The Promise – Damon Galgut

A decade ago, Damon Galgut captured my imagination when I devoured three of his novels in quick successionThe Good Doctor, The Impostor and In A Strange Room. All were excellent, but the latter two were even more so. His last offering Arctic Summer, while elegantly written, was somehow not in, the same league as his ‘holy trinity’ of novels, but an earlier novel, The Quarry, was quite interesting and a precursor to what Galgut was capable of writing. And now we have The Promise, released earlier this month, where Galgut is once again in top form.

The Promise is a riveting, haunting tale that chronicles the disintegration of a white South African family seen through the prism of four funerals spread decades apart. Steeped in political overtones, the novel packs a punch with its lofty themes explored through the lens of the morally bankrupt Swarts. 

The first section dwells on the funeral of Ma, or Rachel Swart, and is set in the 1980s at the height of apartheid. The Swarts own and live on a dilapidated farm deep in the countryside. Manie Swart, who heads the family, runs a reptile park, having recently found solace in religion. With Rachel’s death, Manie is left with their three children – the eldest is Anton, followed by Astrid, and then the youngest of the brood, Amor.

When the book opens, we are first introduced to Amor, who while at her boarding school is informed of her mother’s death.

The moment the metal box speaks her name, Amor knows it’s happened. She’s been in a tense, headachy mood all day, almost like she had a warning in a dream but can’t remember what it is. Some sign or image, just under the surface. Trouble down below. Fire underground.

It’s a moment that feels unreal to her, and she follows through the motions, utterly dazed. Although her mother’s death was expected given the progress of her illness, Amor can’t quite come to terms with it.

It’s at Rachel’s funeral that the true colours of the Swart family start spilling out; their racist tendencies come to the fore. For instance, Manie Swart, his sister Tannie Marina and her husband Oom Ockie find it difficult to accept that Rachel has gone back to her original religion and has wished for a Jewish funeral.

It’s the usual topic, about how Ma has betrayed the whole family by changing her religion. Correction, by going back to her old religion. To being a Jew! Her aunt has been extremely vocal on this subject for the past half a year, ever since Ma fell ill, but what is Amor supposed to do about it? She’s just a child, she has no power, and anyway what’s so wrong about going back to your own religion if you want to?

The spotlight then zooms to Salome, the Swarts’ dedicated housemaid, who despite her many years of service as well as nursing Rachel in her final years, is hardly noticed by the rest of the Swarts and remains invisible.

To the Swarts, Salome is just a minor figure in the background. Yet, her future is the central premise of the novel, the essential moral core that rests on ‘the promise’ Rachel eked out from Manie in her last days. The promise pertains to Salome being given ownership of Lombard Place, the house where she has resided for a long time. It’s a promise that Manie refuses to acknowledge after Rachel’s death. That blank refusal shocks Amor, and it’s the first lesson that she learns regarding her family, they are well and truly lost.

Meanwhile, as the novel lurches forward in time, a picture of the Swart children begins to emerge. Anton, a soldier at the time of his mother’s funeral, deserts the Army, spends several years hiding, and only resurfaces when the political winds of change are blowing in the country – Mandela is elected PM and apartheid is abolished. Tormented by the fact that he shot a mother at the beginning of the book, Anton stares at a bleak future over the course of the novel as he gradually sinks deeper into debt and despair.

Every day since he left home has been imprinted on him as a visceral, primal endeavor and he doesn’t dwell on any of it, nothing to be savoured there. Survival isn’t instructive, just demeaning. The things he does recall with any clarity he tries not to, pushing them under the surface. Part of what you do to keep going.

You keep going because if you do there will eventually be an end. South Africa has changed, conscription stopped two years ago. Jesus, what he did by deserting the army, he’s a hero, not a criminal, amazing how fast that changed.

