Disney has an obsession with killing mothers, while it seems authors of literary fiction have a tendency to kill the narrator’s father. Maybe this is just my experience, because I’m especially sensitive to that plot line this year as I mourn my dad. It feels as though I have been surprised by several novels this year that include daughters grieving their fathers. Some have felt so close and personal, I couldn’t even begin to review them (I definitely should NOT have read Maame this summer). Here are two (more) novels that approach the long arm of grief in different ways.
Digging Stars is by Zimbabwean author Novuyo Rosa Tshuma. The narrator, Athandwa Rosa Siziba, is similarly from Zimbabwe, although I’m unsure how far the similarities between author and character go beyond that. As a child, Athandwa grew up in Zimbabwe, but when she was quite young her father moved to the United States to work for The Program. His intent was to merge Western understanding of the stars (Euclidean austerity)with more traditional astronomy and mathematics (Bantu geometry) that he was raised with. When Athandwa was 11, she took a trip to New York to visit with her father. The trip was short, but it left a deep impression on her – she recalls meeting her father’s partner (a brilliant professor from Haiti) and her father’s partner’s son. A strange encounter with another Zimbabwean man who seemed to be pressing her father for something stands out in her memory. A year later, her father comes back to Zimbabwe to visit her, to bring her back to New York with him – but is tragically killed in a car accident.
Years later, Athandwa is also admitted to the same elite Program. She has high hopes of revisiting the work of her father, of expanding his ideas and further exploring space as he might have done. In the United States, she comes to understand race and ethnicity in new ways through interactions with her classmates. She also develops a new relationship to her father’s former lover’s son, who is also in her program. Athandwa learns more about the intensely personal subject of her father, as well as the larger political and social context of the work of The Program.
While much of the novel is oblique in terms of the inner working of The Program, there are plenty of discussions of philosophy, even the role of fungi, and what it takes to build a world. I thought that part of the novel was particularly well done, and I can understand the praise the book receives for the manner in which it blends family drama and academic exploration.
What works less well for me were many of the friendships and relationships. The people in the novel felt frustrating to me, starting with Athwanda. I was often so frustrated with her behavior, to the point of distraction. She exhibited an ignorance of so many forces of culture, a stubborn refusal to see or understand what exists beyond her own condition, on one too many occasions for me. I wasn’t completely convinced by the unfolding of various relationships in the story.
By contrast, we have Blue Hour, which considers the question of motherhood in the context of a hostile external world (and, in a heartbreaking manner, the context of infertility and an inhospitable body). Whereas Digging Star’s narrator seemed unable to mature beyond the loss of her father in her childhood, Blue Hour’s heroine is fighting to feel worthy her desire to nurture not just herself but a growing family, despite her grief.
This is a very short novel in which every sentence counts. At only 137 pages, it could last for one intense afternoon. It’s almost an epistolary novel – written to “you”, her husband Asher. Our unnamed narrator is giving the reader more insight into her state of mind as she falls in love and works to reconcile her deep grief and feelings of guilt, with her growing understanding of herself as someone who could nurture a relationship, even a child. She has deeply personal reasons for her fear of motherhood – she lost most of her family in a tragedy that left her swimming in guilt. And also, as a Black, Japanese woman, she fears what the world has in store for her child.
Told through the lens of a photographer, who sees the world in unique ways, her eye always turning towards the beauty, she deftly frames her personal struggles within a larger political context. Clarke Harrison manages to present a gorgeous, artful novel in this touching debut.