Author: Etcetera

Tony Parsons’ Departures: The magic of travel in seven stories from Heathrow

Tony Parsons’ Departures: The magic of travel in seven stories from Heathrow

“Airports were often just the punctuation marks of a lifetime, the twilight spaces between places and people, the no-man’s-land between what had happened and what was yet to be.”

Tony Parsons, Departures

Few who have been subjected, willingly or through insidious pop culture osmosis, to romantic comedies’ crown jewel Love Actually, endeavour to forget the legendary airport scene. Not even the most granite-hearted of misanthropes could roll their skeptical eyes at that endearing thread of faces and embraces, all to (formerly) dishy Hugh Grant’s velvety tenor going on and on about how “love is everywhere,” how “love is all around,” and all this life’s hapless pilgrim has to do to resurrect their faith in humanity is to pop over to the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport.

Next time you’re sequestered in some nauseatingly bureaucratic queue at Heathrow (or CDG or any other three-letter IATA combination for that matter), pick up a wee collection  of Tony Parsons’ short stories Departures, a 100-odd pages of smirk, hope, stress, ridiculousness, enthusiasm, regret, new beginnings and yes, love, that irreplaceable conductor of life’s symphony. Unlike the analyzed-to-bits scene in Love Actually, these morsels of airport life are not so much about what goes on in the Arrivals gate as they are about the humble yet vital work that throbs, every minute of every day, in the labyrinthine innards of world’s second busiest airport. What occasionally reads like a manifest promo piece to Heathrow, this collection is, above all, an appreciative hat tip to men and women of aviation who feed and water that enormous heaving beast of an airport and all those who come through (and those, for legitimate or not-so reasons, who don’t).

The stories are seven and all different. There’s a woman confronting her very banal fear of flying (and an even more banal one of seeing the in-laws). There’s an airport animal health inspector cloistered in the animal reception centre with a red milk snake wrapped around his arm and a blue-eyed starlet by his side. There’s a pair of geeky air traffic controllers exceedingly proud of their job, a pilot stoked to be flying Boeing 777s and another who lost his license (and his marriage), a no-nonsense passport officer taking down drug mules but showing clemency to two very different girls stepping onto British soil on the same day toward their pink unicorn wish “to marry their boyfriend Prince Harry.”

None of it is terribly genre-bending. Not all of it is even particularly moving or insightful. There is one quality, however, that not only unifies these stories but also animates them with the kind of unmistakable spirit that makes an aesthetic grouping of words worth reading. The knights of Heathrow all without exception share genuine, effervescent enthusiasm for their work, a childlike excitement, a purity of spirit, and honest passion for their respective 9-to-5s. In our cynical age of boarding pass + passport Instagram posts, in a time where air travel is notably less glamorous, a perfunctory bourgeois activity almost wholly stripped of its former vestiges of romanticism, exoticism, or at the very least exclusivity, Tony Parsons’ Departures show air travel through the fairy dust of childhood wonder for what it truly is and what we, scoffing globetrotters, chose to forget – air travel is pure unadulterated magic. From birds, to bats, to Leonardo da Vinci’s visionary ornithopter sketches, to the stuffy tin can that takes us to that all-inclusive summer beach holiday, it’s all pretty amazing. Perhaps next time at Arrivals we, exhausted, sweaty, and jet-lagged, can exchange our “ugh” for:

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings…

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

John Gillespie Magee, Jr., High Flight

Image: IMithila Madhubani, Depiction Of People Onboarding At Darbhanga Airport. iMithila

Wang Ping’s American Visa: Unsentimental truth, from Shanghai to New York

Wang Ping’s American Visa: Unsentimental truth, from Shanghai to New York

“I have a green card. This piece of paper,” he tossed it in his hand and said, “has ruined two people. Sometimes I really want to tear it to pieces and go home.”

Immigrant narratives are the Zeitgeist as our little blue planet spins ever faster and international travel expands like rising dough, making space for all those Airbuses, stuffed to the gills with vagabonds, conquerors, and dreamers. Citizens of the world. Explorers. Settlers. Survivors. Since times immemorial folk has been on the move, dragging their suitcases and ghosts of their past along with them across consulates, embassies, and border checkpoints. They search for fertile lands and better job markets, they seek book deals and Western boyfriends, they endure bedroom cockroaches and subway groping, but at the end of all this gargantuan sacrifice they have no problem taking out the lacklustre treasures nesting in their modest savings accounts and distributing them among relatives “back home.” To pay for weddings, or pianos, or a new baby, or grandmother’s birthday. It’s tough to ignore the calls of “back home,” that guilty teasing of prodigal child’s heartstrings, that omnipotent umbilical chord that ties a soul to its cradle and simultaneously to its grave.

