I have a question for any of you wanderers of the web who may happen by my little space — do you like museums? I realize that the automatic answer is usually a “yes” but with fingers crossed — we think we ought to like museums, just as we think we ought to like classical music, paintings and serious books. Meanwhile, of course, we all spend far more time with movies, pop music and those wonderful paperbacks that promise a rollicking good time, especially when consumed with a nice glass of something white & dry, or a morsel or two of something dark and gooey! The point I’m trying to make is that, while I (and perhaps some of you) may appreciate museums, along with other indicia of high culture, my enjoyment is a bit constrained and artificial; two hours max and I’m out of there! Well, if you, too, share this limitation (and even if you don’t), I’d really recommend a visit to the Walters. It’s a museum and it’s FUN! Don’t be fooled by that forbidding exterior — there are wonders within. Paintings! Mummies! Sculpture! Stuffed alligators! Shells! Bugs (stuffed ones)! Jewelry! Chinese vases! More stuffed things! And — the staff is really, really nice and — admission is free. It is, in short, a Baltimore treasure and not to be missed (especially the Chamber of Wonders). I won’t bore you with blathering about the collection — that’s what websites are for — but here’s a brief sample of what’s on view:
My one criticism of the Walters is its lack of a cafe (there is a very nice snack bar, when art becomes too much, but sometimes you just want more). But — Little Italy is reasonably close! And there’s nothing like ending a day of culture with a nice plate of pasta ……………………..
Hey, I know — Valentine’s Day was ages ago (well, yesterday!) but I sort of forgot about it because I became all engrossed in thinking about a notion that I, at least, found interesting. So much so that I actually didn’t get around to writing anything in time for the big day itself. But since “better late than never” is part of my credo (I’d be dead by now, if it weren’t, or at least homeless), along with “you might as well” do whatever it is you were going to do, I decided to persevere with my thought, which is simply that certain books, written by different authors, from very different eras, go together. Or, to put it in fancier language, they engage in a dialogue, they ask and answer each other’s questions, one calls and the other responds.
This thought popped up (and whenever a thought does so, I cherish it) during my class on the 19th century novel, where we’re currently following the adventures of Jane and the brooding, Byronic Rochester. [Do I need a “spoiler alert” here? If you haven’t read Jane Eyre and you value suspense, well, proceed at your own risk!] We’re at the point in the novel where horrible, bestial, degenerate Bertha Mason, the “madwoman in the attic,” is about to appear and rain on Jane’s parade. Because Bertha, despite her importance to the novel, never speaks, she’s defined largely through the words of Jane and Rochester, who are hardly disinterested parties.
In pondering Monday’s assignment to find a key passage reflecting Bertha’s importance to the novel (I should actually be doing that right now, rather than this, but this is more fun!) I found myself asking, “how fair is it that Bertha is voiceless?” This question led me to remember Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, a wonderful book I read many years ago. Rhys was, like the unfortunate Bertha, of European descent; born on a Carribbean Island, she, like Bertha, only came to England as an young woman. Taking umbrage at Bronte’s depiction of Bertha as “mad, bad and embruted” Rhys wrote a novel narrating Bertha’s side of the story, from her childhood as Antoinette Cosway, to her arranged marriage to Edward Rochester, who re-christens her “Bertha” and appropriates her money, and, ultimately, to her imprisonment by him in the attic of Thornfield Hall. Bronte’s Bertha is voiceless because Rochester has stripped her first of her name and then of her identity; she is mad because she lives in a culture that literally drives women insane. Because Bronte’s novel is such a great classic of the 19th century, it elicited Rhys’ equally great (in my opinion) counter narrative/response in the 20th. After Sargasso Sea, Jane Eyre could never be read the same way again. For a far better discussion than mine of both novels, click on this great short piece from the BBC, published on the 50th anniversary of Rhys’ work.
Or Both? My choice!
