I’ve realized recently that I have a tendency to fall into reading slumps the minute I finish whatever book I’ve been reading. I finished two books this week, but I’m trying not to get hit by a double dose of the reading doldrums because so help me I am going to finish Dune before my vacation time starts on Wednesday. I’ve been trying to motivate myself to read Dune for the better part of a month, and I refuse to have it hanging over me during my staycation.
As a side note, I seem to have gotten into a pattern of reading heartbreaking books with beautiful writing lately. However, since all of the heartbreakers I’ve read this year have been amazing, I’m not inclined to complain.
Obvious obligatory warning: There are spoilers.
Theme of the week: Books that broke my fuckin’ heart.
The Book of Longings
Sue Monk Kidd
The Book of Longings tells the story of Ana, wife of Jesus ben Joseph of Nazareth, and her life before and after her marriage. She begins as an impetuous fourteen-year-old, educated and ambitious. Guided and encouraged by her incredibly badass aunt Yaltha, she grows into a fearless writer, a feminist far ahead of her time, who strives to tell the stories of women who have been silenced. After her first marriage falls through, she marries the eighteen-year-old Jesus against overwhelming odds, and joins his family in Nazareth. Over the course of the book she makes friends with a goat, sets animals loose in a temple on a whim, and finds ways to save her writing from her arson-minded parents. In case this wasn’t obvious already, she’s really fucking cool, and I want to be like her when I grow up.
One of the things I loved most about this book was the characterization of Ana and Jesus. She calls him “Beloved”; he calls her “Little Thunder.” They are literally the cutest couple. Ana is fierce, hilarious, and iron-willed. She makes impulsive decisions, but she’s not stupid. She’s strong and resourceful, and she finds ways to get what she wants. Jesus is kind, hard-working, and loving. He sees Ana exactly as she is, and he loves her for it.
“I’m unsuited for you,” I said. “Certainly you know this…I have ambitions as men do. I’m racked with longings. I’m selfish and willful and sometimes deceitful. I rebel. I’m easy to anger. I doubt the ways of God. I’m an outsider everywhere I go. People look on me with derision.”
“I know all of this,” he said.
“And you would still have me?”
“The question is whether you will have me.”
Unlike other men of his era, Jesus delights in Ana’s spirit. He never orders her to be demure or ladylike. He encourages her to write and supports her use of birth control, despite his own desire for children. When Ana’s herbs fail her and she becomes pregnant, he celebrates with her; when their daughter is stillborn, he grieves with her. Though they don’t talk about it much, he later tells her he would’ve called their daughter “Littlest Thunder,” which broke my heart into a million tiny pieces. Throughout the course of their marriage, Jesus frequently goes away in order to find work, but he always returns to Ana.
Unfortunately, their peaceful life cannot last, and after several years Jesus starts to feel he is being called to a higher purpose. After a brief stint with John the Baptist (here referred to as “John the Immerser”), Jesus begins to spread his own teachings, gaining a huge following of people who name him King of the Jews. This puts him at odds with Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee and Perea, who feels he is better suited to the title than Jesus. After warning Herod’s first wife that Herod intends to kill her following his second marriage, Ana flees to Alexandria to avoid arrest, and spends the final two years of her marriage separated from Jesus. During her second year in Egypt, she and Yaltha find refuge with the Therapeutae, a religious sect with whom Yaltha had previously lived. Eventually Ana receives word from her adopted brother Judas that it is more or less safe for her to return to Galilee, but her journey suffers multiple setbacks, and she arrives in time to find Jesus being paraded through the streets on his way to his crucifixion.
The rest of Jesus’s life should be fairly clear to anyone even vaguely informed on his general life and times, but Ana’s story doesn’t end with his. After his death, she returns to Alexandria to live with the Therapeutae*, eventually becoming their leader, and dedicates the rest of her life to her writing. At the end of the book she buries a copy of her writings to save them from possible future destruction, and leaves the secret of their location with other members of the Therapeutae, to be handed down from generation to generation. I didn’t really know going in what to expect from this book, but that ending was absolutely perfect. If you haven’t already, add this book to your reading list, because everybody needs to read it.
