The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

This is one of the most enchanting books I have read; a gentle, contemplative book that chronicles Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s year-long relationship with a snail.

Snail

In her 30s, Bailey contracts a debilitating neurological disorder that leaves her bedridden, barely able to sit up, let alone stand. She has to move from her farm house into a studio flat to be closer to help, leaving her dog and her outdoor lifestyle behind. Confined to bed, she experiences a loneliness that chronic illness can bring, when friends are unsure how to be around you, and she starts slipping into a dark place in her mind, experiencing panic attacks and great despondency.

One day a friend brings her a potted field violet on which she has purposefully put a woodland snail for Bailey. She is left bemused, wondering what on earth she is to do with it. Why should she enjoy a snail? How could she look after it when she couldn’t look after herself? She couldn’t even return it to the woods.

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When the snail starts to crawl out of the pot that evening, Bailey thinks she won’t see it again and falls asleep, but when she wakes, she sees it has returned to the same place and that the envelope nearby has a few small squares chewed out of it. Thinking somewhat guiltily that the snail can’t live on paper alone, she puts a few flower petals near it and later, in the silence that fills the room, she hears the snail chewing on them.

The sound was of someone very small munching celery continuously … the tiny intimate sound of the snail’s eating gave me a distinct feeling of companionship and shared space.”

And so the relationship between Bailey and the snail begins. With a new companion, as unlikely as it is, Bailey refocuses her attention from herself to the snail and in this way, her illness becomes more bearable and less lonely. As the snail is nocturnal and Bailey an insomniac, she spends hours observing its behaviour, and the tenderness and skill with which she writes about the snail makes this unusual subject a joy to read about.

“Each evening the snail awoke and with astonishing poise moved gracefully to the rim of the pot and peered over, surveying the strange country that lay ahead. Pondering its circumstance with a regal air, as if from the turret of a castle, it waved its tentacles first this way and then that, as though responding to a distant melody.”

Concerned about the snail’s living space, she buys a terrarium and recreates a woodland world for it to live in; she finds out what sort of food snails eat and feeds it mushrooms and egg shells. She starts reading widely about molluscs to learn more about her unexpected roommate, and the more she discovers about the common snail, the more respect she gains for it. She trawls gastropod literature, from Darwin to poetry to modern-day scientific research, making  this as much a natural history or educational book as it is a memoir.

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“A snail has an interesting life; its courtship is remarkable, its various natural abilities are astounding, it has a memory, and, just like humans, it likes a comfortable place to sleep and very good food.”

It is a relationship of observation; Bailey doesn’t anthropomorphise the snail – she contemplates giving it a name, but in the end decides ‘snail’ is the best moniker. She doesn’t touch or stroke the snail or make demands of it; she watches it and learns. In this way, I also learned. Who knew that most snails are hermaphrodites, and that snails have a mating courtship? Who knew that after fertilisation, they can hold off having babies for months? Bailey didn’t   – until her snail unexpectedly lays eggs and her room turns into a snail crèche, hosting 118 baby snails at once stage.

Having had a chronic fatigue illness similar to, though not as severe as, Bailey’s, and being able to relate to the profound loneliness of an often-misunderstood condition, I found her experience almost unbearably touching, and admired her ability not to slide into self-pity at any stage, and to stay in the beauty of the moment.

This is a short book, but a physically beautiful one with small line drawings of snails trawling through its pages. Its quiet meditative tone makes it a soothing read, and left me feeling that something good still exists in the world when humans and nature can connect in this tender, trusting way.

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Visit Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s website at http://www.elisabethtovabailey.net

 

 

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A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa

This is a startling memoir of a man who escaped a life of misery and starvation in North Korea, where he had lived for 36 years under the brutal reign of Kim Il-sung and then his son, Kim Jong-il.

