Friday, April 27, 2012

The Heart Does Not Bend by Makeda Silvera

Some books are good because they are difficult. Not difficult to understand, but difficult to come to terms with. The characters in The Heart Does Not Bend are so real and flawed, it is one of those wonderfully written but difficult books.

The novel follows some of the life of Maria Galloway - or Mama as she is universally known - through the eyes of her granddaughter Molly. It starts in Kingston, Jamaica, where Mama is in her element in her house at the end of a dead-end street, raising Molly and baking treats to sell to the local restaurant. Halfway through the novel, Mama decides to go to "foreign" - Toronto, in this case - and she takes Molly with her. The book remarkably covers six generations of women (if you count Maria's mother, Mammy) as they struggle with their relationships with each other and with Mama, the matriarch.

Mama is a remarkable character. Sometimes I sympathized with her: she took in whoever came along, but didn't take any guff from men; she tried very hard to raise Molly well; she was an enterprising and independent woman who built a family and a home over and over. But there are times in the book when she is just so frustrating. Her refusal to accept her son Mikey's homosexuality, and her downright harassment of Molly and her female partner; the way she spoils her great-grandson Vittorio and turns a blind eye to his thieving; her utter stubbornness and refusal to be considerate. 

Mama is lovable, frustrating, generous and backwards. She is written so well, I began to feel like she was my own mother; certainly as the daughter of a strong-willed, loving and obstinate woman I could relate to many of the feelings Molly and her mother, Glory, express. The world of the book is populated with very believable but wonderfully unique characters, but Mama really steals the show. 

There are a lot of interesting themes in the story, most notably the idea of "good men" and what different characteristics of masculinity are valued by people of Mama's generation and upbringing, and how that is starting to change in Molly's time. Mama loves her dear son Freddie, who is an inconsiderate jerk and a woman beater; she relies on Peppie, but rewards his helpfulness and loyalty by taking advantage of his hospitality and acting horribly to his wife; she adores Mikey until she figures out what the situation is with him and his "friend" Frank, then she moves to another country and refuses to write to him. She even briefly takes back her abusive ex-husband. 

Then of course there is the fascinating phenomenon of what begins to seem like a genetic predisposition to teen pregnancy. Four generations of Galloway women - Mama, her daughter Glory, Molly and her daughter Ciboney - all have babies at fifteen years old. Of course the men are absent, and it seems the mothers are powerless to prevent a repeat of the situation for their own daughters.

I know I'm making it seem heavy, but the book had a lot of fun moments and funny characters. I love the great-aunts, super-religious Ruth and super-fashionable Joyce. I loved some of the stylistic choices the author made: despite all the pregnancies, there is never a description of heterosexual sex, but there are several descriptive paragraphs of Molly and her female lover, Rose, having sex. 

Toronto as a backdrop isn't very distinctive; there were a few place names, but really the "foreign" action could have happened in any North American city. Still, it was nice to read about Jamaican immigrants and about women, after all the white dudes I seem to have been reading lately.

I loved this book, by the way. It was rich and lovely and character-driven. I give it four CN Towers out of five.

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