Feed on

“Though I was from the North of England, I stayed on in Barcelona….The quality of the light first thing in the morning, so bright and clear that the buildings seemed to have black edges.  The green parrots that flashed from one palm tree to another.  Long walks in the Collserola in April, to gather wild asparagus, or in September, to hunt for mushrooms… a city whose pleasures were simple and constant.” 

cover barcelona dreamingIn this unusual ode to Barcelona, author Rupert Thomson, who lived in Barcelona from 2004 – 2010, creates three intersecting stories with overlapping characters, each of whom gives a unique perspective on life in this city on the northeast coast of Spain.  In the first section, “The Giant of Sarrià,” Amy, a British woman in her forties, owns a shop which she describes as resembling “Aladdin’s cave of unexpected treasures,” a shop she has named “Trinket.” With her daughter at school in England, the divorced Amy has the freedom to explore the city and get to know its people, respond to the subjects that interest her, and create her own life.  One night she is awakened by the sound of sobbing coming from the car park below her apartment.  Surprised that the sounds appear to be coming from a man, she investigates and is immediately impressed by the urgency of the man’s problem.  The man is young – perhaps nineteen or twenty – and he appears to be from North Africa, probably Morocco.   She invites him to come into her apartment to get cleaned up, and afterward gives him some money to take a taxi to wherever his home is.  The next morning two of her friends are horrified by her actions. Three days later, the Moroccan man appears again outside her building, waiting for her to return from work.  He, known as Abdel ben Tajah, has come to cook her a meal as thanks.


Author Rupert Thomson

In a break from her narrative about Abdel, Amy also reveals her relationship with her ex-husband Pol, and when her friend Montse, also divorced, talks about her ex-husband Nacho and his infidelity, they set the scene for a broader discussion of marriage, love, and the past.  Amy soon becomes physically attracted to the Moroccan boy-man who has visited her at her apartment, and when she learns his address, she travels by metro to meet him. The difficulties of a woman alone in the city arise, however, when Amy is robbed and assaulted by a man on a motorbike as she travels through the city.  Another disaster strikes later when the old man who is her neighbor adamantly refuses to let Abdel enter her apartment with her, attacking him with his walking stick and lashing him across the face.  The issues of racism are obvious, and when Amy gets involved to stop the abuse, the situation escalates, eventually involving the police.  A seven-foot tall giant, Baltasar Gallego Magallon, from the neighborhood, was a witness and comes to her aid, and she soon becomes friendly with him, a man who is so shy that he rarely goes out except late at night.  This man, too, reappears later in the book, adding to the characters, further developing the setting, and expanding themes regarding love, how one defines it, and how one responds to it.

Famed football player Ronaldinho becomes friends with Nacho

Famed football player Ronaldinho becomes friends with Nacho. (Reuters)

The second novella, “The King of Castelldefels,” features a jazz pianist named Nacho, her friend Montse’s ex-husband, a man currently unmarried but living with a woman twenty-five years his junior and her seven-year-old son.  Alcohol plays a major role in his life, and it is not unusual for him to pass out and remember nothing about his last hours, who he was with, and how he got to where he eventually finds himself.  It is Ari, the son, who gets Nacho interested in Barça football, but when Ronaldinho, a major Brazilian football star, signs with Barcelona, Ari is interested but not excited.  Ronaldinho, Ari believes, is a “show pony,” famous for his tricks and inconsistency.  Soon Ronaldinho is celebrating life at the bar Nacho owns, where the alcohol flows freely, drugs are omnipresent, and women are available to attend to the drunks.  Nacho is passing out frequently, and his seven-year-relationship with Cristiani and young Ari are in danger.

Keith Jarrett, whose recording of Lalene inspired Nacho to play in a trance for three hours.

Keith Jarrett, whose recording of “Lalene” inspired Nacho to play in a trance for three hours.

