Caucasia by Danzy Senna

“It’s funny. When you leave your home and wander really far, you always think, ‘I want to go home.’ But then you come home, and of course it’s not the same. You can’t live with it, you can’t live away from it. And it seems like from then on there’s always this yearning for some place that doesn’t exist. I felt that. Still do. I’m never completely at home anywhere. But it’s a good place to be, I think. It’s like floating. From up above, you can see everything at once. It’s the only way how.”

Enthralling and haunting, Caucasia makes for a dazzling coming-of-age story. With piercing and heart-wrenching clarity, Danzy Senna captures on the page the psychological and emotional turmoils experienced by her young protagonist. Similarly to her later novels, Symptomatic and New People, Caucasia is a work that is heavily concerned with race, racial passing, and identity. But whereas Symptomatic and New People present their readers with short and deeply unnerving narratives that blur the lines between reality and the fantastical, Caucasia is a work that is deeply grounded in realism. Its structure takes a far more traditional route, something in the realms of a bildungsroman novel. This larger scope allows for more depth, both in terms of character and themes. Birdie’s world and the people who populate are brought to life in striking detail. Senna’s prose, which is by turns scintillating and stark, makes Birdie’s story truly riveting and impossible to put down.

Caucasia is divided in three sections, each one narrated by Birdie. The novel opens in Boston during the 1970s Civil Rights and Black Power movements when the city’s efforts to desegregate schools was met with white resistance and exacerbated existing racial tensions. Enter Birdie: her father Deck is a Black scholar who is deeply preoccupied with theories about race; her mother, Sandy, is from a blue-blood white woman who has come to reject her Mayflower ancestry and is quite active in the ‘fight’ for Civil Rights. Birdie is incredibly close to her older sister Cole, so much so that the two have created and often communicate in their own invented language. Before their parents’ rather messy break-up the two have been homeschooled, something that has sheltered them somewhat from the realities of the world. Even so, they both have been made aware of their ‘differences’. Whereas Cole resembles her dad, Birdie is paler and has straight hair, something that leads people to assume that she is white or perhaps Hispanic. During their rare visits to their maternal grandmother, Cole is completely ignored while Birdie receives all of her (unwanted quite frankly) attention. Later on, Deck’s new girlfriend is shown to be openly intolerant of Birdie for not being Black enough. When the girls begin attending a Black Power School, Birdie is teased and bullied. While Birdie is in awe of Cole and dreams that she could look like her, she’s also peripherally aware of the privileges afforded to her by her appearance. We also see how Sandy, their mother, for all her talk, treats Birdie and Cole differently (there is a scene in which she implies that unlike Birdie Cole should not be worried about paedophiles/serial killers). Sandy also struggles to help Cole with her hair, and soon their mutual frustration with each other morphs into something more difficult to bridge. When Sandy gets involved in some ‘shady’ activities her relationship with Cole sours further.
Birdie’s life is upended when Sandy, convinced the FBI is after her, flees Boston. In pursuit of racial equality Deck and his girlfriend go to Brazil, taking Cole with them, while Birdie is forced to leave Boston with Sandie.
Sandie believes that the only way to escape the feds is to use Birdie’s ‘ambiguous’ body to their advantage. Not only does Birdie have no choice but to pass but it is her mother who chooses her ‘white’ identity, that of Jesse Goldman.
The two settle in New Hampshire where Birdie struggles to adjust to new life. While the two spend some time in a women’s commune, they eventually move out and into a predominantly white town. Sandy’s paranoia leads her to distrust others, and secretiveness and suspicion become fixtures in their lives. Being forced to pass and being forced to pretend that her sister and father never existed alienate Birdie (from her own self, from Sandy, and from other people). She cannot truly connect to those around her given that she has to pretend that she is a white Jewish girl. She eventually makes friends and in her attempts to fit in emulates the way they speak and act. Because the people around her believe she is white they are quite openly racist, and time and again Birdie finds herself confronted with racist individuals. other people’s racism.
Senna captures with painful clarity the discomfort that many girls experience in their pre and early teens. For a lot of the novel, Birdie doesn’t really know who she is and who she wants to be, and because of this, she looks at the girls and women around her. But by doing this, she is merely imitating them, and not really figuring out her identity. In addition to having to perform whiteness, Birdie denies her own queerness.
As with Symptomatic and New People, Senna provides a razor-sharp commentary on race and identity. While Caucasia is easily the author’s least disquieting work, it still invokes a sense of unease in the reader. On the one hand, we are worried for Birdie, who is clearly unhappy and lost. On the other hand, we encounter quite a few people who are horrible and there are many disquieting scenes. Yet, Senna doesn’t condemn her characters, and in fact, there are quite a few instances where I was touched by the empathy she shows towards them (I’m thinking of Sandy in particular).
It provides a narrative in which its main character is made to feel time and again ‘Other’, which aggravates the disconnect she experiences between her physical appearance and self. The people around her often express a binary view of race, where you are either/or but not both. Because of this Birdie struggles to define herself, especially when she has to pass as white.
Senna subverts the usual passing narrative: unlike other authors, she doesn’t indict her passer by employing the ‘tragic mulatta’ trope. Throughout the narrative, Senna underscores how racial identity is a social construct and not a biological fact. However, she also shows the legacies of slavery and segregation in this supposedly ‘post-racial’ America as well as the concrete realities that race have in everyday life (Deck being questioned by the police, the disparities between the way Cole and Birdie are treated, the racism and prejudice expressed by so many characters, the way Samantha is treated at school).
Throughout the narrative Senna raises many thought-provoking points, opening the space for in-depth and nuanced discussions on identity, performativity, peer pressure, and sexuality.
The realism of Birdie’s experiences was such that I felt that I was reading a memoir (and there are some definite parallels between Birdie and Senna). If you found Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls and Dog Flowers: A Memoir to be compelling reads I thoroughly recommend you check out Caucasia. I can also see this coming of age appealing to fans of Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults. While they do not touch upon the same issues, they both hone in on the alienation experienced by young girls whose fraught path from childhood to adolescence make them aware of painful truths and realizations (that they are not necessarily good or beautiful, that the people around them aren’t either, that adults and parents can be selfish and liars, that not all parents love their children). I would also compare Caucasia to Monkey Beach which is also an emotionally intelligent and thoughtful coming-of-age. And, of course, if you are interested in passing narratives such as Passing and The Vanishing Half you should really check out all of Senna’s books.

