From English seaside to Nigerian city: 6 Degrees of Separation
I don’t think we can really call this a book; a ‘fragment’ would be a more appropriate description because when Jane Austen laid her draft aside due to ill health (she died four weeks later) she had written only 12 chapters. In 23,500 words she really had space barely to set the scene and introduce the characters.
How the plot would have developed we simply don’t know which is a shame because Sanditon is the first Austen work set entirely at the seaside. The change of location gives her the opportunity to expose a heroine to a completely unfamiliar environment and experiences. The book actually ends as the heroine is about to experience sea bathing for the first time.
The seaside location triggered a memory of another novel where the main character takes to the waters.
For my first link I’m choosing The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch. In this Booker winning novel we meet Charles Arrowby, an esteemed London theatre director who has recently retired to a seaside cottage in the south of England. There he goes swimming in a nearby cove each day, contending with tricky steps and dangerously rough waves.
By contrast the sea in my next book is not a form of exercise but a means of escape.
From A Low And Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan opens with a doctor’s family of Syrian refugees who take to the sea to scape the fundamentalists in their country. They put their lives in the hands of human smugglers. Catastrophe ensues. The father eventually washes up in Ireland.
It’s a brilliant novel using a situation that will be painfully familiar to anyone who followed the recent atrocious case of the Vietnamese people found dead in a container lorry in England. Ryan’s novel reminds how, throughout history, people have left their homelands in the hope of finding a brighter future in a foreign land.
There are many novels that use emigration and travel as a theme. But I thought I’d choose another Irish author for my next book.
Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín won the Costa Novel Award in 2009 and went on to become an award winning film. It takes a young unmarried girl who, unable to find work in her home town, is persuaded to leave Ireland for New York where she has been promised, wonderful opportunities await her. America is a culture shock and there is the heartbreak of knowing she may never see her sister or mother again.
Tóibín chose the suburb of Brooklyn as the new home of his protagonist. In the 1950s it was a neighbourhood with a strong Irish and Italian population.
Though overcrowded Brooklyn was relatively settled and safe, especially when compared to another New York neighbourhood, also densely populated by immigrants, in which my next book is located.
In the early 1900s the Bowery was a dangerous place to live. The Bowery Slugger by Leopold Borstinski shows a neighbourhood ruled over by gangs drawn from Italian, Irish and Jewish settlers. Violence and extortion was the name of the game. A young man could quickly rise to the top, but only if he was willing to use his fists or a knife.
One of the interesting themes in this book was the idea of dislocation. The Jewish settlers who come to live in the Bowery try to hold on to their language and traditions as a way of dealing with the strangeness of their new home.
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo picks up on this idea of dislocation, showing that life in the new ‘promised land’ doesn’t always turn out the way the settler expects.
Zimbabwe is a country on its knees in this novel. It ‘s government is inept and corrupt and its people reduced to selling trinkets and reliant upon foreign aid agencies for support. Hardly surprising they want to leave.
Look at them leaving in droves, the children of the land. Those with nothing are crossing borders. Those with strength are crossing borders. Those with ambitions are crossing borders. Moving, running, emigrating, going, deserting, walking, flying, fleeing — all to countries whose names they cannot pronounce.
Thirteen year old Darling is one that makes it out. She gets to Michigan and finds it strange and unwelcoming to incomers. She does make friends but they reject her because she also tries to retain her connection to her old home. They want her to be completely ‘American’.
What my final book in this chain shows is that no matter how strong the bond is to one’s homeland, it’s difficult to rewind the clock and return.
In Americanah, we encounter a young girl who attains her dream to escape Nigeria and secure a place at Princetown university in America. To fit in, she straightens her hair, hides her accent and adopts American slang. When she returns to Nigeria she’s called Americanah because of her blunt, American way of speaking and of addressing problems, a label she resists and resents. But if she’s not American then neither is she wholly Nigerian for her country has changed as much as she has.
On that note I’m bringing this chain to a close. We travelled a long way from the English coast to Ireland and Africa. There’s a connection between them that I never realised until the end. The sense of alienation I highlight in the last few choices, can apply equally to Sanditon, Wish I could claim that it was all by design but actually it was a complete fluke.