August and Oceans

It’s dwindling evening light and the ocean depths speak haunting freedom, celebration and mystery. Gazing over any beach pier or from its limitless sand is riveting. Soft gold and dusty brown produce a striking path to the water’s edge. Looking at city lights, interesting people and an ongoing black sea with diamond reflection gives us time to think. I love returning to this wonder, breathing in the majesty of the shore. I ponder deep sea divers and ship crews: what that experience entails and how it relates to emotional pardon. Reaching down, swimming down into the deepest caverns of our heart to let go of the agony, pain, and damage we hold others (and ourselves) responsible for takes a rush of life. We can’t breathe there, not with our own lungs. Equipment has to help us survive in that level of water. Nature has to keep us alive. An exceptionally beautiful excerpt of work from French poet and novelist Victor Hugo, “The Ocean’s Song,” touches on the danger:

 

“’Be born! arise! o’er the earth and wild

waves bounding,

Peoples and suns!

Let darkness vanish; tocsins be

resounding,

And flash, ye guns!

 

And you who love no pomps of fog or

glamour,

Who fear no shocks,

Brave foam and lightning, hurricane and

clamour,–

Exiles: the rocks!’”

 

Do you feel the sweep of boldness here? Can you imagine yourself proudly standing on a wave-washed rock, ready to face anything with the ocean as companion? And then the down-to-earth, practical “shocks” and “foam” and “clamour” that keep the adventure grounded? This kind of release is impossible without soul restoration, without the forgiveness of everyone around you whether or not there is restitution. I’ve learned that this doesn’t come in ease. A second-by-second struggle, in some cases is your Sisyphus on ice. Presidents, kings, lovers, and parents all need the opportunity for grace. That grace can survive through friendship or from necessary distance/punishment. Forgiveness is not oppression. I hear you, Hugo. Let’s take a deep, dark swim and return to the surface, clean and hopeful.

The sea illustrates bravery. We dive for spiritual treasure, and risk life to do so by going against the clock and challenging a monstrous force. It’s respected, gorgeous and deadly water.

Mixing bravery with forgiveness births compassion. Compassion delivers us into summer’s warmth, freedom and bright, long days. August is the sand being kissed by fall’s low tide. Whether it’s gearing up for busy classes, workloads or responsibilities at the middle and end of this month, I hope August shores you up with peace and wild, loving service to the world around us.

 

Adieu,

 

Nina

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Great Loves in Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah”

“The first summer was Ifemelu’s summer of waiting; the real America, she felt, was just around the next corner she would turn. Even the days, sliding one into the other, languorous and limpid, the sun lingering until very late, seemed to be waiting.” (pg. 136)

Here writer Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie provides a fine description for her Nigerian character’s initial American experience and eternal hope. She leaves a university strike to make something of her life in the States. America has the richly desired ability to make her people swoon with amelioration. No matter what your station or circumstances, better is always out there, she whispers softly. The ugly twin to this is a cockiness that deserves criticism. We take our destinies by the chipped helm, blinded to storms or pirates or inexperience. It makes us lovable and detestable. What I found so fascinating about this novel is that Adichie offers an equally multi-hued story for her protagonist, Ifemelu. She is refreshingly, compellingly honest and then when confronted with hardship or a desire to please she’s not. She likes herself some days, and then she feels bitter resentment in her skin on others. She can’t understand the antics of white employers who show her pictures of random Africans for familiarity, nor the fellow Africans who chastise each other’s taste in natural hair or a darker complexion. I turn to these portraits for a reminder of how deeply humanity gets love wrong, and how needy we are for the grace of someone other than ourselves. For Ifemelu, this grace comes in several relationships: her cousin Dike, her American boyfriend Curt, and her first love Obinze.

