Monday, February 9, 2015

Debut Novel by Mary Helen Specht, Migratory Animals

She and Kunle waited at the bottom of the tree, and
when the tapper touched down, Kunle gave him some
naira in exchange for the fresh palm wine. They
drank from little plastic cups with tin lids to keep the
flies out. Flannery imagined she and Kunle were
bound in the pages of The Palm-Wine Drinkard and
that sitting and drinking was the only job they had in
the world.
What Flannery first noticed when she arrived in Nigeria were the towering palm trees. It was like walking off the airplane into a land of giants. The next morning, Flannery, barefoot, crossed her new front yard and stood beneath one of the sturdy palms, her shoulder blades pressing into the grooved trunk. She tilted her chin to look up at the canopy when, suddenly, the tree shook its head at her. A flock of birds swept from the branches, crackling the leaves.
Flannery was on the lam. Ever since her mother's death when she was in college, she'd let graduate school and then various research grants in climate science take her farther and farther from Texas: Wisconsin, Juneau, the Klondike, West Africa. Sometimes she imagined herself as a spider spinning an enormous web, swinging from one corner of the globe to the other, and like the spider, Flannery didn't know exactly what she wanted--until she caught it.
Before he could finish the story,
Flannery reached her hand behind
his head, touching her lips to his.
It was dusk, and a shadow of bats
flew over them in search of insects.
"I can't stand this," he whispered into
her ear. She nuzzled him in agreement.
He squared himself in front of her.
"Let's get married."
She met Kunle at an outdoor canteen near the Nigerian university where she had been posted on what was supposed to be a brief data-collecting trip. Sitting at an adjacent table with a soda and a worn textbook, he leaned over to her and said, "You should try the palm wine." Kunle wore slacks and a blue button-down oxford, both ironed within an inch of their lives. Trim and preppy, he looked like one of those idealized husbands in films, the kind of man who kissed a beautiful wife before leaving for the office, the kind usually too straitlaced to be Flannery's type.
Flannery first thought to ignore him, remembering the U.S. security officer at the consulate who told her to avoid the mainland...sweeping his arm in a grandiose gesture across the map hanging on his wall, indicating the center of the country where she would be living and working, indicating all of Nigeria, except, of course, the two tiny islands where the consulate offices were located.
In the novel, the
protagonist's only
and entire job is to
drink palm wine...
When his tapper
dies falling from a
tree, the drunk
makes a perilous
journey to Dead
But Flannery was not built to be frightened of new things, certainly not this handsome man...sitting next to her at a crowded canteen. So she ordered a cup of the palm wine and changed her life.
Flan knew she was in love when, during a dinner at her house a few weeks later, Kunle received a poem he'd jotted down on a scrap of newspaper that ended with the line, "For winter must not steal a kiss." And then he kissed her, and as he did, he trembled. When she decided to stay in Nigeria and work full-time at the research outpost in Adamanta, Kunle made goat stew to celebrate and gave her a copy of The Palm-Wine Drinkard tied with a bow, saying that if she was going to be a white Yoruban, then she should understand her new history. He said, half joking, "This story will tie you to be forever."

Migratory Animals

By Mary Helen Specht

Flannery, the main character, had gone on the lam. Taking one research grant/job after another, she had become migratory and finally wound up in West Africa. After I read a little more, I wondered if she had decided to stay there because of a man she'd met--or merely to avoid going home... At the time she decided to stay, I'm not sure even she knew what her future held...

The drama that surrounds Flannery, her family, and her close friends from college is much like everybody's lives entail--only the particular stories and people are changed... I do think, however, that readers who have lived a "college life" will better relate to the book then people like me who immediately began working after high school and may have taken higher education courses on a part-time basis. The closeness of a diverse group of people apparently is easily formed through on-campus housing activities.

Some of those individuals married, some had moved on and were totally involved in their professional lives now. But, no matter what, they all have a personal history that affected their lives... This is their story. If you enjoy sitting back and sinking into the daily activities and drama of other people, then I think you will certainly enjoy this debut by Mary Helen Specht. Each time I start reading a literary novel, I find I must stop and adjust my own time with the book. There is no way I can read a drama without slowing the pace of my reading. You either immerse yourself or you miss the value of what the author is sharing... I admit I prefer page-turner thrillers, but that does not diminish the story being told by Specht.

One amazing thing for me was that, even though Flannery had been gone for five years, when she went home, there were some that expected her to pick up where she left off, while others had certainly moved on. Flannery's best friend during college, for instance, was deep into depression. While her husband knew she was having problems, it seemed clear that nobody really took the time to understand exactly where she was. It seemed Flannery didn't recognize anything changed, except from her perspective of not wanting to get back into her old life... Alyce, on the other hand, was the most real one to me--acknowledging her own issues, yet, later, able to do something that nobody else would have considered... She invited Flannery's sister to live with her...

