Holden and Middlemarch in Windhoek

April 28, 2010 | 3 books mentioned 7 2 min read

“Ask her if she still keeps all her kings in the back row.” When I was sixteen, I think I would have been completely and sublimely happy if that were what a boy loved about me. After J.D. Salinger died a few months ago, I thought about this line from Catcher in the Rye, and began to feel the spectre of Holden Caulfield wandering through my life here in Windhoek, Namibia.

covercoverAt the risk of sounding like a clueless college sophomore trying to piece together a pathetic seminar thesis, I saw an unlikely connection between Catcher in the Rye and a book I recently finished: George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Complete with phonies, small things that men love about women, and the mid-1800s equivalent of bathroom graffiti, Middlemarch is a book that I think Holden would have grudgingly found acceptable. The book is about people who get it and people who don’t; about the tiny, grey decisions that become vast, dark parts of a person; and about people who do and do not fill out the image they have of themselves.

I loved the Brooke sisters: the naïve and lovely Dorothea, who dreams of building affordable housing for serfs and marrying a dour clergyman, along with the practical and pretty Celia, who doesn’t mind asking for her mother’s jewels and marrying her sister’s rejected suitor, Sir James Chettam. I am a sucker for sisters in classics: the Schlegels in Howard’s End, the Brangwens in Women in Love, Delphine and Anastasie in Le Père Goriot, and of course the Bennetts in Pride and Prejudice. But I digress.

coverMiddlemarch bled in to my next book: A Trip to the Stars by Nicholas Christopher. These two books got me through an expat funk that was inevitable as the glow of being abroad has begun to fade. A crop of NGO workers have come and gone, I no longer marvel at the baboons playing with my house alarm, my clients don’t always tell me the truth, and I think I’m getting a beer gut. It’s times like this when books can twist me, turn me, hit me– even more than usual. I feel them deep inside and when I finish the last words on the last page, it feels tragic. I can’t get away from that terrible sadness of finishing a book.

“…sadness of domesticated birds; sadness of finishing a book; sadness of remembering…” — list of sadnesses (Jonathan Safran Foer)

In A Trip to the Stars, all the characters are striking. They are knowledgeable in grand subjects like Latin, spiders, horticulture, constellations, and Atlantis. Mala Revell, the heroine, is lost for years to her lover, Geza Cassiel, while she travels on quiet islands, performs as a telepath, and searches for her lost boy-nephew. Her journey begins when she is working for a New Orleans arachnologist who collects rare spiders. Mala entices one of the spiders to bite her finger after the arachnologist tells her its venom has the effect of “reducing the human soul to its rarest elements, stripping away all that is false, illusory, or fearful.” It is a sometimes corny, mostly lovely book that inspires a desire to be tall, honorable, and fearless.

Especially in Africa, I often long for just such a spider bite, to prompt those of us who don’t belong to engage in an occasional Holden-esque inquiry. To ask why we are here, to strip away all that is false, illusory, or fearful. What am I doing? Why did I come? What happens when I leave?

is an attorney who recently moved to Washington, D.C., from Windhoek, Namibia.  You can reach her at [email protected].


  1. ‘It is a sometimes corny, mostly lovely book that inspires a desire to be tall, honorable, and fearless.’

    great line!

    You know, I really like character comparisons, and thinking of what characters would do and think in real scenarios. That’s the whole point, right? You’re supposed to understand the world better after reading a good book.

    Just yesterday I was thinking about how the best ideas come out of the margins, rather than the mainstream. From an urban planning perspective (I’m an urban planner) communities on the physical margins are coming up with some of the best practices for energy efficiency and sustainability for example.

    And then those thoughts led me to think about Jason from The Sound and The Fury, and Maya from I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. There’s Jason, so unsympathetic he’s almost pure evil, fighting with every last tool at his disposal to save himself from slipping into the margins of society. Then there is Maya, embracing the margins for all its unique beauty and imaginative wealth, using it to tell the world something new.

  2. Mr. Salinger would have liked you and this column.

    And will you please post a photo of the baboons playing with your house alarm??

  3. I only read a couple pages from Middlemarch before I found my other gems from the library more enticing. But perhaps it is time to try again. As a person without sisters, I am endlessly intrigued by sister relationships. I also can probably be won over solely by “the tiny, grey decisions that become vast, dark parts of a person…” Thanks for the great review!

  4. Carrie, attempt Middlemarch again! It is wonderfully worth it. I too tried it a few years ago and gave it up, but this past summer I thought I’d give it another go and I loved it. A rich, humane and – not what everyone might expect from George Eliot – funny novel. And Cindy Jane, please follow up your digression about sisters in classic literature, I’d like to read it!

  5. beautifully written review!

    one of my favorite things with good books is to read them many, many years later to see what parts stand out and how i often pick up on such different things than i did the first time(s). like some of the others, this convinced me to pick up Middlemarch again. i’d like to think that my literary tastes have evolved a bit since AP english… maybe now i’ll have moved from a “person who doesn’t” to “a person who gets it”!

  6. I second Patricia! I can’t wait to read your musings and insight on the sisters of the classics. I feel as if some of these great pairs will inspire more baboon references!

  7. Yes, please talk about sisters in classics. I also like sisters. I have to agree with Lora — there probably is a correlation between sisters and baboons.

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