Our Souls at Night

Some might call it boring. “It’s just two old people talking in the dark,” as one character says.

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I call Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf a quiet book that sneaks up on you with its loveliness.

Two lonely people in their seventies—Addie and Louis—(both widowed) decide to sleep together at night. Addie clarifies her intentions to Louis, her neighbour down the street in their small Colorado town:

No, not sex. I’m not looking at it that way. I think I’ve lost any sexual impulse a long time ago. I’m talking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed, companionably. Lying down in bed together and you staying the night. The nights are the worst. Don’t you think?

As you read it, you realize it’s about a lot more than two old people talking in the dark. It’s about ordinary, flawed people reflecting on the past and taking a risk to make the most of the present.

Addie and Louis are two characters who make me look forward to growing old. They’ve lived long enough to stop caring what other people will think or say about them, but they each have a child and live in a town who doesn’t share their way of looking at things, which brings tension into their story.

Their simple, routine lives are attractive. They work in their gardens, drive elderly neighbours to the grocery store, go on outings occasionally. Haruf doesn’t cut these ordinary elements out of his fiction. For example, one chapter starts:

The next day he worked in the yard in the morning and mowed the lawn and ate lunch and took a short nap and then went down to the bakery and drank coffee with a group of men he met with every other week.

The way the author tells the story is cinematic, a movie camera following the characters around their small town, paying close attention to the little things brought to life with such love. Waiting at a stoplight. Cooking sloppy joes over a camp stove. Walking a dog. Similar to a scene in the film Lady Bird where a character talks about love as paying attention; paying attention as love.

Haruf’s style of prose mimics his subject matter. The writing is poetic in its spareness. Rhythmic in its brevity. There are no quotation marks around the dialogue, and it would look cumbersome if there were because so much of the novel is dialogue and, for the most part, it’s clear who’s speaking when.

The only other book I could compare it it to is Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, a similarly brief yet eloquent portrait of two people exploring the landscape of marriage (with a more devastating tone though).

Our Souls at Night was the author’s last book before he died in 2014 at 71, a similar age to his characters. He based it on his and his wife’s story, two people who found each other later in life. Knowing this makes the reading experience that much more tender. What a gift to leave the world.

In a literary market where the protagonists are typically young, larger than life, and the plot full of action and surprise, this novel landed in my lap like a letter from another world. It was refreshing to know a book like this could be published, and with acclaim! And not just published, but deemed interesting enough to make into a movie, which I think I will watch tonight.

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Who is the Nightingale?

We meet an old woman reflecting on her past in Chapter 1 of The Nightingale. It is either Vianne or Isabelle, the sisters and main characters in this book by Kristin Hannah.

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We are slowly given more clues about this character. She survived the war. She is dying of cancer. Her husband is already dead. She has a son. It is 1995 and she lives in Oregon. In her attic, she has une carte d’identité, an identity card, bearing the name of Juliette Gervaise.

The second chapter plunges us into France in August 1939 where we meet Vianne Mauriac, her eight-year-old daughter Sophie, and her husband Antoine before he is quickly conscripted for the war.

This book of literary fiction, after all, tells the women’s stories during WWII—their sacrifices, impossible decisions, acts of resistance, courage, and love.

Vianne loves her husband and daughter. She is a little naive about war but who knew how many years it would last? She is hopeful for her daughter’s sake.

I assume the old woman at the beginning is Vianne because she is the first character we meet.

In Chapter 4 we are introduced to her younger sister, Isabelle Rossignol, impulsive and rebellious. She gets expelled from a finishing school (her fourth time), and goes to live with her father in Paris, who doesn’t want her. After the girls’ mother died, Julien Rossignol left his daughters in the charge of a nurse.

The two sisters couldn’t be more different. And they don’t get along. Isabelle felt ignored by Vianne growing up, and Vianne found Isabelle annoying and impetuous. Vianne got married young and Isabelle was sent off to school.