In American Visa, her debut novel that came out in mid-nineties, way before the kind of glamour we see in Crazy Rich Asians, Wang Ping delivered, in tough-as-nails prose, a pained, honest, and uncompromising account of a young woman coming to New York with callouses tempered by Cultural Revolution. Seaweed, with pigtails and maple leaf-shaped scars on her armpits, is labouring to escape a great many things. Hard menial work in the countryside, humiliation of communist “re-education,” unfeeling parents, sibling rivalry, and insurmountable burdens of duty to totalitarian State and totalitarian Family. Strategically crucified right at the intersection of regime and tradition, Seaweed is equally abused and dismissed by both forces yet serves them with exemplary devotion, a model citizen and daughter, a Stakhanovite Cinderella with only a duck and a hen to call friends. No, this is not magical realism, this is proletarian noir.

There is yet another dimension to consider – a place for a woman in a society aggressively shedding thousands of silken layers of its rich heritage. Seaweed’s sisters, aunts, mother, grandmother, female students and colleagues, all weave the tapestry of their own unique suffering, shamed, judged, humiliated, abused, betrayed, and abandoned. Their feet are too big, their armpits too malodorous, their libidos too high, their relations too poor. They shed tears of self-pity as they drive daggers of treason into their sisters’ chests, for all is fair in love and war. They wait, like Penelope waits for Ulysses, for their husbands to come home, for their American visa to get approved, for their mothers to say they love them, for their daughters to see that they love them. Some cannot endure the wait and run away to Japan or to Germany or hang themselves. Those lucky enough to experience the throbbing rhapsody of the New World are, alas, too wise (or too wounded) to be seduced by the Pied Piper of the American dream:

“English, eh, English?” She asked, waving the orange book fanatically under my nose.

I nodded, half scared, half fascinated by the feverish look in her eyes.

“Success, success,” she screamed. Although I could tell she was trying her best to soften her voice. “This book, American dream, success, rich and famous, you.” She thrust the book toward my chest.

Se mun, se mun, cheap, on sale, American dream, success, rich and famous, only se mun, just for you.”

It took me quite a while before I realized what she was doing. She had learned to say the price in Cantonese: se mun – ten bucks. She had quickly identified me as a new Chinese immigrant, and assumed that I spoke Cantonese.

I burst out laughing. This was too much, too bizarre, a white American selling the American dream in Cantonese and broken English to a poor Chinese woman. She took my laugh for encouragement and grasped my wrist.

”Yes, American dream, have one.”

There is little joy in this book, and love, like lipstick and Beethoven sheet music, is perpetually in deficit. There is some warmth, however, and, above all, strength of one seemingly unremarkable woman to win her very own corner under the sun. And this kind of strength seldom asks for embellishment.

Image: Hiveminer

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones -a witty stroll through bougie Edinburgh

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones -a witty stroll through bougie Edinburgh

“Did you see that survey published in the papers the other day where people were asked if they believed Winston Churchill ever existed? A quarter of them said they thought he was mystical.”

At what fateful sigh of time does history seamlessly transform into myth? At what point do harrowing mass bloodbaths become delightfully spooky tales by the crackling fireplace? Those grand, bushy-bearded kings of old, when do they slip into irrelevance? When does the sacred Stone of Destiny, the hallowed instrument of coronation, become just a minimally polished bit of rock? The Unberable Lightness of Scones (yes, pun intended) by a comfortably popular Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith, does not attempt to answer these largely rhetorical questions of collective national mind. This is, after all, meant to be an easy, jolly read, with obvious hat tips to P.D. Wodehouse and David Lodge. Furthermore, this wee gem is part of a series about daily lives and pedestrian dramas of inhabitants at 44 Scotland Street (a real street, by the way, a very typical, quiet, residential nest in New Town). Still, as readers are taken out for a fun stroll along those unmistakeable Edinbughian streets of fog and stone, they are invited to ponder, through personal journeys of a dozen characters, the fate and future of this royal city in the 21st century.

After all, every city and nation must bow to time. Even a place as enviably strong, creative, and rebellious as the stone pearl that is Edinburgh. A cradle of Scottish Enlightenment in tow with David Hume, Adam Smith and its own vibrant literary Pleiad (Burns, Stevenson, Scott), it is not sheltered from the winds of Zeitgeist. Work, leisure, food, relationships, blood, belonging, identity, all gets a good toss. Even Boy Scouts are not entirely without sin, as six-year old Bertie discovers, chaperoned by an overbearingly progressive mum in between psychotherapy sessions and yoga classes.

Speaking of classes, the novel is a clearly bourgeois milieu, populated by gallery curators, teachers, artists, designers, restorateurs, and aspiring models. They go to Australia for their honeymoons and misplace their fancy Blue Spode cups, yet not all is sedentary in this quiet swamp. These bougies try to stir their snug little teapot by engaging in contraband of illicit jam, choosing love over money, and even aiding the descendant of the Young Pretender Bonnie Prince Charlie reclaim his centuries-lost birthright to the Scottish throne. The folks of Scotland Street, through their amusing peregrinations, unwittingly labour on redefining their beautiful city as it gracefully endures into another century, weathered and wisened by all that passed before, from bloody Jacobite rebellions to the dark pleasure of the kind of life depicted in Trainspotting.

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones went to print in 2008, when the world was just entering the feverish pain of the financial crisis. That was a globally shared misfortune though, quite unlike the deeply national challenge thrown by the chaos of Brexit. The latter, still ongoing, made a careless tear in the patchwork of national identity, British, English, Scottish… Voices, questions, doubts, and long dormant anger are now reopening wounds, pustules, and callouses. A referendum can be a cornucopia of fury, hope, hate, disappointment, joy, ugliness, progress, regress, and a whole lot of confusion in between. It can also be a dud, a deflated balloon, a false alarm. Millions are raising their hearts to the stars to ask: “What makes us us? What makes this place ours and us of this place? Is it mountains and heather, castles and Robbie Burns, hearty curry with your Polish neighbours, or simply the zesty chill of Edinburgh air?”

In the Unbearable Lightness of Scones the remedy against tough times is simple – a lovely dinner with the neighbours, a no-nonsense menu, some flirts and giggles, and a cheesy poem-toast for a finale:

“I love this country, for all its ways,

I am as moved as any when I see

That landscape of quiet glens,

Those pure burns and rivers,

Those blue seas and islands

Half blue. I love all that,

And the people who dwell therein;

But I love, too, our neighbours

And those who are not our neighbours,

I shall never relish their defeats,

Not celebrate their human difficulties;

For, frankly, what is the alternative?

I see no other way.

I see no other way but that;

I see no other way but love.”

Love thy neighbour. Make them dinner. Fix the world. Sláinte!

Image: Leamne Arias Deniz, “Edinburgh.”

Maria Alyokhina’s Riot Days: Of protests, prisons, and the time Putin peed his pants

Maria Alyokhina’s Riot Days: Of protests, prisons, and the time Putin peed his pants

Famous people’s explosive, celebrated, seminal memoirs, how does one go about reviewing them without sounding like a worn out cassette? Take the Pussy Riot girls, for instance. Their story is generally well-known, regarded as heroism by some, as vulgarity by others.  Subversive and beautiful weapons, they’ve been fetishized and cursed, celebrated and anathemized. They had their own Netflix special, were whipped by the Cossacks during Winter Olympics in Sochi, were kicked off planes and were denied asylums. And still, seven years after that fateful performance, they manage to stay around, relevant, and, most critically, alive. The West, initially an eager enabler of Pussy Riot aesthetics and now engulfed by a threatening wave of its own existential problems, may grow fatigued of these statuesque rebels, but that in no way denies their significance. Their battle, after all, goes on. Their Sauron is far from defeated.

Maria Alyokhina, a key Pussy Riot girl, wrote her powerful and laconic memoir in 2017, quite some time after having endured her personal Golgotha. She is not prone to verbosity, making each word of her story heavy and impactful, like a sizeable stone being plunked into a quiet forest lake. It’s not a memoir, it’s more of an intimate conversation Maria has with a reader, a close one, around a kitchen table, with strong black tea and cigarette smoke and mittens quietly drying on the heater. No embellishments, no sanctimonious sermons about fighting for human rights. Just a conversation, taking us back to that pivotal act at that strategically important church:

Glittering Orthodox iconostasis, scant light from gold and silver lampadas, cheerfully coloured balaclavas, and four slender bodies quivering in a punk song-dance whose thick-as-butter guitar riffs are periodically punctured by nun-like harmonies of the chorus:

“Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away!”

