Book Review: Rainbow People

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Rainbow People is the third and final book in the late author’s Metamorphosis Trilogy. The title alludes to the term ‘rainbow children’, described in the introduction as:

“a species of children who are different enough to make them distinct from normality by virtue of the intensity of their curiosity for how things work, or should work, in the world around them, combined with a gentleness and even ‘sweetness’ of disposition to others.”

The story explores reactions to the recent migration of refugees from the Middle East to Europe as seen through the eyes of a man, Richard, a woman, Jenny, and a child, Sophie or Sophocles, who observe and discuss the crisis. The narrative structure is detached in style. Conversations are recounted, written down as he said/she said, along with the thoughts of those conversing – their remembrances of previous discussions.

Sparse background details are provided but these are fluid – the child, for example, is at times a boy and then a girl. An older man, Cyril, who is making a film on a beach, could be an acquaintance or Richard’s father. These details are unimportant in the message being relayed.

The first part of the tale is set on the Mediterranean coast near the border between Greece and Macedonia. The man, woman and child are walking towards a film crew. A group of actors are on the beach playing the part of refugees. The child takes off into the sea and is rescued, the performance filmed. The personal reactions of the observers are detailed alongside conversations about the crisis unfolding nearby.

“it may seem customary for people in trouble to be helped […] people who have been categorised as fugitives suddenly become those heading over a rainbow to a new existence – to one that is of a new nature – one which is reached by a recognition that sunlight and raindrops need not be opposites, but can together make something beautiful and the same.”

The reasons for human migration are discussed along with speculation on the preparations made by the migrants, their chances of success and acceptance by those already living in Europe.

The actors have not been fed that they may understand hunger, yet this is regarded as unnecessary, ridiculous, as are many actions surrounding the refugees.

“Even now, we seem to have learnt something of how ridiculous war is. But we are imbued with the idea that something should be done rapidly about a situation in which we find ourselves. And so we bomb people who we think must be causing the troubles”

There is talk of beauty, art and trust, of a need for tenderness as embodied in the actors’ reactions to the child.

The setting shifts to England where the man and woman plan a visit to the camp near Calais known as The Jungle. Richard muses that in a jungle the creatures have found ways to coexist, some living high up in the trees, some at ground level, all finding shelter. Their adaptation to the environment is achieved through instinct, without such planning and discussions as people in positions of power demand.

“the world’s large-scale problems, which were in almost everyone’s interests to solve, were brought to nothing by the strange obsession of humans that all this had to be explicable and validated by words”

Once in The Jungle, the trio observe the packed cars and vans in a traffic jam, all hoping to get to England. The child asks about sex and why her parents wanted children. Her mother answers:

“We wanted to change the world. And we got you.”

The child observes the people in the vehicles looking out their windows and wants to help.

“’What’s wrong with looking out of windows?’ Jenny said, ‘That’s all we do anyway.’ The child said, ‘You mean our eyes are windows.’ Richard said, ‘Or mirrors.’ The child said, ‘I don’t even know what I look like. ‘Jenny said, ‘No. Other people do.’”

As a story I found this a strange little tale although it does offer a window into the reasons behind the refugee crisis and the foolish behaviour of governments.

The book concludes with a postscript, by Shiva Rahbaran, in which she writes of meeting the author and their subsequent discussions. She asks:

“Can humans learn from their mistakes, and evolve into higher beings that can ‘become a rope over the Abyss […] a bridge and not a goal’ and thus save themselves from extinction? This question has been at the heart of Nicholas Mosley’s literary experiment for the past twenty-five years.”

Any Cop?: At around eighty pages in length this is a short work that offers much to consider. The philosophical debates were of interest although the author took as a given the need to save mankind as a species, despite his environmental negligence. In a book seeking to create bridges, to hope that those who come after will evolve into something better, perhaps this is fitting.

 

Jackie Law

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Book Review: Sońka

This post was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Sońka is set in Królowe Stojło, on the Polish-Belarusian border where the author spent his childhood. It opens like a fairy tale – Once upon a time – although its eponymous heroine is a toothless crone. She has lived her long life in the same small homestead with a cat, a dog, a few hens and a cow whose milk provides her meagre income. Although set in contemporary times, Sońka considers her life to have ended with the Second World War. She has a story that she has never told, of a time when she was “still very young, lived and felt so much afterward she didn’t live or feel at all.”

When her urban prince arrives – Igor Grycowski, a theatre director from Warsaw whose car breaks down leaving him stuck in her village where there is no mobile phone coverage – Sońka offers him a mug of fresh milk and decides it is time to tell the story of her life. It has been shaped by her great, unhappy love.

