Author, Book review, Colm Tóibín, essays, Non-fiction, Picador, Publisher

‘A Guest at the Feast’ by Colm Tóibín

Non-fiction – paperback; Picador; 300 pages; 2022.

A Guest at the Feast brings together Colm Tóibín’s previously published non-fiction work in one volume. There are 11 essays in total, which were written between 1995 and 2022, and mostly published in the London Review of Books. They are unified by some common themes, including art (specifically literature and poetry) and religion (specifically Catholicism).

The volume is divided into three parts: the first focuses on personal, autobiographical-type essays; the second focuses on the Catholic Church and its various scandals; and the third is largely about writers — Marilynne Robinson, Francis Stuart, John McGahern and Thomas Mann — and the influences on their work.

Admittedly, this collection wasn’t quite what I expected. Its overriding theme is religion and now, having read the book, I feel like I know more about the inner-most workings of the Catholic Church than I ever wanted to know. Its saving grace is the eloquence of the prose, which makes for an effortless read, and the seamless weaving of facts with personal insights.

A brush with cancer

My favourite essay is the opening one — Cancer: My Part in its Downfall — a deeply personal and self-deprecating account of Tóibín’s testicular cancer diagnosis and treatment.  I had previously read it online and recalled its startling opening line:

It all started with my balls.

But I also loved the little insights he provides into hospital life, the side effects of chemotherapy — he loses his sense of taste but constantly dreams of food  — and the things that annoy him about spending so much time at home, where he is forced to listen to the “ghastly cries” of Dublin’s seagull population and the incessant sound of their claws on his roof.

They made their irritating little noises against the slate of the roof through the night until I came to believe that they and their parents had been sent by some force of darkness to mock me.

The humour, mixed with pathos, makes the essay memorable and moving.

The magic of McGahern

I also enjoyed his short essay Snail Slow: John McGahern, which is essentially a review of the book The Letters of John McGahern (Faber, 2021) but reads like a mini biography and examination of McGahern’s influences.

McGahern, who died in 2006, is one of my favourite writers (see my reviews here) and is widely regarded as one of the most important writers of the latter half of the 20th century. Tóibín knew him personally and imbues his review with personal insights. He makes no bones about the fact that he wasn’t always a fan.

I found too much Irish misery in it [his work], too much fear and violence and repressed sexuality, too much rural life and Catholicism. Perhaps my aversion was made more intense by the fact that I recognised this world. I have been brought up in it; I was still living in it.

(Interestingly, it is these very factors that make me so interested in McGahern’s work — it probably helps that I am not Catholic and did not grow up in Ireland.)

Tóibín later comes to appreciate — and love — McGahern’s writing, and when he develops a friendship with him learns that he’s a man of contradictions and not without malice; he could make harsh judgments but he could also “have wondrous responses to anything that appealed to him”.

Charting the Church’s downfall 

The middle section of the book is concerned wholly with the Roman Catholic Church and comprises long-form reviews of books about the institution:

  • The Paradoxical Pope, first published in The New Yorker in 1995, is a portrait of John Paul II and the tensions between American Catholics and the Vatican, specifically around birth control, abortion, homosexuality and celibacy;
  • Among the Flutterers, first published in 2010, looks at the ways in which the Church has lost its power in Ireland and posits a theory that it provides a good cover for gay men who will never have to explain why they have never married;
  • The Bergoglio Smile examines the dark side of Pope Francis; and
  • The Ferns Report reviews an official Irish government inquiry into the allegations of clerical sexual abuse in Tóibín’s home county of Wexford.

Each essay in this “Catholic set” is incredibly well-written, detailed and fact-filled, but reading them one after the other (I read this book in the space of a weekend) was a bit heavy going. The personal insights do lighten the load slightly — but only slightly.

The benefit of reading them together, however, is seeing how the Church’s power diminishes over time as popes change and scandals slowly emerge. At the time the first essay was written, for instance, abortion and contraception were the main controversies. Ten years later, at the time of the last essay,  pedophilia was being exposed through official inquiries.

