Not Featherweight but light.

A Feather on the Breath of God, by Sigrid Nunez.

The first question is: Is this book a novel?

Answer: No. It looks more like a fictionalized memoir.

The second question: Is it, then, worth reading.

Answer: Very much so for several different reasons.

I came to this book from Nunez’s third novel, The Last of Her Kind which was published about ten years after this debut book,  A Feather on the Breath of God.  The similarities between these two books, the stylistic variations, development of character, and, especially, movement (plot if you will) made reading A Feather much more engaging than would have been had I come upon it first – an accident of availability at my bookstore. Accidental or not, the order I read them in made comparison more fruitful.

So,  A Feather isn’t a novel.  What it is missing is character development.  The characters are revealed but they are static. The Chinese-Panamanian father, the German mother, the adolescent ballerina, and the ill-fated Russophile teacher (the grown ballerina daughter) are characterized. But if you hope for transformation through hard experience or through the action of the novel, you might be disappointed.

Father is more stoic and less transparent that The Great Wall itself. Even to his children he is opaque, revealing his interior life only in the very few times his kids see him in a Chinese milieu like the one that begins the book. Otherwise, his is glum, taciturn, very hard working and grumpy. He lives and eats separately from his family. He works constantly, pausing only a day or two at the end in order to die. The narrator, his youngest daughter, notes no change in him.

Mother is better known, more accessible, but she stays the same throughout. It is as if her world-view had been imprinted on her at age 17 during a pedestrian journey from her 3rd Reich work camp to her home town at the end of WWII. She seems to see which no reason to deviate from that early imprint. She accepted her pregnancies, immigration, continued poverty and estranged marriage though not without complaint. She fought with her husband bitterly, but accepting and dogged stubbornness seemed to be her survival strategies.

Does this mean these two characters, so central to the narrator’s life, are dull, uninteresting. Not at all. Especially the mother is painted in admirable, loving strokes, as strong willed, creative, and, in a roughshod way, supportive. Father and mother are full portraits. They are, though, still-lives. The change of country (from China/Panama through Germany for the father, direct from Germany for the mother) barely seems to affect these two. Both reject the new country: father disappears into New York’s Chinatown each day; mother reviles all things American and yearns for home even after a trip back when she discovers there is no there there.

The narrator grows up during the movement of the novel, but like her parents, she seems to move through experiences without being much touched and certainly not transformed by them. The third section of the book concerns the narrator’s foray into ballet (something Nunez knows and loves to write about). During this time a well-to-do ballet class friend dies; another girl is raped. These are reported by the narrator as matter-of-factly as her mother might have told her a dress she tailored was now ironed. The events others suffer seem not to touch, or change, the narrator. She seems uncurious about them.

The same might be said about the later affair she engages in with one of her students, a Russian émigré. Far from being life-changing (perhaps affairs are not unless they destroy a marriage) the affair is simply entertainment – it seems – for a bored ESL teacher.  It is only after she discovers that her lover had been a pimp that she ends their meetings. She knew he was a cheat, a liar, a thief, a brute (though not to her), a druggie, a chain smoker and more for as long as she knew him, but, my god, a pimp. That could not stand. So she sloughs him off. She seems like the Teflon-narrator, one who goes through the motions but is unaffected by them.

This static quality seems – from the 2.25 Nunez-books I have read – to be a hallmark of Nunez’s writing. Georgette George, the narrator of The Last of Her Kind is similarly “untouchable” and seemingly unchanged by the twists and turns of life. The affairs, for example, (and GG’s marriages as well) show notable similarities between the books: the lovers are of impossibly different classes from the narrator, and reveal a deep-seated crass cynicism of the narrator. GG has no problem “dating” her good friend’s widower-father. After all, her friend is in prison for life. She uses and rues her actions only when she finds he has been used. The same is true of A Feather’s narrator. The affair is okay as long as she is using him. To use a man and toss him off is one thing. Not to learn a thing thereby is quite another.

The books develop similar themes (The Last more completely to be sure): the difficulties of rising from poor to middle class, rape, affairs, family history, the effects on a life of literature, ballet, working and living in New York City. It is wonderful to witness Nunez’s development of these themes in stories written ten years apart. The older Nunez is wiser, defter, more highly condensed. Still the younger book was a rite of passage.  A Feather on the Breath of God is well worth the short read that it presents.



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