Friday, June 01, 2012
Along with success comes a reputation for wisdom.
Yum! Mayfair Plaza Car Park, Sandy Bay. December 2011.
Three books this week, all quite good. First up is the brand new one from Toni Morrison, Home. Set in the 1950s, Home follows the return of a black Korean War veteran who has recently left the newly desegregated army. The country he returns to is no Leave It To Beaver idyll though, it’s one inhabited by damaged people, racial tension and power imbalances (inequities of race, gender and class).
At 81, I suspect that Morrison’s best days (skill-wise) are behind her. This reads like a – admittedly quite good – imitation of her best novels. It compresses many recurrent themes of memory, love and loss, uprooting and homecoming. The text flows in jazzy rhythms, but the narrative moves a little too quickly to my mind.
This is not a bad read by any stretch, but I have to admit that is not one of her stronger works. If you’re looking for something quick that will give you a taste of her work, this is not a bad starting point. I’d delved deeper and get to the really good stuff though, if I were you.
Second up is a short novel (or perhaps long short story) Pale Horse, Pale Rider, by Katherine Anne Porter that was first published in 1939. The plot revolves around the relationship between a young female journalist and a soldier during the influenza epidemic of 1918. The war hangs heavy in the story, and the narrative inevitably takes us towards death (as the title hints at).
The story itself presents an exceptional depiction of the suffering caused by the epidemic, and its relationship to the war, for that alone it is worth a look. Recommended.
Last up is a novel that a enjoyed immensely, Property by Valerie Martin. This one is a brutally honest portrait of life on a slave plantation in the mid-19th Century. The narrator is a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage to a boorish, vicious plantation-owner. This facet of the story explores the reality of matrimonial subjugation, and our narrator’s plight does engender some sympathy, and the feminist struggle is one that the modern eye can immediately recognise. However, she is utterly incapable of applying the same logic of the unequal power dynamic between women and men to the greater injustice of slavery, whose propriety she never questions.
The relationship between the plantation's owner’s wife, her husband, and slave house girl given as a wedding present plays out against the backdrop of civil unrest and slave rebellion. The art in the text is how it explores relationships of power, ‘property’ and ownership among people living in a system that is manifestly evil. Yet these people are ordinary, often good people. Their system demeans and damages them (Martin subtly illustrates this), and yet they never question it.
In this sense, the author has pulled off a great feat. There is a great moral heart here, but one that is found through the gaps, what is left unsaid, rather than said. This distinction is an important one, as too often literary fiction that revisits past eras too often apply an unrealistic modern lens to characters to whom that lens would be utterly incomprehensible. Property does not make this mistake.
I’m sure that this book irritates many who might be looking for a tale of redemption and resolution, but the very point of great historical injustices that there is rarely any fairy-tale ending, and if the perpetrators of those crimes – especially if they extend to every strata of society – could readily sense the unfairness of life they would unlikely continue to lead such lives.
This is a great read. Moving, exhausting and at points quite depressing. Well worth your time, I couldn’t recommend it more highly.