Nacho even finds himself inexplicably naked when stopped while driving one night, and when playing Keith Jarrett’s song  “Lalene” on the piano, he goes into such a deep trance that he plays for three hours and does not realize it.  When Ronaldinho learns that his family is returning to Brazil and also learns that he is being traded to Milan, Nacho feels totally abandoned – with good reason – yet he still expects he will see Ronaldinho again. “After all, he still has a key.”

The third novella, “The carpenter of Montjuic,” a bizarre story of the supernatural, is told on several levels by a narrator named Jordi Ferrer, a man who translates books. His love interest, Mireia, is the manager of a boutique hotel whom he has known since his schooldays, though the love is not enthusiastically returned. When they meet for drinks, she confesses that she keeps finding keys belonging to her friends.  The narrative becomes more complicated when Jordi summarizes the story he is working on: one in which a mysterious person leaves presents for others, noticing their positive and negative effects, especially when the effects change dramatically.  A pig’s heart, a live bullet and a dead bird raise the tension to palpable levels. Another of Jordi’s friends has become obsessed with wooden furniture handmade by Daniel Federmann, furniture which exerts a strong pull of its own, appearing to come to life and moving around by itself. 

On a walk with Mireia, he and Jordi notice the huge 200-year-old pine tree, which inspires Jordi to "Remember this, remember everything."

On a walk with Mireia, Jordi notices a huge 200-year-old pine tree, which inspires him to try to “Remember this, remember everything.”

Author Rupert Thomson lets his imagination go in all directions over the course of the three novellas, and his ability to describe what he sees and feels makes his work come alive, even when a character may be so under the influence that nothing in his reality makes much sense.  His ability to include social issues is so natural to his writing that the reader accepts his commentary without feeling that he is “padding” to broaden his scope and his themes.  His depiction of characters who are living on the periphery is sensitive to time and place – and to the issues which have made these characters who they are.  Thomson is a writer who fascinates with his originality and his unique insights, a man whose writing is stimulating at the same time that it is thematically honest and exciting – and even sometimes confounding.


Photos:  The author photo appears on https://www.allenandunwin.com

Ronaldinho’s photo is from https://www.the-sun.com

Keith Jarrett’s photo may be found on  https://www.dw.com

While on a walk with Mireia, Jordi is inspired by this 200-year-old tree, and determines to “Remember this, remember everything.” https://www.totsantcugat.cat

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, Literary, Social and Political Issues, Spain, Barcelona
Written by: Rupert Thomson
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 06/01/2021
ISBN: 978-1635420425
Available in: Ebook Paperback

‘Happiness,’ he said, ‘always seems nothing.  It is like water; one only realizes it when it has run away’…It is the same with the evil we do; it seems nothing, just seems foolishness, cold water, while we are doing it.  Otherwise, people would not do it;  they would be more careful.’–Vincenzino, to Cate

Icover GinzburgNatalia, Voices in the Evenngn this newly reprinted Italian classic by Natalia Ginzburg, originally published in Italy in 1961, Elsa,  an unmarried young woman of twenty-seven, realistically depicts her own life, the lives of her family, and the social scene of a small, unnamed town in Italy during and after World War II.  As the only first person speaker in the novel, Elsa guides the action in three chapters, giving personal insights and a sense of honesty to the day-to-day activity of which she is part.  Four other chapters, concentrating on the points of view of other characters, emerge from her parents’ generation – their prewar lives illustrating where they have started and their postwar lives revealing the effects that fascism, socialism, communism, and the partisanship of wartime have made on their domestic lives, family, and friendships.  Ginzburg herself, an active anti-fascist, was a survivor of World War II in Italy, having escaped military arrest and imprisonment by using a pen name while she and her husband ran an anti-Fascist newspaper. Though her husband was violently arrested and tortured to death in 1944, leaving her to care for their three children, she soldiered on.  In her dozen or so post-war novels, including this one, she remains remarkably controlled in her writing, avoiding strong flights of emotion, and the tendency to blame politics for the big issues in people’s personal lives, postwar.  This allows some of her characters the kind of privacy one might allow a friend who does not care to share details of traumatic experiences.

"Madonna of the Chair" by Raphael, a print of which Elsa had in her room at home.

