Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Calling me Home by Julie Kibler | A large story of love and loss

I cynically have to admit that I wasn't expecting much when I started reading this novel. The beginning of the narrative warned me that this would most likely turn into a mushy and easy love story. How happy I am to say I was wrong! Calling Me Home is a love story, but it is beautiful and has depth and integrity. The publishers are suggesting it is for fans of The Help, but for me it resonated much more closely with Rush Home Road by Lori Lansen.

In each chapter the narrative swaps between Doreen's story of the present tense, and Isabelle's story from around 1940. Set in the American south, this is a story that to a large extent deals with race and racism, of impossible love, and of the universal conflicts and challenges that face all human beings.

Doreen tells us the story of Miss Isabelle, the 90-year old lady whose hair she does on a weekly basis. They have become close friends, and Miss Isabelle has requested that Doreen drive with her to a funeral three days' drive away. Doreen's story of their journey is mixed with her own story, her new relationship hopes with Teague, and her problems with her teenage children.

But this is primarily about Isabelle's story. Isabelle grew up in the small town Shalerville which had a sign making it clear that black people were not allowed there after dark. Under the thumb of her controlling mother and violent brother, Isabelle at 16 nonetheless falls in love with the housemaid's son Robert. They nurture a risky romance which will have fatal consequences for everyone involved. Is it possible for love to survive in a place filled with so much hate?

As Doreen and Miss Isabelle make their way closer and closer to the funeral, Doreen learns little by little Isabelle's big love story. The challenges they face along the way mirror the universal themes of Isabelle's (and Doreeen's) own experiences. The racism that ruled the day when Isabelle was young is still alive and well in the most unlikely of places and persons.

Along with Dorrie, we as readers get morsel by morsel of information about Isabelle's past, but it is only at the end that we fully understand how everything is connected. The ending is touching, saddening and beautiful.

Friday, 8 March 2013

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis is a beautiful novel unlike any other. Endorsed by Oprah, it's bound to be a success, but I have to say it really is a special book deserving of a large readership.

The story stretches from 1925 to 1980. Through her eleven children and one of her grandchildren, we get to know the story of Hattie. With her husband August, she moved from the South to Philadelphia in search of a better life. While Hattie is home trying to raise their ever increasing children, August spends their money on liquor and other girls. Through it all, Hattie stoically carries on.

The uniqueness of the story comes through the narrative. Each chapter is focalized through one or two of Hattie's children (or the one grandchild), and only for one chapter. That means that we only get a glimpse into one period in each child's life, whereas the children's stories stretch to cover Hattie's life until she is an old lady in her seventies. Each narrative voice is unique, and each of Hattie's children have interesting stories to tell. What ties them together is the story of Hattie, their longing for her, their ambivalent relationship, their need for her love. Hattie is in no way a model mother. After losing her two firstborns, it is as if she's put a cap on how much love she will give her children. And seeing as she'd been pretty much alone in raising eight kids (two passed away, another was given away), Hattie had to be very pragmatic in her mothering.

What I in fact really love about this novel is how nobody's perfect. Hattie makes mistakes, she regrets things, she might have raised children who turned out to have major issues as adults, but she did her best. And at the end of the day, she makes efforts to right her wrongs. In that sense the novel feels really true and authentic.

At the end of the novel I was really hungry for more. I was hoping for a tie-up where the whereabouts of all of Hattie's children was accounted for, where we got to know how everything would turn out for them. This was not to be, but we do get a sense of hope and continuance when Hattie decides to take on responsibility for her granddaughter Sala. Having a story where we only get a glimpse into someone's life can be frustrating, but it is also a refreshing experience.

I hope they make a movie out of this. And I hope they make it nearly as beautiful as the book is. This novel can't be explained, it has to be experienced.