Igor has carefully hidden his background from his peers for reasons of self-preservation. Unbeknown to them he is familiar with this remote area. He spent his childhood with his grandparents in a nearby village, Wysranka, where he was called Ignacy Gryki and was Slavic Orthodox rather than Catholic and Polish as now.

As Sońka recounts her tale Igor shapes in his mind the play he will produce of her trials. He understands the potential power of such a depiction. The Ignacy in him comes to realise that this narration offers Sońka her final catharsis.

In August 1941 Sońka was living with her hated father and two older brothers, her mother having died in childbirth. Although now subjects of Adolph Hitler, their day to day life has continued as before. On the pivotal day, Sońka dons her only good dress and sits on the bench outside her home. From this vantage point she views the passing of numerous army trucks carrying soldiers she regards as “wonderful, dangerous and noble.”

An SS officer, Joachim, travels alongside, on a motorbike, and stops to speak to Sońka in a language she cannot understand. He presents her with a puppy and everything in her world is changed.

Sońka feels happiness when with Joachim that she had not realised could exist in her harsh life. Despite her dreams for the future, it cannot last. Her lies lead to barely imaginable personal tragedy, for her own and a neighbour’s families.

Phrases in Belarusian are included providing insight into a time now past in which Sońka, alone, still lives. For all his plans to appropriate her tale, Igor is sympathetic to her ongoing needs.

The fickle art world is depicted with humour despite the brevity of the subject being played. Igor wishes his production to touch heartstrings, even at a risk of turning tacky. He understands that critical response need not affect a play’s commercial success.

The author has said in a previous interview (with culture.pl):

“A few years ago, I realised that writing an outstanding novel for fifteen people is in fact a simple solution. It is not so difficult. If someone has a sort of a talent and is hard-working, he can easily create such a masterpiece. It is much harder to come up with a book that contains something deeper, and that is written in a reader-friendly language.”

With Sońka we have a novel that has this depth yet throughout remains accessible.

Any Cop?: Multi-layered, nuanced and perspicacious – an impressively satisfying read.

 

Jackie Law

 

Book Review: Selected Stories

This post was written for, and originally published by, Bookmunch.

Selected Stories is a collection of twelve short stories written in spare, understated prose that resonates with poignancy and perception. Many are set in or link back to the same small corner of Gaeilge speaking north-west Ireland. Time frames differ but the characters harbour familiar hopes, joys and despairs. These are tales of small yet complex lives as lived inside individual’s heads where experiences are curated to fit personal ideals. Resulting disappointments or absurdities are sympathetically rendered. There are few surprises as the plots develop but portrayals are replete with insight.

The collection opens with ‘Blood and Water’ which explores a family’s treatment of an aunt, regarded as odd yet fortunate to have been born in a time and place that accepted atypical behaviour without need for scientific labels or state sanctioned treatment. There are kindnesses and cruelties dealt. Neglect is passive if selfish, discomfortingly familiar.
Family and how members regard each other’s behaviours is a recurring theme. Duty visits assuage guilt more than helping the afflicted. Those who leave are expected to desire a return, their reasoning regarded as insignificant. The difficulty of understanding other’s feelings shines through.

In ‘The Pale Gold of Alaska’ two sisters travel to America to take up positions as housemaids. The younger decides en route that she will marry instead. Particular challenges of tying one’s life to another are deftly depicted. The sisters believe they have each made the better choice and must thereafter continue to convince themselves.

‘The Day Elvis Presley Died’ explores a relationship between an Irish and an American student on holiday with his parents. The first shine of lust has worn away revealing still unacknowledged differences.

“She heard him, and understood what he was saying. But she went on imagining another story for herself”

‘The Banana Boat’ is also set during a holiday and explores the precariousness of life and randomness of death. It is told from the point of view of a mother trying to involve her teenage boys in family activities, which could too easily go awry.

The latter stories in the collection revolve around writers and their literary world. They explore the value of the craft, the possibility of originality, and how quality can or should be measured.

‘Literary Lunch’ offers an acerbic look at those who select the recipients of grants and prizes. There is sycophancy and favouritism alongside the desire for recognition. Those continually passed over become increasingly venomous. The consequences of revenge are ironically dealt with in the following tale.

‘The Coast of Wales’ provides a fine conclusion, dealing as it does with the impact of a death. Despite the morbid setting and subject matter it is an uplifting read.

Any Cop?: These stories are richly satisfying with a voice that is distinctly Irish yet universally relevant. It is fluent, effective storytelling.

Jackie Law