The Sand Child

book by Tahar Ben Jelloun

translation by Alan Sheridan

annotation by Ghada Bedair

The Sand Child is a lyrical wonderland for all who are mesmerized, intrigued, and passionate about words. The Sand Child is truly a piece of poetic beauty each line taking the reader into that enchanted wonderland. With that said, I must admit to being one of those who deeply love language; I love the use of language so much that I find myself jotting down lines from books whose words are strung together like harmonic notes. I do love when prose becomes poetry and this book was not short on this in the least. While reading The Sand Child, I often became so lost in the fluidity and grace of the translated piece that I would have to go back several times and reread parts of the book to remind myself of the plot.

Being a native speaker of the Arabic language, I often have a critical eye on the fine details of the usage of the language the work is being translated into, in this case the translation was simply exquisite.

The story itself is simple:  a father, hopeless about having a son after fathering seven daughters, weaves a lie that his eighth daughter is a son. It shows the intense desperation and deception this father will go to hide that his eighth child is, in fact, a daughter. He masterminds a plan where he strings a perfectly played out lie which no one questions, and the daughter is raised as a son. Through twists and turns we see this confused child grow to adulthood and even marry; what we also see is the traumatic and bitter impact this lie has on her.

What I disliked about the story was the form of narration Ben Jelloun chose. It was a narrator who speaks to a doubtful audience. The narrator claims to have a journal that recounts the story in the voice of the traumatized daughter. This can get muddled and confusing–the shift in voice, with the sometimes overpowering language–and leaves the reader confused and somewhat frustrated. Although the book was incredibly strong in the execution of its translation and its slow unfolding of the child’s life, it was overpowered with clumsy narration.

I have a deep appreciation and respect for translated pieces–the task of taking on language, culture, and all of the small nuances of writing, being capable of crafting a believable tale is quite a feat that Alan Sheridan was successful in doing.

The book does not have a clear ending, the audience in the book eventually become narrators themselves describing what they believe happens to the daughter, some tragic and some happy, yet you don’t get that clear clean ending that some readers, like myself, crave. For some, the open-ended style of the tale is appealing and believable; for someone like myself who enjoys a clear conclusion to the adventure I felt a tad let down and yet hungry to try to concoct what I felt the ending would/should be, and, as any true writer, I did. I must say, my ending is a happy and beautiful one.

The Tortilla Curtain

book by T.C. Boyle

annotation by Telaina Eriksen

The publication date on this book is 1995 but this novel is still as relevant and as controversial today as it was 17 years ago. Tortilla Curtain is the story of two couples—the undocumented workers América and Cándido, and the well-to-do Californians real-estate agent Kyra and environmental writer Delaney.

Boyle has structured this novel as a satirical and brutal mirror. For every action on each couple’s part, the other couple experiences a less-than or greater-than reaction, in a strange and violent  balancing act between the two cultures. The opening event is Delaney hitting Cándido (accidently) with his car on his way home on the winding canyon road to his soon-to-be walled and gated community. This sets off a chain of tragedy that neither party can foresee.   Cándido refuses to go to the hospital and Delaney throws Cándido $20 to salve his guilty conscious.  Boyle then sets up an intricate chessboard of a story where each couple continues to lose things and every loss is diluted in the white upper class couple and magnified in the ill-fated and Job-like América and Cándido.

Cándido is sick and broken from the accident and Delaney’s car is broken. Very soon after the accident, one of Kyra’s pampered dogs is captured in their backyard and eaten by a coyote. América ventures up from the canyon where the immigrants are “camping” and tries to get a job at the job exchange. She is pregnant and a teenager. Bad-luck has dogged Cándido and América throughout their journey north—their coyote (the man helping them cross into the United States) was corrupt and they were beaten and robbed at the border. América gets a job working with toxic chemicals scrubbing kitschy Buddhas for some un-named man, who also tries to grope her. A few days later, her boss forgets to give her gloves and América can barely stand the chemical burn of scrubbing the Buddhas.

Also in Boyle’s balancing act are two teens from Kyra and Delaney’s neighborhood causing trouble for the undocumented workers staying in the canyon. They tear apart Cándido and América’s camp, ruin América’s only good dress and paint “gang sign” graffiti on the new gate to whip up fear and mistrust of Mexicans. Two other undocumented workers scrawl graffiti on Kyra’s favorite for-sale house. These two characters rape América on her way home from work and give her gonorrhea which causes her girl-child, when she is born, to be blind.

Another fascinating mirror in the book is that a white-collar criminal is under house arrest in one of the huge houses in Kyra and Delaney’s neighborhood. As they raise the gate and the seven-foot stucco fence in the neighborhood to keep the Mexicans, coyotes, snakes and scorpions out, they seem to not care at all that they are walling this criminal in. No one seems to be concerned about what he has done to warrant house arrest for three years because he has maids and catering and tasteful decorating.  Another bit of worthy, though somewhat heavy-handed irony, is that there is little doubt from Boyle’s prose, that undocumented workers help build the wall that ends up surrounding the neighborhood.

As the story arches to its conclusion, Delaney and Kyra lose their other dog to a coyote, their cat, Dame Edith (another humorous tongue in cheek reference to the haves and the pretentious in this book is that Kyra has named all of her pets after the famous literary Sitwell family–Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverel) is eaten by Cándido and América in their desperate hunger. Kyra is oblivious to the suffering of the immigrants, but is incensed when she sees a dog left in a car in the heat.