Well, every writer can’t be as effective as Jean Rhys, can she? But this whole line of thought did give me an excuse to continue evading Monday’s homework (and Tuesday’s for that matter) by attempting to come up with other, similar “pairings.” The idea of companion works seems particularly appropriate, doesn’t it, in this Valentine season of double happiness, or happiness doubled or paired or whatever? To be clear, I’m not referring to a novel which simply uses the same characters as a prior novel, or merely expands in an unoriginal way on situations or themes that were previously explored without offering any new insights (I would, for example, exclude the many variations on Austen’s novels that are currently flooding Amazon). Rather, I’m thinking of works that essentially spin the original story around by requiring us to visualize a familiar story in a new way. After much (painful) thought, I came up with Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly, in which the eponymous heroine is a young maid who experiences in her own way the transformation of R. L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyl into Mr. Hyde, and Grendel, where John Gardner re-casts the epic Beowulf from the point of view of the lonely, savage, ruthless heart-breaking monster. While neither has quite the impact of Wide Sargasso Sea, which is in a league of its own, they are both wonderful novels that will alter the way you experience the previous works to which they respond.
Pop quiz time (I’m thinking in student mode these days) — name some more pairings! Since I’ve had the benefit of reading the BBC piece I linked to above, I’ll make it easy by listing a few pairs, with the disclaimer that I’ve not read these particular “re-inventions:”
Well, this is my list! Did I miss anyone’s favorite, or, if you happen by and have any additions, please share!
Is anyone out there in the mood for a period piece? Want some star-crossed romance and 1930s Irish country life, combined with a frisson of menace from the imminent outbreak of war? If so, head straight for Kate O’Brien’s The Last of Summer. If this novel ultimately left me a little unsatisfied, I can honestly recommend it as a good read; it also contained sections that offered a bit more than a merely pleasant way to pass an afternoon.
The novel opens in the summer of 1939, literally days before Germany’s invasion of Poland and declarations of war by Britain and France. Angèle Maury, a young French actress touring Ireland with some theater friends, impulsively decides to ditch the tour in order to pay an unannounced visit to her father’s family. Angéle, you see, despite her Parisian upbringing and French mother, is also the daughter of Tom Kernahan, the black sheep son of a family of Irish Catholic landowners (slightly more on this below). As we come to learn in bits and pieces, Tom was the middle of three Kernahan brothers, all of whom in their youth simultaneously fell in love with the beautiful Hannah O’Reilly, “a draper’s daughter from over her father’s bit of a shop.” Tom initially won the romantic prize, to the chagrin of his older sibling. The marriage didn’t come off, however, and Tom permanently decamped to France, where he met and married Angéle’s actress mother. According to a legend carefully cultivated by Hannah in subsequent years, it was she who broke the engagement, along with Tom’s heart; a few village residents, however, remember that it was Tom who did the jilting and left Hannah to his older brother with the words to walk away himself from a woman as lovely and as cold as “hollow ground steel.” Needless to say, older brother ignored this very good advice and, when the story begins many years later with Angéle’s impulsive visit, the now-widowed Hannah is the mistress of Waterpark House, the Kernahan family home. There she reigns absolutely over her small kingdom, fawned over by the local clergy, adored to the point of idolatry by her elder and favorite son Tom (named for his uncle), loved a bit more skeptically by daughter Jo and younger son Martin, and obeyed and feared by a small miscellany of poor relations and servants. Hannah is not pleased to see Angéle, whose existence she has concealed from the rest of the family. Her two sons do not share her opinion and the old love triangle repeats itself with minor variations. Over the course of the next week (!!!) both Tom and Martin fall madly in love with Angéle (variously described as a “water nymph” or Gothic angel); Tom proposes marriage; Angéle accepts; Hannah moves to break up the love affair and protect her reign over Waterpark; and WWII begins.
