“Silver Sparrow” by Tayari Jone: “Only lying to people we love”.

Silver Sparrow by [Jones, Tayari]

“My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist”. So does narrator Dana hook us into this drama set in African American Atlanta. From early childhood, Dana knows that James has another wife called Laverne, and a daughter Chaurisse, but what lasting damage is done to a five-year-old when told not only that she must not tell other people this, but that she, Dana, is “the one that’s the secret”? Wanting the best for her daughter, resentful that she always comes second as regards receiving her father’s attention and the material benefits he can provide, Dana’s mother Gwendolin seems blind to the additional damage caued by taking Dana on stalking expeditions, to spy on the favoured “first” family. The pair may draw some satisfaction from seeing that Laverne and Chaurisse seem less beautiful and intelligent than their counterparts, but cannot know that, despite their apparent blissful ignorance of James’ deception, they too have their own sorrows.

Rising above the underlying sadness, there are many amusing situations and a humorous tone to the writing, which gets away with the risky device of introducing past conversations involvng third parties into the first person narrative. With a gift for storytelling and strong dialogues, Tayari Jones enables us to empathise with all the characters to some degree. Somewhat belittled by Dana and Gwendolin in the first part, Chaurisse and Laverne come into their own as much more rounded and positive, generous, competent characters in the second half, when Charisse takes over the narrative. Although James rarely appears more than weak, wanting to have his cake and eat it, and exploiting the love of those close to him, the complex tie which binds him to Charisse is also gradually revealed. The psychological drama of the relationship between his two families is further compounded by the strongest bond of all, his friendship from childhood with dependable “Uncle Raleigh”, always on hand to help him maintain his double life, while managing to be the man that both Charisse and Gwendolin sometimes think they probably should have married. The question is, what will happen if the precarious equilibrium which James and Raleigh have managed to construct is ever upset by Laverne and Charisse discovering the truth?

This novel also rings true in its vivid insight into life for black Americans only a step or two on from segregation and inequality, yet also with their own internal social pecking order. One of Charisse’s main regrets over having to leave school early is the loss of her books – second-hand, battered copies handed down by white kids, filled with their notes which her mother painstakingly erases where possible. Raleigh’s light skin, the result of his mother being raped whilst working nights for a white family, mean that he is not quite accepted by either community. James has chosen the role of self-employed chauffeur for its sense of freedom, in control at the wheel. Dana’s seemingly independent-minded friend Ronalda asks her at one point if she really wants to go to the sought-after mixed Holyoke College, where she will know for the first time “what it feels like to be black” and so on.

In this society, boys are definitely more highly prized than girls, one reason why Gwendolin prays fervently that her rival Charisse will not give birth to a son. Generally, boys are shown as more indulged, less responsible than the girls who seem to end up doing the hard graft to provide for their children. The preoccupation with hair, the grim straightening with chemicals versus the easier option of weaves and wigs is also a recurring theme in black female writing, such as Adichie’s “Americana”.

Having also read An American Marriage, I find Tayari Jones an excellent writer, who makes some powerful points without falling into the traps of melodrama or sentimental happy endings. You can read this on two levels: an absorbing exploration of the effects of bigamy or a deeper portrayal of what it means to be a black American.

“The Juliet Stories” by Carrie Snyder – torn between viewpoints

The Juliet Stories

Although described by reviewers as a series of short stories, the first part of this book, set in Nicaragua, reads to me like a novel in its vivid portrayal of an observant, imaginative girl, perhaps destined to be a writer, trying to make sense of an alien world, her perceptions inevitably limited through being only ten years old.

Her idealistic perhaps unconsciously selfish father has uprooted his family from Indiana to Managua in the 1980s, to enable him to work as a peace activist for “Roots of Justice”, dedicated to campaign against the Contra terrorists, supported by President Reagan, who are attacking the recently established left-wing government. Juliet’s beautiful mother Gloria, her continual smoking no doubt a symbol of her stress, apparently only really happy when lost in singing to her own guitar accompaniment, generally seems sharp-tongued and burdened by childcare, most of her limited store of love and attention being being devoted to her infant son Emmanuel.