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Masaji Ishikawa was born in Japan to a Korean father and Japanese mother. By virtue of being half-Korean, he and his family were treated with disdain and he was bullied at school. His father, perhaps because of the humiliation he suffered in the workplace for being Korean, took his frustration out on his wife and beat her regularly while Ishikawa and his sisters watched, unable to do anything. Despite this, the family lived a comfortable life, Ishikawa began to make friends and enjoyed himself in his own small way.

Life changed, however, when in 1958 the communist North Korean leader, Kim Il-sung, urged all Koreans to come home, promising them a better life in ‘paradise on earth’. Ishikawa’s father, lured by the idea of living a more lucrative life in a society where he would be accepted, packed up the family and returned home to Korea with them.

Here they were sent to a small village where Ishikawa soon learned that communist North Korea was ‘hell on earth’. Having expected excellent education, a better standard of living and abundant food, they soon realised that none of this would ever happen. Kim Il-sung was a ruthless dictator who ran the country as a brutal totalitarian regime. In a cruel turn of fate, as Ishikawa’s family was now considered Japanese, they were treated with contempt as the lowest caste in North Korea. The only positive in the move was that Ishikawa’s father stopped beating his mother and became a gentler person towards all of them.

Ishikawa tells the details of his life in North Korea in a straight-forward, honest, and not overly-dramatic manner, and in this way makes the narrative an excellent tool to carry such an horrific story. The translation from Japanese is well done and his voice stays authentic. It is impossible to relate in total here the brutality of his family’s existence, which seems to worsen with every chapter. His family was initially given a house but, because they were Japanese, it was burned down and they had to fashion a makeshift shack out of spare wood. His family lived in complete squalor (like the majority of the population) with no heating, no new clothes, and hardly any food – the government was supposed to supply food parcels but only did so sporadically; or any food that was successfully farmed was taken away. Ishikawa’s father found it difficult to find work and so their income was virtually non-existent. His mother foraged the land every day for something to eat and they often managed to stay alive by eating  boiled bark and weeds.

The tragic ludicrousness of the North Korean regime is often highlighted by Ishikawa, one of the examples being the farming methods forced upon farmers. They were instructed to plant the rice seedlings as close together as possible, in order to produce large quantities of rice. However, the plants were unable to flourish because of being squashed together, and crop after crop failed, only adding to the dire food shortages.

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An official portrait of Kim Il-sung

Ishikawa never bought into the propaganda with which so many citizens were brainwashed, however he went along with it, for to cross it was to lose one’s life or be sent to a concentration camp.

“When you find yourself caught in a crazy system dreamed up by dangerous lunatics, you just do what you’re told.”

Despite his intelligence, he was never able to get a good job because he was Japanese, and was finally reduced to working in the coal mines; the dirtiest, hardest labour. He married – an arranged marriage – and had children who proved to be a constant source of anguish for him as he was unable to provide a good life for them.

When Kim Il-sung died, his son Kim-Jong il took over and, although it seemed not possible, life became even worse for North Koreans. Ishikawa’s family – and others – literally started starving to death:

“Ever since setting foot in North Korea more than thirty years before, I’d known nothing but hunger. Everyone had been halfway to starvation for decades. But things had taken a turn for the worse starting in 1991. From 1991 until Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994, extremely cold weather wreaked havoc on the fragile food supply.”

People became walking skeletons, Ishikawa’s family included, and he watched his children become weaker and thinner, and then his mother die of hunger, her exhausted body unable to keep working.

After 36 years of this hell on earth, Ishikawa decided he had to escape to Japan and then try to get his family out of North Korea. He knew that the only alternative was death. Despite his weakened state, he eventually left North Korea by swimming over the Yalu River in the dead of night, through a ‘river of darkness’; he was knocked unconsciousness by a rock in the flooding waters and landed up barely alive on the banks on the Chinese side of the river. Once well enough, he contacted the Japanese authorities who negotiated with the Chinese to bring him safely into Japan.

The tragedy of his story is that, once in Japan, Ishikawa hoped to earn enough money to get his family out of North Korea. In an ironic twist, however, he was unable to find substantial enough work as he was now regarded as being North Korean. He never saw his family again.