While growing up in Nigeria, Ifemelu becomes incredibly close to her Aunty Uju. She is glamorous and older and wealthy, and seen as blessed by those around her. She has always fostered Ifemelu’s honesty and spends time caring for and coaching her. Her wealth comes from the married man that she loves and has a child with. As Ifemelu watches Uju’s world become uprooted after her lover’s death, she hardens herself to the idea of ever doing what she did. She also comes to love their son, Dike, who moves to America as a toddler. As his part-time nanny and family member, Ifemelu helps Dike understand more about his heritage. As she loses her closeness with Uju, she gains an attachment to her son. They talk about race, friendships, fitting in, and remaining authentic. He provides her with new perspective, a chance to watch him stretch those American wings, and a special reminder of where he came from. Ifemelu needs this relationship to help get her through the first, broke, lonely years in her new country. Dike needs someone to treat him lovingly, and listen to his heart. They are a sweet pair to observe.

As Ifemelu adjusts to the dreams and workings of America, she meets her first serious paramour since leaving Nigeria. Her employer has a very charming, handsome cousin who showers her with attention and romance. Their relationship is also well-rounded, sometimes intense and sometimes funny. Ifemelu explains to Curt why there must be an Essence magazine. His mother is pleasant but considers this another of Curt’s “adventures.” She chooses not to introduce him to an old acquaintance from her hometown. They navigate infidelity and compassion. He teaches her how to feel limitless and she teaches him how to contain himself.

“With Curt, she became in her mind, a woman free of knots and cares, a woman
running in the rain with the taste of sun-warmed strawberries in mouth…He
believed in good omens and positive thoughts and happy endings to films, a
trouble-free belief, because he had not considered them deeply before choosing
to believe; he just simply believed.” (243)

At this point, readers can conjecture that Curt will not be her truest love. So…

Obinze is the first love interest who lets Ifemelu be as free as she can possibly be, as true to herself, and as strong of a woman that she can be. He adores it. He cherishes it. He desires it. He waits for it. He dated her beginning in high school, and they found it heartbreaking to leave each other. They dodged communications, asked about each other through friends, and then embarked on an affair while Obinze was married. Despite this character flaw in the both of them, their love appeared honest. Obinze’s wife was a shadow of herself, so intent on being everything to everyone. Ifemelu would never be happy with anyone else. While I wish that marriage was treated with more respect and adoration in novels and in life, I recognize that this happens. And Adichie does a beautiful job of illustrating two people who get each other. One could even see Obinze as a metaphor for her native country and where she feels most comfortable. The grace in this relationship comes from its history, its hardships, and its aspirations. A little bit like America, and in the eyes of both personages, worth the wait.

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Dancing and Designing In Hugo’s France

Discipline and wonder, though sometimes perceived quite distant from each other, pair up so well. To obtain the steady hand of making something routine it takes pushing through many small, annoyed exercises and dancing into and past frustration. Wonder automatically induces daydreaming and time to let creation soak in. It’s been fun to always prefer the latter to the former. It’s been necessary to demand the former over the latter. But to have these two concepts work together? After nearly two-and-a-half years I’ve finally finished the unabridged English version of Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, and it came on the cusp of watching Greensboro Ballet’s 2016 production of “The Nutcracker.” Sweat-drenched words and pain-prepped muscles unleashed the practice of close reading, close listening, and close comprehension. The season of Christmas and winter’s solstice seemed to allow this work to whisper instead of shout. As a lovely, brief interlude I’ve appreciated “The Magnolia Story” painting the hard work and fascinating dreams of Chip and Joanna Gaines. Tension and freedom melt into artistry. (Have you seen her Instagram? Tchaikovsky and Hugo are gems, but female entrepreneurs who love Jesus can be the tools that craft the gems.) Some favorite lessons of these three pieces include: it’s okay to follow your own schedule in pursuing art, fighting for habits (creative and in general) is worth it, and being truthful showcases your specific design in beautiful and lively ways.

