Mariianne Mays Wiebe’s “dreamlike debut” Kate Wake is “engrossing” with “compelling characters.” Kate Wake explores “… the history of mental health facilities in the early 20th century and Kate Wake’s experience within one. These scenes serve as brutal and terrifying emotional touchstones for Katie’s experience through mental turmoil. Katie’s experience is not the same, but the return to Kate Wake’s past evokes a powerful sense of dread and fear, crystallizing an experience of something that is still somewhat taboo in our current moment: mental illness.”
So, I’m sitting in a café with my friend, Keith Henderson, conversing about matters of the spirit. Yes, that’s right. Keith is a writer of exceptional talent, a former professor of English at Vanier College, a political pundit, and managing editor of DC Books Canada, one of the oldest and most revered of Montreal’s small literary publishing houses.
We are speaking about Keith latest book,Sasquatch and the Green Sash, his contemporary retelling of the medieval romantic epic,Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Keith has reset the story in Canada’s Far North and has incorporated elements of the original poem, cleverly blended with myths of the Dene Nation. The story is an allegory of virtue, nobility, and a coming of age tale of sexuality and romance, and I ask Keith the obvious question: How can such a story play to an audience so far removed from symbols and the use of the imagination, an audience so hooked on social media and the communication resources so readily at their fingertips? Keith pauses before answering. This is one of the things I love about good conversation, for he is an artist of discourse as well—the ability to reflect, to ruminate, to respond to complex ideas and to lead his listener on a journey into his literary imagination. Ours is a dialogue of give and take: he listens to my insights, and I relish his. If he weren’t so conscious of equally sharing thoughts, I would be completely content to sit back and listen to him for hours.
As if in quiet mockery of our discussion, a young lady at the table next to ours looks at her laptop, annoyed. Perhaps it is her irritation at listening to two older men discussing ideas, so animated by this very act — two men who are perhaps disrupting her attention so clearly focused on her open Facebook page or Instagram offerings. But no matter. We are democratic, perhaps more open minded than she is, caught up in our own space, time, and moment, leaving her to hers.
And what a moment it is! Keith speaks of the allegory of the original medieval poem and how it is a fitting symbol of our own troubled age, which he sees as devoid of spirituality, morality, and honor (not just in the chivalric sense, but in the greater context of personal virtue). He tells me how his former students, themselves striving to come to terms with their own sexual desire, found an affirmation in this old poem with a surprisingly contemporary message, an affirmation that seemed to give a direction to their lives. He tells me of the “message” of the poem, based on the precepts of our Judeo-Christian tradition, and how the truth of that vision still resonates to this date. Keith has written his own allegory that is founded upon a natural archetype, something that he and I believe are in danger of being lost in our not only secular but also anti-intellectual world.
Keith is a man of intellect, a man of great moral honesty and persuasion, and I can only be thankful for my encounter with him, for being in this place and time, for sharing things of the heart and the mind. Ours is a discourse that is all too quickly disappearing in our world where we speak in sound-bytes and abridged phrases that can fit on a cell phone screen or a Twitter feed.
So on Monday, April 15th at 6:30, Keith Henderson will be launching his book, preceded by a conversation at the Thomas More Institute.
The TMI, as it is known, is a secret jewel in the intellectual life of Montreal. It was founded many decades ago for the purpose of sharing ideas and dialogue with like minded individuals. They offer courses in music appreciation, art history, sociology, and literature (among others), and their modus operandi is based on the premise of Socratic discourse where the animator is less of a lecturer and more of someone who poses questions that provoke a thoughtful response. As the Director of TMI told me recently, they seek to ask questions that will demonstrate how the process of complex thinking works and to track that exceptional moment of intellectual discovery.
Anne Fitzpatrick, former English professor, long-time Dean at Marianopolis College, and one of the original founders of the Institute will be animating the discussion with Keith Henderson. She has taught a multitude of courses over the years at TMI, and she is currently animating a discussion of Milton’s Paradise Lost, one of her many interests. Anne, a good friend and former colleague, is also a great conversationalist. I recently had the pleasure of her company where we spoke at length about education, literature, writing, and (again) matters of the spirit. She has also graced my life over the years.
If you wish to experience the magic of profound discourse, the excitement of ideas, and the connection we can still make to a grander heritage, to a time when ideas and beliefs mattered, treat yourself to an evening that is so rare and precious in this day and age.
Buy a copy of Keith Henderson’s book; afterwards, share a drink with people who have the commonality of loving ideas and good writing, and be welcomed into the company of like-minded souls.
Check out the launch on April 15 at 6:30 p.m. at the Thomas More Institute (3405 Atwater Ave).
