Thalia by Frances Faviell ***** – review first published in 2017
Like many bloggers and readers, I was immensely excited when I heard about Dean Street Press teaming up with Furrowed Middlebrow to release some little-known books written by women, and lost to the annals of time. I was so looking forward to trying Frances Faviell’s work particularly, as I have heard a little about her over the last few years, and her storylines very much appeal to me.
The first of her novels which I decided to try was Thalia. The novel is narrated by a young woman, eighteen-year-old Rachel, who is sent away from her aunt’s London home in something akin to disgrace. She takes up a post in Dinard in Brittany, as a kind of companion to a young and decidedly awkward teen named Thalia. There is a lot of family scandal within its pages, and characters as startlingly original as prickly Cynthia, Thalia and young brother Claude’s mother. The storyline takes twists and turns here and there, and one can never quite guess where it will end up; one of the true delights of the novel, I felt.
One of the other strengths within the novel – and there are many – is the sense of place which Faviell details. France springs to life immediately, and the minutiae which she displays, both in terms of the general region of Brittany, and within the home, are vivid. One feels present in Rachel and Thalia’s colliding worlds through Faviell’s stunning use of colour and scent. Rachel herself is startlingly three-dimensional; I would go as far as to say that she is one of the most realistic narrators whom I have ever come across.
Faviell’s writing is taut and beautiful; she is an extremely perceptive author. I was completely entranced by Thalia, and was loath to put it down. Thalia is brilliant; a cracking read, which definitely put me in mind of Daphne du Maurier in terms of its character development, and the use of settings as characters in themselves. Faviell’s Brittany comes to life in just the same way as du Maurier’s evocation of Cornwall; it is clear that she adores the place, and has her own experiences there have informed this novel.
In a loose way, one can see Thalia as a coming-of-age novel, but it is so much more. The social history evokes a period both gone and still present; there is simply so much here to love and admire. Thalia is breathtaking and captivating, and I am now going to happily read my way through all of the Furrowed Middlebrow/Dean Street Press titles. I imagine that, based upon the strength of Thalia, each one is going to be an absolute gem.
Ayiti by Roxane Gay **** – review first published in 2018
I have heard nothing but praise for Roxane Gay, and this collection of tales set entirely in Haiti – ‘a place run through with pain’ – really appealed to me. Ayiti is accurately described in its blurb as ‘a powerful collection exploring the Haitian diaspora experience’. Some of the stories included are little more than vignettes, or fragments of tales, examining one or two elements of the migrant experience, and covering just a couple of pages. Others are much longer, and have a lot of depth to them.
Gay’s prose has a sensual vivacity to it. The second story, ‘About My Father’s Accent’, for example, begins: ‘He knows it’s there. He knows it’s thick, thicker even than my mother’s. He’s been on American soil for nearly thirty years, but his voice sounds like Port-au-Prince, the crowded streets, the blaring horns, the smell of grilled meat and roasting corn, the heat, thick and still.’
Many themes are touched upon and tackled here. Gay writes about racism, misconceptions about the Haitian culture, superstition, medicine, tradition, sex and sexuality, violence, crime, the changing face of Haiti over time, and the family unit. The stories in Ayiti are emotive and thought-provoking; every single story, no matter its length, is memorable, and there is a real power to the collection.