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Eva Moves the Furniture, by Margot Livesey

Eva Moves the Furniture, by Margot Livesey

I first read Eva Moves the Furniture when it came out in 2001. I enjoyed it then, and the characters stayed with me through the years. When I read it again to prepare this review, I enjoyed it even more.

The novel begins in Scotland in 1920, with the birth of Eva and with her mother’s death. As a small child living a placid rural life with her elderly father and her aunt, Eva realizes that she has two companions that only she can see: a teenaged girl and an older woman. These mysterious figures are usually helpful to her, but also embarrassing in that they make her feel different from other people. They follow her as she enters nursing school in nearby Glasgow, and as she takes her first job as a nurse. The title refers to the fact that these companions sometimes re-arranged furniture and objects in Eva’s room.

The identity of the companions is revealed gradually, as Eva learns more about life and the world beyond death. Yet their mystery is not the focus of this novel. Instead, their presence is simply a fact of life for Eva, and we come to accept them as she does. World War II begins, and in the process of helping patients who have been severely injured, she matures and her understanding deepens. The novel is an unfolding of Eva’s discovery of herself as she goes out into the world.

Eva Moves the Furniture is told in first person, from Eva’s perspective, and it is only later in the book that we realize she has been telling the story to one particular person all along. The novel is based on the life of the author’s mother.

My one minor complaint is that the novel starts with half a page about an Italian surgeon in Africa. This tidbit is tangentially related to a certain character in the book—but only if you squint and look sideways—and I am still puzzled by its prominence on the first page of this book.

Other than that, this gentle novel is full of beauty, truth, and emotion.

In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez

In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez

What gives people the courage to risk their lives for political freedom? That question spurred Julia Alvarez to write In the Time of the Butterflies based on the true story of the four Mirabal sisters, three of whom were activists with the code name “butterflies” in mid-twentieth century Dominican Republic. Alvarez, who is from the Dominican Republic, became interested in their stories because of the parallels with her own family: her father had also been involved in underground activities against the brutal Trujillo, and the three activist sisters were murdered just months after Alvarez’s family escaped to the United States.

Alvarez’s re-telling humanizes these legendary women. The story is told through the voices of all four sisters, starting in 1938, when Minerva Mirabal learns about Trujillo’s crimes from a classmate whose family members have been murdered. Although the sisters are known for their political activism, we get to know them as daughters, friends, wives, and mothers. Alvarez makes each sister unique: Patria, the eldest, cares most about her Catholic faith and her husband and children; Dedé is the organized, practical one who takes charge of the family store; Minerva struggles to become a lawyer and never backs down; and Maria Teresa is interested in young men, clothes, and following in the footsteps of Minerva.

The structure of the novel is unique and effective. It is divided into three parts, each beginning with Dedé, the only surviving sister, speaking to a Dominican-American visitor in 1994, and continuing with a memory from Dedé’s point of view. Then, each sister tells a portion of the story in her own voice. We learn what pushed each woman to become involved in the underground revolution despite the danger. Although the sisters are fighting against a brutal dictator, there are moments of humor, such as the sisters’ nicknames for prison guards, and their descriptions of pompous government officials.

Despite the tragedy, the ending is beautiful and poignant. I became so interested in the real sisters behind this novel that I looked them up. The real Dedé died in 2014. Some children of the sisters have become politicians in a democratic Dominican Republic. The day of their death, November 25, has been designated by the United Nations as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Waterlily, by Ella Cara Deloria

Waterlily, by Ella Cara Deloria

Waterlily was originally written in the 1940’s but not published until 1988, after the author’s death. This novel about the life of a Dakota woman and her family in the mid-1800’s, just as European-Americans were beginning to encroach on the land where the Plains Indians lived, is based on the author’s ancestors. November is a great time to read this book, since we are celebrating Native American Heritage Month.

Ella Cara Deloria was born on the Yankton Sioux reservation and worked as a Sioux translator and ethnographic field researcher. She translated and wrote scholarly works about traditional Sioux life and customs, but in order to make this lifestyle come alive for readers, she decided to write a novel. The delightful, insightful result is Waterlily. The title refers to one of the main characters, but in reality the novel is about Waterlily’s entire family, since for a Dakota woman or man, kinship ties are akin to life itself.

