Somebody Loves You – Mona Arshi

Mona Arshi’s Somebody Loves You first came to my attention when it was shortlisted this year for the Goldsmiths Prize, always an interesting prize to follow…and it turned out to be an excellent read.

The day my sister tried to drag the baby fox into our house was the same day my mother had her first mental breakdown.

Thus begins the second chapter in Mona Arshi’s Somebody Loves You, a beautifully written, poetic, coming-of-age novel on family, mental illness, immigrant life and the trials of growing up.

Comprising a series of vignettes (the kind of storytelling I’ve come to love), this novel is mostly from Ruby’s point of view who from an early age decides to become silent on her own terms, refusing to speak.

The first time I spoke out loud at school I said the word sister and tripped all over it. I tried a second time, and my tongue got caught on the middle-syllable hiss and hovered there. The third time? A teacher asked me a question, and I opened my mouth as a sort of formality but closed it softly, knowing with perfect certainty that nothing would ever come out again. I was certain about this the next morning and even more certain about it the day following that. I uttered absolutely nothing. It became the most certain thing in my life. 

These myriad snapshots coalesce to paint a picture of a family struggling to come to terms with their inner demons and the demands of the world outside.

Ruby is the youngest member of her family that comprises her parents and her older, more voluble and fiery sister Rania. Her father is an “untidily put together man with a mild temperament.” Her mother is prone to bouts of depression which entails days and months of absence from home until one day she never comes back. During these days called Mugdays (“Mugdays start with unpredictable and approximate mornings”), when the mother’s melancholy moods take centrestage and performing simple tasks becomes a challenge, the burden of responsibility falls on Rania and Ruby who are compelled to do the heavy lifting.

Gradually we are given a glimpse into Ruby’s circle of friends, family members and neighbours. As far as the extended family goes, there’s Biji, the maternal grandmother, who relies on potions and superstitions to ward off the cloud of despondency that has descended upon Ruby’s mother as well as various ills that afflict Ruby in her early years; Auntie Number One, who Rania and Ruby dislike because “she almost always appeared when there was some crisis or other in the family”, her presence a constant reminder that things at home are not well. Biji derides Auntie Number One for her modern outlook, remarking that she is “tainted by the bitterness of unmarriage and the foul bile that builds up in a barren womb.” But there’s something about their aunt that also impresses the girls…

Rania and I knew the truth about Auntie Number One; we had come across her once on The High Street. We knew she lived with a man; we caught sight of her putting up posters for the Labour Party with someone who wore a leather jacket; they kept leaning into each other and sharing a kiss and a roll-up cigarette. Rania was impressed. ‘Look, Ruby, he’s not even bad-looking – good for Auntie Number One. She actually seems happy!’

We learn of Ruby’s friendships with a boy called David, who is nonjudgmental and accepts her for who she is (“he was complicated and sensitive and had been adopted”); her best friend Farah who longs for a normal life and to be accepted by her peers only to be estranged from Ruby when her wish is granted.

The next time I see her at school she’s been adopted by her classmates again and is becoming prettified. This time the makeup sticks and the clothes hang spectacularly on her long body. She is spectacular. Her little teeth are glinting in happiness. When I am in the library, I meet her in the doorway; her eye makeup is in three different shades and matches her jumper, good for her. This is Farah. The other Farah is dying softly in another room.

Racism, violence against women, mental illness, loss, sisterhood are some of the themes woven into the fabric of this novel that make it such a haunting, elegiac read. As their mother’s moods become increasingly unpredictable, and the father struggles to cope, the sisters appear to share the kind of bond that helps them tentatively navigate challenges at home, school as well as the heartaches of plain growing up. One gets the feeling that Rania is the stronger sibling, protective of her younger sister, and those roles get reversed later when a traumatic event compels Rania to seek solace in Ruby’s companionship, Ruby’s silence is a balm to the clamour in Rania’s heart.

The spectre of racism looms large – when Ruby is born, her mother is attended “by a health visitor who was suspicious about Indian mothers and their baby-mother-habits”; a pen friend is forbidden by her father to write letters to Ruby (“I’m not allowed to be your pen friend anymore because he found out you’re a Paki”). Hints of violence against women disturbingly abound, Rania will go on to face the worst of it as the novel progresses.

Mental illness and its impact on a family unit is a core theme, particularly, explored. For Ruby’s mother suffering from chronic depression, gardening becomes a hobby that sustains her – the positive vibes from plants and flowers growing and blossoming with tender loving care adds that extra spring to her step, even if her family does not share her passion. However, the menacing approach of winter when most activities in the garden cease is a portent of darkness once again enveloping the mother’s mind. 

