I can't (and couldn't, while reading) get the movie out of my head to evaluate the book entirely separately from it. If you've not seen it, Judi DenchI can't (and couldn't, while reading) get the movie out of my head to evaluate the book entirely separately from it. If you've not seen it, Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett are both absolutely astounding in it. The book - more open-ended, more morally ambiguous - is very good, but lacks a little something.
That said, I love what Heller does creating a first-person narrator who should be, for all intents and purposes, entirely unreliable, but who with every chapter reveals another layer of the truth of her own sociopathological personality. She - main character Barbara, an aging, spinster history teacher - is not entirely unsympathetic. Despite all the dysfunction here - and we are talking a galactic amount in a mere 258 pages - we feel Barbara's pain keenly, and Sheba's, too. This is an amazing feat of voice and POV; really deftly done. The greater grey in the characters' motivations and ethics, in the book, make for less drama but a more satisfying psychological complexity and realism.
Lydia Millet has a remarkable way of taking you into her characters' heads; a way that probably shouldn't work given normal novelistic conventions. ItLydia Millet has a remarkable way of taking you into her characters' heads; a way that probably shouldn't work given normal novelistic conventions. It's almost all internal dialogue, nudged along by a very loose plot. In fact, if you don't read How The Dead Dream first, I'm not sure this plot would make any sense at all.
I enjoyed this second in the trilogy possibly even more than HtDD: a) it was wayyyyyy funnier; Millet's sardonic, absurd tone really worked with this particular character (although I still don't get the Vonnegut comparisons on the GL and HtDD jacket blurbs); and b) this character - a father, a husband, struggling to come to terms with his life and in particular his relationship with his paraplegic daughter - is more poignant, more human, more relatable. His obsessive, obtuse self-reflections as he comes to terms with who he is, why he is, are more touching and less annoying than those of T., the protagonist in the first, although they are in the service of less grand, less esoteric philosophical musings.
Taken together, both of these characters are creating a bigger commentary on meaning, purpose, love, connection, and here - "companionship" - a motif that points to something simpler, more elemental for us humans. It is the thing, the only thing, that wards off the angst of that bigger, existential aloneness that is almost too much to face. That is, too much to face alone.
And the final bonus: lots of lovely digressions on dogs - the ultimate companions. :-) ...more
This book is a gorgeous character study of an aging misanthrope who loves, loves, loves literature. All forms of artA beautiful book for bibliophiles.
This book is a gorgeous character study of an aging misanthrope who loves, loves, loves literature. All forms of art, really, but literature in particular. And like all misanthropes, inside she is a quivery, sad, anxious mess of longing and need for human contact. She may sublimate all she wants by translating, but the ending shows how much of a cover-up this sublimation is and - within the context of the lives lived in Beirut over the past 72 years - how much trauma, loss and also - of course! - how much strength and resilience she has.
It's a fabulous trip for the voracious reader who will find oneself enjoying her enjoyment of the books she's read and what they have meant to her, her 'personal' relationships with the authors, and also questioning one's own relationship with the books and authors we love. With reading in general and the place it fills in our lives.
The ending is absolutely amazing for showing the reader - this reader, who feels in many ways akin to Aaliya - that books are a gateway not just to humanity but to human relationships. Not a replacement for them, but a necessary, indeed essential, complement.
4.5 stars. Rounded down because it's early in the year!...more
Historical fiction (but is it?) about a lonely, violent, spookily-intuitive, pagan (tho’ converted), lesbian (Griffith says she’s actually bi) saint-tHistorical fiction (but is it?) about a lonely, violent, spookily-intuitive, pagan (tho’ converted), lesbian (Griffith says she’s actually bi) saint-to-be and her manipulative, astonishing mother, written as though it was speculative fiction.
If you think there’s a lot to unpack in that first sentence, you ain’t read Hild yet.
Politics, war, and the very early Christian conversion attempts by Roman priests in 7th Century Britain.
Women. Spinning, weaving, plotting, planning, making the world go 'round.
A plucky, promiscuous slave-maid. A kind, prescient slave-priest. A brother by another mother.
Avaricious bishops. Cruel kings who condemn with a smile and kill with the flick of a ring.
