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Author: Jyotsna Sreenivasan

Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters

Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters

What was it like to be a lesbian in late Victorian London? Sarah Waters gives us some idea through her character Nancy Astley, who grew up in her parents’ seaside oyster restaurant and becomes enamored, at age 18, with a cross-dressing performer, Kitty Butler, at the local theater. Nancy soon becomes Kitty’s dresser and then, once they move to London, her co-star. Nancy and Kitty begin a hesitant romance which they are desperate to keep under wraps. Kitty, especially, does not want to admit to being a “tom”– the slang word for a lesbian at that time.

Tipping the Velvet is told in the first person by Nancy, but from the vantage point of 20 years later, so we get a sense of what life was like for her in the moment, as well as the wisdom and distance of maturity. Here is a paragraph from the first chapter:

The Palace was small and, I suspect, a rather shabby theatre; but when I see it in my memories I see it still with my oyster-girl’s eye—I see the mirror-glass which lined the walls, the crimson plush upon the seats, the plaster cupids, painted gold, which swooped above the curtain. Like our oyster-house, it had its own particular scent—the scent, I know now, of music halls everywhere—the scent of wood and grease-paint and spilling beer, of gas and tobacco and hair-oil, all combined. It was a scent which as a girl I loved uncritically; later I heard it described, by theatre managers and artistes, as the smell of laughter, the very odour of applause. Later still I came to know it as the essence not of pleasure, but of grief.

I don’t want to give away the intricate plot of this novel, but let me just say that the story is broken into three parts, and in each part Nancy experiences a vastly different aspect of lesbian life in London, complete with different characters and settings. Through the seven years covered by the novel, Nancy must decide what kind of person she wants to be. She must make decisions on her own, with maturity, instead of just allowing circumstances to dictate her life.

Tipping the Velvet, first published in 1998, was Sarah Waters’ first novel. I reviewed her latest (The Paying Guests) in an earlier post, and was enthralled with her deft and detailed characters and their intriguing story. This novel, although an earlier effort, does not disappoint. While I found a few of the scenes to be overly long, and the ending to be a bit contrived, for the most part readers will find carefully drawn characters, detailed settings, eloquent prose, and a plot with plenty of emotion and action. Waters has been compared to Charles Dickens because of the richness and variety of her characters and her complex stories.

Tipping the Velvet has been adapted for TV and stage. The photo above is from Sarah Waters’ US web site.

The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

First published in 1982, The Color Purple turns 35 this year (2017). The novel won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and was made into an award-winning movie in 1985. The photo above is from the cover of her biography, Alice Walker: A Life.

The time and place of this novel are obscure at first, because the narrator is an uneducated young woman who doesn’t supply this information. The details of her life give us clues: this is a time after slavery — Celie’s family owns their own house and land — but before the widespread use of automobiles. Horses and blacksmiths are still prevalent. So we can conclude that the book starts in the early twentieth century. Towards the end of the book, after many years have passed, a character mentions that World War II has begun. Eventually we learn that the place is a small town in Georgia.

Celie tells her story through letters she writes to God. As a teen, she was raped by her father, and her two children have been taken away. The father then forces her to marry a widower with several children. Worse, Celie’s sister Nettie leaves and is never heard from. Celie doesn’t rebel, but puts up with everything and works hard. Her life changes when her husband’s mistress, Sugar “Shug” Avery, comes to stay. Celie and Shug, who is a wealthy singer, develop a close relationship.

Celie’s letters capture the pronunciation and word choice of the African-American dialect she uses:

Dear God,
He act like he can’t stand me no more. Say I’m evil an always up to no good. He took my other little baby, a boy this time. But I don’t think he kilt it. I think he sold it to a man an his wife over Monticello. I got breasts full of milk running down myself. He say Why don’t you look decent? Put on something. But what I’m sposed to put on? I don’t have nothing.

In the meantime, Nettie has been taken in by a missionary couple and has gone with them to Liberia to be a missionary. Celie’s husband hides Nettie’s letters, and when they are eventually found, Nettie’s story provides a broader perspective of the experiences of African-American women.

Although I found the novel somewhat preachy and long-winded towards the end, the story is compelling and the characters are engaging. The Color Purple has been hailed as a feminist classic, and its powerful messages are still relevant today.

Mary Reilly, by Valerie Martin

Mary Reilly, by Valerie Martin

Mary Reilly is a maid in the house of Dr. Henry Jekyll. Through her eyes, we witness the mysterious actions of Jekyll and his evil “assistant,” Mr. Edward Hyde. Even if you have not read Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, you are likely familiar with the basic story: the benevolent Dr. Jekyll has found a drug that allows him to transform into his evil twin, Mr. Hyde, in order to allow his baser instincts to play out.