I am a voracious reader, one who often reads books simultaneously. So it was that last week I was working on a book recommended by several people, Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club and a book I had picked up at the QWF Book Fair at Concordia this past weekend, Keith Henderson’s marvellous collection of short stories, The Pagan Nuptials of Julia.
First off, Palahniuk’s “novel” (and I use the term loosely) is crap. Sure, it takes on the theme of how men have innate violence within, but so what? Critics say this is “edgy” writing with a voice and tone that is purportedly slick, “hip” and “original,” but to me the book reads like a poorly written Trump Tweet. I stopped reading after 75 pages and flung it into my recycling bin to take to Renaissance. Life is too short.
And then I opened Henderson’s collection and was immediately captivated. Here was an original voice and sensibility that stopped me in my tracks. Henderson is an intellectual in the truest sense: he makes no apologies for presenting complex ideas, occasionally erudite references, and multi-lingual commentary. His is writing that demands work and engagement on the part of the reader—engagement that is richly rewarded. The stories in The Pagan Nuptials of Julia are multi-layered and present characters as complex individuals, enacting their lives in confusion, yet always accessible through their passions and longings.
In the title story, he relates the tale of a woman who has returned to her birthplace in Italy to attend a family wedding with her Canadian lover. Ian, the lover, marvels at the beauty of the countryside, at the warmth of the Italian relatives, at how they can discourse learnedly about angels and how Julia, the woman in his life, can so easily emote within this context. At the wedding they attend, Ian realizes that Julia’s “homecoming” is a return of the heart, and his “pagan” imagined marriage to her is the acceptance of this communion. The story ends with a wonderful scene in a cemetery where Julia, Ian and a relative gather with the dead, and suddenly the story swings into an allegory about love, loss, and mortality, all rendered with an effortless and deft touch by the author.
“Less and Less Human” presents two divergent points of view: a husband who presents a classical view of the world, loving music and art that conveys the profoundest and most enduring of human emotions, juxtaposed with that of his ex-wife, a modern composer, whose vision embraces the seemingly absurd through her empirical scepticism. At the conclusion, Henderson presents a poignant story of Holocaust survivors hearing the “healing” music of Bach, while his wife denigrates his interpretation, suggesting that modern art is predicated on chaos, not human feelings that could possibly endure. Here, Henderson’s vision becomes apparent to the reader: someone who bemoans the loss of a humanistic connection that has served as the basis of our culture. A most powerful warning for our age where we have abdicated spiritual values.
It is hard to pick a favorite story from this excellent collection, but two especially stand out. “Heaven for Pyromaniacs” (such a wonderful title!) and “The Garden of Earthly Delights”. In the former, the main character, Alison, is travelling from Montreal to the funeral of her mother, who has died in Ontario. The journey, while physical, is really more a passage through her memories, her past, and her feelings about family and loss. Henderson has the ability to move from the mundane recounting of an event to its core meaning. For instance, he talks about the reality of people who have fled Quebec after the election of the PQ down the 401 forOntario (the “uni-directional migrants”), yet manages to turn this amusing insight into a metaphor for profound loss as in the following passage: “Bodies moved away from each other in this expanding universe of intimate life. That is what time and death did.” Despite the seriousness of the theme, this story is replete with subtle humor and wonderful irony. At the end, as she and her siblings are removing her mother’s belongings from the nursing home where she had died, Henderson has a startlingly laugh-out-loud moment depicting the elderly residents of the home watching in “delight” and amazement since “unless they were dead or very blessed, they did not move out.” Great writing indeed.
The story though that sticks with me the most is “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” perhaps because this is also my favorite painting by Hieronymus Bosch. How Henderson manages to fashion an allegory about the protagonist’s tainted raspberry patch leading to his subsequent illness and the interpretation of the Bosch painting is a marvel to behold. He writes about a scene in the painting of a man surrounded by the “permutation of human evil” and another figure glancing at the world “with wistful despair at the pleasure of the tavern he has just forsworn: a drunken lout pissing against a wall, a tattered roof, a Dutch whore beckoning from a shutter-buckled window…. Perhaps it was the sense of plague that gave so skeletal a quality to the life of those times just as the sense of holocaust has to our own.” Juxtaposed with this is his own disease from eating the tainted berries that he states is of a “far less spiritual nature.” Again, an encapsulated summary of what has happened to our notion of suffering humanity.
It is at this point that I wan tto conclude with why such writing matters. Henderson’s vision in these stories reflects the loss of value in our post-modern world, a world of quotidian, material concerns and empty longings. Gone are the grand themes of art from our lives, he suggests, and we are much the poorer for this.
Besides Henderson being a master of style, it is because of such insights and affirmation that this is good writing—one that makes no apologies and is unremitting in its endorsement of the human spirit.