More plot threads, family trees, shifting alliances, and linking symbolism (most based on the natural world or women’s never-ending work of weaving) than you can stab a sword at. Patterns, patterns everywhere. And Hild the primary pattern seer, oracle and omen reader – reader and writer, she’s literate (taught by the aforementioned slave-priest) – and pattern weaver for her uncle, King Edwin of Northumbria.
Hild looks for the patterns, deciphers them, feeds them back to those who can act on them – and predicts the future to save her own life, to save (view spoiler)[her half-brother (hide spoiler)]Cian, to save her household, her gemaecceBegu (think pagan BFFs! with benefits!) and her maid Gwyladus (does the laundry! does Hild!).
Mostly, to make a place for herself in the weave of this world.
A book about power and greed and the feuding Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that would eventually shape-shift into the Plantagenets and Tudors and the royal lines that remain today – so there is that connection with the modern world, the common strand that links their past with our present. Mud and blood, oaths and omens, wool and mead … and ways of thinking and being that are at once foreign and familiar.
Griffith provides a geneology and a map at the front, a glossary at the back – only the glossary is truly helpful; the rest I totally gave up trying to figure out. Who ruled who and where and why. Whew.
It matters – the colour of your hair and eyes, revealing your bloodline; the scop’s songs lauding your ancestry back to Woden. As soon as you’re conquered, though, you immediately convert to a new allegiance. Ding dong the king is dead, long live the king. For the peasants, living in their wattled huts with their pigs, it doesn’t matter at all.
Don’t think for a second that in this cold, wet, cruel, harsh world Griffith is going to be staking a social justice claim. N’uh unh.
The natural world, the political world, the spiritual world and how an early, pagan/pre-Christian culture understood it and survived within it – that’s the world of Hild.
Utterly convincing landscapes in every sense, psychological and physical, other and ourselves in equal measure.
Also: this book is all about women - these particular women and how they think, how they organize themselves, what their true power is in a society that values them only for whom they can be married off to (peaceweaving), or for the [boy] babies they can produce.
Hild, the character, is both of the woman's world and also of the men's – she goes into battle, she’s a fierce and fearless fighter, who takes a certain amount of delight in killing, it seems – but really, she’s of neither. She is the ultimate political strategist, and does what she has to do to maintain her credibility with Edwin and fulfill the ‘wyrd’ – fate – she’s been born into.
She listens, watches, waits – and freaks everyone out as she does so, gathering power around her like a blanket, wrapping those she can in its comfort, but never feeling safe herself.
Trouble meant they had to listen, not fight.
Yet, though her isolation and impact as "the light of the world", the king's seer, is the central focus, she is also in many ways one of the less interesting things about this Celtic knot of a novel. Which says more about how many other things are interesting, than it does about Hild, the character.
The easiest comparison is to Mantel's Cromwell/Tudor England. There is the same rich detail and world-creating, and the same sense that each plucked a figure out of the din of history and reverse-engineered them to try to figure out how and who they were. But where Mantel's focus is on the character, Griffith's is on the setting. All that she – or any of us – know about Hild is that she began life as the second daughter of widowed Queen Breguswith and became a key member of King Edwin’s court and later, Saint Hilda of Whitby.
All the stuff in between, Griffith is delighted to tell us, she ‘made up.’ As Mantel did, too – but Mantel stayed mostly in Cromwell’s head, developing his psychology and creating him from the inside out with a lot more detail known of his setting and context; whereas Griffith creates Hild from the outside in with very little known about her historical context.
The world she builds, and the men who rule it, are jaw-droppingly cruel and capricious – ”we’ll eat the horse”, says Edwin as instruction to lop off a bad-tidings-bearing messenger’s head; the phrase crops up repeatedly as short-hand for Edwin’s murderous omnipotence, the moment-to-moment variability of the king’s favour, and the need to constantly be on guard to curry it.
In the meantime, the women glide in and out and around stroking that ego, influencing, manipulating, managing. It’s completely convincing – and if not quite ‘real’, in the historically accurate sense, real enough. A really good story – as real as it needs to be.
Hild the character is an enormous achievement, but it's the world that Griffith has created that steals the show.
