Friday, April 26, 2019

You have no idea what you're missing if you haven't read Barbara Comyns: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead -- just bloody brilliant.


My introduction to the work of Barbara Comyns was her The Vet's Daughter, which I absolutely loved.   Like that book, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is disorienting, dark, and filled with small moments of rather wry, black humor that caused instant guilt feelings whenever a laugh escaped.  It is also an excellent read, one I went through twice and which I loved even more the second time. 
9780984469314
Dorothy Project, 2015
originally published 1954
193 pp
paperback



The back-cover blurb says that this book is "the story of the Willoweed family and the English village in which they live," which is true on one level, but it goes well beyond your standard English-village novel into something completely different.  Graham Greene is also noted on the cover as saying that Comyns has the "innocent eye which observes with childlike simplicity the most fantastic or most ominous occurrence." This statement came from a review of her The Vet's Daughter, but it also applies here. 

 Published in 1954, The story is set "Summer about seventy years ago," in Warwickshire,  and its title reflects the passing of time and a look back,  as captured in Longfellow's "The Fire of Drift-wood"


"We spake of many a vanished scene,
Of what we once had thought and said,
Of what had been, and might have been,
And who was changed, and who was dead."

The book begins almost whimsically as this small English village has just suffered a flooding of the river that runs through it at the beginning of June.   Ducks are swimming through the windows of a drawing room of the house belonging to the Willoweed family, "quacking their approval," while the maids laugh while chasing a "floating basket filled with eggs" and a child is gleefully  "floating a fleet of toy boats" in the dining room of a flooded house.  It isn't long, however,  until what seems to be cute and cozy makes a change into something darker and foreboding as the author describes the "sorrowful things under the blazing sun and blue sky," found in the flood's aftermath, including dead animals and 

"A passing pig squealing, its short legs madly beating the water and tearing at its throat, which was red and bleeding, "
thrashing about in the river as some men in a boat were trying to rescue it.  And then there's this:
"As the day went on the hens, locked in their black shed, became depressed and hungry and one by one they fell from their perches and committed suicide in the dank water below, leaving only the cocks alive. The sorrowful sitting hens, all broody, were in another dark, evil-smelling shed and they died too. They sat on their eggs in a black broody dream until they were covered with water." They squarked a little, but that was all. For a few moments just their red combs were visible above the water, and then they disappeared." 
It won't be until later that the significance of these scenes becomes apparent, but in this book the natural and human worlds mirror each other, and the reader starts to notice that like this mirroring, there are also dual meanings to be had here.  

Just briefly, because I don't want to spoil things,  while the story looks back on this summer and the inhabitants of this village  after the flood,  it takes us into the home of the Willoweeds, run by the family matriarch Grandmother Willoweed, on whom her son Ebin and his three children Emma, Hattie and Dennis are utterly dependent.   Ebin had returned to the family home after he'd been dismissed from his job at a newspaper; his wife had died while giving birth to their third child.  He feels himself to be "humiliated and a failure in everything he undertook," since it had been ten years since he'd earned any money from his writing -- he has a stack of "half-completed, mouse-nibbled manuscripts" just sitting in his room.   He's a neglectful parent, focusing mainly on himself and his bitterness, leaving the oldest daughter Emma to pick up the slack to provide the attention and needed security to her siblings.   Ebin is greatly "cowed" by his mother, who runs a most austere household in a tyrannical way, and Comyns' descriptions of her fall anywhere between bird and reptile, at one point revealing her as having a "forked tongue."  Comyns' use of animal attributes to describe the humans (and vice versa) here is not only inescapable but also compelling, almost as if the author is making the statement that it's often difficult to discern between the two.  It is only after the flooding subsides that something happens to cause a  series of "gruesome deaths" that "plagues the villagers,"  to the point where Ebin, whose self-interest knows no bounds,  notes in a newly-penned newspaper article, 
"The inhabitants of this remote village are asking each other 'Who will be smitten by this fatal madness next?"
This "fatal madness," it seems to me, describes not only the effects of the strange plague moving throughout the village, but also provides a rather chilling insight into  the darker aspects of human nature.  

 I know that sounds rather cryptic, but I don't want to spoil anything for anyone who may wish to read the novel.  Let me just say that you can't skim over any parts of this book because everything, no matter how minor it may seem, has meaning here.   This is a novel that mingles and mirrors both landscape and people, the natural world and the "civilized" world.  And while it's dark and at times disorienting, it's not all bleak -- while there are a number of people here who seem to thrive on their own self-interest and their own needs,  compassion and caring are to be found in this village as well. 