Keith Henderson’s collection The Pagan Nuptials of Julia is a welcome reminder of what good books once were and hopefully may once again become.
The recent book fair held on November 24-25, sponsored by the QWF (Quebec Writers’ Federation), took place in the Atrium of Concordia University’s McConnell Building. In attendance were all of Montreal’s major English language publishers, affirming that Montreal’s Anglo literary scene is still alive, well, and kicking. In addition to a fiction and poetry presentation moderated by Montreal writers Kenneth Radu and Harold Hoefle, among others, publishers were there to display and sell their wares.
As I managed to attend on both days, it was an opportunity to purchase new books, meet established and emerging writers, and to rekindle and form new friendships. The highlight of my weekend was meeting up with Keith Henderson, managing editor of DC Books, an old friend from our days together as teachers at Vanier College, and meeting and getting to know Kenneth Radu, who is fiction editor for that press. I managed to score signed copies of both of their collection of stories: Henderson’s The Pagan Nuptials of Julia and Radu’s latest, Net Worth. My week’s reading was now complete. Operating within a word limit, I can only do justice to what will surely amount to an incomplete review of one of them, so I have chosen to take on Radu’s collection first. On Henderson’s work, more to follow.
At the front and centre of Radu’s Net Worth is money: how we deal with it, covet it, miss it when we don’t have enough, and how it consumes so much of our lives. Who would think this is the stuff of literature, but through Radu’s deft prose, it becomes a symbol of our most profound emotions ranging from joy to despair. The first story in the collection, “Lottery,” chronicles a day in the life of a woman in her early middle age, Annie, who has discovered that she has won the lotto jackpot of $42 million. Her initial surprise and happiness quickly dissipate, alternating between perplexity (how to spend the money), obligation (how to fairly dispose of it and how to manage it) and paranoia (how to secure her own safety now that she is so wealthy). The story creates a genuine sense of discomfort as Radu catalogues every possible scenario one could imagine about instant wealth. But the story doesn’t end there. Instead, Radu takes a gigantic literary leap and transforms the tale into an allegory about personal happiness. After meditation on her “good fortune,” Annie reflects on her life and what makes her happy, coming to the inevitable conclusion that money won’t. Thus, she decides to dispose of the ticket, but in a way that is hilarious, shocking (so much so that the reader cringes, wondering how anyone could do this), yet redemptive. Radu’s ending is wonderfully original.
“Trust Fund” tells of a woman who discovers her husband’s secreted fortune in the basement after his death and how she arrives at a wrenching epiphany about their marriage and life as a couple. Yet another, “Personal Injury,” presents the ironically parallel stories about a woman who has just lost her job and the beggar to whom she has given some money as she is late for work, the very cause of her dismissal. “NetWorth,” the title story of this collection examines the tragic life of a single father who is desperately seeking work in recession times to support his child, yet whose self-worth is tested by the inhumanity of our capitalist system. “Residential Requirements” is the story of a factotum, Darryl, who works in a nursing home and exploits the elderly for their money, including providing quasi-sexual favors. This is the “edgiest” story in the collection, cringe-worthy in its dissection of the protagonist’s deceit, ye tRadu manages to make him a compelling character despite Darryl’s low actions.
The best and most “literary” story in this fine collection is the last one, “Keats Walk,” a tale of an older man who has lost his wife and who is on a journey toward death as he travels to England and traverses “Jane Austen country,” walking along the same paths that the Romantic poet John Keats would stroll while conceiving his ballads, sonnets, and odes— Keats who died in his 26th year and who wrote some of the most profound odes to mortality and love ever penned. In this complex and multi-layered story, Radu’s literary voice is transcendent as the story is simultaneously jarring in its directness, frank in its relentless examination of ageing and loneliness, all the while presenting the heart-wrenching pathos of ageing, all of this skillfully crafted without slipping into sentimentality. Radu is able to convey great emotion in the muted thoughts of the protagonist as he reflects on his wife’s death (her) “still warm body clad in purple silk pajamas” almost absently remembering that “she had never liked flannel”. Brilliant. At the end of the story, after taking stock of his own life and preparing for his death, the “voice” changes into a poetic rendering as the story becomes a true “ode” to the tragedy of living, of love, and of loss. This story belongs in any anthology of great Canadian writing.
Kenneth Radu told me recently that the goal of any writer is to create a connection with his reader, a connection of the mind and heart. As someone who has labored throughout his career at the “sullen art” of writing, he knows the loneliness of the human soul and dissects this in his prose with humor, irony, and bitterness, but, above all, with warmth and compassion.
He tells us that there is truly no price one can place on the soul and that our true “net worth” is so much more than a bank balance. For this timely reminder, we the readers should be grateful. For any lover of good writing, Radu’s book is a must-read.
