“Our house, in the middle of our street.” (Madness)

This my second contribution to the wonderful #ReadIndies2 events hosted by Kaggsy and Lizzy.

This time I’ve chosen two novels linked by the theme of communities.

Firstly, Hotel Silence by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (2016 trans. Brian FitzGibbon 2018) published by Pushkin Press. I wrote about Butterflies in Novemberby this author in my previous post, explaining that I’d also enjoyed Miss Iceland. Unlike both these novels, Hotel Silence features a male narrator and is set away from Iceland.

Jónas Ebeneser is just shy of 50 and his wife has left him, telling him that his daughter, Gudrun Waterlily, is not his. His elderly mother has dementia and is fixated on war. All this has prompted a significant crisis:

“Will the world miss me? No. Will the world be any poorer without me? No. Will the world survive without me? Yes. Is the world a better place than when I came into it? No. What have I done to improve it? Nothing.”

So he decides to end his life. But because he doesn’t want Gudrun Waterlily to find his body, he decides to do so in another country. He flies to an unnamed country that has just seen the end of conflict:

“The situation is said to be precarious, and it is unclear whether the ceasefire will hold. It seems ideal”

The first section, Flesh ends with his arrival at the titular hotel. The second part, Scars, forms the rest of the book, in which Jónas finds his skills as a handyman in great demand as an entire generation of men has been wiped out.

He helps May and Fifi, the young siblings who run the hotel, and gets roped in to making western saloon doors for the nearby Restaurant Limbo where he takes his meals. Word spreads, and Jónas begins to heal, albeit with scar tissue – not a return to what was before.

“My unhappiness is at best inane when compared to the ruins and dust that lie outside my window.”

He also assists with healing in others, as he helps May and Fifi rebuild their hotel. There is a mosaic of cultural significance somewhere in the building, but also more prosaically rooms that need rewiring and painting. The brother and sister hope to see tourists back soon, although to a very different hotel than before the war, as the uncovered shop postcards attest:

“What strikes me are the bright colours, the vibrant blue sky and golden sand; the world was still in colour back then and people didn’t know what was in store, they’re alive, both their legs are of the same length, they have plans for the future, maybe they’re going to change cars or kitchen units or take a trip abroad.”

Hotel Silence shows the power of community to heal both collectively and for the individuals within it. It is about how hope doesn’t mean a diminishment of pain, but a way to live alongside it. And it’s about how both hope and healing can be found in the most unexpected places, if we can find the strength to stay open to such possibilities.

Secondly, Esperanza Street by Niyati Keni (2015) published by AndOtherStories, a not-for-profit publisher whose website explains: “And Other Stories publishes some of the best in contemporary writing, including many translations. We aim to push people’s reading limits and help them discover authors of adventurous and inspiring writing.”

They are a publisher I really enjoy, one where I’ll pick up a novel simply because it’s one of theirs, which is exactly what I did with Esperanza Street. The story is one of a community in a port town in the Philippines, told by Joseph, an eight-year old houseboy: “Esperanza, one of the oldest streets in Puerto, its heartbeat made up of a thousand smaller pulses, lulled us with its apparent constancy.”

Joseph’s mother has died, and shortly before this his father takes him to Mary Morelos’ house to work. Mary is kind but exacting, and Joseph gets to know her sons, good-looking mechanic Dub and artistic Benny as well as the cook America.

We follow Joseph and the inhabitants of the street through the next few years, beginning in 1981 with the Marcos’ in power. It’s a poor but busy area with food stalls, coffee shops and beauty parlours, and I thought Keni achieved a good balance of evoking the environment without indulging in poverty porn:

“from the gate, I watched the street turn to velvet and everything become rich, convivial. In a line stretching from the brow of the hill down to the jetty, the lamps came on in clusters, their yellow light seeping through the smoke that layered upwards from the braziers.”

The threat of redevelopment hangs over Esperanza Street. Local gangster Eddie Casama has left the area behind through his accumulation of wealth – though his mistress lives in the area – and he has an interest in seeing the area change. “he looked like the kind of man who’d let his kids ride on his back at weekends.” Yet his potential for violence and disregard for others is never in doubt.

