Search Results for woman next door
Every now and then you find a book which demonstrates that good storytelling doesn’t require pyrotechnics or literary gymnastics. Of course there will always be room for authors (and their readers) who want to push the boundaries and experiment with time frames, point of view and punctuation (or lack of). But if the story is as good and the characterisation as sharp as Yewande Omotoso has delivered in The Woman Next Door, then there really isn’t any necessity for uber stylisation.
This is the story of two women. They are neighbours in the upmarket enclave of Katterijn in the suburb of Constantia, Cape Town. Hortensia James is black. Marion Agostino is white. Both are successful career women. Both are recently widowed. Both are strongly opinionated. They hate each other.
Hortensia is a renowned textile designer originally from Barbados but who has lived most of her life outside her native land. In the opening chapters we meet her as a prickly octagenarian whose husband is close to death. She joins the Katterijn residents’ committee knowing that as the only black member she will not be welcome. The meetings themselves are dull but Hortensia keeps returning “to mock them, to point out to them they were hypocrites.”
At the meetings her chief antagonist is Marion Agostino, the chairperson and her next door neighbour. Marion has made the residents’s committee her personal fiefdom, dominating the discussions and silencing all challenges to her authority. Having grown up in South Africa she has strong beliefs in the segregation of the country’s black and white population. To her:
…. most black people were dangerous and they were causing trouble…As a young adult she had explained her country to herself in a way her children were refusing to adopt. With all their prodding it became difficult to see only what was comfortable, to keep looking away from what she’d rather not see. It was in this battle that Marion lost all possibility for happiness.’
When a legal claim is submitted by a black family that they are entitled to part of the Katterijn estate the scene is set for a battle between the two women. Marion sees the claim as threatening the stability of house prices. Hortensia believes such comments are driven by little more than bigotry.
The attitudes of these women are so diametrically opposed that it seems hardly likely they could ever learn to accept each other let alone find a way towards friendship. But an unforeseen event does force them to reconsider their relationship and to begin pulling down the armoury of sniping and bickering. As they progress towards acceptance and perhaps the beginning of a friendship of sorts, they are forced to reconsider their lives and the forces that have made them so angry and bitter.
For Hortensia we discover that the acerbic, scathing comments she dishes out to everyone is the persona she’s constructed to protect herself from the past. It had started when, taken to England as a small child, she experienced suspicion and hostility. In college for example she was frozen out by her fellow students:
Hard stares from fellow students and lecturers alike; stares from people who looked through you, not at you; stares intent on disappearing you; and stares you fought by making yourself solid. People found it civilised to imitate the sound of a chimpanzee whenever they passed Hortensia in the corridors.
Success as a designer, a loving marriage with a successful corporate executive and a life together in Nigeria had slain those dragons. But they were reawakened when Hortensia discovered her husband’s infidelity.
She went from just resenting Peter, to the housekeeper, the driver, the market woman. People were slow, simple-minded; they all harboured ill intentions, seemed determined to be unhelpful, especially when their jobs required being of service… She got good at chopping the legs off people, with no knife, only words. She was always angry and while, initially, she noticed it … it slowly became what was normal. … Hating after all was a drier form of drowning.
For Marion, the face of control she presents to the world hides the fact that she is deeply worried about her financial situation. A highly successful architect in her own right she had given up her practice business to raise a family. When her husband died she discovered he’d mismanaged all their affairs. Instead of living out the rest of her life in the style to which she has become accustomed she now faces a string of creditors, poverty and public humiliation. Unsurprisingly she feels angry at what she considers is a betrayal by her husband.
Neither of these women are very likeable characters initially but as we move through the book we do get a deeper appreciation of why they are as they are; and begin to find sympathy for them. The Woman Next Door doesn’t however fit squarely into the category of a ‘feel-good’ novel. Yes it’s bursting with humour, warmth and sensitivity but it also brims with finely nuanced themes about the experience of the outsider and the nature of man’s capacity to forgive.
Omotoso adroitly places the story of reconciliation between two individuals within a broader theme of reconciliation with the past of a nation. Marion in particular is forced to confront the reality of how the white population treated the country’s black residents. Her researches into the ownership of Katterijn lands reveal some uncomfortable facts about its former existence as a slave estate.
