One must remember Lexi. She who was so silent, so overlooked, so brave in accepting the world as it is, for the most part without judgement.

 

One must recognise Lexi. Her Mennonite family had come from “southern Russia” (actually Ukraine) via Latvia, London and Liverpool to the St Lawrence Waterway in winter. Behind them in 1919 lay the turmoil of the civil war period in Soviet Russia, with gangs of marauding and only faintly political warlords. One of these, the ‘anarchist’ Makhno, had plundered their homestead and village (because they were unresisting pacifists and, thrifty and industrious, had accumulated a little wealth) and raped Lexi’s beautiful mother.

 

The family was broken. Leaving behind precious aunts and newly buried uncles, they emigrate at the invitation of the benign Canadian government. Lexi is only nine. She remembers the smell of home-made watermelon syrup filling the house she has left behind; but she also remembers it wantonly spilled on the floor, amidst torn flour sacks, by Makhno’s men.

Watermelon Syrop

This gives its title, Watermelon Syrup, to this wonderful book. A first published novel, written by an author now dead, after great suffering, from cancer, Annie Jacobsen’s work is a masterpiece of sublime understatement. We are shown things, not told them. The longest word in the book is probably cacophony. It is hugely readable and moving. When we meet our heroine, Lexi (Aleksandra), she is 13. She has three older brothers, only one of whom we get to know; and three younger sisters, one of whom turns out to be another trouper. Lexi’s mother, who has not smiled since 1919, dies slowly and stubbornly, but with her last words counsels Lexi to avoid bitterness.

 

Lexi’s father, a Mennonite minister who has bad luck, lives inside his Bible. A religion without love cannot possibly be mistaken for Christianity. If it were not for occasional references to this Bible, one would never guess that the Mennonite community was a Christian sect. A remote, principled figure, Papa too has suffered. On the day of that rape, in which his Mennonite principles, not to mention self preservation, prevented him from intervening, he stood in the shadows behind a door. The shame and silent, biological suffering of that moment stand behind all the doomed, inevitable inaction of subsequent years (“It is God’s will”). He tries and fails as a farmer in the wintry, inhospitable prairies of Saskatchewan. He tries and is injured as a worker on the railways. Gradually this ex-teacher becomes again a teacher of his religion to the young of his community. But poverty deserts this family much more slowly than the families of other emigrants. The cause is emotional blight.

 

One brother, Willi, keeps a notebook. Lexi feels an affinity with him. Ultimately they both escape at least partially from the cramp of clan. Papa seems to have a supply of yellow notebooks brought from Russia. Willi writes in one of them about their journey of emigration and, later, with terrible conflict, about the rape which he has witnessed as a young child. When we first meet her, as an old lady with a “diagnosis” in the Prologue, Lexi is writing in another the words Watermelon Syrup. As a 17-year-old she has accidentally come across Willi’s notebook and read its account of their family. She has understood the absence of happiness. Before she dies, Lexi’s mother gives her a message to pass on to the absent Willi: Tell him I did not burn the notebook. The three of them, dead and living, thus achieve a bond of unity and terrible knowledge.

 

One must respect Lexi. An aunt takes up an opening for her in the household of an affluent Waterloo family, a doctor and his wife. Lexi’s eyes are opened to the world of clothes, drink and chain-smoking in the secular world which she has never encountered. Mostly it proves all too true her father’s static dicta. The wife appears to be neurotic but, as is often so skilfully the case with this accomplished storyteller, it is not made quite clear what form her problems take. She seems to drink plentifully and to go out for long periods in the car each day, leaving her young children in Lexi’s care. We are not shown more than this, because things that happen beyond the range of Lexi’s awareness are not described. Lexi proves to be a dynamo of housekeeping, childcare and organisation and the doctor husband gravitates towards her as a desirable entity. Lexi sees and understands, reacts with gladness or horror, fear or amazement, but does not relapse into the categorical thinking that has surrounded her hitherto.

 

One must appreciate Lexi. We know from the Prologue she will eventually marry somebody called Ted Bauer, so when we meet him on a train we are encouraged to discover a sensitive and tactful trainee Lutheran minister who is wickedly reading The Way Of All Flesh. We are not shown how they get together or, in the Epilogue, more than the bare bones of their life together. Lexi has outlived him for a few years but they have had a child, have been happy, and diverged from Lexi’s family, sadly without any further contact. Ted has appreciated Lexi. In the body of the narrative, only Lexi’s sole friend, Georgie, and the couple’s children, Sally and Simon, have appreciated her. She works like a bullock day and night both for the Olivers (the doctor and his wife) and for her own family, when she has to return to Saskatchewan. Perhaps one should add that her younger sisters appreciated her, at least at the time, but they seemed destined to remain in the rock pool.

