on them and gets them killed."

Ecco, 2023
327 pp


Trinidad is one of our favorite Caribbean island destinations so when I heard about this book, I knew I had to read it.  I also love Caribbean literature and I was not at all disappointed with this novel --  Hungry Ghosts is a dark yet phenomenal story and Trinidadian author Kevin Jared Hosein is a phenomenal writer.  

The family at the center of this story lives in a small space known as "the Barrack."   These structures, as we are told, were "sugarcane estate barrack(s)," and were 
"scattered like half-buried bones across the plain, strewn from their colonial corpse. In their marrow, the ghosts of the indentured. And the offspring of those ghosts."
  It's the 1940s, and in the rural countryside of Trinidad, the Saroop family, Hansraj (Hans), Shweta and their son Krishna,  share the five-room, "tangle of wood and iron" barrack with four other families,  each occupying a 10x10 foot room. Although there are partitions between the rooms, they do not allow for any sort of privacy; these impoverished families live with no running water, dress in clothes made of old flour sacks, and cook outside in a "communal yard," also the place for "drinking and fighting."    Shweta is haunted by the loss of her baby girl Hema, about whom Hans will never speak and who has become, as one of the older women in the barrack revealed to Shweta,  a "preta -- a hungry ghost" whose insatiable hunger must be appeased, as well as that of the other ghosts Hema brings with her.   Shweta has a hunger as well: she dreams of getting out of the Barrack, escaping this "fossil embedded in quicksand" and buying a plot of land in Bell Village, 
"the dogma of a new world, howling and preaching steel and diesel and rayon and vinyl and gypsum and triple-glazed glass,"
in hopes of securing for her family a better quality of life.  The Barrack and its inhabitants fall at the lower echelon of a carefully-maintained social and class structure; while Krishna is the only barrack child enrolled at the school (which he despises) in Bell Village, the village children never let him forget where he lives or his barrack upbringing.  Although there are other Hindus who attend the school, some are "Hindu at home but Presbyterian at school," at a time when identifying as Christian offered the promise of better opportunities.  Towering over all of these people are the Changoors, Dalton and Marlee, who live uphill at Changoor Farm.  Wealthy and powerful, no one really knows how Dalton came to have so much money, and no one really knows Marlee, who generally stays inside the walls of the house.  She has no real friends and rarely interacts with people on the outside. Things change though when Dalton disappears with no warning, leaving Marlee a "cryptic note" on the kitchen table that says very little.  She is now alone on the farm with the three hired workers (who by Dalton's orders were to "never set foot inside his house")  one of which is Hans Saroop.   Marlee makes up stories about Dalton's absence, reassuring the farmhands that he will be back, but when she receives a ransom note attached to a dead rat demanding money, she offers Hans a high-paying job staying at the farm as a guard until Dalton's return.  Hans knows that with the money that Marlee is willing to pay he can make a down payment on the patch of land in Bell Village and improve his family's life; what he doesn't know is that his decision will launch a tidal wave of completely unforeseen consequences.  Actually, now that I'm thinking about it, there are any number of people in this novel whose choices will have a major impact  not only on their own lives but those of others as well.  

While Hans believes in that "flicker of a daydream" that offers the the promise of escape, what he doesn't understand is just how quickly a dream can turn into a nightmare, especially as he tries to keep his feet planted in two different worlds in a system that is so entrenched.    He doesn't know what others know, that he's "floatin' through maya ...Mistaking dreams for the real world."  This notion of a better world as illusion is prevalent throughout this novel -- so much so that at one point somebody notes that  
"Moths see light and fly to it... Always searching for the border between deep darkness and the billows of the moon.  The moonlight to them is hope. But to a moth, there are many things that resemble moonlight.  It is that hope that turns on them and gets them killed."

Eventually it becomes very clear that Hema is not the only ghost that haunts these people; there are many others with their own unfulfilled and unfulfillable appetites that ultimately lead them into despair.  In the bigger scheme of things though, it's the ghosts of Trinidad's colonial past that are the most haunting of all.   "Behold hell" indeed.   

Once again, just a barebones look at a fine novel; if I wasn't so behind lifewise I could talk about this book forever.   I absolutely loved Hungry Ghosts mainly because of the author's original approach in exploring the history of his homeland and his heritage.  While the novel is often brutally violent and emotionally difficult to read, the author's prose is just beautiful, offering readers the sensation that they are there in that time as a witness to a slice of Trinidad's past.  Definitely highly recommended -- I will read whatever this author has to offer in the future. 

