Boundaries by Elizabeth Nunez

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

“Slaveowners in America were torturing the Africans they enslaved for reading, but the British had discovered the hard way of truth of the maxim – Nature abhors a vacuum. Fill their minds with your stories and they will adore you; leave their minds free to roam and they will hatch plans to destroy you.”

In Boundaries, published by Akashic Books in 2011, prolific Trinidadian writer Elizabeth Nunez continues the story of Anna Sinclair, the protagonist of Nunez’s 2009 novel Anna In-Between,  also published by Akashic. Boundaries, the author’s eighth novel, carries on (and, arguably, deepens) the examination of divisions between worlds that its preceding novel broached. Anna, the editor of Equiano magazine, prepares her Manhattan flat for her parents’ arrival, readying with some trepidation to receive and house her ailing mother. Though much of the novel focuses on the relationship between Anna and her mother, the fourty year old immigrant daughter is considered from multiple perspectives: as a struggling editor beset by challenges of content and style; as a woman seeking to negotiate her romantic involvement, as an individual of bivalent and intersecting realities.

A work that marks itself as triumphantly unafraid to pose the murky questions that surround identity, Boundaries is spotlighted by Kirkus Reviews as “a thoughtful literary novel exploring the shadows of cultural identity and the mirage of assimilation.” It stands as a laudable addition to the considerable body of fiction already produced by Nunez, and establishes itself as a serious, gracefully told story of the perils and pleasures that dwell within self-exploration.

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The Crystal Bird by Helen Drayton

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

One thing may be apparent above others, on a first reading of The Crystal Bird: we’re in the hands of someone who has considered her historical fiction carefully, and with no shortage of passionate investment. The story charts the adventures of two archaeologists who stumble across a fascinating find in the late nineties, one that leads them to interact with a sequestered civilization, the Ashai tribe. As a far more advanced society, the Ashais are in possession of secrets that could change the face of both medicine and warfare. Herein lies a moral dilemma, however: do the archaeologists honour the private, proudly-guarded traditions of the Ashai, or smuggle this chemical bounty back to the outside world?

The innate lyricism of Drayton’s language is evident in her two poetry collections, Brown Doves and Brown Doves II: Passages. She brings this wordplay to bear in the composition of The Crystal Bird, and bolsters her attention to language with the development of a uniquely-visioned epic. In summing up their thoughts on the novel, Kirkus Reviews hails it as “a unique, engaging story of star-crossed love, history and mythical magic.” A spellbinding account of what happens when two civilizations collide, mixed in with views from the present time and days of yore, Helen Drayton’s first novel is unmissable for those who like their historical fiction relevant, emotionally resonant, and page-turning.

Our Book Club Pick: Between Bodies Lie by H. M. Blanc

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Welcome to the beginning of a brand new feature here at Paper Based: our very own online book club! Few activities can encourage a warm sense of readerly community like an intimate gathering of friends, discussing the novels that have moved and inspired, confounded and shocked them, over glasses of wine and potluck dinners. A book club is that reassuring reminder, bolstered by the voices of its members, saying, “The way you feel about books matters; you needn’t be a critic or fancy reviewer for your opinions on good (or lousy) literature to count!”

With that sentiment firmly in mind, we’re especially pleased that our first book club pick is also a first novel, one by a promising young talent in Trinidadian fiction. Between Bodies Lie tells an age-old story in a specifically Caribbean setting: that of two life-weary, intelligent souls finding and clinging to each other amidst chaos and declining personal fortunes. Down on his luck as a novelist, Cristobal Porter flees to an unnamed Caribbean island (ostensibly Trinidad, or modelled after it) in search of inspiration and information for a new book. His disenchanted, dominant mistress Nadia follows in his wake, but her waning charms are a paltry match for the mystery and sad beauty of Ana Kaplan, wife of an overbearing American consul. As Ana’s husband and Nadia find their way into each other’s arms, Cristobal and Ana embark on an intense, complex relationship, one whose borders are hard to define, and whose results will be impossible to predict.

Lavishly imagined, composed with a fine ear for the rhythms of language, Between Bodies Lie makes for gritty, satisfying reading. Summed up in a starred Kirkus review as “a masterfully written exploration of the beauty and cruelty of love, as sharp as it is sensual,” the novel’s chief strength lies in its unflinchingness. Blanc really pares down to the marrow of his subject matter, giving the reader frank assessments of human sexuality, island politics and personal frustrations, while imbuing his prose with an almost feral beauty. The novel may not comfort she who reads it cover to cover in one unputdownable sitting, but it seems impossible to walk away from it unmoved, or without several burning questions that crave discussion.

On that note, here are some reading circle questions to get you started! If you’ve got any additional ones to contribute, feel free to leave them in the comments section.

Discussion Questions for Between Bodies Lie:

  • Cristobal insists on calling Ana by her full first name, when he learns what it is. Is Ana made up of two distinct selves, a personal and a private one?
  • To what extent are all the characters in the novel intensely personal about the secrets in their lives?
  • Real love or sun-soaked tropical infatuation: how would you describe Cristobal’s feelings for Ana, and how do you think they’re altered by the final scenes of the novel?
  • Cristobal’s  research for his novel focuses on the island coup — how wise do you think he is, to delve so deep into tropical politics?
  • Do you get a strong sense of Trinidadian society in the author’s portrayal of this unnamed Caribbean destination?
  • What do you think of the roles of the less focal characters in the novel, particularly the islanders?
  • Focus on Cristobal’s relationship with Coraline — does it strike you as odd, or do you feel a “rightness” to it?
  • Say you were Cristobal: would you favour the sad, contemplative mystery of Ana, or the wild, ambitious devastation offered by Nadia?
  • Is it possible to say that Cristobal has one ideal type of woman, or does he seek out attractive traits in every woman he sees?