Review: What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons

y648So beautifully written, so compassionate in its observation and understanding of grief, race, migration and womanhood in contemporary America, What We Lose is a tremendous first novel by Zinzi Clemmons. I’m still reeling from this poetic unravelling of what it means to lose a mother, and desperate determination to find one’s place in the world.

Thandi, born and raised in the United States, has always lived in the shadow of her mother’s South African upbringing. The disparity between Thandi’s life and her mothers is both gaping and ever present. She feels dislocated, an outsider wherever she goes, caught between being black and white, and American and not. As she deals with these feelings — or at least lives through her confusion — her mother succumbs to cancer. With her anchor gone, Thandi searches for something else — someone else — to love, something to fulfil the void and sustain her. But even in death, her mother’s shadow casts a long, dark shade.

What We Lose is told in a slightly disjointed style, with regular flashes forwards and backwards in time providing glimpses into Thandi’s life and repeated encounters with grief. It’s a stylistic choice that works, however; Clemmons never loses sight of her novel’s core narrative thread, so it never tangles, or causes confusion. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it is brilliantly structured, beautifully written and profoundly sad, not in a way that breaks your heart, but just burdens you with a powerful melancholy. And not just because of the emotional impact of losing a parent; also because of the horrible isolation Thandi feels, both in her hometown of Pennsylvania and when she visits Johannesburg, because wherever she goes, she never belongs. One wonders if this cycle will ever end.

Humane and artful, What We Lose is a powerhouse of a novel, one that would’ve slipped by me if not for the recommendation of a customer and voracious reader at Potts Point Bookshop.

ISBN: 9780008245948
Format: Paperback (216mm x 135mm x 15mm)
Pages: 224
Imprint: Fourth Estate Ltd
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publish Date: 11-Jul-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

 

 

 

 

Review: I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell

9781472240750.jpgMaggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death is a love letter to life. It is a luminous, heart-wrenching, uniquely graceful and gorgeous symphony of those moments in life in which our vulnerabilities and susceptibilities come to bear. It is a testament to our perseverance against insurmountable odds, our capacity to survive, to prolong. There is an ever expanding body of literature on coming to terms with mortality, and this memoir ranks with the best. It is certainly one of the most potent.

O’Farrell frames I Am, I Am, I Am around seventeen encounters with death during her life. Some of these moments are near-escapes; many highlight the serendipity of roads not taken, of choices that might’ve been fatal; one of her most devastating evocations is her candid detailing of the difficulties her daughter faced — and will continue to face — because of a condition named anaphylaxis, and the burden this places on O’Farrell as a mother. But rather than wallowing in the inevitable hardships, O’Farrell’s piece is a testament to her daughter’s courage, and a reminder that none of us are alone, whatever our ailment or affliction. We preserve, so often by uncovering and unleashing an inner-strength we didn’t know we possessed until we reached an almost-breaking point, and  by utilising the strength of our loved ones; those who are the rocks in our lives.

I Am, I Am, I Am includes a chapter about an occasion on which O’Farrell was hospitalised, aged eight, with severe encephalitis that left her immobile and incapacitated. Doctors expected her to be permanently disabled, and there is a particular moment, when she overhears a nurse telling another patient that she is dying, that is excruciatingly hard to read. How is an eight-year-old child supposed to process this? More importantly, how is a child meant to come back from such a point, when the adults, the supreme leaders at that particular juncture of life, have given up hope? O’Farrell clearly used this memory — whether intentionally or intuitively — to shape her maternal instincts, which enabled her to better cope with her daughter’s illness. When the nurse closed the door to her room, O’Farrell was isolated, alone; forgotten. It is clear through her writing that her daughter — in fact, anybody whose life O’Farrell has touched — never will be.

I Am, I Am, I Am is a literary  milestone. Totally enthralling, masterful, and passionate, it reminds us that every minute, every second, every heartbeat is a moment to savour, to appreciate, and to enjoy. Maggie O’Farrell is such a gifted writer, and this is the kind of book you could spend hours highlighting sentences and whole paragraphs of. By the time you were done, you’d likely find more highlighted sections than non-highlighted ones. I Am, I Am, I Am is provocative, moving and essential reading. For young, for old, for everyone.

ISBN: 9781472240750
Format: Paperback (216mm x 135mm x mm)
Pages: 304
Imprint: Tinder Press
Publisher: Headline Publishing Group
Publish Date: 22-Aug-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom