Masking an Iceberg

Jane Davis is the author of nine novels to date, of which I have read six so far. This latest example was published in 2015 and the following year was lauded by Writing Magazine as the ‘Self-Published Book of the Year’. Indeed, “An Unknown Woman” exemplifies much of what I enjoy about Ms Davis storytelling. The themes are broad, the female characters especially are fascinating and the situations confronting them incite in the reader a deep-seated empathy.

The premise of this novel is that each of us is akin to an iceberg, with only a small proportion of ourselves showing above the surface. Even those closest to us may project a persona that avoids the exposure of unflattering traits and inner compromises, in the face of life’s changing demands. However, crises sometimes have the capacity to ‘out’ submerged feelings and secrets, enabling them to bob unexpectedly to the surface,no longer private, no longer hidden.

A fire, which destroys the home of Anita and Ed and with it the possessions gathered over their fifteen years together, is such a catalyst. It is a stress test of their cohabiting relationship. Without the trappings built up over time, are their foundations strong enough to withstand the necessary rebuild and attendant doubt? “Something of herself or of Ed had been invented in each object.” The wrecked house is perhaps a metaphor for the decisions required. Whether to replicate their former home, or take the opportunity to remodel a more ambitious project, maybe just cash in their chips and go their separate ways. For Anita in particular, her job as a curator at a famous historical site provides an interesting perspective around the relationship between past and present, but the reader also gets a glimpse of the influence of nature and nurture in Anita’s upbringing and the source of the bond with her father.

A parallel and contrasting strand to the story, though equally absorbing, concerns Anita’s parents. Patti and Ron have a longstanding marriage shaped by the traditions of a different generation, a very different time, but they have their own secrets. As the two couples work through their respective challenges, learning anew about each other and recalibrating their attachments, the novel alludes not so much to a radical ‘reset’, as to an ongoing evolution that the reader can’t help but find familiar.

Notwithstanding the delicious language and attention to descriptive detail that makes Ms Davis writing stand out, for this reader, it is also the underlying scope for reflection and food for thought that offers genuine depth. It may be reassuring to note that as we float along the currents of life, the ice from which we are formed will be sculpted. Still, worth also remembering the mask one chooses to wear may be simply a protective covering.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Baldwin Does the Blues

02 October 2021 (12:20)

Through a quirk of serendipity, my completion of Book 4 in the Penguin 60s collection coincided with an examination of the late James Baldwin’s life on the BBC Radio 4 ‘Great Lives’ programme. Notwithstanding the enormous contribution of this American novelist, playwright, essayist, poet and activist to the civil rights and gay liberation movements of the mid twentieth century, I was  unfamiliar with his work. Yet, the three short stories in this volume, taken from “Going to Meet the Man” (1965), are an excellent taster, which has whetted my appetite for more.

“Sonny’s Blues” is the longest of the three tales and encapsulates the topics often associated with the author’s take on anti-black racism, such as drug addiction and masculinity, but also offers a fascinating glimpse into complex family relationships and childhood upbringing as underpinnings of individual life experience. It is a sombre, but absorbing portrayal of Sonny and his tentative reconciliation with sibling and society through his music, within which he lays bare his pain.

“The Rockpile” and “Previous Condition” are shorter vignettes, but also evoke the harsh reality of poverty, the pernicious effect on childhood and the tension it confers on the relationships between those trapped in its grip. No doubt, Baldwin drew heavily on his own experience of growing up in Harlem, but for the uninitiated he describes a sobering, but sadly not unfamiliar world, tainted by inequality. Though short and challenging for the reader, these stories have depth and a food-for-thought quality that make them worth seeking out.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.