This performance was first in the arduous litany of many others: the Russian police had their own performance, and the corrupt courts too, and the brutal penitentiary system, and even the Botoxed tzar with his dead fish eyes had a show of his own. For everything in that country is performative, from the lowest bureaucratic motion to the highest affairs of state, concocted deep within Kremlin’s bloodied walls.

From Hobbesian Leviathan to Bentham’s Panopticon to Orwellian fantasies, a myriad of classical and contemporary metaphors have been used to various degrees of poignancy to describe what it’s like to live in a repressive system. And it’s always dismaying how fundamentally little things change, making pessimists the world over sigh and say “there’s nothing new under the sun.” On the Goliath side, organizations like KGB are now brandishing a new set of abbreviations (in this case FSB), but their ghastly innards (and often their actual staff) are the same old guard of Judas apparatchiks. On the David side, previous generation of Soviet political dissidents like Mandelstam and countless others are now replaced by Pussy Riot, Navalny, and God knows who else in the near future. There are many faces to a regime, but underneath it’s the same clever cockroach.

There is one thing about Pussy Riot that is somewhat overlooked by the mass media yet captured quite clearly in Maria’s memoir. These are clever girls. Well-read. Erudite. Deep thinkers. They are not actors, they are philosophers, tough like steel, fragile like children, terrifying in their modesty and surprising in their resilience. They are not into punk for the studs, spikes, and leather jackets. They repurpose and revive it, resurrecting it into a weapon of resistance powerful enough to piss off Putin, the man who rides horses topless, poisons his enemies, and periodically interferes in elections here and there.

In her tireless attempts to alleviate inhumane conditions endured by inmates in Russian prisons, Maria works hard and with mixed results, enduring threats, indifference and ridicule. No matter though, because her wisdom grants this young woman strength of acceptance and grace of humility. Maria gladly becomes a martyr, sacrified at the altar of the hollow Russian Ark:

“I think about fate. About how many prisoners who protested have died and now lie in the ground. It is just an illusion that you go on hunger strike to achieve results. Yes, that’s how it begins but, later, you realize that it’s not for the imagined outcome, but for the very right to protest. A narrow sliver of a right, in a huge field of injustice and mistreatment. You also realize that your right will always be just a narrow sliver in the field. Not there, with the majority. But I love this sliver of freedom, however little it’s noticed by those on the other side of the wall.”

Image: Art Riot: Post-Soviet Actionism, Saatchi Gallery.

Jorge Amado and the complicated optimism of Brazil

Jorge Amado and the complicated optimism of Brazil

When the (English-speaking) readers are asked to name popular Brazilian authors, the lionized name of Paulo Coelho is typically first to pop in mind. Strange and indubitably ignorant it is that the abundant caverns of that vast nation’s literary heritage are but so scantly explored by the Anglosphere. Take the acclaimed modernist Jorge Amado, for instance. Accolades from Camus and Sartre. A bouquet of medals from USSR and Francois Mitterrand. Retold in 49 languages and immortalized on film. And yet, many of his colourful works are only now beginning to be properly courted by translators, with a number of some lovely English versions arriving on bookshelves in recent years.

In thirty-odd novels Amado gives us Brazil as it was growing into its glorious self in the first half of 20th century. Vibrant, messy, joyful, confused, diverse, hungry, lusty, devout, loving, jealous, and above all passionate for life as it unravels, faithfully accompanied by fiery cachaça. It is not all carnival, vaudeville, and picaresque though. There’s also slavery, exploitation, class struggle, poverty, and the complicated wealth of cocoa plantations. This elaborate tapestry is sewn together by the elegant threads of Amado’s aesthetics. At times, it almost reads like a bombastic cocktail of Mark Twain and Nikolai Gogol: buxom dames, heart-of-gold bums, charismatic thieves, philosopher shopkeepers, erudite vagabonds, and other assorted folk from various walks of life in sunny Bahia. Amado the communist doesn’t always go to labour to fully delineate the ideological barricade between the “rich baddies” and the “poor goodies”, however the message that the best kind of fun love, friendship and loyalty can only be found among the inhabitants of poorer communities is clear and recurring.

