The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, edited by Jesmyn Ward

The Fire This Time is brilliant. Read it. The end.

Oookay, so I can’t really stop there. It was my book group’s read for June, and we all were impressed by it. Let me tell you about it.

71aOha7tq9LIt’s an essay and poetry anthology edited by the amazing Jesmyn Ward, author of Salvage the Bones, Men We Reaped, and most recently, the National Book Award-winner Sing, Unburied, Sing (which I haven’t yet read.) In her introduction, after trying to process the unjustified killing of Trayvon Martin and seeking wisdom from James Baldwin’s classic The Fire Next Time, she writes,

It was then that I wanted to call on some of the great thinkers and extraordinary voices of my generation to help me puzzle this out. I knew that a black boy who lives in the hilly deserts of California, who likes to get high with his friends on the weekend and who freezes in a prickly sweat whenever he sees blue lights in his rearview, would need a book like this. A book that would reckon with the fire of rage and despair and fierce, protective love currently sweeping through the streets and campuses of America. A book that would gather new voices in one place, in a lasting, physical form, and provide a forum for those writers to dissent, to call to account, to witness, to reckon. A book that a girl in rural Missouri could pick up at her local library and, while reading, encounter a voice that hushed her fears. In the pages she would find a wise aunt, a more present mother, who saw her terror and despair threading their fingers through her hair, and would comfort her. We want to tell her this: You matter. I love you. Please don’t forget it.

Writers I have read before like Carol Anderson (White Rage,) Kiese Laymon (Long Division,) and Claudia Rankine (Citizen: An American Lyric) contribute essays while poets Natasha Tretheway and Clint Smith offer moving poems. I was introduced to quite a few writers I’d never read before, like Garnette Cadogan, who wrote what might be my favorite essay of the bunch, “Black and Blue.” In it Cadogan contrasts his experiences walking all over his Kingston, Jamaica home as a teenager to his experiences walking in New Orleans and New York City as an adult. As a college student in New Orleans, university staff told him to restrict his walking to certain touristy, “safe” areas of town. He scoffed, thinking, come on, I’ve already been through every rough neighborhood of Kingston, these New Orleans criminals have nothing on them.

What no one had told me was that I was the one who would be considered a threat.

He describes incidents with white pedestrians and police, detailing how he would formulate the outfits he wore to appear as non-threatening and scholarly as possible.

Light-colored oxford shirt. V-neck sweater. Khaki pants. Chukkas. Sweatshirt of t-shirt with my university insignia…The sidewalk was  a minefield, and every hesitation and self-censored compensation reduced my dignity. Despite my best efforts, the streets never felt comfortably safe. Even a simple salutation was suspect.

His adoptive aunt persuades him to move to New York City, and he dreams of following in the footsteps of writers who had “wandered that  great city before me.” He spent the first few months exploring with friends and lovers, but it wasn’t long before “reality reminded me I wasn’t invulnerable, especially when I walked alone.” When running to dinner one night, a white man turned and punched him in the ribs, assuming he was a criminal, then blamed him for the assault because he ran up behind him. Another night he was jogging to the subway because he was late to meet a friend, and suddenly a police officer has pointed his gun at him and orders him against the police car. More cops surround him, each badgering him about why he was running, where was he going, where was he coming from. He couldn’t answer them all at once, trying to be calm and explain that he’d just left one group of friends to meet another, they could go find the friends down the street, look at his phone and see the texts. It turned out that a black man had stabbed someone earlier a few blocks away and they were looking for him. When a police captain puts his hand on Cadogan’s back and feels no sweat, he tells them to let him go because, “If he was running for a long time he would have been sweating.” The captain offers Cadogan a ride to the subway station, and when thanked for his help, the captain said, “It’s because you were polite that we let you go. If you were acting up it would have been different.”

I returned to the old rules I’d set for myself in New Orleans, with elaboration. No running, especially at night; no sudden movements; no hoodies; no objects – especially shiny ones – in hand; no waiting for friends on a street corner, lest I be mistaken for a drug dealer; no standing near a corner on the cell phone (same reason.)

This collection of essays and poems blew my mind. Sometimes I begin to think I am aware of my privilege and then I read more and more and I am shaken by all that I don’t know, all that I can’t truly know, because of the color of my skin. I am profoundly grateful that this anthology exists and that reading books like this enables me to question the status quo, empathize, and learn.

(This is book 8 of my 20 Books of Summer challenge.)

