Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun

like-a-mule

Sarah Lapido Manyika’s second novel, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, is a story of old age and loneliness, yet, despite this, it is defiant rather than downbeat. Dr Morayo Da Silva is a retired English professor, a Nigerian living in San Francisco, who is approaching her seventy-fifth birthday. We sense her loneliness from the encounters she extends in the casual conversations which punctuate her day, for example the mailman bringing her mail to the door as her box is full:

“That’s the way I leave it these days because I like him stopping by.”

A visit to the local bakery is to “talk to my new friend, the cashier.” In a phone call about her driving licence she asks what the weather is like, assuming (incorrectly) that the caller is in India. That phone call is also the first sign that age may be catching up with Morayo – a mandatory medical check as a result of a complaint over careless driving, which she suspects may have been occasioned by her haphazard parking, something which is quickly verified for the reader:

“On my way out I glance ruefully at Buttercup, my beloved old Porsche, parked admittedly a little more than eighteen inches from the kerb.”

Shortly after, her age and isolation are foregrounded by a fall that sees her first hospitalised and then placed in a Home to recover. This brings her own fears to the surface:

“I think sometimes that I’m losing my memory. I’m more forgetful these days and, lying in bed all day, I worry. Will I become just another old woman with Alzheimer’s? And who will look after me?”

Later, she reflects:

“Old age is a massacre. No place for sissies. No place for love songs. No place for dreaming.”

Inside the Home, she also loses control of her life outside when an ex-neighbour helps out by tidying her apartment. Morayo has already explained her idiosyncratic way of organising her books – “arranged according to which characters I believe need to be talking to each other” – but to her friend, Sunshine:

“Books are everywhere, strewn haphazardly across the shelves, some with spines facing inwards, others facing out…like abandoned children’s toys, I find many more books tucked away in clothes drawers and cupboards.”

In her efforts to clean the apartment, some books are even accidentally thrown out.

Yet, despite all this, the novel is ultimately optimistic. Early references to Morayo’s undiminished desire may seem initially only to exacerbate her loneliness, but her time in the Home allows her to make new friendships, including one with a man, Reggie, whose wife has Alzheimer’s, which may lead to something more. Reggie, too, misses physical companionship:

“I dream of being held. Of being touched. Of being desired again.”

Even the books she loses are found by a homeless women who “gave some to friends, who like to read” as well as keeping one on Africa for herself, speculating she might go there to start a new life “cos, when you think about it really, with what I’m suffering now, my life isn’t that much better than what Africans are living through.”

Another reason for the novel’s ultimately optimistic tone is its use of multiple narrators. As well as first person chapters from Morayos’s point of view, we also experience events through the eyes of a number of other characters. These various viewpoints all display some level of kindness and empathy, despite having problems of their own to contend with, a good example being the otherwise incidental chef for the Home:

“Well I just like making people happy how I know best and that’s with food.”

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun may be the least threatening novel on the Goldsmiths Prize list, but it is a skilled character portrait which gently, but unflinchingly, contends with the fears of ageing, and demonstrates that we should not lose hope.

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11 Responses to “Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun”

  1. naomifrisby Says:

    As you know, I love this book. I’m intrigued as to what you mean by ‘least threatening’ (I haven’t read all of the shortlist yet so I may well have missed something).

    • 1streading Says:

      I meant more reader friendly (as in less intimidating to read) as it doesn’t have the stylistic flourishes of Solar Bones, Martin John or The Lesser Bohemians, or the distancing of Hot Milk. Also less threatening as it seems to me to present a more optimistic message. To be clear, though, this does not make it inferior.

  2. bookbii Says:

    Lovely review Grant, of what sounds like a hopeful and well written book.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    This sounds like the sort of quiet, contemplative story I would enjoy. One to keep in mind for the future. It seems quite different to the other books on the Goldsmiths shortlist…

    • 1streading Says:

      I do think you would enjoy this one, Jacqui. It does stand out from the other books I have read as less formally daring but variety is what a good prize list should be about!

  4. Kazen @ Always Doing Says:

    This is the second Goldsmiths’ book I’ve read and while less… adventurous?… than Martin John I love it all the same.

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Nice touch on how the well-meaning and genuinely helpful neighbour nonetheless erodes her independence, and interesting that it shows that yet remains hopeful.

    Is the Goldsmith supposed to be experimental? I can’t recall its terms of reference off hand.

    • 1streading Says:

      “Fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form” apparently. Of the four I’ve read, this is the least obviously ‘experimental’.

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