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“How singular the fate of these poor little girls,
frail creatures offered in sacrifice
to the Parisian Minotaur,
a monster far more terrible
than the Minotaur of antiquity,
and one that devours virgins
by the hundreds each year
with no Theseus to rescue them!”  
– epigraph, Theophile Gautier

cover little dancer

For those who have always seen Edgar Degas’s most iconic ballerina sculpture as a sweet, romantic symbol of dreams and hopes, this study of the model, the artist, and the environment in which the sculpture was created may be a shock.  Author Camille Laurens spent over two years doing research on this sculpture and its model as part of her PhD. thesis, and she became totally consumed with the little dancer’s victimization.  In 1880, the little girl who became the model for the sculpture, Marie van Goethem, was the fourteen-year-old child of Belgian immigrants, unschooled and working as a “little rat” in the Paris Opera, a child in training for the corps de ballet and earning almost no money.  It was a horrific environment for young girls.  Everyone in Paris was aware of the “pedophilia, pimping, and the corruption of minors” to which these “little rats” were subjected on a regular basis, often promoted by their avaricious mothers.  Even Degas himself is quoted as saying that “The prevailing moral code was a total lack of moral code.”

Camille LaurensHarsh reality comes alive as Marie is needed by her family to help support them, and she eventually follows in the footsteps of her older sister, accepting a modeling job with Edgar Degas. Working as an artist’s model earns her three times as much for four or five hours of work as she earns in a day at the Paris Opera, and working both jobs is tiring but financially ideal. Again, reality enters, and Marie is dismissed from the ballet for missing too many rehearsals.  For at least a year, however, while Degas is working on the sculpture for which she is posing, she has better income and her family is better off.  When Degas finally exhibits “Little Dancer” in 1881, it is a shock to viewers and critics.  First, it is in wax, the medium normally used for first experiments and not for “finished” work. Secondly, the dancer’s clothing is real, as are her ballet slippers. And the public is astonished at her appearance: “Does there truly exist an artist’s model this horrid, this repulsive?” one critic asks.  Another wonders, “Can art descend any lower?”  A third refers to Marie as “a flower of the gutter.”   After this showing, Degas never shows this sculpture again, and he never has it cast.  The existing copies we have all seen in museums were not made until after his death in 1917, thirty-six years later.

Little Dancer Age Fourteen

Little Dancer Aged Fourteen

Among the most fascinating aspects of the author’s depiction of Degas himself are the sociological and philosophical influences which affected him and his work, and some of this may explain why the critics and viewers were almost universally negative about the depiction of the Little Dancer in 1881.  Those who have read The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, which features insights into the Impressionists and “border-line”  Impressionists like Degas, are already familiar with the rampant anti-Semitism of the Parisian art world in the 1880’s, and some may recall that Degas was depicted in that book as the most virulent anti-Semite of them all.  In Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, Degas also reveals himself to be intolerant, even hateful, of other groups who are not part his own inner circle.  Though he is realistic in showing that the Little Dancer leads an exhausting and painful life, he also uses this sculpture to illustrate his own belief in phrenology, which pervaded Parisian social life at that time, and his depiction of his dancer’s face and head may be harsher than they actually looked in real life.  Her sloping forehead, prominent cheekbones, and thick hair give her “a criminal look,” as do her “Aztec features,” according to the tenets of phrenology.

Palais Garnier, Paris Opera

Palais Garnier, Paris Opera

The author points out that in the preparatory drawings for this sculpture, Degas actually “changed her face to give it the hallmarks of a savage, quasi-Neanderthal primitivism, a precocious degeneracy. He literally altered her nature.”  Ultimately, author Laurens admits that “it is hard not to loathe this forty-something conformist who in modeling his wax manipulated a very young girl for reasons that have nothing to do with art or aesthetics.”  Several critics in the 1880s tried to justify Degas’s behavior in this area, claiming that he was trying to surprise viewers and make them think of how beauty can evolve from ugliness, opening the viewer’s mind to new ideas.  Most viewers, however, were offended by the fact that the sculpture, presented inside a glass case, “on satin cloth as though it were an ethnographic curiosity,” was nothing more than “a doll, a common wax doll.”  Ultimately, it becomes clear that no one knew then how to interpret this sculpture as sculpture, and I am not sure, after reading this fascinating book, how many readers in the present will separate Degas’s difficult, often mean-spirited personality from his sculpture, its background, and the controversies it engenders even within this book.  Does it really matter to the aesthetics of the work that the Little Dancer’s physiognomy is not “accurate”?  Or that the sculptor was illustrating an irrelevant phrenological agenda? Or, less likely, that he may have been trying to wake up Parisians to their false assumptions about the poor, the foreign, and uneducated?

