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Posts Tagged ‘British women authors’

For some reason I’ve read a few books featuring nuns during the pandemic. In summer of 2020, I read The Corner That Held Them, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s black comedy set in the 1100s through the1300s at a convent. Back in January I read World Without End by Ken Follett (also set in the 1300s) one of the Pillars of the Earth series, in which a nun nurse introduces masks as a way to protect against the plague. Then recently, I read Lauren Groff’s novel Matrix, set in the 1100s. After I finished Matrix, I decided to pull out a novel I’d picked up on either a library book sale shelf or free cart at some point, In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden. Unlike those other three books, this one is set in relatively contemporary times, opening in 1954. Like the others, it is set in England.

Like Groff, Godden sets her book entirely inside a community of nuns, in this case Benedictines in England. The central character, Philippa, comes to the monastery (which is what Brede Abbey is — a Benedictine monastery, which can be a community of either nuns or monks) later in life, after a successful career in some kind of government service. At the beginning of the book she has arrived as a postulant, and by the end of the book she’s been at Brede fourteen years and is a fully professed nun. The nuns at Brede are an enclosed order, meaning they separate themselves from the world; in the church and in the parlors where they may speak with visitors, they have a grille in place that mark this separation.

All of the little details of their communal life are fascinating, the descriptions of the “clothing” ceremony when a postulant becomes a novice nun and wears a habit, the different vows taken, the division of labor, the singing of the services, the hours of prayer, the pattern of life and of the seasons, both natural and liturgical, at Brede. Although much of the novel follows Philippa’s progress, there are many other nuns that feature, including Abbess Hester, who dies without confessing a secret she’s sworn the cellerar, Dame Veronica to, and Abbess Catherine, who has to manage when she uncovers the secret and its cost. In that regard, as with Matrix, readers get a glimpse into the way a monastery is run and all that is involved. Godden, like Groff, also relates the ways that an enclosed community, like any community, has to work out differences of opinion, personality conflicts, jealousies and hurt feelings, etc.

In This House of Brede is different in that Matrix was also concerned with the way Marie, the abbess, bends the community to her will, which she discerns in part through her visions and in part through her extensive political network who keep her informed of what’s happening outside the abbey, especially at the royal courts of France and England. But In This House of Brede‘s central concern is the development of the different characters’ vocations within the monastery, and of their spiritual lives. It’s a fascinating look at how a life centered in prayer and community subtly molds the characters. It doesn’t change who they are, but it changes how they are, how they relate to one another and how they live. You would think such a topic would not lend itself to much of a plot, but there are several interesting twists here and there, and those keep the story moving.

Godden’s writing is lovely. The only other book of hers I’d read is Impunity Jane, a children’s story about a pocket doll that was a favorite around here. This passage nicely conveys how Godden conveys Philippa’s inner thoughts as she waits to hear whether she’s been accepted for Simple Profession, the first set of vows a Benedictine nun takes:

“If a place has been filled with prayer, though it is empty something remains: a quiet, a steadiness. Philippa had thought of a mosque she had seen in Bengal, a mosque of seven domes, eleventh century, and as with all unspoiled Moslem mosques, empty, not a lamp or a vase or a chair; only walls glimmering with their pale marble. She remembered how, her shoes off, she had stood there, not looking but feeling. No one is there; God is there. And here, in Brede Abbey, the quiet was stronger — and close. The light flickering by the tabernacle was warm, alive, and as if they were still there, she heard what the nuns had sung last night at Benediction: ‘Christus vincit, Christus regnat. Christus imperat,’ with its three soft repeated cadences. ‘Christus vincit,’ and ‘Thank you,’ Philippa had whispered, ‘thank you for bringing me where I am,’ and, ‘Even if you send me away, I shall be here forever.'”

A fascinating and beautiful read.

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I downloaded The Gate of Angels, by Penelope Fitzgerald, when I went on an unexpected trip recently. I didn’t read it on the trip, but I enjoyed it this week. A short novel, set in 1912, it takes place over a brief time in the lives of Fred Fairly, a fellow of the fictional St. Angelicus College at Cambridge who studies physics, and Daisy Saunders, a young woman whose parents have died who has recently been forced out of nurse training when she tried to help a patient in a way that violated the hospital’s rules. Daisy, trying to make her way to a private mental hospital in Cambridge run by a doctor she knows in hopes he’ll hire her, and Fred are both hit by a farm cart while bicycling, along with another bicyclist who disappears after the accident.

