It’s clear why Affirm Press chose a comment by Raimond Gaita for the front cover of their latest publication, Michael Sala’s autobiographical novel, The last thread. Gaita, for readers here who don’t know, wrote an award-winning memoir, Romulus, My Father, about growing up as a migrant with mentally unstable parents. Sala’s story is different but both boys suffered emotional deprivations that they chronicle in their books … except, and this is a big one, Sala’s book is classified as “fiction”, and we must therefore read it as such. A bit, in fact, like Francesca Rendle-Short’s Bite your tongue!
So, what is his story? The novel is told from Michaelis’ (later Michael’s) point of view. It is divided in two parts: Bergen Op Zoom and Newcastle. It starts, then, in the Netherlands when Michael is around three or four years old, and his brother, Con (Constantinos) three years older. But it’s not quite this simple, as in the first part which is told third person we follow them from the Netherlands to Australia to the Netherlands and then back to Australia. The family’s unsettled state physically – they also move multiple times in Australia – works metaphorically too because there is little emotional stability in the boys’ lives. At the start of the novel, the mother has left the boys’ father, the Cypriot Phytos, and is living with the physically and emotionally abusive Dutchman, Dirk. (“There’s no problem”, Michael writes of this handyman stepfather, “that he can’t solve with his hands”.) By the end, when the boys have grown up, the mother has been married a couple more times. She is skilled, you would say, at choosing wrong men: “The men in my life take advantage of me”, she says.
What makes this somewhat age-old story compelling is the writing. It is told more or less chronologically but in little vignettes. The two parts are divided into chapters, but the chapters themselves are broken into smaller sections that provide an eye into scenes from Michael’s world. It’s a child’s eye, until near the end, so we readers must try to fill the gaps between what Michael describes and what we know could be the meaning behind what he’s seeing. Why, we must ask ourselves, would a young boy think this:
Michaelis can’t imagine anything more frightening than living forever.
And Michael’s eye, though a child’s one, is very observant. He particularly notices faces, watching them it seems for signs of warmth and connection, but
Each time light blazes from the screen, it washes across Con’s face and reveals it like something carved from stone.
She [mother] holds her belly and sighs, and there’s a look in her eyes as if she might burst into tears.
I could be mistaken but it felt to me that as we moved through the second part, Newcastle, which is told first person by the adult Michael, the chronology became more disjointed, mirroring I think Michael’s growing awareness of what lies behind the dislocations in his family, and of its impact on him.
As you’ve probably gathered by now, there are secrets in this family that contribute to the dysfunctional behaviour. These secrets are not mentioned on the backcover, so I won’t mention them either. Sala handles them well. He doesn’t labour them but rather lets them hover in a way that we know they are there but that doesn’t let them occupy centre-stage. We learn to live with them, the way the family has to. In the way of modern novels, there’s no dramatic denouement …
In talking of the writing, I’ve mainly discussed the narrative style but I should also mention the language. It is, in a word, gorgeous. Here are just two descriptions that convey Sala’s ability to capture the essence of things. First, being dumped by a wave:
There is such strength in the sea. He has forgotten it until now. It pulls at his limbs so that his feet touch nothing and only his desperate grip keeps him there. A sensation comes to him of being separate, of seeing it all from a great distance as if he cannot reach out and touch the world. Then the noise dies in his ears, the sky appears again above him.
And next, of his mother’s house:
The rooms and corridors of my mother’s house became like the arteries of a heart attack victim, all clogged up. Even the breeze had to bend in half to get through.
I’ve read quite a bit of autobiographical/biographical fiction, fiction-cum-memoirs, and memoirs in recent months, and some I’ve found a little wanting here and there. This, though, is hard to fault – if, that is, you like reading more for the interior than the exterior, for what’s going on inside rather than for what’s happening in the material world.
In the very last pages of the book, Michael’s mother says that “words and stories can be dangerous” (echoing Francesca Rendle-Short’s “to think, to write, is dangerous”). They can indeed, but sometimes that danger can have positive outcomes. I hope that, for Sala, the dangers of putting his story, his truths, on the page will be restorative. There’s no guarantee though that such bravery will have its just rewards … in life or in fiction.
The last thread
Mulgrave: Affirm Press, 2012
(Review copy supplied by Affirm Press)