Things I loved: - Hild’s focus on the natural world and how Griffith describes it. The novel is extremely sensual: sights, sounds, smells are vital not only to bring the world to life, but because these are what Hild relies on to ‘see the pattern.’ - The gorgeous writing. - The importance of communicating: not only reading and writing, but listening and understanding, in multiple languages. It marks Hild as different, and gives her a survival skill. It’s another clue, another strand in this story, that bridges the middle ages with the modern. - Hild’s mother: what a portrait! Part mama bear; part viper. She’s worth a novel of her own. I wanted to see more of her; she disappeared in the middle, and then re-entered. Breguswith lit up every scene she was in. - The baptism scenes and the way Griffith reveals the underlying greed and lust for power that motivated the early conversions to Christianity. How religious conversion and the goals of Rome played into the Anglo-Saxon power dynamics that led to the rise of some and downfall of other kings. How transient, superficial, artificial these conversions were - yet obviously, they 'took'. Merry Christmas.
Things I still can’t wrap my mind around, quite:
The fluid sexuality throughout the novel was one of the key elements that moves this from historical into speculative fiction for me – and I’m not quite sure what Griffith was getting at here beyond just wanting to give her characters fully-dimensional lives. It’s a major part of the book and sits as counterpoint to the heterosexual sex-and-marriage that is political, versus the sex that people do for fun (and therapy, in Gwyladus’s and Hild’s case).
For me, it’s a decorative detail not a central story element that I need to disentangle.
But, it stands in stark contrast to (view spoiler)[Cian and Hild and the incest. I think I’ve sorted through why Edwin married them off to each other, which I’ve concluded was both consolidating and limiting threats to his power, as well as meting out punishment to Hild and Cian for, in the former case, failing to predict Cadwallon’s aggression and in the latter, failing to successfully defend Edwin’s interests against it.
The sexual tension between Cian and Hild – although seeded from the very beginning, beautifully plotted and described – is purposeful in a way that Hild’s bisexual relationships are not. Maybe I’m just struggling because incest, ewwww.
I’m also not entirely clear about what motivated Hild’s killing sprees, especially the one in the last third where she and her gesith hounds (hehe) became the Butcher Birds. I know that was important to set up what turned out to be her downfall in Edwin’s eyes. But I don’t know what that kind of violence was intended to add to Hild’s psychology, or mean as a part of character. (hide spoiler)]
I’m hoping the sequel will make it all a little bit clearer.
Extraordinary. (view spoiler)[Yanagihara gives the reader every clue she needs, implicit and explicit, to draw the inevitable conclusion from the outsExtraordinary. (view spoiler)[Yanagihara gives the reader every clue she needs, implicit and explicit, to draw the inevitable conclusion from the outset - yet the ending will, I bet, still hit you with a wallop. (hide spoiler)] This novel is remarkable in any number of ways - but in particular in the way it plays with the reader (at least, this reader) who can intellectually embrace the notion of moral relativism; yet for whom moral absolutism on some issues prevails.
The People in the Trees is a triumph of narrative voice and structure. The development and writing of the central character, Norton Perina, is positively masterful. The imagery--visceral, grotesque--perfectly chosen. A novel about even one of the huge, thorny themes raised (scientific method, human subjects research, colonialism, racism, sociopathy, sexual taboos, parenting, pedophilia, destruction of the environment, aging and death, and more) can be powerful; when these themes are wound together, dense as a jungle and as tightly as DNA, and laced within a story and with writing this precise and compelling, the result is transcendent.
So powerful and provocative; the questions it's raised and discomfort it's provoked will, I feel sure, linger.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
This is a complex book, filled with complex emotions. "Nuanced" doesn't come close to describing its portrayal of fundamentalist Islamist fervour andThis is a complex book, filled with complex emotions. "Nuanced" doesn't come close to describing its portrayal of fundamentalist Islamist fervour and the various forces and interpretations within Islam that in many ways define it, and also attempt to balance it [ultimately ineffectually? not sure], but in the end, must simply survive it.