The novel’s closing act is extremely rewarding and heart-rendering. Curiously enough the first time I read this I appreciated it but did not love it. This second time around…it won me over. Completely. Birdie is such a realistic character, and I loved, in spite or maybe because, of her flaws. Her story arc is utterly absorbing and I struggled to tear my eyes away from the page (even if I had already read this and therefore knew what would happen next). Senna’s dialogues ring true to life and so do the scenarios she explores. Birdie’s voice is unforgettable and I can’t wait to re-read this again.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Colorful by Eto Mori

First published in 1998 Colorful is narrated by an unknown soul who is given a second chance at life. He will occupy the body of fourteen-year-old Makoto Kobayashi who has attempted suicide and during this ‘homestay’ our narrator has to remember the big mistake he made in his previous life.

At times ‘Makoto’ is aided by the angel Prapura, easily the most entertaining character of the novel, who gives him information on the boy’s family and past. It appears that Makoto had no friends and was not particularly close to his family. His older brother was often mean to him and his parents both were up to ‘no good’.
After being released from the hospital this ‘new’ Makoto attempts to resume his ‘host’s’ life. He goes to school where he discovers that he has a crush on the girl Makoto had a crush on and that someone in the school seems to know that he’s changed.

The story definitely reads like something that was written in the 90s. While I appreciated that the author tackles topics related to mental health and addresses how difficult middle and high school can be, there were certain issues that were touched upon in a rather superficial way (such as suicide and bullying) and quite a few narrative points that were incredibly clichéd (someone has an affair with their flamenco instructor, a beautiful girl sleeps with older men because she wants to buy cute bags and clothes).
It didn’t help that I found Makoto to be a really irritating character. His sanctimonious behaviour irked me, and his attitude towards his parents was childish to the extreme. He was also a bit of a perv.
The author’s portrayal of female characters left me wanting (they are the kind of female characters that are usually written by male authors…so i was actually amazed to discover that the author of this novel is not a man).

