Sunday, 2 June 2013

Girlchild, by Tupelo Hassman

The Calle de las Flores:  a failed housing development now turned into a trailer park just north of Reno, Nevada – The Biggest Little City in the World! – and a  typical resting place for the human flotsam unable to raise the money (and  hope) to live anywhere else.
There are few flowers on the Calle:  its denizens are not remotely interested in trying to improve their surroundings, much less their lot, because their expectations are tiny:  they’ve fetched up here so on the Calle they will stay, taking whatever garbage is dished out to them – but trying, just the same, to avoid as much of it as possible.
Five year old Rory Dawn Hendrix lives on the Calle with her Mama Jo, the bartender with a soft heart and a hard thirst, already the mother of four sons who all left her as soon as they could.  She and Rory came to the Calle at the invitation of her mother, Shirley Rose, who makes a little money babysitting for those lucky enough to have work;  she will watch Rory while Jo makes a new start after her California divorce – life will be good again;  three generations of strong females can look after each other, surely – even though Shirley Rose became pregnant at the age of 15, and at the same age Jo faithfully followed suit.
Rory is a good, obedient child, academically clever and unpopular with her classmates for that reason  - and for the fact that her mama is a bartender, but she chugs along without complaint because she has the loving security of her Grandma during the day, mitigating the mercurial, alcoholic temperament of her mother at night (not to mention Mama’s ‘visitors’). 
Sadly, this relative normality is temporary;  for Grandma, so reliable and caring, has feet of clay:  she is a slave to the pokies, and when she gets on a roll and a binge everything, including collecting Rory from school, is forgotten, causing a huge rift with Jo who swears never to contact Shirley Rose again.
And this is where this brilliant story becomes most disturbing:  Jo’s choice of a sitter for her little daughter is Carol, the daughter of a neighbour Rory calls the Hardware Man because that’s where he works – at Ace Hardware.  He is also a child abuser and he jumps at the chance for his daughter  to ‘watch’ Rory; for at thirteen, Carol is getting a little stale.
I defy anyone to read this part of the book without recoiling in horror.  The story is narrated by Rory Dawn, and Ms Hassman has given her a painfully authentic and observant voice:  her experiences are related with poignant honesty, but despite the bleakness and despair of her young existence she can still regard life with some humour;  she can still sort out the good people from the bad, especially by relying heavily on a dog-eared copy from the school library of ‘The Girl Scouts’ Handbook’.  It is her bible;  her font of all knowledge;  her refuge from horror and squalor and disappointment:  it is her lifesaver.
The novel covers a period of ten years, and it is unclear at the end if Rory’s fate will replicate her mother’s and grandma’s, but she is such a winning, positive character that readers could not imagine her failing at life as did her loved ones, strong in so many ways but weak when it mattered most.
Ms Hassman’s debut novel is a showstopper, full of life as we would rather not know it, but a tribute too, to the resilience and optimism of a very singular heroine.  I shudder to think how much of this fine story might be autobiographical – regardless, despite its wrenching, dreadful themes, I feel fortunate to have been introduced to a great new voice in American fiction.  Highly recommended.

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout.

Ms Strout’s eponymous protagonist is an exceptional woman.  She has been a high school mathematics teacher in the small town of Crosby, Maine for many years and has a wonderful empathy for her students, helping many of them with advice that in several cases is crucial:  she makes a positive difference to many  lives, including those she chooses as her friends – and there are few, for Olive Kitteridge does not suffer fools gladly.
Sadly, she regards her own husband and son as wanting:  her frustration with their meek compliance with her whims, their longing for her approval and more importantly, a peaceful, loving atmosphere, turns her into a bully, ashamed of her actions but unable to stop her tyranny.
Ms Strout tells Olive’s story in a series of beautifully constructed short stories;  each one features her either as a major influence on the main character in the chapter or as a remote adjunct, a mere mention, as in the story devoted to the talented pianist at the local restaurant who drinks to disguise her perpetual stage fright, and has more than her share of secrets and regrets.
In another chapter Olive attends the funeral of one of her former pupils, happily married to his high school sweetheart until his untimely death from cancer but once again, secrets are revealed at the wake:  the wife’s cousin had a fling with the dear departed, mentioning it to the grieving widow after a few drinks too many – ‘because I thought you knew!’  Needless to say, the poor widow knew nothing until that moment and it falls to Olive to try to salvage the situation, saving with her innate, intuitive diplomacy the  widow’s self-respect - and the cousin's hide!
Which begs the question:  why is she unable to apply these essential, enviable gifts to her personal life, which as she gets older polarise her more from her loved ones?

Ms Strout provides the answers effortlessly in this wonderful little book, which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2008.  She has just released another novel ‘The Burgess Boys’ to glowing reviews, and as I hadn’t read anything of hers before, I thought I would make Olive’s acquaintance before going on to meet the Burgess brothers.  And how glad I am that I did, for ‘Olive Kitteridge’ is an unforgettable character:  outstanding, outrageous, a person of lion-hearted courage and lily-livered cowardice;  an Everywoman who has had to endure great grief and pain, but is still able to transcend her sorrow to make sense of her existence.  Olive is simply superb, and I hope you decide to meet her soon.           

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