*Just to be clear, the Therapeutae live on the shore of Lake Mareotis, backed by cliffs and with a clear view of the water. They spend their mornings in engaged in the work that keeps them all alive (farming, animal care, etc.) and their afternoons engaged in spiritual work (reading and writing). I have no words to explain how jealous I am. I feel like I could live with the religious angle if I were allowed to spend all my time reading and writing.
The Girl with the Louding Voice
I am a word snob. My opinion of a given author’s facility for words will make or break my opinion of the book itself, regardless of its actual story, so I want you to take my full meaning when I say that the broken English employed in The Girl with the Louding Voice did not bother me. I don’t know how Daré did it, but the language she used was so beautiful and so well done that, even though it didn’t fit within English grammatical norms, I never struggled to understand what she was saying. Everything she wrote made perfect sense, and it used the language in ways that would never have occurred to me. Jennicorn and I read this one together, and we were both blown away.
The Girl with the Louding Voice tells the story of fourteen-year-old Adunni, who lives in Ikati, a village in Nigeria. Her first language is Yoruba, but she and everyone else typically communicate in rudimentary English. Adunni wants nothing more than to go to school in order to get a good job and develop a “louding voice,” a voice so loud that people will listen to what she says, but she is forced to stop school when her mother dies and her tuition money runs out. Even faced with these obstacles, Adunni continues to study on her own and starts teaching her eleven-year-old brother, Kayus, as well as other children who haven’t had the chance to go to school. All of this ends, however, when she is sold to Morufu, a twice-married taxi driver old enough to be her father. I mean that literally, not hyperbolically. His eldest daughter is Adunni’s age. He already has two wives, Labake and Khadija, but the minute you get to his compound and you see his four daughters you know exactly why he wants a third wife. Morufu is not shy about his reasons; he tells Adunni that he fully expects her to give him a son, and he also tells Khadija that if her fourth child is not a boy, he will send her back to her father’s house and let them all starve to death.
Adunni endures several months of torture, both from Morufu and Labake, but Khadija is a kind-hearted woman who befriends Adunni and helps her to survive, even helping her with her homemade birth control. Things abruptly take a turn for the worse when Khadija dies, and Adunni goes on the run, knowing she may be executed for Khadija’s death, even though she had nothing to do with it. She eventually ends up in the hands of Kola, a man who makes his living selling young girls as maids to wealthy families, and is sold to a woman named Big Madam, in whose house she suffers horrific abuse. While working for Big Madam, she learns that the last housemaid, Rebecca, was raped and groomed by Big Madam’s husband before going missing, and she begins to worry that she’ll share Rebecca’s fate, which is an entirely reasonable concern. One of the more troubling patterns in the book is the ways in which the women are screwed over by the men they know, which I’ve enumerated below.
Adunni’s father marries her to a man so old he already has four children and has to take drugs before he can get it up.
Morufu frequently threatens his wives with beatings, starvation, and death. He makes Khadija so desperate for a son that she conceives her fourth child with Bamidele, the man she originally wanted to marry, whose family produces mostly boys. He also marries his eldest daughter, Kike, to a significantly older man in order to get rid of her.
Bamidele tells Khadija that the women in his family have to bathe in the Kere River before giving birth, and that the ones who didn’t have all died. When her baby starts to come a month early, Khadija goes to Bamidele, believing he will help her with the bathing ritual, but he instead runs away and leaves her to die on the riverbank, presumably to keep everyone from finding out that he had an affair.
Kola tells Adunni he will collect her wages for her and bring them to her after her first three months, but predictably absconds with the money. When Adunni brings this up to Kofi, Big Madam’s chef, he tells her that Kola did the same thing to Rebecca.
Big Madam’s husband, Big Daddy, is a useless alcoholic fuckboy who spends his days chasing after other women while Big Madam does all the work and makes all the money. While Big Madam is in the hospital visiting her sister, Big Daddy watches TV and demands cupcakes from Kofi. When Big Madam calls him out on his bullshit, he beats her. He also raped and groomed Rebecca prior to the events of the story. He got her pregnant and convinced her he was going to marry her, but gave her a drug to make her miscarry at four months, after which Big Madam kicked her out of the house. He attempts to groom Adunni as well, offering her money to try to win her over, but finally snaps and tries to rape her. Big Madam so resents his courtship that she treats Adunni more harshly than she treated any of her previous maids.
