Suzanne by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette

A creative memoir on the presumed life of an absent mother.

4/5 stars.
ebook, 265 pages.
Read from February 28, 2019 to March 1, 2019.

Anaïs never knew her mother’s mother, Susanne, nor did her mother, really. After her grandmother’s passing Anaïs hired a private detective to get the details on why her grandmother was such a fleeting presence in her family’s life. Short-listed for Canada Reads 2019, this is a creative memoir taken from the facts gathered by the private detective in an attempt to piece together the life a woman who abandoned her two young children and caused a void in her family that is felt for generations. The book will be defended by Yanic Truesdale during the Canada Reads 2019 debates at the end of March.

canada-reads-2019-yanic-truesdale
Yanic Truesdale will be defending Suzanne by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette during the debates taking place on March 25-29, 2019.

Susanne was originally written in French under the title, La femme qui fuit (The Woman Who Ran Away) and has been beautifully translated into English by Rhonda Mullins. Bravo to Rhonda who has managed to capture the poetic prose of this story in translation.

Susanne is successfully written in the second person and reads like an elegant poem of yearning as Anaïs envisions her grandmother throughout the different stages of her life. The book is far from accusatory and it reads like a real memoir in many aspects. The yearning is for forgiveness, understanding, and for the answer to the one question that neither the author or her mother get an answer to, why did Susanne leave?

Susanne led a tumultuous and intriguing life that included the great depression, political and art revolutions, alcoholism, homelessness, asylums and more. Even with the details unearthed from Susanne’s life, the author can still only speculate as to what drove her to her decisions and imagine how she might have felt in different parts of her life. Why did Susanne decide to abandon her two children, one of whom is Anaïs’ mother, after giving them such tender care for a few years? And then show up at Anaïs’ birth and a few small moments in her mother’s life? Guilt? Remorse? Forced responsibility? As Anaïs speculates, Susanne may have lived with guilt but ultimately may not have been able to face the choices she made, to which, Anaïs forgives her.

What’s the most moving about this book is the wonderful poetic prose which makes for a highly readable book that is easy to connect with. Anaïs is an immensely talented writer whose writing it literary and stimulating while also being highly accessible. I truly enjoyed this novel and felt entwined with Susanne’s gripping story, even if it is only through the speculative hope of her granddaughter.

This engrossing story is going to give the other contender’s in the Canada Reads 2019 debate a run for their money and I am looking forward to hearing how it is received.

The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

“Tomorrow. The word hangs in the air for a moment, both a promise and a threat. Then it floats away like a paper boat, taken from her by the water licking at her ankles.”

4/5 stars.
Paperback, 321 pages.
Read from January 18, 2018 to January 19, 2018.

I need to listen to my friend’s book recommendations more often as I would never have found and devoured this book otherwise. I sometimes struggle with stories set around traditional Indian families because so many of them are filled with intense sorrow in being so heavily committed to family at all costs, even if it means sacrificing your own personal happiness (for example, The Hero’s Walk). tumblr_mlvuppSgUV1rtxj3eo1_500This massive commitment is a foreign concept for me as I grew up in a Western society, neither of which is good or bad, just different. This book, however, I did not struggle with as the characters are so well depicted and the story showcases both the good and the bad of being committed to your family.

This story centres around two women of very different classes in India. Sera is a Parsi housewife who has employed Bhima for many years as a housekeeper. Bhima is extremely poor yet the two women are close friends, practically family. However, the massive class difference between the two of them is a constant reminder that they are very different and each holds different resentments and a fierce loyalty to their own family no matter what.  Bhima has done everything she can for her one and only granddaughter, Maya, whom she was happily able to send to college with Sera’s assistance, but something has happened. Maya has returned to the shabby home of her grandmother and has abandoned her studies, locking herself away. Bhima soon learns that Maya is pregnant. Bhima is furious but Maya refuses to give her grandmother any details as to how it happened.  The cause of Maya’s condition has a tragic origin that when unfurled will devastate the two women and their families forever.

Bhima, poor Bhima, her strength and suffering are so intense. The author has a magical way with words and is truly gifted.

“She is tired of it all—tired of this endless cycle of death and birth, tired of investing any hope in the next generation, tired and frightened of finding more human beings to love, knowing full well that every person she loves will someday wound her, hurt her, break her heart with their deceit, their treachery, their fallibility, their sheer humanity.”

The ending is heart-breaking, yet tranquil and gives you some hope that things will get better fro Bhima and Maya. The author depicts Sera so well that you can even appreciate her own individual struggles without resentment as she too, suffers intensely. Sera may not be poor but she is trapped in the tradition of a high-end Parsi family and it has created its own form of suffering. Both Bhima and Sera suffer, yet that space between them keeps them separate and unable to come together.  The book broaches a wide array of distressing themes such as poverty, rape, abortion and domestic violence and how these affect the lives of women regardless of class.  I did not want to put this book down. I was so involved and committed to the characters and plot that I thought about Bhima for a week and felt intense empathetic feelings for a person that doesn’t even exist, though I imagine there are many women out there in similar situations.

I would recommend this book to any woman as think some of the conflicts presented in the story are unique to women. That is not to say that men won’t enjoy this novel too as it represents a lot of different family dynamics that they would also appreciate. If anything, read this book for the gorgeous prose!