“Several of the stories in Net Worth are very effective. The first one in the book, ‘Lottery,’ is about a woman, Annie, who wins $42 million from Loto-Québec. But she has reservations. What would it do to her life? Is all that money worth it? Radu gets into Annie’s doubts and confusion very well, dissecting the virtues and pitfalls of sudden wealth, how it seeps into to every aspect of your life, your behaviour, your relationships.
All the stories are thought-provoking and reflective, each in its own way, using money as a vehicle to explore such diverse subjects as a spouse’s early death, old age, leaving an inheritance, waiting for an inheritance, divorce, and coming early into the personal independence of adulthood. The varied meanings of having, keeping, and losing money come up frequently in each of these contexts.
….These stories are a wonderful exploration into what money does to us all.”
“Net Worth by Kenneth Radu is certainly one of the most unique reads I have come across in the 2018 publishing season. The language is simple yet the concepts it brings forward are thought-provoking and enlightening. In short, this book is a great piece of literature.”
—Stephen Buechler, Library of Pacific Tranquillity, Fall 2018
“Throughout the short novel, Will navigates a web of professional frustrations and domestic quandaries as a father of two young boys (for example: Should sleepovers be allowed on a weekday? Should you allow your ten-year-old to beat you at soccer?). Abray carefully bifurcates Will’s life into two distinct worlds, work and home. The charm of the domestic scenes, often dominated by frank, age-appropriate discussions with his young sons, exposes the corporate theatrics and prickly politics of Will’s exchanges at work with colleagues and clients.
Some of the best and most comedic moments in the novel are when the two worlds briefly overlap. For example, when Will takes his sons to work and they meet his disagreeable boss, or when he tells a disinterested client about the gifts he bought his sons. Will has a propensity to overshare with clients – and it is details like this that make him an utterly believable, and likeable, protagonist….
The book consistently teeters on the edge of a grand dénouement – a betrayal, a blow-up, an accident. Here lies the book’s charm and uniqueness. Life happens: the seasons fold into each other, the boys go to weekly sports practice, and Will and Karen occasionally bicker. But nothing is extreme in this book – not even the toilet leak. It’s a highly readable and funny rendition of real life.
– Cecilia Keating, The Montreal Review of Books, Fall, 2017
Acqua Sacra presentation in Rieti, Italy, featuring Gianfranco Formichetti:
Romanzo che sviluppa una narrazione particolarmente dinamica, tanti temi compresi in un itinerario che si muove sul tema del RITORNO, tema canonico della letteratura da Omero a Cesare Pavese, da Itaca alle Langhe; ma è la prima volta che protagonista è una donna, Susanna Ricci, che non ha nostalgia del coniuge, sentimentalmente ormai perduto: la sua Itaca è nell’Abruzzo marsicano, vicino alle nostre montagne e ci sappiamo immedesimare in questa nostalgia, la sentiamo quasi nostra.
Colpisce per esempio l’affinità paesaggistica, che viene descritta quando la protagonista nel colloquio con Rosaria evidenzia la nebbia che sembra restituire il lago del Fucino sotto monte Velino: quello che succede in inverno quando dalle colline intorno alla piana reatina la nebbia sembra restituire il Lacus Velinus. Come anche alcuni profili paesani tanto somiglianti ai nostri.
E che belle le parole che l’autore mette in bocca a Rosaria e che hanno una forte tensione emotiva: “La chiamano l’anima del lago. Non è mai completamente scomparso e come un fantasma ci perseguita. Madre Natura lo rammenta. E vuole che ritorni “. Quasi una sfida quella dell’uomo che ha violato l’ordine naturale: ci si può aspettare una vendetta della natura violata.
Dicevamo un ribaltamento: una donna simbolo del ritorno, ma in tempi di globalismo ecco che i Proci da Itaca si disperdono nel resto d’Italia, si chiamano Mafia, Ndrangheta e non hanno l’esclusiva peninsulare, perché nei fatti narrati si intrecciano percorsi malavitosi che raggiungono il Canada e il Nordafrica.
NOSTALGIA DI UN RITORNO PER METTERE SOTTO ACCUSA IL NOSTRO TEMPO? CERTAMENTE.
Gli intrighi ben articolati nella storia familiare di questa donna danno l’opportunità di offrire uno sguardo su questo nostro tempo così segnatamente negativo. Nelle prime pagine incontriamo la protagonista che dal Canada è tornata nel suo paese d’origine per restaurare una casa danneggiata dal terremoto dell’Aquila. Il fallimento del matrimonio pare voler esaurire l’allontanamento dal tetto natio, quasi un pretesto per un rientro dell’anima nell’ambito più autentico. Un romanzo di sentimento, la conquista di un buon ritiro dunque, ma non è così. La donna non si sente finita anzi. Agguanterà l’occasione per ricominciare una vita lavorativa autonoma. Ma sarà proprio questo che la porterà su percorsi avventurosi e densi di pericoli.