Just wow. 

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Cursed Bread, by Sophie Mackintosh

"We are so often wrong about the ones we love, slowly debasing ourselves, so gradually we barely notice we're doing it."

Doubleday, 2023
190 pp


The truth is that after the first thirty pages or so of reading this novel, I stopped and added to my goodreads status something to the effect that I hoped that it got better because I wasn't really enjoying it to that point.  Well, never a quitter, I kept reading --  not only did it get better, but after that first stopping point I did not want to put this book down.  Not at all.  

Cursed Bread begins with the arrival of a new couple in a small, unnamed town in postwar France.  The Ambassador (no other name given) has (he says) been tasked with a "government project, a kind of survey" to "learn more about the real people of this country. To truly get to know them, the citizens who make it what is is."  The women in the town are quite naturally curious about his wife Violet, but none more so than Elodie, the wife of the town baker, who narrates this story looking back on events that  eventually led her to "a convalescent place by the sea" after some pretty horrific happenings in her town.   At the outset she wonders about her memories, "holding them up to the light" and questioning whether "it really did happen like this."  And, if it did, could she "tell it differently?"  Our storyteller decides that "perhaps it's best to be honest," so we must place ourselves in her hands.  

Elodie was a woman "starving for contact,"  desperately wanting to feel noticed, needed and desired, someone who sensed that there was something more out there for her than the proscribed, humdrum life she currently lives, and a woman whose appetites for passion and intimacy had gone unsated. Her initial meeting with Violet happened in the bakery,  and although they hadn't exchanged any meaningful words, she notes that afterwards, Violet had "haunted" her thoughts.   After a strange, voyeuristic  encounter at a party given by the newcomers at their home, it was as if Elodie had been struck by lightning, leaving her with a heightened awareness of the dark, erotic electricity bouncing between the Ambassador and Violet.   From then on, as she notes,  even brief glimpses of Violet would create "a pulse of something" running through Elodie.  As time goes on, Elodie takes every opportunity she can to insert herself into Violet's life, and Violet begins to pay more attention to Elodie, sharing some intimate details of her relationship with her husband while at the same time keeping other things shrouded in mystery.  Eventually, Elodie finds herself obsessed with this woman, becoming fixated on her own fantasies to the point that her desperation and desire lead her down a dark path in hopes of appeasing her own hungers.  As the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur, she fails to realize that her choices also leave her vulnerable to those who might take advantage for their own agendas. 

Between chapters the novel also contains letters written by Elodie to Violet from her seaside safe space as she tries to sift though her memories, but it appears that perhaps Elodie has not been as "honest" as she earlier proclaimed she would be.  And while the focus of this story centers on the relationship and dynamics between Elodie and Violet, as the dustjacket notes, "beneath the tranquil surface of village life, strange things are happening"  leaving in their wake "a dark intoxication"  that manifests itself in  madness, hallucinatory experiences and for some people even worse fates.  

 An extremely brief and barebones post here certainly,  but Cursed Bread is a visceral read that must be experienced firsthand. At its heart, the novel examines the power of desire, which can be both destructive and self-destructive and in this case transformative; it is dark and claustrophobic, seasoned by an ongoing sense of danger that ratchets up the tension until the end.  

  It is only at the end of Cursed Bread in a brief "Author's Note" that we learn that
"In the summer of 1951, the small French town of Pont-Saint-Esprit succumbed to a mass poisoning.  There are many theories regarding the source of this catastrophe. None have ever been proved."
This event has been thought to have been caused by ergot poisoning -- le pain maudit (cursed bread) -- but who knows -- there have been a number of theories floated about regarding this incident.   I don't necessarily think that  the author is trying to simply fictionalize that traumatic event here, but setting the novel  against the backdrop of the Pont-Saint-Esprit worked for me, since the effects of the poisonous relationships in this story couldn't  help but to seep through to the rest of the town.   And while completely different,   I couldn't help but to be reminded of Barbara Comyns' excellent Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, the blurb of which mentions a newspaper article with the headline wondering "Who will be smitten by this fatal madness next?," which, given what happens in Cursed Bread, seems more than appropriate. 

