The White Hare: A Novel by Jane Johnson

The White Hare: A Novel by Jane Johnson

It would be hard not to fall in love with this magic-tinged historical fiction. I loved this book so much I stayed up several nights to read it, refusing to bookmark it until I absolutely could not hold my eyes open any longer. The loss of sleep was worth it!

The White Hare is set in post-WWII England. The narrator, Mila, her daughter Janeska (Janey), and her mother Magdalena have left London and bought a large house in Cornwall, which Magda and Mila hope to refurbish and turn into a hotel. Mila also hopes the change of location will allow her to move on from a toxic relationship. Magda too has lost her husband of many years to the War and is seeking to rebuild a life for herself in a new place. The two women are Polish evacuees/refugees of the war; England is their home now.

As the story unfolds it becomes clear that it will not be so easy to shed the past for the three of them; it comes back to haunt them in real and imagined ways. The house and land too that they see as their revival brings its own hauntings and histories into the present. This magic interacts with Mila, Janey, and Magda in positive and less-pleasant ways; it becomes clear there is something afoot at the house at White Cove.

The White Hare is not only a tale of magic and myth; what drew me back to its pages night after night was the deep, terrible past between Mila and Magda, the angry relationship between Janey and her grandmother, and the wedge and glue that comes into their lives, causing friction and connection all at the same time, in the form of another character, Jack. In many ways, this is a novel of intergenerational histories; the ways in which understandings of the self and our place in the world are inherited. That said, Johnson does not suggest that the past dictates the characters’ present or future; there is hope for change.

And there is plenty of change in this story. (The plot revolves around the revival of a place and its new denizens after all.) The novel is not a vehicle to retell history; it is much more subjective than that. This is a novel about how a group of people who have individually suffered ordinary and terrible events struggle to reconcile their pasts with their futures. Every one of the characters’ actions and choices are imbued with a history, sometimes a good one, often a tragic one. As the novel progresses, the reader witnesses how the characters’ histories and their knowledge of another’s helps them shed those ghostly pasts and create a new future for themselves and each other.

The White Hare immerses the reader in a poignant lesson of how the past and present are ever intertwined. Lingering in the latent, vibrating background is the White Hare herself, a spirit that inhabits the land and the haunted history that comes alive in her presence. The novel suggests that there is a world beyond our own mundane one, in which we are embedded. In The White Hare this is the magical, historical world, a state of being in which the past and present are not constrained by the physics of time.

What was also very satisfying for me was the way in which the novel resolves. Not only do the characters come to their own organic conclusions, but history also is validated and finds a place of belonging in the present in a very real, tangible way. It emphasizes Johnson’s narrative: that the past is never as far away as it might seem, it is really buried — sometimes literally — in our contemporary moment. For readers who love long, nuanced resolutions and endings, The White Hare delivers in abundance; nothing is left hanging.

This is a novel that takes the reader on a rollercoaster of emotions, from sadness to anger to pity to redemptive hope. It is inspiring. It is queasy in some parts. Reader, be warned, there are mentions of abuse, gendered and sexual violence, violence and murder. Ultimately, for me, this was an inspiring tale of vindication and hope.

The Salt Roads: A Novel by Nalo Hopkinson

The Salt Roads: A Novel by Nalo Hopkinson

The Salt Roads is a bold statement about black womanhood across historical space and time past. The novel unfolds in magical chronology; it is a fantasy/magical realist novel that is grounded in history, but woven together through the movements of a spirit-being, Ezili and the Ginen goddess, Lasirén. The spiritual relationship is never fully explained — adding to the magical aspect — between Ezili, Lasirén and the human women whose bodies these spirits inhabit at various moments in time. The salt roads of the title is the trail of tears black women have cried, the salt of those tears having dried and laid a path for all those who came after. It is a well-trod path. Ezili and Lasirén live and relive, walk and walk again on that same path, possessing different bodies.

The plot revolves around three disparate stories, loosely connected by a shared history of racism, gendered suffering, and life-affirming black sexuality. The first lifetime that the novel opens with is that of Mer, an old Ginen woman, a respected elder and healer in the enslaved community in an unnamed French colony in the West Indies. Through her eyes and hands, Mer/Ezili helps the Ginen on the plantation survive their white master’s rages, their unpredictable cruelties. In this lifetime we also encounter Makandal, the male counterpart to Mer/Ezili, another magical being who also seeks to help the Ginen survive, but in different ways. Mer is the female, the feminine, the woman who knows what other women in this oppressed world need to survive. Makandal is the male, the masculine, the combative counterpart.

The second body Ezili occupies belongs to a mixed-race woman in France in 1842, Jeanne Duval (aka Lemer and Prosper). Jeanne is a dancer, an actress, a courtesan, the mistress of a white man. She embodies black sensuality and sexuality in all its forms. Here I think is Hopkinson’s great contribution: the boldness of her sexual prose disrupts the negative images history has painted of black women’s sex. Historical depictions of black women as sexual beings pose Her as savage, deviant, an object to possess. Hopkinson wipes that away. Jeanne Duval is a powerful sexual woman, human and frail and vibrant in her sexuality. She is a temptress, but sex is her weapon, one she has full control over.

The third manifestation of Ezili/Lasirén is called Thais, Meritet, Mary, and Pretty Pearl. Her time is in ancient Egypt. As in Mer’s lifetime, Thais’ experiences are deeply gendered; her body is a sexual, reproductive source and her life is shaped by oppression under forces larger than herself.

Hopkinson’s prose is beautiful, song-like in parts, especially in the sections where Ezili and Lasirén’s voice(s) narrate events. Their spirit presence is attached to, but not fully part of their human manifestation’s consciousness. They are experiencing humanity through the bodies they possess as much as they are imparting their power and strength to these women.

The novel is not a historical fiction in the traditional sense; it is not factually informative, but it conveys the affect and emotional experience of enslaved, black, women’s history. It conveys the psychological tensions of this history. It also shows the reader a different way to view the historical enslaved black woman, a woman who has become an archetype. Hopkinson revises Her, suffuses Her with a humanity through raw sexuality and the materiality of her womb.