Emergeranno così i vari profili di parenti e amici, ma anche di sconosciuti che tramuteranno quello che poteva sembrare un romanzo sentimentale in un vero e proprio poliziesco. Tratti che offriranno al lettore spunti di riflessione su temi del nostro tempo, dei nostri giorni. Argomenti che emergono nei media a ogni pié sospinto, che tormentano le coscienze. E sì perché anche nella piccola entità territoriale del piccolo paese marsicano è arrivata la mano nera della malavita. E che riscontri.
Gli scenari narrativi mutano, si allontanano, raggiungono orizzonti impensabili, entrano in campo riscontri lontani anni luce dalle tiepide giornate paesane. Ci si sposta in palazzi rigogliosi di vita mondana ad altissimi livelli, si torna a Montreal si scoprono i lati oscuri di una malavita a cinque stelle che ha una ramificazione perfino nel paesello marsicano e che fa diventare protagonista, suo malgrado, la povera Susanna. Non solo Montreal: i confini si dilatano fino a raggiungere i paesi del Nord Africa, fino ad attualizzarsi all’oggi con il dramma dell’emigrazione. Il nostro autore non esibisce l’attualità, riesce ad inserire in una trama avvincente fatti e personaggi che potremmo incontrare in ogni momento.
Farabutti in doppio petto accanto a manovali e braccianti dell’efferatezza, ingenui e fedifraghi si alternano sullo scenario in una tragedia che a momenti sa diventare farsa.
Come quando si scoprono tutte le follie burocratiche alle quali è sottoposta la protagonista, che non sa entrare nei meccanismi della burocrazia italica che si perde in giravolte incredibili, per il restauro della casa della madre con tutti i problemi amministrativi, con le ditte che inventano mille pretesti per ritardare o annullare i lavori. Ma anche personaggi in carne ed ossa c’è perfino spazio per il figlio di Gheddafi, con la storia del Perugia calcio, che riesce ad inserirsi a proposito come sa ben fare Henderson condendo la cronaca con la storia. Ci sono i “cafoni” di Ignazio Silone. E numerosi personaggi della vita politica italiana dei nostri giorni. L’ayatollah Komeini che si dichiara stanco della “moschea e del seminario” e che beatifica in versi l’apertura della taverna. Dunque dicevamo un romanzo che sa vestire anche gli abiti del poliziesco, che sa stimolare la riflessione, che fa movimentare la narrazione sollecitando la tensione narrativa che prende il lettore.
Ma il romanzo è soprattutto narrazione attenta sul personaggio Susanna. Meno di venti righe per presentarcela, con un profilo attento, essenziale ed esaustivo. Una vita condensata in meno di venti righe:
“Susanna Ricci era in subbuglio. A quarantadue anni, il suo matrimonio stava andando a pezzi. Non poteva più nasconderlo. Era soltanto questione di tempo prima che lei e suo marito si sarebbero ritrovati davanti ai legali, per discutere di quel che restava di vent’anni di vita insieme. I loro due figli erano furiosi con entrambi e il maggiore faceva i capricci, come solo un diciottenne sa fare. In più, suo padre era morto recentemente, i suoi genitori avevano lasciato alla figlia una casa abbandonata e fatiscente e Susanna era così ad Acqua Sacra per sistemare tutti i casini che aveva intorno. Non aveva lavoro e poche prospettive di trovarne, almeno nel suo campo. Ma era una donna istruita, aveva visto così tanto. “Perché non fai la segretaria?” aveva insistito sua madre, una volta, durante uno dei loro frequenti battibecchi. Susanna voleva, invece, laurearsi. “Storia, mamma”, le aveva detto. “Voglio conoscere la mia cultura”. E riuscì a farlo, ma poi quando Logan entrò nella sua vita lei abbandonò tutto (stupidamente, pensò col senno di poi) e non scrisse mai la sua tesi di laurea.”
Una donna, dunque, che ha dovuto lottare contro le avversità della vita, con i difficili rapporti con la sorella Laurella, a cominciare dalla differente situazione matrimoniale.
Per Susanna come ci ricorda l’autore, il matrimonio “era maturato infelicemente, e alla fine era fallito”, quello della sorella “impeccabile”, perfino le certezze ostentate delle figlie di Laurella, lanciate con sicurezza nelle scelte universitarie, ben contrapposta alle titubanze dei figli. Il diverso atteggiamento che hanno nei confronti del luogo di origine, che sentono ormai lontano, anzi che avversano palesemente come dichiara la figlia maggiore a proposito dell’Italia, dopo il suo rientro in Canada: “è tutto vecchio e rotto”.