Meanwhile tomboy Juliet roams with increasing confidence, scrapping and bickering with her brother Keith who seems to adapt more easily to the situation, picking up Spanish quickly and performing better when the pair eventually get sent to school. Although they do not seem close, they share a bond based on their unusual common experience. With the typical irresponsibility of childhood, the two manage to leave Emmanuel behind at a neighbouring house where they have been offered drinks, but he is brought back to them by a group of local girls who handle him much better than Juliet – unlike her, they are only a few years off falling pregnant and becoming mothers.

A good deal of humour stems from Juliet’s perspective as a child: communism is “bad” back home but the Nicaraguan brand is “good” because it involves “sharing”. She learns about poverty and inequality without understanding it: observing how their maid Bianca steals “diapers” and Gloria’s red blouse when she whisks them away to be washed, but how she lives in a slum partly destroyed by recent fighting, and also makes them chicken soup when they fall ill in their father’s absence, admittedly pocketing some of the money taken to buy them food.

Juliet also notices without understanding how her father may be flirting with a young volunteer, overtly infatuated with him while, probably depressed, Gloria falls easy prey to the attentions of a charming married expatriate with a wandering eye.

This evocative and original section of the book, which completely engrossed me, comes to an end when a combination of Keith’s severe illness and the dangerous escalation of Contra activity drive Gloria to insist on returning to the States. The second part appears to be Juliet’s own diary, written with changing points of view and styles as she witnesses her parents’ marriage fall apart and has her own offspring and infidelities. I have struggled to understand why I so quickly lost interest and failed to engage with this change of tack. Perhaps it is because it is too disjointed, characters are introduced abruptly without being developed, points are either too unclear, or explained rather than being left for us to sense.

Oddly, a book reminiscent of “The Poisonwood Bible” has the same flaw to a stronger degree for “western” readers, namely a brilliant, absorbing first part set in a strikingly “different” developing country, with a less successful second part dealing with the more familiar developed world.

“Beloved” by Toni Morrison: the guilt of the innocent

In the aftermath of the American Civil War, former slave Sethe persists in living with her sullen daughter Denver in the Cincinnati house widely believed to be haunted by the angry ghost of her murdered baby, whom she named “Beloved”, having earned the cost of carving this on her headstone by having sex with the engraver, regretting too late not to have spent enough time to pay for “Dearly” to be added first. Her life seems to improve with the arrival of Paul D (so named by his former master to distinguish him from Paul A or Paul F) who breaks a table in his wrestling to cast out the spirit of the furious baby, which has already driven away Sethe’s two sons. Yet her life is at risk of being taken over and perhaps destroyed by a second newcomer with whom she becomes obsessed, the oddly vacant young woman who calls herself Beloved and inexplicably seems to know about aspects of Sethe’s past life without being told.

Toni Morrison was inspired to write this novel by the real-life situation of Margaret Garner, the escaped slave who killed her child rather than have her suffer enslavement in turn. This prize-winning modern classic succeeds in portraying the fundamental evil of slavery, namely in depriving a person of his or her sent of identity. Her characters are bought and sold like objects or livestock, even by relatively humane owners. Relationships are not respected, nor even recognised with small children often unable to identify their mothers, husbands and wives are separated, women violated.

Continually risking bold experimentation in her style, Toni Morrison gave free rein to her vivid imagination and powerful, often poetical prose. Descriptions of childbirth and acts of violence are not for the squeamish. By contrast, the writing is often unexpectedly leavened by observations of wrily humorous clarity.

In the face of strong endorsements by famous feminist writers at the end of my copy of this novel, I hesitate to criticise this book. As an African-American, Toni Morrison was clearly well-qualified and justified in writing impassioned condemnations of the enduring evil effects of slavery long after its abolition. So why did I find it such hard going? This was only partly due to the frequent grimness of the subject matter. Although this will put some readers off, it is clearly relevant to the tale.

Despite appreciating the frequently used device of gradually revealing key facts, one problem for me was the confusing, often repetitive drip-feed nature of explanations for a number of intriguing questions. Why, how, even by whom, was Sethe’s baby killed? What really happened at the inaptly named “Sweet Home” where Sethe and her husband Halle worked for years until the estate was taken over by the sadistic “Schoolteacher”?

