Debi Alper is the author of the Nirvana series of thrillers, set among the sub-cultures of south London. Her first two books were Nirvana Bites and Trading Tatiana. Debi has worked as a shop assistant, editorial assistant, data controller, book keeper, administrator, finance officer and farm labourer, among many other jobs, but she is now happy to be writing full time. She blogs at Debi Alper. Here Debi discusses Simone Schwarz-Bart's The Bridge of Beyond.
Debi Alper on The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart
I can't recall a time when I didn't devour books. I remember working my way through the children's library, always several years in advance of their recommended reading age. By the time I reached double figures, I had already exhausted everything on offer and had progressed into the adult section.
So many books... so short a life... The same is true today. Life cannot possibly be long enough to read all the books you would wish. It's only fairly recently that I decided that if I started a book and didn't like it, it was acceptable not to finish it without being consumed with guilt.
Knowing what it takes to write a single book in terms of time, energy, creativity and sheer life force, it's daunting to think that I must have read so many hundreds. Each a labour of love to the person who wrote it. And among them, there are those that are gems and that will always stay with me.
So how on earth do I choose a single book for this post? The brief was to find a book that I like or admire, or that has been important to me. When I thought about it, there was only one real possibility - the only book I have read many times and each time been as blown away by as the first. A book so rich, so lyrical and so powerful that I have turned to it again and again in times of emotional need and never failed to be uplifted.
That book is The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart, which tells the story of several generations of the Lougandor women of Guadeloupe.
I don't remember how I first came across it. The edition I had was published in 1982 - the same year I went to Grenada where I lived for most of the following four years - and it must have been around that time that I first read it. But I do remember it wove a spell on me and I couldn't even work out how. Terrible things happen to the women in this book. They endure appalling, unspeakable suffering. So how could it be possible that each time I read it, I felt as though it gave my heart wings?
The book has its critics. Some say the characters are too saintly to be realistic, others that they are too passive to be good role models. But they're missing the point. These women, descended from slaves and living in abject poverty, have risen above earthly considerations to create their own unique culture, rooted in African traditions and their own mystical womanhood and adapted for the new world.
And, oh, the poetic prose, the rich symbolism, the spell-binding imagery... the very act of reading the author's words makes you feel as if you have been taken on a unique spiritual journey.
While I was researching this piece I came across a website which has quotes from The Bridge of Beyond. Run your eye down the lines there. And if you're a writer, weep. I would be so proud to have penned a single one of these deceptively simple sentences. They seem to hold so much distilled purity and wisdom that you feel that if you fully understood (or overstood, as they would say in Grenada) any one of them, it would change your life.
Simone Schwarz-Bart was born in Guadeloupe where she still lives. While studying in Paris, she met and married a French Jewish writer, called André Schwarz-Bart. He is the author of a searing novel called The Last of the Just - a harrowing book, regarded by some as the single greatest novel of the Holocaust.
Sun up, sun down, the days slip by and the sand lifted by the breeze will swallow my ship; but I will die here, as I am, standing in my little garden. What joy!And:
Every day you must arise and say to your heart, 'I have suffered enough and now I must live because the light of the sun must not be wasted, it must not be lost without an eye to appreciate it'.Over the years, I loaned my copy of the book many times - always to people who I felt were in need of its uplifting magic. With the exception of only one person, each reported that they felt its life-affirming power - that, when they turned the last page, they felt as though they had had a spiritual experience. Then the inevitable happened. I loaned it to a friend of a friend and it never came back. I mourned its passing, assuming it to be out of print, but I never forgot it.
Many years later I was talking about the book to a colleague in the office where I was working at the time. A couple of weeks later a plain brown envelope arrived with no return address. Inside was - yes, you've guessed - a brand new copy of The Bridge of Beyond with a post-it note written in caps: 'A LITTLE BIRDIE TOLD ME YOU'VE BEEN LOOKING FOR ME. ENJOY!' It took me a long time to work out who had sent it - someone who later became a dear friend. He had just happened to overhear my conversation and decided to send me an anonymous gift.
See? I told you it's magic!