Flight by Oona Frawley

flightFlight (223 pages, Tramp Press) by Oona Frawley, is a novel set in Ireland, the United States, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe that explores how its characters have been affected by both old-style colonialism and the new colonialism–corporate globalism that began to rise in the 1990s. Themes center on migration and immigration, on feeling homesick and rootless at the same time. It’s about writing letters home, some of which are sent, some of which are kept.

The narrative begins, more or less, with Sandrine’s flight away from violent and unstable Zimbabwe to Ireland and employment, leaving her husband and son behind, and it ends with her forced flight back home again. In the interim she comes to know and love the elderly couple Clara and Tom, for whom she cares, as well as their daughter Elizabeth. Their histories, and their various flights to New York and Hanoi, become part of Sandrine’s story.

Sandrine, working under not quite legal circumstances and also secretly pregnant, slowly and eventually becomes part of her Irish host family. At first, the foreignness of everything is overwhelming, and only after much experience and suffering are they able to appreciate their common humanity. Halfway through her time in Ireland, Sandrine broods,

There seems to be no place for her in this country. People stare, snigger, or turn away. At worst—at least, so far, this has been the worst—there is the cursing, the spitting, the murmuring, the feeling she has of being threatened when certain people pass her in the streets. They deny her, and she feels it. Sandrine feels, increasingly, that she is denied. Her story depends on collaboration, something that she, on her own, cannot supply. She is dependent upon some level of acceptance and that is not forthcoming. The telling of incidents at the end of each day over tea, the passing of information between neighbours, the recitation of prayers as a child goes to bed—these things seem to have lost their place here. There are no rituals with which to make her life vital, so that she lives in memory and at a distance from the realm of the real. Here she forgets, begins to forget rituals that were before too commonplace, unnoticeable, consumed by the everydayness of their existence. She wants to describe these feelings to George, but the sentences begin to break down.

Sandrine may feel alien in Ireland, especially on the streets, but in Tom and Clara’s home, her mood is different. Tom is an unusual Irishman who, with his family, has traveled and lived around the world buying and selling spices. Their Irish home where the old couple have finally retired is filled with foreign treasures they have collected on their travels, fine rugs, textiles, Buddhas, and spices. Exotic Sandrine fits in here, surrounded by Tom’s spices, their fragrances, their histories, and their heat. It is one of the great pleasures of this novel to read Frawley’s sensitive prose which somehow seems to actually stimulate the palate and nostrils.

Making Tom a dealer in spices is not just an appropriate decoration to bring out the theme of exoticism. It also adds to the political complexities. The spice trade, as Sandrine eventually discovers while reading in Tom’s library,

was why she was here [in Ireland]…what had provoked Europe overseas hundreds of years before was the simple desire for spice, and she knew, now, that that same itch had led to the beginnings of empire that had ended, ultimately, in Africa, as the last land made available to the expression of those compulsive desires.

It is with subtle skill that Frawley develops these abstract themes by means of the physical. Her greatest strength is in descriptions—of food, rooms, and clothing, which are sometimes so expansive that they approach the kind of digressive madness of someone who has fallen into deep thought, or someone who is on the edge of sleep, beginning to wander into dreams. In one scene, for example, Sandrine imagines she and her husband will go mad with age. They, like Tom, will have to be fed by someone. Only instead of Vietnamese fruit or grapes purchased in Ireland, they will be fed “bananas, or soft string mango pulled away from the flat hard stone.”

After Sandrine gives birth in Ireland to a healthy girl and they are both sent back to Zimbabwe, she renews her commitment to her husband; she had half doubted her love for him during their separation. The very tail end of the story then flashes forward, and all is satisfactorily resolved in a kind of “happily ever after” last few pages. Zimbabwe’s political situation settles down rather than explodes, and Sandrine has another boy. Childless Elizabeth has made peace with her parents (who disliked having to adjust their travel plans for the sake of their child who wanted a home) and adopts a Vietnamese daughter. Life goes on. Political problems move on to other hosts.

Flight is a very delicately written, extremely sensitive story. People worry, fret and endure. They value daily rituals, and they appreciate the small things that together make a life beautiful.

–V. N. Alexander, author of Locus Amoenus, forthcoming in 2015

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