Book Review: Makara (Kristen Ringman)
Reviewed by Linda A. Cronin
Kristen Ringman's recent novel, Makara (Handtype Press, 2012), takes the reader on a journey through several countries and envelops them in an unusual terrain, a wonderful mix of reality and myth. The protagonist of the novel is a deaf woman who is the daughter of a seal mother, a Selchie, and a human father and is herself part human and part seal. Furthermore through the course of the novel, it is revealed that Fionnuala is a lesbian. The novel is quite different from anything else I've read recently and from the books I normally read. This could be considered a positive or negative quality of the novel. Ringman's words wove a web around me that kept me reading until the last page. At times, I would forget I was reading the novel in order to review it. I simply wanted to know what was going to happen next.
The novel opens on the coast of Ireland when Fionnuala is 10. In the opening pages we learn the story of how her parents met, and we also learn that her mother is a Selchie, the mythological creature that is a seal but can assume human form for seven years. The reader also comes to understand that Fionnuala's mother returned to the sea four years ago and they only visit periodically on the beach near where her mother swims. As the daughter of a selchie, Fionnuala has unusual ability to swim beneath the water without coming up for breath. This ability will be seen throughout the novel and reminds the reader that even when Fionnuala is away from her mother there is a connection between them.
The reader learns almost immediately that the protagonist is deaf. Fionnuala is fluent in sign as was her mother and her father-- although he is not as proficient as others. She attends a class of hearing children and lives fully in the hearing world. At times, Fionnuala expresses a feeling of loneliness and longing for somebody else like her. Her mother initially wanted her to attend the deaf school but her father was opposed. This is a realistic argument and topic that most parents of a deaf child face at some point. Later in the novel when Fionnuala expresses her desire to have studied at a deaf school, her father claims he wanted her to be proficient in the hearing world and not be limited. Fionnuala tells her father that she can never escape the hearing world and that no matter where she goes it is always with her.
Though the novel opens in the Ireland, before long Fionnuala's father takes her away to India to stay with some friends he met through his work and the course of his travels. It is in India that Fionnuala falls in love for the first time with Neela, his friends' daughter. One thing I wondered about in this section of the novel was how quickly Neela became proficient in sign language. And this can be seen a number of times throughout the novel. Despite Fionnuala's deafness she has no trouble communicating with her friends. In the sections that take place in India, Neela acts as a translator for her but in later sections when she goes to Italy she is on her own. Ringman attempts to explain the easy communication by having Fionnuala develop friendships with people who work as mimes, but I'm not sure that it is realistic.
Ringman takes the reader on a fantastic journey through Ireland, India and Italy. The book is fully enveloped in each country in its turn, and the reader is allowed to see what it is Fionnuala comes to love in each country. While Ireland will always be her true home, she feels fully Indian while living in India and quickly becomes friends with several Italians when she moves to Italy. The reader also follows Fionnuala's development as a woman and her initials forays into the world of relationships. In India she falls in love with Neela who returns her love despite the fact that lesbian love is prohibited in Indian society. When Fionnuala initially explores Italy she meets Petru and his dog Casanova. She becomes involved with Petru after she runs away from her father. What this relationship does not last, it shows a fluidity of sexual identity. Eventually Fionnuala will leave Italy and return to India and Neela. Time and again in all the countries, I could see Fionnuala's bond with the water and her tie to the world of the selchies.
At times, Fionnuala's relationship with her father is strained both by his actions and her inability to fully understand at the time why he acts the way he does. But later in the novel when Fionnuala's mother cannot understand her choices, her father will prove to be a source of support.
Throughout Makara words appear in both Irish and Tamil, the language of India. Ringman conveniently places a glossary at the back of the book which defines for the reader these words. I found that the glossary helps me to truly understand some of what the characters are experiencing.
I found it interesting to be reading a novel with a deaf protagonist who was the focus of the novel. I feel Ringman does a wonderful job of explaining Fionnuala's world as a deaf woman to the readers. I could understand the isolation she felt at times and her longing to meet others like her. This longing is something I think many people with disabilities have felt at one time or another. She was very isolated from her deaf community even as she grew older. I did wonder at times why she did not seek out other deaf people.
I thoroughly recommend Makara to anyone who likes to explore other countries when they read and to people who are willing to suspend their disbelief for the time it takes to become fully absorbed in this novel. I know I found it easy to let go of reality and to wander in the edges of myth for the time of the novel.