After Story, by Larissa Behrendt & Secrets of Happiness, by Joan Silber
This month I’ve been reading a couple of family stories that show how differently we see the world.
In After Story, Jasmine takes her mother Della on a bus tour of important literary sites in England. It is a long way from home for both of them, but as they visit the homes and gardens of long-dead English writers, it brings up repressed issues from their own history. Alternating between the two perspectives allows Behrendt to explore the generational and cultural differences between mother and daughter, while adding to the narrative tension of the novel. With compassion and gentleness, Behrendt pushes her characters towards difficult conversations and highlights how important it is to listen deeply to those we love – and not just the words they say.
Secrets of Happiness opens as Ethan learns that his father has had a second family, also living in New York, for over a decade. His parents separate and his mother gets a new lease on life, travelling to Thailand for a year. The subsequent chapters in the novel track tangential people in each of the previous characters’ lives, exploring subjectivity, vicissitudes of life and the ways that humans can come through tragedy transformed.
Heaven, by Mieko Kawakami
Mieko Kawakami’s book Breasts and Eggs was one of my favourite reads of 2020 so when her new novel was released I did not delay. Heaven is set in contemporary Tokyo and narrated by 14-year-old Eyes; nicknamed by his bullies for his lazy eye. Through solidarity of enduring bullying, he begins a friendship with a fellow classmate by way of leaving notes on one another’s desk. The story is told through Eyes’ experiences of his first friendship and some very confronting scenes of violence from his bullies. Kawakami’s ability to stay in the discomfort and sense of meaninglessness makes for a curiously compelling read. Something that I loved in Breasts and Eggs and that appears here again is her description of detailed psychological experience.
The Communist’s Daughter, by Aroa Morena Duran
The Communist’s Daughter is a short novel that leaves a lasting impact. Written by Aroa Morena Duran, a Spanish journalist and author, the book explores life in a divided Germany. The tour through Katia’s early life is fast-paced, but sparse, affective writing ensures immersion into East Berlin of the 50s and 60s. Unlike many novels that describe political events, The Communist’s Daughter, like its protagonist during her adolescence, leads with emotion, and leaves a slow, suspenseful reveal of the political implications. The result is a poignant story about coming of age and then growing old, and the inseparable ties between extreme love and loss.