Easy to read

On the whole, I enjoyed A Guest at the Feast but if I had known I could read most of the content online for free I might have thought twice about buying it.

That said, it’s easy to read, full of droll moments, carefully considered observations and deeply personal reflections and anecdotes that bring his subjects to life. It’s a masterclass in non-fiction writing.

A Year With William Trevor

‘A Year with William Trevor’ is almost here!

As the end of the year fast approaches, this is just a quick reminder that it’s time to dust off your William Trevor books (or buy or borrow them) in preparation for “A Year with William Trevor”, which kicks off in January 2023.

Together with Cathy from 746 Books, we will be working our way through Trevor’s extensive backlist. Our proposed reading schedule is below. We’ll be posting our reviews in the first week of every month. I am aiming to publish my first one on the first Saturday of January.

Please feel free to join along. You don’t need to follow our schedule. Just read whatever Trevors you can lay your hands on and let us know using the hashtag #WilliamTrevor2023. I’m looking forward to seeing what everyone reads and having some good online chats about his work.

Here’s the proposed schedule:

MONTH CATHY KIM
JAN The Old Boys Cheating at Canasta (short stories)
FEB The Boarding House Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel
MAR The Love Department Miss Gomez and the Brethren
APR The Hill Bachelors (short stories) Elizabeth Alone
MAY Nights at the Alexandra The Children of Dynmouth
JUN Felicia’s Journey A Bit on the Side (short stories)
JUL Death in Summer Other People’s Worlds
AUG The Mark-2 Wife (short stories) Fools of Fortune
SEP The Story of Lucy Gault The Silence in the Garden
OCT Excursions in the Real World (memoir) After Rain (short stories)
NOV Two Lives Two Lives
DEC Last Stories The Dressmaker’s Child 

And here’s a gallery of all the books I am planning to read. I think these Penguin covers are just gorgeous:

For inspiration on what to read, please check out my original post announcing this year-long read-a-long.

Book chat, Kim Scott

Kim Scott named a State Cultural Treasure

Congratulations to Australian writer Kim Scott who has received a prestigious 2022 State Cultural Treasures Award.

These awards celebrate and honour senior Western Australian artists and organisations who have made outstanding lifelong contributions to their art form and community.

Only 38 people have ever received one of these awards, which were established in 1998 (and known as State Living Treasures Awards) and subsequently awarded in 2004 and 2015.

Scott is a descendant of the Wirlomin Noongar people and wrote his first novel, ‘True Country‘ while he was teaching in Kalumburu, the northernmost settlement in Western Australia, with his wife.

His second novel, ‘Benang: From the Heart’, won the Western Australian Premier’s Literary Award and the Miles Franklin Literary Award, making him the first Aboriginal author to win it.

He won a second Miles Franklin Literary Award with ‘That Deadman Dance’. This novel also earned him the prestigious South-East Asia and Pacific Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

He has dedicated himself to reclaiming Noongar culture and language.

He was named the inaugural Western Australian of the Year in 2012 and was inducted into the Western Australian Writers Hall of Fame in 2020. He is currently a senior academic at Curtin University of Technology

You can find out more about the awards, and the other recipients, on the official website.

Australia, Author, Book review, Germany, Publisher, Setting, Transit Lounge

‘Moon Sugar’ by Angela Meyer

Fiction – paperback; Transit Lounge; 256 pages; 2022. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Angela Meyer’s Moon Sugar is the most original novel I have read all year.

It reads like literary fiction but contains elements of speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy and crime. The blurb describes it as “genre-busting” — which is just another way of saying it refuses to be pigeonholed.

Regardless, it’s an entertaining story that addresses themes of late capitalism, desire, intimacy, grief and the pursuit of sensory experiences. Above all, it is about connection — with ourselves, the people around us and the environment.