There was a page with names, the script nuclear, smudged. Marion read through some sentences at the bottom, Her teeth came together in her mouth and she tasted something unpleasant at the back of her throat. There were sketches of the different contraptions, straps and turning wheels. In a neat hand someone had explained how far to turn the handle before the first bits of bone would start to break.
It’s Omotoso’s deft handling of the personal and the ‘political’ themes that lifted The Woman Next Door above the ordinary for me. It’s a page turner in the sense the plot is well constructed and the dialogue between the two women so finely tuned that you feel compelled to read on and on. But the almost casual interjections of broader ideas cause you to pause and to reflect.
This is Omotoso’s second novel. It’s well worth reading. It would also make a really good film. I have Judi Dench or Maggie Smith in mind for Marion. Still struggling to think who would be a knock out Hortensia.
The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso was published May 2016 by Random House UK, Vintage Publishing. Thanks to the publishers for providing me with a copy via NetGalley
Yewande Omotoso was born in Barbados. She grew up in Nigeria and moved to South Africa in 1992. Yewande trained as an architect and is a designer, freelance writer, poet and novelist. After completing a Masters degree in Creative Writing, her debut novel Bom Boy was published in 2011 by Modjaji Books. It won the 2012 South African Literary Award for First-Time Published Author, was shortlisted for the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize in South Africa as well as the M-Net Literary Awards 2012, and was the runner-up for the 2013 Etisalat Prize for Literature.
June 1 was a momentous day at work as the company for whom I work was aquired by a much bigger corporation. We’ve been working on the communications around this for six months so it was a relief to get to the end of yesterday without any glitches. By the time I got home however I had zero energy stores left to even think what I was reading on the first of the month.
I can’t imagine however that anyone but me is bothered in the slightest degree that my snapshot of the month is a day late….
I finished a run of highly enjoyable novels (The Gathering by Anne Enright, Rites of Passage by William Golding and The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso) I went into a dip with Nina Bawden’s The Ice House. This was published by Virago in 1983 in their Modern Classics series as a novel about a friendship between two girls that lasts the decades from early childhood but is threatened by an act of deception. It started well but about two thirds of the way through I began to lose interest. It’s the third of Bawden’s novels I’ve read. A Little Love, A Little Learning was the first – and by far the best. Next up was The Solitary Child, an early work which I thought very lacklustre. The Ice House fell somewhere in the middle. Maybe I just need to choose more careful next time.
Having taken the plunge and joined the 20 Books of Summer Challenge (I’ve opted for the gentler option of 10 books), I’m delighted that the first book – This Must be the Place – is a delight. Maggie O’Farrell is one of those authors that you can buy with a high degree of confidence that between the covers will be some laser-eyed observations about life, emotions and relationships. With other authors that could send alarm signals about pretentiousness but with O’Farrell there is no BS factor, just a darn good story told usually in fragments. This Must be the Place is little short of a delight. It leaps across multiple continents, decades and people as it gives a portrait of a marriage and decisions that could put it in jeopardy. The only challenge in reading this book is that I’m reluctant to put it down at the end of the evening and go to sleep.
This week’s Top Ten topic is about books we consider to be underrated and hidden gems. My list is a bit of a cornucopia, comprising of a smattering of historic fiction, literary fiction and works by authors from Africa and South America. All hyperlinks are to my reviews.
Let’s start in Brazil with Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis, an author little known of outside of South America but is a familiar name to every schoolchild in Brazil (he’s required reading in the education system). It is supposedly an autobiography written by Bento Santiago, a lawyer from Rio de Janeiro, in which he describes his early life, his years of happiness married to his childhood sweetheart and then the heartbreak when he thinks she has betrayed him. Whether this is the truth is uncertain because Bento isn’t exactly a reliable narrator nor one who can be trusted to stick to the point. He can be in the middle of describing the grande passion of his life and then suddenly switches to commenting on ministerial reshuffles and train travel. A great choice for readers who like quirky novels.