The worst aspect for me was what I believe Toni Morrison disliked to hear called “magic realism”. I concede that, being illiterate through no fault of her own, unable to tell the time except for knowing that it was noon when both hands of the clock pointed upwards together, Sethe was likely to be susceptible to superstition. Also, in a deprived slave community, tales of the supernatural passed down from tribal ancestors were all Sethe had of a personal history. However, are readers really expected to believe that the murdered child continues to make her presence felt as a kind of malign poltergeist, and that after being driven away by Paul D she is reincarnated in the body of Beloved who duly appears? Some scenes so resemble corny ghost stories that they seem to me to detract seriously from the calibre of the novel and muddy the “genre”.

I prefer the interpretation that the atmosphere in the house was tainted by Sethe’s sense of guilt and the opprobrium of the local community for what she had done, and that she and the young woman calling herself Beloved by coincidence were both disturbed, confused and wanting certain things to be so, such as having respectively a mother-daughter or a compensating love-vengeful hate relationship.

On reflection, having laboured through this novel, it rose in my estimation, and I should reread some passages to appreciate their originality and worth, but the tendency to melodrama, excessive sentimentality and an overblown style deter me from this.

“The Lost Man” by Jane Harper: the sins of the father

Even a fit forty-year-old like Cameron Bright cannot survive long in the Australian outback without water. So why was his dehydrated body found nine kilometres from his abandoned car, well-stocked with food and water? And why should he choose a painful death at a site which in his youth he had made the subject of a prize-winning painting: the grave of the stockman who had met a similar fate in the wilderness? Why should a well-liked family man with two young daughters and a successful business, with so much to live for, commit suicide? His brother Nathan was much more likely to have done so, being more obviously “ a lost man” struggling with an unprofitable landholding and debts accumulated from an acrimonious divorce.

This gripping psychological drama gradually reveals the truth about Cameron’s death, together with reasons for the intense hostility towards Nathan in the tight-knit, inward-looking local community and the complex way in which the three Bright brothers, Cameron, Nathan and their much younger brother Bub have been damaged by their father’s brutality, and also their mother’s inability to protect them.

Jane Harris puts her past experience as a journalist to good effect, in handling an intriguing plot, developing rounded characters, all flawed yet mostly commanding sympathy, in the fascinating setting of the outback which she appears to know well, yet I believe in fact researched for the purpose of this book. So we learn how people have adapted to living in a harsh, even dangerous environment, to which they have become attached. They must leave a note of their whereabouts every time they travel any distance from home, and failure to comply with certain conventions of mutual support is regarded as akin to a criminal offence. Even the system of home schooling, learning on line with all its potential shortcomings for young, not particularly motivated children with hard-pressed parents, is given a mention.
My only mild criticism of this novel is that, after the unflinching realism of much of the book, the ending seems a little too suddenly bland and “happy ever after feel-good”, which many readers will of course prefer to a more ambiguous “literary” conclusion.

Having found all the author’s first three novels page turners with the potential to be made into films, this seems to me to be the best.

“An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones – perceptive and poignant

An American Marriage: WINNER OF THE WOMEN'S PRIZE FOR FICTION, 2019

 

Review of “An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.

A bright working-class boy from a small town in Louisiana, Roy has managed to escape the usual snares for black teenage youths: drugs and jail sentences. Pragmatic about accepting “leg-up programs” he is a graduate set on a promising career as a salesman and entrepreneur. Clever and beautiful, but also indulged, perhaps a bit neurotic and self-centred, Celestial comes from a more middle class background. Although the son of a sharecropper, her chemist father has managed to make himself a millionaire through the invention of a popular soft drink. Despite being unusually close since childhood to doggedly devoted “boy next door” André, Celestial is strongly attracted to his college friend Roy. Clearly in love, the two may have got married “too young”, particularly in the case of Celestial who is much less keen than him to “start a family”, being mainly driven to make her mark as an artist. A foolish tiff sets in train a series of fateful events ending in Roy receiving a long prison sentence for a crime that Celestial knows he did not commit. How will this disaster affect their marriage?

I was disappointed by and critical of the author’s glossing over the dramatic potential of the period between the arrest and the sentencing, but concluded that it was her intention to focus on the relationships between the “triangle” of Roy, Celestial and André, and the parents’ reactions in the aftermath of the tragedy.

The story is told from three different viewpoints: Roy, Celeste and to a lesser extent André, which often portray the same situation from opposing angles. Whilst agreeing with readers who found the style of the letters exchanged when Roy is in jail somewhat unrealistic and too contrived, overall the novel is very readable and compelling.

