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Ada Blackjack: Survival in the Arctic

November 18, 2019

Approaching Wrangel Island, July 2019 (Photo by Bryce Alcock)

Ada Blackjack by Jennifer Niven, 2003

In 1921, Ada Blackjack, a young Alaskan Inuit seamstress, was persuaded to join an expedition to Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean north of Siberia. In this book, Jennifer Niven tells the story of this remarkable woman.

Ada Cover Book (2)

The organiser of  the venture, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, had arranged a previous disastrous expedition to the Arctic, during which eleven men had lost their lives. Now he decided to send four young men to claim Wrangel Island for the British Empire, despite the fact that it was off the coast of the Soviet Union. The men would stay on the island for three years to consolidate the claim and demonstrate how easy it was to live in the “friendly Arctic”.

The men chartered a ship to take them from Nome to the island. They hired several Inuit families to travel with them, the men to hunt, and the women to sew. Seamstresses were vital to make clothing to protect the men from the cold.

When the time came to depart, the Inuit families refused to go because, they said, the trip would be too dangerous. Ada did not want to go as the only female with four men, but eventually agreed to join the trip. She would use her wages to pay for medical treatment for her son, who had suffered from tuberculous.

Lcation map Wrangel Island

Wrangel Island Location Map by Norman Einstein (CC Licence)

They arrived on Wrangel Island in September 1921 and immediately raised the British flag and claimed the island for Great Britain. Then they set up three tents, built the frame of a house and later, when the snow arrived in October, they covered the house walls with snow blocks. Ada worked diligently, sewing and cooking.

After two weeks, Ada changed. She cried uncontrollably and did no work. She had become infatuated with one of the men, and believed the other three were planning to kill her. One of the men, Lorne Knight, was always sharpening his knife.

One day, she disappeared. They followed her footprints. When they found her, she began to scream. She wanted to die and had drank a bottle of liniment.

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Ada was terrified of being eaten by a polar bear (Photo by Ann Alcock)

The men tried to discipline her by refusing her food, or tying her to the flagpole until she promised to work.

Jennifer Niven suggests that Ada was suffering from Arctic Hysteria, but I think such a dubious diagnosis is unnecessary. Ada had not wanted to join the trip, and regretted doing so. She was desperately homesick, and longed for her son and her sister. She was a town girl and “knew little about fishing, nothing about hunting, and guns and knives terrified her.” And she was always frightened she would be eaten by a polar bear. It would not be surprising if she had reactive depression.

By December, she had recovered. Now “Ada worked harder than any of them. She sewed, cooked, washed dishes, scrubbed their clothing clean, and scraped skins. She rose at 6 am to bake bread. She was pleasant, cheerful and friendly.”

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Bird cliff on Wrangel Island (photo by Bryce Alcock)

They all looked forward to the arrival of a ship to restock their provisions in June or July. The men were growing fond of Ada, and would miss her when she returned home on the ship.

But the ship could not get through the ice. And it would be another year before Ada was rescued, by then the sole survivor of the expedition. To survive, she trapped foxes for meat. Despite being terrified of guns, she taught herself to shoot, and bagged seagulls, eider ducks and seals. To help with her hunting, she made a skin boat. She scared polar bears away with rifle shots.

Jennifer Niven tells Ada’s story well, and she also brings to life the many other players in this drama. Ada’s character is revealed though her interactions with others, especially the four men. Ada is strong and engaging, full of fear but also full of courage, initiative and cleverness to overcome that fear. Thrown into an ongoing disaster, she develops the ability to deal with it.

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Wrangel Island (Photo by Bryce Alcock)

The last part of the book narrates Ada’s life after Wrangel Island, as she tries to avoid her celebrity status. Niven describes her relationships with the families of the four men. This part of Ada’s life is interesting, but not as engrossing as her story of survival in the Arctic. Having recently visited Wrangel Island, I was grateful to immerse myself in this piece of its history.

