Tag Archives: cry

ALL MY PUNY SORROWS by Miriam Toews

I’d been warned this book was upsetting and it definitely was. How could it not be when Elf is intent on killing herself and her sister, Yoli, is intent on stopping her? What I wasn’t prepared for was how funny it is in places, how bitter sweet and how it would totally change my perspective on suicide.

Elf is a successful pianist with a loving husband called Nick and her sister adores her. But Elf just doesn’t want to live. A fast approaching world tour precipitates her latest suicide attempt which sees Yoli rush to her side, along with their mother and Nick. The envelop Elf in their love and care but, as the story unfolds, Yoli is forced to confront the idea that what Elf needs more than anything is to be allowed to die. She researches the possibility of taking her to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, wrestles with whether to tell the rest of the family and makes promises to Elf that she’s still not sure she can keep. Yoli is also making plans to bring her sister home, let her sit and just be and Elf knows this, so is making plans of her own.

It was clear from the outset this book was not going to end happily and yet when it did end as expected I was happy for Elf. What Toews has done is convey just how hard life is if you truly want to die. How the feelings of those anchoring you to life can matter hugely but still not be enough to keep you alive. And how sometimes nothing, not even love, is enough. That’s not something I am prepared to hear very often. Last year, someone I knew – not well but who was loved by a dear friend of mine – killed herself. Reading ALL MY PUNY SORROWS has helped me better understand why she did and to even admire her for her bravery.

Toews own sister killed herself and much of the book is close to her own experiences, including of growing up as a Mennonite. She’s depicted a childhood that’s fizzing with laughter, rich with community and full of love. As an adult, Elf appears to have it all whilst by contrast Yoli’s life is messy and unfulfilled. This messiness provides much of the book’s lightness, as do her tales of a sister who is strong willed, passionate and never does things by halves – as I said, the outcome is inevitable. And yet Toews taps into what most of us would experience in Yoli’s shoes – a blind faith that things are going to turn out differently, against all the evidence and all the odds. It’s this which is both a source of joy in the novel and of sadness. It also means the book doesn’t read as the story of Elf’s death but rather as the story of her life. Far better than the A COMPLICATED KINDNESS, ALL MY PUNY SORROWS spoke to me in all sorts of ways and I hope it might speak to you too.

 

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WHITE CHRYSANTHEMUM by Mary-Lynn Bracht

Switching between Korea in 1942, in the throes of  and South Korea in 2011, this is the story of two sisters, separated one fateful day on a beach.

Hana is the eldest, a haneyo – female sea diver – who surfaces from the ocean one afternoon to see a Japanese soldier heading along the sand in the direction of her younger sister Emi. Without a thought, the teenager swims to shore to intervene and so begins her capture and life as a “comfort woman”. Taken far away from her family, she is repeatedly raped by Japanese soldiers, one of whom, Morimoto, decides he wants her as his wife. Hana forms strong bonds with the other girls and women that surround her but it’s memories of home and the thought of escaping and being reunited with her family, that get her through and day each night. When a chance of freedom presents itself, she grabs it with both hands, despite the huge risks, only to fall into the hands of yet more men whose motives and morals she does not understand.

As a 60 year old, Emi is still coming to terms with the guilt of being left behind and still searching for the sister she lost. She has two children of her own and slowly the story of their father emerges, highlighting another aspect of the war between Korea and Japan. Emi goes each year to Seoul to join a march that remembers the “comfort women”. The visit brings back many painful memories of hurt, which though less physical than that endured by her sister, are nonetheless keenly felt. In fact one of the most powerful aspects of this book is how Bracht captures the grief and loss each of her characters feels.

I found Hana’s story most compelling – and most harrowing – but Emi’s is perhaps the sadder. Both evoke anger and deep sadness, as well as illustrating how the past affects the present. Emi’s relationships with her own children, for example, are shaped in many complicated ways by her feelings about her sister disappearance and the aftermath, including how her own parents responded.

I already knew a little about the war between Japan and Korea and the treatment of the comfort women, which seems in many ways to be the story of legions of women in wars not of their making. But WHITE CHRYSANTHEMUM brought it all too life for me, often painfully. This is a book that made me openly weep on a number of occasions so be warned. But it’s also so much more than a story of women as victims. It’s also about women as survivors, the way we connect with others, find hope in the darkest of situations and forge new presents that bring in the light. A beautiful and moving book that I would thoroughly recommend.