On the road

The story is told from the point of view of 40-year-old Mila, a personal trainer, who has broken up with her long-time boyfriend and has used a sex worker website called “SugarMeetMe” to find a new, much younger, lover.

Her transactional relationship with Josh soon morphs into something more intimate, so when he dies in what appears to be a suicide during a solo European trip, her first thought is to retrace his steps to find out what happened.

Accompanied by Josh’s friend, Kyle, she goes to Germany to investigate, but her quest generates more questions than answers.

Part road trip, part detective story, Mila’s journey, which includes visits to Berlin, London and Budapest, is complicated by the mention of an “experiment” both she and Josh were involved in back in Melbourne. Did this have something to do with his death?

A page-turning novel

Meyer carefully controls the narrative, slowly revealing aspects of the experiment to keep the reader guessing. This is complemented by an additional narrative thread involving a pair of astronauts from an earlier period who discover an elixir with mystical powers. How this is connected to Mila’s present-day story does not come together until right near the end, adding to the page-turning quality of the novel.

I am being deliberately vague here because Moon Sugar works best if you go into it knowing as little about it as possible.

I enjoyed the ride it took me on, although some aspects felt uneven and a little stilted. The road trip, for instance, just felt like an excuse for the author to tell us about her own European experiences, and some of the ideas around gender fluidity, reproductive rights and what billionaires chose to do with their money felt heavy-handed.

But on the whole, the novel is a refreshing take on the human desire for deep connections — and it’s hard not to see the writing of it as a reaction to the global covid-19 pandemic when so many people endured isolating lockdowns and enforced separation from loved ones.

Lisa at AnzLitlovers has also reviewed it.

Update: For some reason, this post was not in the WordPress app and when I went to refresh it the whole post was deleted. I have rescued the copy from my laptop and republished it. Phew. 

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Paul Daley, Publisher, Setting

‘Jesustown’ by Paul Daley

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 364 pages; 2022. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

How history is recorded and written, what is left out and what is exaggerated for effect, and how it is passed down, forms the central theme of this debut novel by Australian journalist Paul Daley.

Jesustown, which is set on a former mission town in remote Australia, is an attempt at post-colonial truth-telling even though it’s fiction and includes contemporary elements that feel a bit cheesy.

The author, in his afterword, says it’s “informed by some actual events that occurred across this continent, but it is not history and shouldn’t be read as such”. Even so, in its depiction of frontier wars, the ways in which First Nations’ were decimated by disease, had human remains and art stolen by collectors, and then endured the theft of their children, there’s a bright ring of truth about it.

Bending the truth

The story is narrated by Patrick Renmark, an Australian-born, London-based historian who calls himself a “story-ist” — he has made a name for himself publishing bestselling low-brow books about explorers and sportsmen and other “heroes”  — and thinks nothing of bending the truth if it serves the narrative.

When his marriage breaks down and his young son dies — a tragedy for which he is blamed and shamed — he flees to (fictional) Arcadia, in remote northern Australia, to work on a new project: writing a biography about his grandfather, who famously brokered “peace” between the Traditional Owners of the area and the local police and wore many different hats:

My grandfather — or Pa, as I called him — the feisty journalist. The great white anthropologist. The fearless explorer. The saviour of the last of the wild aborigines, as he liked to call himself. My grandfather, Nathaniel ‘Renny’ Renmark, the hero. My pa — the genius madman.

Renny has left behind an entire house rammed with disordered archival material, cassette tapes full of his spoken thoughts, Aboriginal artifacts and a published memoir, Black Men & White Lies: The Australian aborigine and me, which Patrick describes as “a self-serving and (typically) ungracious tome”.

Patrick reckons he can spin his grandfather’s story into another bestselling book but when he begins to sift through the archival material he realises it’s not quite that easy.