Self-portrait, 1895

Degas, Self-Portrait, 1895

As she completes her research and her commentary into the Little Dancer, Camille Laurens finds herself experiencing “a feeling of remorse” regarding Marie van Goethem – “I haven’t brought to [the sculpture] the genius she deserves.  When it comes to her reality, I have said nothing, shown nothing…All can see her, [and] I cannot abandon her without doing more for her memory.”  She believes that returning to original sources is the only way to do this.  There, she finds some information regarding Marie’s family, but no records for Marie, at least not yet. Eventually, “the shade of Marie melts into the deep shadow that Degas himself disappeared into. Her ghost is carried off, buried with his remains. Nothing can separate them any longer,” the ultimate irony. Fascinating story of an intriguing sculpture by an author who has “done her homework.”

ALSO reviewed here, by Camille Laurens: WHO YOU THINK I AM

Sacha Guitry, an actor, playwright, film maker, and friend of many artists of the day, filmed Edgar Degas walking down the street in 1915. Degas was nearly blind and is using a cane as he walks with a woman friend. He is visible at the 14 second mark, and these 14 seconds are the only film ever recorded of Edgar Degas.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.dijonbeaunemag.fr

Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen,” a photograph from one of the castings, this one at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/

The Palais Garnier, where the Paris Opera held its performances:  https://www.archdaily.com/

Degas, Self-Portrait, 1895.  http://www.frederickholmesandcompany.com/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. France, Historical, Literary, Non-fiction, Social and Political Issues, Impressionism, art, Edgar Degas
Written by: Camille Laurens
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 11/20/2018
ISBN: 978-1590519585
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

Note:  This debut novel was WINNER of the Kenzaburo Oe Prize in 2014. 

“Often she cried as she showered…as the suds slid smoothly down the slopes of her shoulders in delicate white stripes….Every soap bubble held a sob, which echoed softly against the bathroom ceiling as it burst.  Sob after sob resounded there, till at last their accumulated sounds came drifting back down with the pounding water to wrap her body like white feathers.  There among the clouds of steam, Salimah’s voice rose to a wail.”

I am especover farewell my orangecially fond of Japanese novels for their quiet power, restraint, and careful structure, and I was looking forward to reading this one, written by a Japanese woman but focusing on characters who have immigrated to Australia, with its totally different culture and completely different language.  Iwaki Kei, the Japanese author, knows all about this, having first gone to Australia herself twenty years ago when she was a recent college graduate.  She has stayed there with her expatriate Japanese husband ever since, an eventuality which I expected would give much added insight into cultural adaptation, perhaps also including an overlay of analysis into how the differences between cultures affect every aspect of the lives of immigrants.  What I found was completely different – surprising, even shocking at first – but which made this, ultimately, one of the most intriguing and original debut novels I have read this year.


The only job Salimah can get when she first seeks work is as a butcher/ meat packer at a supermarket. She finds it nauseating.

The novel opens with a close-up of Salimah, a woman about thirty, who is escaping the civil war in her Nigerian homeland.  She speaks only her Nigerian tribal language, and has no way to communicate with the outside world or to help her two young sons adjust to the differences in their own lives as they start school in Australia.  The descriptive opening scene, however, is surprisingly “purple” in its overwritten style, as can be seen in the romantic imagery of the opening quotation of this review.  Three pages later, Salimah begins work at a supermarket, butchering and packaging slabs of meat that are “far bigger than herself.”  There, as she visits the workplace for the first time and observes the other workers, “Salimah felt a shock like a naked hand clutching her heart….She heard then…a cry that rose from the long row of shadows cast by each of the companions as they worked. These voiceless screams clung to the window sills of the work place, seeking a way out.  They beat against the window panes like little trapped birds, hushed but fierce.”

