A Feather on the Breath of God
by Sigrid Nunez
Review by Tara Caimi
A Feather on the Breath of God is a complex, psychological exploration into the childhood and growth of a narrator whose parents are immigrants of different nationalities. A novel, written in the style of a memoir, this emotion-summoning account explores the narrator’s life and heritage, as shaped by her immigrant parents.
Nunez structures the book in four parts, beginning with the history and background of the narrator’s father, the parent about whom she knows the least. “The unbearably few facts are these” (p. 6) she begins, going on to explain that he was born in Panama to a Panamanian mother but raised in China with his Chinese father’s family. He then moved to America after meeting the narrator’s mother in World War II. The fact that her father changed his name from Chang to his Panamanian mother’s name when he became an American citizen is a sample of the mysteries that confound the narrator. Not only is the father displaced in a nation in which he was not born, the narrator expresses that her father was displaced in his own house. “In our house there were no Chinese things” (p. 14). “My mother thought of the house as hers, spoke of her curtains, her floors (often in warning: ‘Don’t scuff my floors’)” (p. 15). It is obvious that the narrator’s mother is the dominant figure in the household—her father works most of the time, seven days a week, and speaks very little when at home. “He sat alone at the table, staring at the wall. He hardly noticed if someone came into the kitchen for something. His inobservance was the family’s biggest joke” (p. 21). Though the narrator implies that she not only did not understand her father as she was growing up, she was often embarrassed of him. “I was angry at him too, for what he seemed to be doing: willing himself into stereotype—inscrutable, self-effacing, funny little Chinaman” (p. 22).
Characterizing him physically as “A trim sprig of a man, dainty but not puny, fastidious but not effeminate” (p. 19), it is only later that the narrator laments at having missed her chance to get to know her father. “Alone with my father every night, I could have gotten to know him. I could have asked him all of those questions that I now have to live without answers to” (p. 20). At this point she realizes the magnitude of the opportunity she missed. “I remembered my father and the sparrow, and a new possibility presented itself: my father not as one who would not speak but as one to whom no one would listen” (p. 22). In unique style, Nunez bolsters the presence of the narrator’s father by using other people memories in place of the narrator’s own, non-existent memories. “When he wasn’t drinking he was very shy. He just sat there next to your mother without speaking. He sat there staring and staring at her. (Frau Mayer)” (p. 27). These quotes go on for several pages, and this is how Nunez builds the character of a man about whom little is known.
In the next section of the book, Nunez focuses on the character of Christa, the narrator’s German mother. Here the reader gets a more focused picture of the parent. “My mother’s eyes were enhanced by shapely brows that made me think of angels’ wings. Their arch gave her face an expression of skeptical wonder. When she was displeased her brows went awry; the arch fell; the world came tumbling down on me” (p. 32). The narrator’s mother is a proud woman who rules her household with an iron fist. “At home she was the authority, the only one permitted to do as she pleased, to be herself” (p. 63).
By way of characterization, Nunez sends the reader on a trip to Germany, as it was under Nazi regime—the era in which Christa grew up. “Some part of her always remained that child on the stairs watching the arrest of her parents. The ringing of the telephone could stop her heart” (p. 62). After her parents were arrested, Christa was sent to a school, where she was clothed, fed, and schooled by the Nazi regime. These were her formative years. To describe the depth of Christa’s connection with her homeland—her heritage, Nunez uses another distinct style that she employs throughout the entire book. She quotes another writer. “Now I want to recall those words of Virginia Woolf, about childhood: ‘A leaf of mint brings it back … a cup with a blue ring.’ Nazi Germany was the only Germany my mother knew. Her whole youth had been lived under the sign of the swastika. She never said it, but it had to be true: When she saw the swastika, she thought of home” (p. 57).