When they each wake from the accident they are in a bed together; the well meaning lady whose house they are in thought they were married. Fred is entranced and sets out to convince Daisy they should be. Fitzgerald tells us a little about each of them, how they grew up, what their families are like, how they’ve tried to make their ways in the world. Daisy’s story illustrates how difficult it was to be a woman in the early 20th century, particularly a woman who is alone. She navigates a dangerous world where she survives by working hard, keeping alert, and staying one step ahead of those (mainly men) who would prey on her.

Fred’s had an easier life, but early in the book he goes home to tell his family he has lost his faith — and his father is a parish priest. When he arrives his mother and sisters are busy making a banner for a suffragette march and no one much cares about this faith. His college, St. Angelicus, doesn’t allow fellows to marry and he spends much of his time following arcane traditions and rules. When he meets Daisy, and more importantly when the truth about the night of the accident comes to light, his questioning takes a different turn, and he realizes, and tells his undergraduate students, that “there is no difference whatever between rational thought and ordinary thought.” He goes on to say that what they are there to study — “energy and matter” — are part of their own selves, too, and that “scientists are not dispassionate. Your judgement and your ability to do good work will be in part dependent on your digestion, your prejudices, and above all, your emotional life.”

In addition to this emotional awakening by a man previously devoted entirely to science, there’s an element of mystery as the pieces of the story come together, there’s a sort of gothic ghost tale told by an elderly don as he considers the strange accident, and there’s a ridiculous scene where Fred, who has accidentally knocked out someone who has done Daisy wrong, carries the unconscious man through the streets of Cambridge with a fellow scholar, who chats away about other things and then suggests they leave him in a pile of grass clippings. And the writing is so delightful — descriptive, pointed, and wise. There’s a passage where Fred has asked for Daisy at the mental hospital, and the receptionist imperiously replies that there is no nurse named Saunders; technically true, since Daisy’s job is to iron linens. The doctor overhears and comes out of his office and scolds:

“Don’t, in your ignorance, amuse yourself by turning away my callers. You are the receptionist. Receive!”

And here’s a description of Daisy, towards the end of the novel, carrying a bag on her way to the station:

“Out in the road, carrying the overfull Jemima, she felt she looked like someone taking kittens out to drown and changing her mind at the last moment. The rain threatened to get worse. At one point, she had had a good, strong umbrella, but not now. She had lent it to one of the two cooks at Dr. Sage’s, and she hated asking for anything back. It took all the good out of it.”

The Gate of Angels is described as a historical novel, but is also very funny, and warm in its way. The ending is ambiguous but hopeful. A really delightful read.

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A couple of summers ago I read and loved Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. My mom gave me Kimmerer’s first book, Gathering Moss, for my birthday last fall but I hadn’t read it yet. It’s the time of year when I admire the wildflowers (which some people call weeds) and mosses in our lawn (the less grass the better as far as I am concerned), so I pulled it out of the teetering pile beside my chair a couple of weeks ago.

Kimmerer opens the book by describing how we humans “contrive remarkable ways to observe the world.” We make powerful telescopes and microscopes, but, she goes on, we “are often blind to the myriad sparkling facets that lie so close at hand. We think we’re seeing when we’ve only scratched the surface. Our acuity at this middle scale seems diminished, not by any failing of the eyes, but by the willingness of the mind. Has the power of our devices led us to distrust the unaided eyes? Or have we become dismissive of what takes no technology but only time and patience to perceive? Attentiveness alone can rival the most powerful magnifying lens.”

Among the things we don’t see? Moss. Gathering Moss is all about what Kimmerer has seen and learned of and from mosses as a biologist, professor, and mother. She writes with expertise but also with vulnerability. As in Braiding Sweetgrass, she combines indigenous and scientific knowledge about plants with stories about being human, and this book opens eyes, minds, and hearts to all that we could know if we paid attention, particularly to the natural world.

Jacqueline Winspear writes about her father teaching her to pay attention to the natural world in her memoir This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing. When I placed a hold on the new Maisie Dobbs book recently, I saw that Winspear had written a memoir. Since she’s written about how the Maisie books are based in part on the impact the two world wars had on her own family, I was intrigued. Readers of the series will notice people, events or places that are familiar, and in some cases Winspear points them out. I enjoyed hearing more about the hops harvest.