Though I can’t possibly craft a comprehensive review of Hugo’s Les Mis until later this year or maybe even next, I know it’s the finest and most core-shaking book I’ve ever read aside from The Holy Bible. Part of its charm is the intimacy you encounter in a little over twelve hundred pages. I miss Jean Valjean and Marius as friends I haven’t seen in awhile. I ache to know more about Cosette and Marius, their lives together and their inner demons and triumphs. As an English major steeped in the need to impress, I would lie about books read or agree with concepts of novels that remained half-consumed. I was hungrier for forced camaraderie than the experience of the book. This book is special because I read it for God and myself. Though sometimes desperate to make sure people knew I actually saw a task to fruition, which had more to do with past mistakes and less to do with celebrating this amazing accomplishment, I reveled in the completion. What a gift! The Nutcracker brought childhood memories of ballet class to the surface, and suddenly taking in a good dance show every now and then felt better than forcing myself to return to that lean dancer’s body. Watching ankles turn out and arms float majestically under stage lighting was a delight that didn’t require comparison. I’m still listening to the Gaines family in their book, and all of the social media posts about its contents won’t make me shout “I loved that, too!” I’m not sure I do yet, because it’s unfinished. And that’s perfectly fine. The joy in following your own trajectory in your given timing is radiant.

Discussing writing, reading or watching ballet comes with stipulations. There is a bubbling up that requires imitation. Those sentences were elegant and evoked powerful emotion, so I must do that. The energy she put forth in moving her hips that way helps with cardio later. Their joint enterprises motivate Travis and I to find our own special contributions to society. This mimicking involves repeated work. If I’m going to write that well, I have to push through distractions. Appreciating dance and design means practice. Thickened attention takes millions of hard, little steps. Repeating this over and over will help the habits to stick.

Had Hugo chosen some type of non-letter career, would we have this masterpiece? I think so. But because he was the one to write it, Hugo’s story involved the authentic creativity of his brain and heart that honored Les Mis. He had a stamp on it. The many talented adolescent, teenage and adult dancers in GB’s 2016 “The Nutcracker” donated their particular bodies to the overall story. Because of each journey, a certain quality of art was born. To draw out more of these “what-if’s” I couldn’t see Chip Gaines as an investment banker or Joanna Gaines continuing to manage her father’s tire shop. They had loving craftsmanship to share with their world. So in hearing these tales of settled personhood, it becomes momentum. “Love it. Do it. Share it.” Maybe it’s motivational poster, but those are the mandates that shape my thinking after such lovely artwork. (And those posters can be encouraging.) In addition to the gospel, hugs, and conversations, our world can really benefit from open-fisted, freedom-backed, generous words, motions and stories.

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New Reviews After These Messages

 

I sit peacefully alone in the cozy, ever-welcoming living room of two friends and their son. There are beautiful, rich brown curtains that graze the floor, walls and a lively tree-and-bird mural in panoramic view. An elaborate family tree, photos of treasured destinations, lovely artwork, and a sturdy hutch dedicated to coffee and tea blossom in this space, there to facilitate intimacy even when my walls are up. This house pulls in a sparkling tide of memories: my parents’ homes, our friends’ dwellings, the choir room and sanctuary of previous churches, my single-life apartments after work, and that magical cradle one can fall into to be whispered to and sung over by God. This is my hope. My hope! I sing this strongly, not to dismiss the tragic cries of the wounded in our election or grieve incorrectly. I don’t brush dirt over a bleeding wound, but pray to press on the salve. Christians, when are we ever without hope?! Who would believe the Perfect God we owe allegiance to exists, if we completely despair over jerks in power? Hear me: we fight injustice, we call people out on their hatred on all levels but we don’t give up on God. Yank up the loins! Don’t let the world distract you from the conquered, gorgeous, magnificent, mighty works of God! Count on Him, despite disappointment. We fail at this often, but let’s make it our default. I much preach this to moi-même, often and bluntly. Three stories.

