Outside of the academic nonfiction that claims most of my reading time, from January to the present I have been able to read more novels than usual––during my commute or when I am reading with my daughter (since she now likes reading her own books) at bed time. What makes these early 2020 reads remarkable, though, is that all four of the books I started after the new year and have since completed were excellent. And only two of them were new(er) releases.
Dionne Brand: At The Full And Change Of The Moon
In the early fall I read Brand’s most recent (and excellent) novel, Theory, and was reminded, when I looked at her back list, that I hadn’t read this one. So I picked it up in December and really started delving into it in January. I can’t believe I missed it!
The novel is basically a historical study that follows the descendants of Marie Ursule, the leader of a slave revolt, who commits collective suicide with her fellow slaves after a failed rebellion. Her daughter Bola survives, hides out in an abandoned nunnery and succumbs to madness, and the rest of the novel traces a tragic genealogy from the mid 19th century to the end of the 20th century. Moving back and forth from the Caribbean to the US to Europe and to Canada, At The Full And Change Of The Moon records the fault lines of collective trauma. The various interconnections, recursions, and parallels are rendered sublime by Brand’s always compelling poetics. The switches from third to first person, including (in one chapter) the form of a letter, demonstrate how Brand is comfortable switching narrative styles.
Maybe I’m alone in this opinion, but I feel the genealogical novel is difficult to pull off. In fact, I can’t think of another genealogical novel I’ve actually liked. Usually, at least in my experience, they feel like a bunch of short stories that could have existed separately (and may have existed separately) that have been thinly novelized by making the principle characters of each of these short stories related to the principle characters of the other short stories. If the only novelistic coherence is that individual x is somehow related to individual y (and so on, and so on) then it’s not entirely compelling as a whole. But Brand pulls off a genealogical novel that is more coherent than simple lines of descent. The theme of dispersal, of plantation resistance and trauma, marks the genealogical aspect so that it is consistently drawn back to Marie Ursule and her made-made daughter.
Indeed, there is a circular moment where the madness of the original Bola in the first chapter is echoed, in the last chapter by a 20th century descendant who shares the same name. The book moves back to the Caribbean. Just as the first Bola remained in an empty nunnery, growing up insane due to her traumatic escape from a plantation, the second Bola moves into her dead mother’s house, communes with this mother’s ghost, and falls into a similar delirium. The conclusion, which returns us to the original Bola, makes this parallel clear but not in a didactic manner. In fact, I didn’t even notice the parallel of the two Bola’s until after I had some distance from the book. The circularity felt organic.
More to the point, there was an intentional flatness of time the conclusion underscores: despite the dispersal of Ursule’s descendants into the imperialist metropoles, there has not been a rupture in the time of colonialism and imperialism. The return to the scene of subjection, with the latter Bola’s descent into familial madness and obsession with the ghost of her mother, is underscored by a return to the memory that launched the dispersal: the former Bola in the abandoned nunnery at the edge of the sea, yearning to go into the sea, but trapped in the eternal return of that time’s plantation: “It is her own hopelessness and her skill. Her faith doesn’t believe in endings. Marie Ursule moved to light the fire; it is her gibbous back going to its doings that Bola recalls…”
I am not sure how I missed this book of Brand’s. Probably because I started, years ago, with What We All Long For but didn’t read her fiction back list––only her poetry, memoirs, and essays. I’m glad I did go back, though, because not only did I encounter a genealogical novel I actually loved, I was reminded again of why Brand is one of the literary greats of so-called “Canada”.
Teri Vlassopoulos: Escape Plans
This was an unexpected gem since I didn’t know it existed until I got to know the author. And then I found it at a bookstore, delved in, and discovered yet another excellent work of Canadian literature. I was partly worried that I wouldn’t like it, and that I would have to admit to the author I wasn’t a fan, but thankfully my worries were misplaced. Like Brand (and like the authors discussed below), Vlassopoulos writes with a poetic sensibility. There is an elegance to the prose of Escape Plans that in fact reminded me of Brand, though largely because I read the books in close proximity and both authors can write sentences with a facility that, at first glance, seems simple but, in retrospect, is complex and evocative.
