Friday, January 21, 2011

A precedent embalms a principle.


Yes, we've had a bit of rain. St Johns Avenue, New Town. January 2011.

Two books this week, and both good 'uns! The first, So Long A Letter by Senegalese author Mariama Bâ.

So Long a Letter takes the form of a long letter written by a widow, Ramatoulaye, to her friend, over the mandatory forty-day mourning period following the death of a husband. It explores the concept of marriage and role of women in post-colonial Senegal, and reveals much of the same double standards that exist in gender relationships.

The narrative construct – which allows Bâ to explore two very different choices within one artistic framework, and succeeds because of the intelligence and maturity of the narrator, and the significant abilities of the author to ‘make a point’ through the construction of an interesting story.

I have not read many novels by female African writers, but I must say that I enjoyed this tremendously, not least because it offers a fascinating and educative look into the life (lives) of people very different to my own, but closer in sensibility than I might otherwise have recognised.

Even better, the other book that I read this week was just as good!

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald was the 1979 Booker Prize winner, beating out (among others, V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. Fair? I’ll leave that one up to you, but Offshore is a worthwhile read.

The story centres on a disparate community that live on barges in Battersea – on the Thames – in the early 1960s. The novel ponders the existence (subsistence) of those who do not belong to the land, but also not properly to the sea. As such, it is an odd little book.

Just over 130 pages, Fitzgerald packs it full of peculiar characters, not quite depressed, but never truly happy. This provides many opportunities to display some of the wittiest and most melancholy prose you can find.

At the centre of the novel is an abandoned (or perhaps escapee, Nenna – the character – herself seems unsure) mother and her spirited daughters. Tilda, the younger, "cared nothing for the future, and had, as a result, a great capacity for happiness." Martha, the elder of the two at 11, is considerably less carefree. "Small and thin, with dark eyes which already showed an acceptance of the world's shortcomings,"

The tidal push and pull of land and sea for Nenna and the other inhabitants presents the grist of the story. Even the family cat exists in an uncertain state, constantly forced assess and reassess her notions of vermin and authority. Though she is capable of catching and killing very young rats, the older ones pursue her. "The resulting uncertainty as to whether she was coming or going had made her, to some extent, mentally unstable."

The humans in the tale are not so different.

This really is a terrific little book, and the construction of the little world seems effortless. Highly recommended.

Also, I thought I’d mention an intriguing little book that I picked up for the kids. Reminding me a little of The Little Prince, Crockett Johnson’s Magic Beach is a beguiling little number. It has the feel of an artist's sketchbook – Henry thought it was a notebook of mine – featuring sparse, seemingly unfinished pencil sketches on a plain background.

The allure kind of passed Ezra by, but Henry was as absorbed as I. The story was a “story within a story (within a story)”, but not in an Italo Calvino, post-structuralist head-up-one’s-backside way.

The tale of cute little Ben and Anne, as they create – then destroy – their own little world is fantastic. Charming, peculiar, and unceasingly cruel.

We loved it.

4 comments:

Roddy said...

At least three years drying time if I am to burn it. What a magnificent tree you have taken.

Tash said...

It is a magnificent tree & photo!
Just finished Cutting for Stone which is a very popular Book-Club-book in the US at the moment. It was an emotional rollercoaster ride toward the end, and it's set up too well, which I don't mind, but some do. I liked the insight into the unknown to me Ethypya (native phonetic spelling) & events and poor urban US training hospitals. I'd like to read Ms. Ba's book. I'm not sure if I will tackle another Ms. Fitzgerald book though...I read The Bookshop a year or two ago, and am not sure if I'd dive into the semi-melancholy world of her novels again. I can feel that your description of Offshore is right on.

Kris said...

Roddy, it was over the middle of the road.

Tash, I'd recommend both books very highly. I'm looking for a good 'humourous' book right now.

Roddy said...

If it is over the middle of the road then it definitely needs to be taken out.