There isn’t a huge amount of plot to Esperanza Street, though there several strands that we watch unfold. The inhabitants of the street are subject to their own passions and also to external forces of politics and money, all of which determine their fates. Joseph is an intelligent boy and both Mary and his father are anxious that he finishes school, but there will be events that loom large in his life along the way.

“I read with the hope something would finally arrive that would illuminate everything, a single piece of knowledge that would show how my life would unfold.”

Keni grew up in London though she has travelled a lot in the Philippines, so I would be interested to know how accurate her portrayal of the area is. It’s certainly a fully realised fictional portrait, which I found very evocative.

To end, a song named after a street near where I live:

“Sometimes me think, ‘What is friend?’ Then me say, ‘Friend is someone to share the last cookie with.’” (Cookie Monster)

This is a contribution to the wonderful #ReadIndies2 events hosted by Kaggsy and Lizzy.

The two books for this post were buried in my TBR, so I’ve put them together as they are linked by the theme of friendship.

Firstly, Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (2004 trans. Brian FitzGibbon 2013) published by Pushkin Press (which I thought was an indie, then panicked that it had been bought by Penguin, but which Lizzy has helpfully reassured me is definitely an indie!)

I really enjoyed Miss Iceland by this author so I was looking forward to this. Like Miss Iceland, this novel has a central female protagonist whose voice is bone dry, determinedly going her own way.

At the start of the novel, the unnamed narrator returns home to her husband after a meeting with her lover, one of her translation clients as she speaks 11 languages. She doesn’t seem especially attached to either man:

“After we had slept together for the first time, he looked surprised when I handed him the bill with the VAT clearly highlighted.”

Her husband announces he is leaving, to be with his pregnant girlfriend. This doesn’t seem like any great loss, given that as he’s going, he details her failure to live up to his ideals of womanhood:

“‘The amount of times I’ve prayed to God to ask him to make you buy a skirt suit.’

‘Wouldn’t it have been simpler just to ask me?’”

She moves to a new apartment but her wet blanket husband keeps turning up, so she starts daydreaming of foreign travel somewhere warm. However, her best friend Auður is pregnant with twins, and needs to stay in hospital for the late stages of the pregnancy. This means she finds herself driving round the Icelandic ring road which circles the whole island, with Auður’s son Tumi:

“a deaf four-year-old clairvoyant boy with poor eyesight and one leg three centimetres shorter than the other, which makes him limp when he is only wearing his socks.” 

There seems little worry that Tumi will miss any education, as his teacher demonstrates ableism, gender stereotyping and racism, all within a remarkably short conversation.

The plan is to travel east to a prefab cottage that she won in a lottery for the Association for the Deaf. This involves her returning homewards, and we get glimpses of her past which may explain some of her detachment, although things are never fully explained.

What follows is a road trip story – funded by her and Tumi winning another lottery, which they split 50/50 –  whereby the two meet a variety of characters. My personal favourite was the Estonian choir who kept turning up. There are also some lovers, as predicted by a clairvoyant at the start of the novel:

“three men in your life over a distance of 300 kilometres, three dead animals, three minor accidents or mishaps, although you aren’t necessarily directly involved in them, animals will be maimed, but the men and women will survive. However, it is clear three animals will die before you meet the man of your life.”

The animals: suffice to say there were passages I had to skip. But skipping those didn’t detract from the overall story at all so I would still recommend this novel, even if you share my sensitivities.

Tumi is a sweet, self-possessed boy “He always stands at the back of the group, avoiding conflict.” and I thought his relationship with the narrator was nicely evoked without sentimentalism.

Looking on goodreads, the reviews for this are a very mixed bag. My tolerance from whimsy is pretty high and I don’t mind things left unexplained, so I enjoyed this novel, and I do really like Ólafsdóttir’s detached female voices.

“A relationship for me is all about the right body and the right smell, the home is a shell for the body, not a place for exchanging existential views and having discussions. Even though you still have to load the washing machine and cook for the body.”

Secondly, Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession published by Bluemoose Books, an independent publisher based in Hebden Bridge, whose manifesto explains “At Bluemoose our aim is to publish cracking stories that engage and inspire.”