Dr. Ken Dada
While working for Big Madam, Adunni meets Tia Dada, who is kind to her and later becomes her tutor. Tia’s husband is infertile but doesn’t see fit to share this information with her because he believes she will never want children. As a result, his mother pressures Tia into a fertility ritual that is supposed to be a bath but actually turns out to be a vicious flogging intended to drive out “the evil of childlessness.” Adunni, who encouraged Tia to go through with the bath, is horrified and guilt-stricken at the brutality of the flogging.
I want to ask why [Tia’s husband] didn’t come too. Why didn’t he come and get a beating like his wife? If it takes two people to make a baby, why only one person, the woman, is suffering when the baby is not coming? Is it because she is the one with breast and the stomach for being pregnant? Or because of what? I want to ask, to scream, why are the women in Nigeria seem to be suffering for everything more than the men?
Good questions, Adunni. I wish I had answers. And yet, even with everything that Adunni has been through, even after everything she and the other women have suffered, the book isn’t completely without light. Adunni is smart, hard-working, and feisty as hell. The morning after her wedding night, she has this to say:
The knife make me wonder evil a moment. Make me think, if I take that knife and keep inside my dress, then when Morufu want to rough me this night, I just bring it out and slice off his man-areas.
Upon learning that Kola will run away with her money, this is her first thought:
“You mean he will be running away with my moneys?” I ask, feeling my heart begin to climb up and down, up and down. “Because I swear I will be finding that man and knocking his head with this too-big shoe on my feets.”
Good Lord, I hope she never changes. I seriously doubt that she will; she has a strong personality, and, despite the number of people who tell her to sit down and shut up throughout the story, she persists in asking questions and learning as much as she can. Though she initially sees herself as unworthy of attention, owing to a lifetime of dismissal and abuse, she spends the book learning to see herself instead as a person of value, a person who deserves to live her life the way she wants to, a person who can help strengthen Nigeria. She never loses sight of this goal, and, with help from Kofi and Tia, she eventually wins a scholarship and manages to leave the world of servitude behind, hopefully forever.
This is what I mean when I say that I seem to have gotten into a cycle of heartbreaking books, because Louding Voice broke my heart so many times and in so many inventive ways, both happy and sad. I am now officially that person who cries over books. Like with The Map of Salt and Stars, I was and still am abjectly grateful that Louding Voice has a happy ending, because it wasn’t always clear that it would. I was expecting Adunni to win the scholarship, but the story could just as easily have gone the other way. It could have made Adunni lose everything. It could have turned her into the next Rebecca, and I’m so glad that it didn’t.
Both of these books were amazing and I want to read them again, which is why I now have them in audio form as well. I’m a borderline obnoxiously fussy reader but I had no problems with either of these books, which should really tell you something. I only had one tiny gripe with the cover of Louding Voice, which is a gripe I have with the publisher and the industry in general rather than with the book itself. Please stand by, I’m going to have a quick tantrum…
WHAT IS THIS CRAP ON MY COVER?
You seriously need to stop putting this shit on my book covers because it is pissing me off. I don’t give two shits who recommends this book. I’m still going to read it anyway. I’d read it even if Margaret Atwood said she hated it. I’m a grown-ass woman and I can decide for myself if the book sounds interesting or not. I don’t care about this “Read with Jenna” nonsense. I had to Google that to find out which fucking Jenna you were talking about. I’m mad that it’s not a sticker and I can’t remove it. This cover is so beautiful and so perfect and there’s this stupid little “Read with Jenna” circle messing it up. I’m also mildly annoyed that the author of American Dirt is quoted on the cover. I refuse to read American Dirt, which pirates the work of better writers with minimal effort, and I feel like it’s already received more than enough air time without crawling onto other writers’ books.
I told you I was fussy.
Obviously, none of this is the fault of either the author or the book. My reading was not stained by this dumbass permanent sticker on the cover. With or without the sticker, The Girl with the Louding Voice is an absolute must-read.