Moving on to Africa, first up is Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a novel deemed so dangerous by the Kenyan government that they imprisoned the author. What was so incendiary about this novel? Quite simply because it turned the spotlight on the authorities for their betrayal of ordinary people in Kenya, promising them the earth when the country gained independence but then when the rains failed, the crops died and people faced starvation, they ignored their calls for help. A powerful novel that sadly depicts a situation happening in too many parts of the world.
From Ethiopia comes All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu which I picked up on a whim while at the Hay Literary Festival a few years ago. This is a book about love but also about the lengths to which someone will go to build a new life for themselves, even if that means leaving their homeland and their identity.
By complete contrast The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso offers a tale of rivalry and hostility between two very stubborn women who live next door to each other in Cape Town. Many of the scenes are hilarious but this is a novel which also asks searching questions about racial tension and the possibility of reconciliation between the different sectors of South African society.
And finally from Africa we get Wife of the Gods by the Ghanian author Kwei Quartey. The plot revolves around the murder of a young female medical student but the novel does far more than offer a well-paced detective story. This is a tale which takes us to the dark side of Ghana’s culture where young girls are offered as trokosi (or Wives of the Gods) to fetish priests and villagers still believe in the power of medicine men to assuage vengeful gods.
If those titles have given you a taste for fiction from Africa – or indeed from anywhere in the world except your own country, but you don’t know where to begin – your saviour will be The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by Michael Orthofer. This offers profiles of the literature on a region by region and country by country basis and a multitude of author names to explore.
Changing direction totally I offer one of the best historical fiction novels I have read in several years. Antonia Hodgson’s debut novel The Devil in the Marshalsea takes us into the heart of the notorious squalid and disease ridden Marshalsea prison for debtors. Reading this, you can almost smell the place such is the power of Hodgson’s narrative. Her protagonist Tom Hawkins ends up in the Marshalsea because he has too much of a liking for gambling and women. The question is whether he will leave the prison alive or dead.
I couldn’t possibly create a list of under-rated gems without mentioning Holiday by Stanley Middleton. I know it seems strange to think of a Booker prize winner as a hidden gem but this winner from 1974 is one that few people seem to know. Middleton himself also seems to have disappeared from the public consciousness. This despite the fact he wrote more than 40 novels. Holiday is a quiet novel in a sense because the action, such as it is, is all inside the head of the main character. Edwin Fisher, a university professor takes a spur of the moment holiday at the seaside where he reflects on the breakdown of his marriage. It’s a well observed story of a man who is more an observer than a participant in life.
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan was also a contender for the Booker prize. This is a novel about a community and the individuals within it that feel the effect of the collapse of Ireland’s economic boom. It’s a novel that almost never saw the light of day. It had been rejected by numerous publishers but was rescued from yet another reject pile by an intern who raved about it and persuaded her employers to give it a go. It then went on to make the long list for the Booker Prize. What happened to the intern is not known but I hope she got a permanent job for showing such great intuition.
And finally, a novel that should have won the Booker in 2013 but sadly the judges felt otherwise. Harvest by Jim Crace is a beautifully written lyrical novel set in a period in history where a traditional way of life where people rely on the land to make a living is ruptured in the name of “Profit, Progress, Enterprise”.
We’re off to South Africa for our next country in The View From Here series on literature from around the world. We’ll be in the capable hands of Penny who blogs at 2015 Reading Challenge – SA books only.
Let’s meet Penny
I work at one of South Africa’s major retailers. Over the years, I’ve taken on many different roles mainly relating to the buying/planning space. However my passions lie in reading, hiking and birding. My blog is called 2015 Reading Challenge – SA books only. I didn’t even know reading challenges were a thing then. In 2014, I read a chance remark, on a reading Facebook group, to the effect that there is so much South African Fiction now, one could go a whole year and read nothing else. I thought it would be fun to try that out; I keep year lists for birds in the Southern African region, so why not books? At the same time, I decided to write a review on every book I read and start a blog.
Q. Authors like Andre Brink, Alan Paton and Doris Lessing are names that many people outside of SA would recognise. Is their work the reading experience considered to be ‘classic literature’? If not, what are some of the classics of fiction from S.A?