My thanks to Jenny Gold for lending me the book.

 

Break the Rules!

November 10, 2019

Bruny Island Map by Kompakt (CC Licence)

Review: Heather Rose, Bruny, 2019

A bridge is being built to connect Bruny Island, south of Hobart, to the Tasmanian mainland. After a bomb damages the partly-constructed bridge, the Premier, John Coleman, asks his twin sister, Astrid, for help. She is a UN conflict resolution specialist and John wants the various factions for and against the bridge to calm down.

To Astrid, known as Ace, something about the bridge doesn’t add up. How can the Australian Government justify the two billion dollar cost for a “bridge to nowhere”? And what is  China’s interest? Tasmania has signed up to the Belt and Road Initiative, under which China is supplying the steel for the bridge.

Ace puts her doubts aside and uses her skills, meeting with all the main players in the community, so that they feel their voices have been heard. But her doubts grow, and she is disturbed by the “bridge at any cost” attitude of the Prime Minister, her brother and other creepy but powerful players. John Coleman wants the bridge completed before the coming Tasmanian election. To achieve that goal, 300 Chinese workers are brought in, opening the possibility of importing foreign labour to other parts of Australia.

Ace eventually finds out what is really going on, and it is so outrageous that, if the novel had been written ten years ago, this development would have seemed too far-fetched. Given all that the Australian government has done over recent years, the shocking plan is quite believable.

Ace reconnects with her friend Becky, now an advisor to the Prime Minister. As teenagers, their mantra was “Break the Rules”. Together they had got tattoos in order to make their mothers furious. Now Ace and Becky break the rules in a much more dangerous way.

There is much exposition in Bruny, which some reviewers have criticised as didactic and interrupting the narrative. Ace explains complex situations, comments on the crimes of Australian governments, and advocates for human rights and against corruption. For example:

There ought to be a name for the kind of overwhelm that happens when you realise there are too many things to fight. If it’s not the environment, then it’s human rights. If it’s not human rights, it’s women’s rights. Law and order. Gun control. Invasive species. Water pollution. Tax reform. Refugee policy.  Education. Health care. The list is endless.

Heather Rose (Photo: Isabelleocean (CC licence)

To me, this exposition added to the novel, and reflected Ace’s character. Rose treats the reader as an intelligent person who cares about what is happening to Australia. And despite the “interruptions”, I could not stop reading, mainly because I believed in her characters, and was pulled along by her story-telling, desperate to know what the baddies are really planning. As well as political satire and a moving portrayal of a family in crisis, Bruny is a thriller.

Most reviewers have been positive. For me, the best assessment of the novel is by Louise Swinn, a founder and a judge of the Stella Prize, writing in the Saturday Paper.  Here is her concluding paragraph:

With a collective sigh of relief we’ve emerged on the other side of the writing-class maxim “Show, don’t tell”, a false binary that ignores how a vivid piece of writing can do both. If at times Bruny can be a little didactic, it has a vastness and a spaciousness that seem almost old-fashioned. It has that eminently readable interiority that only a novel can bring, the certainty of opinions from a particular mindset that is unabashedly, almost resignedly, only able to be itself.

Rose dedicates Bruny “For anyone who is still awake”, a signal that this is an issues novel. Perhaps we should expect some exposition and advocacy in such a work. For those who find this hard to swallow, Rose helps the medicine go down with a thrilling plot and characters we care for.

[Note: Heather Rose’s profoundly moving previous novel, The Museum of Modern Love, is very different to Bruny. Follow this link to my review.]

The Rediscovery of a Painting

October 8, 2019

 

Aduh! Pasar Baru Oct19

Wenny Achdiat, whose story is told in Daughter of Independence, was the model for the woman in this painting. Aduh! Pasar Baru is the work of Indonesian Presidential Painter, Basoeki Abdullah. Wenny last saw the painting in 1954, when it was included in an exhibition. Recently, we found out what happened to this artwork, thanks to Amir Sidharta. Wenny now has a photo of the painting and is very happy!