“Madonna of the Chair” by Raphael, a print of which Elsa had in her room at home.

Elsa’s tendency to cherish privacy is revealed in her three chapters, which detail her life with her mother, her family, and with Tommasino, a character whose role is not fully developed until late in the novel.  Characteristically of Ginzburg, she introduces his name early – in Chapter Three – when Giuliana Bottiglia, one of Elsa’s female friends, visits, shares the romantic details of a Yul Brynner film, comments on a recent party Elsa’s family did not attend, then tries to engage Elsa in conversation about “Tommasino,” with whom Elsa was seen at night in a bar by two other young women.  Giuliana persistently “leads” Elsa with hints, then gets angry because Elsa will admit and share nothing:  “You do not tell me anything anymore,” Giuliana complains.  “I used to be your friend,” she continues, “[Now] we talk about silly little things. I bore you, I know it.”  Then the topic changes and Giuliana’s attempt to obtain gossip from Elsa is abandoned.

Cloth factory, perhaps similar to that of Old Balotta.

Cloth factory, perhaps similar to that of Old Balotta.

The remaining four chapters provide background information regarding the older generation during and after the war.  Most prominent among this generation and its descendants is the De Francisci family, which still owns a chemical-spewing cloth factory, even postwar, and still employs a large number of residents including Elsa’s father, who is the accountant, and their friend Bottiglia, a lawyer, who is the manager.  The De Franciscis,  known locally as the “Balotta” family, answer to the nickname given to the eldest member of the family, Old Balotta, or Little Ball, a short, stout man with a big paunch, “as round as round, which overflowed above the waist of his trousers.”  A socialist, Old Balotta and his family provide most of the action here – and are the source of much of the gossip – within the community.  Their five children play active roles in the social life of the younger generation and are the source of information about the war and just about everything else.  Gemmina, the oldest daughter, falls in love with Nebbia, and enjoys hiking in the mountains with him, and his later death in wartime echoes throughout the novel.  Vincenzino, a poor student, failed his father’s goals when he majored in engineering, instead of economics, which would have helped his father in the cloth factory.  His marriage to Caté is a highly detailed, personal disaster.

Many residents escaped to the Italian countryside and mountains during WW2. This is Bagnoregio.

Many residents escaped to the Italian countryside and mountains during WW2. This is Bagnoregio.

Mario, the third child, disappoints Old Balotta, when he goes to Munich and marries Xenia, a Russian girl, there, then returns to Italy with her.  Raffaella, the fourth child, “behaved like a rowdy boy”and enjoyed playing tricks on people. Living in the mountains during the war, she helped the partisans. It is the youngest son, Tommasino, who becomes linked with Elsa, thereby connecting her life, otherwise undeveloped here, with the lives of the Balottas as they deal with the war and their escapes from the war to the countryside.  Purillo, an adopted son of Old Balotta, is a fascist, but he remains loyal to his adoptive father long enough to help him physically escape danger in town, before he, too, disappears.   Still others are already out of the country, including Elsa’s sister, who married and went to live in South Africa, and her brother, who is working in Venezuela.

Italian author Natalia Ginzburg (1916 - 1991), Turin, Italy, circa 1990. (Photo by Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images)

Italian author Natalia Ginzburg (1916 – 1991), Turin, Italy, circa 1990. (Photo by Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images)

Unusual to the point of being unique, or almost unique, Voices in the Evening deals with the growth of fascism in Italy, World War II, and the postwar conditions – big, complex subjects – but these issues become almost peripheral to the everyday gossip and personal stories on which the main characters and the community depend for their daily lives.  The issue of moving from their local towns and cities for parts of the war and its aftermath is treated almost casually, with more attention paid to love and its complications, gossip, and personal tales than to the big subject of Italy during the war.  By changing the focus so significantly, the author is able to gain some dark humor while developing a creeping horror of the way in which these people allow their personal issues to camouflage the dramatic changes taking place throughout the country.   As one character sums it up late in the novel:  “The others, all those who have lived in this village before me.  It seems to me that I am only their shadow.”

