issue 58/59: June-July-August 2007
index of book reviews for all issues
|Note: TBR encourages readers to buy books at their local independent booksellers, but not all UK books are available in the US and vice-versa. For on-line book ordering of UK books Amazon UK carries all titles reviewed in TBR; all US releases carried by Amazon.com unless otherwise noted.|
The Mistress’s Daughter: A memoir by A.M. Homes: Viking, 2007
In 1992 A.M. Homes wrote In a Country of Mothers, the disturbing novel of an adopted girl and her therapist who begins to take an unnatural interest in the girl, suspecting she is her own daughter whom she gave up for adoption at birth. Homes was, as she says, attempting to try and understand what it meant to give up a child. It was a subject that fascinated her, because in 1961 she herself had been “given up”—by a 22-year-old, unmarried woman who had gotten pregnant by a much older man. The young woman had agreed to turn over the baby to a nice, Jewish family. A lawyer made arrangements. The undercover pickup and delivery was made by a friend of Homes’ adoptive parents, who dressed in ratty old clothes so as to go unnoticed. The Homes were waiting in a car down the street from the hospital. Three days earlier they had received the phone call: “Your package has arrived and is wrapped in pink ribbons.”
Mrs. Phyllis Homes had had a son from a previous marriage, born with severe kidney problems. He died six months before the adopted baby arrived. “I grew up feeling that on some very basic level my mother would never let herself get attached again,” Homes writes. “I grew up with the sensation of being kept at a distance. I grew up furious. I feared that there was something about me, some defect of birth that made me repulsive, unlovable.” Curious, this, as the adoptive parents appear to have been good people who did nothing to provoke such extreme feeling. Later circumstances, however—well, that’s something else.
The Mistress’s Daughter begins in 1992. Homes is living in New York, but is at her parents’ home in Washington DC for Christmas. They have news: Homes’ biological mother had somehow managed to contact the lawyer from 31 year ago; she would like to meet her daughter and has left a telephone number. As the story unfolds from here, fact indeed plays out stranger than fiction.
Homes first demands that the lawyer require her mother, Ellen Ballman, to write to her and tell her something about herself, including who the father is. The letters come—odd and formal, grammatically flawed—but giving information. The father was one Norman Hecht, who had been married with a family when Ellen, age 15, began working for him at his shop. They began having an affair when Ellen was 17. (Later will come hints of a dodgy stepfather, from whom Ellen was likely to have been trying to escape.)
Homes finally makes the phone call, but does not give her last name or number. The conversations, which begin to be more frequent with time, are unnerving. The woman is peculiar, with a gravely voice. “I come from a very strange family. We’re not quite right,” she says. She will in time suggest that “the three of us”—mother, father, and daughter— get together for dinner, that she and Homes have their portrait painted, and later plead that Homes adopt her. Hardly the Audrey Hepburn mother she had always imagined! More like Blanche DuBois.
This is the time that Homes’ novel In a County of Mothers came out. Somehow Ellen had tracked her down and showed up at a reading, where Phyllis Homes was also in attendance. Home recognized Ellen instantly and asked her to leave. Ellen begins to stalk her.
They will eventually meet—at the Oyster Bar at the Plaza—and Homes will also track down her father, who insists on meeting her in hotel bars, far from his family, although his wife knows of her. The father is a big, ex-football player, all talk, but not much to say, except: first off: “I’m not circumcised.” And later: “[Ellen] was a slut who knew more than her years.” He will request a DNA test, and Homes complies, though there is not much doubt in her mind: “As Norman walks up to the counter, I notice that his butt looks familiar; I am watching him and I’m thinking: There goes my ass. That’s my ass walking away.”
“My wife is jealous of you,” Norman later tells her. Homes: “Ellen thinks I’m her mother, Norman thinks I am Ellen, and I feel like Norman’s wife thinks I am the mistress reincarnate.”
