I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
Fatherless Katherine carries the stigma of her mixed-race background through an era that is hostile to her and all she represents. It is only through music that she finds the freedom to temporarily escape and dream of a better life for herself, nurturing this hard-won refuge throughout the vagaries of unexpected motherhood and an absent husband, and relying on her talent to build a future for her family.
Orphaned Mahsa also grows up in the shadow of loss, sent to relatives in Pakistan after the death of her parents. Struggling to break free, she escapes to Montreal, leaving behind her first love, Kamal. But the threads of her past are not so easily severed, and she finds herself forced into an arranged marriage.
For Mahsa, too, music becomes her solace and allows her to escape from her oppressive circumstances.
When Katherine and Mahsa meet, they find in each other a kindred spirit as well as a musical equal, and their lives are changed irrevocably. Together, they inspire and support one another, fusing together their cultures, their joys, and their losses—just as they collaborate musically in the language of free-form, improvisational jazz.
This was a GoodReads first reads giveaway, which I won in March. The publisher provided an uncorrected proof, but no one has attempted to influence my opinion in any way.
Patience is bitter, but it has a sweet fruit.
Mesmerizing. These are the struggles than women all over the planet have to deal with every day. Being taken seriously as professionals. Juggling marriages, children, housework, careers. Getting stuck doing all the stuff that no one else wants to do.
But that makes this book sound pedestrian and it is anything but boring. From the first paragraph, I was entranced and stayed that way throughout the book. I just couldn’t look away. The only way I had to make it stretch out was to read it only on my lunch hour—that slowed me down and allowed me to savour each chapter, as they alternate between Catherine and Mahsa.
It is also a book about race—Catherine’s mother is Canadian and her father is Chinese before that is socially acceptable. As if that was not enough, Catherine marries a black American man and has three children with him. Mahsa’s father is American and her mother is Afghan. Her Afghan uncles murder her parents because they do not approve of the marriage and Mahsa eventually escapes to Canada. Nevertheless, she ends up forced into an arranged marriage and becomes mother to two children.
So many of the situations that Catherine and Mahsa find themselves in are similar to events in my own life—I think that I appreciated these story lines so strongly because I haven’t followed a traditional life path either. And yet, I think these two women represent so many women’s experiences, whether traditional or not. The choices that we have to make as women—do we get married? Have children? Pursue the safe path or strike out in something more risky? Are our families helpful or disapproving? Are we strong enough to pursue our own path and hell take the hindermost?
What is absolutely heroic is the way both women hang on to their music and insist on having their own life and their own careers, despite all the societal barriers to it. They pour their hearts and souls into jazz when there is little energy leftover for anything else. They show complete dedication and determination to make it in the music scene. It makes my career look pale by comparison—I wandered into my line of work and never really had enormous struggles, just the everyday irritations that occur in almost any job. I’m not sure that I have ever had anything that I would dedicate myself to the way these two women do. [In fact I cried a couple of years ago when I got a 30 year award from my union—I felt it meant that I had no ambition].
It leaves me feeling conflicted—I have never had to worry about racial discrimination and no one has stood in my way as I’ve planned my life, so I’m very lucky. But I find myself envying these women in their drive, their commitment, and that they so clearly know their vocation and are willing to work so hard for it. Yet I know that in my own way, I have played my role in the world too.
A good book to partner with this one: Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan. Also about jazz musicians, black men playing jazz in Europe as the Second World War looms.