As a child growing up among the lakes and forests of Minnesota in the 1970s, the night sky made a big impression on Paul Bogard. This was the era of “real nights”, when the Milky Way glowed above the earth, an awe-inspiring streak made up of countless other worlds, at once reminding us of our insignificance and connecting us to a larger and unknown beyond.
Sadly, this view is fading. It’s estimated that two-thirds of Americans and Europeans no longer experience real night — real darkness, in other words — and nearly all live in areas polluted to some extent by light.
“Authentic views of the night sky are quickly being replaced by a great yellow sky full of electric lights, a phenomenon astronomers call sky glow”, says Bogard, who teaches creative nonfiction at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. This idea has inspired him — and worried him — for a long time.
In 2008, Bogard compiled and edited Let There be Night: Testimony on Behalf of the Dark, an anthology of twenty-eight essays on the value of night, written by scientists, scholars, and poets. These writers address their personal experiences of night as well as their fears about what we are losing as the nocturnal wilderness above us disappears.
In a new book on the subject, The End of Night: Searching for Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, Bogard undertakes the journey on his own, crisscrossing North America and Europe in a quest to understand the many dimensions of light pollution.
Historically, of course, light pollution is a recent phenomenon. Before the advent of artificial light, nights were governed by the seasons, and our body rhythms were aligned with them. In only a few short centuries, things have changed dramatically. Epidemiologists have connected illuminated nights with increased rates of cancer. And environmentalists have identified light pollution as a factor endangering biodiversity, since wildlife can be unnaturally confused by, attracted to, or repelled by artificial light sources.
However, while the physical and environmental effects of light pollution on the earth’s inhabitants fascinate Bogard, he is also deeply concerned about the spiritual aspects of the loss of night. On his journey he encounters a minister who preaches “the necessity of the unknown”, and who believes his role in the community is not merely to suggest the possibility of the sacred in people’s lives, but also to “maintain the dimension of ambiguity or of the question — the essential character of doubt.” Night’s power to humble us is a power that will be missed.
Bogard’s engagement with the diminishing night sky has been lifelong. In addition to experiencing those glorious childhood nights in Minnesota, as a teenager he began to learn about the stars. “Looking for constellations quickly teaches you about light pollution,” he says.
He went on to study religion as an undergraduate and became acquainted with the wide range of myths and stories that all human cultures have projected onto the heavens. Later, with a PhD in Literature & Environment, Bogard began to research the human experience of darkness, how it has shaped us physically, culturally, and socially. As an author, Bogard works within the American tradition of nature writing, which includes such luminaries as Henry David Thoreau and the Scottish-born naturalist John Muir, as well as more recent thinkers like Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan.
In the way of all truly interesting writing, The End of Night defies categorization — it’s part environmental history, part social history, part literary history, and part travelogue. To gather his research, Bogard visited over twenty places, not only charting the influence of artificial light in the Western world over the past few centuries but discovering in our own time the places with the brightest nights (Las Vegas, perhaps unsurprisingly) and those with the darkest (nearby Death Valley).
“We have consistently exported artificial light to the rest of the earth,” Bogard says, “colonising the night everywhere we go, imposing our brand of nocturnal imperialism on others.”
Bogard’s extended journey has led him to speak with scientists, physicians, activists, and writers. With them, his goal is to raise awareness of the value of darkness and the threats from light pollution. But while The End of Night addresses these urgent issues, it also transcends them. Throughout, Bogard’s passion for poetry and literature shine through, as does his appreciation for “the necessity of the unknown”, the wonder that real nights give us, and the mystery of darkness.
I can’t resist re-posting in full an article from The Independent (6/1/13) by Suzi Feay. Mad Girl’s Love Song, a major new biography by Andrew Wilson, is scheduled to appear at the end of the month, just in time for the 50th anniversary of Plath’s suicide this February.