When the war comes, the sisters take very different journeys. True to her youthful and brazen personality, Isabelle joins the Resistance, risking her life time and time again to distribute mail, shelter downed Allied airman, and lead them over the Pyrenees into Spain where they could reach the British consulate and be sent home. She is the mastermind behind this operation and her code name becomes The Nightingale, or Le Rossignol in French (also her last name).

Vianne, on the other hand, stays put with her daughter in their beautiful home near an airfield in the fictional Loire Valley town of Carriveau. When the Germans occupy France, Vianne can’t pretend the war isn’t happening. A German officer billets in her home while she and Sophie continue to live there.

The author skillfully weaves between the sisters’ stories during a five-year time span, showing us how their paths diverge and how they intersect. I loved it when they intersected because as panoramic and historically researched as this novel is, it is also a very intimate story of family and friendship and the unthinkable scenarios that bring people together.

The sisters’ stories are interrupted only a few times to flash to the present, where we have the old woman speaking again. Her son is taking her to scope out a nursing home and she says, “I know these modern seat belts are a good thing, but they make me feel claustrophobic. I belong to a generation that didn’t expect to be protected from every danger.”

And now I am not sure who this old narrator is. Her comment sounds more like Isabelle and her flair for danger. I am convinced it is Isabelle when she thinks to herself, How can I possibly go without remembering all of it—the terrible things I have done, the secret I kept, the man I killed . . . and the one I should have?

Vianne could never have it in her to kill someone. Isabelle is disgusted with her sister for failing to do more in the war, like standing up to the soldier who lives in her home. And Vianne assumes her beautiful sister is away seeing a secret lover in Paris.

The sisters misunderstand each other, of course. And they also grow more alike. The longer the war drags on, the tougher decisions Vianne must make to survive. Isabelle hears about something brave Vianne has done and says that doesn’t sound like her sister.

I really cared for Vianne and Isabelle, hoping they would both survive though I had a feeling that wasn’t going to happen. Isabelle’s work as The Nightingale constantly puts her in harm’s way, but because I knew the old woman at the beginning was now Isabelle, I could breathe a little easier knowing she survived. As you reach the mid to last third of the book, each chapter ends with one punch in the gut after another. But I also couldn’t put it down.

It’s not until nearly the end that we find out who the old woman is for certain. It’s Vianne.

This was perhaps the biggest shock of all. At first I thought the author hadn’t done a great job of keeping Vianne’s voice consistent as an old woman, but after reflecting on this more, it’s quite brilliant actually. Vianne does sound more and more like Isabelle the longer the war drags out. My confusion over their voices indicates how alike the sisters actually are, or at least become because of the war.

This reading also makes more sense because when we discover Isabelle is The Nightingale and whom the book is named after, I feel like Vianne is shortchanged because she did very different but equally brave things. The author doesn’t give more emphasis to either sister, so Vianne is just as much The Nightingale as Isabelle.

This revelation added another rich layer onto this beautiful albeit difficult story whose sisters I will not soon forget.

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing

I would probably never have read this book if it hadn’t been voted on by the majority of people in my book club.

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The description didn’t particularly grab me, but if I had “judged the book by its cover” as the saying goes, then I would have never discovered this excellent work of literary fiction that is the best thing I’ve read since All the Light We Cannot See.

There’s not too many times where I read contemporary fiction and elevate it to a modern classic, but I would with Mira Jacob‘s brilliant and lengthy debut that took her 10 years to write.

The main character, Amina Eapen, is the same age as me, and I think that had something to do with why I liked it so much. I could relate to her, even though my family is not Indian, I haven’t suffered a heartbreaking family tragedy, I am not a photographer, and I am no longer single and getting questioned about boys.

It didn’t matter because at the heart of this novel is a story about family and relationships, of holding on and letting go and living in the delicate balance between those two doors that we can all identify with.

The novel is epic in the sense of its length (about 500 pages), scope (taking place in 1970s India, 1980s New Mexico, and 1990s Seattle), and structure: two alternating storylines that hinge on two members of the Eapen family: one concerning her rebellious older brother Akhil, the other concerning her father Thomas, a brain surgeon. Despite the palpable grief that lives in this novel, it didn’t feel weighed down by it. And even though medical conditions come into play,  it didn’t ever strike me as a “disease”-type book in the way Still Alice is, where a medical diagnosis drives the plot.