My honest reaction to the first half of the novel was a big yawn, combined with the thought that this might be the wrong book for me at this particular time. Keep in mind, however, that I’m not receptive to 1930s nostalgia and I have the kind of professional training that makes me ask uncomfortable questions, such as “would you really propose marriage to someone you met the day before yesterday?” and “why wouldn’t you run, absolutely just sprint, for the nearest train when you heard that proposal, instead of leaving your native country, renouncing your theatrical career and embracing a lifetime of Hannah as a mother-in-law?” But then, as I said at the beginning of this post, The Last of Summer is a period piece, written in the early 1940s, and I am somewhat unfairly subjecting it to a viewpoint formed by a far different time and place. Still, despite O’Brien’s considerable skill as a writer and her ability to create a convincing sense of atmosphere, I was seriously considering abandoning the novel for something just a bit more — cynical (Ivy Compton-Burnett, anyone?).
So what changed my opinion, after that big yawn around page 107? What countered my inability to suspend belief and go with the narrative flow of eternal love at a moment’s notice? Quite simply, O’Brien gave an absolutely penetrating psychological profile of a minor character that riveted my attention, followed by an equally acute and insightful analysis of Hannah. It was also around the halfway point, after Tom announces his engagement, that O’Brien ratcheted up the conflict between Hannah and Angéle, which provides the dramatic focus of the novel. The novel’s introduction, written by Eavan Boland, points out that Hannah provides the “glint of the scalpel” in this otherwise lush, romantic story (remember her lover’s description of Hannah as “hollow ground steel?); unlike Boland, I don’t ascribe any great symbolism to Hannah’s role in the story, but she does give it tension and strength. In addition to her psychological insight, O’Brien provides an unsentimental view of puritanical, small town Ireland, where a child derides Angéle for wearing lipstick and the powers of the small community silently unite to impede what they regard as an unsuitable match. Many of the minor characters were quite skillfully drawn and in Jo, the Kernahan daughter, O’Brien gives an unusually positive view of a highly intelligent woman with a strong and unsentimental religious vocation. Lastly, I was attracted by the fact that O’Brien’s characters are from a reasonably affluent, Irish Catholic landowning class rather than the Anglo-Irish Protestant gentry who are the subjects of other novels I have read from this period, such as those by Molly Keane.
I’ve had this novel for years and, finally, read it as part of my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge. In her introduction to the novel (which was published as a Virago Modern Classic), Boland delicately intimates that, while The Last of Summer is not among O’Brien’s best work (that honor belongs, apparently, to Mary Lavalle and The Land of Spices), it was written in the “best phase of her work.” For a very good review of the novel, I’d recommend you click over to Danielle’s more positive assessment at A Work in Progress. While I obviously had some reservations about the novel, for the right reader in the right mood it could be a wonderful treat; even for grouchy old me in a bad mood it was a pleasant diversion. And to that key question, “would you read another book by Kate O’Brien?” I’d answer “yes.” Just not any time soon.
In the brief life of my blog I’ve had a lot of fun selecting the visuals to accompany my postings. This one, however, was problematical — nothing quite popped into my mind with respect to this novel, until I thought “Irish country house.” How do you like what I came up with? But — I cheated! While I love the image, which I think embodies the mood of the novel, it bears no relationship whatsoever to the Waterpark described by O’Brien:
It was a plain, large house, washed with cream paint that was dilapidated. Its face was late Georgian “squireen,” smooth and blank. Five big windows across the first floor; four similar windows and a wide doorway below ….
In other words, the Kernahan family manse looked more like this:
So, what do you say? Do you prefer the accuracy of the “late Georgian squireen” or the poetic license of my ivy covered manor house?
I’ve realized with dismay that it’s been several days since I posted anything on my beloved new book blog! How have y’all survived out there, without my insightful musings on various literary works, my exegesis on Henry James or my moving narration of the struggles and triumphs of meeting the TBR or Back to the Classics challenges? (To any who happen by, you do realize I’m joking, right?) Anyway, I’ve been busy with the books shown below.