What could be more thrilling than finally having your debut novel published after years of honing your craft? Especially if it has been your goal since childhood; and the book is set to become not merely a modern classic, but a rite-of-passage read for every morose, misunderstood and proto-feminist teenager for years to come.
But for one young writer, publication, respectful reviews and a growing reputation were not enough; which is why early 2013 sees both the 50th anniversary of the publication of Sylvia Plath’s sole novel, The Bell Jar, and of its author’s suicide, which followed a few weeks later. Plath folded a cloth, placed it in her gas oven, and laid her head inside early in the morning of 11 February 1963, having first sealed the door of her children’s bedroom. She was 30. “A doctor put her on very heavy sedatives – and in the gap between one pill & the next she turned on the oven, and gassed herself,” her anguished, estranged husband, the poet Ted Hughes, wrote to a friend. “A Nurse was to arrive at 9am – couldn’t get in, & it was 11am before they finally got to Sylvia. She was still warm.”
To celebrate the happier anniversary, at least, there is a sparkling new edition of The Bell Jar, which has never been out of print, a series of events are planned for later in the year, and this month sees the publication of a major new biography, Mad Girl’s Love Song by Andrew Wilson. In the past, Plath’s hotly contested life has been a minefield for those who attempted to interpret it. “I tried to be as objective as possible,” says Wilson. “I’ve got no agenda, I didn’t read the other biographies, I went to the archives completely fresh, trying to stand back and see what kind of evidence there was.”
He has conjured up a youthful, blonde and vibrant Plath, albeit one with a disturbing shadow side. But the dark fact of the suicide, on a bitter morning in one of the worst English winters on record, overshadows our understanding of the life and work of Sylvia Plath, and has cast something like a curse on the lives of those who survived her.
Hughes’s letters in the months before the tragedy show no foreboding. He was, it seems, taken in by Plath’s bright, capable manner, expressed in letters to her mother: “I am joyous, happier than I have been for ages,” she wrote in October 1962. Her husband had been unfaithful with another poet’s partner, Assia Wevill, and Plath had thrown him out with much drama and vituperation. Hughes was, if anything, relieved. “The one factor that nobody but quite close friends can comprehend, is Sylvia’s particular death-ray quality,” he wrote to his elder brother, adding that she was “finally, impossible for me to live married to. Now we’re separated, we’re better friends…” However, he also wrote to his sister Olwyn: “[Plath]’s changed extraordinarily – become much more as she was when I first knew her, & much more like her mother, whom I detest. You’re right, she’ll have to grow up – it won’t do her any harm.”
Alas, Plath was never to “grow up”. “I was the only person who could have helped her, and the only person so jaded by her states & demands that I could not recognise when she really needed it,” Hughes wrote to Olwyn after his wife’s death. Crucially for the drama that was to unfold, the couple had only separated, not divorced. She was still Mrs Sylvia Hughes, and her literary estate was his to do with as he wished. He buried her in his native Yorkshire, under a slab that read “Sylvia Plath Hughes”, and began the laborious business of sorting out her unpublished writings.
So famous is Plath now that it is hard to remember that like another poet who died young, Keats, all her renown was posthumous. Now her celebrity fans include such diverse figures as Gwyneth Paltrow, who played her in the 2003 movie Sylvia, and David Walliams. The poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, prefaced her recent selection of Plath poems with a fan-girl introduction, she has been name-checked in a Manic Street Preachers song, and copies of The Bell Jar featured in Natural Born Killers and The Simpsons.
But back then she wasn’t an in-demand genius; the critic Al Alvarez was bemused to find that the dowdy, skinny American wife of the up-and-coming poet Ted Hughes was also a writer; he hadn’t associated the housewife “Sylvia Hughes” with the Sylvia Plath whose poems were beginning to cause a small stir after her debut collection The Colossus (1960). There is a famous picture of Ted Hughes with Auden, Eliot and Spender at a Faber and Faber party in 1960; Plath was at the same gathering, but she was not invited to join the great men. She has since arguably eclipsed them all, except Eliot.