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Five Sentence Reviews: Little Fires Everywhere and The Power

I just finished reading my 11th book (!) for 20 Books of Summer but I’m behind on my posts, so I thought I’d try a couple of short reviews.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

91twTG-CQ8LIntricate story, many layers of secrets, many points of view. Set in the planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio in the late 1990’s (and Ng really nails the sense of time and place.) I was completely absorbed in this story of unknown interior lives and two mothers with diametrically opposed ways of living, thinking, and raising children. This was better than Ng’s debut, Everything I Never Told You. I absolutely loved it. (5 Stars.)

Favorite quotation:

Parents, she thought, learned to survive touching their children less and less… Now, as a teenager, Pearl’s caresses has become rare – a peck on the cheek, a one-armed, half-hearted hug – and all the more precious because of that. It was the way of things, Mia thought to herself, but how hard it was. The occasional embrace, a head leaned for just a moment on your shoulder, when what you really wanted more than anything was to press them to you and hold them so tight you fused together and could never be taken apart. It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all.

 

The Power by Naomi Alderman

51PUiZ2CfqL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_This was a real page-turner for about the first 100-150 pages. Super compelling premise: teenage girls (and later grown women) develop a bodily adaptation (a power) to shoot electricity out of their hands, upending gender norms and relations all over the world. It was a neat idea – what kind of power would women wield? In the end, it sort of lost focus and fizzled and got incredibly dark, violent, and depressing, and there were only two characters well enough developed to care anything about. Would probably be a good book group choice, though. (3 Stars.)

Favorite quotation:

Tunde interviews a woman in the crowd. She had been here for the protests three years earlier; yes, she had held up her banner and shouted and signed her petitions. “It was like being part of a wave of water,” she says. “A wave of spray from the ocean feels powerful, but it is only there for a moment, the sun dries the puddles and the water is gone. Then you feel maybe it never happened. That is how it was with us. The only wave that changes anything is a tsunami. You have to hear down the houses and destroy the land if you want to be sure no one will forget you.”

Have you read either of these, or are they on your TBR? If you’re participating in 20 Books of Summer, how is it going?

(These are books 6 and 7 that I’ve written about from my 20 Books of Summer list.)

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

I do exist, don’t I? It often feels as if I’m not here, that I’m a figment of my own imagination. There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun sugar. A strong gust of wind could dislodge me completely, and I’d lift off and blow away, like one of those seeds in a dandelion clock.

31434883Oh my goodness, I loved this book. I had heard so much buzz about it that I didn’t know what to expect. When a book blows up like this one has it is sometimes a disappointment. Sometimes I avoid reading such a book in a perverse bit of book snobbery. If I had done so with Eleanor Oliphant, I would have missed out on one of my favorite books of the year so far, and it would have been a real shame.

This book is not what you think it is, even once you start digging into it. It starts off kind of quirky in tone, and you think maybe it’s lighter and fluffier than it turns out to be. It quickly becomes warm and wise, deeper and more life-affirming than I had anticipated. Eleanor is quite a character. She has constructed her life with precision to cut herself off from other humans as much as possible in today’s world and still hold a job. She holes up in her flat over the weekend with a couple of bottles of vodka and drinks slowly to dull her pain until Monday morning when she gets up and goes to work again. She is desperately lonely, however, talking to her houseplant Polly (the only possession she had saved from her childhood.)

I talk to her sometimes, I’m not ashamed to admit it. When the silence and the aloneness press down and around me, crushing me, carving through me like ice, I need to speak aloud sometimes, if only for proof of life.

But Eleanor is not pathetic. She is smart with a cutting wit and is a character that I was instantly drawn to. She doesn’t bother with the little societal niceties that make an office or most social interactions run smoothly. She doesn’t see the point, frankly. I wasn’t sure if she was supposed to be on the autism spectrum or not, but in any case, she isn’t really like most people.

And we soon see why. Little hints here and there are dropped about her past. She’s has a trauma, social workers check in on her bi-annually, and she has weekly conversations with her “Mummy” which are truly awful. Mummy is horrible and cruel. Initially I wondered, why on earth does she even talk to her once a week? Well, we come to find out a lot about Mummy and Eleanor’s past. It’s horrific, and we can see why she so desperately wants to cut herself off from other human beings and numb her feelings with a slow drip of vodka.