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Masaji Ishikawa

The book – however horrific the details – is a testament to Ishikawa’s resilience and determination to stay alive with dignity. This needs to be read by Westerners  – in a time where North Korea appears in the news as being ‘normal’ enough to walk into the Winter Olympics with South Korea, this story is a stark reminder of what life really is like in North Korea. Perhaps, too, it serves as a warning of  what a country under a populist leader is in danger of becoming.

 

 

 

 

 

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

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His first novel in seven years, Ondaatje’s Warlight starts with the sentence: “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals”, and carries on to take the reader into the murky world of post-war London in which two teenagers have been abandoned by their parents.

Fourteen-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, are told by their father one morning after breakfast that he and their mother will be moving to Singapore for a year, but that the children will be ‘well cared for in their absence‘. They are be looked after by the tenant who lives on the third-floor, nicknamed ‘The Moth’ by Rachel and Nathaniel for his shy, moth-like movements.

At the end of the book, twenty-eight-year old Nathaniel tells us that, ‘We order our lives with barely held stories‘ and it is he who narrates the story of his life  – the first part of the book describing the transformation of the teenagers’ lives into an unsupervised time, being cared for with benign neglect by The Moth and his friend, The Darter, the other suspected criminal. Here I was drawn in by Ondaatje’s masterful ability to create a London in which Nathaniel lives his new extraordinary life, one in which school barely features, and in which he and Rachel start having to bring themselves up.

‘The Moth is often away, but his absence, like his presence, barely mattered. My sister and I were now foraging for ourselves, becoming self-sufficient.’

‘Sometimes, under the influence of whatever he was drinking, The Moth became cheerfully incomprehensible to us, in spite of the fact that he appeared assured about what he thought he was saying’.

Nathaniel works in his holidays as a lift jockey in an upmarket hotel, washes dishes in a fast-paced restaurant, and meets people who he  would not have in his previous family life. He starts seeing a waitress, Agnes, whose brother is an estate agent and gives them keys to empty houses to which they go and have sex on grubby carpets. He and Rachel start eating most of their meals from street barrows with The Moth, who doesn’t care to cook.

People drift in and out of their house, enigmatic and often elusive, sometimes drunk or hungover, though one or two make a marked impression on Nathaniel and who appear later in the novel. Olive Lawrence, for example, an alluring ethnographer whose exotic travels Nathaniel follows later in his life; Arthur McAsh who Nathaniel suspects knows more about his mother’s war-time work than he does.

Nathaniel gradually starts working for The Darter, who, despite his mysterious nefarious activities, probably cares most for Nathaniel and Rachel out of all the adult figures. The Darter’s business involves smuggling racing greyhounds and other unknown cargo, which activity takes place on barges at night in known and unknown canals of the Thames, though tunnels, past dark power stations, to hidden locations where they meet seagoing vessels that unload the surprising cargo. Ondaatje’s descriptions of these evening excursions are magical, at once both luminous and dark, cinematic:

‘We continued through the dark, quiet waters of the river, feeling we owned it, as far as the estuary. We passed industrial buildings, their lights muted, faint as stars, as if we were in a time capsule of the war years when blackouts and curfews had been in effect, when there was just warlight and only blind barges were allowed to move along this stretch of river.’

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Amongst this almost enchantment of an abandoned life, in which I began to wonder if  the siblings even remembered their parents, comes Rachel’s discovery of their mother’s trunk in the basement, the one they had seen her pack for Singapore, and questions begin to arise as to exactly where their mother is and who she is. Ondaatje gives the reader hints and snippets of information, weaving the story in much the same way that a child learns about life, so we, nor Nathaniel, never get to know the full story of his parents. When Nathaniel finally meets his mother again, it is after he and Rachel narrowly escape being kidnapped, an incident which brings Nathaniel back to his mother, but which pushes Rachel away.

