*See the 2 previous posts also for reviews of Cion.
By far and without a doubt this is the strangest story with the most strangest characters I have EVER read!!!!! And that is saying something since I’m a huge fan of Zadie Smith, Gayle Jones, and Toni Morrison. I guess Cion would fall under magic realism.
It did take me over half way through the book before I was able to really relax into the unfolding of events and just allow the story to tell its tale without making judgements about the characters and the writing itself. I found the writing disjointed. One technical aspect that was appealing was the way Toloki, the central character, addresses the reader directly in spots and refers to Mda’s other book, Ways of Dying, in which Toloki is also the central character.
Another line that I loved is when Toloki says to Orpah “you are a fabric poet” in reference to her drawings for art quilts. I’m entertaining using the description on my business cards…Karen Davis, Fabric Poet. Of course no one would have a clue about what that really is, but I sure do love the idea.
The next book in the challenge will be Mda’s Ways of Dying.
I cannot believe I started this book the first of the year…jeez! At this rate I’m behind on my challenge.
At about 1/3 of the way through I found myself confusing the view of the protagonist with the view of the author in what at times seem caricatural approaches to the African American characters. I also struggled with development of the story in that it a bit choppy and does integrate the present story with the supporting flashback stories.
Last week I piled off the magazines and other books that buried it on my bedside table and started again. I reached the decision that the book is as much a comedy as it is anything else (could easily see it as a movie) . The view of the protagonist who is from South Africa balances a naievete against his own truths as he observes the people and community that make up Kilvert, Ohio and it is this which accounts for his seeing but not seeing.
Tonight I forged over half way through and finally reached a line that that makes it worth the price. Before I share it…let me summarize just a bit: Toloki, the protagonist, is like a child examining his new surroundings and community of people. He is directly speaking to the reader…as if he is reporting to me from, as if I know him from having read about him in Mda’s previous book about the same character. The gist of the book is about how we come to our cultural mythologies that sustain us or not. Mda uses the controversies around the authenticity of “slave code quilts” and “traditional quilts vs. art quilts” to explore the above. But this isn’t clear until the beginning of the 2nd half of the book. At first it seemed like he was employing the belief in “slave code quilts” to carry the story along. Mda teaches at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio…a super-fantastic spot to write this novel as it is the home of Quilt National and south eastern Ohio’s importance in the Underground Railroad.
As many years I’ve been online hanging out in quilter’s venues, I can’t believe I’ve never heard this book mentioned!!!!! I’ll come back and post when I finish. Here is the line that made me howl:
Orpah (which I keep reading as Oprah…hmmm, Mda…what’s up with that?) an artist in the family of the strange lot of the Quigley clan. She quips on page 156 to protest making tradional quilts as her mother Ruth wants, NO, INSISTS, she make or never, ever touch her sewing machine, “Them slaves did all the escaping for me. I want to invent patterns that tell my own story. Like my music. Nobody’s gonna tell me not to play bluegrass on a sitar.”
I found the Cion Blog here.
I’m intrigued…the first chapter is narrated by Toloki, a professional mourner for the dead, from South Africa who has arrived in Athens Ohio…it is Halloween and he is very observant of this peculiar American custom. There is an underlay of humour for me in Toloki’s detailed descriptions although Toloki, himself, is serious and observant. Fate pairs him with Obed Quigley, who is dressed as a ghost of a former African slave, Nicodemus, who was killed in a house in Athens. Through this developing friendship Toloki finds himself in the family home of Obed where he meets Mr. Quigley, the gnome garden attendant and Obed’s father, Ruth Quigley, Obed’s mother, who is the keeper of the family’s culture by way of recipes and quilts thus far…she is described as very obese and now I’m wondering if that is symbolic for a woman who holds the secrets of one’s culture???? just something to think about…Obed has a sister (who has remained unseen) named Orpah which I kept reading as Oprah. She has remained in her bedroom playing on her sitar.
The second chapter switches to an unknown narrator. Mda pulls from the general knowledge base of the industry of slaving and given it to individual circumstances to tell the events that gave birth to Nicodemus…the slave that Obed impersonated for Halloween. I’m wondering if Nicodemus will be a blood related ancestor to the Quigley clan.
So far, the book has been a visual experience but at the end of the first chapter, Ruth brings out two quilts made by her great great grandmother and asks Toloki to “smell them” (I thought that was peculiar and it got my attention…who would ask someone to “smell” a quilt??). Two sentences struck me: “The peculiar smell is the smell of history” and “The story is told by the earthy scent of the quilts”. I had a very old quilt that was well used when I got it from my great grandmother and I still wanted to continue using it but wanted to get that peculiar smell out…I washed it and it fell apart…I continued to kinda use it but kept washing it until it was in pieces. (This was 30 years ago so forgive me for I knew not).
The book cover art is beautiful!