Red Affairs, White Affairs by Felicia Nay
Dismissed from her previous posting in Sudan for going beyond her remit, she won’t get a second chance in Hong Kong. But it’s a fine line between upsetting MediMission’s donors – the well-heeled women who make some migrants’ lives a misery – and unsettling the target beneficiaries, who might mistrust a service whose staff are too comfortable with the locals. Although Reini shares the Filipinas’ Catholic faith, she’s curious about the Chinese folk religion practised by her friend Virginia and her new boyfriend’s Buddhism.
When she’s assigned as caseworker for Ronda, a domestic worker rendered homeless when sacked from her job, personal and professional become entangled. Although, with her case for unfair dismissal under review, Ronda can’t work legally, Reini agrees to place her with her friend. Stressed by parental pressure to find a husband, and maternal failing health, Virginia needs a maid to cook and clean. But Reini is appalled when her friend demands more and more from her employee.
Red Affairs, White Affairs is an intelligent debut about living, loving and working in a climate and culture vastly different from one’s own, which brought to mind my youthful travels and the psychology of culture shock. Like Reini, I’ve longed to liberate women from ‘repressive’ traditional cultures as much as I’ve struggled with the other side of Othering, holding back a part of who I am for fear of causing offence. Along with the shifting dynamics of friendship, it also addresses the ethics of helping, both at an individual and service level, asking whether aid organisations can ever be completely disinterested and questioning the motivation of the compulsive helper.
These deep issues are delicately explored within the context of the very human story of a woman forced to confront her own assumptions against the backdrop of a – to me – unfamiliar city state. Although in places I found the subtleties almost too subtle, it felt honest in its depiction of life’s dilemmas. Thanks to Cinnamon Press for my review copy, my first from this small Welsh publisher.
Click on the image for recent posts on some of this novel’s themes: migration; helping and burnout; Catholic culture:
Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah
In the late 1870s, in the Kentish village of Downe, everyone attends church on Sunday except Thomas Davies, gardener by trade. Everyone? I didn’t pick up whether his employer, the naturalist Charles Darwin is a churchgoer, but his status, while not entirely exempting him from criticism, certainly muffles the gossip. Whereas Mr Davies, being one of us, ought to conform.
One of us: although narrated primarily in the first person singular, the baton passes so frequently between the villagers, the result is a collective community voice. The effect is delightful, although you’d have to read more closely than I did to pick out the family trees. The style also perfectly serves the plot: not only the question of whether Mr Davies will outrun his grief but also the rough justice meted out to a former resident by a group of neighbours. Again the poetic approach left me less confident about what actually happened, but I didn’t mind.
It did feel strange – although it shouldn’t – learning about Victorian England in a novella conceived in another language. And, as a gardener, I balked at the risk of frost will continue until the spring equinox as, albeit further north, the risk continues for another two months! Yet overall, another lovely read from publishers Peirene, from whom I purchased my copy for Women in Translation Month.
My reference to collective voice reminds me once again how much I’ve missed same-room choral singing during this pandemic and, having all too often picked up a bug at rehearsals, even if they open up again next year, I won’t be rushing back before coronavirus is done. But I’m grateful for the virtual versions and only wish I had more time to dedicate to learning the music. And, after letting two opportunities pass me by, I’m glad I summoned the courage to submit a voice recording of another two recent pieces, the second completely new to me. Hard to believe I’m part of this, it sounds so beautiful. (The quality of the recording is better on the blue one!)
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