Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines take on A Feather on the Breath of God.
A Feather on the Breath of God is a slim novel, but it packs a punch with its force and unflinching honesty of the life of a young woman and her family in New York during the 1950s and ‘60s. The daughter, the narrator of the story, remains nameless throughout the entire book. The narrative is broken into four parts: the story of the father, a man of Chinese-Panamanian descent; the father’s marriage to a German woman (the narrator’s parents); the narrator’s love of ballet; and in later years, the narrator’s affair with a married Russian immigrant. The family emigrates to the United States, and the daughter grows up in a housing project in New York. Her two sisters do not play much of a role in the novel other than bearing a similar upbringing of abject poverty and, at times, abuse from their parents.
Carlos, the father, is a hard-working man who works primarily as a dishwasher and waiter his entire life. His marriage to his wife, Christa, went stale years ago, and the two can barely stand each other – the fact of which they do not bother hiding from their daughters. Christa is an eccentric woman who has severe mood swings; she is cruel and physically abusive one day and charming and fun the next. Christa is the dominant parent in the family due to her personality and the fact that Carlos ignores them all. Christa longs for Germany and often proclaims that she should have married Rudolf, a boyfriend from her early years.
Time marches on. The narrator becomes involved in ballet and flirts with an eating disorder to stay ballering-thin. The book then fast forwards to later years, when the narrator is an English teacher to immigrants and embarks on a doomed affair with one of her Russian students, Vadim, a man who has a violent and disreputable past. It is clear that no good can come of the affair. Interestingly, the narrator does not “fall for” her lover but rather finds him “interesting” and continues along in the affair while she broods over whether she should leave him. Vadim is one of the most interesting characters in the book because he frequently has the knack to be amusing yet horrifying.
I enjoyed the writing style of this book, which mainly comprises short sentences of unflinching honesty and objectivity on the part of the narrator. While the narrator’s life has not been an easy one, the reader can sense that she is a strong person who can withstand a difficult upbringing to become an independent young woman. I also enjoyed reading about the narrator’s parents and their markedly different cultures and backgrounds. While A Feather on the Breath of God is not an easy read, it is a good one, and I highly recommend it.