Khadija Abdalla Bajaber & Jonathan Franzen
The House of Rust
Crossroads: A Novel
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021)
Over Labor Day weekend, I spent an inordinate amount of time in the Atlantic, swimming out past the break off the coast of Cape May. The water was dark, mostly cold, and on my first day out, the waves were full of the remnants of Ida. There were rumors of sharks, but I only saw dolphins. Between swims I sat on the beach with Jonathan Franzen’s forthcoming almost-600 page novel balanced on my knees, deep in his version of 1971 America. But as I dove into wave after wave, I was thinking instead of the glorious sea-infused debut by Mombasa-born Khadija Abdalla Bajaber. Selected as the first winner of the Graywolf Press Africa Prize, Bajaber’s gorgeous fable is the story of a girl and her family and the sea.
Aisha lives with her widowed grandmother Swafiya and her fisherman father Ali. Her mother Shida died of an unnamed illness when Aisha was young. They live together in Mombasa, the ancient coastal city in southeast Kenya near the Indian Ocean. Aisha’s father used to take her out with him fishing, “bereft of sons [he] would heave Aisha up onto his shoulders and leap on the boat.” But Ali no longer takes her with him, instead he sails alone, far out into the sea where “there are things in the water that would eat you alive.” Meanwhile, Aisha runs errands for her neighbors and dreams that she is “walking toward something rather than in between things.” Her grandmother is full of stories but also full of lessons, “Everyone has wickedness in them, but women be most wicked of all (with) an inner selfishness.” There is a hint of what is to come when the crow Gololi witnesses a human boy “enter the House of Smoke and Shadows, the forbidden territories.” The effortless shift from human-centered story to gossiping crows, draws us in so we almost don’t notice we’re in a place where animals talk.
One day Aisha’s father fails to return from the sea, last seen as “a sun-glare blot on the horizon, the sails of his vessel flashing like mirrors, plunging into the unknown, daring a distance unfathomable to those other ordinary people.” Aisha’s grandmother states that after five days he must return “or he’s lost. He’ll be dead and free of us.” But Aisha refuses to consign her father to the sea, to “continue life with no answers.” She questions the shark hunters, but they will not help her. Then a stray cat she has been feeding appears and begins to speak, giving his name as Hamza and challenging Aisha to search for her father, to “decide whether you love your father or the memory of him.” Hamza calls up a ship from the deep—made of the bones of a prehistoric leviathan—and together they go in search of Ali. During the journey, Aisha must confront her fears. As Hamza says, “I accompany you so you might learn your own truths and determine yourself what to do with them.”
Like any fairy tale quest, there are monsters to face, questions to ask, and sacrifices to be made. They meet a monster who had a pact with Ali—in return for friendship, the monster helped her father fish. But the monster claims Ali cheated and broke its heart, “Two-thirds of my heart your father has eaten and neatly has he made a meal of the final portion!” Despite the creature’s warnings, Aisha and Hamza travel on to a farther sea and more terrifying monsters. Aisha resolved that it is better “to die at sea than return to Mombasa with her arms empty, to die like everyone else, slow and unlived.” Despite her terror and her fear that she is not “one of the girls in the stories” but instead “a poorly made thing looking for a father who doesn’t want to be found,” Aisha continues her journey. Hamza tells her that he is a scholar’s cat, a “cat of the House of Rust,” and teaches her a lesson that is at the core of the book, “Being is to be alive, awake—to believe … Are you alive if you do not question the world?”
After a terrifying confrontation with a final monster, Aisha reclaims her father’s body—neither alive nor dead—and prays for his salvation. Hamza demands she make an impossible choice and despite her refusal, miraculously she and Ali arrive back on the shore near Mombasa. Zubeir the shark hunter helps Aisha save her father, but at a terrible cost, removing Ali’s love for the sea from his heart. Aisha returns to her grandmother, and her father recovers but they both want her to marry. Aisha wants to maintain her independence, to return to the sea and find the House of Rust. As Aisha travels through Mombasa, she seeks out various animals, asking after Hamza and the House of Rust. Despite wanting her to marry, Ali understands Aisha’s need to leave and helps her reclaim a wrecked sailboat, teaching her skills she’ll need at sea. The ancient Almassi, half-man, half-snake, arrives from the House of Smoke. When he steals her shadow, Aisha uses it to her advantage, substituting the shadow for herself to keep her grandmother distracted. In the final scenes of the book, Aisha makes peace with her grandmother and Almassi tells the animals to honor Aisha, “Is she not the shining example of our most triumphant, our most terrible?”
Throughout her quest and her struggles for independence, Aisha is buoyed by love: for her family—her father and grandmother, and for the mysterious cat Hamza. This is a novel as much about a young girl’s learning to trust her own courage as it is about loyalty, faith, and family. The rich descriptions of the city, its people, and the terrifying evocation of a sea full of monsters make this a riveting read.