When the garden’s asleep for winter, when there’s nothing to nurture, nothing to fight for or revive on the borders, when my mother has put away her tools and potting soil in our shed, that strange look of blank hunger takes up residence.

Employing a style that is episodic and non-linear, this is a sensitively written novel – quietly devastating and lush with vivid imagery and poetic descriptions. For instance, the very first vignette has shades of a dream logic, where Ruby puts a blue egg into her mouth which transforms into a slew of birds filling the room “with their iridescent turquoise feathers and clamour of yellow-black beaks”; the word ‘agony’ to Ruby is the worst of all the ‘a’ words because “there was a sliver of glass in the middle of the brittle ‘o’.”

Ruby might be silent but her voice is unforgettable as she tries to comprehend and cope with various forces at play often resisting the growing pressure to blend in (“’Are you listening?’ Farah persists. ‘Because sometimes I think you are drifting further and further from what is normal’”).  While the tone is often melancholic, the sheer beauty of the writing and a unique way of looking at the world makes Somebody Loves You an astonishing read.

Notes to Self – Emilie Pine

While looking at my reading habits over the last few years, I realize I haven’t read too many essay collections (something I need to correct), but I have been quite impressed with the ones I have –Seduction and Betrayal by Elizabeth Hardwick is the one book that comes to mind. Now, I will also add Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self to that meager list.

Notes to Self is a collection of radical, honest and unflinching essays on personal events that marked Emilie Pine’s life – caring for an alcoholic parent, the crippling grief of infertility, taboos around female bodies and sexual violence.

There are a total of six essays in the collection, but for this review, I will focus on the first two essays, which are simply brilliant and worth the price of the book alone.

Let me begin with what to me is the standout piece – ‘From the Baby Years’, a poignant essay on Pine’s emotional upheaval when it dawns on her that she will never experience motherhood. Pine was not always sure she wanted to be a mother though. In her twenties and early thirties, she observed her friends leap into parenthood and witnessed the extraordinary range of emotions they underwent. But she and her partner R weren’t very sure it’s a step they wanted to take. They debated a lot on the pros and cons, and also talked about their lives as people who loved quiet and calm and the space to read and write. For them, this was a rich and fulfilling life and having a child would mean giving up all of that.

But then, one day she accompanies her friend and her child to the park and observes the love between the two. Yearning for that very same bond, Pine decides she wants to be a mother. She manages to convince R, who is still unsure, but they decide to take the plunge.

There is no luck though after a lot of ‘trying’. And thereby begins Pine’s ordeal of closely monitoring her cycles, endless tests and hospital visits to determine the root of the problem. At one point, Pine does become pregnant only to miscarry and she writes about the emotional pain this caused and the ambiguity surrounding it – the foetus was growing, but there was no heartbeat, and under stringent Irish laws, the foetus is prioritized over the mother, so she couldn’t abort it either unless there was more clarity on its status.

All of this begins to take a toll on the couple’s relationship. It comes to a point when they have to decide whether to go in for IVF treatment. And after an important conversation – possibly the most important of their lives – Pine and R decide not to.

I loved this essay for its frank and honest portrayal of the range of emotions that the author felt – the love of a child that evoked the desire to be a mother, difficulty in comprehending what’s going on inside her body, the jealousy she felt when her sister became pregnant, and the grief of realizing that her dream of motherhood will remain unfulfilled.

But what I loved most is how the author came to terms with this fact, displaying hope and courage. Why grieve over something you can’t have, and focus instead on what you do have? Pine realized that she has a great relationship with her partner and why not treasure that rather than going after something that is not likely to happen?

And it hit me. We are growing old together. This is what it will be like as we watch each other age, as our partnership ages. And this unexpected moment made me happier than I could have imagined. I see a life ahead for us, a shared life. A great life.

It is Pine’s way of saying that she chooses to be happy and put these ‘baby trying’ years behind her.

The first essay in the book “Notes on Intemperance” explores the difficult relationship between Pine and her alcoholic father. The essay hits you in the gut right from the first few sentences. Pine and her sister are in an understaffed and poorly managed hospital in Greece, where their father has been admitted for liver failure. Travelling all the way from Dublin, when the sisters find him, “he has been lying in a small pool of his own shit for several hours.”

Pine’s feelings for her father are very complicated. She resents him for his endless drinking during her younger years, and at the same time she knows that when he eventually calls her for help, she will not be able to refuse. Pine’s father manages to pull through, but the author uses this incident as a medium through which to explore the trials of caring for an alcoholic parent – one who does not even grasp the consequences of his actions. And yet she can’t give up caring for him.

But we are not lost, not just yet. Our relationship may be an unyielding kind of story, a chain of unalterable moments, from arguments in bars to vigils at hospital bedsides. But it is also, just as powerfully, an ever-changing conversation between two people, father and daughter, a conversation that we are both grateful is not over.