In Amado’s The Two Deaths of Quincas Water-Brey (A Morte e a Morte de Quincas Berro D’Agua) traversing class divides is the only remedy from monotonous ennui that afflicts a tenured civil servant Joaquim Soares da Cunha who, one fateful day, takes a tired glance at his wife and daughter, calls the both of them “vipers,” and departs, forever bolting up the door to his middle-class comforts, choosing instead the moist embraces of Salvador slums and a crown of “patriarch of prostitutes.” A few deliciously bohemian years later, Quincas (da Cunha’s slum nickname) dies, his weathered body submitted to intrusive and outrageously disrespectful post-mortem grooming by a great number of nasty relatives, all too eager to whitewash Quincas’ scandalizing, “family-shaming” metamorphosis. They dress him in a suit and put him and his respectable casket under surveillance, and all goes toward a perfectly boring bourgeois funeral. Thankfully, the gods of slums are not without mercy and send a throng of vagabonds to “rescue” Quincas’ body (no underwear but nice shoes!) and to give him his last legendary romp around town. Alcohol flows, fish stew in clay pots gives off fragrant fumes, bosoms tremble, arses shake, and Quincas, more alive than dead now, dances toward the sea, for he is “an old sailor without a sea and without a ship, corrupted on land but through no fault of his own.” Taking the last few thirsty gulps of cachaça, he submits his body to the sacred sea, the nurturing sea, the all-forgiving sea, as his fun-loving friends wave goodbye and return, once again, to their epicurean routines.

In a few dozen free-flowing pages of this novelette, Amado gives us, first of all, loads of saucy Rabelaisian fun as well as a lighthearted commentary on complex social structures and the nerve it takes to put a lid on the smouldering cauldron of etiquette micro-dramas, ties, suits, briefcases, and other nonsense. The resurrection of vagabond Quincas can also be read in a Jungian manner, as a ritual nod to the likes of Osiris, Dionysus, and other historical archetypes resonating with the collective unconscious. Quincas, after all, dies more than once, first as a civil servant, then as a vagabond, only to be resurrected, in both instances, by those who wish to place him squarely within the social class shelf they alone see fit for him to occupy. Quincas’ tango with death is his resounding refusal to be caught, to be classified or labeled, a fate, in his eyes, worse than ignoble oblivion.

The story of Quincas Water-Brey is but one of Amado’s many literary gifts to his motherland. Written throughout many decades and touching upon a plethora of subjects, they all nevertheless unite in an abundant wreath that celebrates, above all, joy, beauty, and optimism throbbing at the core of a complicated country.

Image: A still from the film Quincas Berro d’Agua (2010)

Mesa Selimovic’s Death and the Dervish: everyman’s ethical seppuku

Mesa Selimovic’s Death and the Dervish: everyman’s ethical seppuku

Mesa Selimovic intended his Death and the Dervish to be a commentary on faint-heartedness and moral cowardice that pervaded many aspects of life in communist Yugoslavia. Conveying this mood of metaphysical disenchantment, as all comforting notions of love, life, family, and country implode upon themselves to reveal nothing but punctured, hypocritical hollowness, Selimovic gives us Modernity, disguised in the shroud of 18th century Bosnia. It was a place technically within the coordinates of Ottoman splendour, and yet the most enduring cultural signal is not the aesthetics, the riches, or the intellectual rigour, but stifling corruption, abuse of power, violence, injustice, and countless other symptoms of an expansive empire feeling the burden of its own weight.

Perched atop this Babel there sits a Dervish. A man of faith. A man of doubt. One day, his brother disappears, and that’s when things start to get interesting, that’s when the masks drop and the prayer beads snap, and the Koran starts getting misquoted.

The Dervish Sheikh Nuruddin… His soul’s journey, documented before us in extremely quotable meditative plainchant, makes for a rather relatable, pitiable, sometimes admirable Everyman. Armed with Koran and ascetic rules of monastic life, he tiptoes along the labyrinth of society’s impossible choices, doubt cementing on his tired shoulders with each passing day. This doubt permeates every filament of human activity, its molecules invading everything from public spaces where political farce plays out with a hefty doze of injustice, down to the private nooks of people’s bedchambers, where one cannot be sure of one’s beloved’s fidelity. Everything melts, like Dali’s clocks, and the centre doesn’t  hold:

“We haven’t conquered the earth, but only a clot to put our feet on; we haven’t conquered mountains, but only their image in our eyes; we haven’t conquered the sea, but only its resilient firmness and the reflection of its surface. Nothing is ours but illusion, and therefore we hold onto it firmly. We’re not something in the world, but nothing in it; we’re not equal to what’s around us, but different, incompatible with it. In his development, man should strive for the loss of his self-consciousness. The earth is uninhabitable, like the moon, and we only delude ourselves thinking that it’s our true home, since we have no other place to go.”