To translate the visual into the verbal, spring semester started about ten days ago and I’m taking courses! The Tintoretto book is actually a catalog for a major exhibition on that artist opening (“god willin’ and the government don’t shut down”) in March at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.; I’m reading it in conjunction with an incredible course in Renaissance Venetian Art. The novels (Frankenstein; Middlemarch; Great Expectations; Jane Eyre and Dr Jekyll) are required for my course in the 19th century English novel, which I signed up for on a whim and which has turned out to be wonderful! We finished Frankenstein last week (I’m thinking of doing a review) and are well into Jane Eyre; Great Expectations is next. I’d read several of the novels, but all many years ago and quite honestly didn’t really like some of them; it’s amazing, so many years later, to find that I’m having an altogether different reaction to these works. The two remaining books about Renaissance art relate to my desperate attempt to settle on a topic for a major research project (I have some ideas, but have a very long way to go on this!). Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to — how about y’all? Reading anything good these days?
Does anyone like short stories, I mean, really like them? I know that many of us (or at least me) say that we do, but then do we ever actually read them? I’m always going to, I really mean to; year after year one of my major resolutions has been to read just one itty, bitty story a week and every year, the result is the same — I read, say, three. Or in a good year, maybe four. I’ve tried everything, every rationalization, every form of persuasion to up my total — “oh, just read whatever The New Yorker is publishing this week, it’s an easy way to stay current with new talent;” “pick some critically acclaimed collection by a prestige writer; that way you can blather and impress your literary friends;” “go on, pull out a ‘Best of the Year’ collection cluttering the shelves, it’s a quick way to get a little dusting done,” “it’ll be easier to read stories around a theme — Christmas, ghosts, Halloween, family relationships, whatever;” or, at a really low point, “just read one of the damn things and then go bake some cookies ….” Well, anyway, I’m sure you get the idea. Despite all this clever self-psychology, with a very few exceptions (Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress; William Trevor’s After Rain) I always go for a novel rather than a short story or a story collection. I think at bottom the short story leaves me a little dissatisfied; just as I feel that I’m getting underway — poof! It’s gone. I also think the short story requires the ability to stop, savor, relish, luxuriate in what you’ve just read, all of which is antithetical to my habit of reading quickly to cover a lot of ground. Yet still I persist in my annual goal, because the short story is, as far more knowledgeable people than I have said, a great art form.
Well, my failure to appreciate the short story is about to change! The Guardian has just published the most wonderful list, “Bite Sized: 50 great short stories, chosen by Hilary Mantel, George Saunders and more.” It’s a great mixture of classic, contemporary, famous writers (Alice Munroe, William Trevor and so on) and writers who may very well be famous but who are unfamiliar to me (Ilse Aichinger; Jo Ann Beard; Gina Beeriault); some stories were originally published in English; some are translations; there are a few obvious selections (Jackson’s “The Lottery”) and some wonderful contemporary stuff (“We Didn’t Like Him” by Akhil Sharma). The great feature of the list is that each entry has a wonderful little paragraph explaining why that particular story is on the list. It’s so exciting! I must read them all! Perhaps one a week for the next year?
I loved, loved, loved this book! I actually finished reading it last week, but had to absorb its impact for a few days and mull over how to approach it in a review. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but books I really like, that touch me emotionally, tend to leave me speechless or whatever you call the literary equivalent of being tongue-tied. Why is that, I wonder? I think it’s partially a fear my review won’t do the book justice, that it deserves better than what I can give it and that if I could only write a better review my bookish treasure would get the consideration it deserves from any prospective readers out there. There’s also, however, another element that makes it hard for me to discuss this work — I loved it and what if others don’t? So be forewarned — I’ll listen to opposing opinions about its quality but be prepared to (strongly) argue your case!
