Writings / Reviews

Poetry & Fiction Reviews

Candace Fertile

Ossuaries
by Dionne Brand
Toronto, ON: McClelland &Stewart, 2010
124 pp. $18.99

A new book of poetry by Dionne Brand is always cause for celebration, and Ossuaries is an amazing foray into the long poem form, a gripping combination of the intellectual and emotional. At the centre is Yasmine, a woman on the run, a woman moving through the confusion and chaos of contemporary life while keeping an eye on the past and what has been lost.

The volume has fifteen Ossuary poems, almost all with stanzas of tercets. Brand’s imagery is utterly captivating, and the language so dense that tercets make perfect sense. Each line can be turned over in the mind repeatedly, and long stanzas would simply be too much.

Yasmine travels underground, at times searching for love, but always experiencing conflict while sensing decay in the world. Beauty exists, but not for long. Yasmine reflects on the wonders of Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus, for example, while recalling the past with her mother and their record player. In the present moment she is with a verbally abusive man, an apparent misogynist who believes his lover exists only through him.

Brand’s vocabulary and imagery are far-ranging, from music to violence to love to grammar, and so much more—and often combined to create a challenging and expansive mindscape:

assignments and hidden schedules of attendance, a promise of blindness, a lover’s clasp of violent syntax and the beginning syllabi of verblessness [.]

The language etches itself into the consciousness and remains, another kind of ossuary.

One of the places Yasmine hides in is Cuba, and she discovers how out of place she feels, as she is “not coastal, / more used to the interiors of northern cities,” but recognizes that place is never really the issue:

being alive, being human, its monotony discomfited her anyway, the opaque nowness, the awareness, at its primal core, of nothing [.]

Yasmine is both running from and running to, but the blankness at her core, the blankness that apparently infects much of contemporary life (and maybe more), is Brand’s concern. Ossuaries is physical, but it’s also clearly grappling with the metaphysical and the ontological issues that have plagued (or excited) human beings for ages. How to find meaning in an apparently meaningless or at least confusing world is Yasmine’s task, and what Brand does is suggest that we can only make meaning, and only temporarily. And we do it through language.

Yasmine’s sadness never moves to complete despair, but she gets close. Life on the run is destabilizing, and while she occasionally wishes for permanence, she immediately rejects it as “dullness, stupidity,” and then she changes her mind, pines for “certainty.” But certainty is elusive—except for ossuaries: “to inhabit whole, / which is to exist simply, the bone / is an organ like any other.”

Ossuaries is a passionate and thought-provoking poem that works on numerous levels. Like the best literature, Ossuaries offers rewards with each rereading.

In Dependence
by Sarah Ladipo Manyika
Abuja, Nigeria: Cassava Republic Press, 2009
257 pp, $12.41
Canada: Legend Press, 2008
320 pp, $12.41

Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s novel, In dependence, covers a wide range of time and place. It starts off in Nigeria in the early 1960s when Tayo Ajayi wins a scholarship to Oxford. His whole family is wildly proud of him—as it’s the first time a Nigerian has won such a scholarship, and Tayo knows he needs to take advantage of the opportunity.

The 1960s were a time of change, and Tayo finds himself smack in the middle of the excitement that is Oxford. He’s young, and while he has a girlfriend named Modupe back home, he is quickly charmed by Christine, another Nigerian student who is reading literature. He realizes that he and Modupe are too young to have made promises to each other. As the narrator rather woodenly comments, “He was, after all, only nineteen, and now that he had won the chase with Christine, he still hoped to meet other women and further expand his horizons.”

Expand his horizons he does, as soon he is involved with a white woman named Vanessa. And racism is ever-present. Out one night with Vanessa, Tayo is called vile names by some local jerks. But things get worse. Vanessa has invited Tayo to her family’s Christmas party, and to her horror she discovers her father has invited his mining friends. Vanessa explodes: “‘But they’re horrible men, those mining idiots! They own all the bloody mines in South Africa and make packets of money out of their black workers. How can you invite them? Do you know how many blacks die in the Kimberley mines every month?’” At the party one of the South Africans mistakes Tayo for a servant. The narrator comments dryly, “At any rate, Tayo was glad when the party was over.”

Manyika’s subject matter has potential, but the prose is stilted and awkward. The novel has too much telling and not enough showing—a rookie mistake—and given the possibilities of the subject, the novel disappoints.