ALSO by Natalia Ginzburg:  THE DRY HEART   and  HAPPINESS, AS SUCH

Photos.  Elsa has a copy of “The Madonna of the Chair,” by Raphael in her bedroom at home.  https://www.allposters.com

The old cloth factory, perhaps similar to that of Old Balotta, is from https://www.abandonedamerica.us

Many residents escaped to the Italian countryside and mountains during WW2. This is Bagnoregio.  https://www.fodors.com

The author’s photo by Leonardo Cendamo is from https://www.gettyimages.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Classic Novel, Historical, Italy, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Natalia Ginzburg
Published by: New Directions
Date Published: 05/04/2021
ISBN: 978-0811231008
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“To Jake, the word that comprised the relationship between a writer and their spark was ‘responsibility.”  Once you were in possession of an actual idea, you owed it a debt for having chosen you, and not some other writer, and you paid that debt by getting down to work, not just as a journeyman fabricator of sentences but as an unshrinking artist ready to make painful, time-consuming, even self-flagellating mistakes.”

cover plotIn this unusual novel of writers and writing, which evolves into a riveting study of mystery and murder, main character Jacob Finch Bonner is working at a Creative Writing program on the Ripley Campus in Northern Vermont.  He has been successful with his first book, receiving a “New and Noteworthy” mention in the New York Times Book Review.  A graduate of the creative writing program of Wesleyan University, he has been less successful with his second book, and he has not yet even produced a third.  Believing he has “fumbled his early shot,” he is not looking forward to this teaching job and having to pretend he is still a writer.  At a get-together for the newcomers, he is not encouraged by the “utterly ordinary” appearance of most of the potential writers for his class, though one particularly “obnoxious and pretentious” blond man, Evan Parker, espouses a belief that plot is all, that if it’s not a good plot, the best writing in the world is not going to help.

The antagonistic family in Parker's story lived in an old house where the front hall featured pineapples, ironically the symbol of hospitality.

The antagonistic family in Parker’s story lived in an old house where the front hall featured pineapple decorations, ironically the symbol of hospitality.

After his first session with this man, Jake admits to himself that Parker’s writing sample of eight pages is without obvious defects, and he is surprised to feel that Parker may be a natural writer with a relaxed and appreciative relationship with language.  Parker’s story about a mother and daughter who live in an old house in mutual loathing of each other, is one that Parker believes will be read by everyone – and that it will make him a fortune. When Jake eventually hears the whole plot line, he recognizes that it is, in fact, so “out of nowhere and outrageous” that “the worst writer on the planet could not mess up a plot like this.” Everyone will read it.  Unfortunately, Jake also recognizes that “Any ideas he [himself] might have had for another story would, from this afternoon on, suffer the fatal impact of not being the story he had just been told.”

The artist colony in Saratoga Springs, NY, where Jake Bonner was hired as profgram coordinator may have resembled that of Yaddo.

The artist colony in Saratoga Springs, NY, where Jake Bonner was hired as program coordinator may have resembled that of the Yaddo colony.

Two and a half years later, the Ripley Symposium has been canceled and the staff laid off.  Jake is now in an area west of Albany, New York, working on an editing program when he applies as program co-ordinator for an artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs and is hired.  Still lacking inspiration for a new book, he feels like a “deck hand on the Titanic,” all of his potential gone.  Curious about why, after almost three years, he has heard nothing more about Evan Parker and his great novel idea, he looks him up and discovers that not only has he not published his book,  he has died, predeceased by both his parents and a sister, with a niece his only remaining relative.  It is not long before Jake begins to take heart, believing that “every now and then, some magical little spark flew up out of nowhere and landed…in the consciousness of a person capable of bringing it to life,” and that “once you were in possession of an actual idea, you owed it a debt for having chosen you…and you paid that debt by getting down to work…rising to this responsibility.”   He also believes that “if you fail in this grave responsibility, you might well find…that your precious spark has left you.”  He gets to work.

Clifford Irvimg served 17 months in prison for writing a fake autobiography of HowardeHughes.