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EXIT WEST by Mohsin Hamid

“We are all migrants through time.”

This is the story of Nadia and Saeed – a young couple trying to make their relationship work. It’s also the story of a world on the move. Of people’s fears about war, leaving family behind,  change and difference – all told in Hamid’s extraordinary prose that makes poetry of bombs raining down from the skies.

It starts when Nadia and Saeed meet in a city that might be in Syria, Afghanistan or somewhere similar. She rides a motorbike, lives alone, wears full black robes. He’s the son of a university professor, lives at home, works for an insurance company. He prays, she doesn’t. They get together and when their home becomes unsafe, they flee together, through a magical door, one of many springing up across the world, which takes them to Mykonos. Similar doors later take them to London and San Francisco.

The horrors of public and private executions, relatives and friends blown to bits, the punishment they might expect as unmarried lovers are all powerfully evoked with a simplicity and truthfulness that’s incredibly moving to read. So too, the shock of emerging into a new place, the adjustments they must make and survival techniques they must learn. And then when they discover that the solace they used to seek in one another’s company is no longer a comfort and having journeyed together is no longer enough.

A deeply political book that confronts many of the moral questions in today’a world, EXIT WEST  is at times brutal and heartbreaking,  at others beautiful and magical.  At times, it reads like philosophy, at others it captures details like the enjoyment of a tin of herrings. Every word Hamid writes though held me spellbound, with it’s wisdom and insight. I loved this book, what it had to teach me and how it made me feel. It’s for the joy of finding a book like this that I read so much and the rarity of such a find makes it all the more special.

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GATHER THE DAUGHTERS by Jennie Melamed 

“Let the men be strong like trees, and the women like vines, the children our fruit.”

The dystopian future of this novel is a small, low tech and religious island community that’s deeply patriarchal and deeply disturbing. Channelling THE HANDMAID’S TALE and countless other imitations, Melamed has created a nightmare world for women and girls, in which their primary function is as breeders, morhers and home makers. Each summer the island’s children run wild and enjoy the freedom of living outside-  until, that is, they hit puberty and, during their “summer of fruition,” are paired off and required to marry. For most girls, marriage, though often loveless, violent, monotonous and isolating, is a welcome escape from their families and the rules that mean fathers are expected to have sexual relationships with their pre-pubescent daughters.

This and other rules are set by a group of elders called Wanderers – and yes they are all men – who are the only ones permitted to leave the island and visit the wastelands that exist elsewhere. The ferry man who helps them make the crossing has a stump where his tongue has been cut out. The rules also include unrelated women only being permitted to gather in groups of more than three without the presence of a male chaperone for birthings, and daughters always submitting to their father’s will. 

One summer, Caitlin, whose father is especially abusive both towards his daughter and her mother, witnesses something that goes against the creed with which she has been indoctrinated her entire life. She shares the secret with her peers, who include Janey, desperately starving herself to avoid the onset of periods, and Vanessa, a Wanderer’s daughter who has more access than most to ideas and information thanks to the books her father brings back from the wastelands and who is also lucky enough to have been spared his sexual abuse. 

The girls’ shock at what they have discovered prompts them to start questioning every aspect of life on the island, and the combination of a highly contagious virus, new arrivals from the wastelands and a long sultry summer stirs up unease and rebellion amongst the community’s young women and girls. The solidarity they feel from their shared knowledge has an especially profound effect on Caitlin and Janey but it also affects all the other girls too, many of whom discuss their fears and what their fathers do to them for the very first time. As Janey hurtles towards the point at which marriage is inevitable and the wanderers struggle to contain the events Caitlin has unwittingly set in train, GATHER THE DAUGHTERS builds towards a painful and tragic ending.

Melamed does oppressive and claustrophobic wonderfully well and captures the different voices of her characters to great effect. The story is told from the perspective of key girls and women on the island and much of what I enjoyed about the novel is the way their narratives reveal a society that’s been carefully thought through and detailed by the novelist- from the final draft older members are required to drink once they’ve outlived their usefulness to the growing prevalence of detectives, “born blue and slimy and dead like drowned worms in a puddle”. 

