In her latest novel, The Sky Above the Roof, Nathacha Appanah takes us on a journey through three generations of a fractured family, told from the different perspectives of a mother and her two children.

One night, a 17-year-old boy named Wolf steals his mother’s car to go and find his sister, who left home 10 years earlier after a furious argument involving a cake and a brandished knife. Most of the journey passes carefully and without incident, but when the unlicensed Wolf reaches the town where his sister lives, he panics and starts driving on the wrong side of the road, causing an accident. When we join the story Wolf has just been arrested and is on his way to the local remand centre, leaving his mother (Phoenix) and sister (Paloma) to deal with the fallout.

The Sky Above the Roof is a short book (134 pages), and I think it’s fair to say that there isn’t a wasted word. Appanah’s writing is truly beautiful, shimmering in places, poetic in others. The prologue has an almost fairy tale feel to it – indeed, it begins with ‘Once upon a time…’ and bounces along for a couple of pages setting the scene in much the same way as the narrator of a play or a pantomime might do, before the curtain is swept away and the main players are introduced:

‘And so once upon a time in such a country there was a boy whose mother called him “Wolf”. She thought this name would bring him strength, luck, natural authority, but how could she know that this boy would grow up to be the gentlest and strangest of sons and that he would end up being captured like a wild animal and there he is now, in the back of the police van, as we turn the page.’

Names and their meanings are incredibly important in this book, as is the power that they have to define us, both good and bad. Phoenix used to be someone different. Born Eliette (which means God has answered), she was the only child of parents who thought they were unable to have a family after years of unsuccessful attempts. When they do finally have their much-wanted baby, they have had her name picked out for years – a name chosen to honour their own grandparents. Much is made of Eliette’s beauty, indeed she is the most beautiful baby in the hospital according to the doctors and nurses on the maternity ward, who call in friends from other wards to come and marvel at her. But her mother knows instinctively that she is not an Eliette and that the name is wrong, yet she sticks with it anyway and tries to make her into the Eliette of her dreams. She is a child of many talents and an accomplished singer from an early age. Crammed into uncomfortable costumes and made-up to look more mature, Eliette is acutely aware of the looks she gets from her audience – lustful from the men, disapproving (sometimes) from the women. As she grows and develops it becomes only more painful to her and she lives with a constant ball of fear in her stomach that she tries in various ways to suppress or vomit out. Eventually one of the men puts thought into action, forcing a kiss while she waits to go on stage. His hands are so big against her 11 year old cheeks that he could easily crush her skull as he holds it still and forces his tongue into her mouth. When he has gone, her mother scolds Eliette for messing up her makeup and reapplies the cosmetic mask – the perfect painted-on personality – before sending her daughter back out to face the crowd. That night, Eliette’s performance doesn’t go as expected, and Phoenix is born.

The name Phoenix is of course symbolic as that of a new woman rising from the ashes of Eliette, but it’s also important in that it’s the name that she chooses for herself. Eliette was a persona she was forced to wear and in throwing it off and choosing something new she is reborn. All traces of Eliette are obliterated with hair dye, dark makeup, goth clothes and, later on, by tattoos. No-one (except her psychiatrist) is allowed to call her Eliette anymore. Eventually Phoenix is able to quiet the demons that live in a skin she never felt was her own and is able to be the person she has always felt she really was.

For her children though, this pattern is just repeated again: she gives them names that carry weight and preconceptions that they will almost certainly fail to live up to. Wolf, in particular, is nothing like a wolf. He is a small, delicate child who gets lost in his own world and stumbles over his words. He can fix almost anything mechanical, yet he suffers from an almost crushing anxiety. He is just as imprisoned by his name as Eliette was by hers and struggles under the weight of it. Throughout his childhood, Phoenix regularly takes him to the doctor, worried that there is something wrong with him and looking for an explanation for his strangeness, his other-worldliness, but Wolf is not ill, he is just… Wolf. After the accident, and knowing that her son wants only his sister, she falls into a deep sleep and dreams she is in the car being driven by the Wolf she had always dreamed that he would be; strong, respected and in control.

Whereas Eliette and her parents existed very firmly in the centre of their town – visible and social, a factory worker, a dressmaker, and a popular daughter – Phoenix’s family exists in the margins. They live in a ramshackle house that stands alone on a road that looks as though it leads nowhere, Phoenix making her living by running a spare parts business. We know that Eliette had friends at school, but Paloma and Wolf seem only to have each other. Whereas Eliette and then Phoenix command attention (albeit in different ways), Paloma actively tries to take up as little space as possible, sitting on the very edge of the chair and trying to disappear through silence. Even when she has moved to the town she exists on the edges of society, working as a librarian (a role that is quiet and unobtrusive), and living through the noises made by other people as they enjoy the warm summer evenings outside in the park.

All of this makes Phoenix sound as though she’s painted as a bad mother but that is not so. Appanah takes great care not to judge any of her characters, nor to give them labels. Instead, she tells their stories and just allows them to be on the page. Phoenix’s parents, who lived a comfortable middle-class life and gave their child everything they thought she wanted, could also be accused of failing their daughter, but they are not. Likewise Phoenix, who is unconventional and cold, unforthcoming about the past (neither of her children know a single thing about either of their fathers) but who has taken control of her life after struggling to find her place within it, is doing for her children what she thinks is best, so that they don’t have to go through what she did. She is wrong about this, as it turns out, but again Appanah doesn’t judge, she merely tells the story, allowing us as readers to reach our own conclusions. Of course, no-one ever really knows what others need, and we are often scared of communication, of looking back as well as forwards and of embroiling ourselves in uncomfortable conversations. Yet this serves only to perpetuate the trauma, to ensure that it is inherited by each generation in turn, leaving fresh scars and bringing new fractures to an already fragile family unit. In the end though, Wolf’s accident and detention go some way to healing this desperately broken family. They haven’t seen each other for 10 years but his actions bring them back together and at the end of the book there is a sense that, even though it will take some time, this family is going to be alright.

The Sky Above the Roof
By Nathacha Appanah
Translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan
Hachette, 134 pages

Jane Wright

Jane Wright

Jane Wright is a web editor, writer and photographer. Her short fiction has been published by Litro, Sirens Call Publications, Crooked Cat, Mother's Milk Books and Popshot Magazine. She lives and works in Manchester.

Jane Wright is a web editor, writer and photographer. Her short fiction has been published by Litro, Sirens Call Publications, Crooked Cat, Mother's Milk Books and Popshot Magazine. She lives and works in Manchester.

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