Arusha

October 12, 2009 by Editor 

Title: ARUSHA
Author: J.E. Knowles
Publisher: Spinsters Ink, 2009
ISBN: 978-1935226093
Rating: 3 stars
Genre: Drama

Edith Rignaldi, the forty-something wife and mother at the heart of this novel, lives a life of quiet desperation in small-town Tennessee until her family falls apart and she begins to discover herself. The narrative voice shifts from Edith’s viewpoint to those of her husband Joe, her son Jeremy and her daughter Dana. All the viewpoints are handled sensitively and clearly enough not to confuse the reader.

The author knows her territory. The suffocating community of Poudre Valley, Tennessee (site of a munitions factory during the American War of Independence in the 1770s, named in honour of the French allies of the American colonists) is dominated by the Methodist morality that Edith grew up with, and its chief mouthpiece in the book is her Aunt Anna, who brings God into every conversation. Edith is a Grade Eight science teacher who considers herself conservative at the beginning of the book because she more-or-less accepts the family values that her family has practiced for generations.

During the scene-setting chapters, the reader learns that Joe is sexually frustrated and that Edith simply accepts the fact that sex only happens when a couple wants to make a baby. Slowly, it becomes clear that Joe and Edith have had a pact from the time he proposed to her in 1970. He knew then that he was attracted to men, but he wanted children and was terrified of the dismal fate of known homosexuals. He loves Edith in his own way, and she loves him in hers, so for almost twenty years they have coexisted in a marriage they both jokingly describe as “arranged.”

Joe (Guiseppi) is one of the most heartbreaking characters in the novel. Edith met him in Chicago, where she went to university, and he agreed to move to her home in Tennessee, where he was bound to be seen as an exotic outsider; his family is Italian Catholic. Soon after the wedding, Joe’s mother Isabella moved south to join the young couple. She lives next door, often cooks for the family, and bicycles to Mass every Sunday while Edith, Joe and the kids go to their own church. For years, Joe seems happy enough teaching elementary school, since he loves the innocent company of children.

Jeremy, the firstborn, seems inarticulate and unreachable to his mother, although he expresses himself by playing the guitar. He and his slightly-younger sister Dana seethe with teenage frustration and a visceral knowledge that their family is not really as it appears to be. Sixteen-year-old Dana calls most of the adults in her life “hypocrites.” When Jeremy has his first epileptic seizure, this is the catalyst that starts shaking the family apart.

Is this really a lesbian novel? Yes, but the woman-to-woman attraction doesn’t appear until more than halfway through the narrative, and then it only reaches fruition (so to speak) when Edith, her daughter Dana and their two close female friends go on a once-in-lifetime trip to Arusha, a town in east Africa where actual peace talks in 1993 failed to prevent the slaughter of the Tutsis by the Hutus in Rwanda. Somehow the horrific violence in an African country is meant to echo the conflict in Edith’s life.

Edith’s disturbing (to her) crush on Linda, a woman she met in an Episcopalian women’s Bible-study group, is presented as the real love that Edith has unconsciously been seeking all her life. Like Joe, Linda loves children so much that she has been willing to accept low-paid child-minding jobs all her life, and she has gained wisdom through suffering. Unlike Joe, Linda is sexually attracted to Edith and she literally seems like a godsend, although Edith is unable to accept a sexual relationship with her until near the end of the book.

This novel consists of several different plots which are each well presented, but which don’t create a coherent effect. The murder-mystery subplot is suspenseful and resolved in a way that is both intellectually satisfying and emotionally convincing. The descriptions of the small Rignaldi family home, in which everyone desperately needs privacy once in awhile, and where spaghetti stains and knife gouges in the kitchen floor suggest warfare, work equally well on a literal and a symbolic level.

Just as there are subtle cracks in the “agreement” between Edith and Joe at the beginning of the book, there are subtle discrepancies between what the author tells us and what she shows us. Edith claims that she became a science teacher because chemical reactions are indisputable even when shown (or explained) by a woman. However, her stream of consciousness largely consists of word-games: puns and verbal associations. She thinks more like a novelist than like someone who sees the world in scientific terms, yet we are not told that she wants to stop teaching science so that she can write a novel like the one in which she appears. Edith’s awareness of the AIDS pandemic could have led her to think about the biological processes involved, yet it does not.

The reader is teased with questions about Dana’s emerging sexuality. Is she a lesbian with a crush on her worldly-wise roommate? Is she bisexual? Dana steadfastly remains “asexual” (her term for herself) throughout four years of university. She is clearly interested in people but not in sex as such, and this seems to be a quality she inherited from her mother.

Descriptions of the American cultural zeitgeist of the 1980s and ‘90s in this book work better for this reviewer than references to American “conservatism” in the late 1960s and ‘70s. That was the era of Janis Joplin’s famous formula for staying fit: “sex and drugs and rock-and-roll.” It seems unlikely that two students at the University of Chicago in that time would be completely unaware of contemporary social upheavals: the creation of a birth-control pill that helped launch the “sexual revolution,” the Stonewall Riots that kicked off the “gay rights” movement, “women’s lib,” “Black Power” and riots in the ghettos, the slogan that “God is Dead.” Students like Edith and Joe might well have been frightened into a pact to lead a traditional life together, but they would have been aware of making a choice.

The descriptions of wildlife and architecture in Tanzania are colourful, and the conversations about the morality of tourism are thought-provoking, but the claim that the four women are going there as “witnesses” in a Christian sense, rather than as tourists, seems hollow. They are on a tour rather than a mission of any kind, and although one of the women is of African descent and has some knowledge of several languages, none of them has any chance of influencing political events in the region. The massacre in Rwanda ultimately looks like a red herring or a digression from the major issues that have already been introduced.

However, the author knows how to set a scene and introduce characters that can be imagined living in the real world. For patient readers who are not looking for lots of hot lesbian sex, this book is a rewarding read.

REVIEWED BY JEAN ROBERTA

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