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Between the Stillness and the Grove by Erika…
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Between the Stillness and the Grove

by Erika De Vasconcelos

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This is a powerful, haunting story of two women who flee Armenia, all the intricacies of their lives, and memories of genocidal war. One escapes to Portugal, the other to Toronto, Canada, where they are eventually reunited. The story moves back and forward in time, a device that can be confusing, so it is worthwhile to pay attention. An unforgettable story. ( )
1 vote VivienneR | Mar 28, 2016 |
Erika de Vasconcelos’s second novel is more ambitious in scope than her acclaimed debut. Where My Darling Dead Ones concerned itself with the personal histories of a family of women, Between the Stillness and the Grove seeks to embrace the whole of recent Armenian history.

Against the bleak background of communist Armenia unfolds the story of Dzovig, a young woman readers might remember from the end of My Darling Dead Ones, and Vecihe, the mother of Dzovig’s doomed lover, Tomas. The lives of both are marked by the horror of the genocide visited upon their ancestors by the Turks. Each runs from the past, only to be brought up sharp against it again.

Dzovig runs the farthest – to Portugal, where, despite her best efforts, she is drawn into a relationship as intense, in its own way, as the one she shared with Tomas. In Armenia, Vecihe longs for news of the woman she considers her daughter, and among her friends in Portugal, Dzovig is a beautiful enigma. For readers, however, it is sometimes hard to see her appeal.

But beyond her, the book is amply peopled. Some characters – Dzovig’s sister Anahid, Tomas himself – remain purposefully indistinct. Others burst with life, especially Vecihe, to whom more pages should have been devoted. And though de Vasconcelos is not the dabbest hand with dialogue, particularly when she uses it to outline politics and philosophies, her writing on the subject of Vecihe’s past and present life is warm and achingly real.

So persuasive is de Vasconcelos’s power of description, in fact, it is easy to overlook broadly drawn coincidences and sometimes stilted dialogue. The brutalities she turns her pen to are convincingly rendered with an understanding of human frailty. “Leave it, leave it,” Vecihe’s mother urges as she stumbles too close to detailing the degradation she has seen. And for much of the novel, Vecihe and Dzovig do. But as they move closer to each other, they must also move closer to themselves, to their individual truths and to the truths about their country and its history.
 
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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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