Let our life stories become tragic art

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
by Lisa See

This is the kind of book I went through a phase of reading several years ago – Asian country, female narrator, historical setting (often during a civil war) and generally following the daily life of poor(ish) folk. So I have some comparison. This one stood up well in terms of teaching me new stuff but less well as regards quality of story. Sadly.

Lily is born in 1830 to a modest farming family in the Chinese province of Hunan. As second daughter she has little worth and is just another mouth to feed until the Matchmaker delivers surprising news: if her feet are bound properly, she will have perfect feet, which will secure her both a good marriage (which her family will benefit from) and a laotong – a lifelong best friend (other girls must leave their childhood friends behind when they marry). But secrets, reversals of fortune and an attempted peasant rebellion all threaten both her happiness and her friendship.

The book is narrated by Lily, from her earliest memories aged five or so, and from the age of seven she is largely confined to the “women’s chamber” and discouraged from paying attention to the world of men, so we hear little about the history or politics of the time, but there is still plenty to tell. See did a lot of research into nu shu, the secret women’s writing, and frames her story around it, but she also details the horrors of foot binding, the rituals of daily life and special occasions to the point that I frequently felt I was learning a lesson rather than reading a story. It’s a fascinating lesson, and after years of research I understand why she wanted to use what she could, but it might have been nice to have a little more, I don’t know, insight?

Perhaps I wasn’t helped by my dislike of Lily. She and her laotong Snow Flower are matched at the age of seven, visit one another often and write to each other in-between, so they appear to be extremely close. Yet they almost always stick to formalised language that allows for misunderstandings and misinterpretations that cause them both pain and suffering:

“My writing is soaked with the tears of my heart,
An invisible rebellion that no man can see.
Let our life stories become tragic art.
Oh, Mama, oh, sisters, hear me, hear me.”

I can accept that their writing might have remained this rigid but in person too? They are often alone together – after they are married, when they visit they share a bed with each other and banish husbands to another room – so how come they never speak naturally even then? The insinuation of Lily’s narrative is that she insisted on this formality and in that way caused all the ensuing problems. But really?

Maybe I am struggling with suspension of disbelief. I’m not saying it’s a bad book. I was very interested and entertained but I did not feel absorbed.

First published 2006 by Bloomsbury Publishing.

On the brink of getting old

Break of Day
by Colette
translated from French by Enid Mcleod

I found this book both beautiful and uplifting, and painstakingly slow and even dull. Which is probably why I had started and abandoned it once before. I’m glad I gave it another go.

I suppose you could call this novel a lightly fictionalised autobiography, and it may even have been the inspiration for so many books since written in that vein – half of Amélie Nothomb’s works, for example. Its ageing heroine, Colette, is spending a summer in her beloved Provence. She is alone but for a coterie of pets and, though she has endless company from friends old and new, she feels strongly that the time has come to learn how to be on her own, how to live without love.

The novel is partly addressed to, and partly about, her mother Sido. Colette quotes from her mother’s letters and realises with pride how much she has come to be like her. But mostly it is a musing on her own life, her love of nature and her thoughts on love. Her lofty aim to no longer depend on a man for happiness is complicated by the presence of Valère Vial, a younger man whose company she enjoys but who she frets does not belong in her story.

The prose is beautiful but rambling. The blurb calls it a prose poem and that’s pretty apt. If you can accept that for pages at a time nothing will happen, or her meaning will not be clear, then you can just wallow in the language and enjoy a master at work:

“The open windows let in the smell of the melon rinds floating on the water of the port; between two parts of a tango, a long sigh announced that a wave, born far out at sea, had just died within a few paces of us.”

The title refers to her ongoing battle with sleep and her love of the dawn. A lot of the book is set in the middle of the night or in the early hours of the morning, with Colette perusing life in an overtired state, hoping to see the new day begin before sleep finally comes. It could be the most lyrical autobiography I have read, except that she adds the lines:

“Are you imagining, as you read me, that I am portraying myself? Have patience: this is merely my model.”

First published 1928 by Flammarion as La Naissance du Jour.
This translation first published 1961 by Martin Secker and Warburg.

Have you seen Harold Fry?