In sharp contrast, his younger sister Amor is quite an enigmatic, fascinating character, whose single-minded focus of giving Salome her rightful due is as powerful as the flash of lightning that strikes her at a young age. After the blatant disregard shown by her father towards her deceased mother’s wishes, Amor spends the next many years as far away from her family as possible. While she chooses to build a new life in Europe, she never really settles down, eschews meaningful relationships, as she restlessly flits from one city to another. Later, she finds her calling as a nurse working long hours in an AIDS hospital in Durban. Amor’s extreme form of selflessness is construed by her brother as her way of righting the wrongs of her morally wayward family.

Last but not the least is Astrid, the middle child, who settles for marriage and children, a destiny that fails to excite her and fills her with existential angst. Essentially frivolous and morally empty as the senior Swarts, Astrid resents Amor’s transformation into a beautiful woman, while her own looks begin to fade away.

Throughout the years, the siblings keep drifting away from each other, they barely keep in touch, and are only ever united during the four funerals.  Despite their fractured relationship, the one thing that binds Anton and Amor is their deep contempt for their family, which is tottering at the edge of ruin.

One of the key themes explored in The Promise is racial division and South Africa’s shadowy, opaque transition from apartheid to the post-apartheid era. This is primarily showcased in Salome’s treatment. During apartheid, the rights of blacks were severely restricted and they were not allowed to own property, a fact that the Swarts hold onto in their denial of fulfilling ‘the promise’. But with the dawn of a new era and dramatic shift in South Africa’s political landscape, the Swarts’ attitude towards Salome hardly undergoes a sea of change.

Amor, appearing half asleep, winds her way slowly upright to a single question. Um, what about Salome?

Excuse me?

Salome, who works at the farm.

Until this moment, everyone in the room has worn an almost stupid air. But now a tremor runs through the group, as if a tuning fork has been struck on the edge of the scene.

That old story, Astrid says. You’re still on that?

It was sorted out a long time ago, Tannie Marina says. We’re not going backwards now.

Amor shakes her head.  It wasn’t possible for Salome to own the land. But the laws have changed and now she can.

She can, Astrid says. But she’s not going to. Don’t be stupid.

South Africa may have embarked on a new path sprinting towards progress, but Salome’s status remains the same. On paper, apartheid has been dismantled, but this is not really reflected in the ground reality, the country’s evolution has been anything but smooth.

The Swarts are the epitome of this racist thinking, first brought to our notice when they fail to understand why Rachel had to go back to her Jewish roots. Seeds of racism are also sown in Astrid, who when cheating on her second husband, worries whether she has committed a sin, not because she is having an extra-marital affair but because she is having this affair with a black man.

We are also shown how South Africa’s economic progress has paved the way for unchecked greed and rampant corruption. Money permeates the motives of many, and even religion is not spared from its poisonous pull.

Money is what it’s all about. An abstraction that shapes your fate. Notes with numbers on them, each a cryptic IOU, not the real thing itself, but the numbers denote your power and there can never be enough.

This is apparent in how the Swart property is divided among the children and also in the way the local pastor wields his influence on the family, his greed for land ensuring that he extracts quite a bit from them eventually. Indeed, the tenuous relationship between the Swart family members is a symbol for the broader social and political fabric of South Africa struggling to hold its people together against a volatile backdrop.

But the most striking feature of The Promise is the shifting narrative eye. Indeed, Galgut’s unique narrative technique was on display in his brilliant book In A Strange Room, where he effortlessly switched between the first and the third person in the space of a paragraph. This is very much a trait in this novel too, but Galgut takes it to the next level. While In A Strange Room, the narration was from the author’s own point of view, here the narrative eye takes on a gamut of varied perspectives. It moves fluidly from the mind of one character to another, whether major or minor, and at times even pervades their dreams. But for the most part, the narrator is in direct conversation with the reader, always scathing, biting and lethal in his observation not only when exposing the hypocrisy and foibles of the Swarts, but also while commenting on the murkiness of South Africa’s altered political landscape and dubious moral standards.

