My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok: an outstanding novel which must not be forgotten

Growing up in the New York of the nineteen fifties and sixties, Asher Lev belongs to a strict, tight-knit Jewish Hasidic community presided over by the benevolent dictatorship of the Rebbe, whose interpretation of the Master of the Universe’s wishes is not to be questioned. From an early age, Asher is obsessed with drawing every detail observed in his small world. While his gentle mother urges him to draw “pretty pictures”, and is in due course sufficiently sympathetic to buy him paints and accompany him to art galleries, until driven away by the shock of seeing “forbidden” Christian art, his serious-minded father impatiently dismisses a fad he hopes will soon pass. Frequently absent on trips to Europe where he sets up Jewish schools and helps Jews escape from Russia, he is angered by Asher’s poor grades at school and bemused by the Rebbe’s pragmatic decision to allow Asher to be taught by an eminent artist, completely secular despite being Jewish. The parents’ dawning admiration when some of Asher’s art is acquired by a major museum is outweighed by their refusal to attend any exhibition displaying his portraits of nudes.

As the novel builds to a tense climax bewildering and shocking or sadly comprehensible according to one’s viewpoint, some may find it too slow-paced. Yet the repetition reflects the narrow world in which Asher feels trapped and the often minute detail gives a profound understanding of his development as an artist and a fascinating psychological study of the main characters. It also conveys a strong sense of place, convincing dialogue, and many moments of wry humour amidst the angst.

I am not sure how a deeply orthodox Jewish reader would respond to this novel, and the author himself was intriguingly both a rabbi, inspired to become a writer by reading “Brideshead Revisited” as a teenager, and an artist. However, for an atheist reader like me, it portrays very vividly the tension between religion, ritual and duty on one hand contrasted with and tending to stifle or drive to extremes creativity and personal freedom on the other. In its perceptiveness, it shows how achievement as an artist may require a single-minded dedication which at times appears utter selfishness and self-absorption. There is also the ironic contradiction that art is often exploited for financial gain, the value of an artwork may be artificially inflated and it may be purchased as an investment or trophy by someone who cares nothing for art.

The novel draws on Potok’s own experience in that he was also a painter, like Asher producing Chagall-like portraits of dreamlike Jewish ritual scenes and animals. So Potok’s painting career somewhat paralleled the journey of Asher Lev: a young man, very creative and very religious, who does not fit with his community. “I began to paint when I was about nine or ten years old,” Potok once said in an interview. “It really became a problem in my family, especially with my father, who detested it.” Potok even painted a Brooklyn Crucifixion of his own, resembling the painting in his novel.

This reminded me of “A Tale of Love and Darkness”, the autobiography of the early life of Amos Oz, yet despite being a portrayal of fictional characters, Potok’s novel feels more authentic and and in some ways more insightful, perhaps because it is in fact an exploration and development of his own situation, than a simple account of it.

“Where the crawdads sing” by Delia Owens – how to explain the path taken

Where the Crawdads Sing (Paperback)

In the marshland of North Carolina, still unspoilt in the early 1950s, inhabited only by a few down-and-outs or those escaping justice, branded “marsh trash” by the residents of nearly Barkley Cove, six-year-old Kya knows there is something amiss when her mother leaves their decrepit coastal shack, carrying a suitcase. Kya’s four older siblings soon follow suit, driven away by the violence of their drunken father. Expected to earn her keep by doing chores, she avoids him as much as possible, seeking refuge collecting shells and watching herons with flocks of the gulls soaring over the lagoon shore. Bribed with the promise of chicken pie, Kya endures a day of bullying at the town school, but evades the truancy officers thereafter. Abandoned by her father, she manages to survive alone with the help of strangers, including a boy called Tate who teaches her to read. So she somehow grows into a beautiful and intelligent woman, desperately lonely but unable to fit into the community of Barkley Cove, where she is scorned as the “Marsh Girl”.

This storyline alternates and contrasts with a mystery in 1969 when the body of Chase Andrews is discovered in the mud at the base of an old fire tower near Barkley Cove, with foul play soon suspected. Handsome, athletic popular and married, he is also known to have been a womaniser, with Kya among his list of conquests.

