On my facebook page, I post #whatimreading quotes from books that I’m reading. Usually a sentence that jumps out at me – makes me laugh, cry, think, or just pause because, wow. I amassed quite a few while reading Sharon Millar’s The Whale House and Other Stories – more than any other book I can remember reading since I started doing this. Thirteen by my count; would have been more if I hadn’t restrained myself. Didn’t get to post them all either before I finished reading, which is a miracle considering how slowly I read these days when there is so little time to read and so much distraction when I do. It’s not a miracle, actually, it’s a testimony to how this writer weaves words. So carefully threaded, so intricately woven; the stitching is beautiful but then you pull back to see the full effect and the impact is powerful. I came across one review of her title story The Whale House, a Commonwealth short story prize winner, which described it as overwritten; and I couldn’t disagree more. Her words aren’t just for show – look at me, look at me, I can write! – they add texture, so that even where the plot seems languorous, it’s not flimsy; it’s rich and deep and vivid in that there’s always a moment behind the moment – all together, it packs an emotional whallup. This woman is a Writer, capital W. Her book also covers fresh terrain, the kind of terrain you can picture an explorer wading through in heavy boots with a cutlass in hand, because no one’s been there before and s/he has to clear the path. Except, if that analogy is to hold up, she’d have to be an Other and she’s so clearly a part of the environment of which she writes so intimately familiar with its rugged unevenness. It is the terrain that feels new. She is a Trinidad writer who eschews Port of Spain and the more familiar geographic, ethnic, and emotional landscapes of the land and the literature of the land for something a bit more on the fringe, something not as easily categorized. And she does it masterfully – I almost want to coin something like Mistressly there because she is most decidedly a woman writing women, primarily, and digging into the hurt, grazing her fingers familiarly over the spots where the hurt has scabbed over. What I’m going to do is share some of the quotes I pulled and try to explain why I pulled them, including the ones I ran out of time to share on my page, and maybe in that I’ll have communicated something of why I love this book so much – me lub um bad bad bad.
“Baking cakes is not the way you throw a baby away.” There is something both matter of fact and domestic about this (dark) moment, in the way of Caribbean women doing what they have to do to hold their families up, hold themselves together, get on with life.
“Over the years she’s learned to watch for scorpion fish and the low-lying stingrays that rise like illusions when dusk slides into the bay.” So much poetry here, so much foreshadowing as well, a reminder that she doesn’t use words just to dress up her prose but with purpose…but the way she uses words do dress up her prose. Also, touching on the topography, I feel like I haven’t seen this Trinidad.
“I reflect that Rhonda and I have been meeting once or twice a week in the snake house but I’d never asked where she sleeps when she does not come home with me.” One of the few stories driven by the masculine point of view and in this moment a profound statement on the erasure of the female beyond her role in the life of the men passive-aggressively warring over her body if not her, fully.
“I still can’t believe a little boy wearing an old Machel shirt shoot me.” I like the absurdist humor of this moment. Written from the perspective of a dying badjohn; also this is how you use a pop culture reference to orient the story and character, not just to give a shoutout.
“The child never asks for her father but she still cries at night for her mother.” This story was interesting. We never meet the man who is condemned to death after killing his wife nor the wife but we get to know them through the dying man’s sister’s letters to different people as the bloody, tragic chapter unfolds; we feel her disdain for the abused woman for being naïve, the lingering love for the brother in spite of his failings, the resentment just below the surface at the responsibility that now settles on her shoulders, the problem that is the child left behind. And in this brief sentence we get a sense of the dynamics within the doomed household. I should add that this is a book of mysteries as much of things unsaid as of things said (and in that there’s a sense I have that I’ll have to read it again later to see some of the things that I missed because I wasn’t using my third eye on first read). This spare yet fulsome moment feels a good place to point that out.
“The idea of his death frightens her deeply and because of this, she thinks she must still love him.” Love and passion in this work rarely seem to bring joy or peace, this is not the dewy eyed love of romance novels but a grown woman’s realistic, sometimes longsuffering, sometimes cynical acceptance of love in which this sentence of love as a negative, love by process of elimination, the wha na kill fatten variety of love, is emblematic.
“Irresponsible people having children had spawned a generation of feral teenagers.” This is as editorial as it gets in a book that can be quite brutal without being judgmental, the anger at the futility of the criminal culture in modern Trinidad (and, typical of this book, a criminal culture that does not locate all the blame nor the action in the capital) bleeding through, but yet ironic, coming as it does from the point of view of a medical examiner who is quite complicit, a criminal with a medical degree which might insulate him from the consequences of his actions but not from the reader’s side eye.
“It was Mara who saw the dragonfly, a big blue darner among the red ones who gathered every evening to dance above the olive water of the pond.” Nature is prominent in this novel, and the writer zooms in on the details of nature’s beauty like a skilled photographer with a telephoto lens; the sharper, image certainly in this moment, also serves to heighten the symbolism.
“Wool had never mentioned coming upon us in the snake house but every meeting since had been punctuated by little ellipses of old-man hostility and jealousy.” Again with the dry humor. This is the same story with the man and the woman and the snakes, and this references the love rival in as disparaging a way as can be done by a young man…he’s old.
“It is good to be reminded that not all animals are dependent on our care for survival.” There is a sense, at points in this book, of the environment being not only living and breathing but purposeful, its purpose not always in concert with humankind’s. I wouldn’t say nature feels malevolent in such times but there’s an awareness that for all our machinations as ‘higher evolved beings’, only so much is in our control, and that you have to understand the land (what will poison, what won’t) in order to survive it. All of this is to say that the book is also quite thought provoking on themes of wo/man’s hubris, insiderness and outsiderness, class, nature just in and of itself, and other things I’m likely missing at the moment.
“From my verandah I like to imagine that I am lying on the flat surface of the sea and the undulating land below me buckles up from the ocean floor.” This was the moment when it hit me how far I was from urban Trinidad.
“The cave breathes silently in the darkness, the birds shrieking above us.” This is the cave that took the two divers. Nature takes, nature warns, and the author foreshadows.
“And she wanted to run and skip and play…and…and I didn’t have the heart to tell her…but, Tiffany, you dead.” Another eerie moment in a story that has something in you tensing as it builds and builds, you suspect, toward nothing good…this is not a book of happy endings. It was interesting to see it bookended in a way by two stories of babies claimed and raised by another. I’m not sure it was intentional but given the careful ordering of the stories in the book, I suspect it was.
Good book. Go read.
As with all content (words, images, other) on wadadlipen.wordpress.com, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Fish Outta Water, Oh Gad!, and Musical Youth). All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed it, check out my page on Amazon, WordPress, and/or Facebook, and help spread the word about WadadliPen and my books. You can also subscribe to and/or follow the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks. And remember while linking and sharing the links, referencing and excerpting, with credit, are okay, lifting whole content (articles, images, other) from the site without asking is not cool. And using any creative work without crediting the creator will open you up to legal action. Respect copyright.