She (Salome) shuffles off slowly around the koppie to her house, I mean the Lombard place…

The tone is as sharp as a knife and at times laced with subtle moments of black comedy. Galgut is wonderful as ever at creating an atmosphere of unease, as his characters, increasingly unmoored and unsteady, stumble towards their ominous fates. Powerful in its indictment of a country afflicted by racism and corruption, The Promise, then, is another winner from the Galgut oeuvre, and fully deserves being longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize.

A Month of Reading – June 2021

These are the books I read in June, a mix of contemporary fiction, translated literature, classics and memoir. All were very good, but my favourites were the Edith Wharton and Sigrid Nunez. Here is a brief look at the books…

TIESDomenico Starnone (tr. Jhumpa Lahiri)

Ties, a visceral, intense story of a marital breakdown and its damaging consequences for the parties involved, cleverly told through multiple perspectives.

The first section is where Vanda is writing to her husband, and it’s a letter that drips with rage, fury and frustration at him for abandoning their family and shirking his responsibilities of a husband and father.

 The second section opens with the two of them going holidaying to the seaside, a vacation that turns out to be perfect, freshening them up considerably. But when Aldo and Vanda return to their apartment, they are in for a rude shock. Their home has been vandalized, and Vanda’s beloved cat Labes is missing. 

As Aldo begins to clear up the mess, he chances upon the letters Vanda had written to him all those years ago, and this sets off a chain of memories – his reasons for abandoning the family, his aching love for Lidia and his fragile, uncertain rapport with his children. 

In Ties, then, Starnone presents to us a scathing but psychologically astute portrayal of marriage, of how one man’s actions can damage the entire family unit. The writing style is spare, furiously paced and intense especially when analyzing the characters’ motives. While betrayal and marital discord are its dominant themes, the novella is also a subtle exploration of love, parenting and the passage of time.

OLD NEW YORKEdith Wharton

Old New York is a marvellous collection of four novellas set in 19th century New York, each novella encompassing a different decade, from the first story set in the 1840s to the last in the 1870s. All these novellas display the brilliance of Edith Wharton’s writing and are proof of the fact that her keen insights and astute observations on the hypocrisy of New York of her time are second to none. In each of these four novellas, the central characters struggle to adapt to the rigid mores of conventional New York. Thrown into extraordinary situations not aligned to societal expectations, they find themselves alienated from the only world they have ever known. 

All the novellas are well worth reading, but the second one – The Old Maid – particularly is the finest of the lot, exquisitely written, and alone worth the price of the book.

THE FRIENDSigrid Nunez

The Friend is a beautiful, poignant novel of grief, love, loss, writing and more importantly the uniqueness of dogs and what makes them the best of companions.

The book opens with a suicide. We learn that the narrator, an unnamed woman, has just lost her lifelong best friend who chooses to end his life. Like the woman, we don’t really know what caused her friend to undertake such a drastic step, there is no suicide note either to give any sort of clue.

The friend’s third wife does not know what to do with the pet he has left behind – a Great Dane called Apollo, who is ageing and pretty much on his last legs. It was the man’s wish that the narrator adopt the giant dog, but she is initially reluctant. Dogs are prohibited in the building where she resides. But when subsequent attempts to re-home the dog fail, she decides to adopt him even when the threat of eviction looms large.

One of the biggest themes explored in this lovely novel is the joy of canine companionship. The book is also a lyrical meditation on grief, not just grief felt by the narrator but also by Apollo. In a nutshell, The Friend, then, is a truly wonderful book that sizzles with charm, intelligence and wisdom in equal measure.

NO PRESENTS PLEASE: MUMBAI STORIES – Jayant Kaikini (tr. Tejaswini Niranjana)

Published by Tilted Axis Press, No Presents Please is a wonderful, unique collection of 16 stories that encapsulate the essence of Mumbai, of what it represents to its inhabitants, many of them small-town migrants, drifters or ordinary middle class families, whose struggles don’t typically make for screaming headlines. It is a vivid portrayal of city life, a sense of place evoked by exploring the identities and the spirit of Mumbaikars.

We are offered a glimpse into the lives that unfold in their small, humble settings, their endless drive for a better life which they believe is possible in the vast, teeming, bustling and sometimes cruel metropolis of Mumbai. These are stories that reveal a range of facets – poignant, heartbreaking, absurd, comic – and gradually work their magic on you.