In Notes to Self, then, Emilie Pine touches upon crucial themes – alcoholism, infertility, taboos around female bodies and female pain – topics which cause emotional disruptions, but which are never part of ordinary conversations lest it gets uncomfortable for the audience. And yet these are necessary conversations and cannot be swept under the carpet. These are essays laced with fearless and astonishing honesty; they reveal devastating truths and dole out dollops of wisdom.

Dead Girls – Selva Almada (tr. Annie McDermott)

I first heard of Selva Almada last year, when Charco Press released her excellent novel, The Wind That Lays Waste, which fuelled my appetite for more of her work. So I had high expectations from her second book published this year – Dead Girls – and I must say it turned to another impressive offering.   

Dead Girls is a searing, hard-hitting book which explores the blight of gender violence and femicide in Almada’s native Argentina.

It is a powerful, hybrid piece of work – a blend of journalistic fiction and memoir – as Almada digs deeper into the murder of three small-town teenage girls in the 1980s, unspeakable crimes that never got solved, where “being a woman” was the primary motive for these heinous acts being committed.

In 1983, Maria Luisa Quevedo, a fifteen-year old girl, working as a maid, was raped, strangled and dumped in a wasteland on the outskirts of the city of Sáenz Peña.

Sarita Mundín was twenty when she disappeared in March 1988. One year later her disfigured body is found washed up on a river bank in the Córdoba province.

The case of nineteen-year old Andrea Danne, who was training to be a psychology teacher, is even more disturbing because she was murdered while sleeping in her bed in the alleged safety of her own home in San José.

Almada’s investigation into these three murders reveals a shocking societal structure where casual violence is the norm rather than the exception, and while men are the clear culprits, this misogynistic attitude has been ingrained into the psyche of the women too.

I didn’t know a woman could be killed simply for being a woman, but I’d heard stories that gradually, over time, I pieced together. Stories that didn’t end in the woman’s death, but saw her subjected to misogyny, abuse and contempt.

In her introduction, Almada tells us that she completed writing the book in three months, but the research required for it took three years. As part of her extensive fieldwork, Almada pored over police reports, case files and newspaper articles. She communicated with the family members of the three victims either by meeting them personally or through mail. She also had extensive consultations with the Señora – a medium and a tarot card reader – to gain some perspective on the circumstances surrounding those three deaths.

Dead Girls is as tense and gripping as a crime novel but what sets it apart is that Almada is not interested in finding out who committed the murders. The investigation is more to seek out patterns, threads of similarities between the murders of which there are plenty – widespread gossip when these deaths were discovered, lack of serious intent by the police or the law to nab the culprits, and the general sense of apathy – of how little the society cared for what happened to these girls.

Hence, the focus of the book is entirely on the victims, to ensure that their stories do not sink into complete obscurity. Given the unforgivable nature of these crimes, any attempt to extensively explore the motives and reasons behind them would only mean devoting more space to the perpetrators. Why give them that importance?

We are given a glimpse of the potential suspects in each case and the arrests made, but we are also told that lack of concrete proof hampered efforts to build a watertight case with the consequence that the criminals went punished and the murdered girls never got justice.

What also comes to the fore is the malicious gossip and “trial by the public” aspects in each of the three cases. Absence of solid evidence, at the time, did nothing to prevent tongues from wagging, with the result that the victims’ families suffered too. For instance, in Andrea Danne’s case, her mother found herself at the receiving end and judged harshly for slipping into a state of shock and displaying a calm demeanor because this response did not fit in with society’s expectations of wailing and crying. 

Though Almada’s narrative centres on these three girls, while also giving a flavor of the community and neighbourhood they were a part of, she also weaves in elements of her own personal experiences, of the dangers she herself faced as a woman.

I don’t remember a specific conversation about violence against women, or any particular warnings from my mother on the subject. But the topic was always there.

In her powerful introduction as well as in the epilogue, Almada makes it clear that her fate could easily have mirrored that of Maria Luisa, Sarita and Andrea, and if she is alive today it’s only because of sheer luck.

At the beginning of the book, Almada writes:

Violence was normalized. The neighbour beaten by her husband, the teenager next door who put up with her jealous boyfriend’s tantrums, the father who wouldn’t let his daughters wear short skirts or make-up. All the responsibility for what happened to us was laid at our feet: if you stay out late you might be raped, if you talk to strangers you might be raped, if you come back from a dance by yourself you might be raped. If you were raped, it was always your fault.

Almada is, of course, referring to the environment in Argentina. But really, the violence she points to, unfortunately, has global resonance and is the story of pretty much any country.