To escape from my own writing, I’ve done an extraordinary amount of reading lately. And the last three books to keep me up when I should have been sleeping were “The Space Between Us” by Thrity Umrigar, “The Weight of Silence” by Heather Gudenkauf and “Girl in the Mirror” by Kate Farrell. They first two were “New York Times” best sellers put out by big publishing houses; the third was self-published by the author through Unlimited Publishing.
All three books address in different ways the plight of women in relationships with men who are physically abusive. I didn’t seek out this theme; it seems to have found me.
The first two books are novels that deftly pull you into their fictional worlds, illuminating the characters and the forces shaping their environments and decisions. Umrigar’s is especially well written with complex, conflicted characters realized so fully I found myself loving and hating them equally. Here’s a taste from the book’s first chapter. The setting is a hut in a Bombay slum (it’s back when the city was called Bombay), and Bhima is talking to her granddaughter, Maya:
“So what will you do all day today?”
The shrug infuriates Bhima. “Oh, that’s right, memsahib is no longer going to college, I forgot,” she says, addressing the walls. “No, now she will just sit around like a queen all day, feeding herself and her—her bastard baby, while her poor grandmother slaves in someone’s home. All so that she can feed the demon that’s growing in her granddaughter’s belly.”
If it’s blood she wanted, she has it. Maya moans as she pulls herself up from the floor and moves to the farthest corner of the small room She leans lightly on the tin wall, her hands around her belly, and sobs to herself.
Bhima wants to take the sobbing girl to her bosom, to hold and caress her the way she used to when Maya was a child, to forgive her and to ask for her forgiveness. But she can’t. If it were just anger that she was feeling, she could’ve scaled that wall and reached out to her grandchild. But the anger is only the beginning of it. Behind he anger is fear, fear as endless and vast and gray as the Arabian Sea, fear for this stupid, innocent, pregnant girl who stands sobbing before her, and for this unborn baby who will come into the world to a mother who is a child herself and to a grandmother who is old and tired to her very bones …
Umrigar’s is one of those books that will stay with me for a long time, one I might hesitate to loan for fear of not getting it back. Gudenkauf’s probably not so much, though I did enjoy reading it. It alternates point of view chapter to chapter, using at least six different points of view, which didn’t quite work for me. I found some voices to be more believable than others, and when I wasn’t believing the voice, I wasn’t absorbed in the world. It was a nail-biter of a story, though, dealing with sobering issues of addiction, violence, betrayal and forgiveness.
Farrell’s book is a different sort of work. It tells a modern story, shaped around “Psyche and Eros,” an ancient myth which some jungian analysts have said provides a pattern for feminine development. A novella written especially for teenage girls, the book was conceived as a teaching tool to help adolescent women apply wisdom from the myth to their own situations. The central character, Sylvie, is being stalked by her violent boyfriend, and she escapes to her godmother’s house in the country, where, among other kinds of support, her godmother tells her the story of Psyche.
A storyteller and librarian in addition to an author, Farrell has an ambitious mission: she wants to empower young women to love themselves and not tolerate anything approaching violence against them. She intends to use the book in workshops with adolescents and teach other workshop leaders to do the same. I could envision her also writing an accompanying workbook that would help her charges reflect upon the layers of meaning in both the myth and the modern story Farrell created to frame it.
It’s been quite a week of reading. Bravo to all three authors who, I believe, have succeeded, each on her own terms.