Follow this link to the story of how the painting was created, what happened to it, and its rediscovery 65 years later.

 

TRAUMA, A LOST BOY, FOXES AND HAPPINESS

October 2, 2019

HappinessAminatta Forna, Happiness, 2018

A large man strolling across Waterloo Bridge stops to admire the Houses of Parliament. A woman runs into him and bounces back onto the ground. This is how the two main characters of Happiness first meet. Attila is a Ghanaian psychiatrist, a specialist in trauma who spends much of his time in war zones. Jean is an American wildlife biologist who is researching urban foxes in London. She had been running across the bridge, following a fox.

Despite this opening, Happiness is far from being a romcom. It is a deep character study of two engaging people with rich experience of life. They combine to search for a missing boy, the son of Attila’s niece. The doorman at Attila’s hotel enlists other immigrants – security people, street sweepers, traffic wardens – while Jean’s army of fox-spotters, mostly night-workers, also join the search. As the quest proceeds, it pulls in others, such as street performers. This part of the novel brings the city of London to life. Forna portrays immigrants and locals working together to respond to an urgent problem, and shows how coexistence can work in practice.

Coexistence is a strong theme of the novel. Jean’s work is about human-animal coexistence. Her advocacy is opposed by hunters, mayors and shock jocks. In telling Jean’s story, Forna writes beautifully on nature. Her passages about foxes, coyotes, wolves, birds and trees made me stop, reread and marvel at her descriptive powers.

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Aminatta Forna (Photo: JurgenMatern CC-BY-SA) 

In his work, Attila has experienced the horrors of war. ‘War is in the blood of humans,’ he tells Jean. ‘The kind of people who torture and rape during war, they’re always with us, every time you walk down a busy street you’re passing killers waiting to kill. War gives them licence.’

But Attila is critical of the growing tendency to diagnose Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after any difficult event. This thread plays out when he agrees to act as an expert witness in the trial of a woman who committed arson sometime after her husband died in a vehicle accident.

‘Suffering does not equal damage,’ Attila says. ‘We don’t blame victims any longer, instead we condemn them. We treat them like damaged goods and in so doing we compound the pain of whatever wound has been inflicted and we encourage everyone around them to do the same’ Attila has often observed joy amongst those who have suffered most.

In an interview, Forna said: ‘The paradox is that happiness is not contingent on the absence of suffering, but the reverse — that surviving difficulty can lead to happiness. In this culture we are conditioned to believe that anything other than pleasure is a threat to happiness, that happiness is an all or nothing condition.’

Forna’s novel is absorbing, moving and entertaining. Reading Happiness  is pure pleasure.

Boy Swallows Universe

April 24, 2019

Boy Swallows UniverseTrent Dalton, Boy Swallows Universe, 2018 

Boy Swallows Universe begins with 12-year-old Eli Bell being taught to drive by Arthur ‘Slim’ Halliday, convicted killer and expert prison escapee. Slim looks after Eli and his brother August while their parents are delivering heroin throughout the suburbs of Brisbane. August doesn’t talk but writes words in the air.

This novel grabbed me on the first page and didn’t let me go until it ended on page 474 when Eli is aged 19.

Dalton creates characters we care about, then puts them in harm’s way, producing set pieces of almost unbearable tension. He also sets them impossible challenges, like Eli’s plan to break into Boggo Road Gaol to see his mother on Christmas Day. But it is more than a thriller. Dalton recreates 1980s Brisbane and the ubiquitous police corruption of the time. He brings to life the Courier Mail newsroom, ruled over by an editor who demands three-word headlines (hence the titles of the book and chapters).

We also follow Eli’s investigation of what makes a good person. He tells the Guidance Counsellor that he wants to write about crime. “I’m not interested in crime as much as the people who commit crimes – interested in how they got to the point they got to. I’m interested in that moment when they decided to be bad instead of good.” He speculates: “Maybe all men are bad sometimes and all men are good sometimes. It’s just a matter of timing.”