Although a lot of professional critics and more than a few readers have given this novel rather tepid reviews, I loved it and definitely recommend it for those looking for something a bit different and something  definitely on the darker side.  

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Glory, by NoViolet Bulawayo

Viking, 2022
403 pp


"Even the sticks and stones will tell you that an animal can't just preach change without embodying it themselves, and that that change has to begin at the top and then trickle down to the rest of the masses." 

The setting of this novel is the fictional country of Jidada, which is actually a stand-in for Zimbabwe, the home country of author NoViolet Bulawayo.  As she stated in an interview for the Los Angeles Times, on November 14th of 2017, she awoke to the news that Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe had been ousted in a coup:
"There was so much celebration, just the joy of seeing the dictatorship come to an end the way it did. It was complicated, though, because we knew his deputy was going to take over. But we hoped against hope that we had a turned a corner." 

She decided that she would go back to Zimbabwe; she also wondered if it was time for her to write a "nonfiction book about this moment, 'too unbelievable to ignore.' "  Once there though, she saw firsthand how "the sense of hope turned very quickly into disappointment and devastation,"  and  thought perhaps the book she should write should be more along the lines of a "modern-day parable of Zimbabwe."  This is that book, and the players are all animals.  Before I actually bought this novel, I had decided to give it a pass, thinking that it seemed like it might be a case of Animal Farm redux.  But my curiosity got the better of me, and as it happens, I was completely wrong.    In fact, at some point close to the beginning of this story, author NoViolet Bulawayo reminds her readers that this is definitely not that -- as Dr Sweet Mother,  the wife of the president of Jidada says while addressing a crowd from the podium, 

"This is not an animal farm but Jidada with a -da and another -da!"

 A modern-day parable indeed, Glory takes as its subject the end of the long reign of Jidada's president, the  "Father of the Nation" or "The Old Horse" (who actually is a horse here),  and the rise to power  and rule of his vice president, Tuvius Delight Shasha, aka Tuvy (also a horse) when The Old Horse is ousted.  Knowing that his life is in danger after several attempts at killing him, Tuvy leaves the country after a meeting with the generals who fear that Dr. Sweet Mother will try to steal power for herself and want him to take his place in the Seat of Power.   The Jidadans are also ready for something different -- as they said, they
"...couldn't meet the dawn carrying the sad, terrible baggage of that awful past, no; it absolutely had to find us on a brand-new page and proper ready for a fresh start, best foot forward, no less."
 Upon his return once the Father of the Nation is gone, he promises the Jidadans a "New Dispensation,"   telling them that God has saved him to put him at the helm of a New Jidada
"this country's long, long, long terribly dark night has indeed ended and we now perch on the wings of a brand new dawn..." 
However, as the Jidadans will discover, the New Jidada seems much like the old one, complete with oppression, corruption on a huge scale, disappearances and violence:
"...the children of the nation found themselves standing hungry and thirsty and hopeless and penniless in the queues, tholukuthi Tuvy's eyes watching them from old election posters that promised a new and better Jidada they now understood, with a heartbreaking knowledge, would never come, was never meant to come."
As the Jidadans said, "... it was what, it was the worst of times, it was the worstest of times."  

 The word "tholukuthi" appears numerous times throughout this book, translating into something like "I find that" or "it's the case that..." or something along those lines.  The author also talks about the "sticks and stones" that "will tell you" something,  and I'm thinking that these phrases reflect the storytelling traditions and folklore of her culture.   

It's in writing about the "daily lives of a population in upheaval" (as the dustjacket blurb notes) that the author shines here, capturing the hopes, the cynicism and the strong opinions of the people via their thoughts, their interactions, Tweets, WhatsApp posts etc.  Glory expresses their frustrations and their fears, but also their resilience and their hopes.    Her use of animals instead of people, she explains in that same LA Times interview mentioned earlier,  afforded her "a sense of freedom" that she didn't believe would be "possible otherwise."   I thought it was a bold move and a good one as well, and even without human actors, she manages to get a number of ideas across, most importantly, the need for political, government and social reforms as well as the need to document your history before someone changes it.   On the downside it can be repetitive, it is a bit overlong, and there are times when it just gets a bit boggy, but looking at the bigger picture, Glory is a fine novel, one that is so very timely given what's happening in our world today.   There's so much more to this book than I can capture in such a brief space, but truly, it's one very much worth your time, energy and attention.    