The same nuance and complexity emerge with respect to the use of torture, the oppression of women, or just about any other issue raised in this novel of post-9/11 Pakistan / Afghanistan, seen through the eyes of a constellation of characters who must navigate, often blindly, (and both literally and figuratively), through the inherent conflicts of their own beliefs, relationships, and realities in the world around them.
A central conundrum - the prevailing dynamic - is the clash of religions and, more broadly, cultures which both cause the conflicts, and ultimately also provide the only tools to endure, if not resolve, them.
This book forced me to confront a lot of my own assumptions, emotions and attitudes - and I'm left holding these thoughts in each of my hands and different parts of my brain, irreconcilable. At the same time, as jo points out in her exceptional review, although there is much that is disquieting and even rage-inducing, there is also the intense beauty of the writing and imagery, and especially, the Mikal character's unswerving goodness and sense of justice.
This book is sometimes overwhelming, always challenging, and probably not for everyone. It is a test of tolerance and empathy, in many ways. The beauty of the writing, the power of the imagery, the essential force of goodness that drives (again, literally and figuratively) the action in the character of Mikal, is the reason I've given it five stars. ...more
If someone you loved wanted you to help them die to avoid unavoidable pain, would you? If you knew they would find a way to do it no matter what, andIf someone you loved wanted you to help them die to avoid unavoidable pain, would you? If you knew they would find a way to do it no matter what, and that way would be painful, and terrifying, and they would be all alone, would you? If they asked you directly, more than once; if it was the one, single thing they wanted from you and it was within your power to give, would you?
Does the fact that the unavoidable pain is psychological not physical in origin change your mind?
These are the questions at the heart of Miriam Toews' All My Puny Sorrows: a work of fiction.
This work of fiction is receiving a massive number of accolades. And I love, I mean LOVE, Miriam Toews and all that she writes. Let me go on record saying that. I've read all her fiction.
So I can say this:
AMPS is the book that Toews needed to write, and it's the book that all of her previous work was leading her to write.
AMPS deserves all the accolades* it's receiving, and so does Toews, but this is not her 'best' work - if by best you want to rank them in some kind of hierarchy of literary quality. Because:
AMPS is not a work of fiction.**
AMPS is also not the book I would recommend starting with for those new to Toews.***
* These accolades are kind of like an Oscar awarded for an actor's minor roles just because she's widely regarded as brilliant but has been overlooked. That's not to say this is a minor work. Nor that Toews is not a well-awarded Canadian author. Despite these awards, however (which include Rogers Writers' Trust x 2; Governor General x 1; Canada Reads; Giller noms x 2; many more), she remains under-the-radar for many Canadians, and certainly most Americans. AMPS is poised right now to be her breakthrough book in terms of the U.S. market, at which point it circles back and those Canadians who don't know who she is will find out about her. And I have some serious doubts about this - and feel a little concerned that this will be the book that many new to Toews will read first. (see ***)
** Toews' entire body of work (for which she has received the Findley/Engel Award - she's also received the Margaret Laurence Award for fiction, and failing Atwood and Munro having Canadian writing awards named after them, that's enough to tell you where she sits within the Canadian literary establishment), includes fiction, memoir, biography and journalism. This book is all of those genres.
As fiction, this book is different to Toews' others in a lot of ways. The humour is toned down, much darker, and the sadness ramped up. The dialogue is much more intellectual, less whimsical. The characters—even tho' Yoli is a self-defined basket-case (and I don't think she really is)—are more 'mainstream' successful, more fully-dimensional photographic, and less character-sketchy portrait. The book is less Winnipeg/Mennonite, more Toronto/international. The literary, musical and artistic pursuits of the characters are all more 'high-brow' (even though Yoli has built her career on cowgirl rodeo YA novels, she has a "real" novel in the works which she carries around with her in a Safeway grocery bag). The whole tone, as a result of these differences in combination, is different.
But this book reads more as memoir: Toews the writer is in this book in a way that she's not in these other three. AMPS is directly about Toews' relationship with her sister, and the request her sister made of her. She's been up-front about that in every interview she's done. It's also about her mom and Toews' relationship with her. And of course, about her dad and his legacy. It's about how he and her suicidal sibling defined the family's dynamics. It's about those dynamics.
