Friday, October 23, 2020

Reading group: The Braid by Laetitia Colombani

This was our first-ever zoom meeting, conducted in lockdown. Most of us weren't much used to zoom at the time, and when John and I bumped into Jenny in the park beforehand - at a socially-responsible distance, of course - she suggested it would stop us interrupting each other, but in the event it did nothing of the sort! 

It was Jenny who had suggested this short book, an international bestseller and apparently a reading group favourite, translated from French. It alternates between the stories of three women in very different circumstances and different parts of the world - Smita in India, an untouchable who flees with her young daughter to save her from the life of clearing excrement to which Smita herself has been condemned; Giulia in Palermo, Sicily, who works in her father's wig-making workshop and must take over when he has an accident and face the fact that, due to the growing local scarcity of human hair, the business faces ruin; and Sarah, a Canadian lawyer whose role and identity as a forceful career woman is threatened by her diagnosis of cancer. These stories run along unconnected, until, through the very matter of hair, they are braided together like the hanks of hair with which Guilia works.

Although this sounds like an interesting proposition, I'm afraid to say that Jenny was alone in finding anything very much to praise about this book. We all thought the way the stories of the women were finally drawn together was somewhat superficial, and, much more seriously, we found the book not at all well written. It's sometimes hard to judge from a translation, as Jenny said in its defence, but there are so many cliches, repeated so often - for instance, Smita gets 'butterflies in her stomach' on the second line of the book, and the phrase keeps recurring throughout - and so much repetitive overstatement, that we felt that the clumsiness and naivity we found in the narration must lie with the original prose. Jenny conceded these things, and was perhaps more confused and irritated than anyone by interjected sections in italics set out like poetry, the unidentified first-person voice of someone braiding strands of various materials. Nevertheless, she said she found the book fascinating, as it taught her things she didn't know, about wig-making, and the fact that untouchables in India have to clear the excrement with their bare hands. Which goes back to a long-running argument we have had in this group - whether or not you go to fiction for factual information or something much deeper and metaphysical.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

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