Bina: A Novel in Warnings by Anakana Schofield (NYRB 2021) is as much of a delight as I’d hoped. I mean, “delight” is probably not the best word, since the novel is bitter and angry in tone and is about dark, difficult things — it’s subtitled “A Novel in Warnings,” after all — but I found it delightful anyway. The subtitle is delightful! Bina, the first person narrator, is unapologetically angry. She rants, complains, worries, has regrets, repeats herself, and I was ready to hear all of it. Bina is listed under the category “Humorous — Black Humor,” and it IS funny at times, but the humor is very dark indeed.
Bina, a 70-something Irish woman, is the narrator for most of the novel. Very close to the beginning, she explains how to pronounce her name and shows us what to expect from this book:
My name is Bina and I’m a very busy woman. That’s Bye-na not Bee-na. I don’t know who Beena is, but I expect she’s having a happy life. I don’t know who you are, or the state of your life. But if you’ve come all this way here to listen to me, your life will undoubtedly get worse. I’m here to warn you, not to reassure you.
As it turns out, Bina is writing her story not only to give warnings, but to explain and justify certain actions of hers, actions she doesn’t want to name because she will get in legal trouble if she does. She’s in a lot of legal trouble already, although it takes awhile to figure out why. She recently spent a week in jail. She’s now writing from bed, basically hiding from the world, a world that includes the “crusties,” people who have camped out in her yard to protect her from the police. She is as annoyed with them as she is with everyone else.
Bina’s narrative is mixed and muddled, written on the backs of envelopes and other scrap paper, not following any particular order (or at least not seeming to — Schofield herself has an order, I’m sure). She gets her point across through repetition, covering the same ground repeatedly as she ruminates on it. We get information slowly.
Some of what we learn is that she deeply regrets letting Eddie into her house; he was a stranger who had a motorbike accident in a ditch nearby, and after she helped him, he ended up living with her for years. It slowly became clear to her that he is manipulative and abusive. She finally managed to get rid of him but lives in fear that he will return. We also learn about the “Tall Man” who recruits her to join a mysterious group. What exactly that group does is at the heart of the novel and never stated outright. Bina describes meetings with the Tall Man as he trains her in the group’s mission, all top-secret. How she feels about the Tall Man is complex: his entry into her life has gotten her into a world of trouble, but she doesn’t regret the actions she’s taken under his guidance. She just never wanted all the disruption.
Most of the novel is from Bina’s point of view, but interspersed throughout are sections by an unnamed third-person narrator who steps in to comment on and clarify Bina’s story. It reads like someone has come along after the story is over and felt the need to add some details and an outside perspective. Amusingly, she says that Bina herself wouldn’t like this book:
Bina’s not for difficult books.
Life is full of difficulty, so if she were ever to lie down and take up a book, it couldn’t be a difficult one.
I’d never read that rubbish, she’d say of this book.
It would give me bad dreams.
At my age, I can’t be getting any darker as the lights are soon going out.
Write a nice book, she’ll tell you, about nice people, because Bina will warn you raw — you won’t find those nice people in the world! You’ll have to make them up!
We don’t know who this narrator is, but it feels like a stand-in for Schofield herself, giving us hints about who Bina is. This narrator steps in and out of Bina’s mind easily, as though they know each other well. These sections in combination with Bina’s create a sense of back-and-forth, a little bit of conversation, alternating between what Bina thinks of herself and how her friends/acquaintances/the author might describe her.
This brings me to the way the book looks on the page. Bina’s sections are marked with a little envelope, and the unnamed narrator’s sections begin and end with black dots. Both narrators use a lot of white space. Many pages look like this:
This jumpy, fragmented style shows Bina’s mental state perfectly. It’s easy to imagine her writing passages like this on the backs of envelopes as she’s lying in bed feeling scared and angry at the world. She collects all her scraps of paper into a big pile rather than sending them anywhere, like she’s trying to communicate her warnings but can’t quite do it. Thank goodness for the unnamed narrator, who uses the same fragmented style — because she really does understand Bina — and lets us know that Bina did, indeed, find her reader. Bina isn’t quite as alone and forlorn as she thinks.
The novel has footnotes too. Some of these reference one of Schofield’s other novels, Malarky: A Novel in Episodes, which I haven’t read but understand tells the story of Bina’s friend Phil. Most of the footnotes are written in Bina’s voice, as though she is talking to herself or adding extra ideas on piece of scrap paper.