Lo scontro con la sorella è ben chiaro: due caratteri diversi, due modi di pensare all’opposto; feroce la sintesi con la quale Laurella si riferisce al luogo d’origine “puzza”.
Avversaria risoluta nei confronti della madre che aveva espresso il desiderio di ristrutturare la casa: “Perché sprecare soldi su un relitto”. Laurella era felice nella sua nuova dimensione non aveva nostalgia, l’aveva abolita e aveva negato il passato.
Stimolo per riflettere: Laurella personaggio ben consono al nostro tempo. Viviamo un’epoca che sembra voler abolire la nostalgia e negare il passato, nell’illusione di vivere un’eterna fanciullezza. La sindrome di Peter Pan nega la nostalgia perché rifiuta il trascorrere del tempo. Il fascino della nostalgia rende invece sacro quel passato. Non puoi rifarlo né cancellarlo.
Rientriamo nella vicenda che sa anche caratterizzarsi nella concretezza degli avvenimenti. La morte del titolare dell’impresa che stava effettuando i lavori di restauro della casa della madre nella quale Susanna da ragazza era vissuta. Porta di nuovo momenti problematici per l’esito dell’iniziativa che parte dalla madre ma che coinvolge direttamente e sentitamente Susanna. Quanta differenza con Laurella che invece ha esaurito completamente i legami, deracinee, totalmente sradicata ben felice dei suoi “viaggi in crociera, la confusione, la gente, le cene in abito da sera”.
Totalmente a suo agio nella nuova dimensione esistenziale. Anche perché economicamente ben salda con il suo matrimonio. Situazione diversa da Susanna che deve cercarsi anche un lavoro dopo l’abbandono del marito. Sarà proprio quel lavoro a metterla poi nei guai, a farle correre i rischi e qualcosa di più; se poi si pensa che sia stato proprio Len, il suo ex marito a spingerla verso quell’impiego si avverte di più la problematica situazione esistenziale di questa donna. Donna di sentimento Susanna, attenta nel rapporto non sempre facile con i due figli, che però la sostengono quando ha paura di non essere all’altezza per il lavoro che dovrà affrontare. Susanna torna ad Acqua Sacra e si impegna affrontando piccoli grandi problemi per quella benedetta casa. Sono proprio queste difficoltà esistenziali che ci fanno apprezzare questa donna nel percorso narrativo del romanzo. E soprattutto l’apprezzamento è per la su grande onestà e capacità di svelare il velo dei traffici spregevoli che si muovono intorno ai fatti della sua vita.
Ma è il tema del ritorno e della nostalgia che si possono cogliere nella sua personalità.
La nostalgia caratterizza le persone forti che non hanno timore di guardare al passato.
Susanna è capace di sistemare i pezzi del passato, capace di fare della vita un percorso compatto. La sua sensibilità la porta a preoccuparsi per i figli, ad esaudire il desiderio della madre, ad affrontare con coraggio le situazioni difficili nelle quali suo malgrado verrà coinvolta. Insomma un personaggio a tutto tondo intorno al quale ruota il romanzo.
Il ritorno in Abruzzo come possibilità di riconciliarsi con un mondo lontano per il quale avverte una distanza non facilmente abbattibile.
La ritroveremo ad Acqua Sacra in una situazione certamente scomoda, con i lavori sospesi nella casa, lo scontro con la madre di chi avrebbe dovuto concludere il restauro.
Ma anche coinvolta suo malgrado in una operazione ben oltre le righe della normalità, in cambio dell’immunità dall’azione giudiziaria che si stava mettendo in atto in Canada.
Il suo sconcerto per quella situazione è ben evidenziato nella puntuale messa appunto psicologica che Keith Henderson sa rendere perfettamente con una serie di metafore che si sommano nella riflessione che Susanna fa con se stessa, il disappunto per le montagne russe, la sofferenza per le vertigini, la guida tranquilla, il non voler imparare a sciare. Nella parte finale del libro il clima si intensifica verso il poliziesco. E qui la fantasia e la realtà dei nostri tempi si coniugano in situazioni che danno un sapore ancora diverso e arricchente per questo romanzo così vivace.
Lascio ai lettori la scoperta di questa ulteriore qualità del libro. Mi resta da fare alcune brevi considerazioni sulla divisione del libro 4 parti, 38 capitoli e un epilogo. Una costruzione ben strutturata, ogni capitolo recita una sua parte, lo scrittore ha saputo condurre l’affabulazione in modo coinvolgente; il lettore sviluppa il percorso seguendo un filo rosso che sa dipanarsi in modo appropriato a seconda della scrittura proposta: nel dialogo fitto o spezzato, che ci porta ad immedesimarci nei personaggi e a provare le più diverse sensazioni: rabbia che si traveste in diplomatica persuasione, auscultazione della natura che sa manifestarsi in modo piacevole, ma anche ad evidenziare la sua malvagia forza.