I tried to read L&HP back in the summer and totally failed, but it had a lot of positive reviews in the blogosphere and so I gave it another shot. Now my reading is recovering somewhat I zipped through it with ease, so I’m sure my earlier troubles were indicative of my reading slump and not Hession’s writing.

The titular friends are men around their mid-thirties, who are easily overlooked. Leonard is grieving his mother, who he lived with in the family home until she died, never moving out because they got on well and there was no reason to. I found this relationship very touching. So often parent/child relationships are dramatized as being full of unspoken judgements and resentments, and it was a pleasant change to see someone who loved his parent, but also liked and respected them.

“Had he the courage, Leonard would have spoken up and said that his mother looked after everyone in her life as though they were her garden birds: that is to say, with unconditional pleasure and generosity.”

Leonard’s grief is of the quiet, ordinary kind where you still get up and go to work every day, carrying a deep sadness with you. In other words, the type pretty much everyone experiences.

“Leonard took off his noise-cancelling society-repelling headphones and went to the kitchenette for a mid-morning cup, even though he always disliked the awkward wait for the water to boil and the prospect of kettle-related time-killing small talk.”

I am with you Leonard.

Hungry Paul – whose attributive adjective is never explained – still lives at home with his parents, happy to bumble along, working as a casual postman and seeing Leonard regularly for their boardgame nights.

“He had no interest in, or capacity for, mental chatter. He had no internal narrator. When he saw a dog he just saw a dog, without his mind adding that it should be on a lead or that its tongue was hanging out like a rasher.”

Paul’s quiet stillness comes into its own when his mother insists he join her as a volunteer hospital visitor. While his extrovert mother chats away happily with one patient, Paul becomes the only one another patient will tolerate “He sat there calmly, simply sharing the moment with the woman.”

Not very much happens in L&HP but there is enough plot to pull the reader along. Paul’s sister Grace is getting married; Leonard begins a tentative romance; Hungry Paul enters a competition at the Chamber of Commerce. Really though, the novel isn’t so much about what happens as providing a glimpse into ordinary, quiet lives, and showing how they are worthy of attention:

“Their friendship was not just one of convenience between two quiet, solitary men with few other options, it was a pact. A pact to resist the vortex of busyness and insensitivity that had engulfed the rest of the world. It was a pact of simplicity, which stood against the forces of competitiveness and noise.”

I found L&HP to be a paean to the kindness and the gentleness found in the everyday small gesture:

“She was a person for whom kindness was a very ordinary thing, who believed that the only acceptable excuse for not having a bird feeder in the back garden was that you had one in the front garden”

(Or in my case, because you live in a London flat and the management company have banned them because the rats feast on them ☹)

It’s not an overly worthy novel though, there is plenty of humour. No-one is put down, but the absurdities of people are gently ribbed, such as Leonard’s colleague “Okey dokey. This will take just one minutiae. Take a load off, compadre,’ said Greg, unable to complete one conventional sentence.”

As an introvert who despairs at the relentless noise of modern life (why do shops think blaring out music will entice you to spend more time and money there? Why are cinema volumes now kept at ear-bleeding decibel levels?!) and who firmly believes in the meaning of the everyday, I was definitely the target audience for L&HP. If this sounds like you too, then I think you’ll enjoy this novel.

“We live in an age of cacophony.  Everyone talking and thinking out loud, with no space or oxygen left for quiet statements and silence.”

To end, one of the best TV theme songs ever, all about being a friend:

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” (James Baldwin)

Trigger warning: mention of rape, domestic violence, racist violence

I was delighted when Go Tell It on the Mountain was selected for today’s review-a-long, as it has sat in my TBR for ages. I also really enjoyed October’s Vanity Fair review-a-long, and I fell in love with James Baldwin’s writing when I read Giovanni’s Room for the 1956 Club, back in October 2020.

Despite these various motivators, I was still worried I wouldn’t manage to join in, as my reading is slowly improving but still very poor, and my blogging is essentially non-existent. However, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) proved a good choice, as despite being a really tough read in terms of subject matter, it’s only 256 pages in my edition, can be read in an afternoon, and is full of Baldwin’s lyrical beauty.