Also, this book fulfilled one of my long time superficial novel judgments: read the first sentence and last sentence, if they are evocative together, then it is worth reading as a whole. First sentence: “My father drowned in the Aegean Sea, fifty nautical miles northeast of the port of Piraeus.” Last sentence: “I was sure of that.”
Escape Plans is a controlled narrative and character study of a family told from three different perspectives: the father (Niko), the daughter (Zoe), and the mother (Anna). Despite the fact that all three perspectives are written in first person according to Vlassopoulos’ command of prose, they still felt extremely distinct. I could feel the weight of each character and their differences, the way their thoughts and memories brushed up against each other, their disparate trajectories.
The story, like the prose, is both simple and elegant. The father, Niko, dies at the beginning of the novel, drowning in the Aegean Sea after having left his family in Canada to pursue a dream of working for a shipping company in Greece his family had founded. The narratives of the Zoe and Anna happen after this death, but Niko’s narrative is everything leaving up to this death––from his departure from his family to where he ended up at the point of drowning. The result is a story of familial haunting without a literal ghost, but the ghost of memory and this memory’s narration, and all of the messy events that preceded and succeeded the event that generated this haunting.
What I find mind-boggling––but in a good way––is that the plot elements set you up for despising Niko for abandoning his family to pursue his childhood obsession of the family shipping business, but then you end up understanding him regardless and even sympathizing with him. Even though Niko tries to sell this decision as a temporary one, it doesn’t really feel that temporary; initially it feels like an assault on his family. His decision, soon after settling in Athens, to pursue an affair with a much younger Albanian immigrant who works at a pet shop should read like some annoying midlife crisis bullshit. But then it becomes clear that these events were mediated by previous events generated by Anna’s choices, that Niko’s decision was a way to give into Anna’s choices but avoid confrontation, and that maybe he thought they would be a way (in his own messy understanding of things) to save his family while granting both himself and his wife a temporary reprieve. All of this is hard to explain without spoiling the plot further, but let’s just say that Niko becomes a character that is more sympathetic than he should be, though his decisions are ultimately foolish because they result in his death (which is not a spoiler since he is declared dead in the book’s first sentence), and we feel this death strongly in his daughter’s narrative.
Indeed, the declaration of certainty in the novel’s last sentence (“I was sure of that”) reads as if it intended to be an answer to the statement of fact of the first sentence (“My father drowned…”). Both were made by Zoe and they follow her trajectory which is burdened by the death of the father and, through her long journey of acceptance, her eventual ability to reconcile things in her life and things with her mother.
Also, the evocative descriptions of geography and food made this book a pleasure to read. In any case, I’m definitely looking forward to the author’s next novel.
Tanya Tagaq: Split Tooth
“The farther away you get from the time of death, the less energy meat carries.”
I’ve been a long time fan of Tagaq’s music so I was excited when she released a novel. Took me a while to get to it, though, since I was waiting for it to be released in softcover and because the library holds on the hardcover were overwhelming. It was worth the wait, though, and precisely what I expected. Like her music, her novel is avant garde but not inaccessible.
It’s difficult to explain a book that is so impressionistic, that lapses into poetry, that moves from memoir style to rhapsodic dream sequences, and that vacillates between gritty realism and dream-like surrealism. The elegant illustrations by Jaime Hernandez, scattered throughout the pages, contribute to the novel’s sensibility. Often I’d find myself reading passages and flipping back to pictures, mapping the connections.
There are moments regarding trauma that are extremely upsetting, rendered more upsetting since they are described as banal facts, and then there are moments of seemingly supernatural experience that are truly sublime. And yet you’re never quite sure if the latter aren’t psychic ruptures from the former––coping mechanisms to displace intense trauma––or intended to be factual realities within the novel’s fictional universe. Moments that are greatly disturbing are disrupted by moments of that are entirely alien and it is unclear whether the latter are metaphors of psychological ruptures or literals. Being an avant garde novel, however, the boundaries between the metaphorical and literal are necessarily porous.
Hence the surreal sequence that closes the book: the narrator is impregnated by the Northern Lights, giving birth to twins––one of whom feeds on the life force of others––that are themselves given back to the North. Whether this was intended to be literal or metaphorical or both is difficult to parse, but it is not necessary to parse. Events such as this, which run parallel to realist descriptions of a poor Inuit community, simply wash over the reader.