By the second half of the book, it’s 1959, Nathaniel has grown up and is working for British Intelligence, reviewing wartime files. He has bought a house in Suffolk, one he knows well from the time when he lived in the area with his mother after her return from her mysterious sojourn. He spends his working time searching through files for clues as to what his mother’s occupation was and what took her away from them, reflecting on the years he lived with her after her return; the clues – like scars on her arms she kept hidden by pulling down the sleeves of her cardigan, the role of The Moth in her life, a hand-drawn map Nathaniel finds hidden in one of her books. He discovers his mother, Rose, also known as Viola, who was involved in the post-war effort in Eastern Europe, although Nathaniel is not quite sure in what way.

In this second half, Ondaatje starts pulling together all the threads of the story, minor characters become more important, and small events take on more significance. A boy once mentioned as having fallen off his mother’s roof when she was little, emerges as an important war-time figure who worked closely with Rose. We meet this character, Marsh Felon, again in an extraordinary scene where he scales up walls and climbs across the roofs of Trinity College at night while studying at Cambridge – ‘he strolled the cloister roofs, ascended rough walls.’ (Marsh was inspired by a book called The Roof-Climber’s Guide to Trinity; an actual book available from Amazon.) He encounters other ‘nocturnals’, one of whom recruits him into the war effort, and through this group of people, re-establishes contact with Rose.

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Though I say Ondaatje pulls it altogether, he does so in subtle ways so I didn’t end the book feeling like I had read a war-time thriller about a female spy. I felt much like Nathaniel, who while working, says:

Viola, are you Viola? I used to whisper to myself, slowly discovering how my mother was on the second floor of that building I worked in.

We slowly discover who she is and, in doing so, learn the barely held stories of Nathaniel’s life. This is a book written by a master story-teller, whose prose is so elegant, beautiful and serenely written that Ondaatje-RGB is elevated from being a war-time story to a quiet masterpiece.  This one turns out to be, I believe, his best since The English Patient.

To read an interview about Ondaatje’s writing process, see:

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/michael-ondaatje-and-the-magical-art-of-the-opening-sentence-1.3520252

 

Three great holiday reads

The Burning Girl by Claire Messud

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My mother assures me that it happens to everyone, sooner or later, for reasons more of less identifiable; everyone loses a best friend at some point. Not in the ‘she moved to Tucson’ sense, but in the sense that ‘we grew apart’.

The Burning Girl tells the story of two girls, Julia and Cassie, who become best friends in nursery school and  stay so until they grow apart as teenagers. Cassie starts changing in seventh grade into someone Julia barely recognises. Having always been together at their small primary school and having played after school every day, the girls then go to high school and are ‘pushed apart by bureaucracy’ – Julia is cleverer than Cassie; they no longer have classes together, and a new girl swiftly becomes Cassie’s new best friend. The novel is written from Julia’s point of view, and one of the strengths of this well-written book is the emotional sensitivity with which Messud deals with Julia’s observations of Cassie, detailing the painful teenage angst Julia experiences; that sense of still loving your friend and aching inside for being left out. They grow apart, yet Julia always defends Cassie as her behaviour becomes increasingly rebellious. When Cassie disappears, it is Julia who understands her friend so deeply that she knows where to find her. Messud’s portrayal of this intense relationship is beautifully depicted.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

