|Jacket design by Nico Taylor|
Yara Rodrigues Fowler
Fleet/ Little Brown, 21 February 2019
This is the first of four reviews I'm doing as part of shadow judging the The Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award. I am part of the Shadow Panel which will make its own choice from the shortlist for the award.
The four shortlisted books are Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler (Fleet/ Little, Brown), Testament by Kim Sherwood (riverrun), The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus (Penned in the Margins) and salt slow by Julia Armfield (Picador).
Yara Rodrigues Fowler is a British Brazilian novelist from South London. Stubborn Archivist, published in 2019 in the UK and USA, is her first novel. It was called ’stunning’ by Olivia Laing, ‘visceral and elegant’ by Claire-Louise Bennett and ‘breathtakingly written’ by Nikesh Shukla. Yara was named one of The Observer’s nine ‘hottest-tipped’ debut novelists of 2019 and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize. Yara is also a trustee of Latin American Women’s Aid, an organisation that runs the only two refuges in Europe for and by Latin American women. She’s writing her second novel now, for which she received the John C Lawrence Award from the Society of Authors towards research in Brazil.
About the book
"A bold debut novel exploring the nuances and the spaces between ourselves and our bodies, told through the shards collected by our own stubborn archivist. When your mother considers another country home, it’s hard to know where you belong. When the people you live among can’t pronounce your name, it’s hard to know exactly who you are. And when your body no longer feels like your own, it’s hard to understand your place in the world. This is a novel of growing up between cultures, of finding your space within them and of learning to live in a traumatized body. Our stubborn archivist tells her story through history, through family conversations, through the eyes of her mother, her grandmother and her aunt and slowly she begins to emerge into the world, defining her own sense of identity."
Stubborn Archivist is a novel exploring the experiences and identity of a young woman of Brazilian-English heritage. Born in London to a Brazilian mother and an English father, she, the archivist of the title (which is I think an allusion to her role in observing her family) narrates her early life (borrowing from family stories) and her memories of travelling to Brazil for family reunions at Christmas. We see her growing up in early 00s London, leaving for university, making and falling out of friendships and always, always, returning to Brazil.
It's all beautifully, even poetically portrayed but it's impossible to convey that with a carefully selected quote or two because - and this is the first thing I need to say about Stubborn Archivist - the book is (for me) very experimental in its structure (or perhaps, rather, in its form?) Rodrigues Fowler delights in space, allowing her text almost to dance against the blankness - a handful of worlds will be emphasised by being printed alone at the top of a page, or bleeding down the side
She enthusiastically jumbles her sentences in places or runs words together, creating something much more like the patterns and rhythms of thoughts and feelings than conventional text.
There are pages with a block of text at the top and nothing after. There are words which morph into one another down the page, stretching meanings into sounds and sounds into meaning and playing to the rhythms of language (something very important in this book where there is a running point about people not being able to pronounce the Archivist's name: 'What's your name? He repeated the syl-la-bles.').
Now I thought I couldn't do with this sort of thing (trying to describe it, I realise I've probably made it seem very pretentious) and I worried, when I opened Stubborn Archivist, that it would be a barrier for me. But I found it all actually worked very well and far from being a barrier, it opened up the world of the Archivist and her family, removing the sense of distance that can be created by prose (however polished, perhaps especially if polished) and giving the book a much less formal air that complements its subjects and themes very well.
The book works on you at a different level than plot, sentences and logic, whispering through its convolved text to tell you about its themes - growing up, origins, belonging, not belonging. We are given scenes in the Archivist's life. There are events in her childhood both from her own perspective and as passed on to her by her family, for example the first visit of her Brazilian grandparents - her beloved Vovô and Vovó - to her parents' small London flat when she's a baby. We see the little surprises, the accommodations, as English and Brazilian cultures encounter one another and the ways in which they merge, jostle and accept each other, lubricated, as it were, by familial love (and with some effort, at times).
That basic picture endures as the Archivist grows up, the story taking in joyous, illicit teenage evenings out in London with her friend Jade, experiences with boys, and her exploration of her family's past. There is both acceptance and rejection of those different underlying cultures (the latter when a friendship founders as the friend wants to visit Brazil but can't shed her preconceptions), a romance that peters out, symbolised by the boyfriend wanting to impose his views over hairstyle, and, a recurring theme, the question (from both Brazilans and English) "But when did you move to London?"
It's perhaps symbolised most by the layered descriptions of the flight between England and Brazil. As a child (the first being beyond memory). As a teenager, doing it alone for the first time. As a seasoned traveller, who knows just what to pack and how, where to sit, how to make the flight work for her. And I haste, for a funeral. These layers build up, both distinct and, somehow, existing together, illuminating each other so that it's almost as if several different women are making the trip together.
In the same way, events bleed out of one context and into another and some of those more poetic renderings intercut, playing with worlds, morphing them from English to Portuguese, almost singing names and phrases. There are the different challenges laid down to the reality of this Anglo-Brazilian woman - not only the "When did you move...?" but the assumptions about her and the two sides of her family. An employer (a media organisation) seems to see her as "their Brazilian" and sets her to researching cosmetic surgery or gang violence. But at the same time, working in the staff restaurant, is Tiago, a much more interesting subject of research...
This is a book that's impossible to summarise. There are so many threads. It looks back to Brazilian politics in the 90s, with police brutality and disappearances. It takes in something that happened to the protagonist, which has left her, at some level, traumatised and uneasy, possibly with physical consequences - whatever happened is hinted at and explored here but rarely confronted, although it does seem to come to a resolution. And that stands for much of this book in a way - all those layers, those different version of the same woman, lend the story a sense of completion so that the story isn't happening in front of us, as it were, more being documented - a kind of coolness in the perspective which contrasts with the closeness from the textual style.
It was a book I found easy to read, easy to take big gulps of, so to speak, a story and a life that really grabbed attention, told with great verve and compelling attention tuition from the reader. Truly a magnificent read and I book that I think I'll go back to, one with a great deal more to give on rereading.
For more information about Stubborn Archivist see the publisher's website here.