REVIEW: A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez

In brief: The story of a girl growing up in post-war New York as a child of a German mother and Chinese father.

The good: Beautifully written.

The not-so-good: My copy was printed very faintly, making the text hard to see at times.

Why I chose it: Heard a lot of great things about Sigrid Nunez.

Year: 1995

Pages: 180

Publisher: Virago (Hachette)

Setting: New York

Rating: 9 out of 10

I’ve seen many glowing reviews over the last few years for Sigrid Nunez’ writing, but I’ve never gotten around to reading her work. I wanted to try one of her novels that wasn’t The Friend (I’m not a dog person), so I picked up A Feather on the Breath of God which is about immigrant parents and growing up different. It’s a fantastically written story and I look forward to reading more of her work.

The first-person narrator of the story is never named, but it’s the story of her parents, growing up overseas and coming to America, which doesn’t turn out to be the dream life that they expected. The first part is the story of her father, who is Chinese but was born in Panama. The narrator is astonished when she hears her father speak in Chinese as it’s not something she’s ever contemplated. She and her sisters want to know more about what is Chinese, but her father brushes them off. Yet in their eyes, he is definitely different to other fathers, working long hours and speaking broken English. The second part moves on to their mother, who is from Germany and proud of it. She’s not happy with life in the housing projects (or her life in general) and sometimes takes it out on her children (or her husband). In comparison to the girls’ father, she is strong and outspoken while he is meek and quiet. The third part is about the narrator’s relatively short-lived time learning ballet. Although she is not a good dancer, in ballet she finds discipline and also freedom from her family as well as her first taste of independence. The last part is about the narrator as an adult, falling in love with one of her Russian students she teaches English to. To others, Vadim appears as a bad man, best avoided. To her, he represents something familiar, like her parents but he is accessible in ways that her parents never were.

Nunez writes beautifully. Although this isn’t a long novel, it’s elegantly crafted with each sentence carefully worded. As a reader, I wanted to savour every word and work out its place in the overall picture. It’s wistful at times, reminiscing on childhood and bitter in others as the narrator reflects on missed opportunities with her parents and others. At times, it brings make the warmth of childhood memories and in her relationship with Vadim, brings about feelings of teenage rebellion. It’s also a story of not knowing where to fit in – she doesn’t fit in with the Chinese kids at school, nor the rich. (Even Vadim, who arguably knows her best, doesn’t believe she is part Chinese at first.) It’s a story too of childhood colouring future choices, such as the narrator’s choice not to marry after her parents’ volatile marriage. It’s hard to believe this was Nunez’s debut work, but I’m grateful that I have much more of her work to enjoy.

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