Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Sweetest Fruit by Monique Truong - 2019

Lafcadio Hearn

June 27, 1850 - Lefkada, Greece

September 26, 1904 - Tokyo, Japan

Lafcadio Hearn was one of my childhood heroes.  I have no i

dea what led me sixty years ago to discover him and find 
his books in a public library.  I think I am the only book blogger to have posted on his short stories.   

Last month I read and posted on a wonderful novel, set in Paris in the 1930s, The Book of Salt by Monique Truong
centering on a Vietnamese cook employed by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. When I discovered she had a forthcoming novel, The Sweetest Fruit focusing on the important women in Hearn's live, I knew I had to read it soon.  My immediate bottom line is I loved this book.

The Sweetest Fruit in first person narratives portrays the life experiences of his mother, his American wife and lastly his Japanese wife with whom he had four children.  

Our first narrator is Rosa Cassimati, Hearn's mother. Rosa grew up on a small Greek island, Kythira.  Her story is structured as if it were a letter to her son which she, not being literate, is dictating to her maid.  Rosa was raised under very strict supervision  by her father. He wanted to protect her from the outside world.  Just before she is to be sent to a convent she meets Charles Hearn. Charles is an Irish military surgeon stationed for a while on Kythira. A romance ensues, she gets pregnant and they marry.  Through a series of events Rosa and young Lafcafio ended up  living with an aunt of Charles living in Dublin when Charles is called away. She had to escape her island due to her pregnancy. Rosa and Charles had little in common.  In her letter to her son, who she left in Dublin when she went home, never being happy in Dublin and not really wanted by the aunt,  a lot is revealed about her life growing up on Kytnira and her relationship to Charles.  He will ultimately abandon her to take to the seas.  They were very much a mismatch. Rosa will never see her son again. 

Our second narrator is Althea Foley, it is 1872, she is a freed slave working as a cook in a boarding house in Cincinnati, Ohio.  She is African American.  Lafcadio, also known as Patrick, lives in the boarding house. He works as a journalist and has some success as a journalist.  They marry even though mixed race marriages were illegal.  Flashing ahead to 1905 or so, Lafcafio has passed away, leaving a cash estate.  Althea is telling her story to a journalist, like Rosa, she is illiterate, in the hope of validating her claim as his widow.
Along the way we learn a good bit about race relations in Ohio right after the Civil War.  They do seem to love each other but their are deep cultural divides that doom the relationship. Also it appears Lafcadio was getting bored with her.  We are left wondering why he entered into such a socially unacceptable relationship.  We also learn Althea believes he was involved with other women.  Lafcadio was very into the reading life, any extra money he had he used to buy books.

After ten years in New Orleans, working as a journalist and a translator in 1890 he is sent to Japan as a newspaper correspondent.  Here he met Kaixumi Setsu, he married her and they had four children.  She helped him get a prestigious position teaching English at a university.  He became deeply fascinated with Japanese culture.  He learns Japanese and becomes a Buddhist. He becomes a Japanese subject. He began to publish recreations of Japanese folk and fairy tales in English.  It is these stories that brought him fame and some fortune. Hearn seems to have found a home in Japan.   Her story is told to after his death.  She is also claiming his estate.  

In the narrative Hearn himself remains a bit  of a mystery.  His two wives only know aspects of him.  We don't really learn a lot about him. 

Truong has brilliantly portrayed three different women in diverse cultures.
She offers vivid descriptions of all of the settings.

I highly recommend The Sweetest Fruit.

Mel u


Terra said...

What an amazing story of Hearn and his 3 wives. I wonder who inherited his estate.

Mystica said...

Sounds like a really good story of a self centred man. His wives and mothers stories give the interest.