Thursday, July 22, 2010

How Do We Go On? Living in the Face of Suffering

I recently finished two extremely different books that both dealt with the issue of how we as individuals and as a nation can continue living a supposedly normal and disinterested existence when we know what other people are experiencing around the world.

The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake, is a novel that is set in 1940 and 1941; the novel depicts the stories of the people living in a tiny coastal town in Massachustes (literally the last town in America before hitting the Atlantic Ocean), specifically the postmaster, Iris, the town mechanic, Harry, and the new doctor, Will, and his new wife, Emma. The novel also follows Frankie Bard, a woman reporter covering the Blitz in London and then trying to discover what the Nazis are really doing to all the Jews the are relocating.

The other book is The Bread of Angels, by Stephanie Saldana. In this memoir, Saldana recounts the year she spent in Syria (2004-2005); Saldana discusses the people she met, the struggles (emotional, spiritual, and physical) she encountered, and the most definitely unorthodox decisions that she made as a result of her time spent in Syria.

Both of these books were very fast reads for me, but I found The Bread of Angels to be a much more authentic answer to the question of how to continue living in the face of suffering. Saldana confronted the repercussions of war, poverty, and religious differences with honesty and authenticity; I never felt like she was hiding her pain or her indecision regarding suffering from the reader. In fact, I think it was Saldana's raw pain, doubt, fear, and insecurity that made this such a compulsive read for me. I didn't necessarily agree with all of Saldana's thoughts, resolutions, and answers, but I still found the book to be an honest portrait of a woman striving to define and live by what was important and mattered most to her.

Sarah Blake, on the other hand, ruined the good work that she did in her novel by feeling the need to explain that she was dealing with how people continued living, unchanged, in the face of suffering. I was interested to learn what inspired Blake to write her novel, but I felt a bit patronized by her explanation of why she discussed the Blitz and Frankie Bard's journey through Nazi-occupied Europe. Coincidentally, it was Frankie Bard's train journey, spent recording the stories of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi regime, that resonated most deeply for me; it was the least forced and most authentic part of Blake's story, and it was the part of the novel that evoked the deepest, truest emotions in me. It clearly presented the juxtaposition that Blake sought and was powerful enough to make Blake's explanation unnecessary. By contrast, the rest of the novel seemed to be working too hard to prove a point (a point that didn't necessarily match her content) without just letting the story be told.

Interestingly, The Postmistress has stayed with me, largely because of how it ended. I realize that part of the reason that I like Victorian literature so much is that there is always a neatly wrapped-up ending, and oftentimes those endings are happy. This was not the case with The Postmistress. I didn't feel as though the ending fit the book; it seemed as though Blake wanted to infuse as much suffering as possible into her novel, but, ironically, she never attempted to make sense of that suffering. Saldana, however, presented just as much pain and suffering, but all that pain and suffering (even though much of it was senseless and unnecessary) became a necessary piece of how her story was told.

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