Mary does not know that Jekyll and Hyde are one and the same. She idolizes her employer, who takes an interest in her life story: as a child, she was severely abused by her alcoholic father.

Much of Mary’s life revolves around the details of housekeeping, and we become intimately familiar with what it takes to keep an upper-class Victorian household running smoothly: making fires, scrubbing floors, beating carpets, serving meals. Mary is compelled to take part in Jekyll’s scheme when he tasks her with carrying secret notes to Mrs. Farraday, keeper of a brothel, who for a fee will rent a room to Mr. Hyde. Mary is bewildered by her employer’s actions, as well as by the diabolical appearance of Mr. Hyde in the middle of the night. She experiences a visceral revulsion to Hyde, who reminds her of her own evil father.

The novel is told in the form of a diary that Mary keeps. Unusual for a maid at that time, she is literate. An “afterword” purports to be the account of how the diaries were found and prepared for publication.

I found the novel to be gripping as I wondered whether Mary would figure out what was really going on. I also found it fascinating to learn about Victorian England from the perspective of a working-class woman. Mary Reilly, first published in 1990, was made into a movie in 1996 starring Julia Roberts.

The Tall Woman, by Wilma Dykeman

The Tall Woman, by Wilma Dykeman

The Tall Woman, first published in 1962, is a classic of Appalachian literature. At the time of her birth, author Wilma Dykeman’s family had resided in the mountains of North Carolina for generations, and the novel takes place in these mountains during and after the Civil War.

The novel follows the main character, Lydia, from young womanhood to death. Shortly after their marriage her husband, Mark, decides to join the war effort on the Union side, while her father and brothers fight for the Confederacy. There are no hard feelings within her own family due to Mark’s decision, largely because slavery seems not to exist in this area, and they are fighting more out of loyalty than strong convictions to one side or the other.

Outliers and marauders from both sides steal from the families in the area. In an early scene, outliers take the farm animals from Lydia’s parents’ home, and Lydia’s mother, Sarah, is tortured to get her to tell the marauders where she has hidden her family’s stores of meat. Sarah is never the same again. Lydia and Mark believe that someone in the community betrayed them, pointing the criminals in their direction for some reason.

Once the war ends, Lydia and Mark buy land and build a home deeper into the mountains. Much of the book concerns the work Lydia does in her home and on the farm, the children she bears and raises, her efforts to earn some money, and the community members she interacts with. At times the family struggles to make a living, and tough decisions must be made: whether to divert land into the cash crop of tobacco; how to help a child who’s mentally disabled; how to pay for higher education; and even whether to leave the community.

About a third of the way through the book I almost stopped reading because Lydia seemed so passive, reacting to what was happening around her but not taking much independent action. However, I kept reading, and not only did the story pick up, but I also realized that this novel is not so much about one woman as about the entire community she is part of.

Lydia wants bring a school to her community, and she pursues this goal despite many setbacks. Towards the end, Lydia witnesses a dramatic revelation that suggests a path forward for her school, if she’s willing to take brave action.

By the poignant end of the book I’d come to know and love these characters. For more information on Wilma Dykeman, see her biographical entry at the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. The above photo of Dykeman is from the Mountain Express of Asheville, NC, which hosts a Wilma Dykeman birthday celebration in May.

Peony, by Pearl S. Buck

Peony, by Pearl S. Buck

Pearl S. Buck, the daughter of Protestant missionaries, was raised in China during the first part of the 20th century. She wrote over 65 books, including many novels set in China. She is best known for The Good Earth, first published in 1931. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. The photo above is from the cover of a DVD about her life: Pearl S. Buck: A Life, A Legacy

I read The Good Earth many years ago, but had not revisited Buck’s books until recently, and I am so glad to have rediscovered her. Peony, first published in 1948, is full of nuanced characters and complex cultural situations, besides being an engaging story.

The novel is named after Peony, a bondmaid in the home of a Jewish family in Kaifeng, China in the 1800s. Yes, there really were Jews in China, although at the time of this novel they are in danger of disappearing as a separate culture. The central dilemma of the book is whether the son of the family, David, will marry Leah, the daughter of the only other prominent Jewish family in town, or will take a Chinese wife. David’s father, Ezra, who is half-Chinese, is eager to see David married to the daughter of his Chinese business partner. David’s mother insists that he marry Leah and become rabbi to their synagogue, since there is no one else to take the old rabbi’s place.