Dalton is a master of characterisation. The novel is full of characters, each one memorable. From just a few words of speech, we know something of what the person is like. One minor character is Dr Caroline Brennan, who treats Eli when he loses his forefinger. She takes up five pages of the novel, but she made a lasting impression on me.

‘Now hold out your tall man,’ she says, twiddling her middle finger.
I hold out my tall man.
‘Now shove him up your nostril,’ she says.
She sticks her own middle finger in her nostril, raising her eyebrows.
… I follow suit, shove that tall man up my nose.
‘See,’ Dr Brennan says. ‘There ain’t nothing that forefinger could do that tall man can’t, you hear me, young Eli? The tall man can just go deeper.”

Dalton writes dialogue that feels real, and through dialogue, action and humour we learn a lot about the criminal underworld, the illicit drug industry, and life in public housing suburbs. While the novel is laced with violence it is also full of deep love – especially between Eli and his mother, but also between Eli and his brother, stepfather, Slim and, eventually, his real father.

This is a story about a boy swallowing the universe. It is a celebration of accepting the whole of life – the painful and the sublime. A big story beautifully told. Highly recommended.

No Friend But the Mountains

April 14, 2019

Boochani bookBehrouz Boochani, No Friend But the Mountains, 2018, Translated by Omid Tofighian.

Behrouz Boochani came with so much to offer Australia and, instead of accepting this gift, we imprisoned and tortured him.

Boochani fled persecution in Iran and sought refuge in Australia. After nearly drowning, he arrived at Christmas Island in 2013, four days after Prime Minister Keven Rudd banned boat-borne refugees from ever settling in Australia. Boochani was sent to Manus Prison in Papua New Guinea.

Boochani and 400 other asylum-seekers were confined in one section of the prison that was so small it eliminated all personal space. They were not allowed possessions or activities. There was no chance of getting a notebook and pen.

“[T]here is nothing to occupy our time. … It is even prohibited to play cards. In Corridor L, a few people were able to get hold of a permanent marker and draw a backgammon board onto a white plastic table. They began to play, using the lids from water bottles as counters. Almost instantly, a group of officers and plain-clothed guards entered … and crossed out the game. They wrote over if in bold letters, ‘Games Prohibited’.”

One prisoner desperately wanted to call his father, who was dying. The guards forced him to follow the rules and wait three days. By the time he was allowed to call, his father had died. He reacted with grief and anger, and the Australian guards beat him up and threw him into solitary confinement.

Winner of two Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, the Victorian Prize for Literature and the Prize for Non-Fiction

No Friend But the Mountains is a big book, but it was created on a smuggled mobile phone, one text message at a time sent to the translator. Boochani is a superb storyteller. On his first attempt to reach Australia, the rotting Indonesian boat sinks:

“With the weight of a boulder, the boat bashes us onto the surface of the ocean. I penetrate the water, into the darkness of the ocean accompanied by the boat, accompanied by its slashed carcass.
Down … /
I sink further down /
I sink further down /
The boat is pursuing me
/
Trying to catch me /
Catch me and pull me within it /”

Reading about the cruelty of the prison is harrowing, but the quality of the prose, and the poetry that is mixed into it, kept me reading. I felt a mixture of revulsion at what we are doing to him and delight in the beauty of his art.

Writing about the prison, he is not only describing, but also analysing. He says that Australia’s oppressive regime aims to turn prisoners against each other, and create a situation so harsh it will force the refugees to return to their country of origin, where they are likely to be tortured and murdered.

Boochani calls this system a “kyriarchy”, borrowing the term from the feminist scholar, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, who used it to describe interlocking systems aimed at domination, oppression and submission. In the Translator’s note, Tofighian says that this “connects the prison with Australian colonial history and fundamental factors plaguing contemporary Australian society, culture and politics.”

