My Q and A with Catherine McNamara
“"She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants, and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has molded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands." - Walter Pater
On August 28, 2013 I posted about Catherine McNamara’s wonderful debut collection Pelt and other Stories. Here is my overview of that collection:
“Pelt and Other Stories by Catherine McNamara, her debut collection, is a very powerful, thoroughly captivating collection of stories most of which center on the post colonial world of central coastal West Africa. The subtlies and levels of irony in these stories show a very great insight into how cross cultural encounters impact all parties. The people in the stories range from European hotel owners in Ghana, famous art photographers, mistresses of Europeans, drivers, and village people. The stories are mostly but not all set in West Africa. One is set in the very worldly city of Sydney, some in Italy. . The stories are miniature marvels in showing us the manifestation of orientalizing of the African not just by Europeans and Americans but by returned citizens. The stories show us how hard it is to return home unchanged. These stories are not about ignorant hateful prejudice. McNamara is too knowing and intelligent for that. They are about the very great difficulties of escaping from our deep conditioning, our unseen frames of reference. The stories are also fun to read. Lots of interesting things happen, there is some sex, women eyeballing each other, and a strong sense of humor.” (There are brief descriptions of a number of her stories in my linked above post.)
I highly recommend our Q and A session. I just reread it and am very proud to have it on The Reading Life.
Now nearly five years later, I am delighted to have a copy of her brand new collection, The Cartography of Others. There are twenty stories in the collection. Posting upon, I dont see myself as a reviewer and dont like to be called one, collections of Short stories is very challenging. One feels driven to find commonality among the works.
I intend to start my exploration of this collection by talking about three of her stories. Every Short Story I Post upon I read at least two times. If I dont find myself wanting to do that I dont post on it.
“Three Days in Hong Kong”
I decided to read this story as, with my wife, I have spent three days in Hong Kong, for us a fabulous place for shopping, sightseeing and scrumptious dining. The woman at the center of this told in the second person story went to Hong Kong for a very different reason, to spend three nights with a wealthy married man, who lives there, with whom she is having an affair. He paid her fare from London, where their affair began and has booked her into a luxury Hong Kong hotel.
As the story opens the woman is leaving Hong Kong International to go to her hotel. McNamara does a very good job capturing the feel of the ride in from the AirPort, kind of a surreal experience for first time visitors:
“You fly in. He says he won’t be there, there’ll be a sign with your code name.Philomena M. He likes secrets. You know he likes living between several worlds suspended in the air. He likes flight. He risks collisions. He travels way too much. There is the card with your secret name. Philomena M. The driver has pointed sideburns like Nick Cave and caramel skin pulled tight over his cheekbones. You drive onto the motorway into the night, past cheap housing blocks with scabbed facades, balconies crammed as though the life is oozing out of them. The city pulls you in, sucks you under, chucks you up, then streams around you. Chasms, rafts of lights, a Prada shop; the black numb sky and nowhere water.”
He calls the first day and says business will keep him away tonight. Disappointed, we sense the weakness of her passion for the man. We wonder how much is her need, she is 37, childless and never married, to feel still sexually desirable mingled with a slighly buried arrousal by the idea of having sex at the ultra-chic hotel. On the second night he tells her he must be with his wife as it is their anniversary. She begins to feel a need for sex. On the third night he calls with another excuse. I will leave the powerful ending untold. In just a few pages McNamara brings a woman very much to life, does a fine job on the setting. We see the woman does not really know her own feelings. We know only a little about her early years, just enough to make the story even more intriguing. She is a reader, she brought books with her and this made her more interesting. As I read these charged lines I wondered did the man really want to see her or not:
“I cannot speak any more, my darling. Remove that dress.’ You stand naked over Hong Kong, your hands in tepees on the glass, your legs apart. Your hair falls down your back, over your breasts. It is hard to believe anyone is watching you. For him, you touch yourself. You are not very wet. The man you left used to arouse you in a moderate way that you felt was not enough. You would lie awake, your lips to his shoulder. You were so mad he never probed your body hard enough, that you made sure his efforts were in vain. You want to hug his disabled daughter. You decide that when you go back you will call him and do this. The next morning you rush to the door naked when you hear a knock. As you unlock the door you feel sweat between your hairless buttocks. Everything has been carefully waxed. Your sex is a peeled fruit. Your fingertips like to wander over the moist skin. It is a woman in a mauve uniform holding flowers. You snatch them from her. You throw them down and go to the bathroom where you look at your parts which are much more beautiful than the flowers. Then this disgusts you, the way the folds are so prominent. You love to pull a man’s cock into you.”
