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A Love Letter From a Stray Moon by Jay Griffiths - book review: 'Inspiring tale puts Frida the free spirit back in the picture'
Jonathan Gibbs reviews books for The Independent and elsewhere. His novel Randall, about the contemporary art world and the fate of the YBAs, is published by Galley Beggar Press. He blogs on this aspect of his writing at tinycamels.wordpress.com
Tuesday 15 April 2014
Some writers treat each book as a separate beast, to be built or bred according to particular, individual principles. Others just keep writing the same endless book, letting the words flow out from a single source and barely acknowledging the boundaries of page and cover. Jay Griffiths is a writer of the second sort.
Her driving, visionary, poetic prose has spilled through three urgent non-fiction books now – Pip Pip, Wild and Kith, tackling our relationship to time, the earth and childhood, respectively – and two shorter fictional books: Anarchipelago, about the road protests on the 1990s, and this, a novella-length prose poem inspired by the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.
My point, though, is that much of what you read in A Love Letter from a Stray Moon would have fitted just as well in those other books. Kahlo's passionate identification with the land, and with political revolutionaries such as Trotsky (with whom she had an affair) and (posthumously) the Zapata movement, is matched by Griffiths's identification with Kahlo the artist: free, unpinioned and individual.
She – they? – rails against the fearful, unimaginative mass: those "who do not prize either poetry or flight. Who re-cork the bottle before we've finished drinking. Who are a herbicide to the idiosyncratic and a pesticide to difference. Who buy pasteurised verbs and keep them in the fridge. Who check their hearts are sterilised, and who, seeing the very liquidity of love, would only handle it with rubber gloves."
To what extent this is Griffiths channelling Kahlo, as opposed to just expressing her own preoccupations, I am not sure, but certainly there are very few writers in English today with the courage to splash their heart on the page like this, and this means it's a tonic to read it – and a challenge. Griffiths is not about marking out Kahlo as remote and untouchable, a one-off artistic prodigy orbiting forever out of our reach. She wants us dull plodders to take inspiration from her life, extreme in incident though it was.
So we hear about the bus crash in her teens that left Kahlo with terrible injuries, lifelong pain and the inability to bear children, and the deep and complicated marriage with painter Diego Rivera, and the recognition of her talent that came to her late, when illness and despair had already claimed her. And there are enough references to the paintings to satisfy the knowledgeable reader and – I was almost going to write ground the book. But it's not a book to be grounded. It's a book to catch, before it takes flight.
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