The novel begins as Waterlily’s mother, Blue Bird, gives birth alone beside a stream. We soon learn that Blue Bird is in a sad situation: she and her grandmother got lost while fleeing an attack, and have been taken in by an unrelated camp. Furthermore, Blue Bird’s husband is jealous and mean.

During the first half of the novel we hardly see Waterlily; she’s busy growing up. Instead, we follow the stories of Blue Bird and other members of the camp circle. Dakota customs and rituals are explained in detail, and sometimes the novel seems like an ethnographic study. However, the traditions are an important part of the life of the characters, and it would be difficult for readers to understand the characters’ motivations, actions, and decisions without understanding their culture.

Once Waterlily reaches the age of 15, the novel follows her as she begins to notice young men, and as she decides how closely to adhere to the social rules she has been taught. Waterlily experiences great joy and tragedy, and Deloria makes sure that we, as readers, understand the significance of what is said and done.

Waterlily’s family has little contact with the European-Americans, although they do trade “American” horses, and the women covet flannel cloth as an alternative to hide clothing and blankets. Metal plates, guns, and other goods from the Europeans are also occasionally in use. Waterlily and her family have very little sense of what the Europeans will do to their way of life, although at one point a character voices fear that the buffalo will all be killed by the white men.

I loved being immersed in the culture and lives of Waterlily and her family, and I didn’t want this novel to end.

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

I’d never heard of Sarah Waters until very recently, and now I’m astonished that this enormously talented woman-centered author wasn’t already a favorite of mine! Now that I’ve read one book, I’m sure to read more by her.

The Paying Guests almost feels like three novels in one. It takes place over the course of several months in 1922 near London, with the same characters, but the book’s feel shifts from a light domestic drama to something much more intense and dark as the novel progresses. The plot of the novel takes a long time to get going, yet I was interested enough in the characters and their minor conflicts to keep reading. At about 200 pages, the plane is ready and fueled, and the story takes off.

The novel starts as a married couple arrive to live in rented rooms at the decaying home of Frances Wray and her mother. Frances is a single woman who frets about cleaning and cooking. But soon it comes out that she is not single by choice: she has given up her woman lover because the relationship upset her mother. She befriends Lilian, the wife. Their growing closeness is the subject of the first part of the book. In the second part, Frances and Lilian find themselves in a complicated situation and face a moral dilemma. The third part involves the consequences of their decision.

In an essay in The Guardian, Waters states that the novel is about “the negotiations that must be made by a passionate relationship as it braves the tangle of courage and cowardice, generosity and meanness, splendid ambition and awful misjudgment that constitutes ordinary life.” Waters succeeds in making 1922 feel “ordinary” – details of post-World War I life in London are worked in naturally, and I hardly felt I was reading a historical novel, so convincing was the setting. She also succeeds in making both Frances and Lilian ordinary in a complex, nuanced way. Their actions are believable and understandable given the situations they find themselves in.

My only complaint is that although the novel is over 500 pages long, when I got to the end I did not think the story had been resolved. I felt as if Lilian and Frances still had big decisions ahead of them. But perhaps that was by design: it is left to the reader to speculate on what they will do next, given what we know of their personalities and situations in life.

Jubilee, by Margaret Walker

Jubilee, by Margaret Walker

If you are looking for a non-racist alternative to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, here it is: Jubilee. Written by an African-American woman and first published in 1966, Jubilee is a fictionalized account of the author’s great-grandmother’s experiences before, during, and after the Civil War.

The photo above shows Walker’s great-grandmother, the “Vyry” of the novel. She took after her white slave-owner father in the color of her skin. I found this photo on the U Space Gallery web site.

Jubilee covers the same time period as Gone with the Wind; they both take place in Georgia; they are both based on family stories passed down; and they both showcase strong women characters. However, unlike Gone with the Wind, which is told from the point of view of white slave owners, Jubilee is told largely from the point of view of African-Americans. While Gone with the Wind insists that blacks were better off enslaved, and includes black characters who claim they don’t want to be free, Jubilee shows the true struggles of blacks, whether they were born free, or born into slavery and freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.