But things change in Eleanor’s life – the new IT guy at work, Raymond, inserts himself into her life in an affable, friendly way, and when the two happen to witness an older man, Sammy, collapse in the middle of the street, they team up to help get him the medical attention he needs. She also develops a rather intense crush on a rock singer she sees when she wins an office raffle of tickets to a concert. She is convinced that she’s found the man for her. It’s the kind of crush I has when I was 12 or 13. As she starts stalking the singer in her free time, Raymond and Sammy slowly thaw Eleanor’s defenses and draw her into an actual life. But Eleanor’s past, the things she can’t or won’t deal with, won’t let her go towards happiness easily…

This novel ends on a hopeful note, and when I finished I was tempted to flip back to the beginning and start again. I can definitely see myself reading this again in the future. It’s not exactly a “feel-good” read; it’s too sad and weighty to be considered that. But it is what I call a “life-affirming” read. This is a story of a woman who is not really living who slowly is pulled into something resembling a life, with genuine human connections and investment in herself. I really appreciated the way that Honeyman didn’t manipulate the reader. She lets the reader do the work of feeling things for herself instead of pulling the heart strings with maudlin sentimentality. And the fact that I never pitied Eleanor speaks volumes about the author’s affection for her character.

I highly recommend this novel, if this sounds at all like something you’d be interested in. Yes, everyone and her aunt’s book club is reading it, and Reese Witherspoon’s production company has optioned it, but there is much here to savor: a character you can truly root for and sharp commentary about the modern epidemic of loneliness.

 

They Had Library Holds: An American Marriage and Red Clocks Mini-Reviews

Egads, I’m SO behind on reviews. I’m tempted to throw in the towel and forget about them, but these two books are SO GOOD that I feel like I can’t in good conscience move on without writing just a little bit about them. I had to turn in my library copies of these a couple of weeks ago, so I have no quotatations to share with you, unfortunately. But they both made such an impression on me that I am confident I’ll be including them on my year end Top Ten list.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones intimidated me at first. I worried it would be too depressing for me to handle. While it certainly was sad, it wasn’t hopeless by any means. It’s about a young African American couple, married for a year and a half before the unthinkable happens. Here’s the Goodreads blurb:

61D-QSBXV+LNewlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend, and best man at their wedding. As Roy’s time in prison passes, she is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. 

What I loved about this novel was that it was so nuanced, so complex. Everyone in it was believable, flawed, human. I never felt like there was one person that I was supposed to “root for,” other than to have the injustice of Roy’s conviction overturned. This was an intimate portrayal of a marriage in the most dire of circumstances. Celestial and Roy were fully formed characters and I believed all of their actions and dialogue. Despite the shocking plot event that forms the central story arc, this was a character study. I read this rather quickly and was very impressed by the quality of the writing. I will definitely have to read Tayari Jones again. Once again, Oprah picked a winner!

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas was a surprise for me. I thought it would be more sci-fi/dystopian than it turned out to be. It’s really literary fiction set in a slightly different reality than the one we are in right now. Here’s the blurb:

51Hq-siMA7L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_In this ferociously imaginative novel, abortion is once again illegal in America, in-vitro fertilization is banned, and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo. In a small Oregon fishing town, five very different women navigate these new barriers alongside age-old questions surrounding motherhood, identity, and freedom.

This is a hard novel to describe. I see on Goodreads it seems to be polarizing. I loved it because I loved the raw honesty with which these women’s lives were portrayed. I may have felt more affinity with certain characters, like Ro, the single high school teacher desperately trying to have a baby but wondering why she’s trying so hard, or Susan, the housewife and mother who feels unchallenged and underappreciated by her family role. Others, like Mattie, the pregnant teenager, and Eivor, the unknown 19th century explorer that Ro is trying to write a biography of, felt a bit underdeveloped. But the book as a whole worked for me because I was invested in these women’s lives, and it was scary how plausible their reproductive nightmare scenario is to being reality. This was a world just like ours except that abortion is illegal and in-vitro is banned; Ro is desperate to get pregnant partly because in a matter of months it will be illegal for single women to adopt children as well (because two parents are best, of course.) I think Susan and maybe Ro both mused about how things changed so quickly in America, and that they regretted not doing more, not being more involved in the protests. But ultimately this is a novel not about politics but about women, women’s bodies and desires and agency. I didn’t always agree with their choices but I was enthralled by them. Here’s another author I clearly need to catch up on.

Have you read either one of these, or are they on your TBR list? What do you when (if) you get behind on reviews? Mini-reviews or just move on and forget about them?