Before I get started on the novel itself, I want to note a few mundane matters. I purchased The Ten Thousand Things many years ago, largely because it was on sale (see how honest I’m being?) and I felt a strong attraction for its exotic setting. I mean, really, a spice plantation in the Dutch East Indies in the early part of the 20th century? How could you possibly get more exotic? I had always wanted to travel in the Indonesia/Oceania part of the world and I was practically licking my chops at the idea of a painless way to learn something about the area and maybe to imbibe a bit of local atmosphere. Besides, the book is an NYRB Classic, meaning it has a beautiful cover, pages made from acid free paper and a really tactile quality in general (you just somehow want to stroke it, you know? ) Although I purchased this novel at least a decade ago, I finally read it for the first time — last week! In the first few years after it entered my rather motley collection, I’d occasionally take the book off the shelf and admire the cover art; then of course, back on the shelf it went; it just struck me as a “difficult” read that I didn’t have the energy for at whatever time I happened to be considering it; it always lost out to what I perceived as an easier novel (bring on another mystery or sci-fi space opera!); eventually it became just another of those beautiful NYRB Classics that I’m better at buying than actually reading. Two events were instrumental in converting this book from a dust catcher into a reading experience: I finished a course last fall on the art of the Dutch maritime empire during its Golden Age (i.e, the 1600s) and I needed a selection for the “Africa, Asia, or Oceania” category for the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate. This time around when I picked up Marie Dermoût’s Ten Thousand Things my course in Dutch art history gave the novel context and an historical resonance; it seemed — and was — the perfect selection. The importance of having an historical context for a particular book is a very personal matter; while it’s important for me (I was a very enthused history major several eons ago, when I first attended college), it’s totally unnecessary to enjoy the novel, which, by the way, isn’t at all a difficult read. In fact, my quest for historical facts actually got somewhat in the way. I kept interrupting my reading to spend internet time trying to determine the real life counterpart of the narrator’s unnamed island, or whether the “sugar panic” on Java that impoverished her family actually occurred. Total, obsessive waste of time chasing irrelevant facts; much better, dear reader, to have simply sat back and enjoyed this lovely book.
What I (and many of the reviews I looked at) found among the most entrancing features of The Ten Thousand Things is the sensual, poetic quality of Dermoût’s prose and, closely related, her ability to draw you into the landscape of a dream, providing you remember that dreams are sometimes uneasy things. The novel opens with a description of “the Island in the Moluccas” where there are still a few “gardens” or plantations left from “the great days of spice growing.” The garden’s great house has long since fallen prey to earthquake and fire, but a guest pavilion remains, four large rooms on an open side gallery; this is the home of the lady who owns the garden:
She had a beautiful name — Mrs. von So-and-so [that had been her husband’s name; he was from an East Prussian noble family] — and she was the last of an old Dutch line of spice growers.
For five generations the garden had been in the family; after her, her son would have been the sixth generation; after him, his children the seventh — but it was not to be like that. Her son had died young and childless and she was an old woman, beyond fifty now, without other children, without other relatives — the last one.
According to the custom of the island, where they had trouble remembering difficult names and where everyone had a byname, she was called “the lady of the inner bay,” or also “the lady of the Small Garden,” for that was the name of the garden.
Trust me, the language and descriptions become even more hypnotic as the novel moves on; I’m having to restrain myself from quoting huge chunks of it. You’ll just have to read it for yourself (if you don’t, you’ll miss the description of the three graves at the edge of the garden, and the ghosts of the three little girls, daughters of a long-ago owner, who are seen by some to play under the spice trees and on the beach of the inner bay. Your life will be poorer).
The novel’s structure is based on the island’s geography. The opening section (“The Island”) depicts the island’s sights, its sounds, and its residents, living and dead, from the lady of the Small Garden, to the simple fisherman who dyed his hair blue, because his remarkable soldier son must be honored by having a remarkable father. “At the Inner Bay” is perhaps the novel’s most narratively cohesive section; it recounts the life of the girl, Felicia, who in her old age becomes the lady of the Small Garden; it tells of her birth, her early childhood and of her strange and powerful grandmother, with her herbs and cabinet of wonders guarded from evil by living shells. After Grandmother refuses to rebuild the big house, the scene of death and misfortune, Felicia is taken to Europe by her irate mother, the wealthy heiress of a Javanese sugar plantation. There, in a few brief paragraphs, Felicia grows to adulthood, living with her parents in a succession of luxury hotels, until she meets the “stranger from Nice,” whom she marries. When the “sugary money” runs out, so does he, taking Felicia’s jewelry with him and leaving her pregnant. After she tires of sponging off relatives in Holland, a penniless Felicia returns with her infant son Himpies to her Grandmother on the Island, where she spends the rest of her life.