In his foreword to the book, Richard Flanagan writes: “Australia imprisoned his body, but his soul remained that of a free man. … I hope one day to welcome Behrouz Boochani to Australia as what I believe he has shown himself to be in these pages. A great Australian writer.”

A Superior Spectre

January 5, 2019

/Angela Meyer, A Superior Spectre, 2018

a-superior-spectre-coverAs I read A Superior Spectre, I became so attached to Leonora, one of the two protagonists, that I woke during the night, worrying about what would happen to her, angry at the people who caused her harm.

Leonora’s world is her father’s farm in the Scottish Highlands during the 1860s. She loves her cairn terrier, Duff, and all the farm animals. She has learnt from a neighbour how to shift and deliver a calf. She loves the woods, the wildlife, the burns, and the deep soil of the farm. Whenever she can, she reads – Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Byron.

She is happy, living the life that she wants, but her father insists on sending her to live with her aunt in Edinburgh, in the hope that she will find a husband. On the farm she can be herself, but away from the farm she struggles with society’s restraints, the requirements of properness.

Leonora’s story comes to us through Jeff, the other protagonist. In 2024, suffering a serious illness, he leaves Melbourne and travels to Scotland to confront himself and the terrible things he has done, and then to die. He has decided not to have treatment that would prolong his life.

Jeff has brought with him a newly-developed drug, which allows the user to enter the consciousness of someone else, a “host” from the past. When Jeff uses the drug, he enters the mind of Leonora. He feels what she feels, sees what she sees, touches what she touches. He experiences her menstruation and her orgasm when she masturbates.

Jeff was warned not to visit the same host more than three times, but he ignores this advice and returns again and again to Leonora. He becomes addicted, not to the drug but to being someone who isn’t him.

Leonora feels his intrusion, and twenty-first century images completely outside her nineteenth century experience enter her mind. She feels haunted – is she going mad?

The narrative alternates between Leonora and Jeff. Leonora always kept me engrossed, but sometimes I was impatient with Jeff, with his self-absorption and carelessness, and I looked forward to getting back to Leonora. Both characters feel completely real, but Meyer’s creation of Leonora is a triumph.

Meyer’s other outstanding achievement is her recreation of 1860s Scotland, both the Highlands and Edinburgh, and the first stirrings of changes in the roles of women, exemplified by female medical students, and in the treatment of mental illness, which was becoming slightly less inhumane.

The novel raises questions about voyeurism. Jeff is the ultimate voyeur, with no remorse for his invasion until he realises the harm he is doing to his host. Technology has provided many tools for voyeurs. What happens if telepathy becomes possible in the future? How would we manage such a development?

A Superior Spectre is beautifully written, and was an excellent choice to begin the 2019 reading year. Leonora and her story will stay with me.

To the End of the Land

December 17, 2017

David Grossman, To the End of the Land. Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen, 2010.

Ora is full of love. Her love sustains her family for twenty good years. So how does it happen that her oldest son breaks with Ora, saying, “You’re an unnatural mother”?

To the End of the Land is David Grossman’s exploration of how the daily reality of the Israel-Palestinian conflict affects the people living in it, and how it can poison the most intimate parts of their lives.

As teenagers, Ora, Avram and Ilan form an intense friendship. During the Yom Kippur war in 1973, Avram is captured and tortured by Egyptian forces. Afterwards, he feels that everything has died in him, and he withdraws from his previous life.

Ora marries Ilan and has two sons, Adam and Ofer. After the devastation with Avram, she feels she has paid her price, and cuts herself off from the Israel-Palestine “situation”. She creates a haven of love for her family. Once a week or so she wakes up and says quietly into Ilan’s ear, “Look at us. Aren’t we like a little underground cell in the heart of the ‘situation’?”

