26a by Diana Evans won the first Orange Prize for New Writers back in 2005. I have reviewed a couple of others from the New Writers lists: The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam from 2008 and The Personal History of Rachel Dupree from 2009. I also have it in mind to reread How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff (also from 2005) since she reports on her blog that they have just begun filming in deepest Wales and it is a film that the girls and I will definitely be going to see.
26a has been a curious read since I have also been listening on CD to 'Half a Yellow Sun' by Chimamamda Ngozi Adichie, and a chunk of 26a is set in Nigeria so there was an interesting juxtaposition of cultural images and experiences. While I really enjoyed this book I kept feeling that I was not sure what kind of book the writer intended it to be. Is it a coming of age/loss of innocence story; there is an element of childlike naivety in Georgia and Bessi, the main protagonists, that persists throughout the book as we follow them in their growing up. It had the whole family saga thing going on, with the back story of Ida and how she ended up in Neasden, and the reassuring presence of their home at number 26 that they keep coming back to. And then there is this magical realist thing going on, with the rich imaginary life that the girls live, and share, dreams being significant and often foreboding, but this seems to lurch later in the book into an examination of mental illness. When they go off to live in Nigeria the book turns into a bit of a culture clash tale, examining where the children feel they belong. Yet in some ways it manages to successfully be all of these things without feeling too cluttered. While there are extended family and friends and so on the story keeps it's focus on the twins and it is their progress that you are engaged with.
What I really liked about it was the relationship between all four of the girls, the cohesion and loyalty between them in the face of a mother who withdraws and a father who becomes an alcoholic. The writing has a very chatty style, somewhat reminiscent of the way pre-teen girls talk to each other. It is very in the moment, from the perspective of youth, not of adults looking back to their childhood, and held in place historically by the parallel story of the marriage of Charles and Diana (there is a failed attempt to reignite the love between their parents by insisting they all watch the ceremony together).
"Late in the summer of 1980, Kemy knocked on the door (that was the rule) when the twins were tring to decide whether Ida and Aubrey should get a divorce or not. Georgia had put a jar of roses on the windowsill so that she could picture them while she was deciding, and sliced a nectarine for them to share afterwards - the nectarine was their favourite fruit, because it's flesh was the colour of sunset. Bessi had wrapped her special duvet round her because she couldn't think when she was cold. Sky-blue slippers on their feet, they sat down in the strawberry corner and shut their eyes. They thought long and hard about it, drifting through possibilities. Five minutes past and ten minutes. Then into the silence, Georgia said, 'Mummy can't drive.' Bessi had not thought of this. It was definitely important because they needed a car for shopping and getting Ham to the vet next week to see to his cold. A cold could kill a hamster." (p.6)
It is just a wonderful portrait of family dynamics and the special relationship between twins, that is both a blessing and a burden. Am just going to put this other quote in because it made me smile, because Creature is the only baby I know who never ate bananas, and still hates them. Bessi has left home and gone to do voluntary work in the Carribean, this is in a letter to Georgia:
"Mrs John thinks I'm a rhinoceros. She gives me tons of rice and peas, and chicken, she even tried to give me the bum but i wasn't having that. I've told her I can't eat eggs or spinach and I don't like bananas. She's fine with the eggs and spinach, but she doesn't get the bananas bit. Her son Mervin is a banana farmer. In fact, most of the men in Trinity are banana farmers because it's a banana village. There's a plantation not far away up the mountain where they all go in the mornings with their knives. Mrs John keeps putting sliced bananas on the table at breakfast. She sits down and watched me not eat them, then she says to me, 'Why not try the banana, it's good for you?' She's arranged for Mervin to take me up to the plantation because she thinks it will cure me. I don't want to go, I don't want to go, if I must go I'll have to hold my breath to hide from the smell." (p.137)
Anyway, we're off in the morning (that me and Julie and some of our offspring) so I hope everyone has a great week and that the sun arrives for you too wherever you might be, since it seems that it is going to be shining down on us in deepest Suffolk.