Author Iwaki Kei

Author Iwaki Kei

Those who know me know that I have little patience with overly romanticized, sentimental writing, and over-the-top imagery, and, to be honest, I began wondering how the kind of writing here at the beginning of the novel could have led Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe to personally choose it as the winner of the literary prize named in his honor.  Because his own writing, in Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, resembles the raw style of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, I began to suspect (and hope) that as the novel progressed, the reasons for Kei’s writing style here at the beginning would become clearer.  As I eventually discovered, the entire novel is made up of stories within stories within stories, and the ways in which misperceptions and misunderstandings can control outcomes, a novel with a built-in surprise at the ending which answers all the questions and makes everything suddenly make sense.  Ultimately, the author made me (and I suspect other readers) become involved in her story in new ways – leading me to convey my own version of her story – and my own misperceptions regarding it initially – here in this review. 

It is a smart novel, and anyone who starts it and reads it to the end will discover how truly original it really is, and why it is presented exactly as it is.

ESL Class.

ESL Class.

Shortly after the opening paragraphs, the novel introduces an additional character, whom we know as Sayuri, another young woman who is now living in Australia, except that Sayuri is from Japan, a rare expatriate in Australia.  Her husband, an academic, is invited to various places around the world to speak and study, while she has ended her own academic study to follow him to Australia with their baby. She mets Salimah at the ESL course they both are taking, and though Sayuri is much more educated, and much more comfortable in classes, they become friends. Then Sayuri’s life takes an unexpected turn.  One confusing and complicating aspect of their relationship is that they both call themselves and each other by different names (also explained by the conclusion of the novel).  Salimah is called Nakichi by Sayuri.  Sayuri is called Echidna by Salimah.  As the two women are absolutely consistent in using these alternative names for each other, the reader easily accepts this odd complication and does not become confused about the women’s backgrounds and the actions they experience within the novel.  Their friendship becomes closer when Sayuri (Echidna) makes the surprising decision to work with Salimah (Nakichi) as a butcher and meat packer and not continue working on her thesis for her degree.

A repeating symbol for Salima is the of the sun, represemting peace, understanding, and love.

A repeating symbol for Salimah is the of the sun, representing peace, understanding, and love.

The story of Nigerian Salimah continues in chapters written with an omniscient narrator as she labors to improve all aspects of her life and that of her young son.  She is earnest and willing to do whatever is necessary to make her family life more successful, and she wins recognition at both her job and at the ESL classes for which she works so hard.  Japanese Sayuri reveals herself from a different point of view, through the long, detailed letters she writes to her former college teacher in Japan, letters written in a different, darker typeface.  Because the better educated Sayuri has a much broader world view, she may reflect many of the attitudes of the reader, and when she suddenly decides to work as a butcher/meat packer and to learn from Salimah, who has escaped her community in Nigeria for another halfway around the world, it is a poignant moment for Salimah.  As both women begin to reach out to others and to develop close friendships that they never expected to make beyond their immediate circles, they become more human, though still grounded in the friendships from the past.  Salimah, who has always associated peace, understanding, and love with the orange sun, a repeating symbol here, is ultimately able to say “Farewell, sun.  Our meetings at morning and partings at evening will go on.  But this is no dream.  The sun is the fire that gives me life, eternal desire and prayer, endlessly enduring hope.”

Photos. Salimah, and later Sayuri, both work as butcher/ meat packers at a supermarket when they first arrive in Australia.  https://www.shethepeople.tv/

The author’s photo appears on https://www.fantasticfiction.com/

An ESL class, where both main characters work on their English reading, writing and speaking, is shown here: https://www.mosalingua.com/

“Sun Dreams,” like those of Salimah, are found on http://dreamstop.com/


REVIEW. PHOTOS. Australia, Japan, Literary, Nigeria, Social and Political Issues, Literary
Written by: Iwaki Kei
Published by: Europa
Date Published: 11/13/2018
ISBN: 978-1609454784
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Note:  This book was a FINALIST for the National Book Award for Fiction, 2018.

