May Sarton Joanna and Ulysses (1963)
Not look back. For a month she was to give herself to joy, to paint, to think, to feel youth, buried so long, rising up in her like sap into the branches of a battered tree.
I think I cried almost all the way through this novella. It is beautiful - writing, themes, donkeys, everything. Joanna is a thirty year old Athenian. She has been looking after her father since she was fifteen - since that day her mother died during the German occupation of Greece, in circumstances which devastated the family.
Joanna dreams of becoming an artist and snatches at a chance for a month to herself on the beautiful island of Santorini. She will paint and eat and sleep and discover a 'renascent self': "somewhere deep down inside her there was a being who was not the dutiful daughter she had forced herself to become."
Santorini offers an escape and a chance to be selfish about her own needs. But Joanna does not factor in discovering Ulysses, an overworked and neglected donkey, who will transform her life. This all sounds a bit Eat, Bray, Love, doesn't it? It is hard to say why it isn't, but it really is one of the most sad, lovely books I have read this year and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
The young man slouched toward her, and spoke in an angry, whining singsong, "He might last to the top," he said, "We'll work him till he drops, and that's that. Do you think we are rich?" He spat again, "We can't afford to keep a sick animal. If he dies, all right, kaput!"Joanna flinched before the German word. The memories of cruelty and violence swept over her, cruelty about which one could do nothing; she experienced again the corroding poison of helplessness before violence. She felt suddenly weak, as weak as the donkey. The donkey had no strength, it seemed, even to wag its tail at the flies. It waited, just barely able to stand, its head drooping a little. The patience and suffering of the donkey were awful.
It is also SO nice to read a book where a spinster makes it to the end and things turn out happily!
If you liked this... This is the first May Sarton book that I have read, but it won't be the last by any means.