Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 8, 2021

A Million Aunties, by Alecia McKenzie

So Chris start telling him bout all the museum-dem, while I listening with one ear.  I glad to see Chris looking more relax.  I worry about him the same way I feel for Stephen.  Like we is family.  And I thinking: Look at me who never have nobody.  And yet all of us here like we on some big family reunion trip. (p.179)

This ‘family’ is in Paris, exploring the treasures of its art collections.  There are nine in the group, connected by love and affection rather than biology, and each of them in one way or another is transcending some personal pain.

The catalyst for the trip is Chris’s casual remark at a dinner in New York.  The blockbuster Monet exhibition had just opened at MOMA, when he said ‘I might stop over in France and visit the Monet museums before I go to Italy.’  The trip to Italy is to see Lidia’s parents—Chris hasn’t seen them since Lidia, his wife, was blown up in a terrorist attack.

His good friend and agent and fix-it man Stephen has been the catalyst for Chris’s journey to healing.  He organises for Chris to go home to Jamaica, where he stays with Miss Della.  She could use a little extra money to repair her house which, like all the others in the street, has been damaged by the landslide.  Nurtured by comfort food and a light-filled room in which to paint, Chris finds Miss Della’s love of plants infectious and although he has never been any good at painting flowers, he begins to do so, in homage to Lidia who was a landscape gardener of public spaces in New York.

Successive chapters are narrated by different characters, each of whom has a story to tell.  A story of damage and endurance, and a journey towards acceptance and healing.  Reading this just after Noreena Hertz’s The Lonely Century is like balm to the soul.  There’s not a whiff of Pollyanna in A Million Aunties but the novel asserts that all kinds of grief can be assuaged by the love and affection of others.  And that families don’t need to be connected biologically: it’s the love and affection that counts.

There’s no pretence that forgiveness is easy.  Chris is admiring the stained-glass windows and paintings in the cathedral of Sainte-Clotilde in the 7th arrondissement when he observes a man come in to pray.  He turns away to give the man privacy, but they strike up a conversation outside on the steps.

‘I haven’t seen you here before.’ The man’s English was near perfect.  ‘Are you a member of the church?’
‘No, I’m just visiting.’
‘You’re American?’
‘Sort of. Citizen of Earth. Terrien.’
‘So, you’re religious?’
‘Not really,’ Chris said.  What was his religion?  Maybe art.
‘Me neither,’ the man told him.  ‘But it makes me feel better to come here.  I pray to get rid of the hate.’
His words surprised Chris.
‘My son.  He was gay.  They beat him up in a bar, just for that.  He died five months ago.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Chris said.  Did he have the kind of face that people needed to tell him these things?
‘So I pray for them.  And for me and my wife.  She’s still very, very angry, and it’s killing her.’
‘I hope they go to jail,’ Chris said.
‘Yes.  They will spend a long time in prison.  But it won’t bring my son back.  And we have to go on.  We have to try to understand why people do terrible things.’ (p.177)

Chris isn’t ready to try to understand.  Miss Pretty is too damaged ever to resume a normal life.  But Paul, who lost his wife and child in a country where there were rivers of blood and terrible things could be done with a machete, finds solace in carving their likeness in trees brought down in a hurricane.  Miss Vera, who notes that when a husband dies there are mourning rituals that bring some consolation but there is no equivalent ritual for when a husband abandons his wife for a new one, understands that people are admiring Paul even though they don’t know what to say.  And sometimes they say what they are feeling in unexpected ways:

…But when man run off with other woman, what is there to say, really? Him gone to a better place? The angels taking care of him?  Him in heaven now?

Still, when I put fire to all him clothes and things in the backyard, people come to look, like them doing now with the tree-dem.  And is after that that Miss Della did bring me the dry-up plant.  And she say to me, I always cutting off the bad parts of mi plants and burning them, and the next thing I know, the plant putting out new leaves and blossoms like nobody’s business, and thriving.  When she say that, I did just nod mi head. (p.154)

A Million Aunties is like the way I imagine a grandmother’s wise stories would be.

Thanks to Amanda Curtin for bringing this book to my attention.

Author: Alecia McKenzie
Title: A Million Aunties
Publisher: Blouse & Skirt Books (Blue Banyan Books, Jamaica) and Akashic Books New York, 2020
Cover design by Ion Communications
ISBN: 9781617758928, pbk., 196 pages
Source: Kingston Library

 


Responses

  1. Lovely review, Lisa :-) I adored this book, and you’ve encapsulated why. Thank you. (And you might also enjoy Alecia’s brilliant novel, Sweetheart, a Commonwealth Book Prize winner: https://www.peepaltreepress.com/books/sweetheart

    Like

    • Thanks, Amanda. I’ve done a search for Sweetheart, but — surprisingly — it appears that it isn’t held in any public library in Victoria, and the only supplier that seems to have it is Amazon. So it’s a case of keep an eye open for it in second-hand sources and opshops, because—surely?—a Commonwealth Book Prize winner was sold in retail shops here at least for a while.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Not in SLWA system, either :-( I remember now I had to order my copy direct from an English or French supplier and it took a long time to get here. Another one I’m happy to loan, if you’d like?

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    • That would be lovely, thank you Amanda:)
      But I have rather a large backlog of books for review at the moment *and* a pile of books that have come in on reserve from the library(they always come all at once, don’t they?!) so I wouldn’t be able to return it to you within a reasonable time, so I’d better say no for the time being.

      Like

  3. Whenever your time frees up, let me know :-)

    Like

    • Thanks, Amanda. I think the flurry of new books is a response to the many deferrals from last year!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks Lisa

    I found your review so moving and compelling that I have just ordered what seems to be Readings last copy in stock. We don’t seem to see much comment or review of this type of literature in Australia’s mainstream media, so well done you. I look forward to reading the book.
    For your readers information…
    The book is still available online, but only from offshore sources.

    Best wishes
    Chris

    Like

    • Hello Chris, you are absolutely right… we don’t see much in the mainstream media in the way of reviews from anywhere that’s not the US, UK or Australia, and since you mention Readings, their catalogue is one of the best local sources of info about what’s new from The Rest of the World.
      I don’t know how much influence the old print media has on reading taste these days, but I think it’s a shame that it has such a narrow focus. Whereas I tend to rely on publisher’s newsletters and readers’ blogs for EuroLit, I find out about books from Africa in the online Johannesburg Review of Books and I read the Asian Review of Books as well. (They’re both free). But when it comes to outliers like the Caribbean or Oceania, it’s a matter of luck, and this one came my way because Amanda Curtin chose it as one of her best books of 2020.

      I do not see how a reviewer of any merit can have an opinion about literature, Australian or otherwise, if they don’t keep up with what’s happening in the rest of the world. (And I have a bad feeling that some of our creative writing teachers only set texts within an Anglosphere that doesn’t even include Canada or NZ… I would like to be corrected about this if my suspicions are wrong.)

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  5. Slowly, I’ve been crawling to the top of the library holds list for this book and am now just a few weeks away; I can’t remember where I first heard of it, but your review makes me glad that I’m close to reading it myself. Especially the part about there being multiple narrators–love that.

    Like

    • I think you are going to love this. Thank goodness for libraries!

      Like

  6. Great title, great cover and great review.

    “We have to try to understand why people do terrible things” which is why we often read difficult books, isn’t it?

    Thanks Lisa.

    Like


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