Monday, February 14, 2011

The Last Life by Claire Messud (1999)

Sometimes you accidentally come across a book that has strange parallels with your own life. I recently bumped into just such a novel by author Claire Messud, which has had me completely enthralled. Born in Connecticut in 1966, the same year I was born, Messud grew up in the United States, Australia, and Canada, returning to the United States as a teenager. Daughter of a Canadian mother and an Algerian French father, she attended both Yale and Cambridge. I did not look for any information about Messud until after finishing the book, but the entire time, I knew she must have had an international upbringing, because she knows exactly what it feels like to be a foreigner, an immigrant, whether invisible or not, and brings the feeling out in her writing and her characters incredibly well.

The Last Life, published in 1999, is the story of three generations of French Algerians, told mainly through the eyes of Sagesse, who through most of the novel, is a teenage girl growing up in a city on the French Mediterranean coast in the late 1980s. She lives with her father, a French Algerian, her mother, an American, and her handicapped brother, in close proximity to the hotel owned and operated by her father’s parents. I lived in France for a year in the late 80s and much of the current events of that time and general description of the society Messud shares with us rang very true for me.

I was initially attracted to the book by the idea of what it was like to grow up as a teenager in Europe having an American mother – thinking of my own children and especially my oldest, who is now 16. The relationship between Sagesse and her mother, and especially the way her mother tries to fit in with the French in-laws and ultimately gives up, really spoke to me. I could relate to many of the attempts to blend in, to not rock the boat, and how you realize at a certain point that none of your efforts have really been appreciated, and all you have managed to do in the end is make yourself disappear.

Sagesse at one point spends a summer visiting family in Boston, and it was fascinating to me to read about her feeling of being foreign in American society; having lived for more than 20 years out of it, I could relate to a lot of what she described. Also the teenage angst Messud writes about so poignantly is also familiar territory.

A good portion of the story takes place in Algeria in the 1950s, the years leading up to the country’s independence from France, and how the situation became very dangerous and most of the French citizens had to flee, leaving everything behind. Sagesse’s grandparents go, to the property in southern France her grandfather has purchased to build a hotel on, but her father, a young man, stubbornly stays on in Algiers to be with his dying grandmother. This part of the story is incredibly gripping, the desperation palpable. Ultimately, the experience marks her father for the rest of his life.

Sagesse’s family seems doomed, as one tragic event after another comes to haunt them. But Sagesse herself, and her mother, seem to have an invisible strength that carries them through. Is this ability to survive and carry on despite numerous setbacks, something typically American? Messud does not say. But Sagesse eventually ends up as a young woman in living in New York City, where,

I am invented and reinvented...I can appear foreign or native, exotic or
invisible, depending on my whim. I am, to different friends, American or French,
or a plausible mid-Atlantic hybrid...There is nothing real about my history, and
most of it I do not tell.

This struck me as being applicable to many children who grow up with parents from different cultures and countries – they have the ability to be chameleons if they so choose – and this can be a blessing or a curse. It makes me wonder what it will feel like for my three children, young Belgian-Americans, as they get older, and some of the children of friends who are also in similar bicultural situations. How will it play out for them? How will it feel?

I was completely enthralled by this book and enjoyed reading it, even though much of it is sad. Aside from the Algerian parts, so much of it was nostalgic for me personally. And Sagesse is a character I will not quickly forget, a young woman of flesh and blood, feeling and thought, whose story gave me so many things to consider.

The Last Life is Messud’s second book. Her debut novel, When The World Was Steady (1995), was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Her 2001 work, The Hunters, consists of two novellas, and her most recent novel, The Emperor’s Children, which is set in New York City during nine months surrounding 9/11, was long listed for the 2006 Man Booker Prize.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (2009)

This book was recommended to me by my mom, who found it in her library, and luckily, I found a copy in mine, as well.

The author of this book, Jamie Ford, whose great grandfather immigrated from China to Nevada in 1865, has written a fascinating and moving novel about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. But this is also a coming-of-age novel, a family chronicle, and a love story.

The story takes place in Seattle and bouces back and forth between 1942 and 1986.

Henry Lee, a 12-year-old Chinese-American, lives in Seattle in 1942 and is the only Asian child in his school, where he is constantly bullied. One day, a Japanese girl arrives and is put to work with him in the school cafeteria. Henry has learned from his father to hate the Japanese, but he soon forms a strong friendship with Keiko. As the war heats up, Japanese citizens of Seattle begin to be targeted and disappear, and then internment of all Japanese begins on a large scale. Henry does his best to help Keiko and her family as they are shipped out to a camp, but they lose touch, and Henry eventually moves on with his life, making peace with his father and repairing their difficult relationship as well.

Later, in 1986, having lost his wife to cancer, Henry by chance sees a hotel in the old part of Japanese town where belongings of Japanese people who had to leave the city have been kept for all these years. A flood of memories comes back and before he knows it, Henry is searching for Keiko.

I found this novel to be extremely interesting from a historical perspective - I really knew next to nothing about the Japanese internments during World War II, and I learned a lot from this book. The author also paints a vivid picture of what life was like in the international part of the city of Seattle in the 1940's - including the racial discrimination between different nationalities, the way of life at that time and the local jazz club scene! I definitely could tell the author knows Seattle inside and out.

The love story between Henry and Keiko was bittersweet and a bit syrupy at times, but that did not detract from my enjoyment of the novel. I really enjoyed the well written side characters, such as Henry's friend the sax player and his son and son's girlfriend, and especially the tough lunch room lady who ends up being quite a help.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (1997)

My friend Joy sent me this book for my birthday and I loved it. The author took me into what felt like an alternate reality, a completely different way of looking at and being in the world. I was so mesmerized by it that I was sorry when the book ended, and I almost want to read it again, now that I have the entire puzzle of the story put together.

The story alternates between the past (1969) and present day of a family in Ayemenem, India. The family has a rich and complicated history that the author presents in a tapestry of imagery, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings. The story centers around Estha and Rahel, boy and girl set of twins who are 7 years old in 1969 and live with their mother, Ammu, in the extended family’s home next to their grandmother’s pickle factory. Their uncle Chacko is expecting a visit from his ex-wife and daughter, Sophie Mol, from England, so the whole family drives to Cochin, the city where the flight will arrive.

Sophie and her mother arrive and are taken back to the family home where a few days later a tragedy will occur that will forever change the lives of Estah, Rahel and their mother. The entire novel builds up to this event little by little but in the very first pages of the first chapter, the reader is told that Sophie Mol dies, because we are immediately transported to her funeral.

So we know what is going to happen, but we don’t yet know why or how. And by alternating between those fateful days in 1969 and Rahel and Estah’s adult lives, we see the terrible things that happened to them, their mother, and the young untouchable man who became their friend, while at the same time we are privy to how those events affected them in their adult lives. I was impressed by how the author accomplished this back and forth motion between the two time zones in her novel, and still managed to keep the reader glued to the page.

Politics, history, human rights, child abuse, incest, the caste system, religion, racism, … the book touches on so many things and through so many beautifully drawn characters. And the idea of the God of Small Things appealed to me very much.

As Estha and Rahel discover:

1. Anything can happen to Anyone, and
2. It’s best to be prepared.

How true and how sad that they had to learn such an adult lesson so early on. Another lesson Rahel learns after saying something thoughtless and ugly to her mother that struck me as tragic but achingly true: “When you hurt people, they begin to love you less. That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less.”

With so many sad things happening around them and to them, ultimately Estha and Rahel have to grow up quickly. This book deservedly won the Booker Prize and it is one I will read again. Thanks, Joy!