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Posts Tagged ‘Wales’

The digital world is smaller than the physical. Annika Milisic-Stanley contacted me via Twitter in December, to let me know about her new novel The Disobedient Wife. I don’t usually pursue unsolicited author enquiries, but it turned out we had Cinnamon Press in common. I’ve long admired the work of Jan Fortune and her family, who run this very fine small press in Wales and bring interesting books to the world, and my poetry has appeared in Envoi a few times. So when Jan got in touch with a review copy, I trusted this was going to be a good read.

And it was. I’ve never read a book set in Tajikistan and I’ll bet most of you haven’t either. Milisic-Stanley is a terrific writer, and she brings the beautiful and the bleak alive in equal measure, as in the opening line of the novel, “In the early hours snow fell, covering grey high rises, broken pavements and potholed roads, transforming the city into a winter fairyland.”

More importantly, she vividly portrays the lives of Nargis, a widow and mother of three working as a nanny, and Harriet, her expat employer. Harriet is a young Englishwoman and mother of two, married to a wealthy Belgian diplomat, Henri. Through her journal entries we learn that she feels useless and lonely in Dushanbe. Henri is never around, he expects her to entertain when groceries are scarce and power cuts are frequent, and he berates her for showing any interest in Nargis’s life.

Nargis, meanwhile, appears to be the disobedient one. She was married at sixteen to a man who loved her and treated her well, bore him two children, and watched him die of a cancerous throat tumor when only in his twenties. Her parents made her remarry and her second husband beat her son, ordered his mother to feed the children only bread, and eventually attacked Nargis. She left, but he took their infant son. She visits the child at her in-laws apartment, and mostly doesn’t have to see her husband, because he works in Russia a good part of the year like many other young Tajiks.

When the book opens we learn that Nargis is the only adult working in her household for the time being, and is supporting herself, her parents, her brother, and her children. Stretched thin, she wants to buy a small shop to increase her income. Just reading about her life was painful. Her family and neighbors consider her to be in the wrong for leaving her husband because most Tajiks seem to think that an abused wife deserves it. So she’s scorned both in her neighborhood and in Harriet’s world, where locals are seen as potential servants or criminals.

But Nargis is not the only disobedient wife. Harriet begin to sense that her life isn’t all it’s chalked up to be. In fact, even though she’s not physically abused and she’s wealthy, there is an imbalance in Harriet’s marriage that is odious in its own way. The more she gets to know Nargis and to empathize with her, the more she considers what she really wants for herself and her children. Harriet also wants to help, and that’s another interesting part of the book — Nargis doesn’t want to have to humble herself or be indebted but she desperately wants a better life, and Milisic-Stanley makes that easy to understand.

The book doesn’t paint the expat, missionary, and NGO communities in the best light, although again, Milisic-Stanley doesn’t make anything too cut and dry — there are some people who are better than others. There’s a definite ugly American, which was a little painful to read, but there are ugly Europeans too. The same goes for Tajiks — some are good people, some are not. Milisic-Stanley lived in Tajikistan and several other placed after graduating from SOAS in London, so she probably based her characters on people she’d met. There are definitely a lot of socio-political aspects to the story as well as economic, so it’s both an entertaining novel and a book that will make you think.

I won’t tell you what happens to either woman, but to Milisic-Stanley’s credit, there isn’t a pat ending for Harriet or Nargis — we get an idea of what direction things are going, but she doesn’t tie everything up in a neat bow. The Disobedient Wife is a thought provoking, mind-expanding book that offers views of lives so fundamentally different and yet at heart, exactly like ours; people everywhere just want to be safe, have enough food and health care and education for their kids, and security for their families. How we can get there is such a mess, and this book really shows how complicated and precarious it is, especially when the balance of power and wealth in the world is so lopsided.

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I enjoy my weekly shift on the circulation desk, because I check in dozens of books and get a good sense of what my library community is reading. Recently I checked in a new book, The World Is a Wedding, and it looked so intriguing that I looked up The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals, which is the first of Wendy Jones’ novels about Wilfred Price, undertaker and funeral director in Narberth, a village in Wales, in the 1920’s.  Narberth, Jones writes, is a “small, very tightly bound, ancient corner of the world.” Narberth, incidentally, is a real place.

In her novels, Jones fills it with utterly engaging characters who are dealing with the deepest human emotions. Wilfred’s apprentice-master told him “no life without a wife,” and while on a picnic with the village doctor’s daughter, Grace, he finds himself proposing. He quickly realizes that’s not really what he wants. Determined to fix things, he tells her, but by then lots of people know. Meanwhile at a funeral he meets Flora and is overcome with a desire to know her better.