These writers (Doris Lessing to a lesser extent) could be regarded as classics of SA Literature, if not ‘classic literature’. It depends what is meant by classic literature; if this is meant to refer to works that, in some way, emulate works of the Western canon, then possibly not. I do not necessarily believe ‘classic literature’ to be an ideal to which our writers should be aspiring. Good writing, literary writing are very subjective terms; more important to me is if I have a quality reading experience in which I am engaged, in which characters are multi-dimensional, plot is intriguing and I learn more about the human condition.
There are many novels that meet these criteria, amongst them Afrikaans writers translated into English. These are amongst some of my favourite novels and include writers such as Karel Schoemann, Etienne van Heerden, Marlene van Niekerk and Ingrid Winterbach. Another ‘classic’ is Down Second Ave by Es’kia Mphahlele, a marvellous work that, though autobiographical, experiments with form and reads as fiction. It is set in the 1930s in a township in Pretoria and illuminates how much discrimination was endured by black people even before apartheid. Anyone interested in SA Literature should also make sure they read Bessie Head’s work, even though she may well be considered as a Botswana writer.
Q. Would you consider there are some distinct differences between literature from South Africa and those from some of the other African countries like Nigeria for example?
I am no expert on literature from other African countries so this is merely my opinion. Until very recently, I had only read a few Nigerian writers such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Flora Nwapa. I would say they are far ahead of South Africa, having experienced their independence from colonial rule much earlier. We have only been a democracy since 1994 and prior to this, we were not producing much fiction. Possibly Nigeria have been marketing themselves as the African Lit for longer and more widely too.
With respect to the reading experience, I find SA Fiction quite different. Not so much with contemporary writers, but the classic Heinemann novels are often quite dense and heavy going.
South African writing is drawn from many different cultural communities that add variety to our topics, characters and interactions. This I see as a distinct difference. We have Black, White, Indian (both Hindu and Muslim) and mixed race communities (so-called ‘coloured’ people) all writing fiction. South African writers explore many genres too, like crime fiction and speculative fiction.
Q. South Africa has produced two winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature: Nadine Gordimer in 1991 and J M Coetzee in 2003. How far do you think their work is representative of the issues and challenges of the country?
I cannot comment on Gordimer as I have only read one of her books, The House Gun, published in 1998. I did not like it much as I found it cold and detached. Personally, I found JM Coetzee’s pre-Disgrace (published 1998) novels to be more representative of the country then, allegorical as they might have been. The writer I believe to be truly representative of South Africa is Zakes Mda. Although both Coetzee and Mda live in other countries now, Mda’s topics are still strongly South African while Coetzee seems to have focussed on being a stranger in a new country (isolation has always been an underlying theme in nearly every book he has written).
Since I was in my early twenties, I was hungry to read books set in my own country that, in some way, might reflect my lived experience and my surroundings; books in which I would recognise the environment but be introduced to aspects that were hidden from me. The first novels of this nature that I discovered were Andre Brink’s novels written in the seventies; the next was J.M. Coetzee’s, The Life and times of Michael K. published in 1983 (for which he won the Booker prize; still my favourite Coetzee). Then in the nineties, I discovered Zakes Mda’s She Plays With the Darkness published in 1995. I love all his novels; particularly The Madonna of the Excelsior and Heart of Redness. One of the things I love about Mda’s novels are the way they are grounded in history and also explore contemporary life. He has also written many plays but I am not familiar with them.
Q. What recommendations would you have for readers who want to discover books that show a more contemporary side to life in South Africa – how it is dealing with life post-apartheid for example?
I have so many recommendations for books written post-apartheid, I could never list them all here (check my blog for some of them). I have already mentioned Zakes Mda and some Afrikaans writers. Add Eben Venter to that list (especially for his most recent novel, Wolf, Wolf). Niq Mhlongo (Dog Eat Dog, After Tears, Way Back Home and short story collection, Affluenza) does a great job of representing ‘township’ life; (during apartheid, black people were prohibited from choosing where to live and were not allowed to live in areas designated as white; these areas were called townships or in vernacular slang; eKasi).
