by Cassondra Windwalker, publication date: 23 Jul 2020
Idle hands are the Devil’s playground, and Cassondra Windwalker uses diabolical influence in this eloquent and disturbing portrayal of domestic violence.
Ella is the Devil. They (Ella) is a fun-loving monster, dedicated not so much to evil for its own sake, as to corrupting those who would otherwise be good. Ella works in the shadows of people’s minds, nudging and cajoling, engendering chaos and destruction. To say that Ella encourages evil is to miss the point; They acts out of mischief and spite, for Their own amusement, as a salve to the boredom of immortality.
So, when Perdie decides to escape her abusive and violent husband, and take herself and her children beyond his reach, Ella’s attention is piqued. The husband is a respectable university lecturer, and almost nobody knows of the violence that happens behind closed doors. The children do: they are terrorised and, even though they are young, have learnt to not see.
With her children, Perdie makes her escape. They travel half way across America, to Colorado. She has almost no money and limited skills, and although she manages to rescue herself and her children from her husband, she works two jobs just to pay the bills. So busy is she that she barely sees her children. But they are safe.
A second move to a lakeside, remote town, turns out to be a good move. She meets and later marries a decent man, Reilly. He doesn’t earn the money her former husband did, but he takes good care of her. He constantly reminds her that she doesn’t have to double-guess what he wants but rather can make her own mind up; she doesn’t have to fear that a disagreement will lead to a battering. The children get on with him. Time passes.
And then the accident happens. Ella sees her opening; They offers a deal and Perdie accepts.
That is as much of the plot I will reveal – and it’s the first half of the book. The second half is the Faustian deal that Perdie accepts.
Idle Hands succeeds in combining two themes. The first is the metaphysical theme of the nature of evil. Although Ella is at times a little long winded in Their thoughts – and sometimes is used by the author as a narrator – They is a new take on a problem as old as our species. There are times when Ella is engaging and funny, and times when They is repellent in a very eloquent way.
The other theme is the under-explored theme in fiction of domestic violence. The opening scenes – about the first fifth of the book – is gripping. Perdie’s escape had me on tenterhooks, urging her to get on with it before her abusive husband returned, unsure if she would, fearful of the consequences if she didn’t. It opened my eyes to the fear that many women live with, day in and day out; it made me ashamed to be part of the same gender as Perdie’s husband.
The contrast of Perdie’s life in Colorado, with Reilly, was excellent: the author walked the fine line between portraying a person who has recovered, while not masking that some of the damage is permanent. The eldest of Perdie’s three children was too scarred to recover, but the other two had my laughing at quotidian teenager issues, sympathetically portrayed.
This is all the more disturbing in the second half of the book, which returns to Perdie’s pre-escape life. The constant threat, the fear, the unrelenting shifting or blame and moral responsibility, are depicted with a frank brutality. There was nothing to laugh at, no joy. Only victims – and Ella in raptures.
Idle Hands is a very good book. The characters are people I know, the pace is just right, and the overall effect chilling. Domestic violence is something that is much talked about, but little understood; this is the first time I’ve seen it dissected in fiction. Read it.
Here’s an opinion piece from the Washington Post regarding Trump’s willful subversion of the rule of law in the U.S.
Replace “Donald Trump” with “Carrie Lam,” “William Barr” with our DoJ Secretary, “Teresa Cheung,” and “Republicans” with the “DAB,” and the article is as accurate for Hong Kong as it is for the U.S.
I’m not sure which reading frightens me more.
Like Spilled Water by Jennie Liu, to be published on 1 September, 2020.
Split water is a reference in Chinese, just as other people’s gardens is in Indian, to daughters. Daughters are suffered rather than wanted as, when they marry, they cease to be part of their own family, and become part of the husband’s. Investment is only worthwhile in as much as bride price (dowry) warrants it.
Under China’s one-child policy, this has only become worse. Those whose first child is a daughter are permitted to try a second time for a son, but those who have a son first, do not get a second try for a daughter. And, to make up for China’s low birthrate, women are encouraged to marry and bear children early.