The book is also journalism, adding material to the debate and fitting in with the discourse around assisted suicide. This is a big issue in Canada (as elsewhere); right-to-die legislation passed in Quebec in mid-2014 has brought it to the fore. I'd say that Toews has been deliberate in the timing of this work within the context of this ongoing public debate.
AMPS is not the work of a writer early in her career creating characters and a novel from her real-life experience with perhaps a little less subtlety, or too much transparency, than is required. This is a master writer, a literary powerhouse in full control of her pen, creating something NEW. Some hybrid of fiction/non-fiction.
*** If you don't know/haven't read much Toews, my recommendation is: do not start here. You're going to get the wrong impression of who she is, what her fiction is and does. You may not see the humour, or feel the incredible love and compassion every single one of her characters has for each other. The humour and love in her work is ... it's everything. It's here, too, but it's subtle and sometimes overshadowed. You've got to make your way through the book; you've got to trust her to lead you there. She will, she does. But you have to trust her, and if you haven't read much of her - you might not.
If you have read her (at minimum, A Complicated Kindness and either or both Irma Voth and The Flying Troutmans), then read this. You might not love it as much, for any number of reasons, as her others. But I bet you will be left in awe, in freaking absolute AWE - at her artistry. At her accomplishment. At her astounding generosity - the gift she is giving us with this novel.
Because this is not fiction. This is something so much more.
ETA: About those accolades.
Jared Bland in The Globe & Mail: When her mother asks her why the teenage heroines in her rodeo novels are all so sad, if their struggles are because Yoli has so much sadness in her, she has a simple answer: “no, no, everyone has all that sadness in them.”
And that is the book’s great gift: its reminder that feeling such things is normal. In a world where everyone has that sorrow in them – which is to say, a world like ours – we find permission to embrace that sadness, rather than a rallying cry to escape it. And we witness the possibility of making a life that can accommodate incredible intimacy without denying the fundamental bleakness of existence.
- - - - - - - - - -
Stevie Davies in The Guardian: I can think of no precedent for the darkly fizzing tragicomic jeu d'esprit that is Miriam Toews's sixth novel. Its compulsive readability is all the more remarkable since the story issues from such a dark place in the author's heart. ... Can a work of mourning be a comedy? Uniquely, Toews has created a requiem with an antic disposition.
- - - - - - - - - -
Ron Charles in The Washington Post: In the crucible of [Toews'] genius, tears and laughter are ground into some magical elixir that seems like the essence of life.
- - - - - - - - - -
Catherine Taylor in The Telegraph: Elf is so thin that Yoli believes she can see the outline of her heart: Toews’s great generosity as a writer is to have opened up her own and shared it with us.
- - - - - - - - - -
Andreas Vatiliotou in The Puritan Magazine: Toews achieves with this novel what so few are able to do: she fearlessly “organizes her sadness through writing” to generate a wealth of insight, and provide consolation to, and kinship with, those of us who share her experience. Rarely does one sit with a novel and feel the presence of the author so acutely—an author who refuses to point a finger accusingly at life or death, but ponders the insurmountable question of why we choose one over the other, and provides a complex, if not resolute, defense in support of either choice. There is no judgment or blame in All My Puny Sorrows—only a love letter to sisterhood, and a heartfelt goodbye.
Ok, it's not high art but it's good story-tellin'. A unique premise, with moments of great drama and a convincingly-built alternate universe. The penuOk, it's not high art but it's good story-tellin'. A unique premise, with moments of great drama and a convincingly-built alternate universe. The penultimate scene is worth the whole read, if you ask me; although the final chapter is irrelevant and drags it back down into, until then carefully and successfully avoided, sloppy sentimentality.
I spent a long time trying to parse the weird jacket blurb "via @MargaretAtwood" and the seemingly damning-with-faint-praise accolade she bestows on Paull's "Keatsian adjectives" (wtf does that even mean?!); but MA's description of The Bees as a "gripping Cinderella/Arthurian tale" seems altogether more accurate; certainly more so than The Handmaid's Tale/Hunger Games reference that seems the most common descriptor.