Cándido receives a free Thanksgiving turkey from a shopper at a grocery store and is so excited to roast it that he accidentally starts a fire in the dry season which obliterates Kyra’s favorite house she is selling, her dream house, and ruins the Thanksgiving of everyone in the neighborhood. In the chaos, the white-collar criminal escapes, with potentially millions of dollars squirreled away, while Cándido steals supplies from backyards to help the in-labor América. He even steals dog dishes to use as pots and pans. Cándido’s theft, which is personal, is more outrageous then what the white-collar criminal has done, because that crime was done organizationally and systemically. This literary observation is also just as pertinent today as it was 17 years ago.

Boyle’s book draws fire for its characters being stereotypes. I am not sure if this accusation is leveled at Kyra and Delaney (who recycle and are mostly vegetarian) or América and Cándido, who have an impossible litany of horrible things happen to them.  These characters all feel real to me—not as in I might meet them on the street, but I recognize their complexity, hypocrisy and humanness. Perhaps in some people’s vision of liberals, they aren’t quite so hypocritical. Or perhaps some readers don’t like that Cándido and América are uneducated and that Cándido occasionally hits América. It is a well-documented fact that as unemployment rates increase, domestic violence also increases. Cándido and América’s story of the corrupt coyote rings true with much nonfiction I have read as well.  Perhaps some readers also don’t realize Boyle’s mirroring technique and instead see a heavy-handed portrayal of have and have nots—where I saw a satirical layering of the bitter struggle for survival versus the first-world problems in the United States which cause us “stress.”

I also realized that every time Delaney wrote about the coyote for his nature column, what he was really writing about was immigration. This veiled column (pp. 211-215) is a masterpiece of showing and not telling but its complexity reverberated for me because character Delaney was “telling,” letting author Boyle show us so much about this character and the world and culture he lives in…which happens to closely resemble early 21st century America. The mere fact that Boyle names the young, pregnant, beaten, besieged teen in the book América is a constant reminder to the reader of what our country used to be, and contrasts it to what our country is now, without the author ever having to say a word on that subject.

As a writer, I learned much about the power of parallelism while reading this story—not just the rhetorical device of constructing sentences and paragraphs, but the power of alternating viewpoints and intertwined tragedy and the unintended domino effect of character actions on the other characters within the novel.  In addition to a stinging social commentary about immigration, poverty, violence and even healthcare in the United States, Boyle has also produced a remarkable and envy-worthy structure for this novel.

The Paris Wife

book by Paula McLain

annotation by Talya Jankovits

I have a soft spot for books that take history and spin it into marvelous fiction based on thorough research. Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, is the epitome of such fine work. Taking the story of Hemingway’s first marriage and merging fictional voice with real life events, McLain presents to us a novel, a work known as fiction, but one that probably more closely brings a reader to the intimate lives of Ernest Hemingway and Hadley Richardson that by the time you finish the book, you are unsure if you read fiction or fell into the world of a real woman in the 1920’s.

There are so many striking aspects of this novel that made my head dizzy with want. Firstly, the research is thorough and detailed. From authentic description of place and time to vernacular, fashion and a movement of writing that swept through and made a place in the literary canon. McLain takes a world that to many avid readers of literature, might seem dreamy and unreachable and through conviction of narrative, places her reader in Paris cafés with writers such as Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Its a writer and literary academic’s wet dream. She so fully captivated this time that there were moments where I felt disappointed to put the book down and face our own modern reality. This is a testimony to how well McLain researched her characters and time period. When taking a chunk of history and using it for fiction, a writer takes many risks and often, falls short, but McLain sets the bar high and honors a woman whose experiences deserved to be captured and shared.

At times, I wasn’t sure if I was reading fiction or someone’s actual memoir. I so thoroughly believed McLain’s fictional voice of Richardson and Hemingway, and all the real life writers that came in and out of the story as characters that I hardly thought these conversation were imagined. Everything; each interaction, character development and change in plot felt authentic. What most struck me is the change I saw in Hemingway in the novel. McLain was so careful to allow the character to morph into himself. Nothing felt sudden or expected, something of note when reading a novel about a person’s life that has been so thoroughly exposed and studied already.

I think the challenge of character development is greater when trying to capture an actual person, because you are already limited by what that person became. Laws of fiction are broken to an extent when committed to staying true to history. But McLain made it seem easy and seamless, as if these people were her own. The conviction was mesmerizing.  Days on end have passed and I still can’t get the characters out of my head. I feel haunted by them, betrayed and torn. I don’t think that it’s only because the actual marriage of Hemingway and Richardson was so rich in story already; it’s a tribute to McLain, who merged these people into fiction and brought the reader closer to them than a memoir ever could.

I’m working on a historical fiction novel myself, but unlike McLain, I am not limited by honoring the lives of real people. I have the luxury to explore my own characters of creation, but I am familiar with the demands of history and the obligations it imposes on fiction. I  decided to take greater liberties with my historical background and events and I’ve made these decisions in order to honor and serve the fiction which demands to take place on the page.

I am humbled by McLain, who did not compromise her commitment to history nor her vision of fiction and was able to produce something that felt both fictional and real. The Paris Wife is writing at its best.