Just as an FYI,  you don't need to know about Mugabe or his successor Mnangagwa,  but it is actually somewhat helpful if you can read about it ahead of time.  Here's a link to an article from The Atlantic that might be useful (it's actually Mugabe's obituary but it tells you what you need to know).  

It does take some patience, but I definitely and highly recommend this novel.  

Thursday, September 29, 2022

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, by Shehan Karunatilaka


Sort of Books, 2022
385 pp


Not too far into the first chapter I realized that this book and I were going to get along just fine, and I was right.  To put it bluntly, I effing loved this book and have been telling everyone about it. 

  The author sets his story in 1990, and as it opens,  the main character Maali Almeida wakes up (as he believes)  "hungover" to find himself in an "endless waiting room" not knowing how he got there.  He is sure that he's hallucinating, having a "trippy dream" from the "silly pills" given to him by his friend Jaki, but he's actually awoken in the afterlife where he is standing in a queue.  Evidently it is as completely disorganized as any typical earthly bureaucracy, with plenty of people complaining and the office "short-staffed and looking for volunteers."   The woman who seems to be checking him in hands him a dried printed palm leaf, telling him that he needs to get his ears checked, his "deaths counted," his "sins coded" and his "moons registered," and that he (along with everyone else coming in that day) has "seven moons."  Here seven moons equates to seven days, rather than the typically-understood idea of moons as months;  Almeida is also handed a checklist of things to be taken care of before he can enter "The Light," which is, as the woman notes, "Whatever You Need It To Be."  That is the short answer; later he will learn that all who come here to "wander the In Between" have his or her allotted moons "To recall past lives. And then, to forget."  For some remaining in the In Between, however, "forgetting cures nothing," believing that "Wrongs must be remembered."  

Very briefly, largely because I'm so behind here,  in 1990, Sri Lankans were in the thick of that country's civil war which had begun in 1983 and didn't end until 2009.   It was a violent, horrific time, with death squads everywhere and scores of people being murdered or disappeared, many never to surface again.  Maali  Almeida is a photographer who had a complicated life, as noted at the beginning when he talks about what his business card might have said about him:  "Maali Almeida: Photographer.  Gambler. Slut."  He had lost lots of money at the casinos, was (as quoted in the dustjacket blurb) a sort of outcast "closet gay"  in love with his friend DD (although he sleeps around on his many travels) and more importantly,  he  had been witness to the terror and the carnage through his work as a fixer for various groups including politicians, army officers, NGOs, the press, and other dubious clients. He figured that by working on all sides, he would be seen as favoring none of them, a strategy that in hindsight, obviously didn't work out well for him. He had also taken a number of photographs that as he had once told his friends, could "topple the government," now sitting in envelopes in a box under his bed.  These photos are incriminating to the point that if seen, "this country will burn again," but he had hoped that by making them public they might bring some sort of accountability and judgment, especially against those who participated in the 1983 massacres and other atrocities, or quite possibly even end the conflict.   Part of what Maali needs  to accomplish during his seven-moon span  is to somehow have his closest friends DD and Jaki   take out and exhibit these photos publicly, but there are certain constraints in place that make it difficult for him to make contact directly with the living, so he has to learn to rely on the dead (and in one case, a creepy medium linking both worlds) to help him in his task.   But that's not all -- he also wants to solve the mystery of his own death.  As time starts to tick down,  another mission is added to this lineup -- he will somehow need to protect his friends who, in the aftermath of Maali's photos, get caught up in a chain of events putting their lives in jeopardy.

This is a book I just could not stop reading, and the way the author structured his story I thought was absolute genius.  It is a mix of historical fiction, humor and political satire in which the author not only exposes the horrors of these dark years, but also through the many ghosts with whom Maali Almeida speaks, imagines what those who died during this conflict might say if only they had a voice, making me  wish that the book's original title, Chats With the Dead would have been retained.  It is also part ghost story and part whodunit, for me an unbeatable combination.  As seen in both the afterlife and in earthly life, the novel also speaks to those in positions of power who put their own self interests ahead of everything else, making it a timely read for sure. It's one of the most original books I've had the pleasure to have read in a long while, and most certainly a book I can recommend.  