THE RED PARTS: AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A TRIAL – Maggie Nelson

The Red Parts is Maggie Nelson’s fascinating, singular account of her aunt Jane’s brutal death and the trial that took place some 35 years afterward. It is a blend of true crime and personal memoir told by Nelson in prose that is clear cut and engaging in style.

Nelson is brilliant at depicting how the re-opening of the case after 35 years, reopens old wounds for the family and how they cope with it. Even if the guilty party is convicted, will the family feel any sense of closure? Or is the whole exercise pointless because Jane had been dead a long time ago and nothing can ever bring her back?

Nelson’s language is lyrical, precise, wonderfully controlled and she eschews any tidy resolution. Yes, the DNA evidence marks Leiterman as the man, but seeds of doubt remain. But maybe, writing the book itself offered some sort of a closure, however miniscule, to Nelson, or as she puts it, “Some things might be worth telling simply because they happened.”

A MONTH IN SIENAHisham Matar

Hisham Matar’s fascination with the Sienese School of painting can be traced back to when the author was nineteen years old. It was 1990 and he had lost his father that year. Hisham’s father was living in exile in Cairo, and suddenly one afternoon, was kidnapped and flown back to Libya. He never met his father after that.

A year later Hisham started visiting the National Gallery and became absorbed with a slew of Sienese paintings. He could not really figure out why, but one can assume that being lost in these paintings offered some sort of a refuge and a way to think about the world around him.

Decades later, with no idea of his father’s whereabouts or even if he was alive, Hisham decides to finally visit Siena, the birthplace of the paintings that captured his imagination. As he visits art galleries, museums, chapels, and the city square, Hisham reflects on the big questions of loss, grief, faith, violence, the purpose of art and its relationship with life.

He forges new friendships, is touched by the hospitality of the city’s inhabitants, and grapples with the concept of faith and how it was severely tested in the Middle Ages when the Black Death swept across most of Europe and the Middle East, ravaging the countries and reducing their populations by almost half.

Matar’s writing is understated and elegant, as he beautifully articulates his thoughts on a variety of topics. His exploration of Siena evokes nostalgia for what makes Europe so unique – abundance of art museums, pretty squares and the luxury of sitting at a pavement cafe in the summer sun savouring a glass of wine. Reading A Month in Siena really felt like armchair travelling to my favourite continent…at a time when overseas trips seem pretty nigh impossible.

That was it for June. July is turning out to be a tough month because of a personal emergency, and my reading has taken a big hit. But as and when I’m finding the time, I am alternating between Damon Galgut’s The Promise and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years, the first book in the Cazalet Chronicles.

Old New York – Edith Wharton

I have been on a bit of an Edith Wharton spree over the last couple of years. In 2020, I read and wrote about The Custom of the Country and The New York Stories (the latter published by NYRB Classics in a handsome edition). And this year, earlier on I wrote about The House of Mirth. All are wonderful books to which Old New York is another worthwhile addition.

Old New York is a marvellous collection of four novellas set in 19th century New York, each novella encompassing a different decade, from the first story set in the 1840s to the last in the 1870s. All these novellas display the brilliance of Edith Wharton’s writing and are proof of the fact that her keen insights and astute observations on the hypocrisy of New York of her time are second to none.

FALSE DAWN (The ‘Forties)

In False Dawn, the first novella in this collection, we meet Mr Halston Raycie, whose “extent in height, width and thickness was so nearly the same that whichever way he was turned one had an equally broad view of him.”

Mr Raycie has a formidable personality and is generally well-respected in his social circle, although in many ways he is a tyrant at least where his family is concerned. The novella opens with a garden party at the Raycie residence in honour of the young Lewis Raycie, who is about to embark on his first Grand Tour to Europe. It is intended that Lewis should travel extensively since his father strongly believes that “a young man, before setting up for himself, must see the world; form his taste; fortify his judgement.”