It is an interesting book, and very personal. Winspear writes lovingly but also with a frankness that reveals the difficulties she had as a child (including eye surgeries) and the challenging relationship she had with her mother. It’s a book infused with gratitude and appreciation for the many people in her life who were kind or generous or loyal, including her parents. This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing is also about being true to your ambitions — Winspear wanted to be a writer from early childhood but a test indicated she should be a teacher, a far more practical career in her parents’ view, and she spent many years working in education. But she did not forget her ambition, and eventually worked to realize it.

And that theme of being true to who you are and what you want to do also appears in a book I read last weekend, Jojo Moyes‘ most recent novel, The Giver of Stars. A departure from her other books, this one is historical fiction set mostly in a Kentucky coal mining town. It’s the story of a young English woman, Alice, who marries an American, son of a coal mine owner, and moves to Baileyville. She is lonely, tired of her overbearing father in law, uninterested in trying to fit into the gossipy local society, and confused about why her husband seems unattracted to her after a romantic courtship. When she attends a town meeting about a new mobile library service, a WPA project that is part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s efforts to improve literacy, Alice sees an opportunity to get out of her house.

She meets the other librarians — Margery, orphaned daughter of a notoriously violent moonshiner, Beth, only girl in a houseful of men, Izzy, carefully protected survivor of polio, and eventually Sophia, the only real librarian among them, a black woman who worked in Louisville but has come home to the mountains to care for her brother, who was injured in a mining accident. Alice finally has friends, purpose, and eventually, intrigue. I really enjoyed the story, even if it was bit dramatic. Moyes says in an author interview at the end of the book that she wrote it to highlight the real life horseback librarians, and that she traveled to Kentucky three times to research the book. She also noted that it made sense to her, an English woman, to tell the story from the point of view of an English main character, rather than try to make all the characters American, and I think that works well in the story.

Three excellent reads!

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I’ve read a few of Sarah Moss‘s other books (Night Waking, Ghost Wall, and her memoir, Names for the Sea) and they all followed a fairly regular narrative arc, albeit with some shifts in time and place. Summerwater tells a story but not in a traditional way. Instead, Moss reveals pieces of the lives and experiences of several different people staying in vacation cabins — think small and inexpensive places with thin walls, close together — in Scotland. It’s summer, but it’s been raining hard for a week. The inhabitants are restless, tired in spite of being on vacation.

The views we have of them provide a view into one small aspect of their lives, on one day in one place. It’s a little more detail than you’d get from standing in the window of your vacation cabin staring into others’ windows, but only a little. Moss shows us an older couple, one of whom seems to be losing her grasp on memory, heartbreakingly able to recall poetry from childhood (which is where the novel’s title comes from) and even what she wore to recite it but not more immediate things like what she was looking in her purse for, the other of whom is impatient with that. A little girl from the “party” house, whose family are Eastern European, who isn’t dressed for the weather (another of the children in another cabin wishes she had “shiny patent shoes and white lace tights like that girl”) and who draws the attention of several other mothers, and a manipulative girl a little older than she is.

The mothers, and some of the fathers, are mostly on edge. Struggling to have a break while doing housework and cooking with shabby rental cabin kitchenware and tired ingredients because there are no stores nearby. I loved the description of being unable to slice some mushrooms past their prime so just hacking them up for a pasta sauce — been there! And entertaining kids without their usual toys and no internet, and trying to be sexy for their spouses (it’s a vacation, expectations or at least hopes are high). Worrying and tired and wondering if their kids are ok. The kids are also worrying — about their pecking order among siblings, about their fussing parents, or if they’re older, about being stuck with their parents. One teen discovers a veteran living in a tent in the woods and visits him. Another escapes by kayaking, even in a driving rain. Moss captures all of these different perspectives astutely, and slips from one to the other in brief chapters.

She even slips into the perspectives of the wild things nearby. I loved “Maybe They Dream” — a two paragraph chapter. “The trees change shape at night. In the darkness, limbs relax, leaves droop. Branches reach out for each other, like holding hands.” You have to read the rest. It’s lovely and, actually, dreamy. I will look out at the thin woods behind our house differently for having read this.

Similarly, she explores how birds, badgers, ants, foxes, and deer experience both the strangely torrential rain and the humans. Particularly the pounding music the emanates from the party cabin. It’s an interesting thought that even as the noise irritates the other vacationers, it disturbs all creation, right down to the ants in their underground nests. Even though this is really a book of character (and creature) sketches, not a plot driven story, Moss slowly builds tension, touching on many of the existential worries of our time — climate change, the hold our devices have on us, Brexit, gender roles. The end surprised me.