Roy aroused the most sympathy in me: a basically decent man who suffers unjust blows from various quarters. He may be an unreliable witness in playing down the philandering during his short marriage, but he has essential integrity and an endearing sense of dry humour which expresses itself even in his darkest periods. Although I was untroubled, as other reviewers have been, by not much liking Celestial and André, towards the end I found myself not caring enough about the outcome of their drama: whatever happened, Roy had the resilience to survive, André was accustomed to disappointment, and Celestial seemed emotionally immature and too self-absorbed to worry for long about hurting someone else. Although somewhat ludicrous, the dramatic climax of this book is very effective in dissecting people’s behaviour and emotions under pressure. I was satisfied that the author reached a conclusion which I had broadly predicted, suggesting that I had understood what she wanted to convey, although others may interpret it differently.

Tayari Jones clearly wishes to explore the theme of racial inequality in America, but this is also a very perceptive, moving and often wryly funny study of marital relationships, and a commentary on American society from a black perspective, which is enlightening for a white British reader. I could not understand all the American idioms and cultural references, but this did not matter unduly.

I cannot decide to what extent this winner of the “Women’s Prize for Fiction” will appeal to male readers. For me, it is occasionally overly sentimental, but this is countered by unflinching descriptions of raw, bleaker events when needed.

Highly recommended overall.

“Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver

Willa, whose name may have been inspired by the celebrated American writer Willa Cather, has inherited a suburban house in New Jersey which is unfortunately falling down through lack of foundations. This is perhaps a metaphor for a middle class family fallen on hard times, so “unsheltered” from both personal problems plus those of a world threatened by climatic change and the collapse of capitalism, to name a couple of issues. Willa has to cope with a handsome, charming but unreliable husband who seems unable to keep his academic posts, even when it is not his fault, in addition to disabled father-in-law “Old Nick”, free-spirit, prickly daughter “Tig”, and son Zeke, traumatised by his wife’s post-natal suicide leaving him with an infant son he will inevitably dump on his mother.

This storyline interweaves in alternate chapters with that of a family from 1871, a century and a half previously, who occupied the same house in Vineland, one of the “Nineteenth-Century Utopias Gone to Hell”. Willa’s unlikely counterpart is Thatcher Greenwood, the earnest new science teacher whose passion for Darwin’s theories and other fresh discoveries such as the existence of molecules, are ahead of the times, even judged “heretical” in the conservative, pious small town community. With his pretty but shallow wife Rose, who cannot come to terms with the need to economise, nor give her husband the support he needs, the situation is reminiscent of Doctor Lydgate and his wife Rosamond in “Middlemarch”. Thatcher finds a kindred spirit in his neighbour, the eccentric investigator of spiders and carnivorous plants, botanist and thinker Mrs Mary Treat.

Such is the standing of the bestseller, “The Poisonwood Bible”, with its brilliant first part on the inflexible American missionary who drags his family off to the Congo to cultivate the land and convert the local people without understanding either, that it feels presumptuous to find fault with this book. I was also sufficiently fascinated by the idea of climate change causing Monarch butterflies to migrate to the Appalachians to forgive the tedious passages in “Flight Behaviour”. Yet much as I wanted to enjoy “Unsheltered”, written by a scientist with a sincere desire to explore environmental and social issues, and based on thorough research of the real-life Vineland and Mary Treat, who corresponded with Darwin, I found it intolerably heavy going, bogged down in the flaws increasingly evident in earlier novels, without enough redeeming features despite the potentially interesting themes.

The style is too convoluted, digressive and crammed with indigestible detail. The mostly undeveloped, two-dimensional characters indulge in contrived, stilted conversations which are an all too obvious device for information dumps and debates on what we should think about important issues, with “incorrect” ideas given a put-down, if only in thought, by right-thinking people like Willa. There’s also a tad too much of the saccharine tone: when Mrs Treat unexpectedly “twinkled” over Thatcher’s admiration for her tarantula house, my heart sank.

In the midst of all her domestic ties, former journalist Willa is intrigued to find out more about Mary Treat, but there is not enough to tie together the two strands which might have been more eengaging if divided into two separate novels, or as some have suggested a straightforward piece of non-fiction on the state of our society.

