Sphinx is the debut novel of Anne Garreta, one of the few female authors to belong to the esteemed Oulipo. The Oulipo is an exclusive group of French writers known for writing outside of the box. Each member writes with a particular language constraint that readers would not expect. In the case of Sphinx, Garreta never lists the gender of either main character in the story. This is seen as an incredible feat in the French language due to its strong use of gender in everyday grammar.
Sphinx follows the story of an unnamed narrator and their american lover, A***. Through questionable circumstances, the narrator becomes a DJ at a club in Paris, eventually meeting A*** because they are a cabaret dancer. Appearing to have nothing in common, the two characters must actively work to mend their relationship stricken with judgement from passersby. Sphinx is a very atmospheric piece which delves into not only the ups and downs of a night out, but also that of a relationship. It conveys smokey nights on Paris streets, ennui, and the loss of a presence.
I had fun imagining different genders for the narrator and A*** throughout the novel. Due to its genderless nature each reader can take what they want from the story, molding it to fit their preferences. In times like these a statement like Sphinx is especially needed, which is why I felt it was important to share. When discussing the book with friends I accidentally referred to the narrator and A*** as “he and she” which only fueled my need to finish the book. We automatically perceive things as either masculine or feminine, and Sphinx is a major step in breaking that social construct down. The story is by no means anything special, or happy for that matter, but it is a very realistic one. It had the power to evoke emotions in me and helped to further the development of my personal identity. Regardless of gender, the Narrator and A*** are two individuals in love, and this is their story.
We agreed in the bookshop that the cover of the book “The Atomic Weight of Love” is beautiful with its images of many birds. Coupled with the unusual title, at a glance you wonder, “Is it about bird watching?…ornithology?…atomic bombs…? No, it is a debut novel by author Elizabeth J. Church about a young woman coming of age in the 1940s. We are introduced to Meridian, or Meri, who is an awkward teen at the start of the book, uninterested in what all of the other girls her age are fixating about; her obsession is the study of birds! Academically gifted and encouraged by her parents, she heads off to college to pursue the study of all things winged. She enters college as a biology major with the intention of continuing on for an advanced degree in ornithology. She stood out in the world of young men in her high level science classes at school.
What was entertaining about this book was the timespan, ranging from the World War II era through the next decades, as the culture in the country changed around Meri. The time period of submissive, proper women in the 1940s slowly morphed into a whole new world into the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Meri was far from a free spirit; she was, in fact, quite obedient. However, she had intellectual gifts and a passion for her studies. There was nothing stopping her from her educational and professional goals when she was in school, until, you guessed it; she fell in love and eloped. The journey continues with Meridian struggling between her husband’s expectations and what she had always wanted to be. Her struggle parallels with the social changes going on at the same time in the decades after the war.
The book leads us through her sacrifices and struggles, and her faithfulness and disloyalties. She tries so hard to make the right choices but often fumbles. She makes some unexpected decisions, some good and some bad; and she takes some big risks as she tries to find her way.
And what about the birds? Meri’s only comfort and foundation…the only time she feels like herself, is during her years-long observation of a family of crows who had an extraordinary community and support system, which is exactly what the troubled Meri does not have.
Enjoy the book!
Staff of Wellington Square Book Shop