Under the Visible Life was recommended to me last week. It had received a lot of praise from female readers, and my wonderful contact at Penguin, Elizabeth, thought it would be interesting to get a male take. At first I thought there wouldn't be much of a difference if the novel was a quality read: I've read books written by female authors as well as books with female protagonists--there is usually no real barrier unless the major focus on the book is femininity.
I won't say that this is one of those cases, but the focus of the book is on strength and being a woman.
The story told is a good one--very solid. There were no points in the novel that I felt uncomfortable, like I should really be a woman to read and love this book. I did like it very much, but I certainly think there was something lacking in my association with the characters.
Katherine was born in Hamilton, Ontario in, I want to say, the 1940s. Her mother was white, her father Chinese. Interracial marriages were a definite no-no at this time, sadly, and her mother was arrested and institutionalized for "being incorrigible." She fought hard to get out and get her daughter back. Katherine grows up in poverty and falls in love with jazz music, becoming a very talented pianist playing in clubs underage. She goes on to marry and have three kids with T, a saxophonist who struggles with drug addiction and can't really commit to be present in Katherine and his children's lives. Katherine moves to New York with her kids to pursue her career as a jazz pianist and makes do as a single mother with very little money.
Mahsa is a half-Afghani, half-American girl in Karachi whose parents are slain by her uncles for their family's honour. She goes on to live with her other aunt and uncle (more accepting although not the ideal family for Westerners) and learns to play the piano. She meets Kamal, loses her virginity and gets pregnant. She, being a teenager, has an abortion and never tells Kamal--who she loves--about it. She decides she wants to move to Canada--Montreal, Quebec specifically--to study (at McGill.) There, she finds a freedom she had never experienced, embraces the Jazz scene and lives a life she only dreamed of. On a visit back to Pakistan, her dreams are dashed: her passport is stolen from her and she is forced to marry Ali--a business man whom she was promised to. Ali would bring his business to Montreal and the life that Mahsa knew would be no longer. They have two children in a loveless marriage.
Mahsa meets Katherine on a trip to New York and they become best friends. They play piano and Katherine arranges for them to record together. Ali is not happy with Mahsa's creativity and does everything he can to stifle it. He decides that Mahsa is a bad influence on her daughter, Lailani, and sends her to live with her grandparents in Pakistan. In order to get her daughter back, Mahsa agrees to comply with her husband. Of course, she doesn't really...
There is a lot of overcoming in the novel. Katherine overcomes being a woman in a male-run Jazz scene, Mahsa overcomes the constraints of her husband. The story certainly has feminist undertones--whether it is overt or not, I'm not sure. I have no problem with that, as like many males of my generation, I happen to be a feminist.
I think Echlin's purpose was to show that the archaic views of 1940s Canada continued into the 70s and is still prevalent in some parts of the world today. It's an important message to relay, and, hopefully, it will be a very foreign one sooner than later.
It was a good book: not great, but good. I think that anyone can read it, whether male or female.
I do wonder, however, if I would have appreciated it more if I'd had dealt with some of the struggles of being a woman.