“The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller – Doomed Beauty

Despite as a rule giving supernatural and magic realism a wide berth, I find Greek and Roman myths and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey intriguing examples of storytelling and creative writing from nearly three thousand years ago. With an academic background in the Classics, Madeline Miller has produced a vividly imagined modern take on the famous drama of the warrior Achilles and his friend and lover Patroclus. After a decade of research, she has crafted a tightly plotted tale to which we can relate, despite the different values and customs of the day, through the well-developed main characters and dialogue which is modern, without jarring.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Patroclus, a Greek prince who is exiled from his unloving father’s kingdom at the age of only nine for having accidentally killed a boy who bullied him. At the court of the kindly King Peleus, Patroclus catches the eye of his charismatic son Achilles, and the two become firm friends and eventually lovers. With the sea goddess Thetis for a mother, Achilles is fated to become immortalised in memory as the greatest warrior of his generation, the price being that he will die young. This seems likely to happen sooner than he and Patroclus might wish, since the Greek kings and princes are bound by an oath to fight for the return to Menelaus of his beautiful wife Helen, who has been abducted (perhaps willingly) by the reckless Prince Paris of Troy.

For a Me Too protagonist this book may seem beyond the pale, the treatment of women as booty along with golden goblets, slavery and rape of women being taken for granted, often at the hands of the men who have slain their male relatives in battle. Even female deities do not escape this: the virtuous Peleus was rewarded by the gods by being allotted the sea-nymph Thetis to give him a child, but was expected to use brute force to overcome her resistance.
In a confined Mediterranean natural world where so much is unknown or inexplicable, no one in this book questions long-held superstitions, the role of the capricious gods in determining the course of events or the “pecking order” of the deities, in which Thetis, though powerful by human standards may have to beg Zeus for a favour, or be unable to explain a prophecy from the Fates, “well-known” for their riddles. With her eyes “dark as sea-wet rocks and as jagged”, her clinging dress “shimmering like fish-scale”, she sustains a vicious contempt for Patroclus. “He is not worthy of you” she tells her son, although events may prove otherwise.

I liked the lighter moments of humour in the blend between fantasy and practicalities as when kindly centaur and teacher of men Chiron is disappointed to hear that the boys have been taught to ride: “Forget what you learned. I do not like to be squeezed by the legs or tugged at”. Patroclus found “the centaur’s gait was less symmetrical than a horse’s…I slipped alarmingly on the sweat-slick horsehair.” On first meeting, Patroclus is fascinated by “that impossible suture of horse and man, where smooth skin becomes gleaming brown coat”.

Although the love between Patroclus and Achilles is portrayed with sensitivity, it seemed to me like a rather feminine take on male love. Similarly, the blood and guts of battle appear somewhat sanitised in the protracted Trojan War, with the Greeks setting off from their camps on the beach across a plain to reach the city walls, rather like a road construction gang going off to work. Admittedly, the book builds up to a violent climax, perhaps all the stronger for brutality having been underplayed earlier.

As Achilles loses the innocence of youth and starts exploiting his reputation as a fighter to challenge the corrupt actions of the unpleasant war leader Agamemnon, the unthinking acceptance of the glory of prowess in battle gives way to more complex considerations of the misuse of power, even with good intentions, which may lead to stubborn pride and hubris. Apart from a rather sentimental final paragraph, if you can cope with a ghostly spirit “the faintest shiver in the air” as the deceased narrator, the novel achieves a condensed but quite neat and thought-provoking ending. The simple value of human love, like that between Achilles and Patroclus may be shown to have more worth than artificially god-fuelled fighting skills. The desire to be a mere mortal may win out over the heartless arrogance of Pyrrhus, the unfortunate son of Achilles whom Thetis tried unsuccessfully “to make.. a god”.

I was prompted to read this by reviews of Pat Barker’s “The Silence of the Girls”, which has a feminist take on the story of Achilles and Patroclus from the viewpoint of Briseis, cast as a Trojan king’s daughter rather than the Anatolian village girl of this version. Although women play a much smaller part in Madeline Miller’s story, I found her tale less viscerally violent with a more subtle and satisfying plot and the characters of Achilles and Patroclus much more fully developed, complex and arousing empathy. It’s worth reading the two novels for comparison.

“Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver

Willa, whose name may have been inspired by the celebrated American writer Willa Cather, has inherited a suburban house in New Jersey which is unfortunately falling down through lack of foundations. This is perhaps a metaphor for a middle class family fallen on hard times, so “unsheltered” from both personal problems plus those of a world threatened by climatic change and the collapse of capitalism, to name a couple of issues. Willa has to cope with a handsome, charming but unreliable husband who seems unable to keep his academic posts, even when it is not his fault, in addition to disabled father-in-law “Old Nick”, free-spirit, prickly daughter “Tig”, and son Zeke, traumatised by his wife’s post-natal suicide leaving him with an infant son he will inevitably dump on his mother.

This storyline interweaves in alternate chapters with that of a family from 1871, a century and a half previously, who occupied the same house in Vineland, one of the “Nineteenth-Century Utopias Gone to Hell”. Willa’s unlikely counterpart is Thatcher Greenwood, the earnest new science teacher whose passion for Darwin’s theories and other fresh discoveries such as the existence of molecules, are ahead of the times, even judged “heretical” in the conservative, pious small town community. With his pretty but shallow wife Rose, who cannot come to terms with the need to economise, nor give her husband the support he needs, the situation is reminiscent of Doctor Lydgate and his wife Rosamond in “Middlemarch”. Thatcher finds a kindred spirit in his neighbour, the eccentric investigator of spiders and carnivorous plants, botanist and thinker Mrs Mary Treat.

Such is the standing of the bestseller, “The Poisonwood Bible”, with its brilliant first part on the inflexible American missionary who drags his family off to the Congo to cultivate the land and convert the local people without understanding either, that it feels presumptuous to find fault with this book. I was also sufficiently fascinated by the idea of climate change causing Monarch butterflies to migrate to the Appalachians to forgive the tedious passages in “Flight Behaviour”. Yet much as I wanted to enjoy “Unsheltered”, written by a scientist with a sincere desire to explore environmental and social issues, and based on thorough research of the real-life Vineland and Mary Treat, who corresponded with Darwin, I found it intolerably heavy going, bogged down in the flaws increasingly evident in earlier novels, without enough redeeming features despite the potentially interesting themes.

The style is too convoluted, digressive and crammed with indigestible detail. The mostly undeveloped, two-dimensional characters indulge in contrived, stilted conversations which are an all too obvious device for information dumps and debates on what we should think about important issues, with “incorrect” ideas given a put-down, if only in thought, by right-thinking people like Willa. There’s also a tad too much of the saccharine tone: when Mrs Treat unexpectedly “twinkled” over Thatcher’s admiration for her tarantula house, my heart sank.

In the midst of all her domestic ties, former journalist Willa is intrigued to find out more about Mary Treat, but there is not enough to tie together the two strands which might have been more eengaging if divided into two separate novels, or as some have suggested a straightforward piece of non-fiction on the state of our society.

“The Human Stain” by Philip Roth – How accidentally a destiny is made.

 

This is my review of The Human Stain  by Philip Roth

Original and astonishingly articulate, “The Human Stain” forms the third part of Philip Roth’s trilogy of novels exploring major social issues in late 1990s USA.

After a distinguished career as a former Dean and Classics Professor who has chosen to return to classroom teaching at small-town New England Athena College, Coleman Silk falls foul of “political correctness” by describing two black students as “spooks”. He is referring to their ghost-like nature in appearing on his class register but never in person: the powers that be construe his words as racist. The irony of this situation, and the reasons for Coleman’s furious reaction to the charge are gradually revealed.

Proud and impulsive, he storms out rather than wait for the outrage to die down. His anger and isolation only fed by the sudden death of his wife Iris, which he attributes to stress over his treatment, he further scandalises the community by taking up with Faunia, an uneducated college cleaner and farm worker less than half his age. Their common bond seems to be that she too has been society’s victim, although in a very different way.

The narrator is Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s favourite alter ego who reappears in other novels, but Roth makes the maximum play with artistic licence, digressing into events and inner thoughts (as when Faunia thinks about why she likes crows so much) which Zuckerman could not possibly know. The device for getting round this is that Silk’s story inspires Zuckerman to go on to research, expand upon and dramatise his whole life in the “The Human Stain” which we are actually reading. This goes far beyond Coleman’s emotional demand that, as a professional writer, Zuckerman should write about the monumental injustice which has been done to him.