A quick read that will linger, with so many facets of human experience and range of emotions packed into a short, lovely book.

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Another month of COVID, another Barbara Pym novel. I’m working my way through as much of her work as is easily accessible in library eBook platforms. Less Than Angels is another book with a spinster protagonist, Catherine Oliphant (did Gail Honeyman know this book when she chose to name her heroine Eleanor Oliphant? I don’t know), now one of my favorites of Pym’s many woman protagonists. And Less Than Angels is set partly in academia (where I work) as it is concerned with a group of anthropology students, from the nineteen year old Deirdre to Tom Mallow, minor gentry turned anthropologist, and Alaric Lydgate, whose years of field notes languish in his attic while he cranks out acerbic reviews of others’ work. Pym being Pym, she still pokes a little fun at the Anglican church but the main target of her gentle humor in this book is the world of seminars, grants, notes and theses.

It’s a remarkably melancholy book. Maybe because Deirdre’s inexperienced and heartfelt emotion are painfully reminiscent of my late teens. Catherine is also a more nuanced character than the sisters in Some Tame Gazelle or even Wilmet in A Glass of Blessings. She writes “women’s” stories and articles for magazines, has no living relatives, and manages to befriend her ex-lover’s new girlfriend. You get the sense there is much more to Catherine than “how to give an ‘inexpensive’ cocktail party,” which she is writing towards the end of the book.

She manages to befriend everyone from Deirdre’s aunt and mother to the young anthropology students Mark and Digby who visit her at both the start and the end of the book, to the eccentric Lydgate.Catherine is such sympathetic character, the kind of person that others lean on in good times and bad, that when she slips into a church and lights a candle for the absent Tom, off to study an African tribe, a priest mistakes her for one of the regular volunteers. She’s forever caring for people, but she’s no pushover; Pym makes it clear that she is taking care of herself as well.

I’ve discussed before that Pym is offering me some respite these days. I am appreciating what an astute observer she is, as in this observation about Dierdre, who is taken aback by Catherine’s frank assessment of Tom’s struggle to finish his thesis, “She was as yet too young and inexperienced to be quite sure that one can love and criticize at the same time.” And even though her characters are of a certain time and place* and social structure, we can still recognize their ambition, feelings, frustrations and limitations. It comforting in a way, even though nothing is really comforting right now.

*I should add that there is a very colonialist attitude towards anthropology in this book; studies are done to benefit British administrators even as the anthropologists may be interested in obscure languages or cultural practices.

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Ever since I read Lolly Willowes a few years ago I wanted to read more Sylvia Townsend Warner. Recently, I was looking for an escape, and picked up The Corner That Held Them. It fascinated me that the same author who wrote a book in which the devil appears as a sympathetic character would write another — considered a masterpiece — about a convent in the English countryside in the 1300s.

Although some people include this on plague novel lists, the Black Death plays a small (albeit pivotal) role in the book. It’s really about the human drama of a close-knit community, and about the management of a small convent in the Middle Ages, when such places got by on the dowries rich families paid for their daughters to become novices. And on the rents paid by by nearby tenants, and the manors on which they were founded. Which are some topics I’m a bit hazy on, and I plan to look into further.

The novel tells the story of the nuns’ lives — as a community, without dwelling too long on individuals —  their ambitions and fears, the way the convent’s well being depends on the bishop as well as the bailiff. Which near as I can tell is the property manager or overseer, who manages things like firewood and harvests and livestock. The prioress has some power but must manage up — the bishop, his custos (another kind of overseer, who reports on the management of the convent itself), the nuns’ priest (Sir Ralph, who is quite a fascinating character), the families who would place their daughters as novices.

There are a number of dramas of varying impact — a building project that goes awry, some personality clashes that even become violent, and endless financial issues. And towards the end of the novel, an uprising of poor people who are tired of being sent to the king’s wars, and tired of the church’s wealth. In fact, the pivotal events that lead to a surprise ending are triggered by the uprising, and by a visit from a beggar woman, Annis, who has fallen in with a thief who was raised at the convent.

Annis is working out what to do with a silly nun who wants to sell something (that isn’t hers to sell) “for the relief of the poor” when she has a thought that could probably sum up the novel’s theme:

“It is not hunger or nakedness that worst afflict the poor, for a very little thieving or a small alms can remedy that. No, the wretchedness of the poor lies below hunger and nakedness. It consists of their incessant incertitude and fear, the drudging succession of shift and scheme and subterfuge, the labouring in the quicksand where every step that takes hold of the firm ground is also a step into the danger of condemnation. Not cold and hunger but Law and Justice are the bitterest affliction of the poor.”