But the senior Raycie also has a project in mind for his son. He wants to build a Raycie gallery with as many Italian art masterpieces as possible, and Lewis has been entrusted with adequate capital to select and purchase some of the finest works of art from the Italian masters in vogue then. Domenichino, Albano, Carlo Dolci, Guercino are some of the names thrown about, even a Raphael, if possible.

The dream, the ambition, the passion of Mr Raycie’s life, was (as his son knew) to found a Family; and he had only Lewis to found it with. He believed in primogeniture, in heirlooms, in entailed estates, in all the ritual of the English “landed” tradition.

Temperament-wise, Lewis could not have been more different from his father – he is impressionable, malleable and remains in awe of Mr Raycie’s imposing persona. Lewis is a bit apprehensive about his upcoming trip, but the mission of building a Raycie gallery fills him with a sense of purpose. Once on his travels though, Lewis befriends a fellow called John Ruskin who introduces the former to some stunning paintings, but from relatively obscure artists. Lewis is mesmerized and suddenly takes the bold, innovative step of buying these artworks. But when he returns home with them, both father and son are in for a rude shock.

Lewis is sure of gaining his father’s approval, but the latter is strongly of the view that his son has “wasted” the capital at his disposal by not buying the famous art paintings as was his mandate. Senior Raycie leaves no stone unturned in expressing his deep disappointment with Lewis, and resorts to actions that have deeper repercussions for his son. But will Lewis end up having the last laugh?

False Dawn, then, examines the set ways of New York society and how it values collective opinions rather than individual views. Halston Raycie is no art connoisseur by any yardstick, but insists on his gallery displaying works of Italian masters that are the talk of the town simply because he wants to keep up with his peers. It is ultimately a question of status and not aesthetics. The fact that every painting can communicate something personal and unique to every viewer is a concept lost on him. Lewis Percy’s individual thinking has no place in New York society and he is derided for his so-called foolishness, not to mention that he must bear the brunt of his father’s subsequent actions.

THE OLD MAID (The ‘Fifties)

The second novella, The Old Maid, to me, is the finest in the collection and alone worth the price of the book. It opens thus…

In the old New York of the ‘fifties a few families ruled, in simplicity and affluence. Of these were the Ralstons.

Within the limits of their universal caution, the Ralstons fulfilled their obligations as rich and respected citizens. They figured on the boards of all the old-established charities, gave handsomely to thriving institutions, had the best cooks in New York, and when they travelled abroad ordered statuary of the American sculptors in Rome whose reputation was already established.

We are introduced to Delia Lovell who has married James (Jim) Ralston at the tender age of twenty. Prior to her marriage, Delia had romantic feelings for Clement Spender, an aspiring painter in Rome, who was also passionately in love with her. However, their union does not come to fruition largely because of his uncertain financial position and his inability to provide for a family.

Now, as part of the Ralston fold, Delia, at 25, is “established, the mother of two children, the possessor of a generous allowance of pin-money, and by common consent, one of the handsomest and most popular ‘young patrons’ of her day.”

Delia is grateful for her comfortable life and her established position, and yet somewhere she is gripped by a sense of discontent, that fleeting notion that life is somehow passing her by.

She was too near to the primitive Ralstons to have as clear a view of them as, for instance, the son in question might one day command: she lived under them as unthinkingly as one lives under the laws of one’s country. Yet that tremor of the muted key-board, that secret questioning which sometimes beat in her like wings, would now and then so divide her from them that for a fleeting moment she could survey them in their relation to other things.

Meanwhile, there enters Charlotte Lovell, Delia’s impoverished cousin, “the old maid” of the title. Charlotte’s upbringing is in sharp contrast to Delia’s despite coming from the same family. Charlotte’s father was in fact branded as one of the “poor Lovells.” Due to their constrained means, not much of a bright future is expected for her. Indeed, we are told “poor Charlotte had become so serious, so prudish almost, since she had given up balls and taken to visiting the poor!” It is generally agreed that Charlotte is destined to be an old maid.

