Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Barbara Trapido

AndiF's bag of "Brit Lit" included two novels by Barbara Trapido:  The Travelling Hornplayer and Frankie & Stankie.  I had never read anything by Trapido before and, after reading the The Travelling Hornplayer,  I was happy to have another of her novels to start immediately.

The Travelling Hornplayer is an ensemble story but it revolves around a cast of characters that knew the deceased Lydia Dent who died, suddenly, as a teenage girl in London.   Her only sister Ellen Dent is profoundly changed by the death.   One of her college roommates, Stella, is the daughter of novelist Jonathan Goldman, outside of whose flat Lydia was killed.  But none of these characters seem to put the connection together, at least not at first.  

Trapido explores the relationship between siblings, the relationship between mothers and daughters, the relationship between fathers and daughters and the relationship between married people and in-laws.  She explores the effects of bereavement on relationships; she explores the effect that the expectations of family can have on the path that a child takes; she explores different types of parenting. 

I don't want to give away too much of the plot because there are many interesting plot twists.  Trapido sets a pretty decent pace  moving the story along and also using flashbacks to examine the death of Lydia.  Trapido built interesting and complex characters. I found myself swept along in the story.  

After I finished, I immediately picked up Frankie & Stankie.  When I like the way an author writes I want to read more from them.   Frankie & Stankie was published five years after The Travelling Hornplayer but it feels like it is a first novel, probably because it seemed to be semi-autobiographical and the plot was linear. It is set in South Africa, where Trapido evidently grew up and it tells the story of a girl named Dinah. 
The story begins before Dinah is school age and moves through her school years until she eventually marries and moves to London.  The story plods along examining every aspect of Dinah's life.  Dinah has a sister Lisa and, along the way, many best girlfriends.   We hear about her school classes and every little thing that happens to them along the way.  Personally I lived through elementary school once and didn't need the in depth detail of day to day life that Trapido gave me.  The plot seldom seemed to be building to anything, it just related day to day happenings. 

Dinah has what we would consider a fairly uneventful childhood and, the fact that she was a typical child, seems to be the point.   Because her life is taking place during a very eventful time in the history of South Africa - the development of institutionalized apartheid.  

What Trapido seems to be trying to do is show that it was possible to grow up as a white girl in South Africa in a liberal family and know that apartheid is happening and dislike the situation and yet ... have what the world would call a normal life of schoolwork and giggling and boy crushes.  On the one hand, I think Trapido succeeds in that but on the other hand she made it so boring that I wasn't sure it was worth reading all those pages to realize something so self evident. 

Part of the problem is that it is necessary for her to spend pages and pages (probably a third to maybe even half) the novel explaining the political situation for those of us who don't know it.   This is a novel that would have worked better with a background situation that was familiar to the readers.  I think the point is that white girls could live normal lives with apartheid simply being background noise to them most of the time until some situation or other forces them to notice it.  But the situation requires so much explanation that it is impossible to classify the political situation it as mere background noise.   I found myself comparing it unfavorably to To Kill a Mockingbird.  The racism in that novel is background noise to Scout and Jem until the plot finally reaches the trial.  That is part of what makes the story so powerful. 

It isn't as if I didn't find the history of apartheid interesting, but truthfully I'd rather learn about it from a nonfiction book than have the history interrupt a fictional story. 

So, in the end, I can strongly recommend The Travelling Hornpipe.  I'd pass on Frankie & Stankie.