The novel’s structural qualities create a sense of energy, as though Bina’s mind is overflowing with feelings and worries even as she is lying still in her bed. She has more to say, more that she is thinking about, than can be contained in one straightforward narrative. I loved listening to Bina’s voice as I read, and it doesn’t surprise me that Schofield herself is a delight to listen to: I loved her podcast interview on The Maris Review. She’s a writer I’ll follow anywhere.
Publishing This Week
New (mostly) small-press books out this week that I haven’t yet read and am adding to my TBR. Quotations from the publisher:
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (Biblioasis): I’m so looking forward to this one! “In the eighteenth century, on discovering her husband has been murdered, an Irish noblewoman drinks handfuls of his blood and composes an extraordinary lament that reaches across centuries to the young Doireann Ní Ghríofa, whose fascination with it is later rekindled when she narrowly avoids fatal tragedy in her own life.” Check out this YouTube video by the author.
Fierce and Delicate: Essays on Dance and Illness by Renée K. Nicholson (West Virginia University Press): a memoir in essays about the author’s training in ballet and what happened when she developed rheumatoid arthritis.
Sevastopol by Emilio Fraia, translated by Zoe Perry (New Directions): three loosely-linked stories: “a young woman gives a melancholy account of her obsession with climbing Mount Everest; a Peruvian-Brazilian vanishes into the forest after staying in a musty, semi-abandoned inn…; a young playwright embarks on the production of a play about the city of Sevastopol….”
Pure Flame: A Legacy by Michelle Orange (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux): I liked Michelle Orange’s earlier essay collection, This is Running For Your Life very much. “Through a blend of memoir, social history, and cultural criticism, Pure Flame pursues a chain of personal, intellectual, and collective inheritance, tracing the forces that helped transform the world and what a woman might expect from it.”
October Child by Linda Boström Knausgård, translated by Saskia Vogel (World Editions): “From 2013 to 2017, Linda Boström Knausgård was periodically confined to a psychiatric ward and subjected to electroconvulsive therapy, resulting in the loss of memories. This is the story of her struggle against mental illness and isolation.”
New on the TBR
New books acquired (quotations from the publisher):
Problems by Jade Sharma (Coffee House Press/Emily Books, 2016): this book has been on my radar forever! “Dark, raw, and very funny, Problems introduces us to Maya, a young woman with a smart mouth, time to kill, and a heroin hobby that isn't much fun anymore.”
Savage Conversations by Leanne Howe (Coffee House Press, 2019): I got this and the next book as part of the new Pilsen Community Books Bread and Roses subscription program. This is a play, mostly in poetry, about Mary Todd Lincoln: “a daring account of a former first lady and the ghosts that tormented her for the contradictions and crimes on which this nation is founded.”
An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Beacon Press, 2015): “The first history of the United States told from the perspective of indigenous peoples.”
Added to my wishlist (books that have caught my eye but I don’t yet own):
The Second Body by Daisy Hildyard (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018): I’ve known about this book for a long time but haven’t been able to figure out what it’s about. I finally realized I need this book because that’s exactly the kind of book I like.
Literary Translation and the Making of Originals by Karen Emmerich (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017): After This Little Art, I want more books on translation.
Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto by Mark Polizzotti (MIT Press, 2019): another book on translation!
Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge (Algonquin, 2021): my current audiobook, historical fiction set in the 19th century in a free Black community in Brooklyn.
The Natural Mother of the Child: A Memoir of Nonbinary Parenthood by Krys Malcolm Belc (Counterpoint, publishing June 15th): I just finished this fascinating memoir about pregnancy and parenthood as a nonbinary person.
Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth, translated by Charlotte Barslund (Verso Fiction, 2019): a novel of family trauma and secrets. I’m about 70 pages in and am absorbed in the story.
The Cormac Report
The other day Cormac asked me if he could have some books in the Big Nate series. He was reluctant to ask, and I never figured out why, but it must be because it’s a series aimed at older kids, in the vein of Diary of a Wimpy Kid full of mischief and bad behavior. He said he read the first two Big Nate books at school, and I’m not sure if he found them in his teacher’s collection or at the school library. It doesn’t really matter; I’ve ordered the first three books from our local bookstore. I’m pretty sure he’ll read them in the way he reads the Wimpy Kid books, meaning he will find characters who misbehave fascinating but won’t want to follow in their footsteps. Perhaps he’s like me in that respect: he likes reading about characters who do bad things, but prefers to keep such behavior at a distance. Seems okay??
Have a good week everyone!