Na is one such young woman. After her brother, Baobao, was born, her parents concentrated all the family resources on him. They moved from the countryside to the city to earn more money to prepare Baobao for the gaokao exams that will earn him a place in college; they leave Na at home in the countryside, though she is bright enough to earn a scholarship at a third-tier college.
The book opens at the end of her first year, when she receives a call summoning her home: Baobao has died by his own hand. The pressure of the exams was too much and, like many other students, his shame was such that he was unable to face his own parents when he scraped through the exam with an indifferent result.
Because she was left in the countryside to be raised by her grandmother, Na scarcely knew her brother. His death is a source of sadness, not grief. But, as she goes to the city to support her parents, the effect on her own life becomes more and more pronounced: her parents borrowed heavily to support Baobao through his studies, and Na must now abandon her own studies and work, to help her parents pay back the debt.
It’s not only the money. She comes under pressure to marry, in part to remove the split water from her own family, and in part to gain the bride money to help with the debt. Yet, just as her options become more and more limited, help arrives in the form of her late brother’s friend Min, who opens Na’s eyes to Baobao’s own life – not the one that Na’s parents told Na about – and to her own potential as a person.
I live in Hong Kong and have been visiting China since the mid-1980s. The one-child policy, the gaokao exams, and the system by which those who live outside the main metropolises are second-rate citizens are factors I was aware of; just how toxic the combination is, was something that this book opened my eyes to. Throw in the sexism that is resurgent under the current leadership in China, and the plight of women is bad.
Yet the novel is more than a fictionalised commentary on contemporary Chinese society. The characters are clearly depicted; the sense of place is strong, with, for example, Na’s phlegmatic acceptance of the pollution in the big city contrasting with the clear air of her countryside home. The grinding monotony of scraping together a living from hard labour for minimal reward and little prospect of a better future is subtle, but all the more powerful for it.
The only shortcoming is the writing itself, which at times lacks a certain zest; I’m not always quite in the moment with Na. But having said that, I finished the book in two sessions, and would read it again. A simple story, well-told, and set against a fascinating milieu. Well worth the read.
I have just read the Chinese version of Reena Bhojwani’s Surprising Mrs Rhubarbson, and enjoyed it. My Chinese is about the same standard as a six-year-old’s, and I found the book was just within my reach. I probably missed some of the jokes, but it was a heartening and sweet tale, well told, and the illustrations are well executed.
I think it would be a nice gift to any young child. You can buy the Chinese version on Amazon here, but those who live in Hong Kong can buy the actual book at Bookazine and keep out local bookstore alive.
Inconvenient Daughter by Lauren Sharkey, Akashic Books will be published on 23 June, 2020. Keep an eye out for it.
There are times when I stumble across an unexpected delight, and Lauren Sharkey’s debut novel, Inconvenient Daughter is one of those times. It is short, tightly constructed and strikes a wonderful balance between being easy to read, yet weaving together several important themes.
Rowan Kelly grows up in a loving family which is not her own. Adopted from the crib, as a child she can’t understand why she doesn’t share her mother’s curly hair and blue eyes; why she and her brother are both different. She loves her mother but, as she goes through kindergarten and childhood, comes to understand that she has a different mother somewhere, a mother in Korea – her “BioMom”. This, however, is a subject that her present mother evades with tears.
Rowan contacts the adoption agency direction to find out that her biological mother dumped her, unwanted, at an orphanage. And her adoptive parents adopted her – in Rowan’s by now teenage view – as second-best because they couldn’t have children themselves. This turns to open hostility when Rowan compares herself with her also-adopted brother:
At two years old, I thought this was how babies were made. There was a mommy and daddy, and the airport was where children were kept. I didn’t know two people had to decide they wanted children – that they had to consider if they were ready for this. I didn’t know those same two people would attempt to create life with their own bodies and fail. I didn’t know this baby wasn’t my “real” brother.