“Not long after the incident…my mother left us, and later she divorced my father….My father worshipped my mother, [and] after she left, he became bitter.  One day he complained to me that she wasn’t really gone at all, that she was much too wicked for such a mercy.  She was still there, he said, stuck in him: a froth in the veins, a disease of the blood.  That’s how I began to think of her, as a sickness, a betrayal on the cellular level.”—Ben, in “No More Than a Bubble.”


Jamel Brinkley, author of this extraordinary debut collection of stories, is much more than “a lucky man” in having this collection published by Graywolf, one of the most respected literary publishing houses in the country.  Brinkley’s literary talents and his insights into people – all kinds of people of various backgrounds and ages – kept me spellbound for the entire time I spent reading and rereading these stories.  I am not young, black, male, or a city dweller, as these characters are.  I have not experienced (or do not remember) most of the kinds of events which Brinkley’s characters experience as normal – growing up in a broken home, having few resources for dealing with the turmoil of the teen years, struggling with responsibilities which would be challenging even for an adult, and living a life in which “betrayal on the cellular level” is complicated by surprising naivete regarding love and sex, expectations and reality, and issues of identity and reputation.  Still, as the  young male characters of the nine stories here live their lives as well as they can, given their ages and limitations, they achieve a kind of universality which cannot help but touch the heart of the reader as s/he connects with these characters on a deeply personal level.

author photoThe opening story, “No More Than a Bubble,” from which the opening quotation here has been taken, has a simple enough beginning, as two young college students, Ben and Claudius, attend a house party in New York given by a couple of Harvard grads. “The main difference between a house party in Brooklyn and a college party uptown was that on campus you were just practicing.  You could half-ass it or go extra hard, either play the wall or go balls-out booty hound, and there would be no actual stakes, no real edge to the consequences.”  They soon meet two women from Hunter College, but the women are a bit older than they, and it is obvious from the dialogue that Ben and Claudius are overmatched. Throughout this episode and its consequences, Ben keeps flashing back to emotionally intense memories of his parents and their marriage. Eventually, when the party is over, the women try to leave on their bikes, but are unable to balance, and Ben and Claudius walk them home to Brooklyn.  There Ben discovers that not only are the women different from what he had thought, but so is Claudius, a life-changing moment.

Photo by Stephanie Keith, Getty Images.

Photo of the L’ouvert celebration by Stephanie Keith, Getty Images.

“J’ouvert, 1996” features Ty, an innocent seventeen-year-old whose only desire is to have fifteen dollars so he can go to a barbershop to get a professional haircut at the place where his now-departed father used to go.  He has little control over his life, however, as he must take care of his eleven-year-old brother Omari during the summer when school is out.  His brother, who clearly has some problems, insists on wearing a rubber mask of an owl and “smoking” a candy cigarette whenever he is outside, and when his mother sends the boys out one night so that she and her boyfriend can have some privacy, Ty and Omari take off.  The boys are bullied, Ty loses a gift from his departed father, and Omari escapes into his imagination.  Ty eventually decides to go to J’ouvert, a Caribbean carnival which starts very late that night, a place where both he and Omari learn important things about themselves and the world.

Capoeira angola by August Earle, 1824.

Capoeira angola by August Earle, 1824.

These two stories – one of a college boy and one of a much younger boy and his eleven-year-old brother – show Brinkley’s ability to capture the thinking of these youths as they face real events associated with maturing. In “Everything the Mouth Eats,” he shows his ability to make an adult character equally intriguing.  Main character Eric describes himself as a “lost” adjunct professor at a Manhattan college, and he admits he “hadn’t had a talk – a real talk” with his younger brother Carlos in many years.  The two brothers have both experienced the same kind of abuse, but Carlos, unemployed and sometimes in trouble, has recently managed to get his life under some control through his serious study of capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art which includes acrobatics, dance, and music.  Eric, Carlos, Carlos’s girlfriend, and their young daughter are driving to Virginia for a conference and demonstrations of capoeira, and Carlos’s girlfriend has confided to Eric that Carlos really needs him now.  Eventually, the performances of capoeira in which they both participate open new lanes of communication and purpose.

Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn.

Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn.

Other stories focus on different subjects.  “I Happy Am” tells of a young boy at summer camp who takes a field trip to a wealthy estate to enjoy the day swimming, only to discover that the estate is not that much different from what he has at home, and the hostess is not very different from his mother.  “A Family” concerns a man who has served twelve years in prison and who is now faced with the possibility of becoming a lover to his deceased best friend’s wife.  “Wolf and Rhonda” offers the reader a female character whose hard life and possible relationship with Wolf turn the story on its head.  “Clifton’s Place” is a story of aging and change, and this is the one place where obvious symbolism occurs as two men involved with the same woman, walk through Brooklyn’s Fort Green Park, where the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument serves as a memorial to the American soldiers who died on British prison ships anchored in the East River during the Revolutionary War.

Focusing on the past and its importance in our lives, and masculinity and what it means in the present, Brinkley develops sub-themes of guilt and innocence, assertiveness and shyness, independence and isolation, desire and frustration, and power and subservience, all within nine compressed and dramatic stories which will awe most readers.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on: http://www.startribune.com/ 

The author’s photo perfectly reflects his style throughout.  He is looking directly at the reader, with no pretense, hiding nothing.  http://www.startribune.com/

Photo of the L’ouvert celebrations by Stephanie Keith, Getty Images.  https://observer.com/

A painting of capoeira angola activity by August Early in Brazil in 1824.  https://en.wikipedia.org

The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn.  https://www.dnainfo.com    The inscription on the monument reads:  In the name of the spirits of the departed free, sacred to the memory of that portion of American seamen, soldiers & citizens who perished in the cause of liberty & their country on board the prison ships of the British (during the Revolutionary War) at the Wall-about.   This is the corner stone of the vault which contains their relics. Erected by the Tammany Society or Columbian Order of the City of New York. The ground for which was bestowed by John Jackson, Nassau Island, season of blossoms, year of discovery, the 316th, of the institution the 19th, and of American Independence the 32nd, April the 6th, 1808.

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Literary, Psychological study, Short Stories, Social and Political Issues, United States, US Regional
Written by: Jamel Brinkley
Published by: Graywolf
Date Published: 05/01/2018
ISBN: 978-1555978051
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

“Death was a door.  I think that is what [Big Kit] wanted me to understand.  She did not fear it.  She was of an ancient faith rooted in the high river lands of Africa, and in that faith the dead were reborn, whole, back in their homelands, to walk again free.  That was the idea that had come to her with [our new master], like a thread of poison poured into a well.”  Washington Black, age eleven.

George Wcover wasington blackashington Black, a young slave born in 1818, tells his life story – as much as he knows of it – beginning when he is eleven, a boy living on the sprawling Faith Plantation in Barbados.  His master has just died, and he and Big Kit, the slave woman who watches over him, know nothing about the person who will take his master’s place.  Wash, as he is known, is an orphan with no family, a person without a “real” name, known only by the slave name assigned to him by a master who is also in charge of every other aspect of his life – and his death.  When the new master arrives from England a few months later,  he is everyone’s worst nightmare.  The maimings begin – and the killings.  Some slaves commit suicide in desperation while others are killed when they are caught and publicly beheaded.   Most, like Big Kit, remain, still holding onto their beliefs from their past lives in Africa, believing that when they die they will be “reborn, whole, back in their homelands, to walk again free.” 

Author Esi Edugyan

Author Esi Edugyan

Canadian author Esi Edugyan does not dwell on the sadism of the master and the horrors he wreaks for long.  She is far more committed to telling the story of “Wash,” whom we learn through a flashback in the first few pages, is a survivor, one who at eighteen is officially a Freeman.  What unfolds in the ensuing three hundred pages is Wash’s story, a monument to the human spirit and what it takes for someone who has never known freedom or had the opportunity to make his own decisions to learn how to exist in an alien world.  Wash, still a young teenager at the outset, has always had to follow a master’s instructions to say alive.  Words like “success” or “happiness” are not only irrelevant to him, they are concepts totally foreign to him.  His only goal, if he can be said to have one, is learning to cope with sudden changes – all changes – in order to survive. 