Thando Mqolozana tackles the taboo subject of Xhosa initiation rites in A Man who is Not a Man, as well as student politics in Unimportance. Nthikeng Mohlele, writes in a cerebral, philosophical style – try Small Things, Rusty Bell and Pleasure. Henrietta Rose-Innes is another favourite of mine; I particularly enjoyed The Rock Alphabet, Nineveh and The Green Lion. K. Sello Duiker, who committed suicide at the age of 30, produced two brilliant novels in Thirteen Cents and The Quiet Violence of Dreams. These two books are tough reads; not for the faint-hearted.
On a lighter note, our crime fiction is excellent (it says something that I regard crime as ‘lighter’, I suppose). Deon Meyer is our most well-known crime fiction writer. He writes in Afrikaans and is translated into English. A lover of this genre should read all his books; start at the beginning with Dead Before Dying and continue to the 10thand latest, Icarus. This is not necessary as they do stand-alone but I always enjoy knowing what characters had done before.
Q. What would you recommend to someone who has never read any S African authors? Where would you suggest they start?
This is a tough one because the answer depends on the readers’ preference with regard to topic, genre and style. An extremely serious reader may want to trace the development of SA fiction by beginning in the last century while another may be more interested in South Africa today.
If the latter, Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System is as good a place to start as any as it dips into every decade since the seventies. Zoe Wicomb writes of a ‘Coloured’ family that ‘tries for white’ during apartheid in Playing With the Light. Although I am not usually a fan of non-fiction, there are several books that are written in the fictional style that I have really enjoyed; anything by Jonny Steinberg who has covered topics that vary from farm murders (Midlands) to prison gangs (The Number) to HIV and Aids (Three Letter Plague). He investigates his areas of interest through in-depth, intimate interviews with individuals and teases out information that fascinates as much as it shocks.
Zukiswa Wanner’s, London Cape Town Joburg, moves between these three cities and with her protagonist, uses an outsider’s voice to illuminate the ins and outs of aspects of SA life in the business, political and personal world. Lauren Beukes is our darling of speculative fiction; inventive, imaginative and highly readable. Her second novel, Zoo City, is set in a Johannesburg that, though imagined, is strangely familiar. Then there is Finuala Dowling, said to be the ‘home-grown Jane Austen’ of SA Lit. In The Fetch and Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart, she writes of the minutiae of life with wit and sparkle and a strand of pathos.
This is merely a taste and there are many more.
Q. How important are prizes like Caine Prize for African writing to contemporary authors?
My feeling is that they are important as they do bring previously unknown writers to the attention of both publishers and readers.
Another prize which is important is the Etisalat Prize for Literature which is awarded to first time African writers of published books. It was inaugurated in 2013 and books by South African writers have been short-listed each year. The 2014 winner, Penumbra was by South African novelist, Songeziwe Mahlangu. One of my favourite novels of last year,What Will People Say by Rehana Rossouw, was short-listed last year. I highly recommend this novel; set in the Cape Flats, it is a heart-breaking tale of parents trying to do the best for their children in an environment dominated by gangs, drugs and politics at the time of the State of Emergency during the eighties.
Q. Which contemporary S African authors do you think we could be hearing more from in the future – people who may be at an early stage of their career?
Names to watch out for are Mohale Mashigo whose first novel, The Yearning, was published this year. It is an accomplished debut, well-written and with a compelling plot. The Reactive by Mashande Ntshanga gives the reader a glimpse into the disaffectedness of youth who live in a world of trauma, untimely death and limited opportunities. Yewande Omotoso’s second novel, The Woman Next Door is a great read. I think it is quite a feat to capture the personalities of two women in their eighties, as she does here. Nakahane Toure and Panashe Chigumadzi have both published debut novels in the last year.
Cwtch Corner: where authors from Wales get to talk about their work, what inspires their writing and their favourite authors and books.
The latest author to join me in Cwtch Corner is Vanessa Savage whose debut novel The Woman in the Dark was published earlier this year to considerable acclaim. It’s an intense psychological thriller about Patrick and his wife, Sarah (who is suffering from depression after her mother’s death) who buy a gothic seaside house whose previous occupants were brutally murdered.