Real or not, Aidan is the good son of the family, the one who always has the right answers, gets the good grades, and manages not to upset his parents. Rowan is the trouble-maker who tries to date a man older than she; who, on the night of her first school dance, with a broken doorbell:
My concern wasn’t so much needing to know when [my date] arrived, but was born out of a desperate need to prevent Mom from getting to him before I could. With the doorbell to warn me, I could clear the hallway, the stairs, and the living room by the time Mom had stopped whatever she was doing in the kitchen. If Mom got there first, though, who knew what embarrassing things she would say to him in the time it took me to run down the hallway, jump down the stairs, and across the fancy couches we weren’t allowed to put our feet on.
The date goes well, but Rowan comes back well after hours to a blazing row: her mom’s rules are there because Rowan is not her real daughter and, as a consequence, seeks to control every aspect of her life.
Things settle down. The rite of passage that is the prom comes and goes. Her date is another adopted Asian, but they have little in common and, anyway, college looms. Both mother and daughter are stressed, and the weeks pass in a series of fights. But Rowan is offered a scholarship at the college of her choice.
Once there, she befriends Erin, from whom she becomes inseparable – until Hunter steps in. Hunter is a beautiful man, but possessive to the point of obsession. His jealousy soon leads to violence, and, although Rowan forgives him – “the preservation of our love had driven him to violence” – the trajectory is set.
Coming into her second semester, she’s suspended from college for lack of attendance. She goes home only to run away to Hunter. She has no choice but to live as a thief in his dormitory room. The violence becomes regular but when, one day, she sneaks out and bumps into Erin, she rejects her offer of help and defends Hunter.
Nevertheless, Hunter introduces her to his family. Although slow to get started, the visit results in a friendship of sorts with his mother. She encourages Rowan to call her own mother – an innocent conversation that results in another beating, and Hunter insisting to Rowan that “`Your mother is a fucking crazy, controlling bitch.’”
Back on campus, after striking her yet again, he abandons her in their room and goes off to party. Rowan has had enough; she is ready to go. But he returns, drunk, rapes her and dumps her, still naked, on the streets. Rescued by a stranger, her mother comes to collect her, yet Rowan resists turning in Hunter. Instead, she submits to a routine and, as time passes, realises that BioMom is the problem.
Rowan gets the records from the adoption agency to find out that she
was collateral damage–clothes that haven’t made the cut into the carry-on, pictures and ticket stubs thrown into a trash can and left to burn. There was nothing wrong with me – I just wasn’t worth the trouble.
Putting Hunter behind her, she finds a job, completes her education and bumps into an old flame. At first happy, that old flames becomes part of the problem and pivots her into the abyss.
If Inconvenient Daughter sounds anything but delightful, I do not mean the word in the sense of a gift box of chocolates. What is delightful is the skill with which Lauren Sharkey exercises her craft. The novel is far more than a coming of age or rite of passage account. It weaves several threads: of being different, of being adopted, of self-esteem and faltered communications, into a tapestry that reveals the picture, not the stitching.
The violence and lack of self-esteem that drive the plot are signaled. Each chapter starts with a flash-forward to a pivotal moment in Rowan’s life. This is a neat plot device, a foreshadowing that reveals just enough, but not too much. And much of the writing is beautifully understated – “In the bathroom, directly opposite my bed, was my collection of nail polish. By this time, I probably had about fifty colours – I had even paid for some of them.” was one of my favourites, along with, when Rowan attends an all-girls Catholic school:
As we approached the double doors leading to the auditorium, my eyes met Sister Margaret Anne’s. I’d been in her office for smoking in the bathroom two weeks prior, and last month for forging Mom’s signature on a note Sister Joan sent home about my “attitude.”
The internal monologues pack an emotional punch, and the characters are people I feel I’ve met.
The result is a sophisticated, skilled and ultimately a very moving book. For any novelist, it would be an achievement. For a first novel, it is astonishing.