Vibia Perpetua was newly married, nursing her infant son, enjoying the relationship in her fairly nuclear, privileged family, and living her twenty-second year on earth. Christianty was enjoying growth in the local community, and I conjecture their love for others was highly visible. Again guessing, but I wonder if she felt the same occasional euphoria I did in these new roles as wife and mother. Difficult tasks, but goodness helped soothe the hardship most days. Then, it was 202 or 203 CE in Carthage, modern-day Tunisia. Emperor SeptimiusSeverus (not the cuddly yet emo Alan Rickman version) arrested her to kill her. Her elders from the church bribed soldiers to let her nurse her son—what?!! At even being arrested, I’m already crying foul to God. Perpetua’s father pleads to her to forsake Christ to keep her life, is beaten viciously, and he is distraught like few daughters wish their Dad to be. She marched into an arena to be torn apart by wild animals because she would not give up on God. When probed by her father to abandon her faith, she said:

“Father, do you see this vase here, for example, or waterpot or whatever?…Could
it be called by any other name than what it is?…Well, so too I cannot be called
anything other than what I am, a Christian.” (The Acts of the Christian Martyrs,
Herbert Musurillo)
Girl. Message received.

Martin Luther King, Jr. went from rural Georgia to all across the nation, promoting God’s gospel and the peace that diffuses it. Though he served Jesus first, that work culminated in placing equal, heavenly value on all humanity. He tempered passion versus wildfire, dangerous emotion. He thought and he acted. He walked, marched, dissented, encouraged and loved his fellow man. Though he’s by no means a human savior, he stood by God’s convictions and let his mouth accurately portray his heart. I used to think it was cheesy to sing Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” song in our mostly-black elementary, but oh that we would celebrate such labor across races also! Instead of staying quiet to appease the majority, I pray to always reflect what God sees when He looks at our people: joy and tear-rimmed pride in the Christ-like traits we showcase. One timely musing from Dr. King:

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort
and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Two industrious, fun-loving scholars dated at Howard University. They fought through
segregation and the temptation to live in wealth and personal glory for themselves. They remained loyal and happy in marriage, and raised two daughters to worship Christ with everything in them (insert real tears). They endured illness, financial stress, bratty children, discrimination, tragedies and pain to give my sister and I love, life, and safety. Mom and Dad deserve so much more gratitude, but in their paraphrased words:

“God loves you more than we ever will. And we will always love you. If all we
have is a box, we’ll roll over and make room.”

I’m going to request that now we all move over in our boxes. It’s not silly to seek unity. It’s not emotional throw-up to pursue it in everything. Jesus brought division naturally because people didn’t and don’t want to listen to His teaching, yet in resurrection He orchestrated harmony. It’s the beating heart of Christ echoing in us.

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Stories in Our Childhood: Review of “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman

At eight years old, reclining blissfully on a couch made for reading marathons, I let the world dissolve into the hair-raising plot twists of Alvin Schwartz’s More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. It was forbidden, tucked away firmly between composition books and homework to make sure my parents knew I didn’t have it. There was a textbook beneath it in case Mom or Dad came back in from their evening down time. Every breath matched the story’s pace. Earlier that day I felt Poe’s heartbeat while our librarian, thick-spectacled Mrs. Marshall, neutrally checked it out. The danger of getting in trouble added to the horror romance: What’s in here that causes parents to freak out? I’m so curious! Nightmarish tales unfolded, and as loathe as I was to admit it, my parents were right. I didn’t sleep well for weeks but an addictive thrill was sparked.

Neil Gaiman knows how to produce this thrill, sneak you back into your childhood, and keep you turning pages quickly and eagerly in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The simple beauty of the writing, the credible narrator, and the creativity Gaiman displays with his “monsters” are superb. It brought me back to that couch. Reading for sheer fun is a wonderful pastime.

It’s great to be mesmerized by Romantic sentences, fraught with research and brilliance. It’s also important to let extremely well-placed, emotion-stirring and plainer words help you find story. Examples of this are “Jesus wept,” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” and “I know why the caged bird sings.” The power behind these statements outweighs its brevity. In The Ocean at the End of the Lane the unadorned dialogue leaves room for the story’s concept. It points to its depth, told from a young and still fairly innocent voice. The boy in this story is experiencing so many emotions and upheavals in his life. He does it with a concise grace. Another bonus is that the simpler language makes for faster reading. And believe me with this plot, you want to see the resolution as soon as possible. After witnessing a tragedy near his family’s land, the narrator starts to see his world change in disturbing ways. People aren’t what they claim. His new friend Lettie is shrouded in exciting mystery. Relationships with his immediate family shift and turn sour. Beneath all of this lies a supernatural current. Will he survive the unknown evil? Is Lettie strong enough to help save him?