 

Two Awesome Audio Books: We’re Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union and Born A Crime by Trevor Noah

Confession time: I don’t really like to write about audio books.  I like to listen to them but I balk at writing reviews of them. Why? Because I don’t take notes. I’m almost always driving in my car or doing dishes when I’m listening to them, so I don’t want to stop and get a piece of paper and a pen and write things down like I do when I’m sitting and reading a paper book.

Because I don’t take notes, I feel like I can’t give a detailed review of the book. So I just listen, hopefully enjoy, count them in my Goodreads total, and move on.

Today, however, I feel compelled to let you know about my two most recent audio book adventures. These books are so outstanding that I know I will include them in my end-of-the-year Best Of list. The first is Gabrielle Union’s memoir We’re Going to Need More Wine. I have to be honest, I’m not exactly sure why I listened to this. I don’t think I’d even seen one of her movies or shows before I picked this up! But it was available in my library’s digital nonfiction audio collection, and I saw that one of my Goodreads friends had rated it highly, so I thought, Why not?

51lTCeNTXNL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_What a woman! She is strong in the best way a person can be strong: by being vulnerable, showing her flaws and admitting her mistakes. She covers a lot of ground in these stories. She covers her childhood, growing up in a predominantly white, conservative town in California, dealing with clueless white classmates who are sometimes horribly racist without “meaning to be.” She writes about her disastrous first marriage, being a recovering “mean girl,” the importance of having money of her own, experiences on various movie sets she’s worked on, her sweet dog, Bubba Sparks, and so much more. She is smart and thoughtful and unapologetic about her owning her sexuality. These are really stories where you feel like a friend is telling you these things over a glass of wine, getting real with you so that she can impart some wisdom from learned experience. I don’t remember if she uses the word “feminist” at all in the narrative, but I wouldn’t hesitate to call her a feminist. She is a strong woman who wants other women to take care of their minds, hearts, and bodies, and to lift up other women. These stories were entertaining, sometimes funny and occasionally sad, and I loved 29780258them.

When I finished Union’s book, I thought that perhaps it was the best celebrity memoir I’d ever read. Until I started listening to Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. I’ve heard nothing but good things about this from everyone I know who’s read it. I waited on my library’s hold list for months before I finally got it, and it’s worth the wait! I’m actually not finished listening yet – I’m on the last disc! But it is absolutely riveting. Not only is his delivery unbeatable, but his personal story is just fascinating. He managed to weave in so much historical and sociological information about South African and Apartheid. I learned that there’s a LOT I don’t know about that place and time, and even the aftermath of Apartheid, when Mandela came to power. I had no idea how codified and rigid Apartheid was. I had no idea of all the ethnic groups and languages contained in South Africa. So besides being entertained, I’m definitely learning! Noah’s very existence is unlikely with the way the races were kept apart. One anecdote he shared that stuck with me was how he later met other “colored” (what South Africans call mixed-race people) South Africans around his age who were expats. It blew his mind that his mother could have theoretically left South Africa and raised him elsewhere, somewhere that didn’t operate under the dark cloud of overt racism. He said something like, Imagine you fell out of an airplane and broke every bone in your body in the landing. You spent years and years healing from all the damage done to your body and spirit, and then someone told you about the existence of parachutes. That was how he felt when he realized that his life could have been different if he grew up in Europe or somewhere else. Noah’s mother is a force of nature, a strong and powerful woman who, despite an abusive marriage to Noah’s stepfather, raised a smart, compassionate son. Noah doesn’t shy away from describing his faults, though, especially delving into his youth as a petty criminal and a brief but harrowing stint in jail. This audio book is truly a MUST LISTEN. Even if you aren’t familiar with Noah’s work (which I’m not really) or you normally don’t read celebrity memoirs, I encourage you to give this a try.

Have you read or listened to either one of these? What kinds of audio books do you like, or do you enjoy them at all? Do you write reviews of the audio books you listen to, and if so, do you take notes on them? Let’s chat in the comments.

 

The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

A book I read last month that I really loved was Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man. It came out in 2002 and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction. It’s one of those books that I love the more I think about it, the more time away from it I get. It’s rare that I go back and re-rate a book, but I’ve decided this a five-star read (up from four) with the distance of a couple of weeks. Gilbert so skillfully and holistically examines her subject (the confounding Eustace Conway) that I can’t stop thinking about the book and the man himself.