Insomma un convincente esercizio di tecnica narrativa, un esemplare e coinvolgente testo che ti prende dalla prima all’ultima pagina. Veramente un bel libro.
— GIANFRANCO FORMICHETTI, assessore alla cultura, Città di Rieti, autore di Vita di Antonio Vivaldi, Giunti Editore
Draw him, colour him, dress up as him—I think every kid remembers the first superhero he created. Not that first ideas are always the best. My concept, at age eight or nine, was awful. The character was wealthy Reginald Van Buren. His sidekick was his muscular manservant—whose name I can’t recall—and very British. Their alter egos: Black Butterfly and Brown Derby.
Years ago, on safari, Van Buren discovered a giant black pearl that gave him, when rubbed, the powers of a butterfly, including wings. I hadn’t fleshed out an origin for Brown Derby, whose name came from the kind of hat he wore. (As I said, first ideas.) I got two or three pages of very rough colour pencils done in a blue Hilroy exercise book before I moved on to my next comics project: Lieutenant Laser Eyes!
These dreams of a grade-school comics creator were derivative, built on conventions of the genre: wealthy hero, faithful and able sidekick, fateful adventure, mysterious powers. The ideas behind the characters needed converting or embellishing. Where the characters had true merit was in my aspirations: all the lead heroes mentioned above were black, with traits and speech drawn from people I knew, people who looked, sounded and acted like me in Montreal’s West Indian community, my immediate community at the time.
Throughout high school and university, this trend/inclination/artistic choice (I’m not sure what to call it since I wasn’t conscious of it back then) continued. My character Bobcat, leader of a Canadian superhero team, was black. Safeguard of the North—my answer to Captain Canuck and Guardian and Northguard—was black; or at least not as white as the great frozen country he represented might expect him to be. Despite buying comics where the main heroes were usually white—or maybe because of this—it never occurred to me how unusual my choice was. I was a black boy creating black heroes. What was so unusual about that? Seeing myself in them was about making reality more real, more complex and complete. But it was somewhat unusual, and a decision I could not take for granted when writing my novel And Sometimes They Fly about a trio of would-be heroes from the Caribbean whose time it is to rise up.
The people that you meet
For nearly twenty years, I’ve taught research methods and research-paper writing to BFA Graphic Design and Studio Art students at Barbados Community College. A number of the students are into graphic novels. They read them and write them and draw them in their spare time or as part of their major and minor graduation exhibition projects. According to current statistics, approximately ninety percent of Barbados’ population is of African descent, with the rest being of mixed European and Asian ancestry. My students’ environment is, therefore, visibly black. When these students enter the programme, however, many of them show work that is heavily inflected by Japanese anime and manga; their panels are not populated by characters who look like them or the people they are most likely to meet in their neighbourhood.
One of my students shared a story in class about creating a character in high school that was a protector of Barbados. The hero’s familiar was a water dragon. When one of his teachers asked him why his hero wasn’t black, or why the character didn’t reflect his creator’s own culture in other ways, he told her these thoughts had not occurred to him. At all. Another student in the class, one of my best and brightest and also an aspiring graphic novelist, said he could never find the epic in Caribbean stories, that spark to fire great works. The cartoons from Japan he and his classmates watched, the comics from that country they read, seemed more resonant than anything their history or reality might make possible.
The crime—let’s call it that—wasn’t that too many of my students couldn’t see the epic in their own people’s stories, which included vast kingdoms and empires, ancient knowledge and fables, the middle passage, slavery, colonialism, Independence movements, post-colonialism, neo-colonialism, indigenous mythology and folklore. The crime was—is—that they had never thought to fan the fire themselves: to create what was missing, to suggest what was possible, to write the stories about their own people that they wanted to read.
Part of the problem was the social engineering they had undergone as Barbadians, which I examine in And Sometimes They Fly. My students and many Barbadians like them were raised to believe other people’s heroes saved the world, not their own. Who would these worthy men and women be anyway? Their politicians didn’t call in the good guys when the going got tough; they considered themselves the good guys, and had put commemorative plaques on buildings and open spaces all around the island that essentially said so. Coupled with a decline in oral storytelling not redressed by a more active publishing industry, this belief in the outside hero has spelt the demise of the fantastic in much of Barbadian Literature.