I believe the line between the two genres can be quite finely drawn. A domestic noir is as much about relationships as a women’s fiction novel with a romantic thread – just darker! I like writing about relationships in character-driven stories and I felt my first idea for a novel fell more into the women’s fiction genre and joined the New Writer’s Scheme at the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA). But the longer I wrote, the clearer it became to me that, as a writer, what I wanted was to explore the darker side of relationships – where love tips over into obsession, what happens when the happy-ever-after goes wrong. I wanted my characters to kill rather than kiss each other!”
Q. What inspired you to write The Woman in the Dark?
“I knew I wanted to write a ‘behind closed doors’ psychological thriller about a family in crisis and their breakdown, but there was a missing element – the house. I became fascinated by the idea of house as character and the Murder House came from a series of what if questions after reading about a real-life murder house.
That house was destroyed, but it got me wondering… what if it wasn’t destroyed? What if it was actually your childhood home, a happy place before the terrible crimes? Could you move back into it and make it what it once was, or would it be forever haunted by its own history?
The idea that a house could hold memories, that it could be corrupted by horrible things happening within its walls really appealed to me as a writer. The creepy things that happen in the house – are they real, or the paranoid imaginings of my characters because they know the history of the house? As I developed the house as another character, the story came alive – it was the catalyst I needed.”
Q. For any author getting that first novel published can be a frustrating experience. How did you achieve it?
“Like many ‘debut’ writers, The Woman in the Dark is not the first book I’ve written, just the first to be published! I have a couple of unpublished books lurking in a bottom drawer, and prior to that, I wrote a lot of short fiction – short stories published in magazines and flash fiction which is published online and in anthologies.
I took the traditional route to publication – I researched literary agents who I thought would like my work, both using the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and online (agents love twitter so it’s a great place to find out what they’re looking for!). I was fortunate to sign with Juliet Mushens at Caskie Mushens, who is a fantastic agent. We went back and forth editing the book, and it went on submission to publishers in June 2017.
It went to auction in the UK, selling world English rights to Sphere in the UK and Grand Central in the US, went to auction in Germany and rights were also sold in Spain, France, Poland, Russia and the Czech Republic. It published in hardback and e-book in January 2019 in the UK and will be out in paperback in July.”
Q. In your acknowledgements you say you received help from a police officer. What form did that take ?
“I worked with Stuart Gibbon at GIB Consultancy, a former senior police detective who now runs a consultancy specialising in advising writers on police procedure. I wanted to ensure those elements were accurate in the book and having heard Stuart talk at a writer’s conference, knew he’d be able to help! For The Woman in the Dark, he was able to help by simply answering questions by email. For my second novel, which I’m currently editing, I send him a whole draft to read and he gave advice on all the criminal and police procedural elements. He has also written The Crime Writer’s Casebook, an invaluable resource for anyone writing crime novels.”
Q. What do you think are the elements of a first class thriller? Anyone in particular whose work you rate highly?
“It’s all about the tension and suspense in a psychological thriller – because it’s more internal rather than external action, we’re living with the character’s fears and paranoia, immersed in their every thought and invested in their journey. Every twist and turn raises the tension and (hopefully) the reader is desperate to turn the page to find out what happens next! I love this genre – an early favourite was Claire Mackintosh’s I Let You Go, which has the most amazing twist and a terrifying antagonist.”
Q. Readers can’t seem to get enough of psychological thrillers – why do you think they have such a strong appeal?
“With a straight action thriller, the reader enjoys an escapist adrenaline rush, with a police procedural, we watch the action once-removed, usually from the viewpoint of the investigating officer as we try to figure out whodunnit. They tend to be plot-driven rather than character-driven. With a psychological thriller, we’re living in the minds of the characters, experiencing their fears and paranoia. We live with them through the rising tension and suspense and experience the heart-pounding shock of every twist and turn. They can be scary, but it’s a safe way to be scared – unlike the characters whose minds we inhabit, we can close the book and walk away.”
