Click here to read reviewer Shannon Bigham's take on A Feather on the Breath of God.
This book is a part memoir, part personal narrative and part history of immigrant parents and their experiences from World War II, VE-Day when they met, their unhappy life in America and the protagonist’s growing up as a child of a dysfunctional family. This cross-cultural family remains essentially unassimilated, moving from project to project in New York.
The Panamanian-Chinese father is sixteen years older than his German-born wife, both of melancholic and explosive temperaments. The couple has two children before they marry, then the third, the narrator. The lone male in a house of women, the father, Carlos is unavailable, a workaholic who dies prematurely. After her husband’s death, Christa becomes the focus of the family drama, a sufferer of agoraphobia who does little to socialize her daughters or make their lives more comfortable.
An enigma, Christa is a beautiful woman who spurns the interests of men and the friendships of women. Plagued by periods of rage and depression, Christa’s home holds no warmth, the youngest daughter stepping lightly through her mother’s moods. Christa is inordinately proud of her English language skills, essentially unaware of the occasional slip of the tongue: “They stood in a motel for a week.”
With its celebration of the female, ballet is an early obsession for the narrator, who adores the combined smells of sweat, rosin and Jean Nate: “Everything about the world of ballet responds to the young girl looking to escape real life.” The natural authoritarianism of the dance world is familiar but acceptable because it has a purpose, a means of transcending the small world of the projects.
For a time, ballet is heaven, the perfect escape from reality. The downside to the almost boyish figure of a ballerina is weight maintenance, fueling an unnatural horror of pounds, feeding an eating disorder that is as natural as breathing: “In dance, pain was often inseparable from desirable feelings.”
After all the drama, this flirtation with dance is but one more chapter in her life. Teaching an ESL class, the protagonist is infatuated with a married Russian in her class, Vadim. The classic bad boy, Vadim shoots heroin when not drunk on vodka, and the romance goes the way of such attractions, as she moves on to another phase of her life.
Spooling out a sequence of events with no beginning, middle or end, the author - what I call a patchwork writer - relies on anecdotes for content without a passionate commitment to her characters. With a cast of assorted immigrants, Nunez fills the years of the story, but she hides behind this ploy, truth cleverly obscured. Supplying the facts (and quotations) as well as the answers to endless rhetorical questions, Nunez fails to exhibit that bone-deep honesty that inspires a reader. How much more powerful these immigrant tales would be if Nunez were less afraid to inhabit her characters.