The unnamed protagonist of Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s Stubborn Archivist is a young woman born in London of a Brazilian woman and a British man. She grows up in London but she and her family regularly return to Brazil for the holidays to spend time with her grandparents. She seamlessly slips between both languages and cultures, for example, learning how to cook Brazilian food from her Vovo Cecilia. The following line encapsulates her existence:
“There was always here, and there was always there.”
Fowler’s novel is organised around this central idea, which suggests the duality within the life, identity, and consciousness of her unnamed protagonist, although she is clearly a proxy for the author (she even dedicated it to herself!).
Another line reverberates through much of the novel and introduces issues of sexuality, empowerment, and consent:
“look at this broken body
look at this broken up body”
When the narrator was about 15, she became involved with a much older man named Leo. Their relationship often haunts the protagonist’s thoughts. Almost a decade later, she meets him (now a doctor) and makes a confession about their relationship and some of their sexual interactions:
“I want you to know that they weren’t consensual.”
Yet the novel isn’t an exploration or a dramatisation of the actions or of the feelings encapsulated in these two phrases. This novel isn’t plot driven; its strong, enjoyable prose is lyrical and impressionistic. Fowler’s book is comprised of scraps of poetry and chunks that resemble prose poems. Sometimes just a single sentence of paragraph of text is displayed on the page, which fuels a frantic, fractured pace to her narrative.
Stubborn Archivist opens on a young Brazilian-English high school girl. She and her friends have begun to explore London night life, boys and drugs: typical stuff. She and her best friend Jade often sneak out of the house. The story shifts to 2015. She start her first post-graduation job doing consumer outreach for a plastic surgery company that is concentrating on the Brazilian market. She is still living with her parents in a working-class part of London. Jade visits for a big traditional Brazilian dinner, and the two young women seem uncomfortable and tentative around each other.
We slip back to 1992 where Richard and Isabel are living and have just had a baby. They are welcoming her Brazilian parents who are visiting to meet their grandchild for the first time. Again, we must infer who these people until eventually their identifies are explicitly confirmed. Soon this baby is now a young girl spending time with her grandmother in Brazil cooking and shopping and learning Portuguese.
Fowler’s choice of such an impressionistic approach dramatizes how a person’s identify is not linear; it is comprised of fragments that emerge in time, fragments that can be patched together and rearranged based on context. Her novel is spiced with Portuguese nouns and idiomatic slang whose meanings are generally clear from the context. Their inclusion shares with the reader a taste of the confusion of having a dual identity.
The following two scenes illustrate different aspects of the existence navigated by Fowler’s protagonist. The narrator asks her Brazilian mother to teach her some Portuguese obscenity because she’s met a Brazilian man and wants to fit in with his crowd. It’s a warm moment between mother and daughter. Although the moment captures a relatively trivial linguistic problem, it nonetheless reflects the difficulty of speaking two languages and living in two cultures.
Another scene dramatises just how deftly she can slip between cultures. She is taking (at 15) her first solo trip from London to Brazil. She’s made such flights so many times that she is an expert packer, she checks and rechecks lists, knows how to navigate through customs, remembers which airports provide specific needs/service, etc. Her anticipation as the aircraft prepares to land in Brazil is palpable.
Any Cop?: This novel might have benefitted from a bit more clarity. Although for parts of the first half I struggled to keep my head above the narrative, relationships were eventually determined and identities emerged. Fowler is a powerful, talented writer and I’m looking forward to reading more of her work in the future.