It bears almost no similarity to The Handmaid's Tale except at the most superficial level; I can't comment on Hunger Games as I've not read. I did not read this at all as a dystopian novel; I didn't sniff even a whiff of a metaphor. There is no warning here, no big analogy (despite, that is, the always-present analogy of the stratification of bee society parallel to our own - the queen bee; the worker bees; the drones, etc.).
So ignore that whole comparison BS and just go with the Flow.* To me, it just is what it is: an exploration of a society with a complex structure and life cycle, with a religio-political overlay to enable the reader to make some sense of it, and the translation of a distinct biology into symbols and images that yes, anthropomorphized, but also brought the very strange and intriguing insect world to life.
Because, really, who doesn't love bees?
* my one capitulation to the gnawing lure of the easy-beesy pun. You'll only really get it if you've read the novel. You're welcome. ...more
Bittersweet to read this and think AM may not be writing anything else. A little more erratic than some of her other short story collections, especialBittersweet to read this and think AM may not be writing anything else. A little more erratic than some of her other short story collections, especially in the first four stories, but the final section - autobiographical but not stories so much (as she says) - was a capping-off poignancy that really worked....more
Intriguing but inconsistent. I couldn't get a grip on the main character (Lisamarie) or the stages/phases of her development; there was something offIntriguing but inconsistent. I couldn't get a grip on the main character (Lisamarie) or the stages/phases of her development; there was something off for me in terms of the timeline. Events - shocking, sudden deaths of important characters, for example - seem to happen "off-stage" with only their longer-term impacts discussed (again, intriguing, but the style left me disconnected from the narrative as a whole). A lot was mentioned in passing or so indirectly that it lost its impact (e.g., Mick and Trudy and the residential schools, (view spoiler)[Lisamarie's rape (hide spoiler)]). These were defining moments, and what we actually saw in the narrative were their effects playing out, primarily on Lisamarie but on others as well. It is, in many ways, absolutely fantastic: it really isn't the event itself that defines us, it's our response to it, right? But the more I think about it, the more I like it as an idea in the novel; I'm still troubled by its execution.
Also, passages intending to be slightly experimental (all the stuff about the heart) were dropped in and never really came together as crucial pieces of the story - adding the poetry or metaphor that I think was Robinson's intention. They were stylistically so different from the rest of the text they were hard to really integrate with the overall reading experience.
There were so many great ideas in this book - and while the cumulative effect of all of them swirling like the fog on the ocean which Robinson describes so well, or the night lightening to a grey dawn (another frequent image) is in fact the defining style of the book, it just doesn't make it over the line from great idea(s) to great execution of great idea(s).
Still, there is LOTS here to love. Monkey Beach paints a vivid portrait of what it must be like growing up on a northern BC First Nations reserve. It's beautifully atmospheric, and there's a really strong sense of the landscape and its importance, as well as its degradation. There's a strong sense - yet another great idea - that the community/culture is holding on by a hair, much like the Sasquatch/b'gwus myth, which features prominently.
The East Vancouver section, although brief, was really telling in terms of the details it reveals about the community, the culture, the incredible difficulty of reconciling the northern Native links to the land and sea and the lure of the city for kids caught between two worlds.
And speaking of two worlds - the physical and the spiritual - Lisamarie's 'gift' and passages related to it were gorgeously rendered in that magical realist way that First Nations writers seem to be able to pull off with such dexterity. I loved *all* of the magical sections in this work. I think they may be Robinson's great accomplishment here.
Lisamarie's relationship with Mick and Ma-ma-moo; her feelings and presentation of numbness, desperation and sadness; and her frequent dissociation were also all quite powerful. The numbness and dissociation and the many types of imagery attached to them especially, work on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level. They resonate with individual, collective, and cultural isolation and death.
Lisamarie was lost and traumatized, like the Haisla tribe, like the First Nations culture overall. It's almost what all contemporary First Nations literature is about. It's the essential commonality in so much of this work. And this book makes an important contribution to it.
This novel would have benefitted from some focus, maybe. I wanted Robinson to really dig in to one story line, one idea and follow it all the way through. The only constant was the search for Jimmy, but it wasn't perhaps the strongest one to provide the structure that was needed.
