Every night on the news borders loom large as a controversial and often explosive theme. People crossing them illegally, people thwarted by them, people incensed that controls aren’t tighter. Borders are what define us and also what hold us back. A Sea of Straw is a novel about both legislative and metaphysical borders, about a world in which freedom of movement is denied.
It’s 1966, the summer of love. Jody, married with a young child, is recuperating from pneumonia in Portugal where she falls in love with Ze, an artist. The novel begins as she’s about to leave and she and Ze are making plans for the future. The novel dramatises the oppressive political and social forces that then stand in their way, like border guards. Portugal, in a time-warp, is in the grip of a totalitarian regime where the Gestapo-like secret police patrol every corner. The dictator, Salazar, we learn, has never been abroad. Basically his government is a prototype for what many far right parties are currently clamouring for all across Europe. Though not an activist himself Ze has many friends who are militantly opposed to the fascist regime. He’s also about to be drafted to fight in Portugal’s colonial wars in Africa. In other words he has virtually no freedom of movement.
Jody, on the other hand, returns to Lancashire faced with the challenge of extricating herself from her loveless marriage and acquiring autonomy. England may be in the midst of a cultural revolution but Manchester seems dour, backward and rife with stifling prejudice, especially contrasted with the vivacious colour and sensuality of Lisbon – the irony of this contrast is portrayed really well. Jody has to face a different, more ostensibly benign kind of censorship and secret policing.
The novel alternates between the experiences of Ze and Jody. In terms of dramatic tension the Portugal sections have the fraught atmosphere of a WW2 novel, except, of course, we’re learning about a different and largely ignored period of history. It’s an incredibly informative account of what was happening in Portugal in 1966-67 but dramatised rather than told. It’s written with love and a painterly attention to detail, the work of a romantic sensibility which reminded me of the wonderful Shirley Hazzard who sadly died this week.
It also must be the first post anti-Brexit novel!