I do not want to give more away about this extraordinary memoir, except to say that subsequent sections of the book deal with Homes’ obsession at digging deep into her family roots, spending hours on the Internet tracking down information (some good tips, if you’re interested), trawling through public records at the New York City Public Archives and elsewhere. She will also go on to explore the ancestry of her adoptive family. She wants to join the Daughters of the American Revolution to get more info, yet must first prove Norman Hecht is her father. He has the DNA papers. The year is now 1998, and Norman wants no contact. Lawyers get involved; hence, comes the section Like an Episode of L.A. Law, where Homes imagines a deposition hearing, with pages and pages of questions put to Mr. Hecht:
Are you proud of your daughter, Mr. Hecht?
It’s an inspired break in the narrative, allowing Homes to unleash the torrent of questions that are pent up inside. And it’s riveting reading.
There is a lot of anger and depression in this memoir. Like Jody from In a County of Mothers, A.M. Homes also saw a therapist in her teens. She always felt the outsider, the “replacement” of the dead boy. “I grew up doused in grief. From day one, on a cellular level, I was perpetually in mourning.” A “cellular level” hairline crack, perhaps; maybe it would have always been there. Who knows?
There is suspense in the memoir, which keeps one turning the pages, discovering more and more about this mother of hers; and most importantly, for me, much to identify with along the way concerning a child’s relationship to family. And I’m not adopted. Now that I think about it, I felt fury in my teens as well, goes with the territory. And I was hardly carrying the burden Homes was.
As one would expect, Homes writes honestly and intelligently about the feelings harbored as an adopted child, about the “new” mother and father to come along in her 31st year, and how she came to reconcile these two slots of parents: “I am my mother’s child and I am my mother’s child, I am my father’s child and I am my father’s child, and if that line is a little too much like Gertrude Stein, then I might be a little bit her child too.” JA
Hospital by Toby Litt: Hamish Hamilton Ltd, UK; May 2007
Well, if you have to go the hospital, god forbid you end up here. Part scary movie/zombie flick, part soap opera, part surreal fantasyland . . . Litt’s latest is subtitled “A Dream-Vision” and that it is. Of what, I’m not sure, but more on that later.
The setting is always the interior of the Hospital (with capital ‘H’), which is actually structured in the shape of an H. The novel begins with a helicopter swooping down on a helipad on the roof of the Hospital. A patient is rushed to the Trauma Team, where the helicopter paramedic reports: “What we have here is an unidentified Caucasian male, mid-thirties, found in the local park having lost consciousness and fallen to the ground, looks like he was out for a run.” On board the helicopter, along with the paramedic, is a boy. “The boy felt his stomach get left behind in the air above . . . . The boy wanted to open his eyes, to look out the window, but the pain from his stomach was too great . . . . The boy felt the chopper bounce slightly on the concrete . . . . ”
Is the “boy” merely the comatose mind of the Caucasian male? I have my opinion, but I’ll leave that to the reader to decide. What we do know is that for 528 pages the boy will try to fight his way out of the Hospital, at first wrestling with slimy and hairy tunnels which impede his way, then later struggling with a jungle which seems to be springing up, including a green shoot growing out of his stomach with roots growing out of his back.
And that’s the least of the silliness. We’re introduced to a whole hoard of doctors, nurses, and medical staff, with strange names, such as Sir Reginald Saint-Hellier, Amber Barnfather, Rubber Nurse, Midwife Honey Hopeful, Henderson MacVanish, Nurse Ginger Bland, and Iqbal Fermier. This running segment plays like pure soap opera, with Amber Barnfather falling in love with surgeon John Steele, with whom the other Nurses (all job titles in caps) are also presumably in love. Or so Amber thinks. Actually, Nurse Sarah Felt is a lesbian and fancies the Rubber Nurse, who walks around dressed like a dominatrix and functions as one as well, punishing all the “naughty boys.”
And then there are the Porters—Othniel Calixte, Cyrille Delira, Luckson St. Just, and other like names—all direct from Haiti (except for Othniel who was born in Midfordshire). The have a Union, which is essentially a Voodoo cult, rituals taking place in a small sub-basement locker-room; while elsewhere in the Hospital we find the head surgeon leading a Satanic cult in the Hospital Chapel. In the Maternity Ward—or something akin to it—a woman has given birth to the first of twins, a baby that is immediately whisked off by a follower of the Satanic cult.
