Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Aminatta Forna's The hired man

Aminatta Forna was strongly recommended to us by one of our original members, who now joins us only in spirit from her coast abode. We chose The hired man, Forna's most recent novel, and it proved a good choice - we had a fascinating discussion.

The language was spare, the setting sparse

As we usually do, we started by asking if everyone had read it, and had we all liked it. A couple said that it had taken them a while to get into it. For one, it was because of the spare language and sparse setting. She usually likes the opposite she said. But, when she picked it up to give it a second go, she said, she loved it, partly because Forna is good at building up a sense that "something big will happen". Similarly, another said the beginning was slow-going, though she noticed "words" and "little clues" hinting at where it was going. She really enjoyed the second half.

Which war?

So, to get to the nub. The novel is set in Croatia. Our first person narrator Duro tells us about his life in the town of Gost from his youth, through the Croatian War of Independence and up to 2007. While war frames the story, the issues that drive the plot start pre-war, when Duro falls out with his best friend Krešimir who shows himself to be cruel, and full of hatred. This turns out to be just a precursor for what happens during the civil war when "men started hunting each other" and neighbour turned against neighbour, particularly as "ethnic cleansing" started to happen. It's a macho, chauvinistic world, one that Duro belongs to but doesn't condone.

We discussed the relevance of reading this book just as we've commemorated the 100th anniversary of ANZAC Day which has made us think about the definition of heroism, what we understand about conflict and its causes, and the whole randomness of who survives and who doesn't. While these aren't Forna's main themes, they are present. One horrific scene, for example, occurs when Duro describes the death of his father and sister, caught by a shell because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

What sort of narrator?

We spent quite a bit of time discussing Duro. A few of us wondered at first whether he might be an unreliable narrator, but we all agreed that while he didn't always tell us the whole truth when we'd expect it, he was reliable. As our psychotherapist member said, many who have experienced traumatic war often don't tell the full story - some never, others not straightaway.

The novel opens in 2007 with Duro telling us that "at the time of writing I am forty-six years old". Later we realise he is writing it for a future reader, after he dies:
They will go through my papers and when they do they will find this. 
Maybe that person is you. Or, at least, I have to tell this story and I must tell it to somebody, so it may as well be you, come to sort through my belongings.
So, here we have it in Chapter 3, his need to tell us a story - and what a story it is. Given all Duro had experienced and lost, we wondered why he'd stayed. We decided there were probably two reasons: he wanted to be the thorn in the side of those men who betrayed their neighbours, and perhaps he hoped that his first love, Anka, who had "disappeared", might return. We also felt that while his life seemed "small", he knows himself and what he is doing, he's self-sufficient and in control of who he is.

What have the English got to do with it?

Duro is prompted to write his story by the arrival of an English woman, Laura, with her teenage son and daughter, Matthew and Grace. Laura and her husband have bought a house and plan to do it up, sell it, and move on. This house is the "blue" house which had been Krešimir and Anka's home. Duro, a handyman, becomes Laura's "hired man", to help renovate the house. As he does so, he becomes friendly with them - but, surprisingly to us, despite sexual tension, he never "makes a pass" at this married woman.

There is an underlying theme here of the British moving into Europe, oblivious of history and inherent dangers:
The way the English saw it, the past was always better. But in this country our love of the past is a great deal less, unless it is a very distant past indeed, the kind nobody alive can remember, a past transformed into a song or a poem. We tolerate the present, but what we love is the future, which is about as far away from the past as it is possible to be
Laura acts as a catalyst for Duro's memory, and for the resolution of the novel. She reminds him of Anka. (Interestingly, her favouring of her son and rather dismissive treatment of her daughter parallels the way Krešimir and Anka's mother had treated them.)

We are all implicated

We spent some time discussing the conclusion. We had various theories about what it meant. Why would Laura want to return after being intimidated by the town bully? Who was doing the graffiti, and why? Whatever the answers, we agreed that the ending was intended to be positive - as positive as it could be, anyhow - and that Forna's "message" is that the only way towns like this can survive is for their people to learn to live together.

We concluded the night with a lovely Croatian Cherry and Walnut Cake made by our host Kate. It was yum.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

In My Mother's Hands by Biff Ward

In My MOTHER’S HANDS: A disturbing memoir of family life by Biff Ward

This month Minerva book club was very pleased and honoured to welcome Biff (Elizabeth) Ward to our meeting.  It is not often we are able to talk to an author and it was very pleasing to meet her and be able to ask her questions. This book largely concerns Biff’s mother and her difficult life suffering from severe mental illness. Naturally, it is also about the young Biff and her brother Mark and their father, the academic historian, Russel Ward.

