A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende
translated by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson
The French are suspicious of this ragbag horde of socialist and communist sympathisers, warehousing them in squalid concentration camps. But when news comes through that the poet, Pablo Neruda, has chartered a ship to take some of them to Chile, Victor and Roser manage to secure a place on board. Arriving in the “long petal of sea and wine and snow”, the only way the pair can guarantee they’ll be resettled together is by becoming husband and wife.
Although relating initially like brother and sister, and despite both taking other lovers, their union is strong, bound by their politics, their loyalty to their native Catalonia and their shared investment in raising Roser’s son, Marcel. She finds prestige and fulfilment in a career as a concert pianist and teacher of music; he becomes a surgeon of some renown. He’s also the occasional chess opponent of the socialist politician Salvador Allende, whose short-lived government comes to an abrupt end in a military coup. After being arrested, tortured and held for a year in another concentration camp, Victor manages to flee to Venezuela, exiled from his homeland for a second time.
While pleased to add another country to my reading around the world project, and to learn a little more about the Spanish Civil War than I had in The Girl with the Leica, I didn’t find this novel as engaging as I’d hoped. Perhaps it was trying to do too much, but I cared less about the characters as time moved on so that the redemptive ending seemed clichéd. But I’m sure the author has no need to worry about what I think! Thanks to Bloomsbury for my review copy.
Little Bandaged Days by Kyra Wilder
Everyone’s happy, or so the woman assures her mother in middle-of-the-night phone calls to America. What could be better than an endless round of taking her husband’s suits to the dry cleaners and her children to the park? In a city where she knows no-one, apart from her increasingly absent husband, where she can’t speak the language – even Bonjour is an achievement – and the natives are somewhat uptight? What could be more lovely than the freedom to play and mess and clean it all up again, to be the perfect mother, the perfect wife?
Wow! The narrative voice is pitch perfect: it doesn’t take long to detect the brittleness behind the mother’s smile. With backstory and context – the four members of his family don’t even have names – scrubbed down to the bare minimum, the reader is totally inside this woman’s head (without any irritating stream-of-consciousness pretension). And she’s unravelling. Through a gradual process of sleeplessness, isolation and a determination to keep up appearances learnt at her mother’s knee. The tension kept me turning the pages through days and nights of not an awful lot going on. I felt concern for her and her children, and anger that a woman should find herself in this position in these supposedly post-feminist days.
But then, a quarter of the way through, another voice comes in. No, not in her head, but a few months on, in some secure facility, a secure psychiatric unit or the hospital wing of a prison. And though it didn’t hang around for long, it returned three or four times, I suppose to crank up the tension, but it weakened the story for me. (And the hint that she’s in a straitjacket – well, mammoth eyeroll!) Having so much admired – and envied – the author’s confidence up until this point, I was disappointed at what seemed like a slip from literary fiction into domestic noir.
Nevertheless, an impressive debut about the slim line between motherhood and madness that only just missed five stars from me. Thanks to Picador for my review copy.
For other novels on the impact of social isolation on the mother’s psyche, see Snegurochka; After Birth and Hausfrau, which is also set in Switzerland. My own novel, Underneath, about a man who seeks to resolve a relationship crisis by keeping a woman captive in a cellar, explores a process of mental disintegration from a male point of view.
Wanting to post these reviews today, I looked in my inbox for the latest flash fiction challenge. Okay, a park bench, I thought, shouldn’t be difficult to pair with Little Bandaged Days. I’d produced my ninety-nine words before I read the full instructions to link it to a particular point in this clever gif showing twenty-four hours in the life of a park bench. Fortunately, there’s a point in the sequence where a mother watches a child playing.
Someone’s nabbed the bench beside the sandpit, a proper mother with clean clothes and groomed hair. Erica could go and sit alongside her, there’s room for another set of carrot sticks, juice boxes, wet wipes and menagerie of plastic toys. But the proper mother might speak to her and Erica wouldn’t know if she was sniping at her choice of toddler snacks or inviting her for tea. Even if she trimmed her words so Erica could understand, she couldn’t answer. She needs quiet, a clear channel to her children’s cries. She’s already distracted by the voices in her head.