Perhaps, given the position he found himself in, there is nothing Hughes could have done to forestall the criticism that was to trickle, then flood, in his direction. But giving his sister Olwyn the job of running the Plath estate on behalf of the two motherless children, Frieda and Nicholas Hughes, was not one of his smarter notions, given that the sisters-in-law had heartily disliked one another.
Literary estates are frequently contentious, as family members, sometimes not all that close to the deceased, attempt to control or even stifle biographers, critics and academics. Those who handle estates, and therefore permissions, are feared, needed and despised by biographers unless everything is handled with the greatest impartiality and transparency. The Plath estate was to generate huge revenues for the family. The Bell Jar alone has sold 400,000 copies worldwide over the past decade, and even today, Plath’s publishers get five requests a week for permission to quote from her writing.
Hughes set to work. Instead of promptly compiling a Collected Poems, he constructed a new, slim volume of poems entitled Ariel, published in 1965. It was a masterpiece; but it did not exactly resemble the collection of the same name that Plath left behind. Understandably, Hughes removed several poems that were vengeful and critical about himself, and reordered the poems to suggest a narrative that made the suicide seem inevitable. (Plath’s own ordering began with the word “Love” and ended with “Spring”, giving a rather more optimistic flavour to the book.) Meanwhile, Plath became a heroine, or martyr, for the nascent feminist movement. Her gravestone was attacked, the offending “Hughes” hacked off more than once. Hughes, it was angrily put about, had as good as murdered St Sylvia.
Nevertheless, more material was appearing. Gradual revelation was also canny monetising. Uneasy about the autobiographical elements of The Bell Jar, Plath had published it under a pseudonym, Victoria Lucas. In 1965, it came out in the UK under her own name. In 1971, it came out in America, and in 1975, Plath’s mother Aurelia brought out Letters Home, partly to counteract the harsh portrait of the mother in the novel. In 1977 came a selection of uneven but revealing short stories and prose pieces, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. Hughes brought out another slender selection of poems, Crossing the Water, and it was 1981 before the Collected Poems finally appeared, winning a Pulitzer Prize the following year.
Hughes also allowed the publication of Plath’s Journals in 2000, although they do not cover her final breakdown. He confessed to having destroyed one journal and having “lost” another. Hughes did not want her children to have to read the last journal, he said. He retained the habit of talking about “the children” when they were well into their thirties, as though they remained frozen in time, forever crying in their upstairs room while below, the gas seeped out.
The biographers also set to work. The first, Edward Butscher, offended the family with unseemly speculations and revelations in Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness (1976), followed by Linda Wagner-Martin’s feminist account, Sylvia Plath: A Biography (1987). In a preface, Wagner-Martin related how Olwyn Hughes, acting for Ted, demanded cuts of 15,000 words in exchange for permission to quote from Plath’s poems. Wagner-Martin ditched the quotations rather than have her book gutted. Paul Alexander’s Rough Magic (1991) was seen as even more objectionable.
The estate commissioned its own biography, authorised and overseen by Olwyn Hughes. It was a disastrous miscalculation. Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame (1989) was harshly debunking, hostile to Plath and favourable to Hughes in all questions of the marriage. It was an extraordinary document to emerge from an estate that handled Plath’s revenues. Bizarrely, three negative personal testimonies were added in appendices, one by Dido Merwin, a bitchy ex-friend eager to relate decades-old tittle-tattle. Reviewers howled and Stevenson confessed she had lost control of her own book, although the feminist critic Lorna Sage described Bitter Fame as “a good revisionist biography”.
In The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991), literary critic Jacqueline Rose also recounted textual horror stories. Ted Hughes informed Rose that her speculation about the sexual subtexts of some of the poems would not only upset the children (again), but in some cultures, be “grounds for homicide”, a shock tactic that, he later claimed, was not intended to threaten but to awaken.