Jesustown includes Renny’s diary entries and transcripts of his tapes to build a picture of a complex man, who was eccentric and full of contradictions. He lived amongst the Indigenous population and grew to understand their ways and culture, defending them against those who would do them harm, but he also introduced sickness into the population and brought in some American anthropologists who were unscrupulous collectors of art and human remains.

As Patrick finds out more about the grandfather he hasn’t seen since he was a teenage boy, he tells his own story of shame and slowly reveals what happened to his marriage and his son. These two intertwined narrative threads build an interesting picture of inter-generational guilt, shame and legacy.

High ambitions

There’s no doubt that Jesustown has high ambitions to explore Australia’s complex and often violent and exploitative Black and white colonial past, but I’m not sure it succeeds.

The tone, for instance, feels off. Patrick’s voice is often satirical, ridiculing his own stupidity (mainly in relation to the sordid extramarital affair he conducts in London), but that tone jars against the heavier aspects of the story.

The earlier sections of the novel, in particular, where he lauds his career successes and sends up his own Australianness, are light-hearted and funny, but that mocking tone runs like an undercurrent throughout the entire narrative. It just feels counterproductive to the seriousness of Jesustown‘s bigger aims.

However, if you are looking for an “easy” way in to subjects as weighty as massacres, cultural theft and the entire subjugation of Australia’s First Nations people, then maybe this is a good place to start.

The novel’s exploration of history and storytelling and the ways in which the lines between fact and fiction are often blurred are also insightful.

Six degrees of separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘The Snow Child’ to ‘Border Districts: A Fiction’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeI missed November’s Six Degrees of Separation but have remembered to do it this time around thanks to a calendar reminder! Honestly, where has the year gone?

This monthly meme is hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest. It works like this: Kate suggests a starter book and the idea is to then create a chain of six more books, linking each one as you see fit.

Here are the six books I have chosen for my chain. As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘The Snow Child’ by Eowyn Ivey (2012)

Partly based on a Russian fairytale, this novel is about a childless couple who build a snowman designed to look like a little girl, which later comes to life but is only ever seen living in the forest in winter. It’s too slight a tale to sustain 400-plus pages, but as a story about heartbreak and hope with a strong fairy-tale element to it, it is a lovely and evocative read.

‘Touch’ by Alexi Zentner (2011)

Another book set in an icy wilderness with a hint of the fairytale about it is Alexi Zentner’s debut novel, which was longlisted for the Giller Prize in 2011. Set in  Canada in the early 20th century, it’s an atmospheric tale ripe with adventure, hardship, tragedy, murder, romance — and a teensy bit of cannibalism. Now you’re intrigued, right?

‘The Girl with Glass Feet’ by Ali Shaw (2009)

Sticking with the fairytale theme, this debut novel is set on a fictional wind-swept island, where strange and unusual events take place. When the central character’s feet turn into glass, she returns to the island to seek a cure. She meets an enigmatic young man, with whom she falls in love, but with the glass slowly taking over her body, it becomes a race against time to find a cure for her condition.

‘The Living Sea of Waking Dreams’ by Richard Flanagan (2020)

Here’s another story about body parts doing weird things. In this novel by Booker Prize-winning novelist Richard Flanagan, people begin to “lose” body parts. At first, it might just be a finger that turns invisible, but later it might become a knee or an entire limb. This is a metaphor for emotional loss (the story is largely about how we deal with aging parents), but it also acts as a metaphor for environmental loss as there is a twin storyline about the hunt for the rare and elusive night parrot, which is on the verge of extinction.

‘The Memory Police’ by Yoko Ogawa (1994)

Lots of things disappear in Yoko Ogawa’s dystopian tale. It’s set on an island, where residents are collectively forced to forget certain objects, including ribbons, roses, maps and calendars as if they never existed. This forgetting is enforced by a mysterious and draconian force called the Memory Police. Those who disobey, or who are unable to forget, are rounded up and “disappeared”.