Order, law, family, friendship, faith, all this, our Dervish discovers, is just victim to a “false conviction that we can keep life under control. But life keeps slipping away, and the more we try to keep hold of it, the more it eludes us.” Is it possible to accept this as a stone-cold fact and just move on? “How can a man live without beliefs that grow on him like skin, that become inseparable from him? How can you live without your self?”

This novel is chock-full of good existential questions like that, enough for a number of undergraduate philosophy classes to unpack. There are answers also, but more often unsatisfactory and nihilistic at best, once again underscoring the perpetual angst of a mind hard at work, digesting the cacophony of everyday chaos. Therein lies the timeless relevance of this work in our equally chaotic 21st century context. For instance:

“We should kill our pasts with each passing day. Blot them out, so that they will not hurt. Each present day could thus be endured more easily, it would not be measured against what no longer exists. As things are, spectres mix with our lives so that there is neither pure memory nor pure life. They clash and try to strangle each other, continually.”

Or this one:

“We vacillate between despair and the wish for peace and don’t know what is ours. It’s difficult to stop at either end, to embrace only one side, but that’s what we need to do. Any decision, except the one that will disturb our conscience, is better than the sense of disorientation with which indecision bestows us.”

The dervish is a spiritual Everyman, a stand-in for all of us, reasonably self-aware and yet not even remotely close to that coveted “inner peace.” He gives us plenty of stuff to work with: some are no more than elegant sound-bites, many are indistinguishable from modern-day self-help mindfulness vogue, and yet toward the end all of these noble aspirations, all this soul-searching and David vs Goliath heroism, all is lost in the vortex of self-destruction:

“Fear is flooding over me, like water. The living know nothing. Teach me, dead ones, how to die without fear, or at least without horror. Because death is senseless, as is life.”

Image: The Seated Demon, by Mikhail Vrubel

Anna Gavalda’s French Leave: Childhood’s very final (and very fun) hurrah

Anna Gavalda’s French Leave: Childhood’s very final (and very fun) hurrah

Some families are enviably idyllic. They traverse, like great big sail ships of old, through azure treachery of life’s turbulent waters, and no Pacific mega-storm or some ghastly kraken could break up the merriment on deck.

Gavalda gives us such a family in her 2011 novel French Leave. Four siblings, four nodes of a single pulsating system, each with their own prosaic cross to bear as they go forth adulting in life. And yet, in spite of the distance and the in-laws and the brutality of comfortable middle-class ignorance, these siblings, these saplings of a very cherishing earth, keep the gentle strings that maintain the delicate ecosystem of their connection in perfect balance.

They find their sanctuary, this joyful quartet, in a picturesque French countryside, with a chateau, wine, and music, an endless mixtape of carefully curated gems, each a token from not-so-distant past, the before-parents-divorced past, the before-the-gadgets past, complete with outdoor fun and scraped knees and crazy fun games. This is a lovely eulogy to Childhood, a sacrosanct interval on life’s measuring tape, and no amount of fussy sisters-in-law can commandeer it.

We don’t always burst with love for our siblings, but if we do it probably should be done like Gavalda’s four witty thirtysomethings. How do adults retain that level of effortless panache? That perfectly executed series of witty repartee? That intuitive, worldless understanding of the other heart’s rhythm? Is this even normal? Is this even real? Maybe distance, geographic and temporal, jump-starts the soul to its optimal performance level? How’s this, from the mouth of the youngest sibling (and our narrator):

“A huge wave of tenderness washed over me looking at the three of them: somehow this felt like the last magic show, the last birthday party of our childhood…

For almost thirty years they’d been making my life a place of beauty. What would I become without them? When would life decide it was time for us to part?

For that’s the way it goes. For time parts those who love one another, and nothing lasts.”

A gentle, silver-webbed kind of melancholy pierces this moment of universal experience. Who are we without our dear ones, those chance witnesses of our brief pilgrimage through life with all those monotone photocopier struggles and grocery store runs and weddings and divorces and the occasional sneaky cigarette. They liberate us, our dear ones, just as Adulthood pins us, like butterflies, to its collection board.

“For how much longer will we have the strength to tear ourselves away from everyday life and resist? How often will life give us the chance to play hooky? When will we lose one another, and in what way will the ties be stretched beyond repair? How much longer until we become too old?”

In the world of this novel, the happy recess from Adulthood comes to an end, waving goodbye to old castles and cassette tapes. This is all too neat, too careful, like a polite curtsy at the end of some country dance. For what would happen if this amusing recess were to turn into a whole lot of skipped classes for the rest of the afternoon..? Pearls never lie on the seashore.