In contrast to her years in Europe, which are covered in a paragraph or two, Felicia’s time with her grandmother in the Small Garden (which eventually passes to her) is recounted in great detail. This section of the novel also narrates the life of Felicia’s son Himpies, who dies as a childless young man. Dermoût paints a picture of Himpies at all stages of his life: the infant Willem, whom the islanders rechristen “Himphies” (remember, the island loves “bynames”); the child who is almost an organic part of the Small Garden; the youth who reluctantly goes to Holland for his education and the young officer who has knowingly chosen the wrong career because it enables him to return to the island. It also recounts, finally, his unnecessary, untimely and agonizing death.
In the novel’s third section, “At the Outer Bay,” the narrative shifts to the island’s only town and three of its residents, who are loosely connected to Felicia and Himpies. Each story centers on a character who, like Himpies, meets an untimely end. In the novel’s last section, “The Island,” we return in a sense to the novel’s beginning, where Felicia, now the old lady of the Small Garden, keeps vigil alone, one night each year; at this time the ghosts of those whose stories we’ve read (including Himpies) visit her. At dawn, when the ghosts depart, Felicia leaves off her vigil, goes “under the trees and indoors, to drink her coffee and try again to go on living.” As much as I love the poetry of Dermoût’s language and the fact that, for all her lovely descriptions, she also tells a good story, it was her almost pantheistic vision of life that appealed to me so much. In Dermoût’s island, everything — plants, animals, stones, wind, the sea — is connected; each has its role to play and its fate to be endured. Time is circular, like the serpent that swallows its tail; we travel a circle of life and death, to learn that which Felicia has known from the beginning — that the dead inhabit the island as much as the living.
This is as good a place as any to squeeze in a bit of info about Maria Dermoût herself. Although I was unaware of the fact until I read this novel, she is considered one of the leading writers of Dutch colonial literature. The Ten Thousand Things, which she wrote in her sixties, is a heavily biographical work. Like Felicia, Dermoût was born in Malaysia (specifically, Java in 1888), was educated in Holland, married a Dutch official and spent most of her adult life in Indonesia. Dermoût’s only son died in a Japanese concentration camp; in 1962 she herself died in Holland, alone like Felicia. Her output, alas, is small, being limited to this novel and to one other work; The Ten Thousand Things actually fell out of print in English before being rescued by NYRB Classics.
Remember my words at the beginning of this overly long post, about my fear that I’d fail to do justice to a wonderful work of literature? As I mull over what I’ve written, I fear that I’ve made Dermoût sound too sentimental. She isn’t at all. Colonial history, anywhere — Africa, the Americas, Malaysia — has a very dark side, which has its place and connection to events in Dermoût’s world. The Small Garden has the charming custom of sounding a bell when visitors approach or depart; it’s a little chilling to find that what’s being used is “the slave bell” from the Small Garden’s days as a major spice plantation. The island’s inhabitants include the ghosts of three little girls, daughters of one of Felicia’s distant ancestors. The three died together in a single day, most likely poisoned by a mistreated slave girl; the tale is so dark Felicia’s grandmother refuses to speak of it (it’s one of the reasons she also refuses to rebuild the great house, the scene of their deaths). Felicia’s son, young and charming and good, is killed almost by chance; his death is unnecessary, slow and painful. In addition to the exigencies of fate, Dermoût acknowledges the darkness that is part of human nature: many of her characters are murdered; more are selfish, greedy and domineering. And, of course, the Lady of the Small Garden, her grandmother and her son Himpies, are themselves the human remnants of the great tide of European conquest and exploitation that re-shaped a huge chunk of the globe; to carry my metaphor further, they are akin to the shells left stranded on a beach after the tide has receded.