But then to everyone’s surprise, Charlotte’s engagement to Joe Ralston is announced. However, instead of experiencing the joy of a promising future, Charlotte’s woes only deepen. In the weeks leading to her betrothal, Charlotte makes a dramatic confession to Delia that alters the course of the former’s life. Delia learns that Charlotte has borne a child out of wedlock as a consequence of a brief love affair, and has managed to keep it a secret. It also explains why Charlotte had devoted so much of her time to poor children, her daughter – Tina – has been placed among them, and it’s the only way for her to remain as close to Tina as possible.

What torments Charlotte is the future of Tina. Should she part herself from her? Or should she reject marriage and happiness to continue her furtive care of her baby?

Charlotte’s dilemma is particularly fuelled by the fact that after marriage, Joe Ralston expects her to give up her time with those poor children. Why visit them when she can focus on starting her own family? But that would mean abandoning Tina, which Charlotte cannot bring herself to do. Delia suggests a way out. She offers to provide a comfortable home for Tina and for Charlotte to be with her, but for this she has to make a sacrifice – Charlotte cannot entertain any hopes of marrying Joe Ralston.

At the core of this gorgeous, layered novella is the relationship between Delia and Charlotte, how they are as different as chalk and cheese, and how they envy each other on certain aspects. Having married safely, Delia hasn’t experienced sexual passion like Charlotte has. Similarly, Charlotte, despite being a mother, cannot really experience the joys of motherhood like Delia can, because her secret cannot be revealed at any cost, not even to her daughter. It’s a story where Wharton does not entirely rule out the idea of human happiness; it’s only that this happiness is always narrow in its scope, confined within strict boundaries. One can’t help but think that all things considered, it is Charlotte to whom Fate deals the cruellest hand.

THE SPARK (The ‘Sixties)

The third novella called The Spark, was my least favourite of the lot, but still very interesting, delving into the theme of the moral compass of Old New York.

The narrator here is a young male from a good family who is fascinated by an older man in his parents’ set, a man called Hayley Delane. What catches the narrator’s eye is how different Delane is from the other men of his ilk. For instance, Delane marries Leila Gracy, a woman fifteen years his junior, despite the fact her father is in disgrace to the point where “he had to resign from all his clubs.” Delane, however, loves her unreservedly and does not seem to be too perturbed even when she is brazenly flirting with other men.

Two particular incidents form the focus of this novella, which display how Delane can rebel and be at odds with his social set. The first is when he slaps one of Leila’s lovers for ill-treating a horse. But because this would be perceived as an act of revenge of a jealous husband, Delane is forced to apologise so that his wife’s reputation is not sullied. The other incident where Delane draws much flak is when he decides to provide a home to his father-in-law under his own roof and undertake the responsibility of his care, an act which sees Leila distancing herself from Delane as well.

Delane has differing opinions when it comes to social questions, or the relation between “gentlemen” and the community. And his typical response tends to be along the lines of…

“After all, what does it matter who makes the first move? The thing is to get the business done.”

NEW YEAR’S DAY (The ‘Seventies)

In New Year’s Day, the spotlight is on Lizzie Hazeldean, a married woman, who is spotted leaving a Fifth Avenue hotel with a man who is not her husband. This development immediately sets tongues wagging, and Lizzie is in danger of being completely excluded from society.

A lot about this novella reminded me of The House of Mirth, where Lily Bart’s downfall is precipitated when she is unfairly judged for leaving the house of a married man, and how society gradual shuts her out with tragic consequences.

Interestingly, Lizzie’s circumstances are subsequently revealed to the reader and the reasons that compel her to hook up with another man. But in the claustrophobic world of Old New York, conventions and decorum are meant to be adhered to, and there is a heavy price to pay for deviating from conformity. Unconventional behaviour is a surefire recipe for doom.

This is also a novella which shines a light on the plight of women who due to their single-minded upbringing are not equipped for an independent career but must rely on marriage for financial support.

