Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

There is a well-worn expression that asserts that people come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. For me, a perennial loyalist, this painful adage is brutal in the transient honesty is foretells. Gently folded across the reason/season borderland, the tyranny of distance can be a cruel mistress. Many of us have suffered the loss of one who moves away. The distance can be as far-reaching as Spain or as close as Hobart, but the jabs of grief are frequent enough to be uncomfortably paralysing.

I recently lost a dear friend to geography’s greedy clutches. While the sudden departure was swift and unexpected, the emotional aftermath was clumsy, confusing and confronting. Time will be the great antidote; the simple, and yet only inoculation against the painful ennui of the gaping hole of loss. But those of us left behind are only one part of this dichotomy. Within the binary union, there also exists the one who leaves. They depart our shores for a reason, a season or a lifetime.

Brooklyn is the story of the one who leaves.  Eilis, a young woman unable to find work in 1950s Ireland, sets sail for the promises of the holy land: NEW YORK CITY. Eilis had no immediate desire to depart her motherland. Family and circumstance prescribe the vaccination against poverty and intergenerational languor. She tries, she strives and she thrives (mostly) in her quest to build her life in the globe’s toughest and most unforgiving city.

Eilis’ experiences are blanketed by the female experience. Her circumstances are uniquely felt because of her gender and, in many way, transcend the period in which this novel is set. I once overheard a mother say to her daughter, ‘always earn your own money, that way you’ll have choices’. This is indeed true. The feminisation of poverty is as omnipresent in 1950s Ireland and New York as it is today.

Tobin has a bonsai-quality with emotion and yet the haunting restraint is powerful. Eilis’ adventures are unsophisticated, simple and yet profound in their meaning. Her desire to move forward is inhibited only by the clutches of the past and bygone, guilt-imposed responsibilities.

So to those of you who leave, we wish you well and may only the best things come to you.

For those of us left behind, for whom the gaping hole will never be quite filled even as it does grow smaller, um, f*ck you geography.

April Fool’s Day by Bryce Courtenay

One of the hardest things in life is seeing someone you care about go through adversity or struggle. It’s innately humane to want to absorb the pain for ourselves and protect our loved one from the slings and arrows of sickness and trauma. While the afflicted one is unquestionably single-minded in their immediate battle, those of us who are mere accessories to the pain are left to contend with helplessness, confused agony and what sometimes feels like incompetent love.

I have thought for many years that April Fool’s Day is Bryce Courtenay’s greatest work. Don’t get me wrong, I thought The Power of One was sublime. But April Fool’s Day is a gift of such raw and honest poignancy, that I have read and reread this epic memoir more times than I can count. I used to own a very much loved and reread copy of this tome but sadly had to let it go. Like the book’s thematic exploration, my pre-loved physical copy became as transient as the life the text celebrates. But very recently, and perhaps given the ongoing health sitch of one of my cherished friends, I downloaded a digital version so I can once again be absorbed by its message of gratitude and great love. Because April Fool’s Day is as life-affirming as it is incredibly, incredibly morose.

Courtenay’s profound bio is a tribute to the much-too-short life of his dear son Damon. Damon, a haemophiliac, contracted HIV through a blood transfusion in late 1983, aged 17. The early 1980s was the very genesis of the AIDS epidemic. Damon’s haemophilia made him endure painful and protracted bouts of unrelenting restrictions and, through bad luck and circumstance, would give birth to the even more capricious and mercurial HIV/ AIDS diagnosis. While medicine, education and (lord hopes) bigotry have progressed in extraordinary bounds since Damon’s diagnosis, Courtenay’s tale of filial love is as timeless as it is boundless.

As titanic as Courtenay’s devotion is to his son, April Fool’s Day reveals more than just an examination of fatherly love. Staunchly holding ground in the wings is the irrepressible Celeste. Devoted, constant and unwavering in her care of her beloved, Celeste’s omnipresence in the last six years of Damon’s life demonstrates the very best of loyalty and faith that I have ever seen. More than anyone, Celeste had borne witness to Damon’s deterioration as his body betrayed his determined spirit. Her battlements against Damon’s illness were the quadrella of humour, energy, determination and love. Pure and absolute love for what would be a temporary union. As Courtenay so eloquently articulated, she was not prepared to let Death into Damon’s room and would fight it back again and again. Damian died on 1 April 1991.

Courtenay starts his epic chronicle with a quote from Virgil’s Aeneid IV – all at once the warmth fell away and the life passed into the moving air. It stings my eyes every time I read it.

Oh sweet and kind Celeste, wherever you are. I hope only good things have come to you.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Recently a dear friend told me some rather startling health news. Shocking in fact. So I reacted in the manner of a typically supportive, caring and compassionate friend: I burst into rivers-of-snot-running-breath-wheezing tears immediately compelling my illness-riddled mate into consoling me!!! I mean. WHO. AM. I.???

