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What The Word On The Street is Reading: Under the Visible Life

March 18, 2015

Under the Visible Life cover

Our Festival Director, Heather, recently read Under the Visible Life by Kim Echlin, published in March by Hamish Hamilton Canada. Read on to find out why this book had her crying on the GO Train.

About the book:

Fatherless Katherine carries the stigma of her mixed-race background through an era that is hostile to her and all she represents.  It is only through music that she finds the freedom to temporarily escape and dream of a better life for herself, nurturing this hard-won refuge throughout the vagaries of unexpected motherhood and an absent husband, and relying on her talent to build a future for her family.

Orphaned Mahsa also grows up in the shadow of loss, sent to relatives in Pakistan after the death of her parents. Struggling to break free, she escapes to Montreal, leaving behind her first love, Kamal. But the threads of her past are not so easily severed, and she finds herself forced into an arranged marriage. For Mahsa, too, music becomes her solace and allows her to escape from her oppressive circumstances.

When Katherine and Mahsa meet, they find in each other a kindred spirit as well as a musical equal, and their lives are changed irrevocably. Together, they inspire and support one another, fusing together their cultures, their joys, and their losses—just as they collaborate musically in the language of free-form, improvisational jazz.

Under the Visible Life takes readers from the bustling harbour of Karachi to the palpable political tension on the streets of 1970s Montreal to the smoky jazz clubs of New York City.  Deeply affecting, vividly rendered, and sweeping in scope, it is also an exploration of the hearts of two unforgettable women: a meditation on how hope can remain alive in the darkest of times when we have someone with whom to share our burdens.

Q&A with Heather

What drew you to this book?

“Last year I received a copy of The Disappeared from the publisher, in anticipation of Kim Echlin’s new release this year. I was excited to read Under the Visible Life and was delighted when it was received. It could not have come at a better time, as I had just begun commuting into the city, and was looking for a good book to dig in to.

I was immediately drawn to the idea that this book was about two women with a deep love of jazz, and that it was set both in the Middle East and many of my favourite local stomping grounds. Having lived in Dubai, just moved to Hamilton, and with both vocal and piano having been a big part of my own musical journey, it was the perfect fit.”

Did you enjoy the book?

“Enjoy does not begin to explain how I felt about Under the Visible Life. I could not put the book down, and it somehow made my long GO Train rides the highlight of my day. Echlin has a unique ability to pull at the core of human experience. I will admit tears were flowing for close to a third of this book, but they were well worth it, and extremely cathartic.

While the meet-cute of these two women may seem like a well-orchestrated coincidence, the revelations and confines of both women are so heart-wrenchingly honest. Their shared story glows with the romance of self-discovery and expression. This is the kind of book that makes you appreciate every moment you have in life.”

Would you recommend it?

“I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the texture of cities and culture throughout history. If you have a love of jazz, this book will be like sitting down to your favourite Coltrane, Miles Davis, or Nina Simone. Getting to know these women, is like being taken through an intricately woven and unexpected feminist jazz composition.”