 Melamed has also been thoughtful about the impact on sons and mothers of what happens between girls and their fathers – the girls all fear bearing daughters and pray desperately for sons, in part so they don’t end up hating their daughters the way they have felt hated by their mothers growing up. The scenes of rape and abuse are all the more shocking for their absence of embellishment – the facts are allowed to speak for themselves, though in other parts of the book, the writer doesn’t manage to exercise the same restraint and her writing is less powerful as a result. 

Overall though this is a memorable, if difficult, read – with themes that have added resonance  given I am writing this in the recent aftermath of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein and the ensuing  #MeToo campaign. 

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A GOD IN RUNS by Kate Atkinson

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This book picks up the story of Teddy Todd, from LIFE AFTER LIFE,  granted a reprieve at the end of that novel and and who survives a bombing mission and a prisoner of war camp to return home. Whilst flying a record number of missions and repeatedly unsure if he has a future, Teddy vows that if he survives he will just be kind. A GOD IN RUINS tells how he tries to keep that promise, living a life, that, after the war, is unremarkable in many ways, with Teddy the very definition of stoic. It could make for a very dull read but this is Atkinson, so it’s quite the opposite.

In LIFE AFTER LIFE Atkinson’s narrative thread turned on the alternative paths that might be followed if seemingly small events turned out differently. In A GOD IN RUINS she picks a similarly unusual structure, this time based around memories. The novel moves around a great deal in time, between Teddy’s childhood, the war, his marriage to Nancy (whose family lived next door to the house at Fox Corner where he grew up), the arrival of his own daughter and then of grandchildren, and old age and his final days in a nursing home. It often segues between these not in any apparent order but because what happens in one thread prompts recollection of an earlier episode – that might be the sight of a girl on a bicycle, finding a much treasured clock whilst packing to move house, or lines from poetry. Oft repeated refrains tie things together, as they do in our own lives, whether it’s Nancy’s exhortation “Let’s talk about something more interesting than the mechanics of bombing”, the appearance of a skylark, or the way in which all the Todd family conjure an idealised past with their litany of the flowers that grew near Fox Corner, “flax and larkspur, buttercups, corn poppies, red campion, the ox-eye daisies”.

The overall effect is of feeling we have truly shared someone’s life with them – both the every day mundane and the stand out highlights. What’s very special about this book is that, although essentially a catalogue of events, we nonetheless experience Teddy’s life more as the relationships that hold him together.  Most of us tend to look back and forward in time by way of specific moments, whether they are quiet or of heightened drama, yet Atkinson’s novel celebrates these moments more for their  long and short term consequences on how we interact with our fellow human beings, and in Teddy she gives us a character whom she clearly admires for embodying awareness that it is the point of it all. In turn, his daughter, Viola, is mocked relentlessly for her obliviousness to this universal truth and it’s striking that Atkinson’s trademark satire, of which Viola is the most common victim, is far harsher here than in her other novels.

One of the most moving aspects of A GOD IN RUINS is the sense we have of life being wasted, whether it’s viscerally in the horrific sixty million dead overall from the Second World War or more indirectly from the way in which the past infects the present – at one point Teddy’s grandson reflects that he has no idea “how to get a life” and resents his grandfather’s generation, “They’d been given history.” Atkinson’s book is peppered with various utopias, about which she’s largely rather impatient – make the most of what you have, here and now, she seems to be telling us. You get one shot and this it is. Like Teddy, just be kind and appreciate being given a future. The totally unexpected twist at the end of the novel, and that I am still resisting – hard – but, which I have to hand to Atkinson, is perfect in almost every way, underscores her theme. And after all, as Teddy remarks when he finds out his sister is having an affair,  nothing should really surprise us, because, “The whole edifice of civilisation turned out to be constructed from an unstable mix of quicksand and imagination.”

Teddy’s existence encompasses horrors beyond belief (“people were boiled in fountains and baked in cellars”) and small lies (the stain on an old photo is blood not tea), it is part of history and crosses centuries, there’s unbridled passion and the safety of an altogether less demanding kind of love,  it is vast and at the same time no bigger than his predilection for saving rubber bands. And at the end, a beautiful end, there’s no prize for having endured “its never ending grinding labour”, no “afterward after all“, just “time tilting” and, if you are lucky, having someone by your side who can make you feel loved.

Breathtaking, magnificent, dazzling and heartbreaking, according to the reviews printed on the front cover, A GOD IN RUINS is all these things and more. But crucially, it’s truthful and it’s real, and I think therein lies the incredible impact it had on me.

