3 New Books Told from Two Different Perspectives
An often-asked question when analyzing fiction is: Whose story is it? In most cases, we spend our time with one main character, but the three new books in this week’s book club are all told in alternating chapters through the eyes of two very different women. They’ll help you look at events and the world through different perspectives: optimism and pessimism, change and stasis, privilege and oppression.
1. Willa & Hesper by Amy Feltman ($26): When we meet Willa, she’s in a state of shock; on her way to her New Jersey home for a weekend away from her MFA writing program at Columbia, in the vicinity of her childhood synagogue, she is sexually assaulted. Willa refuses to tell her parents: Her father, having never recovered from an accidental back injury, sits on the couch, doped up on morphine; her mother obsessively speaks of dieting, silently condemning Willa for taking up too much space. The claustrophobia Willa feels at home is banished when, back in New York, she encounters Hesper; high and breezy, the other young woman sparks feelings of excitement, and the two enter into a whirlwind relationship.
“On the train, I refrained from asking about logistical considerations. I wanted to appear nonchalant, unconcerned about getting eight hours of sleep and whether it made more sense to transfer to an express train. Hesper leaned close to me on the tiny cold seats, her slender body a force field of expectation and knobby joints. I tried not to think of that word electricity – the sharp hook of the c, submerged between two prominent I’s. Hesper entwined her fingers with the strands of my hair, seemingly reveling in the intricacies of texture. I ballooned with self-consciousness, thinking of adjectives I could use for my curls: fluffy, diffuse. Triangular. My hair had become awfully triangular. ‘Your hair is so frothy,’ Hesper said finally. ‘Like a latte’s milk hat.’ I thought: she has to be gay. She has to at least be in the vicinity of gayness.”
Though each woman presents a different front, their individually-narrated chapters show a picture of insecurity, fear, and depression. Struggling with their feelings and their identities, both Willa and Hesper run when they get too close — Hesper returns to her ancestral hometown of Tbilisi, Georgia, and Willa takes a trip to Germany and Poland to visit important Holocaust sites, in the belief that it might help contextualize and dampen her own sorrow. In the end, each woman, in her own voice, must figure out who she has become as the 2016 presidential election concludes, and a new era begins, fraught with uncertainty and change.
2. Flight of a Starling by Lisa Heathfield ($19): “The air in the alleyway sticks to my skin. The bricks sit too close, pushing grief deeper into me. I stop to touch the walls. Were you here, Lo? I listen for a reply. Listen hard for her laughter, but it’s not here. The silence grips so hard at my heart that I don’t know how I breathe. Dean stands waiting at the end of the alley, framed by daylight. It’s only a few weeks since I’ve seen him, a few weeks since he was my sister’s whispered secret, but he looks so different. Lo loved his eyes, but they’re raw with a sadness I never knew could exist. ‘Are you ok?’ he asks, but he knows I’m not. Neither of us are. ‘She really liked you,’ I say, my words stumbling in the bricked-in air. But he just stares at me, this boy from a world I don’t know, a world that never moves on, unlike our circus. ‘It’s this way,’ is all he says. A building stands in front of us and I know it’s the abandoned factory that he came to with Lo. But she said it was beautiful and it’s not. It’s grey and broken and I feel cheated.”
Laura and her sister Rita, Lo and Rites, are closer than close. They travel around England, performing with their parents in a circus, masters of the trapeze and other death-defying acts. Lo plays the “Changeling,” covered in sequins. The circus community is an insular one; there will always be an essential, permanent divide between those with “circus blood” and outsiders to their world, or “flatties.” Rita and Lo know they are expected to marry the sons of the other circus families and continue their nomadic lives into the next generation. One day, however, Lo meets Dean, a “flattie” who makes her question her life path. She starts to grow apart from her sister, and her choices lead her down a tragic path.
Heathfield, author of Paper Butterflies, writes a detailed account of the backstage traditions and superstitions of circus life. She alternates perspectives between the two sisters, one content to stay in her high-flying world of daredevil illusion, the other chafing at the family secrets she’s learned and her desire to finally stay in one place.
3. The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah ($17): “Aminah watched a glob of shea butter liquefy into a golden yellow oil, her mind on the caravan. She thought of the madugu. Eeyah once told her that he had twenty wives and was still searching. When she told her friends, they started conspiring to set themselves in his path. To be a twenty-first wife. What was admirable about that? Aminah preferred the idea of traveling on a camel or horse with a sack full of shoes, doing the kind of work Baba did. Making something with one’s hands and then traveling far to sell it. The oil bubbled and spurted and cast its nuttiness into the air. Aminah rested her head on her palm and stared at the oil. No woman in Botu made shoes. They all worked the land. She needed to talk to Baba. What if she made shoes?”
Attah’s novel is based on a true story of the wildly divergent lives of two women born in pre-colonial Ghana, and the devastating effect of the internal slave trade. Aminah and her family sell masa, sour milk, and millet porridge to caravans passing through the village; she looks out for her younger twin sisters, and attempts to avoid the men captivated by her beauty. One day, her village is raided; she is kidnapped from her home, and taken from her family, forced to become a slave. Her new, unhappy status brings her into contact with Wurche.
Wurche is a princess, the daughter of a chief, who participates in the internal slave trade; she buys Aminah to take care of her son. Proudly headstrong, feminist, and confident, Wurche must eventually also confront her limited life as a woman in an unequal society. Wanting to participate in politics, she is reluctantly convinced to marry to support a political alliance, but satisfies her fluid sexual desires elsewhere. Things become complicated when her lover is attracted to Aminah as well. Meanwhile, both women confront the changing, colonial world, as Germany intends to seize Salaga (where the titular wells are used to wash slaves), and contemplate striking out on their own. Highlighting religious, tribal, and cultural differences within the country, the dual perspectives of the novel provide a multifaceted look at a story not often told.
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