Sunday Story Society is a monthly review/book club feature where I write about a recent story that’s been published online, and invite you to join in the discussion in the comments.
Catherine McNamara’s story may be called ‘Nathalie’ (Bookanista, Oct 2013), but it as much (if not more) about Nathalie’s mother, Mona. We meet Mona at home in Ghana, waiting for Nathalie to arrive for one of her periodic visits:
She went out to smoke on the terrace, the city air a giant belch of open sewers and fried food, a gassy decomposition. Mona had seen travellers gag at the channels of waste snaking through the city. Where old women straddled and pissed, where a fallen coin might well have plopped into magma. But for her it was the most acute of honesties, the travails of the city were naked.
I like that description, both as a depiction of place, and for what it says about Mona: she is a person who sees what is in front of her, perhaps even one who takes some pride in being so. That quality will come to haunt her by story’s end.
What Mona sees in her daughter as she arrives is a bright and welcome interruption to the doldrums of her daily life (Mona’s lover has long since left her, and she has only her difficult young son Miguel for company), but also someone who has what she never had: love that came easily and frequently. When Mona meets Nathalie’s new boyfriend Seth, she feels jealous of him because “she had wanted Nathalie to herself”, but it seems clear enough that she’s also jealous of Nathalie for having Seth in her life.
For me, the crux of McNamara’s piece is the unspoken (and, to pretty much everyone but Mona, unperceived) difference in power between mother and daughter. This changes drastically later in the story, when Nathalie is attacked: her confidence is shaken, perhaps permanently; and then Mona is there to provide a mother’s comfort, just as she’s also finding her first success as an artist. Mona wanted her life to have more of the dynamism of Nathalie’s, but not like this, not at this cost. Nathalie has changed:
The lines Mona had never noticed on her face had become grave and hard. Her eyelids were fallen, discoloured furrows below them, and the cheeks were those of a gaunt woman whose good health had been stolen.
Now Mona can’t help but see what has happened to her daughter, and there is no comfort for her in being able to do that. I like the subtlety of the characterisation in McNamara’s story, but it’s the reversal of status the really makes ‘Nathalie’ such a powerful piece of fiction for me.