Barbara Comyns is a brilliant writer, at least based on what I've seen here and in her The Vet's Daughter, and it is a true shame that she is not more well known and her works underappreciated.  Seriously, you don't know what you're missing if you haven't read her books.  I can recommend this book with no hesitation.  

Friday, March 15, 2019

Mrs. Rossi's Dream, by Khanh Ha

Not too long ago (and borrowing from Rodgers and Hammerstein),  I was that girl who cain't say no.  As a result, I had tons of books to read from Netgalley, from various publishers, and from people who organized book tours for various bloggers.  At first it was great and there were books arriving at my door on a daily basis.  But there was also a downside --  I started noticing that I had little time for the books I'd been buying that were starting to seriously pile up.   So with a few exceptions,  I quit accepting offers and got back to my own tomes which had been sadly neglected, and became a much happier person.  But I will always make time when asked if I would like to  read a novel by indie author  Khanh Ha, who has been the recipient of several awards for his fiction.  Mrs. Rossi's Dream is his third novel, and in my opinion, the best he's written.


9781975625689
The Permanent Press, 2019
312 pp
my copy from the author, thank you!!!!


Once again, the author takes us into the vivid but harrowing landscapes of Vietnam.  The Lower U Minh National Reserve in the Mekong Delta  is teeming with life, but at the same time  it is also a place of death.   During the years of the Vietnam War,  as we are reminded, it was the "territory of IV Corps," but it was also home to North Vietnamese forces and the Vietnamese civilians who lived there. Heavy casualties on all sides were suffered in the area, where all too often the bodies were not recovered -- in this place, "The dead remain where they died."  


U Minh Ha, from Vietnam Tourism


Some twenty miles south of there, a couple in their late sixties own and operate a roadside inn for tourists, many of  whom come to visit the National Reserve.  Every day the husband takes a shovel and digs in the same spot, pulls out a bone from his pockets, and buries it.  When the narrator of this story, Le Giang, asks the woman what he is doing, she remarks that their son, who had been an ARVN soldier during the war, had been killed in combat twenty years earlier but they had never recovered his body.   This scene sort of sets the tone for what's coming, when a Mrs. Rossi arrives at the inn with her adopted daughter. Her son,  Nicola Rossi was an American lieutenant who had served in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967, and had died during a firefight in the forest when a mortar blew up.  He had been trapped beneath the trunk of a fallen cajeput tree; missed by the Viet Cong who likely would have shot him in the head had they seen him.    Like the old man at the inn, her son's body had never been recovered; she has come to the area hoping to locate his remains and to make another connection with him by visiting the River of White Lilies, a place she knows he'd been.     She has nothing to go on except a crude map drawn by someone who served under Lieutenant Rossi, her dream of finding him, and a guide who knows the area like the back of his hand and who has taken many people on the same sort of mission. 

  It is her  arrival that sets the story moving into different directions,  mixing the past with present,  as both the living and the dead draw on their memories to reveal not only stories of the Vietnam War and its aftermath,  but also to reveal how in some cases, humanity manifested itself as compassion in some very unexpected ways.  Mrs. Rossi's Dream is a most human story at its core, underscored by the idea that 
"When you held a fragment of bone in your hands, or a skull marred with spiderweb cracks, you couldn't tell if it was Vietnamese or American." 
It is also a story that gives prominence to the dead, which comes as no surprise in this setting.  As just one example,  there is an excellent short chapter in which a young woman draws on her childhood memories to describe a nighttime visit to a strange marketplace at the site of a deserted village that had been "shelled to ash." While wondering about the "eerie stillness"  of it all, she learns that at just past midnight at the beginning of the Lunar Year the dead return from "their yin world into our yang world" in order to "enjoy again our worldly pleasures for one brief moment."

I will say that while I enjoyed the book overall, I thought that there were a couple of scenes that could have been left out with no problem. As far as the ending,  I'm of two minds there. While it is poignant, realistically speaking what happens probably isn't practical at all; at the same time in a story where the dead speak and walk the yang world, well, I suppose anything could happen.  I will also say that the novel is probably not going to appeal to readers who rely on total realism to enjoy a novel.  Thankfully, I don't,  and I think the way in which the author has constructed this book was the right one.   


