A mark of how much I enjoyed a book is the degree to which I bully my students into reading it. For example, a large proportion of my year 9 class have now read All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven; I forced the same class to read Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn just because I think it’s brilliant. I actually gave my own copy of The Catcher in the Rye to a year 11 girl because I knew she’d love it like I do. There is a direct correlation between how much I like a book and how officious I am in my attempts to force said book on people who have no choice but to listen to me. Since reading Jami Attenberg’s Saint Mazie last week, I have been on a relentless campaign for force my sixth formers to choose it for their coursework. Someone will submit to my will.
There are loads of reasons for this. The first of them is purely how enjoyable I found the book. There isn’t a character in it I didn’t like (except, probably, for the Captain); Mazie is an awesome creation, brimming with longing, tempered by pragmatism. She’s a character you truly root for, whilst all the time acknowledging that her destiny is to witness other people pursue their dreams, while picking up the pieces when these dreams are shattered. Although Mazie is stifled in her domestic life, she experiences freedom in her most significant relationship: the love affair she shares with New York City. I am a sucker for a novel set in New York, and this is truly a New York story; the city is essentially personified, as vibrant a presence as Mazie herself (and that’s really saying something). Mazie’s character jumps right off the page and New York jumps right alongside her.
Attenberg does several things in this book which I really liked. The first of these is the structure; Mazie’s story is dominated by her own voice, with diary excerpts serving to give the novel chronological impetus as well as a personal voice. Additionally, a range of other voices are given their say, creating a kind of oral history of the eponymous character, creating a more fully formed image of Mazie. I also appreciated the way in which major events in the history of New York and, indeed, the world, were made a part of the narrative; the Wall Street bombing of 1920, the Crash of 1929 and ensuring Depression, as well as World War I are all a part of Mazie’s life story. This didn’t feel contrived in the way that attempts to include historical events within one protagonist’s narrative often do; rather, Mazie’s peripheral involvement in and reaction to these catastrophes just enhanced my understanding of her as a character, primarily in terms of her tremendous empathy and sense of social responsibility. The limited geography of Saint Mazie is a crucial part of the storytelling too; Mazie’s life is restricted to the Five Boroughs, and, consequently, so are the reader’s vicarious travels, which effectively reinforces the limits Mazie accepts and, ultimately, seems to embrace.
As far as my reading of the book is concerned, there is so much to admire and enjoy about Saint Mazie, not least the cast of supporting characters – although “supporting” is not often the word that came to mind while reading about them. Mazie lives somewhat unconventionally, having been taken from her parents, along with her youngest sister, by her older sister, Rosie; the significance of sisters has rarely been more vividly realised on the page, from the steely protectiveness to the lingering resentments. Rosie’s husband, Louis, is another gem of a character; in a novel fill to bursting with men who claim to care for Mazie, Louis’ does so genuinely and supportively. Attenberg creates her characters beautifully, with subtlety and affection.
After reading Saint Mazie, I learned that the character is based on a real-life woman – the original Queen of the Bowery, who cared for the city’s homeless and suffering when nobody else gave a damn (this is an example of a truly memorable book – I am now trying to sound like one of the characters. I think it might happen again in a minute). If she truly was anything like Attenberg’s Mazie, she was one hell of a broad (I warned you).