A form of "Cloud-cutter," which Titch is anxious to test in person.

A form of “Cloud-cutter,” which Titch is anxious to test in person.

Edugyan recognizes that to make this novel come alive for the reader, she must provide Wash with mentors, ordinary people who recognize Wash’s abilities and use Wash’s talents to help them achieve their own goals.  While this may seem a cynical attitude among the people on whom Wash comes to depend, the novel would be unrealistic if their attitudes toward Wash were not reflective of the times in which they all live.  As a result, the guides and mentors for Wash do not set out to “adopt” him or, worse, act as “fairy godmothers” in a sentimental attempt to make his release from slavery more appealing to the reader.  His lack of education, lack of experience dealing with the outside world, his fears and vulnerabilities, and the racial prejudices within the world in which he is living, leave Wash completely at the mercy of others unless he can learn how his world works and how to stay alive within it.  A few people in Wash’s life do take on the job of trying to help him while also helping themselves until Wash has acquired enough experience to be able to manage his own life.  His first mentor is the master’s brother Titch, who is interested in aeronautics and has built a Cloud-cutter, a balloon that will carry humans.

Indians trading fur at Hudson's Bay Trading post, 1800s, where Titch searches for his issing father.

Indians trading fur at Hudson’s Bay Trading post, 1800s, where Titch searches for his missing father.

Wash has been working at the main house, and Titch has chosen him for only one reason.  He plans to do a test flight, and Wash is the right weight to be the ballast on the flight.  Later Titch discovers that Wash has a talent for drawing, and he immediately makes Wash his assistant, recording measurements, equations, and outcomes and discussing them with him.  One experiment leaves Wash a burn victim, with horrific facial burns which take weeks to heal and leave him with permanent facial scars.  After he recovers, another of the master’s family involves him in an event which leaves the naive Wash a wanted man. Part II takes place shortly afterward on a big-rigged ship with Titch and Wash heading to Virginia and “freedom.”  It is then that they see a Wanted Poster offering “A Reward of One Thousand Pounds…for the capture of George Washington Black, a Negro Boy of small stature, his countenance marked with Burns; a Slave for life.”

Philiop Henry Gosse may have been the model for G. M. Goff. This is one of his illustrations, "Sea Anemones and Corals."

Philiop Henry Gosse may have been the model for G. M. Goff. This is one of his illustrations, “Sea Anemones and Corals.”

Titch wants to continue up through Canada on the way to Alaska to look for his missing father, and he believes that Wash’s best chances for survival lie instead in his joining a Loyalist community in northern Canada. Still pursued by a bounty hunter, Wash, at fifteen, is soon on his way to Nova Scotia and the Maritimes.  It is there that Wash realizes that “Though I did not know it then, I had begun the months of my long desolation.  I became a boy without identity, a walking shadow, and with each new month I fell deeper into strangeness.  For there could be no belonging for a creature such as myself, anywhere: a disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running, always running from the dimmest of shadows.” Eventually, he meets a scientist, Mr. G.M. Goff, who specializes in sea creatures, a character purportedly based on the celebrated marine biologist Philip Henry Gosse, and follows him to England.  Later he travels on to Marrakesh in Morocco.

The Saadian Tombs, in Marrakesh, where Wash has an epiphany.

The Saadian Tombs, in Marrakesh, where Wash has an epiphany.

As the novel concludes, the harsh realism begins to take on more spiritual, mystical, and even magical moments, in part due to the fact that Wash is in love.  The author clearly believes that emotional and spiritual health is important in formulating one’s view of the world, and as Wash reconnects with some of the people who have helped him in the past and is able to ignore others who have hurt him, the reader shares Wash’s growing understanding of how they became who they are, and why and how Wash has gained insights that his former mentors may not understand even yet.  It is not by accident that some of most important moments have been spent in the air and in the water,  rather than on earth.  The conclusion includes an epiphany for Wash, but its exact nature is not completely clear.  He has made some enormous personal gains, but he is still young, and still a victim of limited expectations by the larger world in which he is now a part.  The reader is left with much to ponder, grateful for the fact that despite the large number of coincidences in the narrative, the author has never resorted to sentimentality or sensationalism to conclude what is a dramatic and powerful study of slavery and its effects on people whose lives are what they are completely by the accident of their birth.