Peony, a smart and beautiful young woman, is in love with David herself, but assumes that she has little hope of marrying him. However, using her intelligence and guile, as well as her strong bond with David, she can try to engineer the situation to her advantage. Although Peony is a bondmaid, bought by Ezra when she was a small child, she is in fact the very capable manager of the household.

Besides the well-drawn main characters, the novel is full of vivid minor characters: Ezra’s business partner; the elderly maid; the rabbi’s good-for-nothing son; and even a tiny dog that lives in the household.

Peony includes details of both the Jewish traditions and Chinese customs that the family participates in. I’m assuming that everyone in the novel is speaking Chinese, since by then the Jews had been in China for generations. They are described as wearing Chinese clothing at times, and at other times Jewish-style clothing decorated with Chinese embroidery.

The novel follows Peony’s life until her old age. She must make difficult decisions as she strives to do her job well and to make a place for herself in a situation in which she seems to have no secure place and no one to depend on. This is a fascinating novel of how individual choices affect a family and an entire culture. It is also a historically accurate portrayal of a minority culture existing peacefully within a larger culture.

For more about Pearl S. Buck – her books, her life, and her humanitarian work – check out Pearl S. Buck International.

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, was inspired by the story of escaped slave Margaret Garner, who killed her own child when she and her family were about to be recaptured by slave-hunters. In an interview in the New York Times, Morrison says that while she became fascinated by Garner’s story, she also wanted to be free to create the character herself. ”Now I didn’t do any more research at all about that story. I did a lot of research about everything else in the book—Cincinnati, and abolitionists, and the underground railroad—but I refused to find out anything else about Margaret Garner. I really wanted to invent her life.”

Beloved seeks to answer the question: what would drive a woman to kill her own child? And what would her life be like afterwards?

The story starts about 18 years after the killing. Sethe, the mother, lives with one surviving daughter, Denver, in a house on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio. A guest arrives—a former slave from Sweet Home, the plantation in Kentucky where they both had lived. Paul D. is astonished that Sethe’s house is apparently haunted: a red light appears from nowhere, and the house shakes, tossing furniture into the air. Paul D. manages to exorcise the ghost.

Soon after, a new visitor arrives at the house: a mysterious young woman who cannot tell them where she is from. She says only that her name is “Beloved.” This word is the only one Sethe had managed to get engraved on her dead daughter’s headstone, and it soon becomes apparent that the young woman is indeed the dead daughter come back.

The backstory comes out in fits and starts: the new, cruel overseer of Sweet Home, who spurred the slaves to escape; the separation of the slaves as their plans unraveled; the journey of the pregnant Sethe across the Ohio River to Cincinnati; and the event that caused her to murder her daughter and attempt to kill her other children.

The timeline of this novel is not linear, perhaps to reflect Sethe’s state of mind: she lives in the past with the crime she has committed, as well as in the present. Although clearly set in 1873, the story seems timeless, and the tense shifts occasionally from past to present. The point of view also shifts: from omniscient, to third person (Sethe, or Paul D., or Denver) to first person (Sethe’s inner thoughts).

Mystery is worked into the novel in a matter-of-fact way. Here is the first appearance of the being that calls herself Beloved:

A fully dressed woman walked out of the water. She barely gained the dry bank of the stream before she sat down and leaned against a mulberry tree. All day and all night she sat there, her head resting on the trunk in a position abandoned enough to crack the brim of her straw hat. . . . Nobody saw her emerge or came accidentally by. If they had, chances are they would have hesitated before approaching her. Not because she was wet, or dozing or had what sounded like asthma, but because amid all that she was smiling.

Reading Morrison’s novel Beloved is a challenging but rewarding experience.

Pope Joan, by Donna Woolfolk Cross

Pope Joan, by Donna Woolfolk Cross

Did you know there may have been a female Pope in the 800’s? According to Pope Joan, which is based on historical clues, such a person could have existed. Donna Woolfolk Cross brings Pope John (or Joan) to life, from her birth to her death, and constructs plausible and engaging scenarios to explain how Joan became educated and was able to hide her gender until she reached the pinnacle of power in medieval Christianity.

Joan was born in Ingelheim, which is in present-day Germany. A map of the region would have been helpful. As she grows up, she is fascinated by both the pre-Christian Norse myths that her Saxon mother tells, as well as the Latin her older brother is learning. She persuades her brother to teach her to read and write in secret. She impresses a visiting Greek scholar, who convinces her father that she should be tutored. When her tutor leaves, he secures a place for Joan in a boarding school in Dorstadt, where she is taken in by a wealthy knight and his family. At this point Joan is still known as a female, and has to combat discrimination, teasing, and shunning based on her gender.