51XDqHOJJGL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_But this is how Eustace interacts with all the world all the time – taking any opportunity to teach people about nature. Which is to say that Eustace is not merely a hermit or a hippie or even a survivalist. He does not live in the woods because he’s hiding from us, or because he’s growing excellent weed, or because he’s storing guns for the imminent race war. He lives in the woods because he belongs there. Moreover, he tries to get other people to move into the woods with him, because he believes that this is his particular calling – nothing less than to save our nation’s collective soul by reintroducing Americans to the concept of revelatory communion with the frontier. Which is to say that Eustace Conway believes that he is a Man of Destiny.

Gilbert came to know Eustace through one of his younger brothers, whom she met working at a ranch in Wyoming after college. (“I went to Wyoming, in other words, to make a man of myself.”) I don’t know if someone without a family connection would have been able to get Conway to open up like she did. She even shares her conversations with Conway’s dad, who it seems to me is the driving force behind everything the younger Conway tried to do, at least in his youth. I grew furious at Eustace’s father, known as Big Eustace. He is described by each of his children differently, but to Little Eustace, his first born and namesake, he was pretty much an emotionally withholding and abusive monster.

If Little Eustace so much as touched a hammer from Big Eustace’s toolshed without permission, he would be sent to his room and forced to stay there for hours without food or water. If Little Eustace didn’t finish every morsel on his plate in proper time, Big Eustace would force him to sit at the dinner table all night, even if it meant the child had to sleep upright in his chair. If Little Eustace, in his play, accidentally kicked up a divot of grass from his father’s lawn, he would be beaten with a wooden paddle. If Little Eustace, in doing his chores, dared to mow the grass in a counterclockwise pattern instead of the clockwise pattern his father had commanded, there would be a huge scene and hell to pay.

The picture that emerges is a terrified and overanxious-to-please little boy, who is trying his best to make his taskmaster father happy, not understanding why his father is so hard on him and encourages his siblings to join in on the mocking. As the mother of a little boy it breaks my heart to think of a child who only wanted what he should have had, unconditional love from his parent.

Only when he had dutifully finished high school did Eustace Conway split. He took the teepee he’d made by hand (an older Native American woman who knew Eustace at the time described it as “the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen”) and he took his knife and he took some books and he was gone.

See, while his childhood was a minefield of trauma, Little Eustace realized that he felt his most free and most competent outside. His parents both were outdoor types and gave him enough freedom to explore the nearby woods on his own. He threw himself into things like archery, throwing knives, beadwork, weaving, and reading about “Men of Destiny” like Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, and Geronimo. He observed turtles and snakes and frogs close-up, tending to a community of turtles in his backyard for years. So it makes sense that as soon as he was legally able he left home and lived for a time in his teepee for a time, until he took a notion to hike the Appalachian Trail with a friend on a whim, totally unprepared.

From there Eustace has more cross-country adventures (including a wild horseback trek with his brother all the way to the Pacific Ocean) until he finally settles back in North Carolina and starts buying tracts of land near the city of Boone. Here Gilbert really digs into Conway’s relationships, both with the endless stream of women who are attracted to him and the people he tries to work with and mentor on his farm/education center. Turns out he is nearly impossible to work for and completely hopeless at romantic relationships. (The armchair psychologist in me says it’s because of his childhood trauma – never getting the love he wanted from his father and feeling like the only way he could possibly get it would be to be absolutely perfect in all his endeavors.) Gilbert really portrays him skillfully, honestly but also sympathetically. He’s someone I don’t know if I’d really want to be around in real life, but he’s someone who was absolutely fascinating to read about. And his aims of giving young people a taste of the natural world through hard work, farming, and back-to-nature methods of living are undeniably admirable. Gilbert tries to situate Conway’s story, and some of the young men who are drawn to work for him, within the framework of American masculinity, the lack of ritual to young men coming into manhood, the disconnection with any sense of nature. It makes for thought-provoking reading, even when I wanted to smack Eustace for being so obtuse in his romantic and business endeavors.

Conway’s farming and education center, Turtle Island, is still operational. You can read about it here. Apparently he was also on a television show on the History Channel called “Mountain Men.” I’ve never seen it. I wonder if Gilbert is still in contact with Conway, if they’re still friends, and what his response to this book was. It’s approaching 20 years since publication. I wonder what compromises Conway has made to keep his place going, because as of the end of this book it didn’t seem like he would do something like be in a TV show. Maybe I should check it out!

