Wednesday 12 August 2020

The Sweetest Fruits

Finished August 6
The Sweetest Fruits by Monique Truong

This book goes deep into the life of Greek-Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn's life through four women that were important in his life. Hearn was a writer I wasn't aware of before reading this book, and he doesn't come across in a very positive way here. I was definitely interested in all four of the women who tell the story though.
The first woman to appear is Elizabeth Bisland. Bisland was a journalist and traveller who wrote a biography of Hearn that her portions draw from. The two met when they both lived in New Orleans in the early 1880s. Interestingly, I had recently been made aware of Hearn and her travels through a book that showed her and Nellie Bly circumnavigating the world in opposite directions, Liz and Nellie. I love it when these serendipitous connections happen! Sections of her biography are interspersed between the accounts of the other three women.
The second woman is the first one in Lafcadio's life, his mother, Rosa Antonia Cassimati. Her life was a difficult one. She was born and lived on Cythera, Her mother died when she was young, she was uneducated despite being from a well-off family, and once she hit puberty her father severely restricted her life, not wanting to pay a dowry for her. She was being groomed for the life of a nun when she was able to use her unsupervised visits to a local church to make a connection with an Irish officer from the fort nearby. Once she became pregnant and her father turned her out, she moved with Hearn when he was transferred to Lefkada, and they married there after the birth of their first son. Lafcadio (Patrick) was the second son, Rosa and the young boy moved to Ireland when he was still a toddler. After a cold welcome, she moved in with Hearn's aunt Sarah, but never settled and moved back to Greece, leaving Lafcadio with Sarah. She gave birth to their third son, James, on the trip back. This was the last she saw of her son.
The third woman was Alethea (Mattie) Foley, a young African American woman that Hearn met when he lived in Cincinnati. Their marriage was against the law in Ohio, and the two had issues before eventually parting. This was an interesting section to the book, giving a glimpse into the life of a young black woman in Cincinnati during this time and a sense of her independence and fortitude. I really liked her. She was a good woman with a sense of her own worth.
The last woman was Koizuni Setsu, a Japanese woman of a samurai family. Setsu married Hearn and he eventually took a Japanese name and was adopted into her family to stay in Japan, which he would not have been able to do as a foreigner. Setsu was educated and a skilled seamstress and weaver, with her family in the textile business. Under the Japanese regime that began just after her birth, the samurai families lost their status, and the family struggled throughout her life. The couple had four children, and most of Hearn's time was spent teaching English or writing about Japanese myth and culture. Hearn died in Japan in 1904 of a heart attack at the age of 54. Setsu eventually wrote her own book about her husband.
I learned a lot about Hearn, but really enjoyed learning about these women and liked how the characters of his mother and wives were brought to life here.

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