Wednesday, October 14, 2015

'Moments of Stillness': A Review of This September Sun

'Long after I read it, there are moments of stillness when I begin to think about the book and how much of myself I see in it.'
Bryony Rheam

The day I finally finished reading Bryony Rheam's This September Sun, sometime in September, it was the one book I wondered about how I got to the end, why it ended, and why wasn’t I a little slower as I read it.

This September Sun is the most profound book I’ve read this year and for an author’s first book, I can only begin to think how this work can claim to be fiction. Long after I read it, there are moments of stillness when I begin to think about the book and how much of myself I see in it. Its ability to linger this long is an experience I’m learning to come to terms with.

I’ve read books: Enid Blyton’s Malory Tower series ensured I went to boarding school in a bid to relive the stories. I read another Enid Blyton book about a girl who was a gypsy, who lived in a caravan and was part of a travelling circus. I’m not even going to begin to state how, at one point, I thought my parents should sell the house we lived in, buy a caravan so we could travel and possibly join a circus too. Then there was Kaine Agary’s Yellow Yellow, from whose pages I got the name Binaebi and gave the name to my son when he was birthed. Some books leave a lasting impression. Some books will never be forgotten. This September Sun falls into that category.

The story revolves around two characters Ellie and her grandmother Evelyn. Ellie, an only child, is a loner who has more adult influences than shared experiences with children her age. Her grandmother Evelyn in this day and age, would be called a feminist. An independent woman who seeks to live her life according to her dictates. Amongst the profound things for me about this book are Ellie’s words as she tells her story. Here’s a passage from Chapter Two:

“Where do you start to put life together? The pieces don’t always fit. Many are missing, or borrowed. From other people’s lives, other people’s memories. Their own puzzles. Where is the beginning when you have only the end to start with? How many lies are told over the course of one lifetime?

What of all that is not said, merely hinted at, subsiding beneath the surface of action and words? All that is yearned for and never had?”

Even now, these lines leave me with a need of wanting to dig deep into life and uncover things I should know and do not know.

There were times when, as I read, I had the feeling the author had perhaps started a plot she did not conclude and had no intention of concluding and this was disappointing for me. Page 76, when Ellie found her grandmother naked in bed with Miles her lover. The next few pages made no mention of the incident and life continued and left me thinking what tha . . . a young girl sees her grandma naked in bed with her lover and the next thing pretends that nothing happened. Tsk, tsk. There I was a reader poking into nonexistent holes because pages into the middle, it pops up again, is mentioned and is laid to rest. That’s the sort of books TSS is, it’s unpredictable and while it doesn’t elicit a rush of adrenaline, it’s calm, it’s pulsing and holds you in a grip.

I’m a little of Evelyn, a little of Ellie, I’m in the book and I’m swept along in their struggles and as they come to terms with themselves. I love TSS. I will read it again. This time with a highlighter. I will mangle its pages, but not to uglify it but to bring out the beauty of its words so I can always take a look at them and sigh, and think.

I’ve never known a book to linger like this one
To hear echoes of its words long after I wistfully said goodbye.

To read a book as though the writer knew you and turned you outside in.
To read words and behold a mirror of your mind.

To reread it in your mind page for page.
To replay the scenes that wrenched your guts and made your eyes drip.

To think and maul.
To chew and not be able to swallow.

To wonder at how words were stringed.
To want to know what could have been going through this author’s mind.

To be afraid. Afraid. Not the sort that fear elicits, but the sort that goosebumps produce because you feel a book became a mirror and you could see a lot of yourself in it.

This September Sun began in August. Proceeded with a feverish grip in September. In its wake left thoughts and silence.

Not all fiction is truly fiction.

By irinajo.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

In Search of Agatha Part 2: My trip to Greenway

About a month ago, I found myself trawling the narrow streets of Covent Garden in search of vintage clothing shops. The object of my search was an evening dress to wear to a dinner, but not just any dinner: I was one of the winners of a competition to write a chapter of an Agatha Christie novel.  The prize was dinner with Agatha Christie’s grandson at her home, Greenway, in Devon.  I was also planning to stay on another night for the vintage-themed opening cocktail party for the Agatha Christie Festival.

                Being in London was a slightly surreal experience for me as I had arrived from Zimbabwe the previous day.  The trip was the highlight of my year and one I had been looking forward to for months. It is perhaps a commonly held idea of someone from the third world that London is an abundant source of everything and nothing is particularly difficult to find. It was certainly a surprise to find that many shops didn’t open until eleven on a Sunday and that the shop I wanted to visit in particular, Blackout II, wasn’t open at all.

