Under the Visible Life by Kim Echlin

Under the Visible Life

This book is going to join my rather short list of all time comfort reads because it is so rich and so wise and so satisfying without masking the total seriousness and sadness of life. It balances reality and fantasy inside human hopes and dreams and political and economic conditions. It portrays friendship, marriage, parenting and the love and grief that sometimes exist simultaneously in individual lives. It studies creativity and the role it plays along with cultural differences which complicate human relationships. It is a compendium of insights and wisdom. And it is filled with music!

Dedication: For those who name themselves

Epigraph: I start in the middle of a sentence and move in both directions at once. (John Coltrane)

Title of the first chapter: No Memory is One’s Own Alone

Food for thought eh? And this is true of the entire book. Presented in alternating chapters from the perspective of Mahsa who begins with “What she is I am” and Katherine who begins with “They took me away from Ma.”

Mahsa’s mother was from Lashkar Gah (Afghanistan) where she met John Weaver, an American water engineer: she was eighteen when she ran away with him in the back of an American supplies truck and went to Karachi where Mahsa was born. Mahsa’s family name was Weaver-Najibullah and her mother said she would need both of her parents’ names one day. An uncle gave them sanctuary until Mahsa was born.

Katherine/Katie was born Ming and her mother told her: “I should have kept calling you Ming. It’s a pretty name. A dark pinhole opened in the centre of me as if Ma had taken a photograph I did not want. I was not going to let her pain be mine. I was never going to let people walk on me like that. I was going to do better.” Katie’s father was Chinese and had to return to China when she was very young.

Early in her life in Karachi with her aunt and uncle, Mahsa had a secret relationship: “Always I had loved to meet with Kamal wherever he suggested and to share the books he read and to listen to his music and always I had felt less free than he was.” She used to play the piano in the hotel while her aunt visited someone Mahsa did not know: she suspected that her aunt had her own secret relationship.

Katie had three children by the time she was 22: Dexter, Jimmie and Bea.

Mahsa convinced her uncle to let her go to Canada and attend McGill University where she found a professor, Jean St. John, “a genius bass player” and changed her courses without informing her uncle. She listened to Santana and she heard Mo Billson’s band with a pianist called Katherine Goodnow who had perfect rhythm.

Katherine “wanted to be more than a girl pianist…I was not going to submit and be contained. I wanted to be unholdable. Women can get unsouled by marriage and I was not going to let that happen to us.” She listened to Coltrane and Tyner and thought: “This music is what marriage could be, playing solos at the same time and ending up together.”

During the time of liberation and terrorism in Quebec when “Montreal felt more dangerous than Karachi”,  Mahsa “studied Coltrane’s “My Favourite Things” and listened to McCoy Tyner’s long solo over vamps on the two tonic cords, E minor and E major.” She loved their rhythms. She read Simone de Beauvoir with her room-mate Monique. She began playing piano in hotel lounges and “glimpsed new possibility”. She missed her mother Mor but realized that she no longer needed her. “This was the beginning of understanding how we mourn for those we love in different ways all through our lives.”

Katherine lived in Hamilton and the geographical allusions were of considerable interest to me as I went to university in Hamilton: Birks, the Connaught, Gore Park. Her mother speaks of Ellen Fairclough who ran in the first federal election I was eligible to vote in. Her mother explains that Ellen Fairclough “was the first girl cabinet minister”. Katherine faced the “sorrow of eternally imperfect mothering” but had to leave her kids and go to New York to advance her music career.

Mahsa goes to New York and listens to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the basement of the venue where she was playing. “That was the night I met Katherine.”

Katherine’s assessment of her relationship with Mahsa: “I could be myself with her. I never had a best friend that wasn’t T (her husband who was also a musician and came for short visits and went for long periods of time) until I found Mahsa”. Of T Katherine said: “We’re like loons that separate in the winter but come back every year to the same nesting place.” Of parents: “Parents can carve pain into their children if they’re not careful.” On women and to Mahsa: “The most radical thing a woman can do is live.”

Under the Visible LifeLater in her life, Mahsa reflects: “To live, you must risk calamity. Abandon old ways to create something new. Love the life under the visible life. When Lailuma (Mahsa’s daughter) forgot that she was angry I saw in her grey eyes Mor’s lively, laughing nature. I sometimes thought she smelled like Mor.

While writing a piece of music called “I Miss You Mor” :”With each day, the phrases and cords and ideas came from the thing in me that most needed to speak.”

I could go on and on but you must read this one for yourself. I have read all of Kim Echlin’s work and Dagmar’s Daughter was always my favourite but it may have to step down to second place now. I also want to reread all the others.


4 thoughts on “Under the Visible Life by Kim Echlin”

  1. I’ve been edging towards a reread of Elephant Winter for a long time now. But this new one sounds so good! (Have you read her book on women and creativity, which is largely about Elizabeth Smart, but not exclusively? It’s wonderful. Just wonderful.)

    1. No, I haven’t read the book on creativity: will track it down asap. I must do Elephant Winter too but think I absolutely must reread Dagmar’s Daughter first!

  2. She will make a great addition to your list. I did read her book titled Elizabeth Smart: a Fugue Essay on Women and Creativity and enjoyed it very much. I also started to re-read Elephant Winter but got side-tracked by some new books. Thank you for the reminder for I must get back to it.

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