David Grossman (Penguin Random House)

But by the year 2000, her family is broken. Ora and Ilan have separated, and Adam has rejected her. She still has a relationship with Ofer, but only just. She and Ofer plan a hike in the Galilee when his military service ends. But on his discharge day the Second Intifada begins and he re-enlists. Devastated, Ora decides she will still do the hike – if she is not at home to receive the “notifiers”, Ofer will be safe.

She forces Avram, who is actually Ofer’s father, to come with her. In the past, Avram has never wanted to know about his son. Now Ora intends to keep Ofer safe by telling Avram all about him. In the process, she tells the story of her family. The relationship between Adam and Ofer, the way in which they support each other, is especially engaging. As Ora talks to Avram, she feels she is “reciting a eulogy for the family that once was, that will never be again.”

The family rupture occurs because Ora wants Ofer to promise he will never hurt anyone intentionally. As a soldier, he refuses to make this promise. He is involved in one incident where a Palestinian is put in harm’s way, and Ora cannot let this go. She is desperately trying to save her child from “the barbarian standing opposite her”.

Ora can no longer isolate herself from the “situation.”

“On the street she notices that people are “walking quickly, without looking one another in the eye. … she saw in almost every person a note that hinted at some latent possibility – the possibility of being a murderer or a victim, or both.”

The depth and complexity of characterisation in this novel made the characters real for me. I felt for them. I cannot remember loving any other fictional character as much as I now love Ora. This attachment intensifies the narrative tension in the multiple connected stories woven into the overarching plot line of the Galilee walk. We ache to know what happens next in each of these sub-stories, and sooner or later we are rewarded.

To the End of the Land is a beautifully constructed novel about a grim subject. Highly recommended.

A Land Without Borders

September 30, 2017

Land Without Borders (418x640)Nir Baram, A Land Without Borders: My Journey Around East Jerusalem and the West Bank, 2015. Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen.

A Jewish settler in the West Bank tells Nir Baram there is no such thing as a Palestinian nation. “Their distinctness in the Arab world does not justify another state … If you need a territorial solution, then there’s Jordan.”

A Palestinian school director tells Baram, “There is no solution except for Jews to go back to the countries they came from, and for everyone to fulfil their rights in their own countries.”

During 2014-15, Baram, an Israeli novelist, travelled throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem, speaking with hundreds of people, “Jewish and Arab, from all classes and political affiliations.” Listening to people helped him push past the stereotypes and reach a more complex understanding of the Israeli-Palestine conflict.

Those who say that the only solution is for the other side to go somewhere else are at one end of a very wide spectrum of views. There are settlers who pursue the Zionist dream of the entire Jewish people on the entire land of Israel, but would still like to relieve the suffering of the Palestinian people. Another settler calls for Jews to let go of the concept of ownership: “It is God’s land. The people of Israel belong to the Land of Israel, and the Palestinians belong to the Land of Israel, to Palestine.” After all, Isaac and Ishmael were brothers.

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Nir Baram (Text Publishing Website)

Other settlers don’t even notice the Palestinians: “Where are the Arabs here, anyway?” This comment prompts Baram to visit a nearby Palestinian village that had been there since before the Ottomans. Settlers had taken over lands the villagers cultivated or grazed, killing their sheep, cutting down their olive trees. Fences they weren’t allowed to cross separated them from lands the settlers had not yet appropriated.

There seems little prospect of implementing either of the usual solutions. Israel is unlikely to agree to one state with equal rights for all because of the demographic danger. And is it even possible to divide the land into two states? How can Jews and Arabs on the West Bank be separated?

Baram is a member of a group of Israelis and Palestinians advocating a peace initiative called “Two States One Homeland”, which is halfway between the two standard solutions: a shared homeland between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, consisting of two independent sovereign states with an open border between them, with freedom of movement and residence throughout the homeland.