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
by Rachel Joyce

This is a very sweet novel about old age and regret and Englishness. It takes a simple but interesting idea and keeps it engaging throughout. The author’s inclusion of social media such as Facebook and Twitter in the storyline was of course a gift to the publisher’s marketing department (as you may have started to notice) but do not be put off – it’s worth a chance.

Have you seen Harold Fry?

Harold Fry has been retired for six months and spends his days with his wife Maureen keeping boredom at bay, when he receives a letter from an old friend, Queenie, telling him that she is dying of cancer. He goes out to post a reply and keeps on walking. He resolves to walk all the way from his home in Kingsbridge, South Devon, to Berwick Upon Tweed (so almost the whole length of England), having some idea that this is an act of faith that will save her life.

There are a few secrets at the heart of this story that are revealed slowly, with clues and partial memories dropped in between the story of Harold’s trek. Some I guessed and some I didn’t, but I don’t think it matters hugely either way; there is plenty enough story to keep you engaged even if you think you have figured the secrets out.

There are quite a few “issues” dealt with, including how it can be difficult to adapt to retirement, and how parents affect their child’s life, but the one that got to me the most was Harold and Maureen’s marriage. For 20 years they have lived at a polite distance, never really talking about what they want to say, to the point that when Harold starts his walk neither can understand the other. Maureen is bemused by the walk and the rules Harold has set himself (which change a few times anyway) and thinks that maybe Harold is doing it because he was once in love with Queenie. Harold thinks his wife will not miss him, that she will not be affected at all by his absence. During his walk, they both have time to think about the past, their marriage, what they once meant to each other and how things have changed. They both come to life, in their own ways, waking up from the monotony they had got stuck in.

The chapters alternate between Harold and Maureen, and they are both lovely characters, though both are also a little difficult and frosty at times. They are old-fashioned, in both good and bad ways. For instance, when a stranger confesses to Harold that he is cheating on his wife with a young man, Harold is appalled and repulsed but continues to listen politely.

There is a lot of detail about the landscape and route of Harold’s walk, sometimes lovingly admiring of England, sometimes less than complimentary, but this tends to reflect Harold’s mood mostly. He has realistic problems, mostly to do with his feet, and his perseverance in the face of pain is inspiring, though I couldn’t help but wonder at times if it was going to be worth it.

This book deals with some big issues in a quiet, understated way. It never gets gritty or deep into a subject, but it also doesn’t gloss over problems. A very sweet read.

This advance proof was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for a review.

Published March 2012 by Transworld Publishers.

I may have written far too much this time

Becoming Drusilla
by Richard Beard

This isn’t an easy review to write. For a start, the book is about a friend of a friend, fellow blogger Dru Marland. If my friend likes her, then I’m predisposed to like her too. Which means I didn’t approach this book neutrally. But then when do we ever? Aren’t we always biased or conditioned in some way that we probably don’t even realise? That’s the kind of question this book asks a lot. It’s very well written but a little tiring.

What started out as a biography, written by Dru’s good friend Richard, turned more into Richard’s story of his own attempts to understand Dru. Or, more specifically, Dru’s decision to become a woman.

Dru was born male and transitioned to female in her 40s. She and Richard had been friends for many years, sometimes going off on camping and walking holidays together, and the announcement that she was going to start living as a woman came as a shock to him. They remained friends through the years of Real Life Experience, hormone treatment and gender reassignment surgery, not to mention divorce, family rejection, workplace troubles, cruel newspaper articles and public taunts and stares.

A couple of years after the surgery, they went on a fortnight’s walking holiday, their first since Dru became Dru. The book is structured around that holiday, using their journey across Wales as a metaphor both for Dru’s transition and for Richard’s understanding. Which is a little cheesy, and also initially confusing because it means that there are three timelines – the holiday (2 weeks), the transition (7 years), Dru’s life (49 years at the time of writing, I think). There were also frequent breaks from the story for facts – statistics; details of how gender reassignment works on the NHS, privately and in some other countries; quotes from autobiographies and biographies of other transsexual women; and other research that he has done, which there’s a lot of. A lot of this was absorbing but I’ll admit that I found the quotes superfluous. I get that this background reading was an important part of Richard’s attempt to understand, but I didn’t find a quote about someone going through gender reassignment in the 1970s all that relevant. Not only was the world very different then, but it’s also not Dru’s story. And Dru’s story is a fascinating one, even without including the sex change.

