The annual Folk Fest is the biggest event on Bayleen Island in 1969. The atmosphere is pulsating while the audience is waiting for Jesse Reid, latest superstar with his guitar and extraordinary voice. On his way to the show, he has an accident which unexpectedly bring the local band Breakers on stage. It only takes minutes for Jane Quinn, their singer and songwriter, to win the people over with her charismatic performance. It is the birth of a star, the Breakers are invited record an album and to tour with Jesse’s band. Quite naturally, the two musicians fall for each other, but it is not an easy love, neither Jesse nor Jane is the carefree new star, they suffer from bad experiences and the demons that haunt them. Additionally, Jane fights with the music industry’s sexism and a feeling of being considered just Jesse’s accessory. For some time, they ignore all this, but closing their eyes does not prevent them forever from having to face some truths.
Emma Brodie’s novel perfectly captures the vibes of the time. Her protagonists are highly gifted musicians who live for the music and the moment. “Songs in Ursa Major” is an emotionally overwhelming novel which draws you in its world immediately. Especially Jane is a vividly drawn character whom you come to love immediately despite the stubbornness which comes with her musical genius and perfectionism. She is a role model of a strong-minded feminist who sticks to her ideals and is even willing to sacrifice her career and love in order not to give in to the industry’s conception of a female singer.
The thin line between genius and madness had often been mentioned in connection with creative artists. This also holds true for both, Jesse and Jane, who are far from being mentally stable. Together, they can push each other even further in their genius while heading at the abyss at the same time. Following their creative process translating into songs is a wonderful journey which triggers the emotions in the same way listening to music would.
The villains of the music industry with their unconcealed misogyny make you angry at times but seeing how cleverly Jane can also win some fights can make some amends here. As authentic as this aspect is Jane’s emotional state and the way she tries to cope with her family’s situation and her very personal heritage of creativity and madness alike.
A brilliantly written, intense novel perfect for the summer festival season which brings you back to the time of iconic musicians.
The unnamed narrator is visiting a friend with terminal cancer who is in hospital in another town. She stays with a retired librarian with a cat but her host is quite reclusive and they hardly have any contact during her stay. Between the visits, she ponders about other people in her life: her former partner of whom she attends a public speech on the dystopian future we are facing, her old neighbour who can hardly manage alone, a woman she met in her gym who went through drastic changes, each of them starting point for another in-depth reflection. Her encounters reflect the whole range of people and therefore also introduce pestering issues of our time: the way women are judged and how their position in society and in a family is seen, how we treat the elderly and – the most important aspect – how do we want to die and what will remain of us. Quite unexpectedly, her poorly friend asks her a favour which will target core questions the narrator cannot easily answer for herself.
Just as in her former novel “The Friend”, it is a minor event – then an abandoned dog, here a visit to the hospital – which initiates an interesting journey into the depth of human nature. The narrator’s experiences and encounters are analysed and questioned, it is an introspection which nevertheless is far from very individual and personal but, quite on the contrary, concerns everybody. Especially being close to a dying friend has a huge impact on her thinking, far beyond the question if we should rather ask “What are you going through” instead of “How are you”.
The core issue revolves around suffering and pain and the question how much a human being can endure. How do you go on living in a world which does not seem to have a future, at least not an interesting or desiring one. The plot is minimal, at times rather feels like a collection of anecdotes, but looking at it as a whole, you get an idea of the protagonist who is sad, to a certain extent disillusioned, but not grim. She is still capable of attachment and fondness, even though she knows that it won’t last this time. Every single word becomes meaningful and should be use with care therefore.
Repeatedly, Nunez also has her narrator share her reading experiences with the reader and thus transgresses the boundaries of genres once more. She certainly pushes the limits in many respects and engages the reader in thinking. One of the most interesting questions for me was the one rotating around the problem of what can be reported and by whom the act of narration should be carried out, especially when it comes to experiences of general interest. The narrator questions if there is even a language capable of conveying experiences adequately or if, in the end, all language must fail to authentically depict what somebody underwent.
Nunez’ language surely is plentiful enough to engage you in an interesting inner – and hopefully also outer – dialogue.
Twelve different women, twelve different fates. Bernardine Evaristo was awarded the Man Booker Prize 2019 for her novel which does not have a real plot with an all-embracing story but for each of the main characters offers a short insight in their life often at crucial turning point. Their stories overlap, are often cleverly intertwined. What they share is the fact that they address fundamental topics: first of all, I’d say “Girl, Woman, Other“ is a feminist novel since the cause of the woman in modern England, mostly the black woman, is the central topic. Apart from this, relationships, sexuality and gender identity are tackled as well as politics and what it means to be successful.
“His bredren and sistren could damned well speak up for themselves. Why should he carry the burden of representation when it will only hold him back? White people are only required to represent themselves, not an entire race.”
What does it mean to be different? To be black or brown in a predominantly white community. To be homosexual or gender fluid in a primarily heterosexual society. To be a working woman when women are supposed to stay at home to take care of the children and the household. Even when the point of disdain has been overcome, the problems and strange reactions have not necessarily and quite often, the singular example who enters a new community has to represent a whole group and loses his or her individuality.
What the characters unites is to differ from the mainstream which does not go unnoticed and uncommented. Most of them go through a tough time which leaves them stronger and makes it easy to empathise with them. The characters are complex, their lives are complicated and at the end of their chapter, they are not the same person they were at the beginning. Which also offers the reader the chance to leave their stand point and to change perspective on certain topics.
The novel is full of life and with the award, the spotlight has been turned on to black female and queer literature which have been awfully underrepresented in literary discussion. This is surely one of the strongest novels of 2019 since it contributes to the ongoing public discourse.