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Between the Stillness and the Grove

by Erika de Vasconcelos

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list price: $19.95
edition:Paperback
category: Fiction
published: 2001
ISBN:9780676973280
publisher: Knopf Canada
imprint: Vintage Canada
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Description

The triumphs of love and friendship after tragedy are at the heart of this compelling and poignant novel of two complex and unforgettable women. A story of loss set in the aftermath of the 1915—1918 genocide of the Armenian people by the Turkish government, the novel moves through layers of time to show the far-reaching effects of war and displacement. Evolving partly in the mountainous landscape of Armenia and partly in the clear light and healing waters of Portugal, Erika de Vasconcelos’s magnificent and heartrending second novel explores the redemptive qualities of friendship and reminds us of the power of art and love.

In the late 1980s, during the last years of Communism in Soviet-controlled Armenia, Dzovig meets her lover Tomas at a nationalist march. Tomas is a patriot, obsessed with the ruined churches that testify to the country’s glorious past before the horrors of the twentieth century. When he later takes his own life with a gun, his reasons are a mystery to his parents and his lover. Numbed and fearless, Dzovig uses sex to buy her way out of the country she hates. She lives first in Moscow, then finds refuge in Portugal. Working for a kind restaurant owner in Lisbon, she learns Portuguese and meets Tito, a wealthy young man with a muscle-wasting disease. Through Tito she discovers the poet Fernando Pessoa and his celebration of the human ability to fashion multiple lives. Tito leads Dzovig part of the way out of her pain, yet wherever she goes, she cannot leave Armenia behind.

A tragic past, one that goes back to her own childhood, also haunts Vecihe, Tomas’s warm and caring mother. While Dzovig tries to flee her past, Vecihe has so far managed to keep the memories at bay through silence. She searches for Dzovig, yearning to connect, all the while struggling with her son’s death, the estrangement within her marriage, and her unspoken thoughts and knowledge. Agonizing truths keep seeping through, however, and her recollections become progressively deeper and darker until she is at last forced to confront the devastating memory of her mother’s account of the death march to Syria. Finally, changed and starting anew, Vecihe finds a haven in Canada. When she offers sanctuary to Dzovig, she reminds the young woman whom she thinks of as a daughter that “our worst pain comes out of silence.”

Told with the beautiful language and a striking sensitivity, Between the Stillness and the Grove is a major work of fiction that proves Erika de Vasconcelos an exceptionally talented and original writer. Whereas her first novel, My Darling Dead Ones, drew on personal experience and family history, here the author explores new territory. To research the book she spent ten days in Armenia and read transcripts of conversations with Armenians who survived the 1915 massacre, as well as accounts by Holocaust survivors. Many of the elderly Armenians she interviewed had never before spoken about their experience, about the anger and fear that had remained hidden inside them throughout their adult lives.

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Excerpt

Prologue

There is the sea. Dzovig is staring at it. She does this often in the early hours of the morning, makes her way to the wall at the edge of the beach, determined, like an addict seeking out her drug. And the sea is never very far in this country: Portugal, a thin strip of land stretching along the Atlantic, on the edge of the Continent. The people here also stare at the sea; they stare at it so often that reflections of light bouncing off the water pass across their eyes even after they have gone home, at night, even as they sleep. They carry the smell of the sea with them in the wool of their coats, in the breath they exhale, after bread and wine. But they don’t think of the sea, as Dzovig does. They dismiss it as husbands and wives of decades dismiss each other, or as peoples of the mountains dismiss geography, though it has shaped all that they are. But Dzovig is from another country, and therefore different. She stores up the sea like a beggar at a feast.

In her favourite painting of Pessoa, his shape is also standing at the edge of the water, a thin black line before a huge expanse of grey, in this country where the sea is rarely grey, or white.

In every painting of him that she has seen, he always wears a hat, a black fedora which sits on his head like an extension of his body. Even a picture of his room that depicts little else but squares of sunlight on the floor and half a chest of drawers contains his hat, left on a chair. She likes this about him, a carapace. She likes the hat, the round glasses, the cropped moustache and bow tie. Such a prim dresser, for a modernist. She likes the empty bronze chair that stands beside him, part of that sculpture in front of the Brasileira café, as if in wait for someone. She had gladly occupied that chair. She could think of him now as an old lover, as real as any man whose body she has ever slept beside, though she won’t. Pessoa has been dead for more than fifty years.

Best of all she likes his name: Pessoa, meaning, literally, person. Anyone, or everyone.

The sea is particularly blue today, or perhaps only seems so because of the intensity with which Dzovig is watching, wondering if she will ever come back here, to this stone wall, to this adopted country. She had thought for a time that she would never leave Portugal, like Pessoa. That any other place would be a poor substitute for the black and white mosaics of pavements, all leading to the water. But tomorrow she will cross the Atlantic in a plane full of Portuguese who, given steaming towelettes, will wipe the surface of their dinner trays rather than their own hands. She will land in Toronto, a city without sea, where, her friend tells her, there are flowers like blue planets. Where, Vecihe tells her, everything is new. Come and visit, her friend says. But Dzovig knows that there are no visits. She knows now, deep in her stomach, that each arrival is a return.