Still, this was a harmless story with an ultimately positive, if cheesy, message (acceptance, forgiveness, yadda yadda). If you are looking for a more contemporary release that explores similar themes (being a teen in Japan) I highly recommend Mizuki Tsujimura’s Lonely Castle in the Mirror.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

For a work that was first published in 1998 Daughter of Fortune strikes me as something more suited to the 1970s. Don’t get me wrong, I love Isabel Allende’s work and she is one of my favourite authors, however, at the risk of coming across as an oversensitive zillennial, her mystification of China struck me as rather old-fashioned. The way Allende portrays other cultures and groups relies on clichés. Yes, some of these characters were, for the most part, ‘harmless’ stereotypes, but nonetheless, they did induce an eye-roll or two on my part (for instance, every indigenous woman from Chile is cuvacious and passionate).

As with many other novels by Allende Daughter of Fortune is very heavy on the telling. There are very few, if any, dialogues, which did occasionally distance me from the events Allende narrated. Still, her storytelling, for the most part, kept me engaged in the characters and their stories.
The novel begins in Chile during the 1840s. Eliza Sommers, a Chilean girl and the novel’s central character, is adopted by Rose Sommers, an unmarried Briton. Rose lives with her strict older brother and tries to raise Eliza as a ‘proper’ Victorian lady. Eliza, however, goes on to fall head-over-heels in love with a Chilean man of ‘dubious’ character. When her beloved is struck by gold fever and leaves for California, a bereft Eliza will risk her own life to be reunited with him.
The story definitely takes its time, and, the first few chapters are less focused on Eliza than a tertiary character, a certain Jacob Todd who travels to Chile after making a bet. He falls for Rose but she clearly does return his affection. We also read about his friends, Feliciano Rodriguez de Santa Cruz and his wife, whose role in the novel feels rather superfluous. During Part I we also learn more about Rose and her brothers and of Eliza’s childhood with them.
The remainder of the novel details Eliza’s epic journey to find the man she loves. During this time Eliza becomes acquainted with Tao Chi’en, a shanghaied physician who for a time worked as a cook on a ship captained by Rose’s other brother, John. Across two lengthy chapters, Allende recounts Tao’s life, from his early days to his marriage and, after his wife’s death, of his eventual disillusionment. Once in California Eliza and Tao grow closer and it is their bond that truly makes this novel. Allende, quite clearly, shows that Eliza’s feelings towards her paramour lead her to idealize this poco di buono man. Yet, her devotion towards him is such that she is willing to spend years of her life in search of him, passing as a young man in order to travel with more freedom.
The novel is certainly full of drama and Allende frequently falls prey to sappy platitudes (about love, destiny, desire, womanhood).
But whereas I could easily overlook Allende’s tendency towards the melodramatic, I had a harder time looking past her clichéd portrayal of China, its culture, and people. When the narrative is relating Tao’s youth, Allende, quite out of the blue, feels the obligation of using a metaphor involving rice (when describing a Chinese mother’s grief: “the little girl’s accident was like the grain of rice that makes the bowl overflow.”). Tao, who is in his thirties, is described looking as sometimes looking like a teenager, and, “ancient as a turtle”, so that “it was easy then to believe that he had lived many centuries”. Whyyyyyy do we have to compare the one Chinese character to a turtle?! And of course, because he is an East Asian man he has to have “delicate ” hands.
Allende includes many other stereotypes about China, and I just have very little patience for this sort of stuff. It didn’t help that Allende includes a plethora of clichés (such as prostitutes with hearts of gold, or Eliza ‘rescuing’ a Native American boy….come on Allende!).
Yes, there were many beautiful descriptions and Allende clearly researched this period of history but I had a hard time getting to like or care for her characters (who are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, judgemental, anti-abortion). While it made sense, given that the story takes place during the 1840s, it made it difficult for me to actually relate or sympathize with the characters. Eliza was beautiful (in an unconventional way, of course), kind, and clever. The classic heroine. Her love for this guy was definitely of the insta-love variety, and while the narrative does point this out, I struggled to understand what possessed her to follow this guy whose blandness is such that I cannot recollect his name.
I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that the development between Tao and Eliza, and it was refreshing to see a Chinese man be not only one of the main characters but the heroine’s love interest. I wish the novel had focused exclusively on them, with less of the ‘will they won’t they’ subplot.
Overall, the novel is kind of cheesy and rather dated. Still, fans of Allende who are less ‘sensitive’ than I am will probably enjoy this a lot more than I did.