With this last fact in mind, I can’t resist including this painting of an unknown official of the Dutch East India Company and his wife, standing next to a harbor in a city that centuries after their time will be called Jakarta. Behind them a native servant holds a pajong or parasol over their heads; in Javanese culture the pajong symbolizes high rank and status. The Dutch official points with the pride of ownership and authority to the huge Dutch ships riding at anchor, loaded with the spices that were far more valuable than gold, shortly to begin their voyage “home.” On the distant shore is Batavia Castle, a key component of Dutch military power over their conquered island.
Here’s another painting on the theme of empire; this is an image of Dutch military and political power rather than Cupy’s portrayal of the mercantile/commercial power of the East India Company. Painted from the perspective of the victorious Dutch, it depicts the “submission” of one of the last indigenous leaders who opposed their rule. The Javanese prince thought he was attending a peace conference held under a flag of truce. He wasn’t. After being arrested he was quickly exiled and that, as they say, is that.
Dermoût’s novel has a scene in which Felicia, a penniless young woman newly returned from Holland, persuades her grandmother to begin selling the Small Garden’s produce in the town market. Grandmother is indignant — “what do you mean? sell for money things that we didn’t pay money for?” — but relents when she realizes Felicia needs money to provide an education for Himpies. Since I’m on a visual roll, this is all the excuse I need to throw in this painting of a street market in the Dutch East Indies:
The painting is attributed, probably incorrectly, to Albert Eckhout, a 17th century Dutch artist who’s known primarily for his paintings of life in the short-lived Dutch colony in Brazil rather than Indonesia. Although it predates Felicia’s mercantile adventure by two centuries or so, I think it conveys some of the exotic (to westerners, anyway) quality of Felicia’s world (as well as the ethnic typecasting frequently found in western paintings of non-western cultures). Lastly, the painting at the beginning of my posting is from a genre known loosely as “Mooi Indie” or “pretty Indies pictures,” i.e., somewhat stereotyped portrayals of beautiful and/or picturesque scenes of Indonesian life and scenery, often (but not always) painted by Europeans. I wasn’t able to determine the artist’s identity or the location of his scene and I did feel a bit reluctant to use it, but it was so beautiful I couldn’t resist.
Well, that’s it for tonight! I have a few more paintings I’m itching to include, but I’ll spare y’all. Hopefully I haven’t frightened anyone away from reading a wonderful novel. I can’t think of a better closing than the one used by Dermoût herself, a line of poetry from Ts’en Shen:
“When the ten thousand things have been seen in their unity, we return to the beginning and remain where we have always been.”
Alice Greenway’s White Ghost Girls is a skinny little novel (scarcely more than a novella) that has taken me almost seventeen (!!!!) years to read. If I hadn’t decided to participate in the 2019 TBR Challenge, in fact, it might have languished on the shelf for another decade, or never have been read at all, which would be a shame. For all its brevity, Greenway’s beautifully written novel packs quite a punch. Despite my great delay in getting to it (I always meant to read it!) I am happy to have selected it as my first 2019 TBR Challenge read!
Greenway’s novel could be categorized in a number of equally accurate ways. Ghost Girls is a debut novel and, like many such, is also a coming of age tale. Most reviewers stopped there. In my mind, however, this tale of an expatriate American family living in Hong Kong also falls into the “innocent Americans abroad in a dangerous world” category, a variation on the well-beloved 19th century trope of naive Americans entrapped by an older & exotic culture. On a very mundane level, Ghost Girls also concerns a dysfunctional family (dysfunctional family novels are one of my favorite literary sub-genres). Its Hong Kong setting, described in lovely, lyrical prose, also places the novel in that group of books that you might pick up for an afternoon’s mini-vacation in an exotic locale. The novel is also a study, brief but concentrated, of loss and memory. Finally, although I don’t think Greenway intended it as such, her novel is a bit of a period piece. Its action takes place in 1967, when America’s adventure in Vietnam was at its tragic height and Mao’s Red Guards are fomenting unrest in Hong Kong in a process that will eventually see the end of British rule over the crown colony. Both these political events determine the lives of Greenway’s characters and her depiction of them adds a great deal to the novel’s atmosphere.