Chapter One

TOMAS

The steady grinding of wheels comes to a stop. She is still sleeping; not even the shuffle of bodies leaving the train wakes her. It is the man sitting across the aisle who pulls at her arm, saying “Menina. Lisboa.” On the platform dozens of people are walking in semi-darkness, a network of black beams high overhead, under a glass roof that has grown opaque. Daylight seeps through it as if through layers of green water.

Dzovig’s hair is cropped short and falls haphazardly into place when she shakes it out. She is wearing a shapeless sweater and a green skirt, a skirt she has held onto since Armenia. In a bag she carries the rest of her clothes, a hair comb, a few pens.

It is early morning in the streets of Lisbon. Outside the station, by the doors, two women are selling flowers, each with her own buckets of roses set out at her feet. The women are dressed in black wool. They could belong anywhere, Dzovig thinks: the widows of Europe. They throw words at each other across the passing people, oblivious, apparently, to the loss their clothes are commemorating. Maybe this is all it takes to get through it, she thinks, to dress in black wool and sell flowers.

She hasn’t eaten for hours and she is very hungry, her last meal a sandwich with the French student, Jean, who had offered to follow her across Europe, thinking, perhaps, that she was one of those students with giant backpacks that gathered outside the train stations of European cities. “Non merci,” Dzovig had said. She might have slept with him if she’d thought that he had any money, but she knew by then that only older men would pay. She had enough, in any case, to last her for a while.

She approaches one of the widows, and asks in French for a place to buy food. The woman consults her companion. She speaks only Portuguese but points with thick fingers in one direction. “A Menina quer a baixa,” she says.

“Menina, baixa?” Dzovig repeats. She doesn’t understand.

The women laugh and confer again. They point to Dzovig. “Menina,” they say. Finally they add, almost in unison, “Centre, centre.”

She walks down a long, wide avenue, past squares where the fountains are running, past a statue of a man on horseback in a sea of pigeons. She has grown accustomed to it now, the beauty of non-Soviet cities. In the beginning it had struck her with a kind of perverse pleasure, like vengeance. Look at us, Tomas used to say, packaged into neat little Soviet boxes.... He liked to say that Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, wasn’t an Armenian city at all.

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Contributor notes

Erika de Vasconcelos was born in Montreal in 1965, and knew from the age of seven that one day she would be a writer. Her mother “would have been a writer if she’d been born twenty years later.” Her grandmother and aunt were both book lovers who collected old editions of French poetry. She grew up reading in three languages: English, French and Portuguese. Today, Erika and her mother still send books to each other.

De Vasconcelos was over thirty by the time she launched her writing career, deciding it was time to start writing seriously after she attended a high school reunion and everyone asked her what she had written. She published her first novel in 1997, and its success was astounding, receiving the highest praise. Now her work is also published in Germany, Holland and Portugal. A finalist in the CBC/Saturday Night short story contest, she has also published fiction in Toronto Life and This Magazine, and teaches creative writing at Humber College. She is married to the novelist Nino Ricci, and lives in Toronto with her three children. Though she misses the bilingual culture and the beauty of Montreal, she loves the writing community in Toronto, the “literary heart of eastern Canada.”

The novel My Darling Dead Ones is a story of three generations of intelligent, strong, passionate women; it follows the connections between a European past and North American present and the emotional legacies we inherit. The women’s stories are told through Fiona, a second-generation Portuguese-Canadian in a collapsing marriage, torn between the last vestiges of affection for her husband and her desire to take a lover. Trying to assuage her own present pain through an excursion into the past, she turns to the experiences of her mother, grandmother and great-aunt for guidance, learning about them through letters and photographs – and finds she is only the latest in her family for whom marriage has not always brought happiness. The novel explores the healing powers of life and sexuality and, against a rich backdrop of Portuguese culture, the difficulties of being an immigrant.

While writing that book, de Vasconcelos made a life-changing discovery, which she decided she wanted to write about: the possibilities of a mother/daughter connection between two people not biologically related. “I was interested in this idea that, at certain times in your life… someone can mother you in a very profound way.” The theme of human warmth being the only source of comfort for the wounds of the past, begun in the first book, is more fully explored in the second; just as Dzovig appears briefly in the first book, and Fiona in the second.

Whereas My Darling Dead Ones was about embracing the past, Between the Stillness and the Grove explores how people cope with “a past that’s so devastating that you don’t want to face it at all.” De Vasconcelos does not have an Armenian background, though she had taken a course on Armenian architecture in university. She found it a challenge to write about something she knew so little about at the outset, as well as something so sad and emotionally draining. But the story allowed her to explore what moves her as a writer. “I’m really interested in those big human questions. Questions about history, about death, about silence, the price you pay for the choices you make.” She is interested in what keeps people going after tragedy, and how great human suffering is carried forward from generation to generation.