This book is a thorough examination of its subject and it’s sensitively done. Obviously, Dru’s his friend. Their friendship is very sweet and engaging. And yet Richard doesn’t shy away from asking difficult questions. In fact he’s far braver than most people would be, I suspect. He not only probes into every aspect of Dru’s transition, he also probes himself for his own feelings about the whole thing and he’s startlingly honest. For every potential insult of Dru (is she deluded? mentally unbalanced? too masculine-looking to pass as a woman?) there’s an equally negative question aimed at himself (am I scared to be seen with her in public? because I think it’s obvious that she has changed gender and people will judge me for being with her? because I think she’s not an attractive enough woman to appease my masculinity? because I’m irritated by her not trying hard enough to be feminine, even if it has been a long arduous day of walking in the rain?).

Richard asks more general questions as well – how much of gender identification is down to social conditioning? how much influence do the parents have? is sexual orientation a factor? Some of which can’t be answered. And there are questions that Dru can’t or won’t answer. So while we discover Dru’s full biography and almost none of Richard’s, we come away having got to know Richard just as well, if not better.

All those probing questions forced me to ask some difficult questions of myself. Did I want to read this book just because it’s about sex change? Why is that of particular interest? Is it because it’s something I haven’t experienced and I want to know about all things human? That would be acceptable. Or does it have a particular draw for some darker reason? A voyeuristic preoccupation with men dressing as women, like in all those TV shows (transvesticism does seem to have a certain place in British humour), perhaps. Did I want to read it because it’s about Dru, who I have come across in a few places on the internet and found engaging?

I’d like to think that I am completely accepting of transsexual people, that I agree with the medical view that gender dysmorphia is a real condition and that the best cure is to “give them what they want”, as Richard puts it. And from a distance that’s absolutely true. I also think it’s very brave to go through something that’s so alien to other people, that requires constant explanation and effort, for the rest of your life, that’s physically difficult and painful, though those involved clearly feel that the alternative is worse. But up close, do I stare? Do I comment to my companions that I think that woman over there might not be “real”? Or if someone else points that out to me, do I eagerly watch for the clues that they saw before me? I honestly hope not, and if I ever do, I am deeply ashamed of it, but can it be helped? Aren’t we all conditioned to try to fit in and reject what doesn’t seem to conform?

One thing that really hit me about this book probably says a lot about me and my confusion on this topic. Richard casually mentions that the name most commonly chosen by transsexual women in the UK is Kate. By quite some way, apparently. Which caught my attention for obvious reasons. On one level I find that very interesting and am curious why it’s top of the list. Is it for any of the same reasons that my parents chose it for me? Not so much the “short and simple enough for my then-toddler sister to pronounce without difficulty” but more the unambiguously female, familiar and popular, timeless. Or is it for reasons that my parents probably didn’t consider? It’s definitely a girl’s name but it’s not soft and feminine. There are many famous examples, maybe including people who some transsexual women admire or aspire to. On another level I definitely experienced a moment of annoyance. Why must they choose my name? Which is significantly less accepting than I thought I was. I can justify myself a little bit by pointing out that I have always been annoyed by how common my name is, but that’s not much of an excuse.

I found this book engrossing, I greatly enjoyed it, but I didn’t tear through it and did sometimes put it down for days at a time because Richard’s self-examination can’t help but prompt a person like me to self-examine as well and it’s exhausting, challenging and a little scary to reveal yourself, even to yourself. Which makes what Richard did pretty brave in my view. It’s also reassuring that everything I could think and question about this topic and far more is covered. It’s not just me. And if the close friend of a transsexual woman admits to these thoughts then it’s probably okay for me to think them too.

I definitely recommend this book if you’re interested in friendship, the everyday life of someone who’s in some way “different”, gender roles and self-examination. Is it alright to recommend it to people who are interested in gender dysmorphia? Should I stop with these questions now?

By some kind of fortuitous timing, Dru and Richard have just launched a new joint website, Being Drusilla. Check it out!

Published 2008 by Harvill Secker, a division of Random House