When Vikings sack the town of Dorstadt, Joan miraculously escapes death. She puts on her dead brother’s clothes, cuts her hair, and sets out to live as a man. She travels to the monastery that her brother was to have joined, and passes herself off as him. This was not as difficult as it sounds, given the all-encompassing clothing worn by monks, and the fact that monks rarely bathed and were not to expose their bodies to anyone. Eventually she made her way to Rome. I found a map on Google Maps that traces her journey from her birthplace to Rome.

Joan is an appealing character, although sometimes she seems too politically correct in a modern sense. The story is taut with the challenges she must face and overcome. Towards the end of the book, there are several chapters of political intrigue and historical events in which Joan is more of an observer, and these chapters were not as satisfying. In addition, some events and motivations seem shoe-horned into the plot in order to explain how her gender was unmasked. Finally, the focus returns to Joan, and the book ends on an inspiring note.

A German movie based on this book was released in 2009. For more information about the facts behind the book, as well as the author, please check out Donna Woolfolk Cross’s web site.

Interview with Lynne Kutsukake

Interview with Lynne Kutsukake

Lynne Kutsukake’s novel The Translation of Love explores the American occupation of Japan after World War II. I reviewed it last year, and as I was reading this engaging novel, I had some questions for the author. I’m so pleased that she agreed to be interviewed.

You mention that the book was inspired by letters from Japanese people to General MacArthur. How did a whole novel grow out of a book of letters?

Lynne: I was fascinated that Japanese people would write hundreds of thousands of letters to someone who until recently had been the enemy and who was now in charge of occupying their country. At one level it seemed so strange and mystifying. Yet when you think about the complex emotions many people probably felt at the end of the war (the pain of defeat but also enormous relief that the war was finally over), maybe it’s not so surprising that people sought a way to voice their feelings and demands in a way that they couldn’t have during the war. The person in charge was MacArthur, so they wrote to him. The situation completely intrigued me and really sparked my imagination. I was interested in the emotions driving people to write to MacArthur. How desperate would you be? How angry? How hopeful? And I was really keen to try my hand at writing the letters myself.

I was really drawn in by the first scene in the book, when Fumi describes looking forward to American food such as peanut butter and white bread. Did the American occupation of Japan change Japanese culture in any way?

Lynne: Without a doubt the occupation had a significant impact on people’s daily lives in the postwar years. There was a rush to learn English and a fascination with things American. The new constitution crafted by the occupation forces was very progressive and granted voting rights to Japanese women for the first time and renounced war. Peanut butter, though, never really caught on in the long run.

You tell the story through the eyes of several different people, and you manage to make each character engaging and unique. Did you base your characters on anyone you read about, or anyone you knew? How did you develop the characters?

Lynne: Thanks so much. I’m really glad you liked the characters. Although they are entirely fictional and not based on real people, my hope was that readers would become as attached to them as I did. The first character who came to me was Fumi. I knew from the start that I wanted a twelve-year-old Japanese protagonist, and Fumi sprang to life pretty quickly. Once I had Fumi in mind, I wanted her to have a friend who could help her write her letter to MacArthur, and what better person for that role than a Japanese Canadian girl who knows English. The character of Aya allowed me to bring in the backstory of the Japanese Canadian internment and deportation, just as the characters of Matt and Nancy provided a Japanese American perspective. I gave each of the characters his/her individual backstory, but I found that the real development of their characters didn’t take place until I put them in relation to each other and made them interact. Once they began interacting with each other – talking to each other and acting upon each other – their individual personalities really began to grow.

In your novel, the Japanese seem so welcoming to the Americans. Was this really the way it was? Why do you think the Japanese welcomed a country that dropped two atomic bombs on them?

Lynne: I think it was very complicated. Most Japanese did not welcome the Americans at the beginning, not at all. On the contrary there was widespread fear that the Americans would conduct a brutal, vengeful occupation. When that turned out not to be the case (the occupation was more administrative and bureaucratic in nature than it was military), there was a sense of relief. And then, because there were terrible food shortages and because the Americans were the ones who brought food aid, the relationship of dependency grew.

What was your research process like? How did you keep track of the information you found?

Lynne: I did a lot of reading and I took a lot of notes. But it wasn’t very systematic. Of course I gathered a lot of information that I didn’t need or couldn’t use or didn’t want to use, but I don’t think there is any shortcut. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re looking for, but you just trust that the interesting details that you come across will spark your creative juices.

