Monday, 23 July 2012

Love and war

Born in USA, Janine di Giovanni is a highly respected, award-winning journalist who has covered many zones of  war and hell, so I was keen to read Ghosts By Daylight, her memoir about motherhood and (failed) marriage to French cameraman Bruno, after Jane Shilling described the writing as 'formidable' - I'd very much enjoyed Shilling's own memoir, The Woman in the Mirror. However, I must confess I did not find the writing formidable, I found it repetitive and recursive, the chronology confusing. Unsettling time shifts can work well in fiction - and non-fiction - if well-crafted, but this reads more like a diary and often feels  shapeless and baggy. While her war reportage may well be formidable - I have only read this, a recent article on the elite in Damascus, and I can certainly see her powers as a journalist, I want to read more, I very much respect her experience  -  I wondered if in writing about her own personal life so close up, she lost her way a little. One thing that annoyed me early on is, practically every woman Janine knows is described as 'beautiful', this may indeed be the case, but you need to find another adjective, it feels lazy. And lists, she loves lists! I dread lists in novels/memoirs and this book begins with a long list of their belongings waiting to be unpacked in Paris. It would work well in a film, the camera panning over the exotic details but just too long to read, it stuns you into torpor.

Her life has been fascinating - and romantic -  there is no doubt, and there are moments of brutal poetry, she describes how a friend (a poet) had seen 'a woman's shoe full of blood in the snow' in Sarajevo. I love  her description of finding Bruno's 'enormous silver gun' under the bed with pale green linen sheets in their house in West Africa, she had been hunting for her red sandals. Later, she remarks on Paris tourists in 'their awkard shorts, holding maps', an image that stays with you. I also love the scene where she meets Martha Gellhorn. The first two thirds of the book is most interesting, with  flashbacks to her war reporting, and the dizzying heights of love with Bruno.

She has a difficult pregnancy - after several miscarriages - and you will her and the baby to be okay, she has  a terrible chronic cough for months and months, violent enough to break a rib,  she is tested for everything under the sun and then we never hear about the cough again, as if she has forgotten she has told us.

However, the baby stuff (at one point, two excruciating pages of nanny's notes) and the unravelling of her relationship with Bruno (now alcoholic) is  not so engaging, you just don't care very much. Good writing should force you to care. She describes getting on the motorcycle with Bruno when he is too drunk to drive and I thought how reckless of her when she has her child at home. I had to skip big chunks of the last third of the book, endless details about how she resisted French cooking, then embraced it, a whole two pages on the excitement of a guy at the organic market giving her free chicken, or half a chicken (demi-poulet). This needed one paragraph. Not being able to get pizza in Paris that's not made by Tunisians truly irks her, and I wondered why she cares after everything she has seen. And she yearns for the pink fairycakes in Notting Hill,  in spite of monthly trips back to London (from Paris). Expensive Parisian 'English' tea rooms are just not the same.

The epilogue I enjoyed, after taking a break, the writing is spare - though still rambling in places - and we really learn all we need to know, she revisits Sarajevo where she first met Bruno fifteen years ago. In her  recent Newsweek Damascus report above there is a Daily Beast interview and she says how in all her writing 'she focuses on the microcosm', the individual stories are the most interesting, get the small details and the bigger picture takes shape. I can see how this has worked well for her in journalism, but I think it has not worked so well when she is talking about herself. Still, the book is worth reading if just for the insights into war reporting and glimpses of  life in privileged Paris, but it does seriously slump two-thirds through, and I almost think she knows she is padding, she is far too experienced - and good - a writer not to know.

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