Roth makes much of the parallel between Coleman’s plight and what he sees as the inordinate and hypocritical uproar over Clinton’s dalliance with Monika Lewinsky. An additional apparent inspiration was the experience of an academic friend, Melvin Tumin, who was subject to a “witch hunt” but was ultimately found blameless for the alleged use of racial language as regards two African American students. The plot is also a vehicle for exploring practical difficulties of gaining racial equality. An ambitious individual bent on achieving “The American Dream” may choose the controversial path of “passing himself off” as white, but this may be at the price of cutting oneself off from blood relatives and denying one’s children a sense of their true heritage.

Meanwhile, Faunia’s violent, vengeful stalker ex-husband Les Farley serves to reveal the problem of the traumatised veterans unable to adapt to “normal” life after the living nightmare of Vietnam. Roth shows his skill in arousing a sense of sympathy for almost everyone in this book, even the French academic troublemaker Delphine Roux who pays lip service to what Coleman (and probably Roth) sees as phoney literary “deconstructionism”. Perhaps, though, there is just a tinge of the flaw of subjective anti-feminism and academic conservatism in Roth when it comes to writing about Delphine.

Roth’s writing sometimes reaches such a peak of broiling intensity, that one has to take a pause to recover, and his tendency to examine causes and motives from every conceivable angle sometimes seems obsessive. Some of the quieter passages have the deepest impact, as when Zuckermann, who has taken refuge from the “entanglement” with his “turbulent” past life in a two-room cabin by a small pond with a patient blue heron in the Madamska mountains, meditates on how hard it has proved to adapt to “radical seclusion” and how easily he has made a friend of Coleman and let “all the world’s malice” come back “rushing in”.

Sadly, watching the film of the book years ago deterred me from reading it, because I could not get over the problem that actor Anthony Hopkins did not “look the part” of Coleman Silk. Having at last read it for a book group, I shall now make a point of going back to the first two parts of the trilogy involving a different set of characters and dilemmas: American Pastoral (1997) and I Married a Communist (1998).

“Sing buried sing” by Jesmyn Ward

This is my review of “Sing Unburied Sing” by Jesmyn Ward.

This imaginative and unconventional novel links the experiences of two young black boys who suffer ingrained racial prejudice, two generations apart, in the US state of Mississippi. In the opening chapter, thirteen-year-old Jojo tries to prove he is becoming a man by helping “Pop”, his black grandfather, to slaughter and skin a goat. The explicit, unflinching description of this is a foretaste of what is to come. Jojo’s main concern is to care for his little sister Kayla, since his mother Leonie is neglectful between working long hours and “snorting crushed pills”, with his white father Michael is serving time in Parchman. This is a penitentiary in real life, notorious for its harsh treatment of black prisoners as farm labourers. The second boy, Richie, sent to Parchman when less than ten years old, is at first protected to some extent by “Pop” when also imprisoned there in his youth.

The bleakness of the accumulated circumstances, together with the tendency of two main characters to vomit as nauseam, came close to putting me off reading this, but I was drawn in by Jojo’s appealing character and the relationships between the family members. When the point of view switches to Leonie, she triggers more sympathy than one might expect, proving to be an immature mother infatuated with her partner Michael, rather than inherently evil, trapped in the vicious circle of wanting to love her children but not knowing how to show it, particularly since Jojo and Kayla have formed such a tight bond which excludes her. She is in fact traumatised, still grieving for her brother who was murdered in a racist attack.

I appreciate that the use of a first person narrative for Jojo, Leonie and Richie creates an authentic sense of immediacy and transports us directly into their thoughts, but I agree with reviewers who argue that too often their southern idioms interwoven with some vivid, quirky descriptions slip into the articulate, literary style of the author herself, which does not ring true in the context.

The theme is sufficiently powerful not to require the devices of magical realism and the ghosts which increasingly haunt the novel. Again, I can see that the title, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” reflects Jesmyn Ward’s desire to show how the suffering of past generations of slaves and exploited black Americans still burdens the present, with all its ongoing injustice, but this does not require the inclusion of ghosts, unless perhaps it is to indicate enduring superstitions.

Jesmyn Ward has a talent for creating a strong sense of place : “some kind of bad earth. Like the bayou when the water runs out after the moon or it ain’t rained and the muddy bottom, where the crawfish burrow, turns black and gummy under the blue sky and stinks”. Her lyrical prose has been compared to William Faulkner’s, but her style tends to become overblown, particularly towards the end of the book which seemed to me to run off the rails somewhat, with a rather contrived, mawkish ending. To admire this novel without major reservations, I think one has to believe in ghosts which can only be seen by those with psychic powers.