In just a few pages McNamara takes us deeply into two people and uses the vibrant pulsating city of Hong Kong wonderfully as background.
Return from Salt Pond
“Return from Salt Pond”, set in Ghana, opens very dramatically. A couple, they met in London, both are from Ghana and are contemplating a move home. On a dark road late at night someone threw a rock through the windshield of their car, striking the woman in the face, glass shreds cutting her. The man decides to take her to a friend’s house. Before they were attacked they were looking at a property the man wants to turn into a place for guests with a nightclub. He needs the woman to front most of the costs. The woman doubts their relationship will endure very long so she is resistant. In this story McNamara shows the connection of sex and dominant behaviour, the man is a cruel predator. Like “Three Days in Hong Kong” the male lead character cares little for the woman. I got the feel for the scary after dark streets of Accra from this story. McNamara is very good at setting her stories in place. But just as I was ready to dismiss the man, we learn this and once again we are taken deep into a character and maybe a bit into our own rush to judgements:
“There had been an uninterrupted stretch of six months when his father had been dying, when every night he had come to the club from the hospital with stricken hands. Every night he had changed the old man’s soiled garments and sheets. Kenneth had a strong suspicion he would end up like him, a marooned vessel other people would have to look after and clean. He hoped he still had time to think about these things. But tonight, as he thought about the burst of shattered glass, he realised that what he wanted more than anything was a companion to see him through. He wanted a wife. And what Erica saw as a sign that they would never stay together and produce a child now made him think of orgasm, and the grappling and piercing and deliverance of sex. He wanted to explain this to her. He imagined her limber body over him and felt weak in his groin. He knew they would never make love again.”
“They Came from the East”
“They Came from the East” is a fascinating story, set in France and related to the immigrant influx changing European politics in a rightward direction. There are five central characters, the young male living at home narrator, his parents, Peter a refugee from wars “in the east”, and Peter’s late brother Milo.
The father took Peter in, feeling sorry for him. His wife really did not want him in the house so the father fixed up a shed for him. The family are professional musicians. McNamara slowly and subtly reveals, not completely, a terrible secret I strained to understand.
“You think of young men your own age, promised safety but pushed off buses and led in single file through the woods. You think that Milo, had he been raised in Peter’s country, would have worn a uniform and slaughtered men. You are not sure how this skill is devised but you know that your brother would have given captives water, pronounced their names; absorbed duty. Shot them. You disconnect that thought, but it stays awash in you. Your father travels to Devon to see to works on your grandfather’s house. Your mother is at college teaching. Peter has long departed across the suburbs on a dawn train. You have a recital tonight outdoors; your throat is dry. You swallow honey and make herbal tea. You do not possess Milo’s exuberant organism. When Milo finally hanged himself in the park, the doctors wished to dissect his brain.”
This is a disturbing story, there is much more involved than I have mentioned.
There are seventeen other stories in The Cartography of Others.
I will post on at least seven more of the stories in July, I hope.
I highly recommend this collection to all lovers of short stories.
As I proceed on I may begin to talk of the themes of the stories.
I defer to the elegant judgement of Hilary Mantel, twice winner of The Booker Prize to close this post.
““McNamara’s work has a fierce, vital beat, her stories robust yet finelyworked, her voice striking in its confidence and originality. She writes with sensuous precision and a craft that is equally precise. This is fiction that can stand up in any company.” –Hilary Mantel