A Fragile Spirit: Maria Espinosa on Brian Castro’s The Garden Book

The Garden Books, Brian Castro, Giramondo Press, 2005

Brian Castro is a major literary figure in Australia. Of English, Chinese, and Portuguese ancestry, he was born in Hong Kong and attended boarding school in Australia, where he has lived most of his adult life. Castro’s most recent novel, The Garden Book, is the story of a sensitive Chinese woman and a gifted poet, her marriage to an Australian bushman in the Dandenong hills outside of Melbourne, and the forces of racism and sexism that gradually destroy her. It takes place in the period between the 1920s and the 1940’s.

Darcy Damon, the Australian, has come up in the world from rough beginnings as the son of an alcoholic farmer and a mother who dies of overwork, grief, and childbearing. When he meets Swan, he becomes obsessed with possessing her. A hard worker, physically large, strong, tough, he is also a voracious reader—yet the words do not seem to penetrate his being. He has traveled to China, and in his youth feels torn between the delights of opium dreams, the world of his books, and the roughshod Australian society he inhabits. In courting Swan, he reflects,

He should have thought a bit more about human relationships. The social graces. Etiquette. . . A bushman has rough edges…he read Prowst [sic]. . . he thought about the straightness of [Swan’s] posture, the way she carried herself… Here she was, wearing a skirt to the knees and a cardigan and grey silk stockings… she was smiling…happy to let her father carry the spiky conversation which obviously ran in the family, bringing in a tray of tea…he received [the tea] with both hands, nodding like they do in China. He was aspiring to do things correctly…

Swan, for her part, reflects, “I don’t think Darcy Damon appreciated Baba’s manner of laughing about everything. I caught glimpses of him looking puzzled. [Darcy] had clipped his beard, but he missed some bits, and his face looked as if a bird had stolen tufts for a nest. I think that’s what Baba was looking for in Darcy. Laughter. Mockery…I think Baba was very shocked not to discover that in him.” Swan’s father, Baba, has obtained a Ph.D from the University of Melbourne—the first Chinese to do so—but because of his race, he has not been able to obtain the status he merits and has been reduced to teaching in a run-down country schoolhouse. Although his family has lived in Australia since the nineteenth century, the restrictive laws enacted in 1905 have deprived them of any rights of citizenship, deprived them of the right to hold land, and most important of all, deprived them of the right to leave and return. This has resulted in Baba and Swan’s increasing isolation, as friends and family left for China, never to return. Swan marries Darcy, who offers financial security, a means of survival.
But she is no stereotypical Chinese woman: an artist, a Bohemian, during the early months of their marriage, she manages to shock the locals by provoking Darcy to make love to her in public and by sitting on the deck of their house in flimsy clothing. She flirts, driven perhaps by boredom, perhaps by a desire for amusement, a desire to épater le bourgeoisie. She writes poetry in Chinese calligraphy with hand-mixed ink. She writes on the fronds of leaves, on the bark of trees. Her writing springs from the natural world surrounding her, the Dandenong Ranges in all their harshness, beauty, and wildness. She deposits her leaves of poetry at random in the pages of books. Why? It is connected to the nature of her poetry, organic, fragile as material upon which it is written. She loves music, dancing, society, for a time their large house, with its surrounding guest cottages, becomes a literary center. But her university friends belong to a world which is alien to Darcy.

A child, Penny, is born. Blond, blue-eyed, Australian. Swan feels burdened by the infant. One fatal afternoon, longing for escape, she walks in her beloved forest, rests in a birch grove, and writes. She returns to find Penny blue with cold, not breathing. Breaking down with shock and grief, she spends time in a mental institution. The child’s death marks the real death of the marriage. Darcy treats her with increasing brutality. He banishes her friends. Then one day Jasper Zenlin, American aviator, architect, and litterateur, arrives. He understands her poetry, which he reads in the original Chinese, and he penetrates the terrible isolation in which she has been living. But when he leaves for Paris, she is once again alone.