Photo by Allan Warren, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The remaining obstacle is that it feels impossible to write about Go Tell It on the Mountain. It’s such a richly complex book and tackles such enormous themes, that I’m not even going to manage to approach doing it justice. So what follows is a few random thoughts 😊

The novel opens:

“Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself. Not until the morning of his fourteenth birthday did he really begin to think about it, and by then it was already too late.”

John’s father Gabriel Grimes preaches at the Temple of the Fire Baptized, a Pentecostal storefront church in Harlem. John is ambivalent about religion, finding it restrictive and acutely aware of the temptations all around him;

“For John excelled in school, though not, like Elisha, in mathematics or basketball, and it was said that he had a Great Future. He might become a Great Leader of His People. John was not much interested in his people and still less in leading them anywhere, but the phrase so often repeated rose in his mind like a great brass gate, opening outward for him on a world where people did not live in the darkness of his father’s house, did not pray to Jesus in the darkness of his father’s church, where he would eat good food, and wear fine clothes, and go to the movies as often as he wished.”

However, he does have faith. We follow John throughout his birthday as goes to the cinema and enjoys Central Park, but also attends church:

“The Sunday morning service began when Brother Elisha sat down at the piano and raised a song. This moment and this music had been with John, so it seemed, since he had first drawn breath.”

Aged fourteen, John is still finding out who he is. This is bound up in religion and church, but also in his academic accomplishments which mark him out at school and within his family; and his rejection of his father as a masculine role model who demonstrates violence and hypocrisy, beating his family often.

“His father’s arm, rising and falling, might make him cry, and that voice might cause him to tremble; yet his father could never be entirely the victor, for John cherished something that his father could not reach. It was his hatred and his intelligence that he cherished, the one feeding the other.”

In the second part of the novel the prayers of John’s father, mother and aunt are powerfully explored. I don’t want to say too much about the plot here, as the characterisations first introduced through John’s point of view are so sensitively deepened through this second part, including that of his abusive father (who remains wholly unlikeable, but a fully realised character). As a reader I enjoyed watching these complex adults emerge without any foreknowledge.

John’s parents are the first generation since emancipation, and the trauma of slavery is just within lived experience, as GTIOTM is set in 1935. The depictions of racism, every day and institutional, are enraging.

“She looked out into the quiet, sunny streets, and for the first time in her life, she hated it all—the white city, the white world. She could not, that day, think of one decent white person in the whole world. She sat there, and she hoped that one day God, with tortures inconceivable, would grind them utterly into humility, and make them know that black boys and black girls, whom they treated with such condescension, such disdain, and such good humor, had hearts like human beings, too, more human hearts than theirs.”

Through John’s aunt Florence and his mother Elizabeth, Baldwin explores the additional patriarchal oppression women have to contend with. Florence’s academia is ignored to prioritise Gabriel’s, despite her desire for learning and his total disregard for it. Pregnancy outside of wedlock is left for the women to deal with. A woman who is gang-raped by white men is outcast:

“No man would approach her in honor because she was a living reproach”

There is a lot of compassion throughout the novel for female experience. With everyone there is a sense of things unspoken, in contrast to the vocal exuberance of preaching, and this is particularly true for the female characters.

“And he knew again that she was not saying everything she meant; in a kind of secret language she was telling him today something that he must remember and understand tomorrow. He watched her face, his heart swollen with love for her and with an anguish, not yet his own, that he did not understand and that frightened him.”

The final part of the novel follows John experiencing vivid religious visions, but I felt the ending was ambiguous, undermining the fervour. Baldwin demonstrates that human experience is subject to unpredictable forces, both internal and external, and I felt any certainty John believed in one day could be undone tomorrow. (For one thing, John doesn’t seem to acknowledge sexual attraction to Elisha, though as readers it seems to be there.)

As I mentioned at the beginning. I’ve found Go Tell It on the Mountain almost impossible to write about. I hope these few thoughts and extensive quotes have given some sense of it though! Baldwin is such gorgeous writer even with such harrowing subject matters: skilled but approachable, angry and compassionate, humane and unsentimental.

Now to dig If Beale Street Could Talk out of the TBR…

I’ll add in links to the other bloggers taking part today as I find them. Early signs are I’m out on a limb with this one, so please do check out the other reviews 🙂 :

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