All builds to the magic midnight hour, the epiphanic moment for the particular concern of each and every group, including the Christians, who gather around the comatose man thinking he is a Christ figure, forming yet another cult in a funhouse of cults and madness. Conflicting interests create violent and bloody power struggles, while outside . . . But not to give too much away.
So, what to make of it all? My feeling is that to delve into this kind of whacky, surreal territory, the writer needs to go all the way, like Steve Aylett, who kept coming to mind as someone who could do this sort of thing and do it without literary pretension and with far more laughs. Aylett is squarely a cult writer and has a following (me included). He also knows to keep it short. Litt would seem to aspire to be a cult writer but doesn’t want to lose the literary high ground, and I felt he slightly missed the mark on both counts with this one. If this is satire, where is it? Perhaps there is some grand scheme beyond the vague dream-mirrors-life-mirrors-B-movie horror flicks and soaps. But if so, I didn’t get it. In speaking with an English friend on the phone (who had not read the book), he suggested maybe the Hospital was meant to be England and maybe my being American caused me to miss it. Well, uh, I think I can safely say that’s not going on. Let’s put it this way: if you enjoy a long, imaginative trip through the looking glass and all you want is the ride, then Litt delivers. The humor when it’s there is good although he could have used a lot more. And there are some undeniably good passages along the way. It’s a long way though, whew. JA
A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam: John Murray, UK, 2007
Rehana Haque is a young Urdu-speaking widow who was born in the western “horn'” (West Pakistan), but is now living in Bengali East Pakistan. The year is 1971 and East Pakistan wants its independence. “What sense did it make,” its people wonder, “to have a country in two halves, poised on either side of India like a pair of horns?” East and West Pakistan spoke different languages and followed different religions. The West had political and economic supremacy and continuously ignored the poor Easterners as its lowlands were flooded and hit by cyclones.
Back in 1959, after her husband’s death, Rehana had lost custody of her two small children and had to send them to live with her sister in West Pakistan. When she later gained financial stability—earned by building and then renting a home constructed behind her own—she gets them back. Now, in 1971, the West is her enemy, for although Rehana will never speak pure Bengali, it is the city of Dhaka in the East which has become her home.
“Dear Sisters,” she imagines writing to her family. “Our countries are at war. We are on different sides now . . . you see how much I belong here and not to you.” Of course, it always stung that she was forced to send her son and daughter to the West, so Rehana early on felt the split.
Her children, Sohail and Maya, now are university age and both have joined the struggle for Bangladesh's freedom, having become underground “freedom fighters.” Maya became radicalized in 1970 after a cyclone hit, and food trucks, which everyone had been waiting for, never arrived. She joined the Communist Party immediately thereafter. Rehana is naturally concerned about her children’s activities, especially as the fighting becomes bloodier, but she does not restrict them. “There was a part of her that wanted to allow her children anything—any whimsy, any zeal, any excess, while another part of her wanted them to have nothing to do with it all, to keep them safe at home.” But that she cannot do, and so she slowly reconciles herself to the fact that they are as they are, and she even later joins in—in her way.
Rehana’s renters are Hindu and feel their lives are threatened, so they move further inland to the woman’s family village. Rehana’s son Sohail then takes over the rented house, using it as a safe house and a secret headquarters for guerilla operations. One of the hidden is a badly wounded Bangla military officer, known as the Major. Sohail cannot stay to care for him, so asks his mother to do so. She does not want to assume the job, but she does. As she tends to his wounds and begins to have conversations with him, she finds herself opening up in a way she never has before.
There is much written about Rehana’s neighbors, mostly women. They have been close—played cards together, chatted, raised children. But now that she is involved in activities that must remain secret, she must pull away from the women.
As the struggle intensifies, Rehana’s children scatter, fighting in their various ways outside the area. Rehana will be forced to flee to Calcutta, her birthplace, where she awaits the fighting to end in Dhaka. In Calcutta she is flooded with feelings awakened from her childhood as well as being confronted with thousands of Bengla refugees, many wounded and suffering.