Jubilee is the better novel in many ways. In addition to its focus on African-American experiences, it includes sections showing the thoughts and experiences of slave owners and poor, struggling white families, so readers get a more complete, accurate view of the time period. While towards the end Gone with the Wind suffers from a rushed and overly compressed story line, Jubilee is well developed throughout.

Jubilee follows the story of Vyry, the daughter of a black slave mother and her white slave owner. As mentioned above, Vyry looks white and bears a strong resemblance to her half-sister Lillian, who is the master’s daughter by his white wife. However, the master never acknowledges Vyry as his daughter, and continues to enslave her, even allowing her to be whipped. Vyry wants to marry a free black man, Randall Ware, but her master won’t allow it. Randall flees north and joins the Union Army.

Will Vyry and Randall be united after the war? Will Vyry manage to send her children to school? The novel answers these questions while also showing the day-to-day struggles of Vyry before and during the war, and as she tries to find a place to settle down after the war ends. Jubilee is the classic Civil War novel everyone should be reading. And 2016, being the 50th anniversary of its original publication, is the perfect year to read this book.

Great Maria, by Cecelia Holland

Great Maria, by Cecelia Holland

Cecelia Holland is a well-known writer of historical fiction, whose novels often features male protagonists. Great Maria is one of the few with a female lead character—and what a character she is.

The novel takes place in a fictionalized Sicily (the island off the “toe” of present-day Italy) in the 1000’s, during the time the Normans (of French heritage) were fighting the Saracens (Muslims) for dominance. I believe the place names Holland includes are made up, since I could not find them on any map of that region and era. It is therefore somewhat difficult to picture where the action takes place, although Holland’s descriptions are helpful. This article includes helpful background about medieval Sicily.

Maria is the only child of Robert Strongarm, a Norman baron. She has been managing her father’s household very competently since she was a young teen. She is convinced by her father to marry Richard, one of his knights. Richard and Maria have a stormy love-hate relationship. Although Richard comes to appreciate her management skills and hard work, he also wants her to be more compliant to his commands. Maria, however, has a mind of her own and puts it to use.

The story follows many years of Maria’s life in chronological order from the time she is 14. In the first chapter, Richard states as his reason for marrying Maria: “This castle’s at the throat of the whole region. . . . Someone is going to make himself great here, why should it not be me?” The overall plot is about Richard’s conquests, but that is in the background—the focus is on developing Maria as a character. The action really picks up when Richard assigns Maria, along with a small band of aged knights, to defend his newly acquired castle in Birnia while he and his brothers try to overthrow the Saracens in a different region.

Maria is a many-faceted woman and a strategic leader. She is a devout Catholic who uses plunder given to her by Richard to construct a chapel. She has a tender heart: she is actively involved in caring for her children, and does her best to help the peasants. Yet she feels no pity for those who are disloyal. She spies on her husband when she believes he is not being forthcoming with her. She takes counsel from her advisers but makes up her own mind. She bluffs her way out of dangerous situations.

Holland uses short, dense sentences which often combine setting, characterization, and action. This is how the novel begins:

Other pilgrims offered silver at the shrine; Maria brought an armful of wildflowers. She laid the vivid little blue blossoms down at the foot of the Virgin and smiled into the statue’s face. In the gloom of the cave, her flowers were the only color. Kneeling, she began the prayers she had come here to say. She asked for the rescue of the Holy Sepulcher from the Saracens, and for her father’s good health and salvation, and for her own call into the holy life. The raw stone floor was damp and uneven beneath her knees. The air lay icy against her cheeks.

In addition to Maria, the other main and secondary characters are also well-developed and vivid. I grew to care about the fate of those whom Maria cared about, and to dislike those whom Maria disliked.

I do wish Holland had included more of Maria’s inner thoughts. It was sometimes difficult to know how Maria felt about the tumultuous incidents around her, and sometimes I didn’t understand why she was taking certain actions. Yet perhaps this was by design: Maria likes to act, and is not terribly introspective. She is an unusual, memorable character.

The Wife of Martin Guerre, by Janet Lewis

The Wife of Martin Guerre, by Janet Lewis

I first heard about The Wife of Martin Guerre when I was looking for novellas by women, and ran across a comment that Vikram Seth (one of my favorite novelists and the author of A Suitable Boy) re-reads The Wife of Martin Guerre every year.  In a recent article in the Washington Post, book reviewer Michael Dirda praised it as one of the most perfect examples of the novella form.

The story concerns a young woman, Bertrande, living in the French countryside in the 1500’s, who marries a difficult husband, Martin. After she has a child, he disappears suddenly, and reappears eight years later, a kinder man. Yet Bertrande begins to suspect that this returned man is not actually her husband. She is a deeply religious person, and is tormented by the idea that she is living with a man who is not truly her husband. Will she accuse him of being an imposter, despite the fact that everyone in the family adores him and assures her that this is really Martin? The story starts calmly, but gradually becomes more and more gripping, building to an astonishing ending.

The writing style is spare but precise, imagistic, and emotionally evocative. Here is a section towards the beginning of the book, during the wedding celebration of Bertrande and Martin, both eleven years old. After the wedding feast, Bertrande is wandering around the dining area:

In the middle of the wall to the right, however, she spied a door, and toward that she gradually made her way. It proved to be the entrance to a long cold corridor, from which the doors opened into storerooms, rooms for the shepherds, and lighted only by a small window of which the wooden shutters were closed. Another person had taken refuge from the festivities in this corridor, and was intent upon undoing the bolts of the shutters. The half of the shutter folded back, a flood of sharp snowy sunlight fell into the corridor, and in its brightness she recognized Martin. She made a step forward, uncertainly, and Martin, hearing it, turned and advanced upon her, his hands outstretched and a fearsome expression on his long, young face. (p. 12)

First published in 1941, The Wife of Martin Guerre has inspired two movies and a nonfiction history book. Yet now it can be difficult to find. Seek it out—it is a gem. This slim volume (109 pages), based on an actual legal trial, is quietly and beautifully compelling.

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé, a writer of African-Caribbean heritage, expands on the story of Tituba, the black slave from Barbados accused of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. In an interview printed at the back of the book, Condé reveals that she learned about Tituba by accident when she got lost in a library. She became curious, and sought more facts about her life. Finding very little, Condé says “I decided I was going to write her story out of my own dreams” (p. 199).

Originally written in French, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem imagines the entire life of Tituba, from her conception on a ship to Barbados, to her move to Massachusetts, and to her death and beyond, within the space of 179 pages. It is unusual for a short novel to cover such a broad span of time and multiple settings. In addition, the book includes fantastical elements. After Tituba’s mother dies, she is raised by a woman versed in healing and magic, who teaches her to communicate with the dead, among other skills. As a result, Tituba’s dead relatives are frequent visitors.

Tituba tells her own story in first person in a fast-paced, sometimes mocking way: she can see the humor of her often tragic situations from beyond the curtain of death. If you’re looking for a novel that reveals Tituba as a misunderstood victim, this is not the book. Tituba is compassionate when it suits her, but she is also at times vengeful, and sometimes makes bad decisions despite the advice of her relatives from the beyond. Condé also plays with the idea of a “historical” novel by including a fictional character, Hester Prynne, in the middle, and by making Tituba aware of how she is portrayed (or ignored) in history and how she is remembered by future generations.

Given what I knew of the Salem witch trials, I expected a realistic, heavy, long novel. What I got was a dash through the life of an extraordinary woman who is determined not to be forgotten.

Purge, by Sofi Oksanen

Purge, by Sofi Oksanen

Purge was written by Finnish-Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen, and translated from Finnish into English. It has also been translated into 49 other languages, and is billed as an international bestseller. The picture above is from the Finnish paperback.