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Another novel about friendships, this time between two families who both live in the middle-class suburb of Shaker Heights (creepily like the Stepford Wives’ setting) in mid-west America. The Richardsons are a wealthy well-established nuclear family, while the Warrens are their poorer tenants; Mia Warren a nomadic artist and Pearl, her daughter, a teenager desperate to settle down. Ng is adept at portraying these characters; the Richardson teenagers insouciant in their wealth, who lounge about watching Jerry Springer shows, drive expensive cars and wear their clothes effortlessly. Their father is a corporate lawyer, their mother a reporter. Their youngest daughter, Izzy, is not as ‘perfect’ as her siblings, however, being a difficult, prickly individual prone to running away and causing trouble. Pearl is seduced by this family, becoming friends with the younger son, falling in love with the older one, the golden-boy; in awe of the oldest daughter;  becoming embarrassed of her poorly furnished small home and her eccentric mother. On the other hand, Izzy, is drawn to Mia’s creativity and eclectic artistic house, and her unjudgemental acceptance of Izzy. When Mrs Richardson, noting Izzy’s attraction to Mia and Pearl’s presence in the Richardson home, asks Mia to become their cleaner, the relationships start to shift. Another strand of the story arises, where both mothers take opposite stances in a controversial adoption within the Shaker community, while leads to an irretrievable shakeup. Ng portrays these fragile relationship exquisitely, particularly those of mothers and their children and the mistakes that happen, sometimes deliberately,  often almost inadvertently. The title refers to the opening scene in which the Richardson’s home is ablaze with fire,  started, according to the fire chief, by ‘little fires everywhere’; but at the same time reflects the minutiae of each relationship, in which little incidents stoke larger events with dire consequences.

Future Home of the Living Gods by Louise Erdich

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It is a pity there is such a focus on the Netflix adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale at the moment, as some readers might accuse Erdich of imitating it, not knowing that Atwood wrote the novel over 30 years ago. Erdich’s outstanding book deserves to stand alone with its imaginative look at a near-dystopian society, in which time appears to be moving backwards; reverse evolution as it were. The main character is a young pregnant woman of Native American origins called Cedar Hawk Songmaker; adopted by a white couple. When Cedar goes to find her Obijwe birth mother, she quite delightfully discovers her real name is in fact just Mary Potts and that her birth family is not mystical in any way. This is one of the things I like about Erdich’s novels – they always have a slight wry humour to them. Cedar seeks out her birth family to find out their medical history and any genetic makeup that might affect her baby, in this society in which animals and insects are slowly reverting to their prehistoric forms. Many human babies are being born in a more humanoid form, while fewer ‘perfect’ ones exist. As a result of this, pregnant women are being rounded up and held prisoner in ‘homes’ in which women disappear after giving birth to babies who are confiscated. Cedar narrates the novel in the form of a diary to her unborn child, thus exposing the reader to her alternating excitement and terror. Erdich has created a novel which, beneath its fantastic plot, weaves themes of diversity, acceptance, familial bonds, racism and sexism in all forms. It was a fantastic read.

 

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

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I enjoyed Egan’s 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Visit from the Goon Squad – an experimental novel written from many different points of view – so was glad to see a new one written by her; this time a historical novel set in New York in the aftermath of the Great Depression and into world war two. It’s totally different, but just as well written, and well researched.

The story revolves around a working-class Irish family, the Kerrigans. Anna, the elder daughter, adores her father Eddie who works for a racketeer named Dexter Styles. We are introduced to these three characters in the opening scene, where 11-year-old Anna has accompanied her father to visit Dexter on the privacy of Manhattan Beach to discuss business. The meeting is brief, and after that Egan takes us a decade into the future and re-introduces us to Anna, who has fought against male opposition to be accepted into the Navy Divers and, because of the war, has begrudgingly been accepted.

Eddie has left, having abandoned the family years earlier, leaving no trace and no one to help Anna’s mother and her sister, severely disabled from birth. Dexter Styles runs his illicit businesses successfully, keeping the balancing act going while deferring to his powerful father-in-law. Egan keeps these three stories running concurrently, and brings Anna and Dexter together in an eerily horrific scene when Anna determines to find out what happened to her father.

Egan

The storyline is strong and the characters interesting – that is enough to make it a good book – but Egan also introduces New York almost as a fourth character; a coastal city in which Manhattan Beach features as a major setting, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where Anna works as a diver, introduces the symbolic theme of the ocean, by which Anna, Eddie and Dexter are all affected. Even Anna’s sister, brought down to the beach by Anna and Dexter, becomes animated at the sight of the ocean and experiences a brief improvement in movement and speech. Egan’s descriptions of Anna’s diving work – from putting on the clumsy suit and heavy brass helmet for the first time, the blissful weightlessness underwater, the exacting work – fascinated me (in the acknowledgments, Egan thanks the United States Army Divers’ Association for allowing her to try on the 200-pound suit).

