A Feather on the Breath of God

Feather on the Breath of Godbook by Sigrid Nunez

annotation by Tisha Reichle

Nunez’s novel is based on her experiences as a child of mixed race. She reveals, with vivid sensory detail, the pain and comfort of each parent. The novel opens with a unique structure. First person anecdotes of childhood, specifically detailing the protagonist’s inadequate relationship with her father, are filtered through the mother in dialogue. This makes readers wonder, is her father dead? This section is brief, emphasizing the limited development of the father-daughter bond.

The mother’s story, titled Christa, is infused with the history of Nazi Germany which influenced the mother’s character. The sequence of events is non-linear, sometimes disconcerting, but rich with dialogue and specific description that brings the emotions of the time period to life. Each segment is like a snapshot or a different time, place, or person; the only narrative connection seems to be references to Germany. The narrator/protagonist gets more philosophical as time passes and the segments of memory are shorter. Clearly trying to discern her own identity, the author explores the cultural influences on the protagonist. She also begins to investigate gender identity, questioning the role of mother and father as it influences perceptions of a woman’s desire for man and man as necessity for woman’s survival.

Part Three is a disturbing narrative. From the narrator/protagonist’s perspective, readers learn the title is a reference to lightness – the absence of weight, not color. It is, quite tragically, the protagonist‘s desire to be so thin, to be a dancer. There are allusions to eating disorders and the fears of food her own mother cultivated which were reinforced by the ballet industry. The narrator/protagonist uses the upper social class association to escape her miserable life in the projects, yet she revels in the structure and discipline (99) of her classes that are so like the regimented life her to her has established. In spite of the security provided by this cultured life, she lives in constant fear, partially because of her mother’s history and partially because of her economic circumstances (112). Only when her passion for ballet is stolen by a minor obstacle (her age) does she evaluate what the problem really is. She begins to recognize it as another method of control by men (115). She compares it to the Chinese foot binding of her father’s ancestors. Even when she realizes how tragic and confining it all was, she longs for it, idealizes it, and is jealous of those who still have it.

The final section focuses on the narrator/protagonist’s adult life. Nunez parallels a young girl’s sexual experience with the narrator/protagonist applying to teach abroad. She then examines the childhood experiences that cause the protagonist to change the way she interacts with men. There are expectations about how to be a woman and what women should do that she consciously rejects (127). When the target of her “Immigrant Love” is revealed, the narrative shifts from her perspective on others to others seeing her differently. A Russian student in her class helps her explore Americans in New York and how immigrants are treated. At the same time, her perspective on how he acts and how hard he tries to learn English so he can “seduce” her (132). He is a New York City cab driver, and as his story unfolds readers learn that he was once addicted to drugs and was forced to immigrate to the US by his family. However, he is the only one learning English. They talk about his wife and Russian women, abortion, and sex in Russia (156). When his wife discovers the affair, she has a breakdown and he is forced to return to her. Nunez focuses on the link between love and language (146) for the narrator/protagonist and the Russian man (who is married), for the narrator/protagonist and her parents (who did not have the means or desire to communicate with each other, let alone her).

The relationship becomes problematic when he confesses all of his criminal behavior to the narrator/protagonist, including the time he spent pimping women. Two years go by before she gets in a cab and there he is. As a result of continued rejection, the narrator/protagonist ends up in the hospital, suicidal.

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