 

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

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“Books wrote our life story, and as they accumulated on our shelves (and on our windowsills, arid underneath our sofa, and on. top of our refrigerator), they became chapters in it themselves. How could it be otherwise?”

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader is a delightful and uplifting ode to bibliophiles.
Anne Fadiman’s collection of charmingly written essays examine the way in which much of her life was (and is still) shaped by books.
Fadiman pays attention to the physical spaces they occupy. For example, in her first essay,“Marrying Libraries”, she tells us of how she and her husband became truly married when they almost reluctantly ‘merged’ their collections). In “Never Do That to a Book” she presents us with the many ways books are and can be handled (there are those who *ahem* like me *ahem* are somewhat strict about the ‘correct’ handling of their books….and there are the scribblers and benders of spines, such as Fadiman’s brother and father, who will happily leave their books laying open or facedown). Fadiman also details the seemingly invisible ways in which books can influence us, our worldview, our sense of self, and the relationships we have with other people (books play a dominant role in Fadiman’s marriage and family) becoming something akin to a language or a means of communication.

This love letter to books is written in a diverting prose. Fadiman’s style is amusingly anachronistic, and offers a wide range of humour that can swiftly switch from cheerful to ironic.
Fadiman’s witty observations combined with her knowledge and enthusiasm for her subjects (books, bibliophilia, grammar), make for a very interesting book on books, one that I would happily read again.

“This model of readers as consumers—one I have abetted in many a book review myself—neatly omits what I consider the heart of reading: not whether we wish to purchase a new book but how we maintain our connections with our old books, the ones we have lived with for years, the ones whose textures and colors and smells have become as familiar to us as our children’s skin.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars

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The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy by Barbara Vine

“I want to be in love. I want to be possessed and obsessed by it, I want the sky to change colour and the sun to shine all the time. I want to long for the phone to ring and pace the room when it doesn’t. I want to be breathless at the sound of her voice and tongue-tied when I first see her.”

A layered and complex character driven novel, one that from start to finish thrums with suspense.
Guilt, lost chances, secretive relationships and desires are explored throughout this novel.

After the death of her husband, renown writer Gerald Candless, Ursula considers her loveless marriage and the freedom she has gained as a widow. Her daughters, unlike her, loved Gerald. It is hinted, from the very beginning, that Gerald marries solely to become a father: his desire, during the 60s and the 70s is made to make him unusual, different. Yet, he takes control of his daughters, pushing Ursula out of the family picture. Sarah, the eldest daughter, is charged with writing a memoir in his memory. Grief stricken, she agrees, only to then discover than her mythical father is not who he claimed to be.
A perusal of the past brings to life Ursula’s unhappy marriage as well as the lives of the families surrounding the mystery of Gerald’s true identity. Identity, love, freedom, all play a large role in the story’s narrative. The richly detailed backdrop provides a wistful portrayal of 20th century (from the 40s to the 90s) England. Characters who actively challenge themselves and one another make the narrative utterly engaging. Barbara Vine doesn’t shy away from depicting the most unnerving and uncomfortable aspects of her society: personal vices, poverty, depression, repression, and various injustices abound.
Also, Vine doesn’t provide clear cut answers or universal truths. Her story and her characters do no fit in neat little boxes. She explores the actions of different types of people without any sentimentalist moral lessons.
Vine allows us to know what is coming – that is the ‘mystery’ at the core of this novel – however she doesn’t let the details, the particulars, of that mystery known to us: she keeps us guessing, even when we are fairly certain of what exactly happened, we are only provided with fragmented glimpses of the fuller ‘picture’.
With a beautiful and richly descriptive prose, characters who are both sensual and finicky, a plot that relies on the art of writing itself (so many books are mentioned!) , well, The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy is a truly remarkable read.

My rating: 5 stars

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