In the early months following the attacks on The Satanic Verses and the ensuing fatwa, Salman Rushdie finds himself questioning the very thing that had been one of his greatest joys, namely, being a writer. As he tells it in his chronicle of that extraordinary time, Joseph Anton, “If one spent five years of one’s life struggling with a large and complex project . . . and if, when it came out, it was received in this distorted, ugly way, then maybe the effort wasn’t worth it.” It’s his son, Zafar, who brings him back to himself, with a reminder of a promise: “Dad, what about my book?”
The book, culled from bath-time stories he had told Zafar, “dropped into his head like a gift.” And, yet, he admits, there would be many false starts to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, until he gets the right first sentence and, in doing so, recalls Joseph Heller once telling him about the way in which a single sentence can give rise to a book. “There were sentences that one knew, when one wrote them, contained or made possible dozens or perhaps even hundreds of other sentences.”
I couldn’t say it better myself.
—The last time I saw my mother I was propped on a phone book in a red leather chair at Jeanie’s Hair Salon.
It’s a good guess I was sitting in a hair salon when the line popped into my head. It’s an equally good guess there was no young girl sitting in a hairdresser’s chair. Whatever it was that brought that line and image into the deeper recesses of my brain had me curious enough to take it further. It’s the reason I write.
Turns out this would become a story about a young girl abandoned by her mother and raised by Jeanie, the hairdresser. In its more symbolic component, “Hair” is very much about identity.
Is it odd, or not so odd, that, with Mother’s Day approaching I should happen to read two books, back-to-back, connected by the thread of the motherless child? William Talmadge, the title character of The Orchardist, Amanda Coplin’s dazzling first novel, is twelve when his mother dies and he’s left with his younger sister to care for two ailing Gravenstein apple trees that would, indeed, yield fruit, ‘starter’ trees, in a way, for an orchard that would expand to many acres. In the novel’s poetic, sometimes harsh depiction of late nineteenth/early twentieth century life in the Pacific Northwest, there’s no dwelling on the mother whose death, like any mother’s, leaves a hole. If anything, it’s his sister’s mysterious disappearance when she’s sixteen that has a deeper impact: “He did not articulate it as such, but he thought of the land as holding his sister—her living form, or her remains. . . . He was giving her earth, to feed her in that place that was without it. “
All of which becomes a backstory to the day two teenage sisters, both pregnant, runaways from abuse, show up in Talmadge’s orchard. Their story becomes his. One will die, leaving behind an infant. The other, Della, will give birth to a stillborn, and the surrogacy of her sister’s child that falls to her will turn out to be as confusing as it is unsatisfying. Once Della’s preoccupation with horses takes hold, there’s no holding her back, and Talmadge is left to raise Angelene, the girl without a mother or even an aunt who might claim her. In chapters that alternate between Della’s life away from the orchard and the life Talmadge has made for himself and Angelene, a very compelling story in which the landscape itself becomes a metaphor for loneliness and nurturing takes shape.
The absence of a mothering presence, and its impact, may be subtle in The Orchardist but it’s there, a backdrop to the emotional wounds and rugged survival of the main characters. In Nancy Richler’s The Imposter Bride, a richly hued novel worlds apart from Amanda Coplin’s in terms of mood, setting, and style, the child left motherless takes center stage. What starts out as a story about a Jewish woman just arrived in Montreal in the wake of WWII (expecting to marry one man, only to end up marrying his brother) becomes as much, if not more, the story of the daughter she would abandon. In alternating chapters, the narrative shifts from a third-person perspective revealing more and more about Lily Azerov Kramer, the bride who mysteriously disappears two months after her daughter is born, and the first-person voice of Ruth, the daughter trying to make sense of the mother who walked away from her family. Why she left, who she really is, the uncut diamond in her possession that raises suspicion in a jeweler/friend, the packages she sends (beautiful rocks from places she’s been) as birthday presents to Ruth become pieces of a puzzle to fit together.
Early on in his memoir, Salman Rushdie reflects on the nature of being a migrant (i.e., a “Bombay boy” living in London) and how it got him rethinking the novel that would become Midnight’s Children. It boiled down to grappling with authenticity, the need “to make an act of reclamation of the Indian identity he had lost, or felt he was in danger of losing.” Is there some irony, bittersweet as it is, in that the first story I would publish, “Shoes,” was one that could not be written until after my mother died?
My mother, in her wisdom, would say it simply: timing is everything.
All of which makes it all the more odd that, as I put the finishing touches on this piece singing the praises of two wonderful new books and what I believe they have in common, I turn on the radio to hear Richie Havens singing at Woodstock, the line from his song, “Freedom” (“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child”), ringing truer and louder than ever.