For example, when Anna tried the suit on for the first time, in front of the Naval men who did not want her to succeed:, “She tried to stand, but the breastplate and helmet and leather belt fused her to the bench. The only way to rise was to force her weight against those two spots where the collar cleaved her shoulders. Anna did this with a sensation of nails being pounded into her flesh. The pain made her eyes swim, and the weight threatened to buckled her knees, but she heaved herself upright…”

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I particularly liked Anna; her inner strength, how she pushed herself into a male-dominated arena and showed them she was good at diving; her vulnerability with regard to her father and her anger at his abandonment, her push-pull attraction to Dexter.  Dexter was a fantastic gangster, moving between the different parts of his life seamlessly – loving father, family man, dutiful son-in-law, business with hitmen and then bankers. Perhaps Eddie’s story dragged on a bit – I found I wasn’t that interested in his journey as the other two main character’s. Yet Manhattan Beach was an absorbing read, and one I could easily go back to again.

I am, I am, I am by Maggie O’ Farrell

 

I’ve read a few books so far this summer holiday; hopefully more to come, with three weeks left.

I am, I am, I am – 17 Brushes With Death by Maggie O’ Farrell

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A memoir about the author’s near-death experiences in her life, this is a fascinating book that I found almost unputdownable. Taking the title from from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am), this is not written as an autobiographical story, but portrays vignettes in O’ Farrell’s life where she has almost died, some dramatically, others less so. In relating these incidents, we get to know the author at different stages of her life from being a bullied child, a rebellious teenager, and ultimately to a parent struggling with an ill child. They reflect how she deals with the sheer vulnerability of being human, and expose the will to live that resides within her, despite all the medical adversities she faces (and there are many). Here she shows no self-pity; she is honest with the reader which invoked a sympathy within me and a profound respect for her for coping with being in the public eye so frequently.

Each chapter is titled with the body part that was affected – neck, abdomen, bloodstream, cause unknown, etc – with the corresponding year in which the incident happened.  There is an astonishing variety of incidents, ranging from an encounter with a murderer on a remote country path, a labour that was badly mismanaged and almost caused her to bleed out, and a jump off a pier as a teenager looking for an escape from a mundane life. Some of the chapters are very short, and quickly relate what could have caused her to die, whereas others are longer and far more serious, such as a childhood encephalitis that nearly killed her.

The last chapter strictly is not about her, although it affects her more deeply than the others; this time she is a mother who cannot control the situation in which her immune-compromised daughter suffers a severe allergic reaction. The chapter, and hence the book, ends with ‘She is, she is, she is‘, the syncopation of relief that her daughter survives.

O’ Farrell writes in an immediate way, spare and candid, and alters her point of view so that she sometimes writes in the first-person, present tense, whereas other chapters are written in the second-person. All of them work.

O’ Farrell was already one of my favourite authors; now much more so.

Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo

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After graduating from Harvard with an education degree, Michelle Kuo decided she wanted to make a difference in the world, … to do … straightforward, immediate work in places that needed people. As a result, she joined an organisation called Teach for America, and was sent to the Mississippi Delta, one of the poorest regions of America, where there was a dire shortage of teachers.

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The town of Helena

In this moving memoir, Kuo reflects the time she spent in a town called Helena, where she taught English to African-American teenagers, a dumping ground for the so-called bad kids. But, as Kuo puts it in the introduction of the book: Books had changed me … And I believed books could change the lives of my students. It was unashamedly romantic. I was twenty-two.

