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Briefly Noted - May 28, 2015

Quick-to-Read Reviews

Vol. 4 Issue 2. May 28, 2015. Ed. Paul Clark.

City of Eternal Spring by Afaa Michael Weaver | Reviewed by Karen An-hwei Lee

Unexploded by Alison Macleod | Reviewed by Jennifer S. Deayton

Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule MarshallReviewed by Jyotsna Sreenivasan

Afaa Michael Weaver. City of Eternal Spring. University of Pittsburgh, 2014.

In the elegant finale of the Plum Flower Trilogy, Afaa Michael Weaver breathes a spirit of vitality through the quartet of memory, trauma, prayer, and healing.  Set in the crossings of his journeys in Taiwan and mainland China, Weaver forges a nuanced vision of transcendence out of grief: “I learned in a city of pain, the bricks baked red and hard in some secret place in heaven.” The poet explores a shattered existence in “The Earthquakes in Taiwan,” locating himself in figurative and literal sites of recovery: “Except what I know is me, a man who melts, / falls apart to be repaired in broken spaces.” City of Eternal Spring also reflects the porosity of cultural boundaries, posing elegant paradoxes of identity: “I am Chinese in the mirror / Chinese is an endless space in time -- / I have come here to be what I cannot be.” In the fourth section, “Intimacies,” capricious flights of “A Dream” elicit playful notions of hybridization like “a Chinese aria letting its tongue know jazz.” City of Eternal Spring concludes with a lyric sequence in “Soul Space,” transporting us to an ethereal realm of the “Unspoken” where language meets spirit:  “I saw my faith riding on the light / in the ocean one / morning when / the sound of waves  / breaking broke me, / I knew the weight / of what is too much / to try to see, each / sparkle in the light / the infinite space / inside the invisible / that lives in me and / will not surrender / itself to naming.” Weaver’s enlightening collection harmonizes the rhythms of African American heritage, Taiwanese culture and philosophy, and the global music of Mandarin Chinese.Karen An-hwei Lee

Alison Macleod. Unexploded. Penguin Books, 2013.

Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013, Unexploded is the third novel from Canadian author Alison Macleod. The story revolves around the Beaumont family of Brighton at a time during World War II when a German invasion of England’s southern coast was a very real and tangible threat. In this tense and often desperate environment, Evelyn Beaumont struggles with her own frustrated yearnings and the realization that her husband, Geoffrey, is not who she thought he was. When she befriends the artist Otto, a German-Jewish refugee at an internment camp, she finds in him both a lifeline and a fault line. As Macleod writes:

There is no invasion as fearful as love, no havoc like desire.

My introduction to Macleod was her quirky, sexy collection of short stories, Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from this seemingly ‘traditional’ historical narrative. But as with her short stories, Macleod is keen to explore human connections – what attracts and repulses us – as well as the contradictions in each of her characters. Her writing is evocative yet unvarnished, mirroring both the romance and reality of life during wartime.

In her acknowledgements, Macleod cites Virginia Woolf as a lifelong inspiration, and in Unexploded, Evelyn not only reads Woolf to Otto, but also attends a lecture by the author, ‘The Leaning Tower’ (a lecture that actually occurred in Brighton in 1940). In this sly, elliptical scene, Evelyn locks eyes with the literary giant:

But Mrs. Woolf continued, and indeed she seemed to look at her kindly as she spoke, as if she above all needed to hear: ‘If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people.’

I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Macleod at the recent Hong Kong Literary Festival. She spoke of the confluence of facts and events that lead her to write about the Beaumonts, but she also said that with historical fiction, you must “wear your research lightly”. In Unexploded she offers the reader both a unique chapter from WWII history and a tightly plotted story that brims with passion, frailty and deceit.Jennifer S. Deayton

Paule Marshall. Brown Girl, Brownstones. Random House, 1959 (Reprinted by Martino Fine Books, 2014).

Brown Girl, Brownstones, first published in 1959, reminds me of Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence. Both are coming-of-age novels. In both novels, place is important: Lawrence’s rural coal-mining district in England, and Marshall’s Brooklyn, New York are described in intimate detail. Both main characters (Paul Morel and Selina Boyce) favor their opposite-gender parent. In both books, the main characters awaken sexually and search for their place in the world. Both novels are semi-autobiographical and as such tend not to have a strong plot or structure. They both have a stream-of-consciousness feeling. And with both novels, I found myself bogged down in the middle with the plethora of life details.

Selina Boyce is born into a family of immigrants from Barbados, and comes of age during the 1940s. Her mother is determined to make it in their new homeland by saving money to buy their Brooklyn brownstone. Her father dreams of returning to the family land in Barbados. The mother (Selina refers to her as “the mother” rather than “my mother”) succeeds at her single-minded goal, even indirectly causing the death of Selina’s beloved father, but loses her daughter’s love and respect for many years.

The novel is full of the texture of immigrant life in Brooklyn: the physical setting, the people, the cadence of the immigrants’ English. We meet Selina for the first time as she sits on the top-floor stair landing in her Brooklyn brownstone: “Her house was alive to Selina. She sat this summer afternoon on the upper landing on the top floor, listening to its shallow breathing–a ten-year-old girl with scuffed legs and a body as straggly as the clothes she wore. A haze of sunlight seeping down from the skylight through the dust and dimness of the hall caught her wide full mouth, the small but strong nose, the eyes set deep in the darkness of her face” (p. 4).

As she grows up and attends college outside of her neighborhood, Selina becomes aware of how she is viewed by white people of privilege. Although she disdains her mother’s economic ambitions, Selina joins a Barbadian community association with the sole purpose of winning scholarship money to share with her unemployed boyfriend. However, when she is offered the scholarship, she admits her duplicitous behavior, declines the money, breaks up with the boyfriend, and decides to work on a Caribbean cruise ship.

Brown Girl, Brownstones is a rich book, to be savored slowly.Jyotsna Sreenivasan

Karen An-hwei is the author of Phyla of Joy (Tupelo 2012), Ardor (Tupelo 2008) and In Medias Res (Sarabande 2004), winner of the Norma Farber First Book Award. Jennifer S. Deayton is a writer and filmmaker living in Hong Kong. She has been published at the Stockholm Review of Literature and in the nonfiction anthology, How Does One Dress To Buy Dragonfruit. Jvotsna Sreenivasan's novel, And Laughter Fell From the Sky, was published in 2012 by HarperCollins.