The most radical thing a woman can do is live.
Under the Visible Life is the story of two women, Mahsa Weaver and Katherine Goodnow, who have two things in common: 1) jazz 2) their mixed heritage and the issues which have come with it.
Mahsa’s born in Karachi to an Afghan mother and an American father who’s come to Afghanistan to work on the dam projects.
From the beginning my parents were teetering on their own brink. I did not have them for long. They were murdered when I was thirteen.
Murdered by her mother’s half-brothers following the death of their father. The men are questioned and released. After being hidden for seven days, Mahsa goes to live with her Aunt and Uncle.
The day before he was shot, Abbu had taken me to Clifton Road to a little shop where anyone could make a record for ten rupees. I played a tune I made up…and they pressed it into a little 45 record…The woman printing the label asked what was the title of my tune. I had not thought of a name so I said, That is called “Abbu’s Song”, and his face flushed and he put his long arm around my shoulders and said, Thank you, Porcupine. That is the best gift I ever received. In this way I learned how important my music could be.
Her Aunt persuades her Uncle to allow her to stay in school and to go to the 007 club on weekends to practice the piano. When they discover she’s met a boy, they send her away to Montreal to university.
Katherine’s taken from her mother at three months old. Her mother’s sent to the Belmont reformatory because she’s living with Katherine’s father, a Chinese migrant worker. At six months, Katherine’s moved to a children’s home and then a foster home when she’s a year old. Nine months later, her mother’s out of Belmont and, despite the social worker’s efforts, bringing Katherine home to NYC with her.
She always talked about being independent, as if it were some kind of specialised state not available to most women.
As a child, Katherine overhears her mother’s conversations with Nan, their neighbour, and begins to realise her sacrifices:
I hung around and listened because I never knew things about Ma like she wanted money and a shop. I thought she liked our life. Why didn’t she tell me what she wanted?
Ma’s solution about a lot of things was to lock up her heart and keep her real self hidden. How many women have done that to protect their children? To make their own lives possible?
At fourteen, Katherine spends the summer in the hotel her mother works in. There she befriends Harold Kudlets, talent agent, and hears Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Jack Teagarden and Bobby Hackett when her mum works nights. She teaches herself to play piano then, at sixteen, when her mum’s depressed and unable to leave the apartment, Katherine starts sneaking out to play with jazz bands.
Mahsa and Katherine meet when Mahsa takes a trip to New York and they end up playing on the same bill. It’s the beginning of a life-long friendship which will take in relationships, children, babies and jazz.
I opened Under the Visible Life concerned that it would be a Western take on Middle Eastern society and that I’d find it stereotypical and frustrating. What I found was a story of two women who want independence but are prevented from having it in different ways. There is consideration of the culture clash between Afghanistan and Canada – although it largely works to highlight the hypocrisy of Mahsa’s relatives – but the novel’s main interest is in the position of women in patriarchal societies. Women are controlled or abandoned. Either way, they are expected to conform while men can behave as they wish.
Echlin’s prose is clean and precise. There are piercing statements about what it’s like to be a woman on almost every page:
Ma and Nan began to seem insignificant to me. Wasting time drinking coffee. Sitting with cards and cigarettes. Most women were insignificant.
I was wondering how I could go on with the loud ticking of that man’s time bomb inside me and how I could go on without it.
Raising our kids, everything was urgent and necessary, and it took twenty years of attentiveness. Then it was done. Like crumbs on a table. Wipe. Gone.
I was completely wrapped up in Masha and Katherine’s stories. It didn’t hurt that I’m a fan of jazz music and New York, but it was the trajectory of the women’s lives and the sacrifices they made – whether intentional or circumstantial (within which I include those sacrifices women make because society expects it) – that had me gripped. It was the first time since Americanah that I simultaneously wanted to keep reading and didn’t want the novel to end. The two protagonists are so vividly drawn I felt as though I knew them.
Under the Visible Life is a brilliant book and a definite for my books of the year.
Thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the review copy.