books, Debut Novel, Reading, Women Writers

“How to Behave in a Crowd” by Camille Bordas

“I loved my family, I believe. Even though I’d known no other and couldn’t really tell, I thought they were all right, decent people. But oblivious. They got lost in their thoughts. They had no sense of the other – of anyone outside our family, sometimes even me.”

“How to Behave in a Crowd” is the English-language debut novel for French writer

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No LEGO people were harmed in the making of this photo.

Camille Bordas, and it is a sparkling success. Eleven-year-old Isidore Mazal is the youngest and, seemingly, least exceptional of six children. While his brilliant and bizarre siblings (Simone, Aurore, Jeremie, Leonard, Berenice) seek endless academic accolades and eschew ‘other people’ like the plague –

“‘For sure men are born and remain free and equal in rights, but if they decide to grow up and never open a book, nothing says I have to endure their conversation.'”

– Dory (who would prefer to be called Izzie) is academically unexceptional, but he is deeply kind and empathetic in a way that makes him an anomaly amongst a family of anomalies.

“I knew my mother thought that of me. That I was kind, and good at reading people’s emotions. What I didn’t understand was why she thought it was a good thing.”

Dory feels invisible; he is largely ignored by his family and is an outcast in the real world, despite his extraordinary abilities as an empath. He spends much of his time planning to run away, not to seek attention, but more because he feels that his disappearance is what is required.

“I realize it might sound a little dramatic to sum things up this way, but I really thought back then, and with no particular bitterness, that nothing would be disrupted if I were to disintegrate. I’d never been part of a group, or willing to join one (try and fail: that’s when you got singled out for loserdom), and I was fine with that.”

Bordas’ beautiful, charming story is about identity and belonging. When the Mazal family is faced with the tragic death of “the father” (as their patriarch is known), this hilariously hyperbolic family of over-educated people must come to grips with the fact that they are unprepared to build lives of their own. Armed with extraneous degrees, few leave their bedrooms and, even when locked into a small space together for days on end, aren’t able to communicate even with one another.

“‘There should be a postdoctoral program to teach you how to resume a normal life,’ [Aurore] went on. ‘Or a whole PhD program. “Life Experience Studies,” or something. The student would have to gather a bibliography on the kind of life he’d like to pursue, and his professors would orient him toward potential life partners – friends and lovers – according to his research interests. . . . I mean, people say that to acquire life experience you have to actually live and have experiences, but there must be another way, right? It can’t be that any experience is valuable.'”

 

Their savior and leader, they are surprised to discover, is the kind-hearted Dory. It is he, alone, who unwittingly keeps the family together and teaches them “How to Behave in a Crowd.” Bordas’ charming misanthropes are beautifully crafted and irresistibly magnetic. Her prose is witty, dark, and exquisite. What an exciting newcomer to the world of English literary fiction!


Thank you to Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, for providing a complimentary Advance Reader Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review. “How to Behave in a Crowd” was published in the United States on August 15, 2017.

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books, Historical Fiction, People of Color, Reading, Women Writers

“The Architecture of Loss” by Z.P. Dala

          “I am a poor girl. I was born into a world of cheap. Food that is picked from the fields outside your door is the tastiest food you will ever eat. Grandmothers who massage coconut oil into your hair at night are the most expensive gifts you will ever receive. But I knew, even when I was a young girl, that some people are born for things that they can never be prepared for. Larger things that come with double edges. If a call against injustice comes to you in the early hours of a poor morning, you may hide under your blankets and shiver, saying in your sweat, ‘Go away, go away. Go to someone else,’ but the call will never go away to someone else because it has chosen you. Even when your mind and your body are not prepared for what you will do in your life, you wrestle. And then you give in. You resign, and it is then that you feel most free.
          They said it was a disgusting thing, a young girl wanting bigger things. They did not understand all my wants.”

IMG_0762Harboring feelings of abandonment and disdain, Afroze, a successful architect, takes leave from her professional life in flourishing Cape Town to return to her childhood home of Brighton, a rural town in Zululand where her estranged mother is dying.

“Yes, a fiery Diana her mother had been, and clearly still was, but Afroze prided herself on being just the opposite. She had worked to maintain a levelheaded ambivalence to her difficult past, and had tremulously guarded this brittle air of nonchalance over the years. It was perhaps this cold detachment to her past and the people of Brighton that made Afroze appear insipid, rather than displaying the actual boiling feelings inside her.”

Over time, Afroze learns, like the characters of so many stories of death-bed confessions and last minute intimacies, that she never truly knew her mother, never understood her mother’s past, and that all of her assumptions were false.

“Afroze had cursed the lover who had bewitched her mother’s eyes, causing her to exile her only child into a world unknown. But as the years passed, deep into the forest of her banishment, living with a cold, unstable father who explained nothing and a simple but comforting stepmother who knew of nothing to tell, Afroze’s curse mutated into cursing the mother who no longer wanted her.”

But Sylvie, the mother, did not cast Afroze out for love, though she did do so for passion – a passionate commitment to the anti-apartheid struggle.

“I threw off the shackles of quiet domesticity and shocked even my own self in how swiftly I began to take strength. Time to roar. But it came at a price. And the price for passion is loss of softness. When you are so hungry for your voice to be heard, you cut throats. You sever ties that bind you to this lonely nothingness. Sometimes, a little child cannot realize why you are too frantic in your quest, that you might forget their birthdays.”

Z.P. Dala has written an interesting story based on a plot-line that, at its base, is familiar and predictable – the return of a child to a dying and estranged parent’s bedside – but whose details give it cultural and political depth and freshness. Dala has constructed some absolutely beautiful passages, like those excerpted above, and clearly has a superb voice and writing style. However, this book as a whole seems a bit like rough sketches rather than refined blueprints. Some sections are written in a totally different voice, in a way that doesn’t necessarily embody a change in point of view but feels more like a change in the author. Whole chapters feel wildly out of sync. It is jarring and disrupts any flow the reader might achieve. There are portions that are deeply engaging, particularly those about the formation of the African National Congress and the resistance struggle for equal rights, and there are moments when Dala’s characters start to really come alive, but those moments get lost in the tangle. With a strong editorial hand to improve the cohesion and flow, I believe there may be a real gem beneath the unpolished surface. In its current state, however, “The Architecture of Loss” remains a promise unfulfilled. I truly hope that Dala’s next project, with the right editorial polish and honing of craft, will gleam.

“There is something very profound about belief. It carries you across the dark days. It makes you trust that somewhere inside the nebulous clouds of doubt and a never-ending struggle that there will be a day when truth will be realized. And recognized. We all wanted both: truth and recognition. It didn’t really matter which came first. But when you are part of a struggle that strips you of an identity, that turns you into a piece of a dangerous machine, every tiny aspect of individuality struggles and strains to burst out of confined quarters.”


Thank you to Pegasus Books for providing an Advanced Reading Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.