Townsend Warner wrote this in the 1940s about the 1300s . . . and it’s still an accurate description of systemic poverty.

And the writing took me away. Here’s a bit about the family members of Dame Matilda, come to see her installed as prioress in 1368: “Even with one’s eyes shut one could tell what manner of folk they were by the smells that came from their garments: an uncle’s lined boots, a grandfather’s hat, the velvet gown a great-great-grandmother had bequeathed.”

Or this description of Sir Ralph, ensconced in his role as nuns’ priest: “Now, in his dusty chamber or walking his accustomed rounds, a mere thinking could pierce his heart with pleasure.” Townsend Warner lists a number of these pleasurable ordinary thoughts, including, “. . . Saint Paul’s transfigured faith suddenly bursting out amid his polished arguments as the face of a satyr looks out from the laurel bush.” As vivid a simile of Paul’s letters as you’ll read.

An entrancing read, as forthright about the problematic power structures of the church as about human nature, entertaining and beautiful and strange. I’ll be thinking about this book for a while.

 

 

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Human Voices is a short novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, set during the blitz at BBC headquarters. Fitzgerald worked there herself at that time, when she was in her 20s.  She writes about one department where Sam Brooks is “RPD” (Recorded Programme Director) and he has a young staff of assistants who manage much of the work while he signs endless piles of letters prepared by the motherly Mrs. Milne and designs field equipment for the time in the not too distant future when he expects BBC teams will be sent into Europe to cover the war on the ground. His longtime friend Jeff Haggard is “DPP” (Director of Programme Planning), higher ranking and often in a position to defend the somewhat eccentric and self-absorbed RPD.

Against this backdrop of the men in charge, Fitzgerald also weaves in the stories of the young programme assistants who work for the RPD of the younger people, like Willie, who is constantly planning for a future ideal society; Vi, who comes from a large family and is waiting for her boyfriend in the merchant marines to come home; Lise, a half-French girl who only works a short time in the RPD’s office and has one of the most dramatic scenes in the book; and Annie, still a teen and recently orphaned, who stands up to the RPD in ways none of the others has.

The DPP has another good friend, the American broadcaster Mac McVitie, who breezes in and out of London with gifts. There’s a scene where he’s given out oranges and the assistants in the Recorded Programme office are dividing them among themselves that makes clear how unusual McVitie’s presents are for the Londoners. When he’s there, he records at the BBC and goes out looking for a drink or a chance to meet ordinary people on the street with the DPP.

What’s most striking is that quirky as they are — one team sent into the countryside to preserve quintessential English sounds come back with hours of recordings of a church hall door opening, creaking louder when it’s opened wider — Fitzgerald portrays the entire enterprise as devoted to truthful broadcasting. And despite the tone, which is mainly breezy and focused on the younger people’s cares, which are much like young people’s cares anywhere, anytime, Fitzgerald shows very skillfully how the tension of the time creeps into every aspect of life. Relationships, work, leisure — everything is impacted by the struggle to overcome the daily strain of working in a war zone.

I enjoyed Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, and this was just as enjoyable. I happened across it on Hoopla, when I was going through a list of books I’d hoped to find at the library at some point. Entertaining, but with enough humanity and pathos to keep me thinking about it long after I got to the end.

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I’ve had a couple different people suggest Barbara Pym as pandemic reading. I’d read Jane and Prudence, albeit quite some time ago. I was hunting all over for it, thinking I’d re-read it, and never found it. Tonight I realized, when I looked back at my review, that I took it to my grandmother!

Anyway, after a spate of more serious reading, I decided to take a look at whether any of Pym’s novels were available as an eBook through my libraries. I was able to find A Glass of Blessings and have enjoyed it. Pym’s work is not plot-heavy. Instead she explores the inner life of her main character, in this case Wilmet Forsyth, and the time they live in. Wilmet is a woman in her thirties, a former Wren, living in London in the late forties or early fifties.

Wilmet is married to her wartime beau, Rodney, and they live with his mother. Rodney works at an unnamed ministry. They have no children, and Wilmet is self-conscious about having little to occupy her time. She attends an Anglo-Catholic church, and has a few friends: Mary, a fellow parishioner who briefly explores a religious vocation; Rowena, her best friend from their Wren days, Rowena’s brother Piers. Wilmet, over the course of a year, entertains the idea of taking a lover, flirts with Rowena’s husband Harry, tries to flirt with Piers, and worries that she is “a horrid person.”