 

One must feel for Lexi. As a girl in her late teens, she finds herself sexually responding with a faint tremor to the practised advances of the doctor, her employer, under whose roof and protection she falls. There is a second rape in the book and it is of Lexi. Other maids before her have departed in circumstances we can only guess at.

 

Throughout this story, Lexi is for ever opening her mouth and beginning sentences that never get beyond “I …” In the way of things, Lexi goes on to have a life but every rape, and the second as much as the first, is a kind of death. We long for justice but the appalling doctor is never accused or brought to book (this is the 1930s). On one occasion only, when they meet for the last time, Lexi speaks out in her mild way to Dr Oliver:

 

“I come from good people,” she began, “people who believe in non-violence and…” She almost said “forgiveness,” but she would never forgive him. “God will look down on you and judge you.”

He had a strange look on his face, like he might either start to laugh or start to cry.

“We were respected in Russia. My grandfather was the Mayor of Blumenort. He represented all Mennonites in the Russian Parliament during the reign of Nicolas the Second. I am named after the Czar’s wife. I…”

 

Only once before has she gone so far, when her father was about to ‘shun’ her for wanting to leave home, continue school and become a nurse (all of these things she manages to do). She confronts him with the fact, without making it explicit, that she knows about what happened during Makhno’s raid.

 

The rage in his eyes disappeared and was replaced by something that looked like fear. He winced and stepped back away from her, as if she might strike him.

 

One must admire Lexi. These little speeches don’t seem to affect the outcomes and events of her life in any way, but they truly shift the heavens and the earth. Her spontaneity and wordless faith suffuse these artless, artful pages. She is a heroine of meekness and the resilience of hope. She is quite right: she has had no childhood, no upbringing, no education, no opportunities to expand intellectually and develop occupationally, but she comes from good people. The strength of her ancestors is in her limbs. She knows nothing of self expression but she expresses herself through work, goodwill and the kind of developmental search that always remains blind.

 

So compelling is this vivid, simple story that one stands in awe of the superb craft, flair and unobtrusive skill of its author, a Jungian analyst and tutor. The book[1] is published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press and emerges from the world of ‘life writing’. In the UK, where it is established in Masters courses, Life Writing means autobiographical exercises for would-be writers of fiction. It helps to get the pen moving if you write about something that happened yesterday. To judge by the publisher’s series list, where of 31 titles listed only one is by a male, Life Writing in North America is adjoined to a feminist subculture, half a world. Feminism, although it espouses worthy causes, makes itself objectionable in the same way that the anti-racist movement makes itself objectionable. There seems to be a secret law at work ─ one comes to resemble one’s enemies.

 

Watermelon Syrup deserves to be set free from the trappings of such confinement, but sadly it is laden with a Foreword and ploddingly sociological Afterword. Of course the manuscript was unfinished and had to be put in order and “polished” by devoted hands. One hopes that some sentences in the Epilogue are by such a hand:

 

And she could do all of that because of the help she had at home. Because of the maids. That was never lost on her; the fact that she had been able to accomplish so much because other women had supported her.

 

Of course, this is not wrong in itself, but it is a false note. The fact is that this is a superbly accomplished flowering of a mature talent, subtle, unspoken, implicit and understated ─ could it be the quietest book ever written? Yet there is nothing in it except being, no discussion, no ideology, no editorial intrusion, no judgement, no explanation, not even comment. Things speak for themselves with a rare eloquence.  It is an astonishing and moving work of art that deserves a great deal more than praise: it deserves the love it evokes.

 

It deserves to be much better known. Recommended to me by my daughter, who was fortunate enough to have Annie Jacobsen as a mentor, it proved extraordinarily hard to get hold of. The US Amazon and Amazon UK knew nothing of it. I had to have recourse to Amazon in Canada and even they had parlous few copies.  Fortunately, one was to be had.

 

One should remember Lexi but one is hardly likely to forget her, a prodigy of nature. 

 


[1] Jacobsen, A. Watermelon Syrup. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-1-55458-005-7.

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