In Jonathan Franzen’s sixth novel, Crossroads, set in the early 1970s, we meet the white suburban middle-class family the Hildebrandts. Russ is an associate pastor at the First Reformed Church in New Prospect, Illinois (a fictitious suburb of Chicago). He is deeply in lust with one of his parishioners, Frances Cottrell and, we learn, his Christmas present to himself is to arrange for some time alone with her, thinly masked as volunteer work at an “inner city” (read: Black) church. In the first section of the book, “Advent,” (the second section is “Easter”), we meet each of the main characters: Russ, his wife Marion, and three of his four children: Clem (the oldest), Becky (the daughter), and Perry (the troubled younger son). Judson, the youngest, is only nine and appears only through others’ point of view. The narrative shifts between characters ostensibly showing us the complexities of family relationships and the different realities each character experiences. Throughout there are consistent themes around marriage (and divorce), lust, Christianity, the changing times (drugs, contraception, vague references to “Women’s Lib”), and a growing awareness of privilege and racism.
By stretching his novel across nearly 600 pages, Franzen has time to provide in-depth narratives on his characters—at times interesting, even compelling, at times not so much. Russ, the failed husband, mediocre pastor, and often pathetic man, is clearly the protagonist, but his story reads as if it’s been told too often in American fiction. His son Clem’s struggle against adolescent lust, a hasty decision to drop out of college, and then odd choice to travel to other countries and work as a day laborer, deserves more space (perhaps he’ll get more in the next book of this planned trilogy). Both of the Hildebrandt women, Marion and Becky, are struggling with love, lust, and identity. Sadly, Marion is written as a bright woman who never recovered from an early breakdown and now loathes her own body (described as “fat” by herself, the author, and Russ). She has the strength to seek out a psychiatrist—an older woman who only serves as an element to allow us to learn more about Marion. But aside from a brief rebellion against her loveless marriage, Marion seems trapped by her own acceptance of white middle-class expectations.
Things aren’t much better for Becky—despite being gorgeous, intelligent, and popular—Becky’s hopes for a future are subsumed by a pot-induced religious experience and a handsome local musician. Her newfound faith influences her to give away money she’d inherited from her aunt—evenly distributing it with her brothers—and ending up no better off than her mother: married and a mother at 19. While she and her soon-to-be husband do travel in Europe (he’s playing the folk circuit while they squat with questionable people), this period is far too brief for her to experience anything we might want for her: self-awareness, growth, some semblance of adulthood. It may be the 1970s, but the Hildebrandt women aren’t ready for anything like a revolution.
Perry is Marion’s favorite: brilliant, troubled, and, in her view, inheritor of her family’s mental illness. Her father was possibly manic-depressive and died of suicide, but Marion’s mental troubles are less manic than a seeming reaction to intolerable circumstances. That she is convinced Perry has inherited her “disease” is part of her tragic position in the novel. Perry vows to be a “good person” and give up his pot-smoking (and dealing) but by the end of the novel, he’s caused untold damage to his family’s finances and his own well-being while on a church retreat.
Russ’s story is the glue that ostensibly holds all of this together: raised a Mennonite he has both a fear and obsession with sex and women’s bodies. He’s frustrated in his ambitions to be a religious leader and only partially aware of his own failings. At the center of his struggle is the church youth group “Crossroads”—lead by his nemesis, the younger and hipper pastor Rick Ambrose. The battle of testosterone between the two is a central conflict in the novel, but it’s somewhat uninteresting—as are long detailed accounts of Russ’s attempts to have sex with Frances. His behavior and the infighting in his church make his faith suspect; his whiteness is part of a narrative around race and privilege that is one of the more interesting threads: there are two spaces where non-white characters appear in Russ’s narrative—in brief scenes in the “inner city” church and on the Navajo Reservation.
Russ has been volunteering on the reservation for several years. He began when he was stationed at a work camp for WWII conscientious objectors near Flagstaff. Russ decided he wanted to do something to help the people on the reservation. At his church, First Reformed, he helps run a volunteer trip for teenagers bringing them to the reservation where they help out. Russ sees himself as friends with one of the Navajo but when his friend is hospitalized, the latest work trip is in jeopardy. In a brief confrontation with a young Navajo, Russ learns about destructive mining done on the reservation and his friend’s role in that process. Much like a brief conflict in the “inner city” church between Russ, Frances, and the Black minister, these brief conflicts on the reservation read as both compelling (and deserving more space) and plot points for showing white privilege and Russ’s own character development. I found myself wanting a section from the Navajo point of view or to even hear the voice of the Black minister, but this is not that book.
There is much that is good here. After all, this is Franzen and he is a masterful writer—of character, conflict, suspense, and the narratives of select middle-class white Americans. But after more than 500 pages, I wanted less of Russ and more of Marion and Becky, more of the Navajo and Black Americans, more of an America that isn’t just white and hypocritically Christian. Perhaps more of an America that has space for young women to push back against a culture that prefers them submissive, married, and able to follow their dreams: less Becky and more Aisha. Perhaps later in the trilogy there will be some echo for Franzen’s characters of Aisha’s refusal “to die like everyone else, slow and unlived.”