The novel follows Tayo and Vanessa up to the late 1990s, through their family lives and the political disasters that befall Nigeria. The latter part of the novel is more satisfying than the early part because Manyika is in firmer control of the material, and the awkward distance of the 1960s chapters diminishes somewhat. Tayo tries to maintain his life in Nigeria—he teaches at university, but the country’s problems affect everyone. Tayo encourages his students, but they tend to summarize instead of creating arguments—or even worse, they plagiarize. Tayo, as usual, attempts to see their problems: “It frustrated him to find undergraduates writing in this way, but he understood why. Students could not be expected to study when the physical conditions in which they lived were so appalling.”

Unfortunately, Tayo’s optimism is not rewarded. He keeps hoping his country will get sorted, but the violence escalates, and he becomes caught in it. Manyika manages to end the novel in much the same way she begins it—with a grand gesture. This time Tayo is getting an honorary degree from Oxford. The circularity is a bit much, but if the novel is read as a romance with some political, social, and historical background, it starts to feel more acceptable. And certainly throughout the novel, Manyika gives mini-lessons on who’s who in literary Nigeria, so knowledge is being conveyed. It just doesn’t happen in a particularly pleasing way aesthetically.

Curiosity
by Joan Thomas,
Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2010
409 pp. $32.99

Joan Thomas bases her second novel, Curiosity, on the life of Mary Anning, a cabinet maker’s daughter who lived in Lyme Regis from 1799-1847. Although Anning lived in poverty and lacked education, she became one of the most important fossil collectors and a serious paleontologist—but as a woman of the lower class, she never gained the recognition she should have in her lifetime.

Thomas has done a load of research to create this book, but it never weighs the story down. Instead the historical facts are woven in beautifully with the development of the character Mary and the various people in her life. As Thomas notes, “Curiosity is broadly (and usually factually) consistent with the historical record, although I have invented freely where no record exists.” Mary’s emotional life is rendered with thoughtfulness and believability. Her desire to learn about fossils and to make discoveries (initially as a way to help support her family) is palpable. Her intellectual curiosity is profound, and as a self-taught woman with amazing powers of observation and a work ethic that is remarkable, Mary is clearly one of the unsung heroines of history.

The temporal and spatial setting of novel is so concretely constructed that readers can capture the sensory world of the early 19th century with ease. England is at war with Bonaparte, smallpox attacks ruthlessly, and the classes are separated by wide gulfs of the luck of birth. One of the major male figures in Mary’s life, apart from her father, is Henry De la Beche, a young man of privilege who runs away from the prestigious military academy he is attending. Henry loves to draw the landscape and the fossils around Lyme Regis, and when he meets Mary, he realizes he has encountered an amazing and unique woman. That doesn’t stop him from using Mary’s finds to promote himself.

Another crucial male character (men do rule the world at this time) is a clergyman and Oxford scholar named Mr. Buckland, and with him enters the whole religion versus science debate. Buckland buys the so-called “curiosities” that Mary finds and sells as charms, but his theories about how the various fossils were formed make no sense to Mary, who is trying to make her way through the maze of science demonstrated by her found curiosities and religion which dominates much of life. And all of this inquiry happens 40 years before Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species.

Mary quite literally scrapes a living out of the sand and mud of the Dorset cliffs. She finds the fossil of an ichthyosaur, and her numerous discoveries push forward scientific thought. But she doesn’t get the credit. The men do.

The other loss in Mary’s life is on an emotional level. Her family suffers through illness and death, and Mary herself, as Thomas has created her, loves and loses—mainly because of the overwhelming power of class distinctions. The hypocrisy of the upper classes is most notably demonstrated by Henry’s mother, a truly vile woman whose only concern is herself. She barely cares about her son, only what his life reflects on her. And Henry ends up with a woman as vacuous and duplicitous as his mother.

The language of the novel is that of the time—and Thomas captures the vocabulary and nuances with elegant precision. The characters talk as they would, given their station in life, and of course, they way they talk also keeps them in their social class, no matter their intelligence or work or capability.

Thomas’s debut novel, Reading by Lightning, has received much acclaim. Curiosity indicates that Thomas is writer whose gifts are numerous, and it achieves what a worthwhile work of literature should: it both informs and entertains. Thomas allows readers to enter Mary’s world with all its suffering and inequity. Mary Anning deserves to be known for the remarkable woman she so clearly was, and Thomas draws her life with sensitive and captivating precision.

About The Author

Candace Fertile teaches English at Camosun College in Victoria, BC.

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