Kirstenbosch Gardens, Cape Town (May 2015)
Sometimes you just want the comfort of a good story. You might be at the beach when you need such a book, or on holiday in general, or perhaps sick in bed with the flu, but certain occasions demand cosy books. I’m away from Joburg at present, and yesterday I started and finished Jojo Moyes book “One plus One”. It’s a wonderful read about a 27-year old woman named Jess who is the mother of two kids: ten year old Tanzie (Constanza) and teenager Nicky, the son of her husband and his ex. Jess’s husband left two years ago, and in that time she has been struggling to keep her family together by working at a local bar and as a cleaner.
The plot of the novel revolves around Jess’s family struggle to make more of themselves. Jess’s daughter’s Tanzie is a math prodigy, and her local math teacher thinks she could attend an excellent private school in the area called St Anne’s. There is no way that they could afford such fees, but because of Tanzie’s abilities the school is willing to offer a 90% scholarship, the most generous scholarship they have ever offered. The 10% outstanding is still a formidable barrier however, so when Tanzie’s math teacher lets Jess know about a Math Olympiad in Scotland with a five thousand dollar first prize, she decides to drive her family to Scotland for the competition. The problem is that Jess has no insurance, the car (her husband’s) that she wants to drive is rusting, and she has little driving experience.
Help arrives however in the form of a man named Ed Nicholls, a man who is one of Jess’s cleaning clients and who is being investigated for accidentally getting involved in insider trading. He is at risk of losing everything he has, and their lives intersect one day when Jess helps him get home from the bar which she works. He doesn’t remember her getting him home, but he does remember Jess telling him that she is upset with him for offending her/treating her badly one afternoon when she was cleaning his house. Her words stay with him, and when he sees her at the side of the road with the car her children and a policeman, without quite knowing why, he decides to stop and offer them a lift to Scotland. The book revolves around their journey there, and they both learn and grow from one another through their travels and experiences together. Here are a few things that I enjoyed/took away from the book.
1)No Time for Judgement
This story is told from the perspective of different characters, and each chapter is told from the perspective of a different person, sometimes the kids, and sometimes Ed or Jess. I like this narrative technique and enjoyed how the same event was related by two of three different characters who were experiencing, reacting to, and/or observing the same event. Through the way this story is told, as a reader you are reminded that there is no one version of events, and no one correct version of personal histories. In this story there are also no good or bad characters, only flawed characters in shades of grey. Which is not to say that there is no morality, the characters in this book have principles and values, but the book does highlight the point that you don’t know how you would respond to a situation until you are faced with the same pressures and events as someone else.
2) We Need to be in Diverse Company
This book also addresses issues of class. Jess is struggling to survive, and she understands money in a very different way from Ed. Their definitions of being rich and wealthy are different. The costs that matter to them are different. For instance, there is a scene in the book when Ed describes a cashless transaction system his company has developed that banks and retailers love and that charges consumers with a minor cost to each transaction that is “basically nothing”. Jess in return describes what such transaction costs would translate to in her daily life over the course of the year. This book is a reminder that we learn when we are in gatherings and communities with a diversity of experiences.
3) The past matters
Because she knew that something happened to you when your mother didn’t hold you close, or tell your all the time that you were the best thing ever, or even notice when you were home: a little part of you sealed over. You didn’t need her. You didn’t need anyone. And without even knowing you were doing it, you waited. You waited for anyone who got close to you to see something they didn’t like in you, something they hadn’t seen initially, and to grow cold and disappear too, like too much sea mist. Because there had to be something wrong, didn’t there, if even your own mother didn’t really love you?” (One Plus One, p. 255)
“It was true that Nicky didn’t talk much. It wasn’t that he didn’t have things to say. It was just that there was nobody he really wanted to say it to. Ever since he had gone to live with Dad and Jess, when he was eight, people had been trying to get him to talk about his “feelings” like there were a a big rucksack he could just drag around with him and open up for everyone to examine its contents. But half the time he didn’t know what he thought. He didn’t have opinions about politics or the economy or what happened to him. ” (One Plus One, p.332)
This book is about a family trying to get ahead and make more of themselves. It is about their attempt to help Tanzie be herself and study math in the way that she wants. But at the same time, it shows how the past shapes how you are at present. Nicky’s mother left him, and among other things, that experience has shaped the way he communicates with others, how he lets people in, and how he is open in personal relationships. Jess does not want to seem like someone who is taking advantage of help, and so she protests everything that Ed does, attempts to sleep in the car over the course of the trip, makes sandwiches throughout using ingredients on special, and finds it hard (though such a relief) to accept help. This book shows how the past impacts us, but it does not suggest that the past allows for no alternate ways of being in the future. Instead, this book is an exploration of how our encounters and experiences with others allow us to grow and develop and become more than we could if we were apart.
4) Interdependence and Community
This book highlights how exhausting it is being alone and trying to manage all facets of your life, your finances, your work, your family, your health, everything is on you when you are the solo head of your household. Reading Jess’s story reminded me of my work with the United Way in the Lower Mainland and in Toronto, and exercises we did to highlight the experience of being in precarious work and having a low income. In the exercises we did, we could see that the expenses we had greater than our needs, and how in such circumstances, every day and week, decisions are made and tradeoffs are made about how to spend/not spend one’s salary. In this book, Jess is in debt, and she pays the electricity bill with the rent money, the rent money with something else, and leaves certain bills unpaid. There is no room for all the needs, and certainly no room for luxuries. And when unexpected events occur and unexpected expenses are the result, there are no savings in this story to draw upon.
This book is a fiction work but the experiences of Jess are real. This book was a reminder that we need to support others in our community whether it is through advice or time or acts of service (and I would add, through supporting social agencies). When I was in Canada, supporting the United Way was a way to support an incredible network of social agencies, but I’m still learning about the social landscape here in South Africa. It’s not enough to say that “poor people must work hard and get ahead” this book illustrates that poverty requires intense hard work to stay barely afloat, and that without help, family transformation is near impossible. Not having the resource of a car, not being able to take time off to do something needed, not being able to take further courses, all of these are structural barriers to getting out of poverty, and require community support to overcome.