*******
I read Mrs. Rossi's Dream as part of a book tour, and at the tour's website there is an interview with the author as well as a schedule of other readers' blog/goodreads thoughts about this novel.  If anyone's interested, there's also a link for a giveaway as well.  My many, many  thanks to Khanh Ha for my copy. As I said earlier, I believe that this is best he's written so far and I will certainly look forward to reading his next book.





Sunday, March 3, 2019

All My Goodbyes, by Mariana Dimópulos

"I had as many pieces as a broken vase, and I never found a way to put them back together or even to number my porcelain remains."  


9781945492150
Transit Books, 2019
originally published as Cada despedida, 2010
translated by Alice Whitmore (who did a brilliant job here!)
125 pp
 paperback


The truth of the matter is that I bought this book expecting that it was going to be a crime novel, and while there is a murder, All My Goodbyes turned out to be something completely unexpected, another one of those books where I had to sit for a while trying to wrap my head around what I'd just read.   It begins quite simply as the unnamed narrator ("In Málaga I called myself Luisa; in Barcelona, Lola") reveals something of herself in the first paragraph:
"It's the same thing time and time again, shamelessly, tirelessly. It doesn't matter whether it's morning or night, winter or summer. Whether the house feels like home, whether somebody comes to the door to let me in. I arrive, and I want to stay, and then I leave."  
Her arrivals and departures move her to a series of cities over the following decade; she will go from Buenos Aires, away from her life with her father,  to different cities in Europe and then back to Argentina again, where she ends up in Patagonia, on a farm near El Bolsón.   Within those places she's lived in different rooms of different hostels and houses, taken on different jobs and different lovers, yet there was a sameness about her "pilgrim years," in that
"..staying put was not an option, those years spent in a kind of conspiracy with habit and daily routine, despite myself, but always with a ticket under my arm, or perhaps up my dirty sleeve, always with a passage to somewhere else at the ready. I would always arrive with the intention of staying. And even then I wouldn't stay."  
As she also says, "it was all about arriving," something to keep in mind as you read.

Then on page two we learn that after
"all those years lost and won and lost again, after testing a thousand times the raw stock of my being, which never seemed to cook; when at last I had found a man and I had loved him, they called me up so I could see how the story ended, the living room covered in blood from wall to wall, the ransacked house, the abandoned axe. " 
All My Goodbyes is not written chronologically, however, so while we do get glimpses of her life here and there as she sifts through her memories while going over the murder in her head,  the emphasis is on place rather than on time.  There are short bursts of her recollections of  Heidelberg, Berlin, Málaga, etc., sometimes made all at once, as she offers observations about herself and the people in her life during that time, the people to whom she said all of her goodbyes during those years.   She views herself as a woman in pieces, a woman of different identities always on the move, searching for something, never finding it.   It's only when she comes back to Argentina at the end of that decade that she realizes that she has the opportunity to finally become "a magnificent animal: soft, compact, whole;" it is at the farm where she can see herself with a chance to
"recline without a shred of skepticism, trusting completely in the resilience of chairs and beds" 
 but obviously, things don't quite work out as planned.

I get that some people weren't so enamored with the style, the nonlinear approach and lack of any particular chronology, and to each his/her own,  but actually I don't think the book would have turned out to be as powerful as it was had it been written any other way.   Admittedly, it does take a bit of time to get into the rhythm of the writing style and it is a bit disorienting at first before things start to click.  The lack of a timeline didn't bother me -- I had the feeling that time was less the issue as the author allowed past and present to exist side by side in the form of these brief bursts of  memory. 

Movement, detachment, alienation, and dislocation in this story all loom large here but at the same time, the author also lays down the foundation for a suspenseful read at the beginning and allows it to build slowly.  While I have no intention of spoiling things, the ending is a bit of a shocker that left me thinking for quite a long time about the implications of what I'd just read.  I  very much appreciate the originality in terms of style and story; I get so tired of same old same old and this book is dark and refreshingly different .  And while there's way more to talk about here, I'll call it a day and link to a couple of reviews by people whose intellect goes well past that of my casual-reader self and who actually know what they're doing. 

Recommended for patient readers who appreciate originality and inventiveness.

 Kirkus
James Errington at Mascara
Anna McDonald at 3:a.m. Magazine