The dreams of women
At the heart of Kim Echlin’s novel, Under the Visible Life, is a desperate desire to break free
“Why should a person be anything but free.” Kim Echlin robs this sentence of a question mark and awards it a full-stop, casually informing us that this is not an idea that is up for debate. Well, it shouldn’t be. But even though Echlin frames this idea of an unrestricted right to exist, live and dream in the context of the lives of two women in the 1940s in her novel, Under the Visible Life, it irked me that this idea of freedom was a distant dream for many women even in 2016, many, many decades later.
Under the Visible Life is the story of Katherine and Mahsa, two women, two jazz musicians, who come from radically different ethnic backgrounds. Katherine is half Canadian-half Chinese and Mahsa is half Afghani-half American. Their story is tied to their mixed ethnicity but more particularly and poignantly to their gender.
Early on in the book we learn (again, Echlin tells us rather casually) that Mahsa’s parents were murdered by her uncles because her Mor (mother) committed an act of ‘transgression’ by falling in love with her Abbu, an American, an “honour” killing.
She grows up with her conservative uncle and aunt in Karachi, Pakistan, where playing the piano and her Abbu’s favourite songs required Uncle’s permission. It was never the case when Abbu and Mor were around, Mahsa tells us. Music was what Abbu gave Mahsa; it was his gift and perhaps her connection with her dead family. Then, one fine day, Uncle sends Mahsa to Montreal to study and suddenly there is a whiff of freedom in the air; a chance that she could truly just be. Perhaps dedicate her time and studies entirely to music.
Katherine is born in Toronto to a Chinese migrant labourer and a stigmatised mother. Even before she gets a chance to meet her father, he deserts them and flees to China. Katherine grows up watching her mother, first trying to make ends meet, and then gradually getting swallowed by ennui, despair and illness. Music becomes Katherine’s safe space and once she discovers that she is actually good at playing the piano, she sets about bagging gigs and even hits the road with a band on tour. She meets her husband ‘T’ through the band. They get married and soon, Katherine becomes the mother of not one but three children. Motherhood comes at the cost of music and Katherine finds herself increasingly at home as ‘T’, unabashedly and selfishly, continues on the road.
Mahsa is faced with an unexpected arranged marriage. Her freedom to play and seek a career as a musician becomes contentious around the conservative new husband. It is against this backdrop of impossible personal circumstances that both Katherine and Mahsa are forced to negotiate their relationship with music and realise their dreams of becoming jazz musicians. It is this negotiation that is revealed to us and is ours alone to devour. It is the life under the visible life of these women that is made known to us. We are the only ones privy, for example, to the hours stealthily stolen from reality, for their dreams, a transgression they are both secretly proud of.
Echlin switches between the two narrative voices of Mahsa and Katherine and makes them tell their story in rhythmic, short chapters. Alternating between Mahsa and Katherine’s narratives, gradually, as the book progresses, the experiences of the two protagonists begin to coincide, building up to a point where you think, what if they meet? Echlin sets you up for this actually and creates a kind of narrative tension that would only redeem itself when the two restless, brave musicians meet. But just as you are looking for something dramatic, poignant at least, to bring them together, Echlin casually makes them meet and, all of a sudden, they become the best of friends. The tragedy of Echlin’s novel lies in her failure to spend time developing the friendship between the two women. They become best friends alright but Echlin tells us that rather than showing us — an opportunity truly wasted.
But Echlin’s strength lies in her ability to multi-task — not just between protagonists but between contexts. She teases out the different relationships around the two women, ties it to their ethnicity and culture without using stereotypes, and gives you two complete novels in one. This is also why the connection between Katherine and Mahsa seems forced.
Music, of course, and particularly jazz as a genre is a character in itself with its own history unfolding in front of our eyes as we go through the novel.
At the heart of Echlin’s novel is a desperate desire to break free. It is the undercurrent that Echlin tries hard to suppress and this gives the novel, its pace and language a restless quality. She slips in transformative and radical ideas casually and heightens their effect in the process. “The most radical thing a woman can do is live,” Echlin tells us rather simply and you end up wondering if anything has changed at all in the present. She pits the man’s dreams against the woman’s and asks why the former is always given priority. After all, as Echlin writes, “If you get robbed of your dreams, you get robbed of life.”