Clifford Irving served 17 months in prison for writing a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes.

Three years later, Jacob Finch Bonner, author of his brand new book “CRIB,” has sold over two million copies.  The book is still number two on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list after nine months as Number One, it is Oprah’s October selection, and twenty-four hundred people have turned up at the auditorium where he is being interviewed.  When the interviewer asks how he came up with the idea for the plot, he begins to get uncomfortable.  Though he wrote every word himself, he gradually becomes more nervous, then scared, and ultimately terrified that someone may know the original source of the book.  The plights of authors Clifford Irving, who wrote a hoax autobiography of Howard Hughes and served seventeen months in prison because of it; Stephen Glass, who was caught writing fictional “news” stories for the New Republic;  James Frey, who wrote memoirs that were exaggerated or fabricated; Greg Mortenson, who included falsehoods in his books and mishandled donations to a charitable organization; and Jerzy Kosinski, who was accused of plagiarism by numerous journalists, all appear in the author’s thoughts, and when he begins to receive mysterious, anonymous messages from someone who appears to know the real story and its source, he panics.

Author Jean Hanff Korelitz is the author of seven novels and is also a playwright, theatre producer and essayist.

Author Jean Hanff Korelitz is the author of seven novels and is also a playwright, theatre producer and essayist.

Great fun to read, the primary purpose of the novel is to entertain while considering the role of plot in the success of any fiction.  Because the plot within this novel, which is responsible for Jake’s astounding success, is the same story which makes this book by Jean Hanff Korelitz so successful, any attempt to summarize that plot would spoil the whole reason for reading it.  It is a meticulously constructed novel which has a love story, several murders, intense relationships, shifts of focus among various characters and generations, and changes of location, and it is hard to imagine any reader becoming bored or tired of the action.  The author is careful to keep the two plot lines from becoming confused.  The story of Jake Bonner, nervous author of the bestseller “CRIB,” and the story within the story which originated with Evan Parker, will, of course, eventually merge, but that merger happens gradually and with plenty of foreshadowing.   Readers like me who take notes in anticipation of writing a review may draw some conclusions about the true source of all the anonymous messages before the book’s actual conclusion, but even when that occurs, there are still enough mysteries to keep a reader involved and thoroughly occupied. Fun to read and filled with real surprises, this is a pop novel which well deserves its popularity.

Photos:  Pineapple decorations are a symbol of hospitality, but that is an ironic symbol in Evan Parker’s story, as the two women who lived together in an antique house “mutually loathed” each other.  https://inthevintagekitchen.com

The artist colony in Saratoga Springs, NY, where Jake Bonner was hired as program coordinator may have resembled that of the famous Yaddo Colony:  https://www.wamc.org

Clifford Irving served seventeen months in prison for writing a hoax autobiography of Howard Hughes, and Bonner worries also about being regarded as a fake.  http://content.time.com

Author Jean Hanff Korelitz is the author of seven novels and is also a playwright, theatre producer and essayist.  https://commons.wikimedia.org

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestion, Mystery, Psychological Study, United States
Written by: Jean Hanff Korelitz
Published by: Celadon Books
Date Published: 05/11/2021
ISBN: 978-1250790767
Available in: Ebook Hardcover


“Now and then on the streets of my neighborhood I bump into a man I might have been involved with, maybe shared a life with.  He always looks happy to see me.  He lives with a friend of mine, and they have two children.  Our relationship never goes beyond a longish chat on the sidewalk, a quick coffee together, perhaps a brief stroll in the same direction…a chaste, fleeting bond.”  – the female narrator.

