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Discretion, by Elizabeth Nunez.

October 19, 2016

Discretion, by Elizabeth Nunez. Akashic Books, 2016. Forthcoming

4 stars

A new novel from a favorite Caribbean American author of mine which probes questions of truth and falsehood and dares to challenge our assumptions.

Elizabeth Nunez was born and raised in Trinidad and came to the United States to finish her education.  She received a PhD in English from New York University and is a Distinguished Professor at Hunter College, the City University of New York.  A popular Caribbean writer, she has published nine novels and an autobiography.  Her writing is a pleasure to read, full of insight into how her characters think and act and the power of the landscapes that surround them.  Discretion is a novel that she first published in 2003 and is now being reissued by Akashic Books.

I have enjoyed many of Nunez’s novels and was glad to have access to one I had not read.  Unlike many of her works, it is not set in the Caribbean and is narrated and focused on a male character.  Oufoula is a distinguished African ambassador who loves two women. Nerida is “his wife, his friend, the mother of his children.”   Margarete is a painter, sensitive and creative, who opens him up to new joys.  At some level, he needs both his stable wife and his exciting artist.   When Margarete breaks up with him after learning the truth about his marriage, he tries to convince himself that he can forget her.  Seeing her again 25 years later, he is again unable to choose between the two women he loves.

Oufoula believes that as a diplomat and a lover he must lie or use “discretion” in what he tells and does not tell.  Nunez skillfully explores how he lies to others and more importantly to himself.  A person can refuse to act on love, but is it possible to stop loving?  How do we accept our own inability to have what we strongly desire?  She also raises issues about what her characters can control and what is simply destined to be.

At first I found Oufoula difficult to understand or like.  He seemed arrogant and rigidly self-serving.  Gradually, however, I was convinced that he was sincere and that he was moving beyond his early narrowness.  As he points out, loving several women was a deeply acceptable pattern of African life.  He was the descendant of African men who were polygamists, and thus he could defend what most western readers cannot accept.  The women’s response to his action is less clearly explored, yet in the end it is one of them that is willing to act decisively.

As in her other writings, Nunez writes with grace and insight into her characters.  Yet in Discretion, she writes with a roughness that bites through the smoothness of her words more than in her later books.  This book barely resolves the questions she raises.  I have read other books about polygamy in Africa and considered the disadvantages and advantages for women.  I had never before, however, felt the depth of my own society’s commitment to monogamy, even as we accept same-sex relations.  I find it hard to criticize Nunez for making me think and feel in new ways even if she makes me uncomfortable.  As always I am pleased to recommend Nunez’s Discretion to other readers.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 20, 2016 12:33 pm

    I can understand how you feel Marylin. I do believe even we africans are becoming loathsome to the idea of polygamy, thought it still thrives here and there.

    A fine review, as always. 🙂

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