‘The Wilderness’ by Samantha Harvey (2009)

Forgetting things is at the hub of this deeply affecting and brilliantly structured novel which is about Jake, a 60-something widower, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Through a clever repetition of motifs and family tales, the reader begins to see how Jake’s memories are slowly deteriorating as his disease takes hold. Stories shift and change and turn into something else, blurring the line between what is real and what is not.

Border Districts

‘Border Districts: A Fiction’ by Gerald Murnane (2018)

This novel is labeled “A Fiction” probably because it doesn’t comply with the normal conventions of the literary novel and blurs the line between fiction, non-fiction and reportage. Written stream-of-consciousness style and employing some of the devices of meta-fiction, Border Districts is an “experimental” novel, one that explores memory or, more accurately, the landscape of the mind.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a fairytale in the snow to an experimental novel that explores memory, via novels that focus on fairytales, loss and forgetting.

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note that you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Robbie Arnott, Setting, Text

‘Limberlost’ by Robbie Arnott

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 240 pages; 2022.

With just two novels under his belt, Robbie Arnott has made a name for himself as one of Australia’s most exciting, original and acclaimed literary writers.

His debut, Flames (2018), was nominated for almost every prize going (see his publisher’s site to see all his prize listings) and earned him a Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prize. His second, The Rain Heron (2020), won the Age Book of the Year award and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the ALS Gold Medal and the Voss Literary Prize, amongst others.

His latest book, Limberlost, is sure to earn him more accolades, although this novel is far less experimental and more “traditional” than his earlier work. But what it does share with those books is the same magical sense of wonder for Nature and the rich, evocative descriptions of the Tasmanian landscape.

Dreams of adventure

Set on an apple orchard in Tasmania during the Second World War, it tells the story of teenager Ned, whose two older brothers join the Army, leaving him behind with a taciturn father and a bossy older sister.

While the narrative largely unfolds over the course of a summer, it also weaves in glimpses of Ned’s future life as a husband and father to show how the choices he makes as a 15-year-old have long-lasting repercussions in the decades ahead.

As a teenager, he keeps to himself but he works hard to gain his dad’s approval and his sister’s respect. He spends his spare time trapping and shooting rabbits, selling their pelts as part of the war effort. But while he knows the rabbit fur is used to make the Army’s distinctive slouch hats, he’s not doing it as a patriotic act — he simply wants to save up enough money to buy himself a boat.

That boat, he believes, will not only give him a sense of freedom to explore beyond the orchard perimeter, but it will also allow him to sail to the mouth of the river where, as a young boy, his father took him and his brothers to see a “mad” whale that had destroyed several fishing boats and wreaked havoc with its fluked tail, an experience that has stuck with him ever since.

If he killed enough rabbits, he might earn enough to buy his own boat […] Nothing fancy, just a small, single-sailed dinghy he could run into the river. Out of the water he could sail wherever he liked, from downstream where the current ran fresh to the broad estuary in the north. Squid-filled reefs, forested coves, schools of flashing salmon, trenches of snapper, lonely jetties, private beaches on whose cold sands he could burn hidden fires — all would be open to him if he had a boat. If he killed enough rabbits.

Be careful what you wish for

Most of the story charts Ned’s pursuit of his dream and then shows what happens when it is realised. The boat, of course, is not just a boat. It’s a conduit that brings him closer to his father — and, to some extent, his sister — as well as his friend Jackbird and Jackbird’s gun-toting sister, Callie, who later becomes Ned’s wife.

It’s also a metaphor for Ned determining the direction of his life, of longing to experience the adventure and excitement that his older brothers are encountering in the war, and of making tangible that emotion he felt when he saw the whale thrashing in the sea years earlier.

Emotion, it turns out, is something Ned feels keenly. He might think nothing of killing rabbits, but when he finds a badly injured quoll in one of his traps, for instance, he’s too kind-hearted to put it out of its misery: he takes it home, hides it away in a crate and looks after it as best he can.

