Marital Strife

Let’s Discuss — Vinegar Hill by A. Manette Ansay

 

Thirteen years ago, Ellen thought marriage meant love. Now she believes marriage means need, and when the need isn’t there, what comes next? On her wedding day, she had looked across the street from the church to the cemetery and imagined all the women who had come before her, who had married and borne children and died. Some day, she thought, that same peace will be mine. But perhaps what she saw was not peace, but silence. Perhaps those women entered the ground because they were tired and had nowhere else to go (21)

You know what the above passage reminds me of? — The Bell Jar. There’s something Plath-like about it. The same oppressive dome weighs on Ellen Grier in Vinegar Hill as it did Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar. Except in this story it manifests as dated pink plates, pink curtains, pink tablecloth, prescription sleeping pills and a neon green pre-decorated plastic christmas tree. This is what might have happened if Esther had married Buddy Willard. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves–this is not The Bell Jar and this is not Sylvia Plath. No where close (although Ansay is a good writer) This story is about a family’s struggle to survive domestic abuse, with a focus on a mother’s determination to do better for herself and children than what her husband has done for them in small town, midwestern USA.

In chapter six, while Ellen is dealing with the Christmas fiasco, she references what she used to call her future self, an “aqua lady”; a wife and mother of different circumstance who is perfection personified. The aqua lady is a stark contrast to Ellen’s reality. Ellen and her children Amy and Bert are forced to move in with her in-laws after her husband, James, loses his job. Financial hardship is only one hurdle for Ellen. She also has to deal with a complacent husband, who (1) has no desire to move out of his parents’ home, (2) has no desire to become a bigger part of his children’s life, and (3) let’s his mother and father belittle his family. This of course leads to marital strife. Ellen must compensate for everything that goes on and she is spread thin. Too thin. She can no longer be the workhorse for her mother-in-law, father-in-law and husband.

When a commercial interrupts, James watches that too. He loves TV more than anything he can think of. It is small and neat; it is easy to understand. Wives love their husbands. Children love their fathers (87)

I’m trying to sort out my feelings about James…what the hell is his problem? Why doesn’t he love his kids or wife? Why does he put up with his parent’s antics? He’s definitely a type of character that gets under my skin (absent fathers and weak-willed men).  So why is he so tragic? Well…it turns out James, like Ellen, is a victim of domestic abuse.  His father, Fritz, physically abused his wife Mary-Margaret and James. Their entire family dynamic was ruptured by a family secret that still feeds their dysfunction fifteen to twenty years later. And James has allowed his own wife and kids to be exposed to it. James takes out his frustrations on Ellen, but not in the same way his father did to his wife.  James’ violence is muted. It’s in his inactions. But this violence isn’t lost on his children. Oh no, they are very aware. The reader witnesses Amy and Bert begin to lose their innocence; those moments when you realize your parents are imperfect beings and you mutate from their biggest fan to harshest critic. Kids pick up on everything–intrinsically. They can’t help it. They know their parents are not happy. So they are not happy.

This novel does a fine job of oozing despair and desolation. I think I mentioned Ansay is a good writer. It also doesn’t stumble with integrating a role of religion into their home life. But it does struggle with tempering the blame. To me it’s a bit heavy-handed with the anti-God* vibes. The whole “men oppress women–god made men and god is a man–thus god oppresses women, and oppression is bad–thus god is bad” logic is a bit much (ultra dramatic) Compounded with the anti-God angst and domestic depression** is a lack of likeable characters. Mary-Margaret being very unlikeable–what a piece of work she is…but then you read passages like this:

He surprised Mary-Margaret one cold, bright January day as she lifted her skirts in the backhouse. She did not have time to think. He hit her once in the forehead with a brick and pulled her out into the snow. Blood ran into her eyes as she ran blindly, her only thought to move, to keep moving, until the brick found the back of her head. Then she lay still as he emptied himself inside her, and when he finished, he pissed yellow circles around her body. The warmth of his urine melted the snow and stung against her face (165)

…and it puts things into perspective. There is a reason for everyone’s dysfunction.

 

* I can’t decide if I think it’s truly anti-God or just anti-Catholic.

** This brand of melancholy is not for everyone. Look this book up on goodreads and then filter the ratings for “two stars”. There’s some hilarity in the community comments.

Let’s Discuss — The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey

I was white. White in a country where this was to be implicated, complicated, and, whatever way I tried to square it, guilty. Genocide. Slavery. Indenture. Colonialism — big words which were linked to crimes so hideous no manner of punishment was adequate (355)

Roffey weaves the personal story of George and Sabine Hardwood with the historical and political story of Trinidad. Readers are introduced to two individuals in a loveless marriage, which according to Sabine is largely the fault of her husband, George. From the moment the couple arrives in Trinidad, George falls in love with the island; enjoying the ideal, the picturesque, the exotic women, and a potential legacy he could never establish in the United Kingdom. Sabine, on the other hand, can’t stand the island. She wanted to leave before she had even arrived. She realizes she can never compete with a beautiful island which offers more to her husband than she ever could.  For a while, Sabine is in denial about the reality of her situation–that her fate and happiness are tied to someone else’s “ideas.”

The narrative is loaded with vivid, sensory descriptions of the island colloquial language and Trinidadian accents. The colorful atmosphere contrasts with the conflict happening on the island. There are two forms of conflict, that of Sabine and George’s drama, and the echoes of revolution in Trinidad. It’s almost as if their marital strife mirrors the socio-political strife on the island or vice versa. Sometimes the injustice, corruption and political uprisings in Trinidad become background noise to Sabine and George’s problems.

“Eric Williams will destroy this country.” Bonny’s eyes hardened.

“Oh really? He’s a well-educated man. He’s been to Oxford. He’s an historian. How many people here can claim that? Do you think there’s one person in this garden with a university degree?”

Bonny quivered, a snarl on her lips. “Williams is obsessed with slavery. It’s all about the past. He can’t let it drop. He should forget about it. It’s boring.” (249)

I may be alone on this one but George’s wrongdoings as a husband do not outweigh Sabine’s self-righteousness. Her apathy and borderline ignorance about colonial legacy and race relations is…irksome. Yes, George should catch some hell for his post colonial ideas and self-serving ambition, but at least he cares—he feels. At least he sees Trinidadians as individuals, as people.  Sabine is the worst kind of post colonialist person. Why?  Because she has no real intention of righting any wrongs (socio-political or personal) Maybe having friendships with her two maids is her way of righting the wrongs.

But there is something off about Sabine. She develops an intense, almost creepy obsession with Dr. Eric Williams, the leader of the PNM. Why would a white woman determined to leave Trinidad be interested in the country’s new revolutionary leader? Well, I have a couple of theories. One–it’s a tactic of self-preservation, or know-your-enemy. Eric Williams wants what she represents (colonial chains) out of the country. Understanding his motives helps define her own. My second theory might be a reach, but still a possibility– she’s having an emotional affair with Dr. Williams. I say emotional because her fear and physical repulsion of black men is too great for the affair to ever be physical. Sabine writes hundreds of unsent letters to Eric Williams complaining about her husband George and life in Trinidad. She compiles newspaper clippings of his speeches and appearances.  And she hides them away in her home office. Why? Because Dr. Eric Williams represents something she could never do, possess or act upon—the courage to lead her own revolution, to put her foot down in her marriage, to say enough is enough!

I don’t know why Sabine didn’t leave George.