It got me thinking about the nuances of friendship. Unlike a family member where a contract is defined by blood, or a spouse where a union is bound by marriage, friendship is a tenuous and precarious attachment with little certainty but oh so much exquisite and inimitable joy. A friendship is free but it is not cheap. For all its peerless rewards (and they are countless), there is a fragility and uncertainty that shrouds it in a film of instability and flimsiness.

Since I was mired in my own selfish grief, I needed something to read that could traverse the grief/ friendship borderland. I needed a tale about imperfect friendship, longing, pain with a dash of hyperbolic tragedy. You know, something to accompany me in my self-invited pity party for one.

Given my home address does not include the suburb “Under Rock”, the Ferrante novels have been on my radar for some time now. To be honest, I was concerned they would suffer from the “Dan Brown” effect: everybody reading them but they are kinda just meh. I was happily surprised. My Brilliant Friend was EXACTLY what I wanted and needed.

Set against a backdrop of the mean streets of Naples two deliciously flawed and confused girls rely on each other as they negotiate the swings and arrows of growing up in 1950s Italy. Elena and Lila represent any of us as we navigate childhood to adulthood. While their circumstances may be unique, the growing pains they experience are universal and form the foundations of so many friendships, past and present. Sometimes we connect with people through circumstance and the relationship may last due to convenience. But always, friendships are looked upon in bewildered and stupendous awe for their capacity to transcend the unexpected.

So to MY brilliant friend, you know you can always rely on me for a shoulder to cry on. Hmm, actually, I’ll cry on yours. Call it even buddy?

Beside Myself by Ann Morgan

I’ve been thinking about the film Sliding Doors a lot lately. I mean, ALL THE FRICKING TIME. As I traverse my “Sex and the City” years with all the complicated and adult-y swings and arrows, it has given me cause to reflect on all the choices I have made in my life; conscious or otherwise. While I am coming out of my mousy-brown-dowdy phase, I’m not quite peroxide-pixie-cut-start-my-own-PR-firm Helen Quilley.

*cut to Gwyneth*

Beside Myself is a little sliding doors with a twist. A set of twins, one good, one not-so, swap clothes and personalities for an afternoon in order to trick those nearest and dearest. This seemingly innocuous hoax results in life-altering repercussions as the bad twin turned good, refuses to return to her original self. The original good twin is forced to fill the role of bad, despite all protestations.

This novel is multi-faceted and full of meaning; more so than it appears at first glance. It speaks to how the presentation and representation of ourselves in everyday life can define us despite who we may actually be. I am reminded of the seminal sociologist Erving Goffman who wrote (and I’m paraphrasing/ plagiarising):

When an individual plays a part, he/she requests observers take seriously the impression that is fostered before them and believe that the character they see actually possesses the attributes they appear to possess.  

You tell ‘em Goffman. Beside Myself is as much about a set of twins as it is about the duality of our own personalities. Once we present or represent ourselves in a certain way, it becomes a challenge to manifest an alternate, no matter how desired.

So there may be no pixie cut for me, nor a self-run PR firm. But there may, just may, be a little Monty Python.

 

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

There’s a funny unspoken thing about marriage. Even the most mediocre unions are usually presented to the world as flawless and without blemish. Matrimony is the stomping ground of fairy tales; the culmination of the prince rescuing the damsel over time. In reality, marriage is inconsistent, volatile and ever changing. It requires work and commitment for it to flourish and what goes on behind closed doors can be both magical and malevolent. It is not often couples reveal the secrets within a marriage, lest they become exposed for the gloriously flawed and imperfect unions they are.

Marriages also make incredibly interesting subject matter for a plot-driven tale.

Fates and Furies explores the love and life of Lotto (Lancelot) and Mathilde Satterwhite throughout the course of their relationship. Their coupling is sudden and serendipitous (like many), but the cracks begin to reveal themselves through the most innocuous circumstances. I often find it is never the big moments in life that are a test of character, but rather, the hum drum of monotony that unveil a superimposed public mask. The days, weeks and years coagulate to form a merged duet.

Fate and Furies highlights there is a fine balance when we enmesh ourselves with our significant other. There is a hair-thin borderline between compromise and capitulation. It is both tedious and terrifying. This novel is not a thriller but it is thrilling. Groff employs strategic plot devices that make the tale gripping and compelling. I could not put it down. Perhaps it is part voyeurism (yes I watch reality TV too) and perhaps it is part of seeing in print that even the most perfect theatre conceals a sometimes dishevelled and disorderly back stage.