Yet Baram concludes that the problem is not one of state design, but of values. He asks Israelis whether Israel should pay reparations to Palestinians for the loss of their assets – villages, houses, lands – and is met with contempt, fury and mockery. Yet Germany is still paying reparations to victims of the Holocaust.  “Each side is trapped within its own ’48 narrative, without recognising the other story at all.”

West Bank Barrier

Separation Wall (CC, Wikimedia Commons)

It is time to admit, he says, that “the occupation is the image of our society, institutions, army, citizens. An overwhelming majority of institutions in Israel are dedicated to the preferential treatment of Jews over non-Jews and the elaboration of the occupation.”

Whatever the solution, he concludes, “two states, a confederation, a single state – the Jew and the non-Jew must be equal in every sense.”

This is a book about ongoing tragedy, yet it is a joy to read. It connects the reader to the lives of Palestinians and Jewish settlers and makes us feel the forces at work in this conflict. Baram doesn’t just listen, he also challenges people, and asks them difficult questions, such as, “How do you see the future?”

Highly recommended for anyone who wants to understand more about one of the key conflicts of our time.

The Museum of Modern Love

August 10, 2017

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Heather Rose, The Museum of Modern Love, 2016, Winner of the 2017 Stella Prize.

You’re a successful artist, happily married to a woman you love. You don’t have the same need for people as your wife does, and she organises a life around both of you. Then she suffers brain damage from a blood disorder, and is moved to a nursing home, incapacitated physically and mentally. And you discover that she has taken out a court order that, in the event of such incapacity, forbids you from seeing her. You descend into a sort of hell.

 

This is the fate of Arky Levin, film score composer, the main fictional character in Heather Rose’s novel, The Museum of Modern Love. The main real character is performance artist Marina Abramović. The novel circles around these two people as it progresses. Will Levin sit with her? And if he does, what will happen?

In 2010, Abramović performed The Artist is Present, sitting for 75 days in the atrium of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, while visitors queued to sit opposite her and silently gaze into her eyes. Some visitors sat for two minutes, others for two hours – or all day. If the visitor cried, so did Abramović. Other visitors watched from behind a square around the performance marked by tape.

Marina Abramović, The Artist is Present

Photo: Andrew Russeth, Flickr CC Licence

Visiting MoMA, Levin is drawn to Abramović’s performance, and starts coming most days to watch it. Watching with him is a rich cast: fictional characters such as art teacher Jane, grieving for her husband, and Brittika, who is driven to know more than other people and is writing her PhD thesis on Abramović. Also at the performance are real characters such as Abramović’s photographer, the ghost of her mother, and the novelist Colm Toibin, who wrote of his experience:

‘It was like being brought into a room in Enniscorthy when I was a child on the day after a neighbour had died and being allowed to look at the corpse’s face. … This was serious, too serious maybe, too intimate, too searching. It was either, I felt, what I should do all the time, or what I should never do.’

Many of these characters, fictional and real, are changed by sitting with Abramović or watching the performance. How does such art change people?

Much of Abramović’s previous art is dramatic and dangerous and makes ideological statements as well as artistic ones. It is art to “wake you up.” But for The Artist is Present she refines her art, simplifies it, until “all that’s left is energy”. When sitters lock eyes with Abramović, does that energy cause people to see themselves as they really are? Or look at their life in a different way? Or feel something that was previously invisible to them?

Throughout the novel the power of art interweaves with the power of love. Talking to Levin about his wife, a close friend of them both gives him a little poem:

Even after all this time, the sun never says, “You owe me.”
Look what happens with a love like that.
It lights the whole world.

Heather Rose

Heather Rose (Photo: Allen & Unwin website, downloadable)

Are there times when one must choose between art and love? Or are they, at their deepest level, the same?

This is a beautiful novel. Heather Rose writes like an angel, and in fact an angel (or good spirit/muse) narrates much of the story – a risky device, but it is the exact omniscient voice this tale requires. The Museum of Modern Love is one of the most affecting books I have read. The final few paragraphs are profoundly moving, and they constitute a perfect ending to the novel.