Later, when he goes mustering as a 30-year-old man, he witnesses a cow drowning in a river and blames himself for the incident because he hadn’t been able to chase it down and rescue it. He tells himself that his brothers, Toby and Bill, would never let something like that happen and wonders when the “surefootedness” and  “the natural competence of other men would come to him”.

It’s this tendency for self-reflection, of beating himself up about things, combined with his empathy and gentleness that makes Ned who he is, but in a world of strong males (every male character in this book makes a living off the land in one form or another), he sees these as character flaws, not strengths. Even his university-aged daughters challenge him:

Ned met her gaze. Felt her condescension tear a new wound in him. He felt off-balance, disoriented, angry. His daughters had never spoken to him like this before. Nobody had.

Of course, these traits as an adult have their long roots in his teenage years, particularly that formative summer involving the boat, the quoll and his budding friendship with Callie.

Favourite read of the year

I absolutely adored this book. From the lush prose and its gorgeous descriptions of the natural world to the way Arnott taps into the rich interior world of a lonely teenage boy, it’s a truly moving coming-of-age novel about kindness, loss, love and family.

And there’s something about the passing of time and the nostalgic tone of the story — without ever resorting to sentimentality — that makes this such a powerful read. I can’t remember the last time I read a book and had a good old sob when I came to the end of it!

There’s no doubt that Limberlost will be my favourite novel of 2022.

For other reviews, please see Lisa’s at ANZ LitLovers, Brona’s at This Reading Life and Susan’s at A Life in Books.

I read this book for Brona’s #AusReadingMonth. It has been published in the UK and if you hurry you might be able to pick up a Kindle version for just 99p if you don’t mind buying books from that bad corporate citizen known as Amazon.

Book chat

What is a novella?

In his role as the Laureate for Irish Fiction, Colm Tóibín writes a monthly blog on the Arts Council of Ireland website, which always makes fascinating reading.

This month he has written about novellas (which makes me wonder does he know about Novellas in November hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck?) and made some very bold statements about the genre.

In response to the question “what is a novella”, he writes:

A novella is something no one wants. Publishers live in dread of them because no one much will buy them. There is no prize for the best novella of the year; there never will be. If you are engaged in writing a novella, it is with a lonely feeling that no one is waiting for you to finish it. No one is ever going to say: I am so looking forward to your next novella.

He later goes on to argue that, caught between a short story and a novel, the novella generally has just “one plot-line, one protagonist, and its meaning can unfold or be revealed without any recourse to transcendence”. On this basis, he suggests that “Claire Keegan’s ‘Foster’ is a novella, but her ‘Small Things Like These’ is a novel”.  That’s because:

Furlong’s own life story is dramatized as much as the actual events that occur in the novel’s time-span. If we didn’t have the story of his upbringing, then the book would be a novella.

This made me think about all the many dozens of novellas I’ve read over the years that have complex storylines, with back stories and present stories all combining to form a single narrative. Have I misunderstood what a novella is?

I generally decide if a book is a novella by the number of pages it possesses, because if I haven’t read it, how do I know if the story is complex enough to meet the definition? My rule of thumb is this: if the book has less than 150 or so pages, it’s a novella (sometimes I might push it to 200 pages if the font size is large); more than 150 pages and it’s a novel.

According to this Wikipedia article, a novella is determined by word count — between 17,500 and 40,000 words — but that’s not something you can easily work out by picking up a book. That same article also confirms Tóibín’s idea that the narrative in a novella is generally less complex than one in a novel.

A novella generally features fewer conflicts than a novel, yet more complicated ones than a short story. The conflicts also have more time to develop than in short stories.

Later in his blog post, Tóibín suggests that some of the very best writing is to be found in the novella form (to which I agree) but then argues that because so few novellas get published, they often get buried away in short story collections and are never discovered by readers.

“But maybe novella-writers should rise up,” he writes.

