Arusha is a place in Africa, the setting for peace accords to bring calm to a region torn by many things. The book Arusha, the debut novel by J.E. Knowles, cleaves to this theme. A family struggles to come to its own peace accords: between husband and wife, between mother and children, and self and community.
The issues at the heart of the struggle between spouses Edith and Joe center around his sexual urges. He’s been honest about the attractions he has for men since they married. She can’t fault him for lying even when he does take up with her hairdresser — he tells her about that, too.
But in a small town in Tennessee, family subsumes to community a lot of the time. And both of them have been committing to this charade, for things that they want to avoid, to live the “expected” (definitely equated with “respected”) life. They are educators, Joe teaching middle school, and Edith teaching high school science. They’re active church members, including Joe playing on the church baseball team.
Their children, Dana and Jeremy, seem to understand something is out of sync with their parents, but only stumble upon the specifics gradually and are considerably more comfortable with the facts once they unfold, even to the point of pushing some of them out in the open.
While everyone seems aware of the truths, they dance around them, seldom directly speaking of them, even when addressing situations that call for discussion. The community around them does the same, never openly speaking of that which it shuns. Edith is isolated when Joe is found beaten to death in the parking lot of the Cooking Club, a local gay gathering place. The realism of this existence is very powerfully illustrated in scenes between the police officer in charge of the investigation — a cousin of Edith’s — and Edith.
However, Arusha is less specifically about the sexuality journeys of a husband, or his wife, and more about the journey to live honestly in a society that prefers obliqueness, whispers, half-assumptions and misguided notions.
Colorful, realistic dialogue skillfully moves the story throughout. In the notion of side-stepping blatant direct statements, it has a stilted realism. Echoing the growth of the characters, the setting descriptions gradually grow more colorful and vivid, as if eyes are opening to see more, see wider. Descriptions at the beginning of the story are almost as routine as the characters feel. Then it’s like they get a spit-shine and begin to come in more clearly.
The timeline of the story also mimics the ebb and flow of the emotions of the story… transitive moments occur during autumn; chilling events and slowing down occur in the winter; springs bring new revelations, shifts to accommodation of new ideas. The interlude of the story which takes place in Africa is a particularly strong emotional echo, a country as stripped bare and raw, but as rife with beauty and possibility, as Edith’s life has become.
If there’s a jarring piece, it’s the passion that explodes between Edith and her friend. The descriptions seem harder than the awakening might have called for. The sex is sharply separated from the emotional bond and then, when the setting changes, it drops from the narrative as abruptly as it appeared, only to seem to have been reconciled by Edith in the end.
Arusha is a sharply drawn story that is not often told. A man who marries a “beard” and tries to live a heteronormative life. The wife who can accept that. And then what happens when that tension of maintaining normalcy becomes too much — too powerful to ignore — and she is faced with all the fall-out she could ever imagine, and even more her pedestrian life couldn’t prepare her for.
An interview with J.E. Knowles regarding Arusha was conducted by this reviewer on April 10, 2010 for “Readings in Lesbian & Bisexual Women’s Fiction” radio.
by J.E. Knowles