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A MONSTER CALLS by Patrick Ness

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“Stories are wild creatures. When you let them lose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?”

I was expecting to weep bucket loads at this but managed to get almost to the end before shedding a tear. The very premise of the book is sad and painful though and when I did cry, I really cried. Conor is 12 and his mum has cancer. His life is one long struggle with school bullies, overly sympathetic teachers, a stressed grandmother and a regularly occurring nightmare. One night at 12.07 the yew tree he can see from his bedroom window comes alive as a monster. It tells him three stories with unexpected endings and then demands that Conor reciprocates with the story of what happens in his nightmare.

The monster’s stories are designed to illustrate that we all have good and bad within us and that it’s our actions that count in the grander scheme of things, not what we think. They reveal the contradictions that make up most of us, the power of being honest with ourselves yet how difficult it can be to tell the truth. Simple fairy tales on one level, they go far beyond your standard moral fables, and Conor’s angry and physical responses to the monster’s words do nothing to detract from the sense that multiple and complex interpretations are possible, each one depending on our unique experiences, feelings from moment to moment and openness to different ideas or meanings. The layers of understanding and sensitivity woven through each page make this  a wonderful book for children and adults alike, whether dealing with loss, grief and guilt or not.

What I didn’t know until reading A MONSTER CALLS is that the idea originally came from another writer, Siobhan Dowd, who died of terminal cancer before she could finish writing the story. By all accounts, Ness has done her great justice and I very much hope the film adaptation retains the simplicity and clarity that allows the book to make such a profound impact.

NB The Kindle version I read isn’t illustrated and I’d really recommend reading a hard copy.

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THE FORGETTING TIME by Sharon Guskin

the-forgetting-time-by-sharon-guskin

You Only Live Once. That’s what people said, as if life really mattered because it happened only one time. But what if it was the other way around? What if what you did mattered MORE because life happened again and again, consequences unfolding across centuries and continents? What if you had chances upon chances to love the people you loved, to fix what you screwed up, to get it right?

Jerome Anderson has spent his life researching the possibility that consciousness can survive death. He’s travelled the world documenting incredible cases of children who remember previous lives in huge detail, ache for contact with their previous families and, in some instances, bear birthmarks that are haunting clues to the manner of their previous deaths. Now, diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia and the prospect of rapidly losing access to much of his language and vocabulary, Anderson is racing against time to publish his findings and include one more compelling case that will appeal to US audiences.

Janie Zimmerman is Mommie-Mom to 4 year old Noah, conceived during a one night stand on a holiday in Trinidad, and struggling with a son who refuses to be bathed, has horrific nightmares about being pushed under water and incessantly pleads to be taken home. When Noah’s teachers involve protective services out of growing concern over his behaviour and vivid stories, Janie takes to Google in desperation, stumbling upon a link to Anderson’s work. With Noah increasingly distressed, a stream of psychiatrists bleeding her financially and emotionally dry, and her successful career as an architect stalling in the face of crisis after domestic crisis with her son, Janie reaches out to Anderson.

Denise Crawford is just about holding down a job at an old people’s home. Her teenage son, Charlie, is fed but that’s about it, and her musician husband Henry spends his time on the road away from home, trying to escape the memories of  their other son, Tommy, who disappeared at the age of nine and whose body has never been found. Seven years on and Denise still puts up flyers with Tommy’s face on them, urging people to get in touch if they have seen him, hoping beyond hope that theirs will be one of the miracles she’s read about in the papers and Tommy will be returned to them.

THE FORGETTING TIME brings these narratives together in what’s a moving, though somewhat predictable, story.  Guskin captures Anderson’s plight particularly successfully, but all the characters are convincing and touched me hugely. The moments when Denise meets Janie, and Noah meets Charlie are charged with enormous amounts of tension and Guskin rises to the occasion without resorting to cliches or platitudes. Janie’s reflection that the man made constellations she’s replicated on Noah’s ceiling is “the most all of us could handle of the universe” implies Guskin is a true believer in the phenomenon her story explores, but there’s a healthy dose of scepticism throughout and what emerges in the very satisfying Epilogue (for which full marks to the author) is more a sense of how valuable clinging to explanations can be, as we seek comfort in our lives and deaths.

Part mystery, part Jodie Picoultesque women’s fiction and part something undefinable, THE FORGETTING TIME is definitely unforgettable.

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