As a result of all this, Janet Malcolm was moved to write a fascinating book-length essay on Plath, Hughes and biography, The Silent Woman (1994), landing broadly on the side of the Hugheses (although Olwyn comes across as a very strange person). Stevenson told Malcolm a tale of woe: Olwyn’s constant revisions and comments had scuppered Bitter Fame. “Please respect my wish to be left in peace,” Stevenson pleaded with Olwyn during the writing of the book. “No letters, no phone calls. You have brought me to the edge of breakdown many times in the past year.” Another letter read: “A person can take just so much of being … kicked, insulted, threatened, bulldozed into submission…”
It’s not surprising that people talked in terms of a Plath curse, and not just on biographers. No one suffered more than Assia Wevill, the beautiful and gifted woman for whom Hughes had left Plath. Fay Weldon, a friend of Wevill’s, recounted in her autobiography, Auto da Fay: “Ted took up with Assia and made her pregnant, and Sylvia killed herself, and five years later Assia was to kill herself and her child, out of guilt from which Ted declined to save her.” Appallingly, Assia also gassed her young daughter, Shura Hughes. The “Ted-Sylvia-Assia saga”, Weldon wrote, “was I think one of those seminal events which brought forth the fruit of 1970s feminism. That such talented women should die for what – for love? Because that’s what they died of, not depression, let alone ‘born to suicide’ as is so often said of Sylvia.”
Says the poet and translator Elaine Feinstein, Ted Hughes’s friend and biographer: “I think [Sylvia] and Ted were incredibly happy together, funnily enough, until she had her second child, and then she got rather tired and worn down. It doesn’t help to have someone like Assia cross the path.” The novelist Alan Sillitoe, a friend of the couple, once said vehemently to me: “I think Ted was a saint!”
I asked Andrew Wilson, Plath’s latest biographer, whether time is finally healing all these wounds. After all, Plath’s contemporaries are now in their eighties. Ted Hughes died in 1998, loaded with honours, finally redeemed by his heartfelt collection Birthday Letters – poems of love and contrition, addressed to Plath.
“I think it’s still very, very raw actually,” Wilson contends. “Understandably so. The latest thing is that Nicholas Hughes died.” Tragically, in 2009, Nicholas Hughes, the baby Plath left behind on that freezing morning, killed himself in Alaska, aged 47.
“Anybody who’s writing on Plath knows there are potential problems and difficulties. You have to be very careful,” Wilson goes on. Although he encountered no problems with Olwyn Hughes. “She wrote me some wonderfully spiky letters,” he laughs. “Obviously, she’s one of the figures you come across many, many times in Plath studies, but I found her really easy to deal with. Very straightforward.” Yes, I think Anne Stevenson would agree she’s certainly straightforward…
Wilson focuses on Plath before she ever met Hughes, using vast archives held in the States. Wilson has noticed an odd thing: Hughes firmly insisted that everything she wrote before 1956 counts as juvenilia. “And it’s when they first met! Nothing existed before in his eyes. I came across 200 poems that she wrote before then that have never been published, and lots of other items of archival material that have never been seen, and I’ve talked to friends and lovers who’ve never talked before, so it is an opportunity for a new, fresh approach.”
His quest was urgent. A couple of his interviewees died shortly after he met them. “[Sylvia’s friends] have reached an age when they think, actually, I would like to say something before I die. So it is a key moment, I think.”
The cover of Wilson’s book shows another side to a writer more often seen as death-struck than glamorous. “There’s a huge archive of colour pictures that I discovered, taken by one of her boyfriends,” he relates. “We picture her in black and white, don’t we? We haven’t really seen her in colour. We’re used to seeing her with lank hair looking miserable! There are lovely pictures of her with blonde hair looking very vibrant.”
Wilson found that he liked Plath and could empathise with her. “I know she was probably a very difficult person to be around but she had great charm, a great sense of fun. A lot of people who just read Ariel, which is terribly bleak, miss out on that. She was a very, very tortured individual and that’s the source of her creativity, but I did grow to like her and I hope that comes across in the book.”