But she isn’t. She’s kind to her mother-in-law. She worries about Mr. Bason, who wasn’t any good at his ministry job and becomes the cook and housekeeper for the clergy at Wilmet’s church. She is concerned for Piers, who hasn’t settled into regular work and seems to be going through a low period. She befriends Pier’s flatmate Keith, even though he is a bore. She cares about Mary, who is grieving as well as determining what to do with her life. Wilmet simply can’t see all the ways she is helping people.

Pym captures Wilmet’s feelings, her thoughts, the way our minds work. In one scene, where she is visiting Mary, Wilmet can’t get to sleep. She thinks, “It seemed as if life had been going on around me without my knowing it, in the disconcerting way that it sometimes does, like the traffic swirling past when one is standing on an island in the middle of the road.” And a few sentences later, “I tried to remember our time in Italy, but all that came into my mind were curious irrelevant little pictures — ” The pictures get tangled up with her current life’s pictures as she drifts into sleep. That seemed to me one of the more accurate descriptions of lying awake fighting an active brain that I’ve ever read.

The other striking thing about the characters in A Glass of Blessings is that none of them seem likely to be people whose lives would garner enough attention to be recorded in fiction. A bored housewife. A young, religious woman unsure of her future. A man who doesn’t have the kind of job or apartment expected of someone like him. A widow living with her son and daughter-in-law, with an amateur interest in archeology. A man with a talent for cooking and a taste for “beautiful things.” But Pym makes this mosaic of ordinary people doing ordinary things — living — into a lovely, quiet, and reflective story about who we are to each other.

I also thought it felt quite contemporary in another striking way: Wilmet and Mary are regular churchgoers but the rest generally don’t go, even at Christmas. There are any number of interesting Anglican issues of the day alluded to — the Oxford Movement, the question of the Church of South India (which I had to look up), the question of priest celibacy. There is also a sense of unreality reading something set at a time when ordinary people could afford to live in London.  All of that made A Glass of Blessing an interesting diversion. Probably not to everyone’s taste, but a nice, calm antidote to today’s reality.

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Abi Daré grew up in Nigeria and lives in the UK. Her debut novel, The Girl With the Louding Voice,  is about a fourteen year old, Adunni, who is sold to an older man as a third wife after her mother dies, when her father drinks away what money they have and cannot pay the rent. She is heartbroken to have to leave her younger brother, but her best friend tries to tell her being a wife will be wonderful.

It’s not. Her husband repeatedly rapes her and his senior wife hates her. But his middle wife is kind and does her best to protect Adunni, giving her an herbal concoction that she says will keep her from having a child. Adunni is trying to make the best of her life but everything changes in an instant when a tragedy befalls the middle wife and Adunni is terrified of being blamed. She sees no alternative but to run.

And that’s where I thought the book would take a more positive turn (I had read reviews that noted this was a humane and uplifting book). I expected that when Adunni left her village, she would find modern Nigeria and get a job and begin to understand that life could be different. However, first she ends up being taken to work as a housemaid for a mean, vain woman who neither feeds her adequately nor pays her, and worse, beats her and tells Adunni and everyone else within earshot, every chance she gets, that Adunni is illiterate and worthless.

While this is a book mainly about the perils of a patriarchy, it’s important to note that Adunni must overcome the perils of working for an entitled rich woman as well. Yes, we eventually learn that Adunni’s boss, Big Mama, is herself a victim of abuse. Daré clearly wants to illuminate the vicious cycle abuse creates. But there are other vacuous and selfish rich people in the book, so I think there is some social critique going on as well.

Anyway, Adunni works hard, and befriends the others working in the house, who can’t help but like this good natured girl. When her employer, Big Madam, hosts a party for other women, Adunni experiences another life changing moment. While there is a great deal of brutality in this book, a series of kind, humane acts by strangers eventually helps Adunni help herself out of despair. Daré is unsparing in describing the horrors of modern slavery, but she also sees a spark of hope in humanity.

Adunni is smart and determined and draws on the memory of her mother, who was determined to provide an education for her. She vows she’ll get that education and eventually be a teacher, for other girls whose families don’t think they need schooling. Adunni notes, “you must do good for other peoples, even if you are not well, even if the whole world around you is not well.” That resonated with me right now.

While I thought the end was a little bit predictable, that’s understandable in a debut. And honestly, I’ll take a slightly predictable but uplifting ending over brutal art right now.

 

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