Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The House on Mango Street & Offshore

These two books may seem to have nothing at all in common - why would I even think of reviewing them together? Because I seem to see a similarity between the way that they approach a story of an unusual or a difficult girlhood, told from the viewpoint of the young girl in question. While set continents apart, they are also both a bit distant from today and give a new look at growing up in the 20th century. 

The House on Mango Street / Sandra Cisneros    
New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1991, c1984.
110 p.

This classic is a series of vignettes illuminating the childhood of Esperanza Cordero, a young Latina growing up in Chicago. Esperanza looks from her adolescent perspective at the world around her, at the adults and the roles open to her as a woman. Each tiny chapter feels like a poem, in a sense; the language is poetic, evocative, and Esperanza's outsider view reveals life in small details.

This is a beautiful read - some parts are funny, some charming, many are sad or full of pathos. Esperanza notes beauty all around her, even in the midst of her hard neighbourhood and focus on finding a home for their family. She overcomes the restrictions and limitations of her setting to find her voice, and live up to her name by remaining hopeful.

Although this a pared down story, mostly an expanded poetic approach to narrative, it reminded me - in the way that Esperanza is situated firmly in her family and cultural context, but has more artistic longings - of Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Both main characters in these books are powerfully thoughtful and strong young women.

What a lovely read, one that offers a picture of a Latina girlhood in the US, and that provides an accessible way into a story that was so fresh and new when it was first told. 

Offshore / Penelope Fitzgerald
London: HarperCollins, 2003, c1979.
144 p.

In the early 60s there is a community of barge dwellers in "the Reach", in London. There are five boats, five units in this story. And on one of the boats we find Nenna, a young, troubled mother with two daughters, Martha (12) and Tilda (6). Martha is the character of interest -- Tilda is a strange, not very believable 6 year old. She speaks and acts more like another 12 year old, while Martha is an adult, taking care of both her mother and sister. 

For me, this story was Martha's, although there are many other very adult storylines and themes going on. And there is tragedy, and an open-ended conclusion, and possibilities for a future for Martha and Tilda, in Canada even! 

Poor Martha tries to keep her family together and functional, as her mother is distracted by her bad relationships and failed marriage, and their neighbours move from petty criminals to violence, boats sinking, men trying to take control, the river acting as metaphor for the instability of everything. Everyone living in The Reach is on the edge of life in many ways.
"The barge-dwellers, creatures neither of firm land nor water would have liked to be more respectable than they were... but a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like other people, caused them to sink back, with so much else that drifted or was washed up."

Penelope Fitzgerald writes with a economy of language - a few words can say an awful lot. While parts of the story did feel a little dated in terms of gender roles and so forth, there were some glimpses at a more equal future. Though there really isn't a firm conclusion to the shifting relationships and the shaky hold on making a legal living in this book, there are lines left open, and opportunities hinted at. If you like a sharp, unromantic look at what it's like to live in poverty and to scramble to make an unconventional living, this may be the book for you. If you have romantic ideas about living on a houseboat, reading this may disabuse you of those notions.

An interesting and unflinching look at unhappy people in unusual settings. And Martha's child-on-the-cusp-of-adult outlook only serves to highlight the flaws in the adults around her in greater relief.

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