I was also surprised by the rare but evocative moments of queerness, that I did not expect, but contributed to a sense of melancholy. A relationship missed, a sense of loneliness and loss, lurking outside of the narrator’s heteronormative relationships. This was motivated by a few lines about the crush she has on her friend (“I’ve always loved girls, and our insufferable town sees this love as a deviance”), and then a whole poem sequence about the “buck-toothed girl”. The heteronormative sexual relationships the narrator experiences are largely coercive, the only exception being one that is immediately superseded by animistic wildness. And all of these, except for the annexed elegy to the “buck-toothed girl”, take place in a context of trauma and death.
Reading Split Tooth was an experience of absorption, the feeling of being pulled into a personal literary universe. Since I often read it while listening to Toothsayer––Tagaq’s EP released last March––this experience of absorption felt more visceral. Although I don’t know if the album was intended in any way to be a soundtrack for the novel (one is tempted to think so but mainly because of the word “tooth”), it definitely contributed to the reading experience’s phenomenology.
Benjanun Sriduangkaew: Mirrorstrike
It should come as no surprise that I was a fan of this book since I’ve long been a fan of Sriduangkaew’s work. I’ve long maintained she is one of the unique and innovative voices in contemporary SFF. Not only have I reviewed it extensively, but I have also become friends with the author and have cowritten a hybrid work of fiction/non-fiction with her (my contribution, obviously, being the latter), Methods Devour Themselves. So what can I say about this novel, the second entry in the Her Pitiless Command trilogy, of which Winterglass was the first entry, that I reviewed here? Middle books in trilogies are hard to gauge, since their job is to function as the transition between the beginning and conclusion of a trilogy, and in many ways we cannot understand them fully until the final book has been concluded.
But of course, as always, Sriduangkaew’s prose is a joy to read. As with everything she produces, a large part of the reading experience is slowing down, rereading sentences, and digesting them slowly. Due to the fact that she packs so much into every paragraph, but does so in a way that is lovely to behold, the reader often runs the risk of missing too much when they get too absorbed by the plot and are tempted to move quickly through phrases and sentences. This is definitely a lovely tension in Mirrorstrike: the desire to read quickly because of the breathlessness of the plot; the necessity to slow down and digest every single word so as to not miss both the quality of the prose and the details densely packed into the prose. An old friend of mine once told me that you needed to read Angela Carter slowly because the beauty of her sentences often hid the fact that every word was chosen intentionally and that you could miss details when you became too absorbed by the flow. So it is with Mirrorstrike. Even the breathless narrative moments demanded rereading; there was so much world-building detail in singular phrases.
In Mirrorstrike we return to the Kemiraj that was introduced in the Winterglass prequel story in Methods Devour Themselves, now devoured by Imperial Winter. Court intrigue, the weight of anti-colonial vengeance, and a character from the Winter Queen’s past further develop the story of Nuawa and Lussadh. Legends about the Winter Queen abound, certain assumptions are overturned, and Nuawa’s attempt is thwarted and transitioned into a moment of collaboration that undermines the celebratory nature of her marriage to Lussadh at the end of the novel.
Early moments of creepiness (like when Nuawa roams the Winter Queen’s cavernous palace and encounters rooms filled with “unused mirror frames” that are “waiting like open mouths”) give way to a bleakness. Moments of extremely disturbing violence are rendered sublime by Sriduangkaew’s prose: “…and there is a burst of geometry where Captain Juhye should be. A tree made of glass has sprouted in his place, branches tipped in yellow teeth, knife-edge leaves draped in guts. In the hyper-focus of this moment, she hears withheld breaths, shuffling feet, and the peculiar, distinct noise of flesh ripping from skeleton, a liberation of fat and ligament.”
And then there is the sense of historical weight, wrought particularly visible since the last time we witnessed Kemiraj in this fictional universe when was it hadn’t been transformed by Winter, when Lussadh was once opposed to the Winter Queen before switching sides. Again Lussadh serves as a sympathetic interlocutor of Empire, but largely because she switched allegiances from one Empire to another, and so her conscious apprehension of justice has always been locked within an imperialist register. From national oppressor to comprador. But still convinced, though dealing with the contradictions, that such a shift is correct.
All in all, a great transitional novel. But a novel that promises a lot for the concluding book that will hopefully be written sooner than later.