No, this was a book rich in family dynamics that made me laugh out loud numerous times, that made me reread phrases because of the deft and beautiful way Jacob described some everyday thing, and that made me poke my nose out of the book and tell my husband to listen to this line so he could agree with me that “That’s exactly what it’s like!”

As a lover of similes and metaphors, Jacob’s prose is full of them. Here are some of my favourites:

She could feel her need to get off the boat as sharply as a full bladder.

Their parents, turning and returning to the dining room table to huddle over the old photo albums like caged parrots clutching at a shared axis.

“My parents. It’s weird. They go everywhere together now. The garden, the porch, probably the bathroom for all I know. It’s like they’re dating or something.”

“That’s sweet.”

“No it’s not. It’s like having the sun set on the wrong fucking side of the sky.”

And listen to this description of something I would never think to give this kind of attention to but as soon as Jacob says it, yes. I have seen my father be that mythical beast.

“Amina?” Her father opened her bedroom door on the last school night of the year. “Can I come in?”

Why do fathers always look ungainly in their daughter’s bedrooms? Like mythical beasts wandered in from the forest of another world?

And the dialogue is a bang-on, too. I especially loved all the repartees between Amina and her mother, Kamala, (or really Kamala with anybody) whose character comes to life so much based on the way she speaks.

“Wait just one minute, Mr. Big Horses!” Kamala yelled at Chacko. “Don’t you sit there yak-yakking for me!”

Or:

“I’d love to have dinner, Mrs. Eapen, as long as I don’t put you out.”

“Not out! In. I’m cooking.”

This is a book that, for lack of a better phrase, felt very true.

And the ending, just right.

 

Soaking it all in at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference

I just got back from the Surrey International Writers’ Conference (SiWC).

My body and mind are exhausted but in the best possible way. I’ve never been to a writers’ conference before so I have nothing to compare this one to, but based on what I experienced, it was well, well worth the money.

Never have I been in a room with 400 or so people passionate for words and the stories we tell through them. There were people of all ages and stages in their writing journeys, and each and every one was made to feel welcomed. Many were already published authors, wanting to learn branding and marketing strategies, and many had just completed novels, looking for first-time publication. And then there were still others like me, working on bits and pieces and soaking in as much wisdom as we could from the presenters and fellow attendees.

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My autographed copy of Shaena Lambert’s award-winning short story collection.

I attended 10 workshops over 2.5 days, and they were all fabulous. From workshops on making scenes and crafting formal poetry to panels on writing humour and un-put-down-able books, there was a great variety. Presenters included Hallie Ephron, Anne Perry, Jasper Fforde, Jack Whyte, Danika Dinsmore, Kate Braid, Terry Fallis, Stephen Galloway, Liza Palmer, and Michael Slade, to name a few. You can see the whole list here. And yes, it really is an “international” conference with presenters coming as far away as the UK.

What I particularly loved about the conference is the informal atmosphere where you can mingle with authors, editors, and agents over meals, after a class, or in the line-up for the washroom or some other unexpected place.

And not to mention the opportunity for every single attendee to have a published author edit the first few pages of his/her story AND pitch your work to one of the 16 or so agents that were there. How many times does that happen?

Among all the genre writers of speculative fiction, fantasy, YA, suspense, thriller, and the like, I was in the minority with the kind of writing I do—literary fiction. It’s a hard market to publish in, and yet I was encouraged by Beverly Jenkins‘s words of wisdom in her keynote speech: “Follow your heart, not the market.”

And the big icing on the cake of all of this? My short story, “Perfect Symmetry” received an honourable mention in the SiWC writing contest, judged by Jack Whyte, author of a historical fiction series about King Arthur, and Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series. Yeah, my mouth dropped open too. Still riding that huge wave of affirmation. You can read my story, along with the other 2 award winners, over here for about a month.

Now to channel all this inspiration back into the daily grind, that is the challenge! Onwards and upwards!