How did you decide when to stick with historical facts and when to stray from those facts?

Lynne: I didn’t want to stray from historical facts. But at the same time I found it more interesting to focus on those hidden corners of history that have not been explored much and that therefore allowed a lot of space for imaginative roaming. So, while the story of the American occupation of Japan (as told in English) is usually seen through the eyes of white American GIs, I wanted the perspective to be through the eyes of Japanese Canadians and Japanese Americans – people who were in a kind of in-between space, people who were often ignored.

What do you hope people will come away with after reading this novel?

Lynne: That the humanity of people everywhere — regardless of country, color, race, religion — is basically the same.

Is there anything about this book that most people are not noticing or commenting on, that you wish readers and reviewers would notice?

Lynne: Not too many people comment on the fundamental irony of America bringing democracy to Japan but at the same time interning and incarcerating its own American citizens of Japanese ancestry during the war.

Thank you for the interview, Lynne! If you would like to follow Lynne, she is on Twitter: @LynneKutsukake

Property, by Valerie Martin

Property, by Valerie Martin

The title of this short novel could be read in multiple ways: “property” refers to the slave, Sarah, owned by the main character, a white woman named Manon. It could also refer to Manon herself, who is in a way the “property” of her husband. When Manon inherits her mother’s house, it is by law her husband’s property, since she “belongs” to him.

Property was first published in 2003 and won the Orange Prize for Fiction by a female author (now called the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction). It is told in first person through the voice of Manon, a middle-class Creole woman in Louisiana before the Civil War. As a reader, I had a complicated reaction to Manon. I felt sorry for her because of her marriage to a boorish, sadistic man, and I was rooting for her to find a way to escape from the marriage. But I also found her selfish and cold: she has little sympathy for Sarah, who is her husband’s mistress, and who is also searching for a way to escape – this time not just from one man, but from slavery itself.

The story takes place during a time of slave unrest and revolt. Manon is aware of the situation, but is mostly concerned with herself. The author, Valerie Martin, has created a complex character to allow the reader to experience, through Manon’s voice, what it would be like to be a white woman slave-owner. What contorted arguments would a woman like that have to believe in order to maintain the status quo? Yet as distasteful as Manon is, Martin manages to make her a sympathetic character. As a child, she lost her father. Because of her lack of wealth, she felt pressure to marry a man she didn’t love. She is not able to have children, but her husband fathers children with her own slave.

Each scene in this novella is rich with tension and layered with nuances of character.

The Blood of Flowers, by Anita Amirrezvani

The Blood of Flowers, by Anita Amirrezvani

The unnamed narrator of The Blood of Flowers is a young woman of 17th century Iran who has fallen on hard times. The book begins with the narrator and her mother huddled in old clothes in a cold, leaking shelter, speaking in whispers to avoid disturbing others sleeping nearby. But the narrator reveals that she wasn’t always in such dire straits: “Only a few months before I had worn a thick velvet robe patterned with red roses, with silk trousers underneath. I had painted my eyes with kohl, perfumed my clothes with incense, and awaited my lover, who had torn the clothes from my body in a room kept as warm as summer” (p. 5).

She blames her difficult life on a comet that passed over her village and, according to the astrologer, brought bad luck. If astrology plays a part, the narrator’s own personality is also a factor: in a culture where women are supposed to be obedient, she takes risks which sometimes work out, and sometimes don’t.

Shortly after the comet’s appearance, the narrator, then 15 years old, leaves her village for the city of Isfahan. Amirrezvani made three trips to Iran while researching and writing the book, and she is clearly enamored of Isfahan: at times the book reads like a travel guide. Yet she also brings out the glamour and excitement of that thriving city. Isfahan is a center of carpet designers and manufacturers, and the narrator persuades her uncle to teach her to design and knot world-class carpets.

The narrator also aims to marry a wealthy man and thus secure a comfortable future for herself and her mother. Unfortunately, she has no dowry. She strives to earn more from her carpets, but is thwarted by jealous relatives.

In addition to the main story line, the novel also includes traditional Iranian tales as well as two tales created by the narrator and her mother which bookend the narrative. These two tales are integral to the plot and characters, and both are poignant and insightful. The ending tale, in particular, is haunting.

Occasionally the plot of the novel is forced, but for the most part I was intrigued by this story of a woman coming of age and struggling to find her own way in a society designed to keep women hidden and dependent. After reading this book, I have a sense of the human drama and history behind every Persian rug.