Flannery had been the older sister and had watched her mother slowly dying from Huntington's disease. [A short vid is included for those not familiar with this disease and its consequences.]

Now, as she saw her sister for the first time, we immediately notices symptoms, which apparently had been ignored by everybody, including her father and her sister... Flannery was devastated, not knowing how she could manage going through that again and withdrew from much contact, knowing that Molly would expect her to be there for her. She, herself, had been tested years ago, wanting to know what her life would be if she had the potential of developing it, but her sister didn't want to know. Readers, I am sure, will have different feelings about how they might react. But since Flannery had initially gone "on the lam" after college, it wasn't hard to figure out what she wanted to do--immediately go back to Nigeria and Kunle.

Alyce also was working on a project, creating imagines of birds, but as her depression grew darker, she thought of death quite often and had decided she wanted something to give her sons that represented the people that had been in her life...A long tapestry that she became almost obsessive with as she worked... At that point Molly had moved into the farmhouse with her. Alyce had suggested that her husband and the boys move in with Santiago--who, incidentally, was still in love with Flannery and wished to continue and commit to their relationship...

Molly had only her husband and simply told him she needed time... Brandon had always been a dedicated researcher and was now working with Flannery on a project he had developed and which she had envisioned how it could be expanded.  They were both climate specialists... and it had been Brandon who had initially helped Flannery get her positions,

There are others who had been in that college group of friends...Now they were in their 30's, all of them caught, forced to consider their future... Two husbands were left doubting whether their wives would return to the marriage. One looking for a marriage commitment from Flannery that he knew was really unlikely...

I found the interpersonal relationships interesting--the additional work-related topics--climate change, weaving and snow--in my opinion, were allowed too dominant a role given the number of characters and what was happening to them. In fact, these side issues tended to detract from the characters, bogging them, and readers, down in more detail than was warranted for the impact within the book, since nothing significant evolved... For instance, the impact of Alyce's tapestry was quite different than this reader anticipated; her own depression ignored as before. At the same time, what was happening to Molly was barely addressed until an unexpected issue took the forefront for everybody.

The key issue addressed for me was how much each of us must consider as we make our personal life commitments. Do we have a responsibility to consider our family? Do friends play a part in personal decision-making? Do we respond to perceived responsibilities with guilt, not sure what to choose? This exploration was well done to the extent it went. 

I must admit that literary novels many times strike me as esoteric... Perhaps I have read too many novels about the realities of Africa. Then, too, the realities of real life, in my opinion, became minor, for some reason, to the supposed bigger issue of creating rain in Africa, but with no attempt at a satisfactory fictional conclusion...that is, it just ended... The attempt at a happy ending  left the lives of the others dangling, while they celebrated what could very well be a multiplication of the same past trauma for everybody. Unless there is a sequel planned, I felt that the characters in the novel deserved a better and adequate 

Please do check out other reviews on this one... As a debut, this author has certainly shown her writing expertise. Her character development might have hit too close to me for several characters; perhaps I expected too much...

And then Harry was gone. And Alyce was alone again, with what was left of the flock.
At that moment, Alyce could almost admit what would really happen: She would move into a duplex in Duvalier Place--a neighborhood more romantic-sounding than romantic. She would be a renter again. like when she was just our of college, someone else in charge of mowing the lawn and painting the walls and calling the plumber. Her life would become less cluttered. The boys would stay with her on weekends. She would watch the light change in the kitchen from morning to evening, autumn to spring, and she would notice it because she would be alone. She would go on living.
It was a step in her most important recovery. She was a mother, which was sometimes harder than eating and exercising and drinking less. One day at a time and all that. As her therapist had acknowledge, maybe Alyce wasn't one of those women who was better off with children than she was without them. But the only way to ever know something like that for sure was to live two lives. And Alyce barely had time and energy for this one.
Migratory Animals might have been the last real piece of art Alyce would ever make. Not because it was really so different in style or staidness than the William Morris Woodpeckers in an Orange Tree that had been her original plan. But just because it was hers. It was all of theirs. It was finished...


Born and raised in Abilene, Texas, Mary Helen Specht has a B.A. in English from Rice University and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College, where she won the department’s fiction award. Her writing has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes and has appeared in numerous publications, including: The New York Times; The Colorado Review; Prairie Schooner; Michigan Quarterly Review; The Southwest Review; Florida Review; Southwestern American Literature; World Literature Today; Blue Mesa; Hunger Mountain; Bookslut; The Texas Observer; and Night Train, where she won the Richard Yates Short Story Award. A past Fulbright Scholar to Nigeria and Dobie-Paisano Writing Fellow, Specht teaches creative writing at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas.

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