This novel is remarkable for its mesmerising descriptions of the natural world, informed by the author’s knowledge as a zoologist combined with a skill which has won her at least one award and plaudits for nature writing. One can visualise every change in the landscape and wildlife as Kya makes her first journey alone by boat between the low-hanging limbs of giant trees, where “duckweed colours the water as green as the leafy ceiling, creating an emerald tunnel” then out to an estuary where “waves slammed against one another awash in their own white saliva….. breaking with loud booms …. then… flattened into tongues of foam”.

The novel is also strong on the psychology of someone who has lost trust through repeated abandonment and also the impact of the world on one accustomed to isolation. So, on her first journey by car to a distant large town, travel on a main road is akin to a roller coaster without a security harness, in contrast to the wide skies of the marshes, mountains are disturbing because the sun keeps setting behind them only to reappear while the tower blocks and crowds of people at her destination are bewildering.

Some who know North Caroline have criticised the factual accuracy of certain points but I can accept any errors as “dramatic licence”. It is harder to deny the implausibility of a young child being able to survive for so long, in apparent perfect health and no major accidents with such poor food, no innoculations. To have been left in this state is unlikely. Kya’s ability to teach herself to such a high level, express herself so articulately, seems far-fetched. Like many novels, the plot is awash with coincidences, most of the characters are stereotypes, the harshness of Kya’s situation is too often leavened with excessive sentimentality, the final twist is rendered improbable by previous arguments and presented as morally justifiable when it is in fact questionable.
The author herself caught my interest by reason of her time in Africa where she and her former husband became embroiled in controversy over their campaigning against ivory poachers, in circumstances which may have inspired this book in some respects.

Despite my reservations which are clearly a minority view on this international bestseller, I found it a page-turner and worth reading although I would be interested to know how male readers tend to rate it.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles: In for the Count

In the newly Communist Russia of 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, as a gentleman, prides himself on having no occupation, and describes his pastimes as, “dining, discussing. Reading, reflecting. The usual rigmarole”. Found guilty of posing a threat to the ideals of society, he is sentenced to life imprisonment in the Metropol Hotel near Red Square where he has resided for four years: if he sets foot outside, he will be shot. Although still permitted to frequent the hotel’s grand restaurant and bar, he is obliged to vacate his grand suite for a former servant’s room in the attic.

Over some 460 pages, the author sustains a flowery prose with fanciful digressions and far-fetched incidents which chime with the Count’s ebullient eccentricity, all likely to charm some readers but irritate others. Falling at first into the latter category, I abandoned this novel until forced to resume it by a pressing book group deadline which caused me to revise my initial prejudice, although I never came to terms with the intrusive narrator, and the useful but distracting footnotes to explain the history.

After a somewhat turgid start, the author manages to entertain the reader with his ingenuity, provide a very articulate expression of the Count’s thoughts and develop a farce which proves quite effective in revealing the flaws and contradictions of the Soviet system. As party officials begin to wine and dine at the hotel, it is simply a case of one privileged élite replacing another. The ignorant and incompetent are over-promoted for their loyalty to the Party, and bureaucratic measures intended to impose equality have ludicrous consequences. Following a complaint from the waiter whom the Count has imprudently humiliated as regards knowing the correct wine to drink with Latvian stew, an order comes from on high for all the labels to be removed from the bottles in the hotel cellar to destroy any concept of some wines being superior to others – an outrage to a connoisseur of fine wines like the Count, who can of course still detect a superior favourite by the trademark design of the bottle.

This is essentially a soft-centred, escapist read, which gives more space to the count’s eternal word games (“name famous threesomes”, “ a black and white creature”) than to the sufferings of individuals, glossing over the true grimness of life for millions under Stalin. The fate of the young prince who has been reduced to playing for diners in a string quartet is relegated to a footnote: he is questioned in the Lubyanka prison for having committed the crime of possessing a picture of the deposed Tsar which happened to be in one of his books, and banned from ever entering any of the country’s six main cities, while the eminent musician who hired him suffers the worse fate of being sent to a labour camp.

One could argue that this tale of how the count manages to pass thirty years in the hotel, unable to walk through the swing doors of the entrance through which he can glimpse the outside world, is an exploration of the resilience of the human spirit, and a consideration of how one can make something positive out of adversity. Perhaps a period of lockdown is a particularly relevant time to read it!

Since, the Russians have tended to restore and value some of their great buildings from the past, or emulate them “for the people” as in the Moscow metro system, it is interesting to look up online images of the Metropol hotel as it is today.

