Wednesday, January 03, 2007

#2 - A True Story Based On Lies

The second book in my Around the World in 52 Books challenge is Jennifer Clement's A True Story Based on Lies. I'm counting this as Mexico, although I'm not sure if the author herself is Mexican, but the novel is set in Mexico City.

The story folllows the lives of two women, one a rich young girl called Aura, whose chapters are all entitled 'Every Leaf is a Mouth,' and Leonora, a servant in her household (and her mother), whose headings are all called 'Some Things Were Overheard and Some Said it Was All a Rumor.' As you can probably guess, it's not a simple story as Aura has no idea Leonora is her mother, and the book travels through the latter's past to tell us the story of how the child came to be.

Leonora is a young, impressionable, impoverished girl sent to the convent by her broom-making mother. They live on the outskirts of Mexico City and have been broom-makers for generations. As the book opens, Leonora's own mother explains that generations of twig-collecting girls have been born with mothers wearing no wedding rings:

"'All the fingers in our family are buried without wedding rings. Under the ground there are bouquets of fingers without wedding rings.' Leonora imagines the pale, white bones of her grandmothers' fingers buried beneath the earth."

In an effort to improve her life for good, Leonora is sent away to the convent, where Mrs. O'Connor finds her and brings her to be a nanny and a servant in her household. Once there, Mr. O'Connor takes a liking to her, and eventually gets Leonora pregnant. The child is taken away, and registered as Mrs. O'Connor's, which means a complex relationship begins where Leonora tends to the child, but Aura has no idea she is her mother.

Clement, from what I understand, is a poet first, and the sparse, short paragraphs of this book are filled with lots of sweet bits of metaphorical language, folklore, catechism, magic as well as the actual story. It's a short book, just over 150 pages, but with each paragraph just being a sentence, and much of the book repeating thoughts, images and motifs, it's a short read.

What I liked: the way Clement tells a very complex story about class, race, infidelity and motherhood, in an almost prose poem kind of way. The ending of the novel is utterly heartbreaking, and after reading Consumption, I feel more than ever that every book I'm going to read on this challenge will break my heart. Clement excels at characterization though, as sparse as it is through the book, simple details, like Aura being unable to control her hands (one moves one way; the other another), form complete pictures in my mind.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the fact that this was a story primarily about women. And even though the actions of the men (Mr. O'Connor and his two sons) greatly impact their lives, much of the book feels feminine and reflects these women's particular strengths. Alongside Leonora are Sofia, the oldest servant in the household, and Josefa, the cleaner, who only speaks in one word sentences.

What I didn't like: sometimes I find that poets who write novels can't quite escape their tendency to break traditional form and structure. While for the most part it works, there's a section near the end, all in italics, where a pivotal moment is happening, that essentially repeats all of the folklore-esque bits from throughout Leonora's section for over 10 pages. Here, I thought, it would have been more powerful to actually explain what happened in a more straightforward way, but it's a small nitpicky kind of criticism.

I'm not sure if I would highly recommend this book, like I would Kevin Patterson's novel, but it certainly gave me a flavour and a taste of gender and race relations during the middle of the last century in Mexico, and that's not something I read about everyday. And super props to my friend RC who loaned me this novel and happily gave me my Mexico!


Anonymous said...

Happy New Year, Ragdoll. I can't believe that three days in you already have two of your 52 books in 52 countries in the bag. At this pace, you'll be finished sometime in March.

Anonymous said...

Well, it's a bit of cheat, considering I read most of my first book in 2006, and this one was only 162 pages long! I'm sure I'll fall behind, well, starting now...

My Boy is Ten

My friend Heather took this photo a couple of weekends ago. We went for a walk in the woods. It was a bit cold at first, neither my boy nor ...