Racism. Black Lives Matter. Coronavirus! All subjects and words that have appeared far too much in our 2020 lexicon, and all subjects that are complicated, emotive and divisive. The discussions we had branched way beyond the book and into a spectrum of topics, which indicate how complex ( and yet interesting) this subject is.
Without actually being a black person who has suffered first hand racist commentary, it is almost impossible to speak with authority on the subject, indeed each and every black person no doubt has their own nuanced opinion and standpoint. All we can do, is try to understand, to mentally put ourselves in other shoes for a time and see the world from another perspective. In many ways, that is the gift that books like this can give us.
Pecola’s shoes were hard to be in. For some, too much altogether, and indeed early criticism of the book was that it was too heavy handed, too “melodramatically brutal and overly symbolic” There is no arc of progress, no redemption or hope at the end. Toni Morrison does not try to make the story more palatable, if anything she tries to cast no blame on individuals but lets their opinions and (sometimes unforgiveable) actions seem like the natural outcome of an individual’s circumstances. More victim than resilient survivor. It is worth noting that the civil rights injustices and protests were ongoing in the US throughout the 60’s - and Morrison wrote this from 1965 -70. No wonder the raw bitterness is still there.
Where the story falls particularly hard, though, is on Pecola – who as a vulnerable and unloved child, has no self worth to fall back on, no resilience to see her through. Claudia, our narrator, is a feisty and strong child, which contrasts all the more with Pecola. Neither mother is particularly loving, but we do see that Claudia’s mother cares, in less obvious ways. The central theme of the book is therefore not that Pecola, or any other child, particularly wants to be white – or have blue eyes- but it’s all about the perception of beauty, and the sense of self-worth.
Setting the subject matter aside, all readers were impressed with Morrison’s spectacular writing. At times even with humour, the prose is so densely and skilfully crafted that it is hard to believe it was her debut novel. Some of the structural parts, such as the chapters by season, and the ‘Dick and Jane’ chapter headings, didn’t work quite as well for some, but overall it is hard to doubt her skill. Even incidental characters such as the prostitutes, add colour, character and texture to the narrative.
As a side note, Toni Morrison has written approximately another eight novels, as well as plays and copious speeches and essays. This work is probably one of the most accessible, so fair warning to those looking to find some more of her brilliant prose!
“People don’t get their morality from their reading matter, they bring their morality to it” ( Clive James, who died the week we reviewed this!)
Keane’s skill is absolutely this, he is not our moraliser, he simply brings the facts to our attention and lays them out to demonstrate his points.
Review – October 2019 BPS Bookclub - The Fire Starters, by Jan Carson
Even before Jan Carson dropped in to fill us with additional insights, not to mention lots of further reading suggestions, this book had created plenty of discussion. For all of its good points, there was still a relatively high ‘ irritation factor’ for about half of our readers.
The Irish Times argues “ her surrealist style works well to tell grim tales of violence and loss” but this drifting into magical realism, or surrealism, is what most divides her audience.
There are 3 quite distinct narratives – the Tall Fires and the immediacy of Belfast in July; the parallel stories of Sammy and Jonathan as parents, and the vignettes of the Unfortunate Children. Some felt the book was too disjointed with all these different elements, others that it did all wrap to a satisfying close after all.
Taking Sammy and Jonathan first – everyone thought these characters were excellently portrayed, even the dark and violent Sammy elicited our sympathy for the relationships he‘s struggling with. The post Troubles ‘anger and guilt’ is very obvious in Sammy, and well expressed.
Whilst Sammy seems ‘full of badness’, Jonathan is the innocent, the victim of truly appalling parenting and perhaps even susceptible to fantasy and make believe himself? Each human is on the edge of rational self-control and appears to be living a false reality, keeping many secrets and being dishonest with themselves and others.
Then we get the background narrative of Belfast, and what is going on with the ‘fire starters’ – the language and context of the city is so good, so perceptive – but perhaps too parochial? Does the book in fact paint too dark a picture of East Belfast altogether? The ‘fire and water’ theme works well in building tension in the streets, then to be washed away by the torrential aftermath after the Twelfth.
And finally, the various vignettes of the children. Classified as ‘Unfortunates’, but arguably gifted in their own ways, and interestingly all quite warm and positive children (especially Ella) despite their parents being stressed and secretive about their ‘gifts’. Jan explained that her deliberate use of magical realism is what allows her to explore the background of conflict and paradox that is Belfast, at ‘arm’s length’ and this is what makes the book also more interesting than a pure ‘realism’ narrative.
In the course of our conversation she inspired us with a wealth of other writers, many of whom are using magical realism to comment on something more real, and I hope I’ve captured them all here. We spoke about the need for a beautifully concise short story, and how it is a particular art close to the hearts of the Irish. She also encouraged us to read more European writers in translation. A very inspiring and encouraging session.
Jan’s Best Reads !
Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter
Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
Women Talking, Miriam Toews
Birthday Stories, and The Elephant Vanishes, Haruki Murakami
The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
There There, Tommy Orange
The Redemption of Galen Pike, Carys Davies ( the perfect short story)
F is for Ferg, Ian Cochrane ( a fine example of ‘Cullybackey Gothic’ !)
Fever Dream, Samanta Schwabin
Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires
In Persuasion Nation, George Saunders