Plath also reminded him of Patricia Highsmith, the subject of his previous biography. “Highsmith had similar symptoms to Plath – I don’t know how you want to categorise it, but some sort of personality disorder or mental illness. Both of them were alive before people talked about those things, before anybody could classify exactly what they had. They both went through a great deal of soul-searching, both had therapy, which they wrote about in their journals, so it’s fascinating to compare them. They both had very dark visions. But a crazy sense of humour at the same time.”
One thing is certain: fascination with Plath’s tortured life and magnificent poetry will continue, even as time heals the wounds left by a tragedy that has reverberated down half a century. “You couldn’t help but feel sorry for Ted, because he wasn’t the only man in London to commit adultery,” says Elaine Feinstein wryly. “It’s a great mistake to betray a poet.”
Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted by Andrew Wilson is published on 31 January by Simon & Schuster.
“Witty, wise and wonderful”
Sincerely: Further adventures in the art of correspondence from Women of Letters
Try as I might, I just couldn’t read this book cover to cover. It’s designed to be dipped into, and this is but one of the many joys Sincerely has to offer. Sincerely is the second collection by Women of Letters, a literary salon with the aim of celebrating the lost art of letter writing while also raising funds for the Victorian animal rescue shelter, Edgar’s Mission.
There are love letters, complaints, apologies, letters to treasured possessions, to songs, to white lies and to good decisions, to lives that could have been lived— themes that are diverse and intriguing, that give readers an intimate look into the hearts of some of Australia’s finest literary, political, and theatrical figures. Helen Garner writes to a primary school teacher she misjudged, looking back on childhood experience with adult eyes. Alice Pung’s exploration of cross-cultural misunderstanding in online dating had me laughing out loud.
Sincerely also includes letters from men writing to the woman who changed their lives, with a range of offerings from Julian Burnside, Shaun Micallef, David Williamson, and Robert Manne, to name only a few.
Though the entries in this collection were first performed at the Women of Letters salon events, nothing is lost in the written word. In fact, the individual voices of the authors shine through, sometimes lighthearted and whimsical, sometimes poignant and nostalgic. Sincerely is a potent tribute to an art that is shown to be not only a lot of fun but also very much alive.
Sincerely: Further adventures in the art of
correspondence from Women of Letters
curated by Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire
Review first published in The Courier-Mail in November 2012.
In odd ways my life ran parallel to that of David Foster Wallace. And to that of DT Max, the author of Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, the first biography of a man many have named the voice of his (our) generation. Like Wallace, I had the midwestern childhood, the years in New York, and a consuming passion for language and literature.
Early in Wallace’s career, I attended a reading in New York, compelled by friends to tag along, having no idea who the shaggy, unconventional writer on stage was. But I was impressed. He was clearly brilliant. And earnest–deadly earnest. He spoke of wanting to find a new language to express an ever shifting, fast paced, increasingly fragmented experience.
My head was full of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Eliot, and James. Narrative continuity. At that time, contemporary writing was ‘not my thing’. At bookstores, I dipped into Wallace’s books, but never purchased one. They were too cartoonish for my taste, too clever and recursive, too ironic. Having never been seduced by postmodernism (though I read my share of theory in grad school), Wallace’s ‘maximalist’ response to it was like reading a foreign language. And there were too many other wonderful books in towers around me.
Still, Wallace remained in the corner of my consciousness. Now and then, I read something about him. Occasionally, I’d stumble across one of his books in a used bookstore. I knew he resided in the literary firmament, the recipient of a MacArthur ‘genius’ award, friends with DeLillo and Franzen and many others, but that he eschewed fame, something he referred to as the ‘red eye of Sauron’*. I respected that. And maybe because he managed to maintain humility and earnestness and a scathing work ethic in spite of his success, when I heard about his suicide in 2008, I felt as though I lost someone I knew.