“Jack” by Marilynne Robinson: Theft of Happiness

I am not sure what readers will make of this, if they have not already read Gilead (2004), Home (2008), and Lila (2014), novels about members of the Ames and Boughton families, set in the fictional rural Iowa backwater of Gilead. Certainly, it seems necessary to have read “Home” to make more sense of Jack Boughton, black sheep of the family from which he has exiled himself for years, most particularly from his pious clergyman father’s attempt to bring him back into the fold, even to the extent of twisting his Presbyterian doctrine into contradictory knots.

Apparently, the author did not originally intend to write a book about Jack, but her ideas about him must have evolved over the years to make this seem imperative. Chronologically, it covers a time before the other novels, I believe in the late 1940s. Jack is a complex character, hard to pin down. I was continually aware of his self-absorption and tendency to overthink everything while trying to define the qualities which make him appeal to those who look beyond the frayed cuffs and raffish air. Intelligent, good-looking, musical and artistic, charming, polite, surprisingly competent when he puts his mind to a practical task, Jack is also a loner and drifter, who finds it hard to fit into the world as it is, fated to blow every chance he gets, his life being a chain of tragicomic mishaps.

Apart from inexplicable misdeeds, he has a tendency to do the wrong thing for the right reason. As a child he was always slipping off, thieving objects he did not really want for reasons he could not explain, and challenging his father with theological questions. Is the root of his problem the tendency to “think outside the box” but to have been born into a profoundly respectable family, and a set of beliefs and sense of duty he was bound to kick against instinctively? Has he been influenced by the Presbyterian doctrine of predestination into thinking that he is fated to fail, so when things are going badly he tries to have as little contact with others as possible?
Matters only grew worse when he got a local girl pregnant and flunked college. Years later we find him shabby and on the breadline, a compulsive kleptomaniac who drinks to ward off his mental pain, doing odd jobs but reliant on the envelopes of cash his kindly brother leaves for him. A recently served prison sentence was ironically for a crime he did not commit, although arguably a just penalty for all his petty thefts. Life is made doubly hard by his obvious education and genteel manner which set him apart from the kind of company he has been reduced to keeping.

With his talent for making life difficult, he falls for Della, a beautiful young teacher who shares his love of poetry but just happens to be black in the segregated city of St. Louis, where it is a crime for them have a relationship, and unwise even to be seen together. Perfect in his eyes, Della remains an enigma. We never really know what makes her tick, but she seems drawn to him by his “pure soul”, essential innocence, plus perhaps the appeal of his patent vulnerability.

The two establish their fateful bond during a night spent in the St Louis cemetery where Jack has gone because he has let out his room to make some money, and she has been accidentally locked in. In a section of nearly eighty pages, more than a quarter of the book, the dialogue often seems stilted, artificial, even obscure, although this may be deliberate to contrast with their later easy but still thoughtful exchanges. It also shows symbolically how, if the two could exist in a world of their own, without society’s restrictions and taboos, they could be happy. Perhaps only a writer hailed as one of the greatest in this century could have risked such a difficult and for many off-putting beginning to a book. Perseverance pays off, since many of the succeeding sections are quite lively and humorous, although poignantly so.

This is the kind of novel which needs to be read slowly and thoughtfully, probably at least twice, to appreciate the insights on human relations which are really more important than plot, and may also explain why the ending just fades out. Marilynne Robinson is clearly steeped in religious philosophy which sometimes lost me. She casually using words like “apophatic” which strike an incongruous note in the more down-to-earth passages and wry humour. Taken as a whole, the four related novels are intriguing, although I suspect an acquired taste.

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin: when love is growing up

Written half a century ago and read against the backdrop of “Black Lives Matter” this modern classic is a reminder of the persistence of racial injustice, given added authenticity by the black American author’s personal experience. Nineteen-year-old Tish has a steady job and close-knit family, who accept with almost unbelievable equanimity her unplanned pregnancy, just when her fiancé and childhood sweetheart Fonny, who has ambitions to be a sculptor, has been arrested for a serious crime on a charge trumped up by a vicious racist white police officer. Made all the more poignant by the depth of the couple’s love, this novel is an unflinching portrayal of how the cards may be stacked to destroy the lives of an innocent couple simply because of their colour.