The novel takes place in Estonia, and alternates between chapters in the 1990’s, and chapters from the 1930’s to 1950’s. The story begins with an elderly woman, Aliide, finding an injured young woman in her yard. Against her better judgment Aliide invites the young woman (Zara) into the house and takes care of her. We soon realize that Zara knows who Aliide is and has been looking for her, although Aliide does not know who Zara is.

What is the connection between Zara and Aliide? Why is Zara looking for her? These are just the first of many mysteries which the author develops as the novel progresses. While the story focuses on human relationships and personalities, it is based on historical events, so it is helpful to know some basic Estonian history (which I looked up in an encyclopedia). Here is what you need to know: Estonia was independent from 1918 to 1940, when it was taken over (against the will of most Estonians) by the Soviet Union. From 1941 to 1944, Germany occupied Estonia, and in 1944 the Soviet Union took over again. Estonia gained independence in 1991.

Knowing this history makes clear the significance of the novel’s dates. The modern sections take place in 1991 and 1992, shortly after Estonia’s independence, and the historical sections takes place from 1936 to 1951, shortly before and during the Soviet takeover of Estonia. Two maps in the book are helpful, and show that Estonia borders Russia and is separated by a narrow gulf from Finland. Zara’s home, Vladivostok, is a city at the other end of Russia, past Siberia, on the border with China.

I don’t want to give too much away about this gripping novel, but it is clear at the beginning that some of the characters fought for Estonian independence, while others worked for the Soviets. The novel prompts readers to consider issues of motivation, fear, and love. Aliide, in particular, is a fascinating character. Be warned that some parts of the novel are unsettling to read because of the abuse suffered by the characters. This is an unusual, complex, and discussion-worthy novel.

The Lost Daughter of Happiness, by Geling Yan

The Lost Daughter of Happiness, by Geling Yan

I’m not sure how to describe this beautiful novel. On one level, it is a mysterious love story between a Chinese prostitute, Fusang, in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1860’s and 1870’s and a white boy of German heritage, Chris. On another level it is an exploration of a Chinese immigrant woman at the beginning of the 21st century attempting to research Fusang as a way of understanding the history of Chinese people in San Francisco, as well as the relationship between Chinese and white people.

The Lost Daughter of Happiness  begins with the modern-day Chinese immigrant writer addressing Fusang. Here is a passage from page 2:

I know who you were: a twenty-year-old prostitute, one of a succession of three thousand prostitutes from China. When you stepped upon these golden shores, you were a fully grown woman. You had no skills, no seductive charm, not a trace of lust in your eyes. People could sense your distinctive simplicity the moment they met you.

Parts of the novel are told in a conventional narrative in third person. In other parts, the narrator speaks in first person, addressing Fusang as “you,” or relating information from the 160 books she has been reading on the history of San Francisco’s Chinatown, or even talking about her own relationship with her white husband.

I found the story to be compelling and suspenseful, especially as Fusang finds herself in dangerous situations, and as Chris, who is only 12 when he first sees Fusang, attempts to get to know her. However, the novel is not always told in chronological order. Flashbacks and flash forwards force the reader to piece together the narrative, which can sometimes be confusing, but can also reveal surprises. Ultimately, I found the structure of the novel intriguing and thought-provoking.

Fusang and the other characters often function more as symbols than as fully developed characters. Sometimes Fusang can be a puzzling mystery who seems almost unreal to Chris and to the reader. Yet she is also a flesh-and-blood woman who experiences pain, sadness, and joy.

Although the author, Geling Yan, lives in the United States, she writes most of her books in Chinese. This book was first published in Taiwan and translated into English by Cathy Silber. I suspect that American readers might miss some symbolic references that would be apparent to a Chinese reader. For example, several times Fusang plays a haunting tune on her flute, a song called “Shepherd Su Wu.” I looked this up and found out that the song is a reference to a Chinese hero lauded for his faith and loyalty despite extreme stress. In case you’re curious, here is a performance of the Shepherd Su Wu song on flute.

If you are looking for a story with a linear plot and easy-to-understand characters, this is not the book for you. But if you enjoy magical realism and are intrigued by multiple layers of meaning, you might treasure this book.

For more information about Geling Yan, please see her web site.