Max’s biography of Wallace does credit to his subject. He never met Wallace. Like me, the closest he got was a literary party in New York in the ’90s. But one senses he knew Wallace the way I felt I knew him. Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story is a tightly packed, straightforward account of one writer’s life, but it has something to say to all writers. Max exhaustively details the depressions, the battle with substance abuse, the hospitalisations, antidepressants, and electroconvulsive therapy. He recounts the affairs, the recoveries, Wallace’s insecurities, rages, even his murderous thoughts. We learn about his dogs, the TV shows he liked, and his penchant for wallpapering his bathroom with pages from his manuscripts.
And yet, this is a biography not only of the writer but of the writing. We are given an intimate view of the creative process in all its highs and lows. When Wallace was working well, he was prolific. He claimed to have written 750,000 words on Infinite Jest alone. Wallace’s energy and the constant whirring in his brain jump off the page. In fallow periods, when Wallace produced nothing, he worried about his lack of output through every drawn out, painful moment of the day. Max details Wallace’s commitment to the writing process in such a way that it becomes a masterclass for writers of all kinds.
There is something unnerving about Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story, an ever-present note of sadness that hangs over the biography from the first page, from the title itself, looming like the red eye of Sauron, in this case not Wallace’s growing fame but the chilling fact of his suicide. This makes for a painful life to read. To his credit, Max resists sensationalising Wallace’s fate. Even in the final pages, when we know the act is not far off, Max recounts Wallace’s last days and moments in a hushed, understated way.
The tragedy is a heavy one. After years of sobriety and meditation, after finding happiness with Karen Green, a woman to whom he was singularly well-suited, Wallace felt emboldened to get off the antidepressants he’d been taking for two decades. Nardil is a monoamine oxidase inhibitor that has problematic interactions with certain foods. But this wasn’t the only reason Wallace wanted to try life without it. He was struggling to write The Pale King, the novel he’d been battling for years, and wondered if he would be more inspired and energetic off his meds.
It was an act of hope rather than desperation. Finally calm, mellowed, contented, believing his demons were behind him, Wallace wondered if another way of being was possible. Sadly, it proved not to be.
* From Tolkien.
D.T. Max is a graduate of Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. His new book, Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, was published by Viking Penguin on August 30, 2012. He is also the author of The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, their two young children, and a rescued beagle who came to them named Max.
Forty-something David Quinn, a successful Australian journalist, has come to the Irish island of Inishmore in order to help his divorced sister. Though he adores his nephews, the fact that he doesn’t have his own children affects him as powerfully as it might a woman with a booming biological clock. Without a partner in his life and stuck on a lonely island, it seems that love, parenthood, and a family of his own is something that will pass him by.
Ettie, a teenage tourist from Australia, visits the island and ends up at David’s cottage for dinner—alone. The evening passes pleasantly—and innocently—enough, but when an accident occurs later that night, events unfold that turn David’s world around. Without giving away too much of this wonderful novel, everything he has longed for appears before him as a real possibility and, then, just as quickly vanishes.
It’s the smallest act that determines the course of events. Ettie’s mother Tania is willing to make sense of every detail of her daughter’s injury except for this one thing. And, because both have been damaged in past relationships, trust is precarious.
Sweet Old World is the worthy second novel by Deborah Robertson, a writer of much talent and subtlety, who garnered acclaim for her first novel Careless. She manages to capture the ease of love as it first descends and weaves a delicate narrative of longing, inevitability and, finally, acceptance. The plot, while engaging, takes second place, however; Robertson’s skill is in developing characters that are not only believable but heartbreakingly human.
Sweet Old World .
Deborah Robertson .
Every now and then, a novel arrives that conveys not only wisdom and understanding but also offers a dose of magic. Part fable, part dreamscape, part family drama, What the Family Needed can be read in different ways. Some of the delight is that nothing is lost in choosing one way over another; in fact, each reading contains all other possible readings. I’m being mysterious, I know; but I’m afraid to reveal too much and steal even an ounce of joy this strange and charming book provides.