Or maybe the name itself – novella – should change, just as Windscale, which had a bad reputation, became Sellafield, or Facebook became Meta. Or maybe these categories – short story, novella, novel – really make no sense and have no clear borders.

You can read the blog post in full here.

What do you think? What does the term novella mean to you? And does a definition really matter?

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Europa Editions, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Milena Agus, Publisher, Setting

‘From the Land of the Moon’ by Milena Agus (translated by Ann Goldstein)

Fiction – paperback; Europa editions; 108 pages; 2011. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.

From the Land of the Moon earned debut author Milena Agus the prestigious Zerilli-Marimò Prize for Fiction in 2008.

It’s a simple tale but it packs an emotional punch — and it’s the kind of book you want to reread as soon as you reach the final page. That’s because there’s a little unexpected twist right at the end that turns everything on its head and makes you reassess all your assumptions about the characters and the way they chose to live their lives.

Sardinia setting

Set in Sardinia, it’s narrated by an unnamed woman who tells us the story of her grandmother, who, in 1943, was forced to marry a man she did not love. She was 30 and considered an old maid; he was more than 40 and a widower.

There was a “veil of mystery” over her and a troubled history that few knew about, much less discussed. Just days before meeting her husband, for instance, she had thrown herself down the well but had been miraculously rescued by her neighbours. She had a penchant for blades, secretly cutting the veins in her arms and hacking off her hair so that she “looked like a mangy dog”.

After their wedding, her new husband continues to frequent brothels. She doesn’t mind because it relieves her of her conjugal duties, but when she discovers the cost she makes an offer: “Explain to me what you do to these women, and I’ll do the same.”

A spa trip

In 1950, after several miscarriages, thought to be due to kidney stones, she is prescribed thermal treatments and sent to a spa on the mainland. Here she meets a handsome well-dressed man, an army veteran, who has a crutch and a wooden leg. The pair fall in love and she shows him the self-inflicted cuts on her arms (which she claims are from working in the fields), as well as the passionate love poems she has been secretly writing all her life.

He shares with her his love of music and reveals how he would play the piano at home for hours and hours.

Here at the baths he missed the piano, but that was before he began talking to grandmother, because talking to grandmother and watching her laugh or even feel sad, and seeing how her hair came loose when she gestured, or admiring the skin of her slender wrists and the contrast with her chapped hands — that was like playing the piano.

Return home

When she returns to her husband in Sardinia, she bears him a son — coincidentally, exactly nine months after her spa trip — but can’t stop thinking about her lover.

With him, she felt no embarrassment […] and since her whole life she had been told that she was like someone from the land of the moon, it seemed to her that she had finally met someone from her own land, and that was the principal thing in life, which she had never had.

When her son (the narrator’s father) is seven she takes two jobs as a maid to fund the piano lessons she organises for him. As an adult, he becomes a world-famous concert pianist, but she never goes to listen to him; it is too upsetting for her.

Many years later, in 1963, on a family trip to Milan to visit her sister and brother-in-law who had moved there, she wanders the streets alone in search of the Veteran’s house. Her plan is to run away with him, even if that means abandoning her husband and son, because she has such “heart-stopping longing” for him…

Devastating read

From the Land of the Moon is a quick, devastating read. It’s bittersweet, romantic, and tinged with melancholia but also punctuated by small moments of joy. And it asks important questions about love and marriage, commitment and desire, and the role of women in 20th-century Italian society.

The prose is charming, understated and rich with historical detail (particularly in relation to the Second World War and the devastation it wreaked on cities, people and the economy). And while the pacing is slow and steady, it builds to a surprising climax, one that had me turning back to the first page to begin the story all over again.

Any wonder this is an international bestseller.

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov22) hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Sigrid Nunez, USA, Virago

‘A Feather on the Breath of God’ by Sigrid Nunez

Fiction – paperback; Virago Press; 192 pages; 2021.

If America is a nation of immigrants, then this debut novella is a quintessential American story.