The narrator explains that Christa married the narrator’s father only because she accidentally became pregnant when she was simply trying to make another man jealous. Christa would never be happy with her life in America. “She is miserable. She hates America. She dreams incessantly about going home” (p. 10). She even tires to abort her last pregnancy, which fails, and the narrator is born. Christa does not withhold this information from her daughter. But important information is withheld from the children, by both parents. Though the narrator’s mother shares stories of the past with her children, which her father does not, Christa would not teach her children German. “It’s not your language, you don’t need it, learn your own language first” (p. 35). To a child, this is a sign of rejection—that her mother would not share her heritage with her own children, as if that heritage were hers alone. In masterful style, Nunez brings this withholding back to haunt the narrator much later in the book. After the narrator has entered into an emotionally unhealthy relationship with one of her immigrant students who wants to declare his love to her in his native language, she recognizes the selfish nature of her parents’ decision. “To think that neither my father nor my mother ever showed any desire to teach me his or her language. A terrible withholding, that now seems to me” (p. 46).
In describing her childhood, the narrator remembers “constant fighting” (p. 11) between her parents, even though her father was seldom home. “Constant bickering and fighting. We children dreamed of growing up, going to college, getting married, getting away” (p. 13). But the same mother whose “rage tore through a cyclone in the house” (p. 64) also influenced her daughter’s imagination by providing her first book of fairy tales. “First the fairy tales, then the Greek myths—for years my imagination fed on that most magical possibility: a person could be changed into a creature, a tree. In time this led to trouble” (p. 37). Again, Nunez later brings the story back around to complete this reference. “Men like to touch, to take you on their knees and stroke you as if you were a kitten. She has watched kittens. Roll onto your back, turn up your stomach, tilt your head. As her eyes grew huge now her face grows more triangular. She knows that there is something off, something unmentionable, that she cannot fathom” (p. 125). In this section, there is a distinctive shift in point of view, as if the narrator must look at the scene from an outsider’s perspective, rather than her own. Though the narrator makes it clear that her mother has influenced her life more than her father has, the reader cannot help but wonder if her father’s absence may be just as influential as the consciously recognized influences of her mother, as she searches for the affection of men, comparing them to her father even as a young lover. “Compared with her father other men are usually bigger, hairier. The neighborhood men are tough, hotheads ever ready with their fists” (p. 125).
By the end of part two, Nunez summarizes the narrator’s feelings about her family life and childhood. “Over my childhood hangs the memory of perpetual violence: quarrels, fits, punishments. Threats and curses ran through those years. It was imperative to escape. And escape she does.
In part three of the book, Nunez focuses on the character of the narrator by looking at her through the perspective of her very means of escape—ballet. “Everything about the world of ballet responds to the young girl looking to escape real life” (p. 98). By now the parental influences are obvious through the masterful way that Nunez has characterized both the narrator’s mother and father, as well as the narrator’s relationships with those characters. Miserable in the house of constant fighting where she was not made to feel at home, the narrator escapes to a parallel world—very different, but one to which she can relate. “Authoritarianism was, of course, in keeping with my upbringing; but now all the rules had a purpose. Ballet meant finally being taken seriously; meant being allowed to take yourself seriously. It gave me back some of the dignity that I felt was constantly being undermined elsewhere in my life” (p. 99). But the control ballet afforded to a young girl was of a dangerous sort. “How beautiful the hollowed gut, the jutting bones. To be light as a feather, light as a soul—‘a feather on the breath of God’ (Saint Hildegard)” (p. 106). This is the sort of control that leads to eating disorders, and in fact “during those years the seed of illness was planted” (p. 106).
With the background of her home life and family relationships unfolded with such precision, the reader is able to put into perspective the following words from the narrator about the ballet dancer: “If the demands made on her body are outrageous, even sadistic, know that she wants it. For she is a woman who craves discipline and a master” (p. 115). This window into the narrator’s soul can be understood in terms of her psychological background, as can the section which follows, part four, in which the narrator enters into an emotionally harmful relationship with her student.
