Rating: 3 stars
I’d read a couple of reviews of this book because of its longlisting for the Booker. When it was shortlisted, I decided to read it. I liked its dreamlike nature. The way Sofia retreated from reality in her role as carer to her mother. The way, in the Almerían heat, she cracked and burned until a different Sofia emerged. The way she embraced boldness and allowed herself to be set free from responsibility by the doctor she had brought her mother to see.
I liked her perspective on the world. I don’t know any anthropologists. I hope they are like Sofia, standing on the edge of life looking in, but not completely disengaged from what they observe.
I enjoyed the sense of Sofia’s becoming. I enjoyed the cracking of her lips as signifier of the cracking of her personal prison, and the anointing with honey as signifier of her increasing pliability in relation to other people. I liked her shy way of stepping into boldness, of becoming more open to experiences.
Her deliberateness in swimming in order to be stung by jellyfish in order to see the student at the injury hut on the beach again was touchingly funny.
He was shouting, like a brother, perhaps like a lover, I don’t know. Something weird was happening because I wanted to pull him down to the floor and make love to him. I had been stung into desire. An abundance of desire. I was turning into someone I did not recognise. I was terrifying myself.
He took my hand and helped me onto a low table. I lay on my right hip – there was no way I could lie on my back – and he gave me a thin cushion for my head. When he drew up a chair and sat at my side I was so turned on by the way he was stroking his beard. The sting was electrifying me. I heard a swoosh. He was standing now, washing the sand off my feet with a bucket of water. I wanted him to climb on the table and cover my body with his and I wanted to wrap my legs around his waist like a lover and I wanted to give him so much pleasure he would scream the injury hut down. Instead, he gave me the form to fill in.
When Ingrid embroiders the word Beloved on a top for Sofia, Sofia reveals that “To be Beloved was to be something quite alien to myself.” I could appreciate this, as the child of an emotionally remote father and an emotionally clingy mother. I have always wanted to be Beloved. Even though I don’t know what it means to be such a thing. What does it feel like? I imagine it as being loved without a weird sense of possession. In the book it seems to be meant in a weirdly possessive way. There’s something else about the word that we learn later, too.
Sofia’s relationship with her mother changes gradually as Sofia changes and ceases to exist solely for her mother. She starts to exist for herself and in response to others. She accepts what falls in her way, and in particular accepts its impermanence. She is committed to nothing and no-one. She is afraid of Ingrid, but to my mind that is because Ingrid threatens her sense of self in much the same way as her mother does. Ingrid demands and then abandons.
When Sofia visits the father she hasn’t seen for 11 years in Athens, she behaves with her new-found boldness, challenging his expectations of her. I found myself envying her. Who doesn’t sometimes want to go against the expectations other people place on us? Who doesn’t want to behave in a way that says, “I am not the thing you have projected onto me”? Who doesn’t occasionally want to find a new way of being? She walks with him to his office and, when they encounter one of his colleagues, she responds as a woman and not as his daughter, an extension of him. I wanted to hug her.
One night she observes a ritual between her father and his new wife. The wife seems subservient, devoted. Sofia thinks about rituals through history and the role allotted to women. Sex, birth, spinning, weaving, lamenting at funerals. Even in modern society, in our supposed emancipation, women are still seen as the dare givers, the soft supporters, the devoted wives. Sofia doesn’t want such a role. I concur.
My problem is that I want to smoke the cigar and for someone else to light it. I want to blow out smoke. Like a volcano. Like a monster. I want to find. I do not want to be the girl whose job it is to wail in a high-pitched voice at funerals.
Or the girl whose responsibility it is to make someone else feel better about themselves, when their natural state is aggrieved.
Sofia’s non-relationship with her father remains just so. When she leaves Athens she experiences another truth.
As I wheeled my suitcase to the bus station to catch the X95 to the airport, I suddenly felt more like myself.
That aloneness (it isn’t solitude – the feeling of being alone in the world is different to solitude and is not determined by a physical absence of others) intensifies. She resumes her affair with the student from the injury hut because it is uncomplicated.
I like how he is not in love with me.
I like how I am not in love with him.
Sofia has travelled from being nobody other than in relation to her mother, to becoming somebody in her aloneness.
I liked this book very much. It was easy to read. While it said things to me that I recognised and agreed with, I didn’t think it a groundbreaking book or a novel of great significance. I don’t think it will win the Booker.