Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s The Stubborn Archivist is not strictly speaking a novel. It has much more in common with a piece of poetic prose – and in fact, the first few pages seem almost to be toying with the idea of straightforward poetry – with bold headings and lots of white space surrounding many line breaks. But it manages to engage one’s attention much as if one were reading a far more straightforward and linear novel.
We never learn the name of the main protagonist: she is half British, half Brazilian and raised in South London. Her age is also constantly in flux: she starts as a teenager, reaches her early twenties and then the perspective continuously chops between her early childhood, adolescence and early adult years.
The prose has a beautiful lyrical flow, despite the “chop and change” nature of the book’s structure: it has three parts with many miniature subsections, skipping between two countries and various characters, chronologies and narration styles.
The themes that interconnect those varying styles are those of identity, isolation, and femininity. The English is frequently interrupted by Portuguese, as the characters travel frequently between the England and Brazil, both literally (one of the most striking passages in the book describes a flight over the Atlantic Ocean) and metaphorically. The protagonist of the book grows up struggling to think of which country she feels she belongs to: her fatherland or her motherland.
She is disgusted by a British girl with blonde hair who comes to visit Brazil in what is described as “colonial chic” – “ in thin beige three-quarter lengths, Birkenstocks, a loose white blouse and a khaki-coloured explorer hat that looks like it should have corks hanging off it.”
Yet when she was thirteen, she was completely capable of stating to her Brazilian mother living in Britain
“But you are foreign… – Coming here and stealing all our jobs.”
The narrator is always caught in between her two worlds, never quite feeling she belongs to either one of them. If you’re looking for a traditional novel with a recognisable plot, this will not be your cup of tea, but for those more artistically minded, you will definitely appreciate Yara’s skillful expression of emotion in language.
This book is a fantastic debut, and I enjoyed reading it very much. I look forward to seeing what Yara will write next.