A Feather on the Breath of God, by Sigrid Nunez, was first published in 1995. It’s framed around an American woman looking back on the lives of her working-class immigrant parents and includes aspects of her own struggle with identity as a multiracial person.

The novella is structured in four parts — the story of the narrator’s Chinese father, the story of her German mother, her own life as a ballerina, and her love affair with a Russian immigrant — each of which could be read as a standalone story in its own right. (This is not to say there’s no overarching thread tying everything together, for there is, and that comes in the first-person narrator telling the story, but the overall narrative feels slightly disjointed.)

An unlikely partnership

Both the first part, Chang, and the second part, Christa, are detailed pen portraits of two very different people.

Chang is a quiet, introverted man, who was born in 1911 in Panama of Chinese parentage, and despite more than 30 years in America has never quite mastered English. His wife, the narrator’s mother, is the complete opposite. She’s loud, confident, speaks excellent, if heavily accented, English, and is proudly German.

The pair met shortly after the end of the Second World War when Chang was stationed in a small southern  German town (he had been drafted into the US Army and saw action in France and Germany). He was 34 and Christa was 18. In 1948 they settled in the US, where they set up home in the housing projects of New York, and had three daughters, two of them born out of wedlock.

Their relationship is complex and fraught. The narrator does not understand either parent, or their marriage, but in looking back at their lives she begins to empathise with their situations, their struggles and the ways in which their different backgrounds came to shape their personalities and, in turn, her own identity.

By putting herself in her father’s shoes, for instance, she begins to see how life as a father of three American daughters must have been for him:

We must have seemed as alien to him as he seemed to us. To him we must have been “others”. Females. Demons. No different from other demons, who could not tell one Asian from another, who thought Chinese food meant chop suey and Chinese customs were matter for joking. I would have to live a lot longer and he would have to die before the full horror of this would sink in. And then it would sink in deeply, agonizingly, like an arrow that has found its mark.

There are similar revelations about her mother, who refuses to apologise for being German despite the atrocities of the Nazis coming to light:

It was not to be hoped that any American — let alone an American child — could grasp what this unique quality of being German was all about. I don’t recall how old I was, but at some point, I had to wonder: If you took that quality away from her, what would have replaced it? What sort of person might she have been? But her Germanness and her longing for Germany — her Heimweh — were so much a part of her she cannot be thought of without them. To try to imagine her born of other blood, on other soil, is to lose her completely. There is no Christa there.

Forging your own life

The second half of the novella explores the narrator’s own life. As a ballerina, the goal was to be as light as “a feather on the breath of God” (hence the book’s title), which meant constantly starving herself. This is a direct contravention of her childhood, in which her mother, brought up during the war, insists everyone eat every little morsel on their plate.

I was never thin. Not even at ninety pounds. To see how long I could go without solid food (up to five days) was a favorite game. How beautiful the hollowed gut, the jutting bones.

Later, as a teacher of English as a second language, she embarks on an illicit affair with a married Russian student who has a shady past but is dedicated to learning the language. This reminds her that love and language are intertwined, furthering her inability to comprehend how her parents ever communicated with one another.

Whenever I praise his English he says: “I did it for you.” Not the whole truth, of course, but it cannot be denied: he studied hard for me.
“My dear, can I say, ‘I dote on you’? Is it correct?” “Can I say, ‘I adore you’?” “I search my dictionary for ways to tell you.”
My heart runs out of me.
In all those years, my father never learned enough English to tell me how he felt about me.

A Feather on the Breath of God is an intriguing story of immigrants struggling to adapt to a new culture and a new way of life as seen through the eyes of their youngest daughter.

As a tale about personal identity — specifically how much of it is shaped by our ethnicity and cultural upbringing — it is unwavering in its lack of sentiment. It’s bold and brave and compelling.

I have reviewed several books by Sigrid Nunez in recent years. You can see all my reviews here.

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov22) hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck.