The stranger who arrives in mysterious circumstances and turns a household on its ear may be familiar literary trope, but Ali Smith does it with suchThe stranger who arrives in mysterious circumstances and turns a household on its ear may be familiar literary trope, but Ali Smith does it with such panache and vivacity, the familiar becomes fresh and revelatory.
The Accidental shows the rusted and broken bits inside the moral compass of the Smarts, a bourgeois British family of four on summer holiday in a drab northern England town. Eve Smart is mid-list novelist and mother of 17-year-old Magnus and 12-year-old Astrid. Michael Smart, husband and step-father, is a philandering professor of English. It becomes all to easy to detest the Smart mère et père, for they are eye-rollingly entitled and pretentious, but this novel is about the kids. And it is in their voices that Smith's prose shines like a beacon.
Teen-aged Magnus has retreated deep within himself, grappling with his complicity in the tragic death of a classmate and the particular bewilderment of a privileged young man who has everything but the attention of his parents. Flitting about like a moth is young Astrid, a budding videographer and keen observer of the arbitrary and contrary unfolding around her. Astrid is the novel's strongest voice, the character I could have spent all of my time with, for her innocence is genuine, her clear heart a clean space in which to linger, after being sullied in the moral decrepitude of her ineffectual parents.
And what of that mysterious stranger? The enigmatic Amber arrives Chez Smart and moves in, yet no one in the family is quite up to admitting they have no idea who she is or how she found them. Her past feels irrelevant to the story, yet the stream-of-consciousness snippets indicate she was born in a movie theatre called Alhambra some three decades prior. She seems conjured out of legend, an imp, a sprite, beautiful and irreverent and frankly, rather mean-spirited and of questionable moral judgment. She drills under the skin of each family member, dragging them out of their emotional malaise and entrancing each before blowing the nuclear family to bits, figuratively speaking. Far be it from me, however, to give anything away.
Ali Smith plays with form here, as one would expect, but I would hazard a guess that this is one of her more traditional narrative structures. Points of view shift here and there, with meltdown riffs that shake the reader up before moving her along.
I loved this book. Truly whetted my literary appetite for more Ali Smith....more
We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So, when you study history, you must always ask yourself, whose stor
We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So, when you study history, you must always ask yourself, whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth?
This question, posed by a 20th century character near the end of Homegoing encompasses the novel's central theme: telling the stories history forgets, misses, or ignores entirely. In the case of Yaa Gyasi's stunning debut, the lost story is the active complicity of West Africa in the slave trade.
Homegoing travels through three centuries and two continents by way of the bloodlines of two half-sisters, Effia and Esi. As the story opens in what is now Ghana, Effia is sold as a bride by her father to a British slavetrader. Her half-sister, Esi, whom she's never met, is being held captive not far away, awaiting transport to the New World as a slave.
And so these two branches split from the same tree become an episodic novel in which each chapter moves between West Africa and America, following seven generations of these two young women and the brutal legacy of slavery both continents allowed to flourish.
The marvel of this novel is how we become so quickly and solidly attached to the protagonist of each chapter, even though we don't remain in his or her life for long. And how agile Gyasi is in portraying each generation and location, despite dramatic shifts of culture and geography. The chapters set in West Africa are the most revelatory. I've read extensively of the evil and agony of pre-and post-antebellum racism and violence in the United States, as well as the disease of Jim Crow that followed emancipation. But to see the entangled roots of slave history in West Africa, revealed with such vivid storytelling, is astonishing.
Relationships, not history lessons, are at the heart of Yaa Gyasi's tale. Each generation is propelled forward by the love of those left behind, the entangled hearts and bodies that make up the passionate soul of this novel. I will admit to becoming overwhelmed by the sheer number of characters and the rapid changes of place and time, all of which diluted some of the novel's power. But in the end, I was moved and troubled, heartened and breathless. This is an extraordinary debut....more
In the time it took me to write this review, Ian McEwan has written at least one more novel. I mean, seriously. Dude is prolific. Also brilliant. DeliIn the time it took me to write this review, Ian McEwan has written at least one more novel. I mean, seriously. Dude is prolific. Also brilliant. Deliciously dark and witty and, dammit. Even with his novels that I can't say I like, I never cease to marvel at what he can do with same words we all have at our disposal.
A master of restraint and brevity, McEwan's short works are perhaps his most astonishing literary achievements, and his latest, Nutshell, is a twisted wee delight.
The tale is narrated by a erudite fetus (yep, fetus. Or rather, foetus, since we're in Britain now, Toto) who has amassed a wealth of knowledge about wine, a firm grasp on history, and a keen awareness of current events all by listening to the world beyond the womb, mostly to the podcasts that carry his mother through nights of insomnia.
Baby is also a possible Witness for the Prosecution, after being in utero privy to the murder plot simmering away between his mother and her lover, who also happens to be the brother of Baby's father. I know, RIGHT?
Trust me. The premise sounds redunkulous, but we're in capable hands here. Riffing on Hamlet, McEwan takes a fiendish, outlandish, and tawdry story and creates something fresh, taut, relevant and often hilarious. He plays to our darkest sensibilities, shocking and awing in the most satisfying ways.
I'm being deliberately opaque about the plot. I gave you the premise, that's enough. Whether or not the wispy Helen and her buffoonish lover carry out and carry off their scheme is something you'll have to discover on your own. And oh goodness, you just should. You should read this. And that's my review in a nutshell....more
A meditation on inner life, beautifully rendered and so very sad. Academy Street covers familiar ground—the troubled rural Irish family of Edna O'BrieA meditation on inner life, beautifully rendered and so very sad. Academy Street covers familiar ground—the troubled rural Irish family of Edna O'Brien, Colm Tóibín's naive emigré, Colum McCann's New York—yet Mary Costello creates a character portrait that is fresh and lovely. She lightly moves across seven decades of a woman's life, delving into the few highs and many lows of Tess Lohan's life. This is a novel of melancholy and regret and deep longing. All admiration for the gorgeous writing and the depths of feeling Costello creates in her quiet, strong Tess. ...more
Rose Tremain amazes me. I haven't always enjoyed her narratives, but I never ceased to be awed by the breadth and depth of her subject matter, the feaRose Tremain amazes me. I haven't always enjoyed her narratives, but I never ceased to be awed by the breadth and depth of her subject matter, the fearlessness of her approach, and the sheer elegance of her writing. The Gustav Sonata exemplifies what she does so well: writing in a tone and rhythm that perfectly capture the spirit of the place, people, and history framing her story.
The Gustav Sonata is a novel in three parts. The first shows the meeting of Gustav and Anton, two young misfits in pasteurized, homogenized Switzerland several years after the end of WWII; the second takes us to pre-war Switzerland and the ill-fated marriage of Gustav's mother Emilie and his father, Erich Perle; the final movement circles back to Gustav as an adult. Gustav, a lonely child, makes fast friends with Anton, but his mother's resentment of the boy is barely concealed. The reader understands it's because Anton is a Jew, but neither we nor Gustav understand the reason for her contempt until the story develops. And Gustav must wait years before the enigma that is Emilie is finally resolved. It is a novel of how the political becomes personal.
Switzerland closed its borders to Jewish refugees in the early years of the war, but the displaced and hunted continued to enter, not a few with the help of police commandant who falsified papers. Tremain's fictional policeman, Gustav's father, and his mother become the two sides of a supposedly neutral country that did not escape moral dilemmas by declaring itself above the conflict.
Gustav grows up without a father; his life with Emilie is marked by privation and loneliness, hunger and bewilderment. His mother, still young, is embittered and broken. She admonishes Gustav to "master" himself, to become a replica of his homeland, where excessive emotion and hairs out-of-place are an affront to one's nationality. And Gustav heeds her words. Yet underneath the surface, he is a boy, then a man, in crisis.
Tremain is unafraid to write unhappiness, something I can't say about many of her American contemporaries. She doesn't try to make reason out of madness or infuse sentimentality into history. And what could be more topical and relevant than an examination of Switzerland during WWII? When do we call out the ethics of neutrality, of turning our backs on those displaced by war and poverty? When do we admit that indifference is a moral failing?
But this story, though grim, muted and dark, is not wholly without beauty and redeeming moments of joy and compassion. I'm so very glad to have read it, for its beautiful language, rich characters, challenging questions, and fully-realized story. Rose Tremain remains one of my favorite writers, not well-enough known on this side of the Pond, so I will continue to sign her praises, loudly. ...more
A few nights ago at the bar (Side note for context, I'm Cellar Master and sommelier at a resort; writer by trade, but my publishers don't offer healthA few nights ago at the bar (Side note for context, I'm Cellar Master and sommelier at a resort; writer by trade, but my publishers don't offer health insurance or 401(k)s, 'kay? So I get to indulge in great conversations at the bar whilst making Manhattans) I got into a discussion about the intersection of fact and fiction when writing the historical novel. Having written a novel that was inspired by historical events, but which took a broad sweep into fantasy, I love the interplay of research and imagination, the bending and occasional snapping clean through of rules, the sublimation of fact for the flight of fancy.
So it's no surprise that I adored Eowyn Ivey's To The Bright Edge of the World. Based on the real expedition of Alaska's Copper River in 1885 by Lt. Henry Allen, Ivey's fictional band of soldiers, traders, and Native Alaskans seeks to chart the wild Wolverine. Ivey crafts a brilliant collection of letters, journal entries, and official dispatches that tell the story of men in nature, in all their bravery, stupidity, curiosity and arrogance.
This is a braided narrative, showing both the expedition into the Alaskan wild led by Col. Allen Forrester and the expedition of a woman on her own in the rough and lonely Pacific Northwest-Forrester's young wife, Sophie, who remains behind at Fort Vancouver. Ivey also deftly weaves a modern thread of correspondence between a Forrester descendent and a museum curator who moves from bewildered to enthralled at the collection he has been given. His growing awareness of the importance of this story become the clearing window through which the reader views the past.
To The Bright Edge of the World has all the makings of a grand adventure story: sweeping, brutal, storied terrain, dangers that lurk in the rivers and glaciers, emerging from blizzards and dense forest; dangers that surface in the madness of starving frightened men; primeval forces more terrifying and powerful than the madness of men and Mother Nature . And yet, this narrative offers something more than a wilderness epic and a survival journey: it shows how the human spirit shifts and is shaped by desperation, love, and the contours of the land.
Eowyn Ivey's prose is lovely to behold- at once lyrical and lucid. She is a master storyteller, holding us captive with the force of her imagination and a warmth of her literary heart.
A lyrical and poignant elegy for Earth, imbued with irrepressible hope, Good Morning, Midnight is one of the loveliest books I've read in such a veryA lyrical and poignant elegy for Earth, imbued with irrepressible hope, Good Morning, Midnight is one of the loveliest books I've read in such a very long time. Lily Brooks-Dalton's keen and delightful imagination, paired with a natural compassion and her gorgeous, lucid prose, make this a book I thought of in the hours when I had to leave it behind.
Two stranded souls, one in the Canadian Arctic, one in deep space, struggle to communicate with their own hearts and conscience. They've each chosen a life of isolation, turning their backs on their families and conventional life on earth. Augustine, an aging astronomer, opts to remain at a remote outpost while the rest of the station flees south in the midst of an unexplained apocalyptic event. Sully, part of a six-person crew exploring Jupiter and its four moons on the ship Aether, wonders if she will see the daughter she left behind nearly two years before, having chosen career over active motherhood. When Aether loses contact with Earth, another year of the return journey looms before them and the crew struggles to keep their anxiety and bewilderment at bay.
In that year, Augustine copes with his own terrible isolation. But he is not alone. Inexplicably, a young girl, Iris, has been left behind in the melee of a panicked departure. Old man and little girl survive together, until the endless night of Arctic winter gives way to the midnight sun of summer.
Augustine and Sully's stories alternate chapters in a delicate interweave as Aether approaches Earth and the crew contemplates how it will land on a planet where there may be no one to greet them.
Walking the same wondrous literary path as Ursula K Le Guin, Margaret Atwood and Mary Doria Russell, Lily Brooks-Dalton offers a work of speculative fiction that reaches readers who are certain they wouldn't care for a book set in space or with a dystopian theme. Like these writers, Brooks-Dalton's work is about the characters, not the techniques, and her prose is astonishingly beautiful - a seemingly-effortless flow of description and dialogue that bring setting and character to vivid life.
Heart-rending but unsentimental, Good Morning, Midnight will stay with me, quietly burrowing under my skin and into my heart, for many winters and summers to come. ...more