Zenlin translates her poetry into French and publishes it in Paris to great acclaim. But his letters fail to reach her. This failure of communication is a major theme, given in the epigraph to the novel through a quotation from Kafka,

Writing letters…means to denude oneself before the ghosts, something for which they greedily wait. Written kisses don’t reach their destination, rather they are drunk on the way by the ghosts…Humanity…fights against [this]…to create a natural communication. But…the opposing side is so much stronger…

The public is eager for more of Swan’s poetry. Zenlin’s translations become looser, sexier. It is he who receives the acclaim that is rightfully hers. Meanwhile, in these years preceding World War II, discrimination against Asians grows harsher. Caught up in the general wave of patriotism, Darcy goes into military training. His cruelty towards Swan is exacerbated. He burns the books he once read—books which may contain poems she has written— renouncing the power of words, renouncing any traces of Swan’s spirit. Baba reflects, “The day Australia woke to a national identity, it fell asleep on the thorn of racial prejudice. It was defined by its wound.” Swan is increasingly isolated. Her physical and emotional health deteriorate. Darcy goes off to join troops in the South Pacific. One day Zenlin returns. Only then does she learn the full extent of her literary fame. But it is too late for her. She feels entirely estranged from her world of readers. In fact, publication seems almost a violation of thoughts as fragile as the leaves upon which they were written.

After Zenlin has left once again, Swan gives birth to their son, Shih. But by now she is emotionally broken, alcoholic, in and out of institutions, living on welfare. Shih is taken away from her and put into foster care. Many years later Shih, a collector of rare books for the University of Melbourne, attempts to reconstruct Swan’s past through fragments of old diaries and poems. He, too, lives in the Dandenongs, where he has forged a hermetic existence. He notes, “Her poetry was always a kind of addiction for her because it possessed a latency; with its silences, its potential for growth. Critics had all missed the obvious thing: it was vegetative, incorrigible. Written on leaves with pollen inks. A planting; with scarcely a mark of ownership. A respect and a passing. Her poems were seeds and supplements.”

The novel consists of four sections, one for each of the major characters. However, within each section the voices shift. The entire story flows in a hypnotic and compelling fashion, as these voices are sharply, clearly rendered. It is ultimately far more than its themes. The writing is richly layered, poetic, magical. While each character could be construed as representative of a certain class, each is also unique and complex, a blend of many elements. Swan is not only a victim of sexism and racism, but of her own complex, fragile spirit. In Paris she might have flourished. In the rough society of her time and place, she perishes.

Ample Substance: Maria Espinosa on Pamela Uschuk’s Crazy Love


Crazy Love, Pamela Uschuk, Wings Press

Pamela Uschuk is the author of four volumes of poetry as well as numerous chapbooks, and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, Her work has been translated into a dozen languages. She has been featured at international conferences, has spent years traveling, and has taught creative writing to Native American students on reservations in the west. She is currently a professor of Creative Writing at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado

Her poems in this 84-page collection are dense and richly textured. The work has an improvisational quality. She may leap from a single image to contemplations far removed, winding through a trajectory of vivid memories, and reflections. Everything is grist for the mill—material that other writers might put into diaries, memoirs, or novels may be compressed into a few lines or a poem.

Nature in its many forms permeates her consciousness, from a single flower, a tomato plant, a trapped bird, to mountains, sky, ocean. This love of nature mingles with love of husband, family, and friends.

In “Saving the Cormorant on Albermarle Sound.” She writes:

Numb and saturated by spray, it is now
I love you most, love your thick purple wrist
Straining to hold the bird above hungry waves,
Love the deft gentleness of your swollen hand
That cuts brutal knots without wounding the bird
Who stares at you resolute as its barbed restraint

When finally, through the last styrene twist,
You fling the huge bird free…
We are stunned….as we paddle back to shore
Above the condemned rows of sea bass and all
Those snared in darkness we’ll never see.

Social and political concerns run throughout her work, as in “Sunday News on the Navajo Rez.”

Stopped at a gas station outside Gallup…
and a white pickup pulls up.
The woman my age, wrapped in a red Pendleton coat…
Oh you hear something about what happened up in Colorado
We trade what we know about the monster avalanche
That closed Highway 40…
We don’t have much time for news here
What with the baby goats and lambs…
her fingers
tapped out the names of her daughters, especially the last
ready to head with her company
to a desert, far across the unknown globe, where villagers
also raise goats and avalanches take the form
of a roadside waiting to explode.