Marriage alone could save such a girl from starvation, unless she happened to run across an old lady who wanted her dogs exercised and her Churchman read aloud to her. Even the day of painting wild-roses on fans, of coloring photographs to “look like” miniatures, of manufacturing lampshades and trimming hats for more fortunate friends – even this precarious beginning of feminine independence had not dawned.

Some more thoughts on these novellas…

In each of these four novellas, the central characters struggle to adapt to the rigid mores of conventional New York. Thrown into extraordinary situations not aligned to societal expectations, they find themselves alienated from the only world they have ever known. In her introduction, Marilyn French dwells on how appearances matter a great deal and if a man lost his money or a woman lost her reputation, they simply fell out of society, they were treated as if they did not exist.

The women, as ever, are always given a raw deal. A married woman seen with another man means that the woman’s image is guaranteed to be tainted, the man is never judged. Similarly, a man with a child out of wedlock hardly causes much flutter, and if he separately provides for it, the matter is considered closed and swept under a carpet. But a woman in exactly the same situation is sure to be ruined and treated harshly.

What makes it all the more worse is that these so-called rules of society are also upheld by women. There is a particular scene in The Old Maid where Charlotte is yet to divulge to Delia the gravity of her problem. Here’s a snippet of a conversation between the two…

“Well?-Oh, Chatty,” Delia exclaimed abruptly illuminated, “you don’t mean to say that you’re going to let any little thing in Joe’s past-? Not that I’ve ever heard the last hint; never. But even if there were…” She drew a deep breath, and bravely proceeded to extremities. “Even if you’ve heard that he’s been…that he’s had a child-of course he would have provided for it before…”

The girl shook her head. “I know: you needn’t go on. ‘Men will be men’; but it’s not that.”

Delia seems to be okay with the irritating, misguided notion that “men will be men” and that Charlotte can brush aside Joe’s affairs and offspring from them, if any. But when it’s clear that Charlotte is the one with an illegitimate child, Delia feels that it is dishonourable for Charlotte to wed Joe without revealing the truth of her situation to him. Delia may have taken the unconventional step of providing for Charlotte’s child, yet she is also prone to double-standards that are troubling.

In all the four novellas, Wharton’s prose sparkles with intelligence and deft touches of irony. Nowhere is this more apparent than in False Dawn and The Spark, both of which end on a visibly ironic note, while there are subtle hues present in the other two novellas.

Old New York, then, is Wharton’s brilliant, scathing depiction of a society “where sensitive souls were like muted keyboards, on which Fate played without a sound.”

The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial – Maggie Nelson

The Red Parts is Maggie Nelson’s fascinating, singular account of her aunt Jane’s brutal death and the trial that took place some 35 years afterward. It is a blend of true crime and personal memoir told by Nelson in prose that is clear cut and engaging in style.

In 1969, Maggie Nelson’s aunt Jane Mixer was found dead in a cemetery in Michigan having reportedly died of two gunshot wounds. A stocking found around her neck was used to strangulate her thereafter. Her body was then dragged to the cemetery and left there, while all her personal belongings were carefully gathered and laid beside her body. Jane was on her way home for spring break, and had advertised for a car ride to her home on the college message board. She was not seen since then until her body was discovered a few miles away from the campus.

Jane’s murderer was never found. At around the same time, there were a slew of young women who were murdered by a serial killer called John Norman Collins – these killings were labeled the Michigan Murders – and it was presumed that Collins had also killed Jane although it could not be effectively proved and Collins himself denied having done so.

Meanwhile, the family moved on, but the spectre of her aunt’s death continued to haunt Maggie, who had never met her aunt. She had just released a book of poems on her called “Jane: A Murder” and goes on to describe how the whole process of trying to make sense of that murder consumed her.

But then a phone call that Maggie’s mother received in November 2004 put a new spin on things and altered their world. The Detective Sergeant on the case – Schroeder – informed them of having uncovered new DNA evidence which led to the arrest of the suspect. Profile-wise, the person charged – Gary Leiterman – was nothing like what Maggie had envisaged as her aunt’s potential murderer. A family man and mild mannered, there was no way of gauging why he would brutally murder Jane…the lack of motive was a mystery, but the science of DNA, which overwhelmingly pointed out to him, could not be ignored.