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Nightcrawling, by Leila Mottley


Knopf, 2022
271 pp


Nightcrawling is author Leila Mottley's novel debut,  a book she started writing in her teens, set in Oakland, California.   At seventeen, she says in the Author's Note at the end of the novel, she was contemplating what it meant to be "vulnerable, unprotected, and unseen," and that she wanted to write a story that "would reflect the fear and danger that comes with black womanhood and the adultification of black girls..."  Her main character is Kiara Johnson, and the novel begins with a rent hike, all too common these days. 


 It was already difficult enough for Kiara to pay rent because she doesn't have a steady job; it's not as if she doesn't try to find one but potential employers are "so hung on the high school dropout shit" that nothing ever pans out for her.  She grabs a couple of shifts here and there at a liquor store, which helps keep her family afloat, but with a double raise in the rent, what she makes is just not enough.    She has a brother, Marcus, but he'd quit his job and now spends his time recording rap ("spitting rhymes in a studio") with the hope that someday he'll make it big like their Uncle Ty, who is now living in Los Angeles in a mansion and driving a Maserati, having left family behind.  On hearing the news of the rent hike, Marcus asks for just one more month, but what Kiara sees is "half a dozen SoundCloud tracks and no paycheck," while he waits for things to change.   Kiara's father, who had joined the Black Panthers, had been arrested, imprisoned and released, but sadly succumbed to cancer; her mother is also out of the picture.  "Adultification" indeed -- it seems that the family's survival now  depends on Kiara, who has also taken it upon herself to see to a neighbor's little boy since the mom is too whacked on drugs to care about him.  

An encounter at a strip club where one of her friends works  leaves Kiara with money in her pockets, and realizing that whether or not she consents, since her body is going to be used, she decides that maybe sex work could be a solution to her immediate problems.  Another prostitute suggests she get someone to watch out for her, but first she tries to get on with a few escort agencies, frustrated when each time she is told to call back when she's legal.  Finally,  as she says,  "I have a body and a family that needs me, so I resigned to what I have to do to keep us whole, back on this blue street," and "nightcrawling" becomes what she does. 

One of her clients decides that he doesn't need a room or a car to do business, which Kiara doesn't like, but the sex happens anyway outside against a building.   It's then that Kiara has her first encounter with the police, who shoo him off and put Kiara in their car, one of them telling her that prostitution is illegal and he has to take her in.  As one cop begins driving, the other is on her in the back.  This is only the first encounter she will have with the police, and she says nothing to anyone; soon she is pretty much on call with several members of the force, identified only by badge number, never a name.  But when one of the cops later commits suicide, her involvement is about to become a huge story, especially since the cop left behind a letter saying what he had done.   The pressure is on for Kiara at this point, as the policemen begin to hassle her about keeping quiet about the rest of them.  The harassment escalates when a grand jury is formed to hear the case, and the fallout lands squarely on the people Kiara cares about the most.  

It didn't take long at all for me to be sucked into this story; later  I discovered that the author had been inspired by a real-life case of an (at first) underage sex worker that had the same sort of encounters with some policemen in Oakland in 2016.  I have to give the author major points for not just rehashing that event but coming up with her own take, which gets into the life of this girl who has to grow up all too soon and take her family's survival on her shoulders.    At some point though I started wondering why Kiara or her brother never applied for some sort of help from various agencies, from the state or even better, from organizations like People's Breakfast Oakland (especially since her dad was a former Black Panther!) or the East Oakland Collective,  and that led me to question whether or not the author did enough research that might have made this story more realistic.    As just another example of the inconsistencies that exist in the latter part of this novel, how in the heck would Kiara have known or even cared about Pinterest (as in the remark she made about her attorney's office space looking like it came "straight from Pinterest"), especially since she tells us early on that she has no access to internet?   There were other things like this as well and after a while they just started to grate.  And speaking of her attorney, she came across flat as a character here and not very believable as an advocate.   For me, the book started strong, but as it progressed it just made me frustrated.  

I look at reviews all across the internet and everyone is just loving this book, so once again it's a case of maybe it's just me.   I realize it's her first novel, that she's young and talented, but for me it's a case of not exhibiting enough real-world knowledge and the need for more consistency that would have better tightened things up throughout the story that soured my reading experience.  Loved the story; it's the execution here that caused issues for me.