Nunez uses confession-like language and tone to begin the episode in which the narrator takes one of her students as a lover. “During the time I want to tell about now, I had a job teaching English to immigrants” (p. 129). She goes on to tell of another student who pointed out that “in most of their (students) cultures, women who lived as we mostly young and single teachers did would be considered whores” (p. 129). This observation sets up the story in which the Russian student Vadim, who is married with a family, pursues the narrator. Eventually she relents and they become lovers. “He is the only truly fearless person I have ever met. And his fearlessness is part of the spell that binds me” (p. 40). Vadim is honest about his flaws, and over the course of the section, Nunez slowly and skillfully peels back the onion layers to reveal this man’s true character, as it would have been revealed to the narrator who was caught in the relationship web before the layers started to fall.
In attempting to better understand herself, the narrator finds Vadim, who she can comprehend on the level of an immigrant parent, but later it is his daughter to whom she most relates. “She knows her power and she will use it, she will have as many boys as she likes. But she will never marry” (p. 167).
The intimacy of language—something she could never share with her parents—brings the narrator together with Vadim. The understanding of an immigrant lifestyle—something she directly inherited from her parents—is also a factor. “He says this to me all the time. You always could understand me. Tender. Grateful. His English may be broken but he is safe with me. That I am the one who taught him English—our common language, and the language of survival in the new country—is something he never forgets” (p. 145). The narrator cannot stop herself from comparing this man, as she has all others, with her father. “My heart runs out of me. In all those years, my father never learned enough English to tell me how he felt about me” (p. 147).
Eventually Vadim talks about his life in Russia as a drug addict, drug dealer, thief, and pimp. “Of course he was bad. He was very bad. A brute. A pimp. A menace to women. I knew why he pitied me” (p. 177). As with ballet, the narrator has entered into a relationship with an entity that takes more than she can give. “His is a greedy, taking kind of kiss that always makes me feel as if he were sucking out some of my soul” (p. 169). As with ballet, she is able to escape before the entity consumes her.
Throughout the book, Nunez uses language to summon emotions like a snake charmer uses music to summon his reptiles. “There is a big tree outside the window and it is full of birds, singing my disgrace, a song these birds will teach to their young and to other birds, around the world, so that now no matter where I am, in other rooms, in other beds, I sometimes wake to hear them, singing my disgrace” (p. 121).
Her character development, using this language, is unmatched. “But her Germanness and her longing for Germany—her Heimweh—were so much a part of her she cannot be thought of without them. To try to imagine her born of other blood, on other soil, is to lose her completely: There is no Christa there” (p. 59).
Nunez also effectively describes the evoking of memories in such concrete detail that it helps the reader to empathize with those memories. “I have not been inside a ballet studio for many years. Going back, I am led by that most powerful organ of memory, the nose. Sweat, rosin, and Jean Naté, the freshener many dancers used to splash on after class. The sweat-soaked wooden floors had their own pungent odor. The beloved reek of the studio” (p. 97). She brilliantly uses objective correlatives to express or even describe features of the narrator. “I feel a pang. For they have overbloomed, as peonies do. They have turned themselves practically inside out. All it means is a sooner death for them. There sees to me something almost generous about this. Straining beauty. The phrase sticks in my head” (p. 123).
Nunez’s style is unique, frequently quoting other people within the text and effectively using parenthetical thoughts to reinforce a point. She often introduces an idea or concept in one section and completes the concept later in the text, giving the piece continuity and depth, but not necessarily a sense of closure. The end of the book has the narrator visiting several therapists, none of whom are to her liking, and the last sentence instills both meaning and question in the reader’s mind. “How can she possibly understand? This woman has never been ravished” (p. 180).
It would seem that the narrator already understands the source of her problems, and though we may never know exactly what she sought in therapy, we might conclude that it is, perhaps, her own answer to question raised by her mother, so many years ago: “How in God’s name did I get here? ” (p. 72)