So, I'd say this is a 3.5. A worthwhile read, not least because female First Nations novelists are under-represented in the canon. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Just a few notes here before this book evaporates into the ether on me; which is not an indictment of its quality (more, my own poor literary memory.Just a few notes here before this book evaporates into the ether on me; which is not an indictment of its quality (more, my own poor literary memory. Hence the need for these notes.) Also, there are not enough reviews, nor readers, for this novel. It really deserves a wider audience.
David Bergen, a Canadian writer, won the Giller for this in 2005 and another of his - The Age of Hope - was a finalist in Canada Reads 2013. I had never read him before.
The Time In Between focuses on a U.S. veteran who returns to Vietnam to exorcise the demons that have plagued him since his time there 30 years before, and who is followed there by two of his three now-adult children. The novel chronicles a family's experience of trauma and vicarious trauma, and their attempts to revisit the past, physically and in memory, as a means to recover from it.
That, in itself, is enough to keep one reading, but Bergen does a couple of other things that are truly extraordinary and which *almost* push this into five-star territory for me.
First, he writes with a concision that has been likened to Raymond Carver (whom I've not read) but that I would call Hemingway-esque. There is a deceptive simplicity to his sentences; on the surface, they are sparse and plain, but they reflect exquisite, minutely-observed, and perfectly-chosen details - as simple and stark, but as high-impact, as a fly in one's soup.
The thinness of an ankle emerging from a too-short pant leg. A glimpse of a woman asleep in a storefront seen by a cyclist. A mangy dog, limping in an alleyway.
There are actually three soldiers whose stories are woven together here: Charles, the father and U.S. veteran; a North Vietnamese soldier, who is a character in a book Charles is reading (that book based on a real one, The Sorrow of War); and an artist named Hoang Vu, whom Charles and later his daughter Ada meet and who was also a survivor of (and soldier in) the war.
Each of these stories and characters have commonalities and are interlinked. There are also Charles' son, Jon, and his daughter, Ada, plus a host of other minor characters, all of whom are essential to the plot.
Everything counts in this novel. There's not a line, not a character, not a detail that doesn't matter.
There is something about the complexity of story (stories) and the starkness of the language in which they are told that sets up a vibrating thrum, low level but intense, that lasts and propels this thing forward to its several, inevitable conclusions.
Some more things: stories are critical. Telling one's story can both save and destroy one, but regardless of how painful or what the story does, the telling is necessary.
There is a motif around safety: characters repeatedly say they feel safe, or will keep something safe. The motif resonates both with its opposite, threat and destruction; and with the idea of secrecy - secret acts, betrayals, and shame.
There are horrible scenes of brutality against animals. Anyone reading this who knows me knows that violence towards animals used gratuitously, for manipulation or for mere shock value, will cause me to abandon a book and judge it harshly indeed. As hard as these scenes were for me to read, they are important here. They create an atmosphere and illustrate a general level of violence against human beings that is almost worse for not being described.
Finally, I read a lot of war lit, and am specifically interested in the war in Vietnam and that time in U.S. history. I would consider myself fairly well-read in the literature that has emerged from it.
This book comes at that war from a slightly different angle: while it is concerned with the direct experiences of those who lived it, these are re-told as reminiscences or told indirectly by a generation many years removed from the events. Despite that, or perhaps because of it - and although none of the details shocked or surprised me - the story of the war and its effects retain an immediacy, a sledge-hammer present-tense. As traumatic memories do.
It reminded me what a bloody awful war this was (as they all are, I suppose; although Vietnam feels worse somehow), and how far-ranging its impact continues to be.
As such, The Time In Between is an important work to include in fiction about the Vietnam war. It reminds us what an incredibly brutal, soul-destroying impact that war had on those who lived it, and on those who have been living with it in the time between then and now.
Gorgeous slice of life on the Nebraska prairie. Sometimes you just need something like this, y'know? Where it is about characters' essential humanity;Gorgeous slice of life on the Nebraska prairie. Sometimes you just need something like this, y'know? Where it is about characters' essential humanity; where story comes from the slow unfolding of time and place, and from the people living then and there: lives of richness and depth, but no overwrought drama, no complex plotting, no dark suspense. Simple, sweet and lovely. ...more