Vanessa Savage trained as a graphic designer and illustrator. She lives in South Wales (I discovered only recently that she lives just along the coast from me). She has twice been awarded with a Writers’ Bursary by Literature Wales.
She won the Myriad Editions First Crimes competition and her work has been highly commended in the Yeovil International Fiction Prize, short-listed for the Harry Bowling Prize, and the Caledonia Fiction Prize.
Vanessa has also had short stories published in various magazines and anthologies, and her work was broadcasted on the radio as a highly commended winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Competition.
Vanessa is on Twitter: @VvSavage
My review of The Woman in the Dark is here
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng explores the nature of motherhood and the secrets that lie bubbling beneath the veneer of an ultra perfect American community.
Shaker Heights in Ohio is a place where everything is planned, organised and controlled. Nothing is left to chance; not the the colour of the doors into each house or where household rubbish must be left for collection.
Across the country, other communities might clash and squabble but Shaker Heights prides itself on being a community that is “unified and beautiful”: where householders regularly weed their gardens and parents engage in wholesome activities like making cookies.
It’s a picture perfect settlement operating on an underlying philosophy that when everything is planned, “the unseemly, the unpleasant and the disastrous” can be avoided.
Elena and Bill Richardson are typical of the inhabitants of Shaker Heights: successful, wealthy and white. She’s a journalist with the local newspaper. He’s a lawyer. They like to do their bit for the less fortunate members of society, regularly attending local fund raising events and donating to UNICEF. They plan that their four children will become equally respectable and successful.
Their complacency is disrupted when Mrs Richardson rents an apartment to Mia Warren, a single mother and her 15-year-old daughter, Pearl. They’re a nomadic pair, having travelled from state to state with all their possessions stuffed into a VW Rabbit. The lives of the Warrens and the Richardsons begin to coalesce. Friendships are born, confidences shared and affiliations formed.
Interesting enough but it’s not until Ng introduces a moral dilemma that the book really take off. The spark is a custody battle over a Chinese baby. Friends of Mrs Richardson want to adopt her but the girl’s birth mother wants her back. Who has the greater right to consider herself the true mother.
It came, over and over, down to this. What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?
As the community takes sides on this question, two other moral quandaries regarding a baby come to light. In one, a surrogate mother is so attached to the unborn child she feels unable to go through with the agreement. The other shows a teenager afraid her university education and her whole future will be jeopardised if she doesn’t have an abortion. In all three cases the desires of biological mothers are counterpoised with the claims of potential parents whose wealth could provide the child with greater opportunities in life. The question is posed: should the child’s or the mother’s interest prevail?
The story occasionally labours under the weight of this question but the characterisation more than compensates for this weakness. The two matriarchs in particular are vividly drawn. Mia is an interesting character whose highly imaginative photographs are collectors items but she works as a cleaner to make ends meet.
The real hit of this novel for me however was Mrs Richardson (she is hardly ever referred to by her given name “Elena”). She comes across as a control freak, a woman so convinced her friend should win the custody battle that she is willing to act unethically and put another friendship in jeopardy. And yet Ng shows beneath her cold exterior is a woman who suppressed her dreams and aspirations believing a life of controlled domesticity was the way to happiness.
… she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. … Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or perhaps to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never — could never —set anything ablaze.
Little Fires Everywhere was both an engrossing and a frustrating read. It begins with a fire that engulfs the Richardson house. The youngest daughter, Doc Marten-wearing, troubled teen Izzy, is the main suspect, but it soon becomes clear that the inferno has been deliberately caused with, as the firefighters put it, “multiple points of origin”. The novel then tracks back in time to look at the flash points that led up to the conflagration.
At the same time, the pace and structure of the story keep us turning the pages, eager to find out why the fires were set, who will get custody of the baby, what secrets are buried in Mia’s past and whether their uncovering will lead to catastrophe.
I enjoyed watching how Ng wove together the different plot lines, keeping us in suspense about the identity of the arsonist, how the custody battle will pan out and the secret of Mia’s past. But my enjoyment was tempered by a feeling of frustration that Ng didn’t push further with her exploration of motherhood. Instead I felt the ending was rather too neat and complete.