Monday, May 26, 2008

O'Connor's Sea Story

Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea (2002)is part thriller, part historical fiction. Principally he has researched the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, and the emigration to America that happened at that time. In the early 1840s the population of Ireland was around four million, as it is today. By the later part of the decade it was less than half that, after somewhere around a million deaths and a similar number of emigrants, most to North America.

The phrase "potato famine" suggests that the catastrophe was due to natural causes but as O'Connor rightly emphasizes this was very much a human-caused event, tied directly to the feudal system of English lords and Irish tenants imposed on that society after Cromwell's depredations in the late 17th century. With food available, those without the money to buy it were allowed to starve, even as price-gouging merchants continued to display food in shop windows and the landed gentry suffered no interruption of luxury. In fact, the large textile fortunes of 19th century Ireland (Blarney for example) were established after the native Irish had been forced off of the land by deliberate rent increases to free former small farmlands for grazing. The human cost of this included trenches where tens of thousands of bodies were buried in mass graves, as England stood by with much lampooning of the supposedly inferior Irish in the London press. The famine was also arguably the fatal blow delivered to the Gaelic language, which was still widely spoken in the early 19th century.

Against this background O'Connor has spun a period drama involving the passengers on a refugee ship bound for New York in 1847, including Lord Kingscourt, heir to a bankrupt estate in Connemara, his family, and a number of Irish from the same place travelling in steerage, where passengers are dying rapidly of disease and starvation. David Merridith, Lord Kingscourt, is basically a refugee himself, a terribly damaged man with a morally compromised past, but a decent person. His stalker, Pius Mulvey, a dispossessed former tenant now the veteran of a life of crime and murder, is much the same. The aim of the novel is to show how an inherently corrupt system made monsters of these two.

Having said all that, I must add that I was inclined to review this book as a fine page-turning entertainment, which it is, with lots of action and finely-drawn characters. The main town near the estate is Clifden, where I found people named Lowry, the name of my great-grandmother Sabina, one of my ancestors out of Galway and Mayo (others were Eliots and of course O'Malleys). This one is good enough that I'm going to send a copy to Leslie Lee, a family friend who researches Irish history.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Buchi Emecheta

Some friends who had lived in Nigeria for a number of years extolled the writings of the expatriate Buchi Emecheta, and reading The Slave Girl (1977) I was not disappointed by their build-up. It is one of a series of novels on the theme of the subjugation of women in African society that she wrote in the 1970s (others are Second-Class Citizen, 1974, The Bride Price, 1976, and The Joys of Motherhood, 1979).

The story is about a seven-year-old Ibo girl who is sold into slavery by her brother after her parents die, in the early 20th century as Portuguese and British colonialism works through its endgame in upriver Nigeria. The writing is clear and direct, an omniscient narrator laying out the facts of the situation in a compassionate but unsentimental voice. It is not a horrorshow, although the slaves of a wealthy merchant woman are beaten and sexually abused. There is much humanity and Ojebeta returns to her home village after nine years in bondage, still a young woman and now determined to have as much influence in her own destiny as possible. She is like a Jane Austin character who happens to be an African from "the bush" with tribal scarifications on her face.

The pacing is excellent and I didn't put the 179-page novel down once I got in to it. It is didactic in a good way, with loads of information for non-African readers about village life along the river, the lingering influence of exploitative Europeans, class and tribal divisions among the Nigerians, and tribal customs around women and marriage. The critical appraisal of the status of women is aimed at Africans and non-Africans alike.

A long time ago in a "Philosophy Through Literature" course I assigned a novel by Tsi Tsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions (1988), reputedly the first novel to be published by a Zimbabwean woman. It too deals with the stresses on young African women who have even the slimmest hope of economic and social advancement. The protagonist's struggle with an eating disorder was a good bridge between an account of post-colonial Africans and my mostly affluent students in Boulder.