This adolescent shows that children are capable of seeing clearer than adults. In seemingly unrelated details like bedroom design, evening routines and a shed filled with chemistry experiments, readers see a pattern form. The way his life works is basic, but never uneventful. He eats. He sleeps. He plays. He battles otherworldly creatures, including his sister. He shares community with the farmers down the road. They help him unlock the key to fighting monsters. The narrator is honest about his struggles, experiencing all senses with the audience. The feel of his foot in the sinking mud that he runs through in order to escape. The smell of plants and flowers. The comfort of a kitten snuggling close to his chest for rest. Gaiman provides all of this through an enjoyable point of view. The narrator is a friend to seven-year-olds everywhere and those who remember being seven. Here’s a great passage displaying the child filter:

“So I simply watched them from the huge branch of the beech tree. When they

walked out of sight, behind the azalea bushes, I clambered down the rope ladder,

went up into the house, up to the balcony, and I watched from there. It was a gray

day, but there were butter-yellow daffodils everywhere, and narcissi in profusion,

with their pale outer petals and their dark orange trumpets. My father picked a

handful of narcissi and gave them to Ursula Monkton, who laughed, and said

something, then made a curtsey. He bowed in return, and said something that

made her laugh. I thought he must have proclaimed himself her Knight in Shining

Armor, or something like that.

 

I wanted to shout down to him, to warn him that he was giving flowers to a

monster…” (pg. 67)

A creative way to introduce monsters in a story is to make them normal things or people. Rather than painting them elaborately, Gaiman pares it down to what truly scares us. Childhood expectations of parents being shattered, fear of loneliness, and mean people are some of these themes. Just as the evil presence in the book seems simple but becomes complex, the solution fares the same. Narrating his way through fight or flight, the main character takes time to describe nature. Appalled by his father’s treatment he navigates the elements like a Lost Boy. The monsters are savage, corrosive and completely mundane. Safety from the monsters is described in terms of hot meals, soothing baths and a clean set of clothing. Safe people walk with him through these trials and he perseveres wiser and braver. Everything ties together like magic in this book.

This is one of  three works I’ve read by Gaiman (Sandman– impressive, Neverwhere– not my favorite), and hunger for his extensive library presses on.

 

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Book and Show Review Intermission:A Window into Worship

Conversations with family and friends are a reminder that our society has taken the self-obsessed narrative and applied it to church. They just don’t offer anything I want anymore. The church has an unrelated, outdated heart. People there are jerks who hate XYZ. I’m too tired and this coffee and CBS Sunday Morning episode are everything (raising my hand here). In open-fisted honesty, my husband and I have given in to excuses for not attending church services many, many times. We have valued family time above gathering together with others to praise Christ for His love and mercy. We have chosen media in place of emotional, spiritual and psychological healing. We have obeyed the slight physical fatigue instead of the supernatural energy that flows from meeting with God’s chosen vessel. I’ve summoned strength to do lesser things for longer periods of time. If I’m shaken out of my selfish reverie and made to really look at Jesus, He meets me with multiplied gifts.

There are times to not attend church, and not feel guilty for it: your health, your family’s health, work, new children, emergencies, etc. But how would I maintain a friendship if I make it a practice to not meet for trivial reasons? Consistent avoidance tells me that we’re not as close as I think we are.

Recently, we’ve made the switch from the Presbyterian Church of America to the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church. I appreciate so many things about both denominations, so this isn’t a style of worship contest. We do love our new church, and last weekend illustrated why.