I seem to have a thing for books about explorers/hermits/back-to-nature types. Last year one of my favorite reads was The Stranger in the Woods about the North Pond Hermit, and I also have loved Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. This is funny because I’m about the least outdoorsy person you would ever meet. I have never even been camping and the longest hike I’ve ever been on was a five mile round trip. But there’s something so appealing to me about the notion of wild spaces, of solitude and time for reflection in those natural places. There’s something that speaks to me in the desire for a simpler, unplugged lifestyle, and for pushing your physical limits to commune with nature and find inner peace. For now I am an armchair traveler/hiker/camper, but I do so appreciate reading about these intrepid (sometimes foolhardy) souls who continue to reach for something basic and wild about humanity even in these turbulent times of technological revolution. Eustace Conway was a maddening, complicated person to read about, but I am glad someone like him exists and is still trying to draw others into wild spaces.

Have you read any books about nature and/or explorers that you would recommend? I’d love to read your suggestions and thoughts!

Reading Ireland Month: How Many Miles to Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston

ri18Irish writer Jennifer Johnston is a new author to me, despite having written something like 19 novels. I learned of her from Cathy at 746 Books a couple of years ago, and put her on my list for a future Reading Ireland Month. Her 1974 novella How Many Miles to Babylon? appealed to me because I have been wanting to read more novels set in and around World War I (I think I have literary WWII fatigue) and also because it is short! Only 156 pages in my library edition. I didn’t quite know what to expect but I found a tremendously moving, beautifully written story.

Essentially you have the story of a friendship that blossoms between an upper class, landed young Irishman, Alexander, and a peasant boy, Jerry, who lives nearby and later works in the stables on the estate. This unlikely friendship is much to the chagrin of Alexander’s disapproving parents, who are locked in a deeply unhappy relationship of their own. But then World War I begins, and both young men enlist – Alexander, half pushed into it by his mother and half escaping his unhappy home; Jerry, to learn how to fight in the Irish Nationalist movement to come.

11917193Just about half of the book takes place before the war and half during. The writing is just lovely and evocative, and Alexander’s and Jerry’s burgeoning friendship centers mainly on forbidden (because of Alexander’s supposedly delicate health) swims in the lake.

I remember, now that my mind has returned to it, the racing clouds in the pale sky above, and, below, the same clouds racing in the water, and it seemed as if we floated between them not connected in any way to the earth. It was my first and best experience of alcohol. Before going home we went down and swam among the clouds in the lake, and sucked in great mouthfuls of them, and sprayed them out all over each other. The sun’s golden track across the water made it look, we both agreed, as if walking on the water would be child’s play. 

Once the narrative moves to the Front, Alexander is made an officer and Jerry is a Private. Here, too, their friendship is frowned upon, on the grounds of discipline and also class. Johnston writes about the horrors of war with a deliberate, clear eye but also lets the two friends enjoy moments of fun ( a few moments on horseback to chase a fox) and tender connection. In fact, there is a question of whether or not the friendship is homoerotic or perhaps would have been more in different times and circumstances. Clearly the two have a special bond.

It was the only thing that was a positive pleasure, the feel of the alcohol creeping like a slow flame down your throat. He knelt down in front of me and began to ease off my right boot. The illness in his eyes as he smiled at me was a reflection of my own. He didn’t speak. The operation took some time. It was painful and I honestly didn’t know if I would ever get them back on again, my feet were so swollen.

‘It’s like taking a cork out of a bottle.’

He then began on the second boot. He carefully peeled off my socks. Without a word he took up the flask and poured some of the rum into the hollow of his palm and then began to massage my feet.

‘Hey!’

He only grinned.

‘You’ll be a new man in the morning.’

819524The ending is a bit of a shock. The reader knows from the beginning that something bad has happened because Alexander is writing from a military prison cell and then goes into reflection on the whole backstory. I’ll say that I cried, a lot. It’s a heart-breaker for sure. But it is incredibly beautiful as well. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so invested in a novella before. I loved the quality of the writing, I loved the details about the trenches and the waiting time between going back out to the trenches. I loved the descriptions of the lake in Ireland and the swans that swim there, the stolen moments the boys had before the war. I haven’t even talked about Alexander’s mother and father, how wretchedly unhappy they are, how quietly cruel the mother is. She’ll give you the shivers for sure. This was a terrific read and I’ll definitely be reading more of Jennifer Johnston in the future.