Sunday 1 December 2013

Book Club: A Crowd Of Twisted Things and December's pick

Since this a book club, I assume you've read November's pick, A Crowd Of Twisted Things, by Dawn Farnham, so I'm not going to give a plot summary. If you need one see here for details from the publisher, Monsoon.

I'd never heard of Maria Hertogh before I read this thought-provoking novel, but the tussle between Adeline, her Eurasian birth mother, and Aminah, the Malay woman she considered as her mother, made a terrific backdrop for the main story of Annie and Suzy, and the sub plot of Annie and Joseph. 

Taken together the true story and the two fictional ones enabled Farnham to pose some really interesting questions about the nature of motherhood, and, indeed, fatherhood. When it comes to motherhood, does biology trump all other considerations? If a biological mother hands a child over for informal adoption, and later changes her mind, should the child be returned to her?  If, in the midst of war, a biological mother loses a daughter, should she later be able to reclaim her from the woman who has subsequently cared for her?  If a lost child states she wants to stay with the kind woman she thinks of as her mother, then, when her biological mother turns up to claim her, should her wishes prevail? If a widowed father abandons his baby son, but states at the time he wants to reclaim him later, should he be allowed to do so?

Maria Hertogh was in fact handed back to Adeline – and she did not subsequently lead an entirely happy life, as the fascinating epilogue makes clear. In A Crowd Of Twisted Things Maria’s, Aminah’s and Adeline’s story takes place off the page, as it were - we follow it in newspaper snippets, and by the characters’ reactions to it - but it seems clear that not only the characters', but also Farnham’s sympathies are with Aminah. Despite the distressing evidence of the epilogue, I’m not sure that mine are. What about you?  If you had been Adeline, what arguments would you have used to support your cause, and do you think those arguments should have outweighed Aminah’s, and, indeed, Maria’s stated wishes.  Why? 

Likewise, I wasn’t entirely convinced by the resolution of Suzy’s story. I don’t want to give a plot-spoiler, even in a book club discussion, not a review, so I won’t say what that resolution is – if you don’t know, read the book – but I remained doubtful a birth mother would behave as Suzy’s behaved, or, indeed, that a birth mother would allow her thinking to be influenced by such considerations as that her daughter appeared to be growing up a snob.

The relationship between biology and maternity was not the only weighty theme of the book.  Repressed memory was another. Here I’ll hand over to Amira, from Singapore:

I never understood what had happened on Annie’s last night with Ronald.  She kept saying he tried to kill her, but we never saw that, and we never saw him giving Suzy away.  Did he really try to kill his wife and give his daughter away?  Also, I thought some characters, such as Beaver, verged on caricature.

Beaver is only a very minor character, but I agree he could have been more finely drawn. Meanwhile, I thought the mystery of what happened between Annie and Ronald was deliberate.  Annie could remember barely anything of the war – or at least not at the opening of the novel. Perhaps, if her Japanese lover had made it appear he wanted to kill her, in order to save her, then the trauma of this event, and the confusion of her repressed memories, caused her later to think that it was Ronald, and not him, who had tried to murder her?

Claire is also from Singapore.  She said:

I used to live in Peirce Road, and I enjoyed seeing it used as a setting, and reading about all the other places in Singapore, too.

I am sure any reader in Singapore would share this feeling – and I am sure readers outside Singapore would agree Farnham is brilliant at creating a sense of place, using a mass of compelling detail.

Renu from Hong Kong said:

I thought the novel glossed over the issues of female circumcision and child brides.

I don’t think it’s fair to say Farnham glossed over tensions between the Muslim community and others, either in their attitudes to these practices, or in general.  Female circumcision and child marriage occurred within Maria’s story, and this was the backdrop to the novel, with, as I said, events occurring off-page, as it were. I thought these issues were handled sensibly, and sensitively, within the framework of the novel.

December’s Pick

Next month I suggest we read Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement, another historical novel concerned with a mother separated from her daughter, and, in this case, the profound connections between them. It is a sweeping, evocative epic of a mother’s and her daughter’s intertwined fates and their search for identity. 
Geographically, it moves from San Francisco, to the lavish boudoirs of Shanghai courtesans, to the fog-shrouded mountains of a remote Chinese village.
In time, it spans more than forty years, from 1912, until World War 11. It explores pivotal episodes in history: from the collapse of China’s last imperial dynasty, to the rise of the Republic, the explosive growth of lucrative foreign trade and anti-foreign sentiment.
The publisher, Harper Collins, claims that The Valley of Amazement returns readers to the compelling territory of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, and that she conjures a story of inherited trauma, desire and deception, and also of the power and stubbornness of love.

Let’s see what we think.  Since Christmas intervenes, the next book club discussion will be delayed until Sunday January 5th.  Please do share your thoughts, either by commenting on this post, or by e-mailing  Thanks, and happy reading over Christmas.