The Attic Child: A Novel by Lola Jaye

The Attic Child: A Novel by Lola Jaye

Something draws me to themes of tragedy and darkness in my choice of reading. The Attic Child might very well be one of the darker — if not darkest — novels I’ve read this year. This is a novel about strength, resilience shaped by necessity of survival and trauma; but it is not only the characters who must cultivate and wield this kind of strength, the novel requires the reader to be brave and hardy too. The reader must be to bear the suffering of reading about the suffering of others.

The pain is intentional. Jaye’s novel addresses, with unflinching realness, the lived trauma of colonialism by highlighting the literal theft of human beings European colonizers forced People of Color and colonial subjects to endure. The novel forces the reader to see how this history is very much present in our contemporary moment, that it is has caused intergenerational harm beyond measure.

As a historian of decolonization I am grateful for a novel like this — and happy to see that it was distributed on a platform as wide and well known as The Book of The Month Club (which is where I obtained it). We — those who come from parts of Europe’s former empires and those whose ancestors benefited from those empires, that is, everyone — need books like this, stories like this, voices like Jaye’s to declare that the grief and loss and wounds of colonialism are still not healed, closed, “over.”

The novel spans many generations and decades, beginning at the start of the twentieth century with a young boy who lives with his family on the African continent. He becomes the Attic Child, the first of many — children shut away, abused, neglected. He is robbed of his identity and his heritage. The story of a young woman who lives in a time closer to our present intertwines with his. The reader is aware there is a connection between the two, something hidden in the attic and the house in which both of these characters grow up, both of them “attic children.” The mystery the reader will find themselves embroiled in is how they are connected and why.

As the mystery unfolds it also deepens, its roots are long and twisted and dangerous. The mystery exposes the characters to pain and the possibility of new emotional wounds. The threat of scarring is real. But they are both hurtling through history and time and must live their lives. If there is a history lesson here, it is that we cannot escape history or making history, as we do so simply by living.

The novel does not pretend to heal the pain of this history. Reader should not expect to be bandaged or coddled in any way. But the novel does end as a historian might expect, with the lesson that history does not end, it goes on and on and therefore, that is itself a kind of closure. Perhaps, the ending is something more of a suture than a healing.

This is a tough and exacting book to read, but one which will not fail to provoke emotion. This is a significant novel.

Enough: A Memoir of Mistakes, Mania, and Motherhood by Amelia Zachry

Enough: A Memoir of Mistakes, Mania, and Motherhood
by Amelia Zachry

This was an incredibly difficult memoir to read, but I am grateful that I did. Part of the hand-to-my-throat factor for me was how close Zachry’s experiences were to my own. Like her I am a Malaysian woman, one who entered the slipstream of migration and has become a transcultural, transnational creature with feet and hands in multiple worlds.

I also recognized the gaslighting and the gendered physical and psychological violence embedded in Malaysian culture. I recognized the gaslighting and gendered violence she experienced embedded in human society everywhere.

This was hard, so hard, to read at so many points. I had to put this book down multiple times. But the discomfort it caused was also what forced me to return to it. The kind of emotional disturbance Zachry’s memoir inflicts is that which can only be excised by pushing through all the way to the end.

I am glad I returned to it, acknowledged her pain my own (caused by reading it) and kept going in spite of all that. There is more than suffering in this memoir. Zachry illuminates a healing path too.

Zachry’s memoir is not a Malaysian one, although this is a cultural aspect of her experience that cannot be brushed aside. In this I recognized Zachry’s heritage as akin to my own; women told to swallow their pride, their pain, their voices. It is a world in which women remain — and are expected to remain — invisible. And this is true across Malaysia’s many cultures, ethnicities, and religious communities. For all the lovely tropical lushness of Malaysia, it is not a paradise for everyone; feminism is throttled by legal manipulations, feminists ostracized as social pariahs (even when Western-style feminism is eschewed in favor of local versions of feminism.)

But, I digress; Enough is not a memoir of a culture. Zachry’s experience is one that is all too familiar and common across cultures and in all societies. It is an extraordinary story of a crime that is horrendously ordinary. Hers was a life lived by many people; that’s what makes Enough so memorable, so relatable, so important to read.

Zachry’s memoir begins at her beginning, with childhood, then takes the reader into her teenage and early adult years. It is then that Zachry’s life is altered by an event that haunts her (even now after she has found ways to manage it). The bulk of this memoir is devoted to Zachry’s struggle with the trauma of this event, her path to a recovery, and it ends with a substantial section on her present life which shifts the focus to the traumas of migration and the development of her transcultural identity. Zachry’s journey to a happy place is not one filled with woo-woo cures or unattainable magic pills. Zachry documents how hard work, emotional work punctuated by slips and backslides is the tried and true path; one accessible to all of us, at least in theory.

This is a memoir for all women because this is a story we all know, first-hand, second-hand, or otherwise.