coverJhumpa Lahiri,  the child of immigrant parents from West Bengal, came to the United States in 1970, when she was three years old, and she spent all her childhood in American schools and universities, eventually receiving several degrees, including a PhD in Renaissance Studies from Boston University.  In 2001, she and her husband moved to Rome, and their two children were born there in 2002 and 2005.  Her literary work, written in Italian in recent years, and translated here into English by Lahiri herself, allows her to have total control over the creative process from her novel’s inception to its publication.  Whereabouts, presumably set in Italy, because of the narrator’s occasional identification as “signora” and her own references to “piazzas and “trattorias,” does not identify any particular country. The author is far more interested in the emotional reactions of the main character, a forty-six-year-old professor of writing, as she responds to the events affecting her.  She is an independent woman, never married, though she has had serious relationships, and she cares about all aspects of her life, to the point that she has even participated in therapy for a short time to try to understand the mysteries of her psyche and her imagined place in the world.  She gives up on therapy, however: “Every session was like the start of a novel abandoned after the first chapter….Unfortunately my childhood harbors few happy memories.”


Author Jhumpa Lahiri

Choosing to tell her story by recreating brief episodes that take place in ordinary locations familiar to us all, the narrator frees herself from the necessity of co-ordinating the events of a plot in order by date.  Instead, the chronology jumps around, and the narrator is spared the need to identify various characters in great detail, since all other characters here are important only as they affect the narrator. As she explains in “In the Office,” “It’s hard to focus here.  I feel exposed, surrounded by colleagues and students who walk down the hallways.  Their movements and their chatter get on my nerves.”  Even “In Spring,” she confesses, “The season doesn’t invigorate me.  I find it depleting.  The new light disorients, the fulminating nature overwhelms.”  When she goes to a three-day convention for work, she does enjoy riding in the elevator with an elderly philosopher – one of the speakers – who smiles but never speaks to her, and she regrets that she has her own event to attend and cannot go to his. Still, since they take the elevator at the same time, morning and evening, she finds that “our tacit bond puts me obscurely at peace with the world.”

Opera House where the speaker gets tickets to operas, symphonies, and dance performances for the season.

Opera House where the speaker gets tickets to operas, symphonies, and dance performances for the season.

Dividing the novel into forty-six short episodes, some only a paragraph long, others up to three or four pages, the narrator talks about her life –  On the Street, In the Bookstore, In the Pool, In the Sun, At the Cash Register,  At the Coffee Bar, etc.  Strikingly, she reveals three episodes from
“In My Head.”  The first talks about solitude as her “trade,” different from her mother, who has always been afraid of being alone, and she believes that now, in old age, her mother would like to “extinguish our mutual solitude,”  something the speaker refuses to do.  She illustrates this determination in “At the Ticket Counter,” at a spectacular theatre from the 1800s, where she has gone to get tickets for the next season of operas, symphonies, and dance performances.  She changes her seats for the different performances to appreciate the “different points of view,”  reserving only one ticket for each show.  She has vivid memories of her father, who introduced her to the theatre and who wanted to take her to one play as an early birthday present, a play she never was able to see because he became ill with flu and passed away, for which her aunt reminded her that “There’s no escaping the unforeseen.  We live day by day.”


The speaker’s favorite stationery store changes into a luggage store during the year, and she is nonplussed about what to do.

The second “In My Head” talks about the unraveling of time and the fact that sometimes she just cannot get up and out of the house, afraid that she will forget something crucial, an episode that makes her nervous about the day.  That nervousness is shown that evening when at a dinner for eight people she argues with an opinionated woman about a film under discussion, eventually insulting this female guest and creating a scene from which she returns home mortified.  This scene is very different from “At the Stationer’s,”the place from which she has always bought her notebooks, folders, page markers, and printer paper, one of her favorite haunts and where she knows the owners.  This day, however, the only things in the windows are suitcases, and “the store looks hideous…bereft of character.”  When a young couple enter looking for suitcases, they clearly get pleasure from their search, and are satisfied by their eventual purchases:  She wonders if their bond will deepen,  and as she does, “The suitcases turn, for a few seconds, into enormous books: they’re swollen volumes lacking titles, lacking meaning, collected in a library for monsters or for idiots.”  Obviously, not her kind of place anymore, as she has no need for a suitcase, or monstrous books, for that matter.

Child playing tree-stump game, which the speaker despised as a frightened child.

Child playing tree-stump game, which the speaker despised as a frightened child.

