From what I have seen so far, Under the Visible Life has not been getting the attention it deserves. Thanks to Susan at A Life in Books, I bumped it up my list, read it over the Holidays, and loved every minute of it. Both Susan and Naomi (The Writes of Woman) included it on their Best of 2016 lists. Perhaps you’ll see it on my Best of 2017 list in another 11 months…
Under the Visible Life is the story of two women, their friendship, and their individual quests for independence. Mahsa and Katherine come from different backgrounds, but have three things in common; music, a mixed heritage, and a fierce determination to be free and independent (from societal norms and family circumstances).
The most radical thing a woman can do is live.
Katherine: Katherine was born in Ontario, Canada to a single mother in 1940. Her father is Chinese and married her mother, but had to return to China. At birth, Katherine was taken away from her mother (and her mother was incarcerated for “incorrigibility”) under the Female Refuges Act. Her mother fought to have her back, then fought to earn enough money and raise her as a single mother in the 40s and 50s.
Katherine grew up vowing never to be like her mother; a lonely woman smoking in a dark basement apartment. She saw marriage as a way to avoid ending up like her, but Katherine’s marriage resulted in its own set of troubles, and Katherine was left (much of the time) to raise her three children on her own.
What I love most about Katherine’s story is that motherhood is not swept aside for her career – and neither is her career ended because of motherhood. Despite her struggles with money and marriage, she finds a way to go after her dreams while raising three children. She puts a priority on both herself and her children and shows us it can be done.
This music is what marriage could be, playing solos at the same time and ending up together.
You have to keep doing it all. You have to keep chasing your favourite things. Don’t stop. Don’t wait. Keep going.
Mahsa: Mahsa was born to an Afghan mother who had run away to Pakistan with an American. For the first 13 years of her life, she knew love and happiness, until her parents were murdered by her uncles. As a result of this, Mahsa had the idea that “women who married got murdered by their families”, and decided to do her best to avoid marriage.
Mahsa was sent to Montreal to study, where she got a taste of freedom and independence, but in the end could not avoid the marriage her family wanted for her. She tried to make the best of it, but felt trapped and confined, and at times betrayed.
I believed I could do what I wanted if no one saw… I believed in a hidden life for women.
Both women are in marriages that are wildly different and fascinating. I could write a whole other post on just their marriages alone. (Literary Wives, keep this one in mind!)
I highly recommend this book to anyone, but especially to readers who like stories about women, marriage, and friendship. In a world where we so often tear each other down, it’s nice to read a book about women building each other up. Kim Echlin had me mesmerized.
To live, you must risk calamity. Abandon old ways to create something new. Love the life under the visible life.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Kim Echlin explains why she wrote Under the Visible Life:
Under the Visible Life is about love and I wanted to think about how the hidden lives of our families and cultures – our mother tongues, our customs and laws, the lives of our parents, grandparents – thread through our own lives whether we know them or not. I wanted to think about the resistances we face when we live authentically.
At CBC Books, Kim Echlin explains how she wrote it:
The book started when I discovered the Female Refuges Act… During the Second World War it was used to discourage women from cross-cultural dating. I was fascinated by how recently it had been repealed. My grandmother and mother had been born into it. I had been born into it, although I was too young to be subject to it. It was startling to understand the degree of legislative control our Canadian laws have had over women.
I wanted to work with alternating first person narration because I wanted the two main characters to tell their own stories, but to reflect on each other’s as well…