Biff Ward is a ‘writer, poet and human resources consultant’. She is also a former teacher and women’s activist. (More information about her is available through the National Library – they hold an interview with her done by Sara Dowse.)  

To begin Ms Ward explained a little about her writing experience: she has always been a writer and has conducted courses in writing fiction and has always loved fiction, both the reading and the writing.  She published her first book in London thirty years ago, called Father-daughter rape, published by the Women’s Press. She contributed to Different Lives, in 1987, which is a book of ‘reflections on the women’s movement and visions for its future’. Ms Ward won the FAW Donald Stuart Short Story Award in 1991, for the unpublished story, 'Leaving Tennant Creek', and in 1992 she and two other women poets wrote, Three’s Company.

Biff Ward explained to us that she was expected to write a biography of her Dad. However, she decided to write a memoir about her Mother instead, as she didn’t want to write a conventional biography. She chose to write it according to themes – each chapter with a different title and focus. For instance the first chapter is entitled ‘Alison’, ‘The Mother’ is chapter 2 followed by ‘The Father’. The themes become more unusual later with such titles as : The tower, the pills and the cobweb.

Ms Ward was asked about the research involved.  Letters by her father and her grandfather held in the National Library of Australia were a good source of information as well as oral memories from her brother and friends.  It was not traumatic for Biff to write this memoir she stated as she had been in therapy for 25 years before she started. Mark’s stories of their childhood helped them both to analyse the family complexities.

One of the many themes in the memoir is their father’s strong love for his wife and women in general. She is very open about his flaws as well as his good characteristics.

(My comment :
I like the description of her parents :
‘Dad was never beige. If he were a colour it would be rich maroon…’
‘Mum …inhabited the soft end of the yellow spectrum, ranging from a faint cream through the pastels …’ (Chapter 1))

Biff Ward enjoyed ‘finding the words’ to explain the family dynamics. One member found it ‘endearing ‘ and thanked her for explaining the ‘journey’ and how Russel had to ‘do his thing’.

Another member mentioned that she found the book ‘profoundly moving’.  She felt that Biff and her family suffered so deeply because of their mother’s illness, and it was profoundly sad that the drugs were not available to help Margaret Ward.  

Biff Ward brought along the beautiful painting of her mother by the artist Paddy Taylor, reproduced in the memoir. This oil painting was painted in 1946 and shows a young, good-looking woman staring off into the distance while her hands are busy with knitting.  It was lovely to see the original.

One member felt that the memoir was resonant for her as she had grown up in Adelaide in the 1960s and did many of the things enjoyed by Biff and her brother, such as riding bikes around until dusk and having one’s hair washed over a basin. This was quite a sensual experience and enjoyable when one didn’t have much sensory stimulation, growing up in a family which didn’t touch much!

Another member said how much she liked the book as Biff Ward mentions ‘things’ that families didn’t talk about in that era.  We have to be careful not to judge people by today’s standards. 

The newest member of our group is a psychologist and she acknowledged to Ms Ward that her memoir is having an impact with some of her clients. It is already proving useful for people in therapy.

Maybe one of the features which appeals is that it is a ‘kind’ book – there is very little anger or blame. Biff stated that she ‘didn’t grow up in a blaming culture’.  Her father really tried to do the best for his wife even after they separated.

Another member commented that it was a ‘harrowing’ read. Margaret Ward’s mental illness was known about by many friends but there were no words for it in the Australia of the mid twentieth century. Also we were told that the friends didn’t know how to help. Margaret Ward lived with schizophrenia for 55 years  with no ‘real’ treatment. It was sad too that Margaret’s family never really recognized her illness or had sufficient empathy with Russel and the children.

We also discussed Russel Ward’s problems with his ASIO file and the fact that the authorities thought he was a Communist and didn’t want him employed at UNSW. Luckily he was able to be employed at UNE with other ‘radicals’ of the time.  

At the conclusion of a good discussion we talked more generally about ‘memoirs’ and how they ‘reflect moments in life’ – as if for a rehearsal.  The change in thinking makes this memoir stand out from the ‘ordinary’ ones. Biff also acknowledged that the biography started out very large but was greatly reduced by the publisher.  It became more focused on her mother and less about Biff.
This book is a very courageous memoir about a very troubled relationship and a sad woman. There is a sense of loss through it – memory and grief of what might have been. It was good to hear that Biff and her father could talk about their wife and mother towards the end of Russel’s life.  It is a very moving book and we all appreciated the opportunity to read about Biff Ward’s early life.