The beautiful lionfish (pterois) in the Solomon Islands was studied by G. M. Goff.

The beautiful, but venomous, lionfish (pterois) in the Solomon Islands was studied by G. M. Goff.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on http://www.bookbuffet.com/

A balloon similar to the Cloud-cutter which Titch has been working on is found in https://www.britannica.com/

Titch spends time in Hudson’s Bay, Canada, looking for his missing father:  https://en.wikipedia.org

Philip Henry Gosse, purportedly the model for G. M. Goff, is the illustrator for “Sea Anemones and Corals,” an illustration similar to what Wash has done for Mr. Goff.  https://en.wikipedia.org/

Wash has an epiphany in Marrakesh, where the Saadian Tombs are located. https://howbeautifullifeis.com

The beautiful, but venomous, lionfish was studied by G. M. Goff in the Solomon Islands:  https://www.groupersandwich.com/


REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Barbados, Canada, England, Historical, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Esi Edugyan
Published by: Knopf
Date Published: 09/18/2018
ISBN: 978-0525521426
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Note:  Prolific author William Boyd has been WINNER of the Whitbread First Novel Award,  the Somerset Maugham Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction, the Costa Award, among others, and was SHORTLISTED for the IMPAC Dublin (now International Dublin Literary Prize) in 2004.

“Brodie stood on the Molo…hands in pockets, staring out over the Adriatic with its silent migration of clouds.  This was the view which inspired him…[The Adriatic] looked like a boundless ocean, the distance-hazed horizon barely visible, the charge of light from the sea and the sky half-blinding him.  He liked to think of his presence here on this jutting stone promontory as a symbol of his journey’s end.”

cover love is blindLove is Blind, British author William Boyd’s thrilling new novel, reflects the kinds of excitements, revelations, and atmosphere so common to the great Russian romances of the nineteenth century.  Partially set in St Petersburg, this is a big, broad, romantic story which moves around the world as Brodie Moncur, a Scottish piano tuner, becomes totally consumed by his love for a married woman and follows his love throughout Europe.  Certain to appeal to those looking for well written literary excitement and fast-paced action, the novel will also appeal to those with a fondness for Russian novels.  Though I recognized, early on, that Boyd is mimicking the style of the Russian sagas, I am not an expert in Russian literature, and I discovered by accident, after I finished the book, that the novel is much more than the sum of its plot, characters, settings and love story. 


Photo by Rebecca Reid.

When I chose the quotation which opens my review of Love is Blind, I did not realize that the quotation I chose parallels the epigraph quotation on the novel’s first page, a quotation about Anton Chekhov by his wife Olga Nipper-Chekhova.  In her own book, she tells of a play Chekhov was intending to write in which a scientist whose ship is icebound contemplates the grandeur of the night and the sky ablaze with the Northern Lights as he “sees the shadow of the woman he loves.”  The parallels between the imagery of Olga Chekhova’s quotation at the beginning of Boyd’s novel, and my own coincidental choice of imagery for the opening quotation of this review made me do more research about author William Boyd and his familiarity with Chekhov.  It soon became clear that other surprising similarities exist between Chekhov’s life and work and the action in this novel.  While these may be fascinating to literary historians, they are not necessary to the enjoyment of the novel.  Love is Blind is a big, broad story, partially set in St. Petersburg, a story of  a love which totally consumes the main character, just as it will, I think, consume most readers.

piano tuning

Piano Tuning

The Prologue is set in the Andaman Islands, in the Bay of Bengal between India and Myanmar in 1906, as a young ethnologist informs her sister that she has a new assistant, a thirty-five-year-old Scotsman named Brodie Moncur.  In Part I the novel then shifts back in time twelve years to 1894 in Edinburgh, where Brodie Moncur, age twenty-four, has been working for six years for Channon and Co., the fourth largest piano manufacturer Britain.  A skilled piano tuner with a flawless ear, he works for the best concert pianists in the country, sometimes traveling with them to tune their pianos on a daily basis.  When he is approached by the head of the company to go to Paris, he views this as an opportunity to escape his mean-spirited father, a conservative preacher.  Though he will be free in Europe, he will be working under the owner’s son, who has taken an instant dislike to him.