As far as the DNA samples go, there is one particularly fascinating chapter which ponders on the question of how precise DNA testing is. Besides Leiterman’s DNA on Jane’s clothes, there was a single drop of blood on her body that belonged to a prior convict Ruelas.  In 2004, Ruelas was an adult spending time in prison having murdered his mother, so he seemed like a likely suspect. But there was a problem. When Jane was murdered, Ruelas was a four-year old boy…obviously he can’t have killed Jane at that age, so how did his blood land up on her body?

One of the biggest themes that Nelson explores in this book is society’s relentless obsession with violence, particularly against women. She also touches upon how the murder of white women draws significant media attention, while the women of colour who are exposed to violence go unnoticed, as if all lives don’t equally matter.

While writing about her aunt, Nelson also reflects on her family – her parents’ divorce which bewilders her father, his subsequent death and the void it leaves in their lives, the difficulty of connecting with her then rebellious and wayward elder sister Emily, her love-hate relationship with her mom and last but not the least – the lack of warmth both Emily and she feel towards their stepfather.

Nelson particularly draws parallels between her aunt Jane and her sister Emily – both were rebels but paid a heavy price for not always conforming to societal expectations.

For as long as I can remember, this has been one of my favorite feelings. To be alone in public, wandering at night, or lying close to the earth, anonymous, invisible, floating. To be ‘a man of the crowd,’ or, conversely, alone with Nature or your god. To make your claims on public space even as you feel yourself disappearing into its largesse, into its sublimity. To practice for death by feeling completely empty, but somehow still alive.

It’s a sensation that people have tried, in various times and places, to keep women from feeling. 

But more importantly, Nelson wrestles with the fact whether it’s even her right to write about her aunt, to present her story to the world, an aunt she never personally knew, and a story that is not Nelson’s in the first place.

Nelson’s language is lyrical, precise, wonderfully controlled and she eschews any tidy resolution. Yes, the DNA evidence marks Leiterman as the man, but seeds of doubt remain. Nelson’s grandfather (Jane’s father) particularly feels that he would rather have an un-convicted man look him in the eye and confess he killed Jane rather than have a convicted man spend the rest of his life in jail maintaining his innocence.

Nelson is brilliant at depicting how the re-opening of the case after 35 years, reopens old wounds for the family and how they cope with it. For Nelson’s grandfather it feels like his daughter has died twice. Nelson’s mother recalls her fears when Jane was just murdered, that she might be the next in line. And after so many years, even if the guilty party is convicted, will the family feel any sense of closure? Or is the whole exercise pointless because Jane had been dead a long time ago and nothing can ever bring her back?

The witnesses and detectives fold and unfold this towel many times, always with a certain solemnity and formality, as if it were a flag. But the flag of what country, I cannot say. Some dark crescent of land, a place where suffering is essentially meaningless, where the present collapses into the past without warning, where we cannot escape the fates we fear the most, where heavy rains come and wash bodies up and out of their grave, where grief lasts forever and its force never fades.

Nelson wonderfully combines elements of psychoanalysis, a personal memoir that is deeply touching and an interesting crime story with a forensic portrayal of all the details that come with it – the grisly photos of Jane’s dead body, the list of items marked as evidence and an analysis of the truly perplexing enigma of the discovery of a 4-year old’s blood on Jane’s body.

The Red Parts, then, is an honest, gripping and moving account of the painful aftermath of a heinous act being committed. Maybe, writing the book itself offered some sort of a closure, however miniscule, to Nelson, or as she puts it, “Some things might be worth telling simply because they happened.”

I know what I want is impossible. If I can make my language flat enough, exact enough, if I can rinse each sentence clean enough, like washing a stone over and over again in river water, if I can find the right perch or crevice from which to record everything, if I can give myself enough white space, maybe I could do it. I could tell you this story while walking out of this story. I could—it all could—just disappear.