For years church has been my performance. Beginning with baptism at age eight, when I received the message of the Gospel but also felt good about being “good.” We’re really good at falling in love with ourselves. In the chlorine-drenched white robe, I felt loved and safe and wanted. I also became addicted to those feelings. When Christ was at peace working on me, I was frantic to have everyone adore me– crushes, aunts, neighbors, people at the grocery store– this was the most important truth of my life. Be loved at all costs! And what costs they were. Failure to be loyal, general awkwardness, fear to truly be known and know people, and a short inward temper developed over years. They didn’t seem too terrible, because, hey, I was a virgin until marriage and didn’t get drunk too much! Check that off the list. Compound those vices with my dogma that being popular enough in the right church would keep me happy, and we’ve reached last month on the timeline.

Yesterday, we knew that something wasn’t working. If we didn’t get back to worshipping Christ with a body of other believers for just a few hours on a day where we leisurely pass twenty-two of them, the rift between us and the Lord would sway. This never means He doesn’t love, care for and wait for us. It means we would be choosing something else. So we were motivated from the early morning to pack Bear’s diaper bag, give him a bath, let chores wait, and attend the service. Lutherans believe that worship should be very active, so a service includes lots of hymns, public readings, and the most special thing of all: the Communion meal. We confess our sins together and let the ancient words of God’s goodness pour over our hearts. I was refreshed focusing so much on this time with the Lord, not thinking about how my voice sounded or whether the old man behind me was hateful or just needed to go the bathroom. It was a deep, long-awaited release. We sang loudly and sunk knees into a cushion to apologize for the things we’ve done against our Friend, the Lord. We shook hands and offered smiles to those around us. We broke bread and drank wine together. As icing on the cake, multiple discussions with new members and founding members greased our social wheels again. We met people who have intense struggles, and I talked to someone about getting children’s television songs stuck in our heads. Dates were made to get together again, outside of Sunday. It was the power of the Gospel moving to bring people from all walks of life close and humbled.

We’re not perfect. We slip up and desert God. But we have to admit that we desert Him, and not hide behind our self-sufficiency. I tried that, and it only led to a broken heart. Can we let the Repairer of all hearts do His work through the people around us? He loves us too much to let us keep going on our own.

“And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spake by the Prophets. And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”- Nicene Creed

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Dragging Out A Life: Review of “Possession” by A.S. Byatt

There was such a peace in deciding to bring our old blue, unloved blanket to a coffee shop for reading and hot beverages only. Just the giant book that asks for finishing, the teal knitted blanket, and a to-go cup of hot caramel cider. I can’t remember the last time I left notepads or blank printer pages for ideation at home. Nothing swirled in my head but the plot of Les Mis and necessary silence. The blanket felt luxurious and genuine.

The beach in L.A. sent my manic thoughts fleeing, as well. I was able to finish my other book for the year, Possession and compose a review for fun and remembrance. With autumn’s simplicity and paring down in preparation for winter, these words are offered for sharing and comfort. Let me know how the book spoke to you if you read it!

I recall being flattered by a well-read friend, advising that I might enjoy A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession for the poetry. I gleam at the thought of being connected with poetry. So I dove into it, excited by verse opening chapters, library descriptions, and likable Roland Michell. The plot felt snug introducing major characters like Professor Blackadder, Randolph Henry Ash, and Ash’s important work The Garden of Proserpina. Roland’s girlfriend Val offers palpable drama, but not enough to distract from his thieving secret correspondence between Ash and a mystery woman. As a wannabe librarian, I’ve fantasized over discovering scholarship-changing material, then quietly stealing it. Rapt attention.

Roland finds Maud Bailey, a cold and lovely feminist scholar who studies the poet Ash has possibly written to: Christabel LaMotte. Byatt then cleverly manuevers their joint research and developing companionship, seamlessly stitches in “The Glass Coffin” by Ash (a very enjoyable tale of an unattainable princess), and the visit to Sir George Bailey (owner of letters between the two Victorian poets) and his wife at their blissfully secluded estate. Byatt is talented with description:

“They went in behind Sir George, who waved his huge cone of light around the dark, cramped, circular space, illuminating a semi-circular bay window, a roof carved with veined arches and mock-medieval ivy-leaves, felt-textured with dust, a box-bed with curtains still hanging, showing a dull red under their pall of particles, a fantastically carved black wooden desk, covered with beading and scrolls, and bunches of grapes and pomegranates and lilies, something that might have been either a low chair or a prie-dieu [a piece of furniture used for kneeling in prayer], heaps of cloth, an old trunk, two band boxes, a sudden row of staring tiny white faces, one, two, three, propped against a pillow. Roland drew his breath in minor shock; Maud said, ‘Oh, the dolls‘– and Sir George brought his light back from a blank mirror entwined with gilded roses and focused it on the three rigid figures, semi-recumbent under a dusty counterpane, in a substantial if miniature fourposter bed.” (Byatt, 91)

The secrecy Roland and Maud share feels larger in this dark, mysterious mansion and we have the added bonus of a full-on literary detective story. Their exploration of family dolls and more letters is an enchanting scene, peppered by intelligent and flowing dialogue. This couple displays a down-to-earth brilliance, one that’s often hard to achieve in writing.
By now readers have detected the epistolary flirtation in Ash and LaMotte. Byatt then uses this opportunity to introduce Professor Cropper, personality-opposite of Roland. The latter is captivated by Ash’s work and humble in his studies, the former a pompous critic rolling in family money. Yet Cropper’s appreciation of and obsession with objects resonates, particularly for those who love these literature-based scavenger hunts. The “objets de vertu” (historical object, which doesn’t really translate in French and is tamer than intended in English) and “beautiful and strange things collected” lie in his hoped-for autobiographical draft, a humorous sketch. In terms of advancing story the professor asks Beatrice Nest, another researcher, to meet for lunch. Roland visits briefly before to prolong his own mounting interests in Ash and LaMotte, check messages, and endure an encounter with Val. That Byatt can create believable and rich poems beside fast-paced prose is also a feat.

Admittedly, I was a distracted reader from the quietly lustful end of Maud and Roland’s stay at the Bailey estate into the heady letters of our Victorian poets. Excellent language, but I dabbled in other works and lost momentum halfway through. I recommend taking less than a month to begin and finish. I gained more steam when Maud and Roland fled in more secrecy to Brittany, discovering letters from a cousin (Sabine) of Christabel LaMotte’s. The highlight of this passage is Sabine’s description of her village’s Toussaint celebration, a Halloween-type storytellling month when ghosts and memories collide. Okay, Ms. Byatt, I’m back. I’m rewarded by more pages of rapid, well-documented action.
Provoking questions pop up all over this work: When do the living dishonor the dead with their quest for information? What makes poetry desired? What creates desire? Can our origins ever let us escape such desire? There are signs pointing to various answers, usually hidden in lyrical metaphor and it’s fun to infiltrate. For example, the fictional LaMotte pens:

“Men may be martyred
Any where
In desert, cathedral
Or Public Square.
In no Rush of Action
This is our doom
To Drag a Long Life out
In a Dark Room…”

She longs for revelation past death, uses her words to highlight gender differences, is driven by curiosity, and won’t stop producing art even when she’s buried. This happens in spite of her living most of her life as a recluse. That her work shows that is testament to the author’s cunning.

The crowning jewel of everything shines in the following:

“There are readings–of the same text–that are dutiful, readings that map and dissect, readings that hear a rustling of unheard sounds, that count grey little pronouns for pleasure or instruction and for a time do not hear golden or apples. There are personal readings, which snatch for personal meanings, I am full of love, or disgust or fear, I scan for love, or disgust, or fear. There are–believe it–impersonal readings–where the mind’s eye sees the lines move onwards and the mind’s ear hears them sing and sing.
Now and then there are readings that make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark–readings when the knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily, runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. In these readings, a sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that it was always there, that we the readers, knew it was always there, and have always known it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognised, become fully cognisant of, our knowledge.” (Byatt, 511)

Another Russian-nesting-doll scene, a place where Byatt’s writing has finally become my knowledge, strikes to the heart. Continued evolution of characters’, a circled plot, and a beautiful butterfly-effect postscript that reads like a dark fairy-tale ensue. Along with Roland, I’m ready for poems and the Creator of them to fall like rain.

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