Two classics to dissect

Staying In

Book review
Bríd Conroy

Choosing a book for the book club is never an easy task.  Not everyone is pleased all of the time.  Yet that is the point, actually? For example you might not like a book or understand what the author was getting at but through listening to one another’s views at the book club, a whole new perspective can open up. What a great opportunity to see through someone else’s eyes. It is one of the many reasons I love books.  
So this month at Tertulia, our book club choice is ‘Crossing the Mangrove’ by Maryse Conde, a Penguin Modern Classic, translated by Richard Philcox, originally published in 1989. It is set in a fictional Caribbean village called Riviere au Sel, in the French Antilles. It starts with the death of a strange character, Frances, that has come to live in the village. It seems many had cause to resent him and we are not clear if his death was natural or not. The whole story of the village and the villagers is told through their relations with this man.
Outward resentment by some gives way to admiration and respect in others. Frances himself is not aware the locals talked about him. He smiled and greeted them all. The narrator comments that one needs to have lived inside the four walls of a small community to understand its spitefulness and fear of strangers. Moise, the postman, had only ever known the meanness of men’s hearts. Yet Frances’s existence amongst them changes them all forever.
The history of the islands and the Creole peoples is told through the story, with many phrases in Creole remaining. They speak about the ‘France French’ as some kind of strange version of themselves they inherited. There is humour and spirituality and harshness and so much beauty in this most unusual book.  

Nobel prize winner
Alongside this, I read ‘Sula’ by Toni Morrison this week, published by Vintage Classics. Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. This was her second novel and was first published in 1973. It tells the story of a fictional place called ‘The Bottom’ which ironically is a hilltop area where black people resided, overlooking the town of Medallion where white people lived. The story starts in 1922 and stretches to 1965. It centres around the main character ‘Sula’ who befriends ‘Nel’ at an early age. Nel was the “colour of wet sandpaper – just dark enough to escape the blows of the pitch-black true-bloods.”
The residents of ‘The Bottom’ detested white people for the torture they had imposed on them in the past. The harshness of their lives is revealed to us through the events that surround Sula and the women of her family. There are crazy characters like Shadrack whom Sula trusts because “no-one with hands so graceful could kill anyone.”
Sula becomes a vilified character herself as the story progresses. She returns from many years away and is accompanied by a plague of robins. The people of ‘The Bottom’ do not question this. They accept it. “Black people looked at evil stony eyed and let it run.” The presence of evil is to be triumphed over.  
Sula makes them into better versions of themselves. She has no ego and no need to verify herself, so she does as she pleases. When she is gone, they revert to their old ways and miss her presence.  
It is an amazing story. Morrison writes a foreword which I loved as well, explaining the challenges of writing and being seen as a political writer and a black female writer. She explains the main themes and why she chose them and who Sula is and what inspired her.
Our book club meets in Tertulia Bookshop at the Quay in Westport on the last Sunday of every month at 5pm.

Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia  – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.