The novel ends with the war coming to an end, Bangladesh having gained its freedom. As at the beginning of he novel, Rehana addresses the gravestone of her dead husband in a heartfelt testament/confession.
Set against the backdrop of the Bangladesh War of Independence, this is a novel full of passion and hope; also of torture and pain and the desperation of the many refugees. It covers love and sacrifice as well. The reader gets a sense of Bangladesh’s history (though personally I would have liked a bit more.) The novel meanders somewhat and Rehana’s character is not easy to pin down. One minute she seems incredibly brave, but then she balks when least expected. I never quite got a fix on her. Still and all: this is a straightforward story without pretensions as its title might suggest. It is of interest for its history and its humbling account of a woman who saw it all and effected more change than she knew. JA
Fear of the Dark by Walter Mosley: Serpent’s Tail, 2007; Little, Brown & Co, 2006
Paris Minton and Fearless Jones return for a third outing. In my review of the previous book, Fear Itself, back in 2003, I give a pretty thorough run-down on these two excellent characters but to quickly sum up: Paris would prefer to sit in his bookshop reading and run in the opposite direction if trouble comes a calling—he even has a system of mirrors to aid in warning him who is in fact at his door. Scared yes, but a total coward no. If he is Ying then Fearless is his Yang and they have the kind of friendship and trust that only opposites can.
I ended that particular review by wondering just how Fearless was going to winkle Paris out of his bookstore in the next book and the answer is that Paris winkles himself out—scared to death, running out the back hurriedly trying to get his pants back on. He should have been lying dead but his attacker’s intentions were momentarily thwarted when he saw the size of Paris’s semi-erect member. Returning to the shop behind the protective bulk of Fearless, he is rather amazed to find his attacker dead. And that is just the beginning of his troubles. Earlier a rather dubious cousin of his had turned up asking for help and he now seems to have disappeared. And to make a bad day worse, the cousin’s mother, Paris’s Auntie Three Hearts, has turned up from some rural backwater where she is revered as a witch.
So far so good, a nice little bit of mirth-filled light entertainment set in L.A back in the good old 1950s; you know, when the world was more innocent. Unless you were black. Unless you were black and screwing a white girl on your shop floor when boyfriend walks in. Nowadays you’re going to be in a whole lot of trouble, but back in 1956 there was no defence; hell, the police would kill you if the boyfriend didn’t. So no matter how innocent you are, having a dead white body in your shop is a death sentence, and one that Paris must try and avoid. This blatant example of the times is tempered by another far more subtle variation later on in the book. While waiting for Fearless, Paris decides to sit in a park, and naturally for him he opens a book and begins to read. Two cops appear and of course have to challenge a black man reading. Paris has to toe the line; one little cheeky aside could bring real trouble, though he is in even deeper if they realise the book is by Tolstoy —black and a communist—but the police are looking for the kind of contraband they are sure his type have, a different stimulation for the brain. Ah, yes, those innocent days of 1950s US of A.
It is this balance of light and dark that Mosley does so well. These books are fun, filled with silly situations and laconic wit but set against the unease of the times where the black man has no rights and where the white man is hated, and not just by the black community. There is, for example, amongst other downtrodden nationalities who side with the blacks at any opportunity, a Japanese-American girl who spent the war in an internment camp who really hates the whites for that insult.
The other theme that underpins this book is friendship. Apart from Fearless, Paris forms friendships with the unlikeliest of people of all colours and creeds (beds a few as well). It is in his nature to see how others tick and this is why he is dragged from his shop to help people—because he can usually get the information he wants using words, and if not, well, then there is Fearless to help out.
After this adventure—quite a complex one involving blackmail—Paris can only pray for a metal door and the very quick invention of surveillance cameras because I feel it’s going to take a surprise airborne attack or an awful lot of persuasion to get him out of his shop and away from his books again. MGS
2007 The Barcelona Review
issue 58/59: June-July-August 2007
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