The final “In My Head,” episode refers to her childhood at school when she hated recess though her friends were euphoric, celebrating their activities with short cries and “spontaneous exaltation.”  The game she particularly hated involved crossing the gaps between tree stumps, an activity at which she had limited skills and in which she was terrified of falling into the “empty space” between them.  The turning point in this self-centered and unproductive life occurs shortly after that when she house-sits for friends and takes care of their dog.  She has often wondered if there was a chance that she could form a relationship with the husband of the family, a question answered emphatically for her by the end of the stay and her work with the dog.  Shortly afterward, she learns that she has won a fellowship which will require her to leave her apartment, her community, her family, and her friends and move to another country for the duration.   Readers are challenged to decide what she will do, evaluating how ready she might be to leave and take on a new life, whether she is capable of finding some kind of personal fulfillment, and if she is capable of forming genuine, caring new relationships.  She and her life are, and will continue to be, challenging, no matter what she decides.


Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.john-adams.nl

San Carlo Opera House in Venice, which might be similar to the one that the speaker visits to buy tickets to shows, operas, and dance performances.  http://www.visitnaplesitaly.com

A luggage store has replaced the speaker’s favorite stationery shop:  https://www.lcct.com

The tree-stump game, which the speaker despised as a frightened child:  https://modernparentsmessykids.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Experimental, India, Italy, Literary, Psychological study
Written by: Jhumpa Lahiri
Published by: Knopf
Date Published: 04/27/2021
ISBN: 978-0593318317
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

Damon Galgut–THE PROMISE

“The two detectives have seen it all before. This murder?  This one is nothing. You should’ve been with me only last week. Oh boy, things I could tell you.  Any reason will do. South Africans kill each other for fun, it sometimes seems, or for small change, or for tiny disagreements….and from each one, concentric rings of pain ripple out in all directions, perhaps forever.”

cover promise galgutMasquerading as a family saga, The Promise is also a depiction of the various crises in the history of South Africa, especially in the past thirty years.  The Swart family – Ma, Pa, Astrid,  Anton,  and Amor – are white descendants of the Dutch and Afrikaner Voortrekkers who settled in rural areas of South Africa in the mid-1800’s as an escape from the British control of the cities of colonial South Africa.  Many created large farms in the relatively unpopulated rural areas and ran their farms as their own fiefdoms.  The past hundred years have led to significant changes, however.  Now, with a growing population and an independence movement leading many of the country’s indigenous inhabitants to demand justice, including the total abolition of apartheid, the tensions and uncertainties across all spectrums of everyday life are palpable.  Author Damon Galgut, himself a life-long resident of Pretoria, has lived through these issues, and his family connection to the South African judicial system has made him particularly sensitive to the legal issues in addition to the moral and philosophical ones.  By focusing on the lives of a family of five characters from two generations, Galgut presents not just the big, obvious issues of race, and the poverty which comes from lack of opportunity,  but also those issues which evolve from within the characters’ personalities, including their often significant personal weaknesses.

The Swart family are descended from the Dutch Africaaners who participated in the trek from the cities to the rural countryside in the mid-1800s.

The Swart family are descended from the Dutch Afrikaners who participated in the trek from the cities to the rural countryside in the mid-1800s.

Divided into four parts, each of which involves the death of one person connected to the farm, the novel, told by an omniscient and often mysterious narrator, opens with the death of Rachel – “Ma” – the mother of Astrid, the oldest child;  Anton, a nineteen-year-old assigned to army service; and Amor, a thirteen-year-old girl who has been away at school and who refuses to believe that her mother is really dead.  Her aunt believes that there is “something wrong” with Amor, who was struck by lightning and hospitalized for two months when she was six.  As Amor rides home from school, the driver must take into account some trouble in the townships and a State of Emergency “hanging over the land like a dark cloud.” The entire family, seriously dysfunctional on both sides, is at the farm when Amor arrives, each bringing personal concerns with them.  Of major concern to the family is the fact that Rachel, Amor’s mother, had been brought up Jewish, but had converted to her husband’s Dutch Reformed church during the marriage, then returned to Judaism as her death approached, and her Jewish burial will not be familiar to the family. Of significant importance also is the fact that it was Salome, the aged servant who “came with the house,” who also took care of Rachel for most of her illness, and Rachel, in gratitude to Salome, has made her husband promise to give Salome the small three-room house in which Salome has lived for the many years she has worked for the family.  Amor overheard the promise, one now denied by her father and everyone else who hears of it.