It is the summer of 1967 and the news is filled with images of the war that is raging in southeast Asia. The family’s father is a photographer for Time Magazine, assigned to cover the war. While he works on assignment in Vietnam, his wife Marianne and his two daughters, Frankie and Kate, live in Hong Kong where they await his occasional visits from the war zone. It’s one of the novel’s ironies that Hong Kong, chosen as a safe refuge from war, is itself descending into intense street violence brought about by clashes between police and communist demonstrators. During her husband’s absence Marianne uses the charms and comforts of the colony’s British elite (Sunday luncheon, anyone, or perhaps tea?) to barricade herself against the violence and her fear; an artist, she also immerses herself in painting charming water colors of an idyllic, imaginary China that never existed. Twelve year old Kate and her older sister Frankie are left largely to Ah Bing, the family’s Chinese nanny and house keeper; they are her gwaimui, or white ghost girls (on occasion, she also refers to them as houh hoi, or “little whores.” Marianne is oblivious.) The combination of an unreachable mother, and a father becoming increasingly addicted to the lure of Vietnam and the adrenaline of war, mean the two girls essentially navigate adolescence and the street dangers created by political turmoil on their own.
The story is told in the first person, from the perspective of the adult Kate, who is remembering the events of her family’s last summer together. It is clear from the opening page that something terrible will happen to Frankie; the novel’s suspense lies in learning the precise form the catastrophe will assume and how it will occur. As with any first person account, the reader has to judge for herself the reliability of the narrator, a point that Kate herself raises rather obliquely midway through the novel. Greenway uses beautiful, lyrical prose to contrast the innocence of late childhood with the growing menace surrounding Kate and Frankie. When the act occurs that sets in motion the novel’s horrifying climax, we see it as twelve year old Kate sees it, half comprehending, half not.
Greenway is particularly good at family dynamics. Kate and Frankie are studies in contrasts. Frankie is voluptuous and rebellious; as the older sister she is bigger, stronger and faster; she is also more emotionally needy and feels she must come first in any situation. Kate is younger; more boyish; quieter and observant; it is Kate who sees the fractures in the family’s relationships and feels responsible for mending them. Despite their differences, the sisters have a close relationship but one that begins to fray over the course of that fateful summer. Although it is hardly the dominant strain in the novel, Greenway skillfully depicts the struggle each girl wages with the other and with their mother for the father’s attention on the rare occasions when he is physically with his family.
A note about the artwork, for the visually minded out there. The artist is George Chinnery, who was active in the second quarter of the 19th century and spent much of his life along what was then called the “China Coast.” Chinnery, a contemporary of the far more famous J.M.W. Turner, was the only western painter resident in south China during this period. Because Chinnery spent only a limited amount of time in Hong Kong itself, the painting actually portrays a panoramic view of Macau, at the time a more important city located about 40 miles to the southwest. At one point in the novel, Kate attempts to understand her emotionally aloof and distant mother by examining her mother’s art. Kate describes her mother’s paintings as “nostalgic, suggestive” of a nineteenth century Hong Kong, similar to “the playful sketches of George Chinnery’s depictions” of “the faded charm of nearby Macau.” While I may have cheated a bit by using a 19th century painting of Macau to illustrate a 20th century novel set in Hong Kong, Greenway gives me some support for doing so!
Although I wasn’t quite as taken with this novel as many reviewers (I think it was long-listed for the Orange Prize, or some such) it was definitely worth reading on both stylistic and substantive grounds. I’d especially recommend it for readers who enjoy beautiful lyrical language, atmosphere and exotic settings in their novels.