“Flying Through Thunder” presents the overwhelming awareness of nature as at once a reality larger, more durable than human emotions, and at the same time tender, ephemeral as a flower. It progresses through images that stir thoughts and memories, shifting back and forth from the storm through which her plane is actually flying

From expectant sunflowers, mountain bluebirds, western meadowlarks….
the small turbo prop pitches toward glacial peaks…
I remember the way my stomach dropped as a child pumping my swing higher…
my brother dared me to jump
Bombs away. We’re hit. Jump. Jump….
How could I….foresee
that in a few years my brother would be
drafted to paratrooper school
to ruin his young knees
when he landed just off the training mark
preparing for Vietnam?
When the army found out he attended rallies, preached peace. He
was shipped to Da Nang, to dousings
with Agent Orange
to the burning of village peoples, to daily mortar attacks
and sniper fire he still fights…
Now as the plane lunges, engines
steady above the Continental Divide.
I regard razor backed ridges
older than memory
vaster than scars. They comfort me
in their lack of pity…

She is able to condense entire life stories into a few lines, as in “Bell Note” written in memory of her father.

Sometimes, Dad, there is no loneliness like an ad for the superbowl
all those coaches blunders you’d cuss out
or the lies of politicians on TV
smiling as they staggered like possums
on the sides of reasons highway…
Remember driving cross-country year
after year from Michigan to Colorado….
What did you say to Mom, who sat
knitting or reading in the back seat, when
she’d startle like a rock dove, head
jerking up at us with her shriek
“We’re going the wrong way!
That field’s on fire. It’s heading
right for us!” Maybe her delusions knew that
the fire was always heading for us, her heart,
that you’d always keep her from the flames.

With their multiple images and swift traversals of thought, her poems provide ample substance for reflection. They are best savored when read slowly, preferably several times, in order to absorb their full impact.


Maria Espinosa is a novelist, poet, and translator. She has also has taught Creative Writing and English as a Second Language. She has published four novels, two chapbooks of poetry, and a critically acclaimed translation of George Sand’s novel, Lélia. Her novel, Longing, received an American Book Award. Dying Unfinished, her most recent novel, just published by Wings Press, deals with the characters in Longing from a different perspective.

Motherhood & Art: Mimi Albert on Maria Espinosa’s Dying Unfinished


Dying Unfinished, Maria Espinosa, Wings Press

“We spend so much energy hiding from the truth,” Maria Espinosa writes in this splendid new novel, Dying Unfinished. Espinosa, whose previous novels include Longing, Dark Plums, and Incognito: The Journey of a Secret Jew, refuses to allow herself, her readers, or any of the characters in this tangled and absorbing story to hide. From the first page to the last, she uncovers the hidden motives, unspoken passions, and many disappointments that too often bruise people who have been together for a long time.

The narrative is delivered by a variety of voices framed by different combinations of characters during different periods of their lives and even on different continents. The novel opens with Eleanor, a mother and daughter as well as a mistress and wife, traveling on a commuter train from suburban Long Island to meet her lover in a New York City bar. We glimpse Eleanor as a beautiful young woman as the story unfolds, being courted by Aaron, the man who becomes her lifelong husband as he attains prestige in the difficult world of modern art. Theirs is far from a simple story of adultery and retribution; Aaron is chronically adulterous and the relationship between them, while not quite “open,” seems not only to continue but to thrive in the warmth shed by their mutual deceptions.

When children come into this marriage (Jesse, Howard, and Rosa), they respond differently to their parents’ world of shadowy truths and half-told lies. Howard becomes practical and hard-working leaving the more artistic and volatile Jesse to encounter problems. Jesse falls ill with polio in one of the many epidemics of the 1950s; he also rebels against his family’s web of deceptions by making his own choices and being true to his own desires. But most volatile and most important to the story, is the daughter, Rosa, several years older than her brothers and too gifted and spirited to be contained within any conventional restraints, even those of literary description.

The story of these lives and the art created by them might seem overly complex were it not for the clarity with which the narrative is told. Espinosa takes the reader directly behind the eyes of her characters; she leads us into difficult relationships (Eleanor’s with her lovers, Rosa’s with a variety of men to whom she turns for solace as she grows into a troubled womanhood). But each episode is concisely contained and crystal clear in its telling as when Rosa finds herself in a whirlpool of self-destruction leading to her becoming a desolate ward of a mental institution; these scenes are gripping, vividly depicted, but never overdone.

By the time the book comes to its conclusion, the reader knows that somehow mother and daughter have achieved the reconciliation they have always sought achieving it through motherhood and art as has Espinosa becoming the first publisher of her own mother’s poetry, which heads many of the chapters of Dying Unfinished. It is a fitting homage to the struggles of these two women and a fitting ending to a difficult yet creative journey.