The approach is unusual in that the male author sets himself the challenge of getting inside the mind of a young woman, even to the extent of describing her orgasm. James Baldwin is also experimental in the flexible structure of the book. Tish narrates the novel in the first person, presumably to involve the reader in a more vivid experience of the drama, but when it suits him he replaces her voice with his own observations in his own style, as when he launches into an analysis of the mental differences between women and men. To portray events in which, say, Fonny’s friend Daniel is previously framed by the police and put in prison, or Tish’s mother Sharon visits Puerto Rico to make contact with the woman who has been manipulated into picking Fonny out of an identity parade, the author simply takes “writer’s licence” and has Tish describe scenes as if she has witnessed them in person.

With strong opening scenes, dialogues and sense of place, as the facts are revealed, I found myself engrossed in how they would play out. Although it seems inevitable that Fonny would be found guilty, would some twist expose a fatal flaw in the prosecution? The sympathetic white lawyer might be prepared to work virtually “pro bono”, but how would Tish’s family and Fonny’s loving but weak father Frank manage to scrape together the money for his bail, without themselves taking to illegal activities which might cause them to fall foul of the law?

The “bad” characters are too often caricatures with no redeeming features, like Fonny’s religiously fanatical mother who seems inexplicably hostile towards him – most mothers love their sons. His thinly sketched sisters are also pointlessly disagreeable. Although I am often intrigued by ambiguous or inconclusive situations leaving one free to form one’s own conclusion, in this case I was surprised and disappointed by an ending so abrupt as to seem incomplete. Yet perhaps for Baldwin, the development of specific scenes was more important than the arc of a plot.

“History of Wolves” by Emily Fridlund: “The false belief that anything could ever end”.

Narrator Madeline, called Linda at school, recalls her childhood in the backwoods of northern Minnesota, where her lapsed hippie parents scrape a living after the failure of their commune. A teenage loner with no real friends, she lives in a kind of emotional vacuum between her strong, silent father “who always made it seem a great kindness… not to ask too many questions” and self-absorbed, insensitive mother with her half-finished projects, of which Linda is one. Expected to undertake adult tasks from an early age – chopping wood, feeding and exercising the dogs, walking miles in the dark after school to fetch drain unblocker – yet also given total freedom to roam, Linda observes people with the same forensic eye she applies to the natural world, but is often unable to interact “normally”, to the point of seeming autistic. She tends to become obsessed with other “outsiders”, like teacher with a shady past, Mr Grierson, who may have seduced pliant Lily, mocked for being part-Indian, which she never denies.

When the Gardners occupy a lakeside house in the area, Linda is paid to childmind their precocious four-year-old son Paul, and is surprised by the unfamiliar sensation of bonding with the little boy, also perhaps developing a crush on his mother Patra, who seems at times like an older sister. Linda notices Patra’s moments of “breathtaking tenderness” for her son, only to neglect him in her abject need to please dominant husband Leo. He turns out to be a third generation Christian Scientist which sits oddly with his profession as an academic astronomer. Members of this religion will not be pleased with the portrayal of their beliefs in this book, as troubling signs of something amiss in the Gardner family gradually builds up to a tragedy in which Linda is implicated.

This highly original, quirky novel is marked by a string of striking descriptions which enable one to visualise or sense situations even if entirely outside one’s experience: the changing colours in the sky above a lake as the night draws in; the behaviour of dogs; the pleasure of watching a child’s absorption in doing a jigsaw; a mother’s fruitless efforts to induce her teenage daughter to talk to her.

There are sharp insights, and bitter ironies as in the case of Mr Grierson who may have been punished for actions he only thought of committing – a twist of the Christian Scientist belief that “it’s not what you do but what you think that matters”.

Yet the critical incident, which arguably haunts and defines the rest of Linda’s life, remains unclear in some key respects and insufficiently explored. This may be deliberate since the author is more interested in capturing an individual’s thought processes together with the fragmented, even inaccurate impressions she may draw from a situation.

What may seem like a weakness in what I found to be the artificial, unconvincing conversations involving Leo and later Linda’s lover Rom may also be intentional, in that Linda either does not understand what the former is saying or resents the latter’s attempt to pin her down.

Perhaps a novel such as this can only have an ambiguous ending, but I was somewhat disappointed by what seemed a creative writer’s damp squib of a final twist which provides a somewhat weak conclusion. It left me with a sense of sadness over a life which seems needlessly blighted, since Linda is portrayed for much of the book as a bright, resilient person with a wry take on the world.

Overall, deservedly shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this novel probably needs to be read more than once to appreciate it fully.

“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.

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



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.