“She wonders if these same business people, these men and women that she pushes past on the paths – did they vote yes, vote to change the constitution and keep people like Sandrine out? It scares her, in a way, that this baby is about to arrive in a country that only this week has voted to disallow her citizenship. She will be born placeless on this day, an unwelcome baby.”
This book is set in Ireland in 2004 (and written in 2006) but could not be more relevant today, in the time of the Brexit referendum, and Donald *ass* Trump’s call for the removal of birthright citizenship in the US.
Sandrine is from Zimbabwe. She’s in Ireland on a student visa, supposedly to learn, but she is really there to work, to find a better life for herself, her husband and child back home, and her unborn child that she is keeping secret. She finds a job caring for Tom and Clare, an elderly couple who can no longer manage on their own. Their daughter Elizabeth doesn’t live with them and has a bit of an awkward relationship with her mother. The family used to live in Vietnam and America, where Tom worked in the spice trade.
It’s a very emotional read. It’s hard to see one’s parents fade away in terms of health, both physical and mental. As Tom becomes a mere shadow of himself, his story is unraveled through his memories and recollections of their time in Vietnam and America. My late grandfather had dementia and the last time I saw him, I don’t think he knew who any of us were. I was living away from Singapore by then, and learnt of his death via Skype. So it was hard to read of Tom’s decline.
“His hair is softer than she expected, thinning, and the scalp pulses like a newborn’s. She senses this pulsing in her hands. He is living, his mind is moving, and he is looking up at her with surprised, glazing green eyes. Her tears are for nothing. There is nothing to weep for, since he is unaware, gazing at her crying or laughing with the same indifferent emptiness in his look which seems always surprised now, because everything lacks for him the context of memory.”
This is also Elizabeth’s story, one of belonging and fitting in – or not. Her childhood in Vietnam and America, then moving back to Ireland, then back again to Vietnam. Where does she belong? Is she Irish? Is she American? It’s similar with my own family. We are from Singapore, but the kids, being born in the US, are American citizens. We travel to Singapore once a year, and both sets of grandparents travel up here at least once or twice a year. My five-year-old once described himself as a Singapore American. I wonder how he will feel in the future. Will he still have a connection to Singapore?
Although we don’t really learn much about Sandrine’s life in Zimbabwe, her experiences in Ireland are the key to this book. Her struggle to adapt to life in Ireland, to learn to be a caregiver for these elderly people she now lives with. The racism she experiences, because of the colour of her skin.
“She does not know that it doesn’t matter how she perceives herself to fit in. What she feels, how she might work to become part of this new society, it makes no difference. Sandrine has been spat and cursed at, has peered with shock into women’s faces as they have sneered at hers – she expected better of women, and has been disappointed. At moments the desire to commiserate with another black Zimbabwean is overwhelming. She knows of the news that instances of assault are on the rise, the country is increasingly angry about non-nationals, and there is a referendum coming up that scares the life out of her.”
Flight takes time to get into. But when you do get into it, it is a gem. It is a story about feeling lost, both within the world and within themselves. It is unsettling, it is emotional. It is a thoughtful story that makes you examine your own life, your own situation, and where you belong.
Flight by Oona Frawley is published by Tramp Press, an indie Irish publishing company.