Beyond the analogous
Not entirely, of course. Barbadians—and their stories—are more tenacious than my students might think: more entertaining, more epic, more idealistic, and hence more enduring. Try, as Bajan or world critic, to dismiss writers like Kamau Brathwaite, Geoffrey Drayton, Paule Marshall, and Timonthy Callender. You’d be missing out if you weren’t aware of others like Glenville Lovell, Ronald A. Williams, Karen Lord, and Matthew Clarke. It takes cultural consciousness to resist the drag of negative foreign incursion; the kind of cultural consciousness that can conceive of anything, including a black Superman.
But not a black Superman. Despite successful renderings of, say, a black Green Lantern or a Latino Spiderman, I never wanted coloured analogues of my favourite heroes. I wanted originals of my own, fighting battles people rather like me would fight.
When I came to write And Sometimes They Fly about twenty years ago, it was not as a literary or fantasy novel but as a superhero comic about a group of young people who fought to save the world. At some point over the years, I decided to tell the story in prose instead, yet I, too, was still missing that sense of the epic: Who were these young people, meaning where did they come from, and whose world were they fighting to save? The tragedies of 9/11, which seemed to touch on everyone’s life everywhere on this planet, provided the necessary perspective, as metaphor for cataclysmic conflict, and moment for godlike redemptive intervention…if one so chose.
Yet it was the folklore of the Caribbean, of Barbados specifically, that provided contemporary context, the proper symbols and an ongoing socio-historical discourse out of which the story could emerge. Barbados has ten national heroes, all revolutionaries, one of them—a sports icon—still living. Apart from village, community and city characters who are legend for their colour and brilliance or ingenuity, the country has a lively mythology of Anansi (a cunning, storytelling man-spider), baccous (wicked or mischievous spirits made flesh), heartman (the bloody scourge of hard-ears children who stay out too late), and djablèses (a very Caribbean kind of succubi).
Heroes and villains abound in our culture. The epic in any work comes from the writer’s understanding of his (or her) people and their place in history, what we might call Time, here, even if his people are embodied in an individual or their place is no larger than a village. His people, regardless of their number, race, faith or colour, are inevitably humanity itself, or his conception of it. Events in Egypt or Syria can have magic or tragic consequences for a family or woman in Barbados or Trinidad. The epic reveals the possibilities of a grander world, one made up of the worlds we already know and of others we still struggle to explain. To imagine ourselves onto that boundless landscape, as writers and readers, is no privilege, nor should it be viewed as a burden. It is merely our right, and our responsibility.
by Keith Henderson
Fiction – Social Issues 236 Pages
Reviewed on 03/31/2017
Reviewed by Charles Remington for Readers’ Favorite
Suzanna Ricci’s marriage is on the rocks, leaving her feeling a failure. In Acqua Sacra by Keith Henderson, she is charged by her mother with the renovation of the old family house in Acqua Sacra, a small village in the Abruzzo region of Italy. She is grateful to escape Montreal and the accusing eyes of her family, to leave behind the legal minutiae of divorce and attend to the rebuilding of the earthquake-damaged house. There she faces a different set of problems: Italian bureaucracy, a helpless architect, and feckless builders. But while attending a family wedding in Rome, she meets the senior partner of a Montreal law firm who, prompted by her ex-husband, invites her to join his organisation in a junior capacity. Initially suspicious of the motives involved, she nevertheless accepts the invitation and quickly finds she is enjoying her new job.
The work in Acqua Sacra, however, grinds to a halt with builders defaulting on contracts, disappearing from site and demanding additional payments to cover unforeseen difficulties. When she is offered the chance to undertake a small project in the Abruzzo region for her new employers, she is at first grateful for the opportunity and hopes the visit will also allow her some time to revive the renovation of her family home. But as the reality of her assignment becomes clear, she begins to realise that she is involved in no simple task and is in real danger. Forced to act for the Canadian security services in a plot involving the Mafia and the Libyan regime, struggling to deal with the machinations of her employers and the demands of her ex-husband, and dealing with Italian architects and builders, can she possibly survive the seething maelstrom in which she has become embroiled?
Acqua Sacra is a compelling book, dealing with both personal and family issues, and more broadly political and commercial issues. Keith Henderson has created a pacey narrative written in the style of a good thriller, which takes in the harrowing effects of divorce, the feelings of failure and their effects on the family, along with Mafia involvement in the Canadian construction industry and all levels of Italian politics and commerce. It deals with corruption at every level and the difficulties of being an honest, caring individual in a world seemingly rotten to the core. An interesting, though sometimes worrying book for anyone who cares about our planet. I thoroughly enjoyed Acqua Sacra and do not hesitate to recommend it.
by Keith Henderson
Fiction – Social Issues 236 Pages
Reviewed on 03/31/2017