A Feather on the Breath of God A Novel

Sigrid Nunez




Trade Paperback

192 Pages



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A Feather on the Breath of God is a a young woman's look at the world of her immigrant parents: a Chinese Panamanian father and a German mother. Growing up in a housing project in the 1950s and 1960s, she escapes into dreams inspired both by her parents' stories and by her own reading and, for a time, into the otherworldly life of ballet. A yearning, homesick mother, a silent and withdrawn father, the ballet—these are the elements that shape the young woman's imagination and her sexuality. It is a story about displacement and loss, and about the tangled nature of relationships between parents and children, between language and love.


Praise for A Feather on the Breath of God

"A forceful novel by a writer of uncommon talent."—The New York Times Book Review

"This is a very honest, painful book, almost relentless in its objectivity. The heroine's Chinese father, German mother, and Russian lover embody different fates of American immigrants. This novel is a genuine piece of immigrant literature and deserves a large readership."—Ha Jin, Bookforum

"This strange, lucid story of the unwished-for child of unassimilated immigrants takes us well beyond the particulars of 'mixed ethnicity'—beyond even the experience of 'America'—into deep paradoxes of identity and love. Both old-fashioned and subversive, stringent and redemptive, it's a pleasure from the first page to the last."—Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections

"A remarkable, often disturbing portrait . . . Nunez's language throughout is spare, utterly lacking in sentimentality."—Los Angeles Times Book Review

"An intelligent and poignant examination of social and erotic displacement, and written with such extraordinary and seemingly unstudied conviction that one accepts every word of it as truth."—Atlantic Monthly

"A Feather on the Breath of God brilliantly succeeds in describing a life on the fringe, outside the conventional categories of cultural and personal identity . . . A remarkable book, full of strange brilliance, trembling with fury and tenderness."—The Philadelphia Inquirer

"An exquisite novel that saves us from our primal fears of loss by reaffirming our belief in the immortality of love. The book is complex and beautifully felt, and I was haunted by it. Sigrid Nunez is a radiant and tenacious writer."—Fae Myenne Ng, author of Bone

"In this luminous debut novel about a young woman of mixed race, Nunez writes with fierce clarity, rare empathy and sharp humor of immigrant dreams and frustrations. The vulnerable, nameless narrator, who grows up in a Brooklyn housing project in the 1950s and '60s, is the daughter of Carlos, a silent, workaholic Chinese-Panamanian father, and Christa, a self-dramatizing German mother, who met shortly after V-E Day in Germany. Moving to New York in 1948, they raise three daughters in a marriage marked by poverty, violent quarrels and Christa's agoraphobia. Through flashbacks, Nuñez shows Christa growing up in a Catholic boarding school taken over by the Nazis, while her father, an anti-Hitler protester, is arrested and confined in a concentration camp. The narrator—ignored by her father and dominated by her mother—escapes into a perfectionistic, masochistic world of ballet classes and becomes anorexic. Later, she has a doomed affair with a married Russian immigrant taxi driver with an unsavory past. The novel is marked by uncompromising honesty and the vivid immediacy of Nunez's prose."—Publishers Weekly

"With a subtle blend of fierceness and evanescence, Nunez's debut comments profoundly on the lasting effects of the immigrant experience and the haunting powers of family. The unnamed female narrator tells a four-part story that begins with her father, a Chinese-Panamanian immigrant who moved to Brooklyn at the age of 12 or 13. She understands little about this workaholic who spent most of his time away from home until cancer felled him. Why didn't he ever learn to speak English? Why, in his 30s, did he switch his name from Chang to the Hispanic surname of his mother? Why did he refuse to discuss anything at all with his children? She can't answer these questions. She can merely collect what she does know and accept that it's too late to understand him. Her German-born mother, Christa, was her father's opposite: Full of rage, grace, beauty, laughter, and sorrow, Christa clung to her German heritage and spoke constantly of her past. The book's second section, which deals with her, is about love and nostalgia, about seeing with all her flaws the one individual who most shaped the narrator's life ('I seem to remember my mother as though she were a landscape rather than a person'). The third part is devoted to the narrator's dream of becoming a ballerina, which, as she poignantly states, 'begins with the dream of being beautiful.' Here she makes some caustic connections between foot binding and toe shoes; she also recognizes that in ballet she sought escape and discipline. The final section revolves around an ill-advised love affair. The narrator examines the theory that no matter how far you go in life 'you must stick with your own class' and sees in herself the intense desire to please, charm, and provoke desire. A rich, intelligent tapestry of the connections between language, love, beauty, and forgiveness."—Kirkus Reviews

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The first time I ever heard my father speak Chinese was at Coney Island. I don't remember how old I was then, but I must have been very...

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  • Sigrid Nunez

  • Sigrid Nunez is the author of the novels For Rouenna and The Last of Her Kind. She has received several awards, including a Whiting Writers' Award, the Rome Prize in Literature, and a Berlin Prize Fellowship. She lives in New York City.

  • Sigrid Nunez ©Marion Ettlinger