If this sounds pretty simple and “cozy,” it gets much deeper and even a little darker. By the end of The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals, I was deeply interested in what would happen to Wilfred, Grace, and Flora. Wilfred wants very much to do what’s right in life, and he struggles to know what that is — as anyone should, who gives it any thought. Flora is still haunted by the death of her first love in WWI, and she wants very much to live fully again after years of wearying grief, but isn’t sure, precisely, what happiness will mean for her.

Grace is thrust into the world from her sheltered girlhood not by her own actions, but as she’s acted upon,but she’s no damsel in distress. She wants to take charge of her own destiny — she just needs a little kindness, even if she isn’t sure how to accept it yet. Her story develops more fully in the second novel, The World Is a Wedding. In one scene she’s at the National Gallery in London and she comes across a Rembrandt, “Self-portrait of the Artist Aged 63.” She looks at it for some time and Jones writes, “Across centuries his acceptance soothed her: what he knew of the world reassured her. . . . She had waited a long time in this city to find someone who was this human and who had nothing they wanted her to be.” That’s a passage with staying power, one I’ll return to as I think about this book again.

Jones’ fine writing and thoughtful observation of human nature give the book depth. A host of finely drawn, fully developed minor characters give it life, from Mrs. Prout, the village fortune teller, to Grace’s cold and proud mother Mrs. Reece, to Wilfred’s “da,” the local gravedigger. Narberth is easy to picture too, in Jones’ capable hands. But I may not have to imagine it forever — Downton Abbey’s production team have optioned the books for a mini-series.

It had been some time since I’d read a Europa Edition book and I thoroughly enjoyed these two. This is absorbing, thoughtful fiction that examines what people mean to each other, and how humankind’s flawed communication skills and propensity to misunderstand, and to lie to themselves and each other, can wreak havoc. It’s also about the healing power of friendship, family, and love. Highly recommended — just don’t plan to do much else when you start these, because you may want to read them over a handful of days.

 

 

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I first heard about Ransom Riggs‘ debut novel (he has written several nonfiction books), Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, on a Books on the Nightstand podcast. It’s a YA title, and I wonder about that — what makes some books like this young adult and others adult books with child protagonists? Certainly Briggs gives readers a complicated plot.

Perhaps it’s viewed as an illustrated book. That’s certainly a standout feature — it’s filled with strange black and white photographs, which Briggs says in an author’s note are all “authentic vintage found photos.”  The photos lend an eerie tension as readers see visual evidence of the fantastic things the protagonist, Jacob Portman, learns about his grandfather and the peculiars. As he is led to suspend belief in what he thinks he knows about the world and accept what his eyes are telling him, readers are right there with him.

Peculiar turns out to mean humans who have strange characteristics: a girl who can lift boulders, another who levitates, and one who has a “back mouth.”  A boy who is invisible. A girl who can make fireballs out of thin air. As a child, Jacob is impressed with his grandfather’s strange photos and stories of these peculiar children and of terrible monsters. He eventually decides these are just horrible old world fairy tales told by a man who is forever scarred by his escape from World War II Poland and his separation from his family, who he tells Jacob sent him to a home for refugee children on an island in Wales.

When he’s a teenager, Jacob’s grandfather dies, apparently mauled by wild animals. But Jacob sees the thing that kills him and has horrendous nightmares. His parents, who he already has a strained relationship with, think he’s losing it and take him to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist thinks he should visit the island his grandfather spoke of so he can gain some closure and put the strange stories behind him. On the island, Jacob finds the house where his grandfather took shelter during the war. And he finds Miss Peregrine and the peculiar children.

I can’t really say too much more without spoilers, but I can tell you that this book was very entertaining. The writing is straightforward but evocative. Briggs doesn’t dumb down his explanations of the way the normal and peculiar worlds intersect nor of Jacob’s coming to terms with his grandfather’s life. His portrayal of Jacob as a disaffected 21st century teen struggling with strong emotions was spot on, and the action a the end of the book was quite suspenseful, without everything tying up neatly in a bow. The only thing I didn’t like was the ending, because I hate cliffhangers when the next book isn’t going to be out for awhile (in this case next January).

I’m heartened that books like this — quirky, thoughtful, smart stories, with emotional depth and allusions to history, mythology, and literature — still have a strong following in a world where the top selling books are often much less complicated. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children describes in a new and creative way the monstrous side of human nature and the heroic capacity we also have to resist and repel those monsters.

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