                The shop assistants I dealt with were in the main very friendly and keen to help me find a 1920s dress – not a real one of course, but one in the style of the age – but I was less than enamoured with the suggestions made, mostly because they did not look anything like an evening dress.  One man suggested a tweed skirt and jacket and long sleeve blouse and it was on the tip of my tongue to say that I was going to the dinner as myself, not in the guise of Miss Marple.

                It did not take me long to realise that ‘retro’ and ‘vintage’ really refer to 1970s and 80s clothing rather than anything much older and are often labels assigned pieces of clothing that in other shops would cost half the price.   I began to feel, too, that nothing was genuinely itself, rather a reproduction, and tried too hard to be something it wasn’t.

                I found the experience true also of ‘vintage’ teashops, of which the Internet has a plethora of suggestions.  Somehow the silver teapots, the cake stands and the rather kitsch d├ęcor all suggests wannabe aspirations.  The insistence that you enter and enjoy a ‘genuine vintage experience’ recalls substandard hotels in Africa optimistically named The Ritz or The Savoy with their promises of ‘deluxe’ or ‘executive’ accommodation. The bottom line is that if you have to say what you are, then you aren’t it.

                I suppose I sound rather down on the whole business, but I’m not.  I found the dress I was looking for at Mad Elizabeth at the Cornmarket building in Leeds.  It was a relief to say the least as, although I could’ve found more of a bargain on the Internet, as I was travelling around a bit, it would’ve been difficult to have had something delivered on time.  My next stop was the haberdasher’s to find a pair of long black gloves.  As I watched them being gently lifted out of their tissue wrapping, I couldn’t help feeling a thrill of excitement.  There was something so special about the experience, as though I had been allowed to a world only a select few have any knowledge of.  A pair of silk stockings completed the purchase and then I was able to focus on finding a string of black beads and a sequined headband with obligatory feather. 

                I arrived in Torquay at 3.15 on the day of the dinner – I half considered arriving on the 4.50 from Paddington – but I had little time to prepare as it was.  Feeling rather glamorous, I made my way opposite the station to the Grand Hotel where I checked into my room.  At a quarter past five, the prize winners congregated in the hotel lobby and introductions were made before the taxis arrived to take us to Greenway.

                 I often think there is a part of me that hasn’t quite grown up, a part that hasn’t stopped believing in magic.  As a child growing up in Africa, I lived in an Enid Blyton world.  I had an idea of England that was years out of date and, despite the eight years I spent living in the UK, I never quite despaired that one day I might find it. Arriving at Greenway is probably the closest I got to doing so.  As soon as the taxi left the main road and followed the narrow winding lane up to the house, I knew I was going somewhere special.

                The house is beautiful – much larger than the average person would live in today, but homely too.  On our tour round the house, I didn’t feel I was viewing a museum piece. Rather, there was sense that any minute a car would draw up, and Agatha Christie and Max Mallowan would step out, home after a long trip to Turkey or Syria.

                The dinner, of course, was the highlight of the trip.  It is not often that one sits next to Mathew Prichard, Agatha Christie’s grandson, and gets to ask him questions about his famous grandmother and her work!  We also got the opportunity to meet Agatha Christie’s publishers at HarperCollins.

                The next day, I walked the Agatha Christie Mile with my sister who had accompanied me on the trip and we sat on the terrace of The Imperial Hotel and drank Pimms. Walking through Torquay I had tried to imagine what life was like here a hundred years ago: the train station teeming with men going off to war; lovers walking arm in arm along the promenade. Now looking around the hotel which features in at least three of her novels, I caught a glimpse of Agatha’s world and the people who inhabited it.  I half expected an ageing actress to enter in a whirlwind of furs and pearls and order martinis while an overloaded bellboy struggled in behind her with a trolley of cases and trunks or a dandy in white flannels coming in from the tennis courts.

The previous evening, I had taken the opportunity to tell Mathew Pritchard  that I didn’t think the Miss Marple TV adaptations were very good in my opinion because they deviate from the plot quite a bit. His response was that a balance had to be maintained between being true to the story and attracting a younger audience. Although I agree to a certain extent, I also often wonder if the younger generation aren’t underestimated. At 41, I was one of the oldest of the competition winners; it was more than obvious to me that Agatha Christie is loved by all generations. We live in a world which has run out of ideas, one that reproduces fashions and tastes and tries to pass them off as new.  If young people search for anything it’s authenticity and perhaps that is why Agatha Christie maintains such a hold over our imaginations: we look for a world of which we only catch glimpses.