She found the best way to explore these themes with subtlety was to move through different times and places. “I don’t like the linear-type story. It all has to do with how much you want to reveal at what stage. As you read the novel you start to make more and more connections.… I’m very conscious of how much information I’m giving out and when, and how I want it to build up.” This technique lends the novel an emotional tension which, along with the vibrant language, vivid characterization and deeply affecting history, make Between the Stillness and the Grove a book that’s impossible to put down.

“A book always starts with characters.… For me, writing this novel was the process of getting to know Dzovig and Vecihe, bit by bit, solving the puzzle of who they really were. It’s a journey that took me deep into Armenian history, and finally, to Armenia itself. When I got to Armenia, I was finally able to see the churches I had studied and imagined, hear Armenian voices, feel the weight of the mountains.… One night, I sat at a table with three Armenian artists, drinking wine and eating pears.… They toasted the birth of Dzovig and Vecihe, and I felt then as if the novel had been blessed.”

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Editorial Review

“Erika de Vasconcelos’s new novel, Between the Stillness and the Grove, [is] a poignant saga of love and loss…Avoiding romantic flamboyance, de Vasconcelos focuses on the worst pain that comes out of silence…[a] warm-hearted book…highly readable.” —The Globe and Mail
“It is extremely well-researched and thought provoking…It is a passionate and graphic tale of hunger, prostitution and survival…Dzovig and Vecihe have travelled far and carry the reader along with them on a journey, which will be of interest to those familiar with Armenian history and will stimulate others to find out more about this fascinating part of the world.” —Winnipeg Free Press
Between the Stillness and the Grove is, like de Vasconcelos’ first novel, wonderfully written…it is… eloquent and sincerely felt…de Vasconcelos…is an exceptionally talented and original writer.” —London Free Press
“Beautiful and cathartic.... It is de Vasconcelos's skill at weaving a deeply personal story into this dense, contested political terrain that makes the book so stirring.” —Toronto Life

“Throughout, the warmth, the generosity and weary wisdom of Vecihe’s first-person confessional narration envelops the reader, the flow of her memories intimate and laden with emotion and sensual detail.” —The Toronto Star
“A delicately written book about a very grave theme.… The narrative is constructed with time shifts, as the characters and the reader learn for themselves what the past has been hiding.… Erika de Vasconcelos has a gift for beautiful language and for describing the significant detail.… Her writing is lyrical and even tender.” —Uptown Magazine, Winnipeg

“Her writing on the subject of Vecihe’s past and present life is warm and achingly real.… The brutalities she turns her pen to are convincingly rendered with an understanding of human frailty.” —Quill & Quire
“De Vasconcelos describes war and the crimes of Communism with a stunning combination of ferocity and intimacy.… [An] ardent, idiosyncratic book.” —The Edmonton Journal
“Compelling on the first read, enriching on the second, begging a third, a fourth.… Identity, dislocation, death.… The novel seems to spiral ever deeper into itself, bits and pieces of Dzovig’s past, and Tomas’s, and their mothers’, and their grandmothers’ released like trapped pockets of noxious gas.… The characterization is as rich as the writing.” —The Gazette (Montreal)
Review Quotes for My Darling Dead Ones
“Stunning.... de Vasconcelos has created some of the strongest and most complex female characters in contemporary Canadian fiction.” —The Globe and Mail

“What is especially wonderful about My Darling Dead Ones is the abundance of life teeming through its pages: The Portuguese landscape of hilly, yellow-stuccoed houses is palpable; Magdelena's flat in Lisbon invites exploration of its quaint clutter; one sniffs the fresh scent of earth as Leninha creates a back room of hostas and calla lilies in her suburban Montreal garden. [Here] is a complex and sumptuous world.... There is much comfort and delight in My Darling Dead Ones.” —Quill & Quire
"Like Spanish writer Federico García Lorca and Irish playwright John Millington Synge, de Vasconcelos understands the deep-rooted relationship between soil and soul.... the power women wield, its tenacity and passion.... She makes the commonplace dance, while a wordless sensuality bubbles beneath the surface, waiting to erupt.” —The Financial Post

"De Vasconcelos has a lush and tantalizing way with a story: she foreshadows and backtracks, building up tension, then replaying events after the fact in the mind.” —The Gazette (Montreal)

"[My Darling Dead Ones] has the intense and urgent cadence of a whispered confidence, and de Vasconcelos’s flair for economical description is particularly potent in evoking the sights, sounds and smells of Portugal.” —NOW (Toronto)

“Fresh…surprising…wonderful. These characters are honest, vivid and compelling.” —The Edmonton Journal

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