Evening in Nice on the Promenade des Anglais.

Evening in Nice on the Promenade des Anglais.

Part II, the longest section, takes place in Paris, Geneva, and Nice from 1896 – 1898, as the characters are introduced, their backgrounds are explored, and their relationships develop. Brodie, soon begins making suggestions for improving the piano company directly to the owner, since his son has refused to agree to any of Bodie’s proposed changes.  Eventually, Brodie is allowed to set up live piano concerts in the windows of the Paris store while also showing the insides of a grand piano to demonstrate its complexity and all its moving parts.  He also hires a concert pianist who will use Channon products and transport his own specially made Channon piano to his concerts, the action which leads to the rest of the story and its complications. He hires pianist John Kilbarron, whose his lover, Lydia Blum, a Russian known as Lika, agrees to accompany them on a tour.  Not surprisingly, Brodie falls deeply in love with Lika. Soon the two are meeting secretly, even as Brodie works diligently on Kilbarron’s piano for his concerts.

The Vosnensky Bridge in an area where Brodie has a beautiful seven room apartment near the Vosnensky Prospect

The Vosnensky Bridge in an area where Brodie has a beautiful seven room apartment near the Vosnensky Prospect

Part III begins the “travelogue,” which opens in St. Petersburg, Russia, where Brodie learns that he has tuberculosis.  A wealthy Russian girl pursues him even as he continues to meet Lika privately.  Eventually, of course, Kilbarron becomes suspicious, and Kilbarron’s vicious brother Malachi plans revenge, going so far as to demand, and then conduct, a duel involving Brodie. Part IV, from 1900 – 1902, occurs in Biarritz, Edinburgh, and Nice, where Brodie resides during the winter to make his breathing less difficult.  He is still pursued, however, by Malachi, and no matter where he goes, he is followed, his life and that of Lika always in danger.  Part V returns to Paris, leading to a romantic crisis.  Part VI moves to Vienna, Graz, and Trieste, from 1902 – 1905, on the Adriatic.  Ultimately, Brodie goes to the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, arriving there in 1906.


This painting by an unknown painter shows the Molo in Trieste, where Brodie shares his feelings about the future in the opening quotation.

This general summary and the continuous changes of setting illustrate the long commitment of Brodie Moncur to Lika Blum as he follows her around the world, and while she is full of paradoxes as she moves in and out of his life and that of John Kilbarron, his love is genuine.  The depictions of Europe and Russia during this period are fun to relive, and the information about the mechanics of the piano and its maintenance is far more exciting than one might expect.  The last hundred pages of this almost four-hundred page book are a bit of a letdown, compared to the love story that has occupied most of the book, but Boyd is letter perfect with his romanticism and his recreation of a Russian love story for most of the book.  Readers looking for a welcome break from the turmoil on television will find this novel to be a beautifully conceived and executed old-fashioned novel in which “love is [truly] blind.”

Note:  Those who are interested in exploring more of the subtle references to the life of Chekhov in the novel will find Carys Davies’s review in The Guardian particularly helpful. 


Benjamin franklin bifocals

Benjamin Franklin Bifocals, which Brodie needs because of his very poor eyesight.

Photos:   The author’s photo by Rebecca Reid appears on https://www.dailymail.co.uk/

The photo of the open piano is from http://www.countrypiano.com/

The night in Nice on the Promenade des Anglais may be found on

The Vosnensky Bridge, near Brodie’s elegant, seven-room apartment, reflects the changes in his status:  http://www.visit-petersburg.ru/

The Molo in Trieste is the scene of an epiphany by Brodie:  https://www.nauticareport.it/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. England, Scotland, France, Russia, Literary, Historical, Psychological Study, Book Club Suggestion
Written by: William Boyd
Published by: Knopf
Date Published: 10/09/2018
ISBN: 978-0525655268
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

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