Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, Soucouyant, Dowry Bride

What with work and Christmas around the corner, I haven't had time to put down my thoughts on books read, so I thought I'd do just a quick summary of some of the books I've been reading.

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears: Although this book might not quite go down in the annals of immigrant-themed literature, it does stand out for the questions that it poses to us as readers. The questions that kept coming at me as I read about this Ethiopian protagonist trying to find a place in his adopted country (the US), were:
  1. Do immigrants (especially first generation ones) ever really consider their adopted country home?
  2. What are their feelings about the land that they grew up in - the one that nurtured them when they were young - Does that land grow distant to them the longer they stay in this new land or does it always exert a strange and magnetic pull on them?
  3. Are hyphenated Americans, somehow different from other Americans or does every American consider himself or herself to be part American and part the nationality of his ancestors?
  4. Finally, we hear so much about the American dream but does every immigrant or refugee really come here seeking it? The three protagonists in this novel certainly don't. Although they are relieved to get shelter and refuge from the fighting in Ethiopia, they are not happy in the US. Their life is a struggle and they do resent having had to leave their country where they were once well off and important people only to have to start life all over again and at the bottommost rung of the ladder.
This is what makes Mengestu's novel so special, so unique. He shies away from the usual trappings of the immigrant story and presents a very honest look at the lives that many immgrants are forced to of loneliness, bleakness and despair. The title of the book is taken from lines of Dante’s Inferno that are admired by Joseph who claims; “The glimpse from hell into heaven is understood best by an African. Except that for Africans, they begin in hell, they come out just for a moment, and then they return.” Dinaw Mengestu's "Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears" is a truly thoughtful account of love, identity, rupture, dislocation, memory and race. Read it if you can.

*update* I just heard it won Guardian UK's "First Book" Award.

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Kensington (September 1, 2007)
  • Language: English

  • The Dowry Bride by Shobha Bantwal

I was so disappointed by this book. The title is such a hook, the cover art so enchanting, but the story falls flat and how! The writing is amateur, the plot predictable, the characters are not engaging, they are not even fully developed, I just couldn't bring myself to go beyond page 100. I'd be very interested in knowing if anyone else has read this book and if you agree or disagree with me.

  • Paperback: 200 pages
  • Publisher: Arsenal Pulp Press (Jul 19 2007)

is the impressive debut novel by Canadian writer David Chariandy. Longlisted for the prestigious Giller and shortlisted for the popular Governor General Award, Soucouyant is a haunting and disturbing read of a prodigal son returning to his family home to find that is mother is losing her mind to senile dementia.

The novel is set in Toronto in a place called Scarborough with which I am somewhat familiar. It tells the story of a Trinidadian couple (the lady is of African origin and the man's family is South Asian) who moved to Canada (shortly after the ban on colored people was lifted) trying to make a better life for themselves. Unfortunately, rather early into the marriage, Adele, the wife, started showing signs of losing her memory. Could it be something genetic or has Adele employed "forgetting" as a ruse to rid her mind of her traumatic past? Or is a soucouyant sighting to blame? In Caribbean folkore a soucouyant is a vampire-like female monster.
We don't know for sure but based on our nameless protagonist's thoughts, I would assume that Adele, the mother wants to forget her past but in the effort to do that is losing the present too. "Memory is a bruise still tender," he thinks. "History is a rusted pile of blades and manacles. And forgetting can sometimes be the most creative and life-sustaining thing that we can ever hope to accomplish. The problem happens when we become too good at forgetting. When somehow we forget to forget, and we blunder into circumstances that we consciously should have avoided."

This was a difficult read for me because of the subject matter, but the prose is a delight...lyrical, even poetic at times. Most of the action takes place inside this small dilapidated house in Scarborough but when Chariandy takes you outside and to the Scarborough Bluffs his descriptions are mesmerizing, almost gothic.

This a novel about memory and forgetting; of racism and overcoming prejudice; of bruises and healing. It's worth a read.