On the most superficial level, What the Family Needed is the story of a family over a lifetime. At the centre is the oddball Alek, who exerts an influence over the others even when he isn’t present. Adorable as a child, Alek is transformed into the complicated teenage rebel and, later, the adult misfit, while the family watches with concern and growing ambivalence. All is not what it seems, however. Amsterdam offers a unique explanation for how the whole of a family resides within each of its members. And while it’s true that difference contains misunderstanding, as well as good will, and all sorts of consequences, each of us possesses special powers that arrive when we need them.
What the Family Needed is the second novel for Amsterdam, a worthy follow up to his debut Things We Didn’t See Coming, which won The Age Book of the Year for 2009. It’s a remarkable story, full of imagination and fun. Amsterdam reaches for the delicate web that connects us to each other and suggests a subtle new way of reading our lives.
What the Family Needed
Review first published in The Courier-Mail in December 2011.
In the late 1980s, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Southeast Asia. When I learned that Sharell Cook left her comfortable life in Melbourne to volunteer at a women’s centre in India, I anticipated revisiting my own experiences of cultural confusion and personal transformation. In Henna for the Broken-Hearted, there’s not much at all about Cook’s brief time as a volunteer. Fleeing her crumbling marriage and tired of the Melbourne party scene, Cook goes to India to find ‘meaning’. Unfortunately, most of this leaden memoir is about the party life she finds when she gets there and, of course, the man she meets, whom she will later marry.
Overusing adjectives and platitudes, Cook often refers to ‘the universe’. She also complains. A lot. And her list of irritations is long: she can’t stand squat toilets, leering men, nosy neighbors, dirt, double standards, corruption, and irregular Internet connections.
Once I recognised Henna for the Broken-Hearted is a typical story of a thirty-something woman growing up, I looked for other reasons to like it. Did she lose herself in exquisite descriptions of the Indian landscape? Not really. Did she compose humorous portraits of the people she encountered? Again no. Was she curious about the lives of others? If she was, her curiosity rarely poked through.
Cook claims the decision to make her life in India was transformative. On one level, it was. She’s learned another language, unfamiliar customs, even patience. But on the deeper level of seeing the world with new eyes, I’m not so sure.
Perhaps if she had written her experiences in a journal and left it to season over time, she might have produced something wise and worth reading.
Henna for the Broken-Hearted
Winsome, as lovely as her name implies, is newly married to Desmond, an ambitious civil servant. Both are half-castes and, in the Burma of the 1930s, their position is awkward, neither accepted by the British ruling class nor by the oppressed and simmering Burmese. Raised in a convent and chosen by Desmond in order to assist his career, Winsome appears to be the perfect bride. Then, life in Rangoon, with its mix of cultures, strange sights, and opportunities, transforms her from a malleable convent girl into a sensual woman. Though he disapproves, Desmond tolerates Winsome’s job in the studio of a wealthy Burmese photographer. The mysterious Daw Sein is a formidable woman resentful of the English and supportive of the rising native rebellion. However, when Winsome falls for Desmond’s boss, an English doctor who prides himself on his open-minded views, Desmond finds himself powerless in an intolerable situation.
Michelle Aung Thin sets up The Monsoon Bride with skill and insight. The relationship between Winsome and the Englishman unfolds as expected: for Winsome, it’s true love; for Jonathan, just too complicated. Desmond merely waits for the end. However, the fate of these characters distracts from the more interesting issue: How will the rebellion unfold? And when? Rather than being helplessly entangled in a racially fuelled political struggle, Winsome and her lover exist alongside it. The heat, the incessant rain, the exotic setting evoked so beautifully all fall away to reveal nothing but a humdrum love triangle.
The Monsoon Bride
Michelle Aung Thin
Review first published in The Courier-Mail in September 2011.