#20BooksofSummer: No. 15 Holiday Heart (vs. Fleishman Is In Trouble)

Margarita Garcia Robayo: Holiday Heart, transl. Charlotte Coombe

This book ticks three boxes: #SpanishLitMonth, #20BooksofSummer and #WomeninTranslation.

I didn’t read this one in time for the Borderless Book Club in June, but I nevertheless enjoyed hearing the discussions around it. I think quite a few struggled with the unlikability of the main characters, but I felt like that was the point of the book. It offers a different perspective on the life of privileged Colombian immigrants to the US. All too often Latinos are perceived as racially inferior, uneducated, relegated to menial jobs or (if they are lucky) entertainment – but what about those immigrants who are wealthy, well-educated and feel superior to those with a darker skin colour than themselves and to those coming from other Latin American countries?

There is a far greater variety among immigrants, even when they come from the same linguistic background or the same continent, than we are typically shown in films or literature. It was this aspect of the story which I found most interesting: the chasing after a new cultural identity, the ambiguous feelings towards the home country, feeling second-rate in a host culture when you were used to feeling first-rate at home. Just because you are an immigrant and discriminated against doesn’t mean that you cannot find others even lower than you, so that you too can discriminate (or merely quietly envy). Snobbery and racism are rife, as well as resentment for the way they are treated in their new environment.

Being brown isn’t an advantage, thinks Pablo, and he thinks about himself, his mother and his sisters, even Lucia. Being black gets you further. A brown man is a watered-down man, stuck halfway between identities. It’s impossible to construct a strong identity if you are brown.

It is also the story of a marriage breaking down, where a sense of common identity is not enough to keep them together. Lucia was forced to move around a lot as a child, following her father’s job with oil companies, so she wants to integrate fully, to raise their children as Americans, and can be quite sarcastic or bored about her origins. Meanwhile, Pablo has a nostalgia about ‘our country’ and resents this uprooting:

‘…one day you’ll realise that a man without roots is a dead man.’ He couldn’t remember Lucia’s response. Something seething and spiteful. Something about how much his argument sounded like a lyric from an Ismael Rivera song.

When Pablo develops a ‘holiday heart’ syndrome (a severe heart condition usually associated with over-indulgence of food, drink, sex and the like during the holidays), the couple’s contrasting attitudes towards life become ever clearer. Pablo is going through a midlife crisis and having several affairs, including one with a pupil of his. Lucia goes off to Miami with the kids and flirts with a celebrity football player who is also there on vacation. These shenanigans got a little bit tedious, but they were revealing of character. There is an emptiness at the heart of this relationship and in their own hearts. When reading this book, I get the same sense of alienation as in watching a film like Antonioni’s The Eclipse.

Almost immediately after reading this book, I read Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (although this was a library book and adjacent to my #20booksofsummer reading plans). It is also about the breakdown of a marriage, but set in the well-heeled milieu of New York doctors, bankers and celebrity agents, with summer homes in the Hamptons and an endless round of private schools, tennis lessons, piano lessons, holiday camps and what not else. I wondered whether the readers who had found the Holiday Heart characters unlikable thought that these ones were more relatable because they were white.

The book was funny in parts, especially when describing the sex-fuelled haze of online dating, or the reactions of other people to the news that a couple is divorcing ‘people pretended to care for him when they were really asking after themselves’). Instead of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, this one reminded me of the TV series Sex and the City. There are some sharp observations about modern life and gender relationships, but I couldn’t help feeling that I was reading a lifestyle article in Vanity Fair or New York Times. I couldn’t care deeply about either Toby or his wife Rachel, or their respective midlife crises, or any of the characters who seem to relish their respective well-furnished prisons even though they complain about them. Although some of the rants were really spot-on, I couldn’t help remembering the critique I got on an excerpt of my novel in progress a few years back – that it was too much of a rant, the whingeing of a privileged white Mum that nobody would be interested in reading. Yes, this is exactly what this book felt like (although we get two for the price of one, rants from both genders).

I watched a couple go by, burrowing into each other… I pitied them… in a few years, that girl would be just some guy’s wife. She would be someone her husband referred to as angry – as angry and a dour and a nag. He would wonder where her worship went; he would wonder where her smiles were. He would wonder why she never broke out in laughter; why she never wore lingerie,; why her underwear, once lacy and dangerous, was now cotton and white; why she ddn’t like it from behind anymore; why she never got on top… The fortress where they kept their secrets would begin to crack, and he would push water through those cracks when he would begin to confide in his friends. He would get enough empathy and nods of understanding so that he would begin to wonder exactly what he had to gain from remaining with someone so bitter, someone who no longer appreciated him for who he was, and life’s too short, man, life’s too short.

Although I flagged quite a few passages that made me nod and smile wryly in recognition, overall I felt I’d heard the story a hundred times before and the style was too pedestrian to rescue it. It was an entertaining enough way to spend a weekend, but I choose Holiday Heart over this one. The Colombian novel gives a more lasting feeling of unease, raises provocative questions, and has a more precise, clearcut style where you feel every word counts (plus, it has been carefully and lovingly translated).

Quick Reviews: Santiago Gamboa, Laura Kaye and Helen Dunmore

Sadly, I have little time to write leisurely reviews, so I thought I’d better write these short impressions, before too much time lapses since I read the books.

Helen Dunmore: Birdcage Walk

Having previously enjoyed Dunmore’s novels and having mourned her death earlier this year, I read her last novel with a rather biased view and excessive attention to detail. The strange, uncomfortable marriage of John Diner and Lizzie Fawkes seems to me to be a metaphor for death, and our own twisted relationship with it: longing for it, fearing it, trying to make sense of it, blinding ourselves deliberately to it at times. Above all, there is the dread of being forgotten, of leaving nothing behind – like the unmarked headstone of John’s first wife or the lost works of Lizzie’s writer mother Julia.

This is a slow-moving novel, far too slow perhaps for many readers. It relies upon gradual building of layer upon layer of atmosphere and characterisation. Sometimes the reader jumps ahead with conclusions (certainly in one scene, if they can read French), but the author won’t be rushed along. I won’t lie: initially it was a book that I returned to willingly but not with particular impatience. By the end, however, I grew to love it and it left me with a sense of uncertain chill but also profound satisfaction. If we slow down to the pace of the narrator, we can more fully appreciate the poetic language and allow ourselves to be fully attuned to the story. I enjoyed the beginning of The Essex Serpent more, but I enjoyed the ending of this one more.

Santiago Gamboa: Return to the Dark Valley (transl. Howard Curtis)

I haven’t read Colombian author Gamboa’s previous novel Night Prayers, where two of the characters in this novel first make their appearance. But the novel stands up very well on its own: if you can accept a rather zany stop-and-start beginning, where we move from one point of view to the next. It’s like putting your eye to an old-fashioned kaleidoscopic tube and waiting for the bright colours to resolve themselves into a pattern, but then they morph into something different. We meet troubled Manuela trying to make her way out of poverty and abuse into a life of poetry and love – and being thoroughly let down along the way. A fastidious consul searching for his beloved Juana, whom he wants to rescue from a life of prostitution. Tertuliano, a fiery Argentinian preacher with pronounced racist tendencies. Last but not least, and somewhat surprisingly, the poet Rimbaud, restless lifelong seeker, a devil with the face of an angel. Somehow, all these stories mingle against a backdrop of terrorists holding hostages in the Irish Embassy in Madrid and a newly prosperous Colombia trying to forget its vicious paramilitary past. This tale of learning how to hate and demand revenge is often surprising and has some memorable scenes set in a rather cruel (and uncomfortably familiar) world. It has conviction, but lacks coherence, to my mind.

Laura Kaye: English Animals

At times satirical, at times sad, this is a fearsome and fierce, but not savage depiction of cultural differences. Mirka is a young Slovakian girl who takes on a job as a housekeeper/trainee taxidermist in an English country home. Her bosses Richard and Sophie are by turns generous, chaotic and self-absorbed. Their marriage is a bit of an unknowable mess and puzzles Mirka, and she gets involved more than she should. Some of the secondary characters are completely outrageous, but Richard and Sophie are more like Tom and Daisy in The Great Gatsby: ‘careless people, who smash up things and creatures’ – only in this case they hunt and stuff them. It’s the carelessness which grates more than anything. I suspect that if this book had been written by a non-English person, it would have been far more vicious, and perhaps all the worse for it (but perhaps also better for it, it’s  hard to know). I’m thinking of A.M. Bakalar’s corrosive depiction of cultural differences in Madame Mephisto.