President Nelson Mandela congratulates S. Afr. Capt. Francois Pienaar for the team's win of the World Cup for rugby in 1995.

President Nelson Mandela congratulates S. Afr. Capt. Francois Pienaan for the team’s win of the World Cup for rugby in 1995.

Part Two, “Pa,” takes place in 1995, almost ten years later, and much change has taken place.  Nelson Mandela is President of the country, and residents are moving to new places and exploring new lives. The Rugby World Cup semifinals are being held in Pretoria, and people of all races are enjoying the excitement.  In the Swart family, Astrid has married, though unhappily, and is the mother of two children, living in Johannesburg.  Anton who killed a woman and went AWOL from the army years ago, is now unemployed and living with a girlfriend.   He and his father have not spoken for ten years, and Anton is not sure whether he can overcome the lasting resentments to go to the farm in Pretoria for his father’s last days. Amor has been living her own life in London, having learned that “if you want to move forward it’s best not to look back.”  One new concern to the three siblings is the recent donation their father has made for a conservative, evangelical church to be built on property which has always been “theirs.”  No one except Amor has any plans yet to honor their mother’s earlier promise regarding a house for Salome.

Amor decides to live in Durban where she gets a job as a nurse in an HIV unit.

Amor decides to live in Durban where she gets a job as a nurse in an HIV unit.

Part Three, “Astrid,” shows continued changes, including violence in the cities in the early twenty-first century.  Thabo Mbeki is now President for his second term.  The three siblings, who have little in common, now have even less contact with each other.   Astrid has converted to catholicism and is having an affair, while Anton, working on a book that never ends, is piling up bills and may have to sell some farm land.  Amor, now thirty-one and never married, is working as a nurse in an HIV unit in Durban, a conscientious and sensitive person.  A murder in the family brings the remaining family back to the farm, and Amor again reminds the family lawyer of the promise made to the now elderly Salome.   Unfortunately, “That particular stone never seems to find a resting place, no matter how often it’s turned,” Amor learns.  Part IV involves another family death, a land claim against the farm, and a resolution of sorts for the surviving family.

South African author Damon Galgut

South African author Damon Galgut

The Promise straddles genres as it focuses on the emotional problems of the Swart siblings’ lives, some of them exacerbated by the behavior of their parents.  It also focuses generally on the social and cultural milieu of South Africa from the mid-1980’s to the present, as it moves from a strongly white-dominated government to a more democratic one which recognizes the contributions of all cultures and their importance to peaceful society.  The author recognizes that change is happening and that peace is possible, but he does not lecture the reader, preferring to present facts regarding the changes and letting the reader see some of the results, both good and bad.  As Amor reviews her own life, she concludes, darkly, “You’re a branch that’s losing its leaves and one day you’ll break off.  Then what?  Then nothing.  Other branches will fill the space.  Other stories will write themselves over yours, scratching out every word.  Even these.”


PHOTOS: The photo showing a reenactment of the Voortrekkers to the countryside of S.Africa in the 19th century is from https://za.pinterest.com

President Nelson Mandela is shown congratulating S. Afr. Capt. Francois Pienaan for the team’s win of the World Cup for rugby in 1995, a huge event in the country. https://www.nytimes.com

A S. African hospital in Durban where Amor decides to make her career may be found here:  https://bhekisisa.org

The author’s photo appears on http://umuzi.bookslive.co.za


REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, Literary, Social and Political Issues, South Africa
Written by: Damon Galgut
Published by: Europa Editions
Date Published: 04/06/2021
ISBN: 978-1609456580
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

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