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Michelle Kuo

Her initial idealism was rudely smashed when she started teaching at the incongruously named ‘Stars’ school where the students swore at her (fuck you, Chinese bitch), got into fights, and arrived at school with bruises and welts on their bodies. Kuo was shocked by all of it, but she was more shocked by how she reacted: I yelled. I got mean, and she wondered what she was doing wrong. In a last ditch attempt to engage her students, she chose to teach them a play called A Raisin in the Sun. The reading level was not too difficult and the story centered on on a black family – and there it was, the students responded.

It was after this breakthrough that Kuo’s creative teaching skills shone through and, as a reader and sometime teacher, I found it a joy to read how the students responded to her and how they slowly opened up, writing about their dreams that extended beyond the Delta, and beyond the reputations that clung to them. She introduced the concept of free writing to them, writing that would not be graded or judged in any way, and in fact, would not have to be shown to anyone if they didn’t want. The students questioned her, disbelieving, but then:

… every student wrote. And during this strange time of silence – the heavy dark sounds of breathing, the arrhythmic scratching of the pencil, the surprising absence of talking – there was a palpable sense of desire.

One of Kuo’s students was a fifteen-year-old boy called Patrick Browning; a quiet boy who Kuo, by her second year of teaching, could see was a child who would respond to even a little adult interest: he wanted to try; he was thirsty for encouragement, yet he had failing grades. Discovering that the main reason he was sent to Stars was for failing to attend school, she went to find him at his home in the area of town called a ‘ghetto in a ghetto’. Patrick promised he would come to school more, and responded with passion to her teaching, reading more and writing voraciously and surprising even himself by winning the Most Improved Student award.

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Patrick and Michelle

However, when Kuo got accepted into Harvard Law School, she left the Delta and immersed herself into university and work life. Three years later, however, she received a phone call to tell her that Patrick was in prison for having killed a man. She felt she had failed him, and a voice inside her said, If you hadn’t left, Patrick might not have ended up in prison. You owe him something, and, despite the fact she was to start a new job in three weeks time, Kuo chose to return to Helena to carry on teaching Patrick poetry, literature and history in prison.

This book isn’t a love story, nor is it a Hollywood-ised account of a teacher changing a person’s life, but it is an incredible reflection of how a person can flourish under another’s attention and how educational guidance can waken a person’s mind. The first bit of writing that Patrick gives Kuo when she meets up with him again is infantile and badly spelled: It was a shock. The writing looked crazed…I did not recognize his handwriting at all. Yet she perseveres, giving him homework and reading study to do after every visit, and loaning him books ranging from ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ to haiku poetry to ‘The Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass’. She never is condescending; she challenges him; she gives him Larkin, Dylan Thomas, Pablo Neruda, Walt Whitman and gets him to imitate poems in his own words. The beauty of some of what Patrick wrote is striking.

Towards the end of the book, Kuo writes:

He had come so far, but what struck me then and for many years afterwards was how little I had done for him. I don’t mean this in the way of false modesty. I mean that it frightens me that so little was required for him to develop intellectually – a quiet room, a pile of books, and some adult guidance. And yet these things were rarely supplied.

Her comment made me reflect how this is applicable to so many children around the world, particularly in South Africa where the education system is abysmal. There must be so many Patricks who, with regular access to books, some teachers’ attention and regular instruction, would flourish.

This review merely reflects the story of Michelle Kuo and her interactions with Patrick, but there is more depth to the memoir than this, in that Kuo writes, too, about the failure of the educational and justice systems in America, and about the legacy of slavery as well.

To end, a poem of Patrick’s, written in April 2010 while he was in prison (as of now, he is no longer in jail):

I taught myself to feel free and alive/to wake up thankful to be here/and to know everything is a blessing/from my food, my family and visits./When the old man moans in his room/and the white guys tell sad stories,/I insist I’m fine./I have  perfect health and happiness./I instantly realise the peaceful insects/flying across the room noiseless/and the bright light bulb/that shine like the sun for me every day/inside the county jail downtown/Only to a newcomer is it all startling./If you ask me I’m not here/Just in my own world.