The True Deceiver may well be a perfect book. Not a word is wasted and nothing is dumbed down: it is, in turns, complex and subtle, psychologically as...moreThe True Deceiver may well be a perfect book. Not a word is wasted and nothing is dumbed down: it is, in turns, complex and subtle, psychologically astute, unsettling, and controlled.
The language can only be described as spare: taut, minimalistic, precise. Take the opening lines: “It was an ordinary dark winter morning, and snow was still falling. No window in the village showed a light.” In a mere two sentences, Tove Jansson sets up an entire mood and introduces a sense of danger.
The two key characters are “the wolf”, Katri Kling, a yellow-eyed, wolfish young woman who stands on the outskirts of her Finnish village due to her bluntness and lack of social amenities. Katri cares for her gentle and slow-witted brother, Mats, and a nameless dog who obeys her every command. She revels in her superiority to others: “My dog and I despise them. We’re hidden in our own secret life, concealed in our own innermost wilderness.”
Her opponent – and that is what she becomes – is Anna Aemalin, an illustrator of children’s books, who has achieved a degree of fame with her charming bunnies. At first meeting, she is trusting, truthful, and, like Katri, very solitary.
As Katri gains her trust – and breaks down her sense of security – many themes come into play. Among them: “How many different truths are there, and what justifies them? What a person believes? What a person accomplishes? Self-deception? Is it only the result that counts?” Is it indeed safe and reassuring to believe in only one thing? And ultimately…who is the wolf and who is the rabbit?
As readers, we stand by rapt as we watch the caustic and subtle effects of deception on innocence and integrity. The “prize” may be nothing less than personal identity. My hat’s off to translator Thomas Teal, who expertly and precisely translated this 1982 Finnish masterwork with all its nuances intact. (less)
"Strange weather brings strange behavior." In Maggie O’Farrell’s latest book, it does indeed. “As a Bunsen burner applied to a crucible will bring abo...more"Strange weather brings strange behavior." In Maggie O’Farrell’s latest book, it does indeed. “As a Bunsen burner applied to a crucible will bring about an exchange of electrons, the division of some compounds and the unification of others, so a heatwave will act upon people. It lays them bare, it wears down their guard.”
It is 1976 and London is in the grip of an historical heatwave. And in the midst of it, Gretta Riordan discovers that her husband of 40 years has gone. Her three adult children – each in the midst of his or her own personal crisis – are summoned home to deal with their father’s surprising disappearance. While together for the first time in years, they reach some understanding of who they are and what they need to move forward.
The plot itself isn’t unusual. We’ve seen variations of it before: The Gathering by Anne Enright and Lying with the Dead by Michael Mewshaw, to name two recent ones. What is unusual is the meticulous care that Ms. O’Farrell takes in crafting characters that could walk off the pages.
These are three adult characters who come alive: Michael Francis, the father who has never reached his full professional potential and now stands in the hailstorm of a failing marriage; Monica, mom’s favorite, whose former marriage was destroyed by a ill-kept secret and who feels like a duck out of water in a current one; and finally, Aoife, the brilliant-but-illiterate “baby” of the family whose life in New York is built on one big lie.
The talent of Maggie O’Farrell is that this never descends into soap opera territory. There are lyrical insights about the intricacies and nuances of marriage, the tenuous thread that holds siblings together, the devastating and long-range power of secrets. I could not stop turning pages.
Then why did I withhold the fifth star? Two reasons, really. The first is a too-pat ending that doesn’t live up to the potential of the rest of the book. Life is filled with ambiguity and the ending does not reflect that. But secondly – and more importantly – I never got the sense of the grown children’s connection to their father. He was the reason they all traveled home, but the fear and other emotions that are intrinsic to a father’s disappearance never take root.
Despite those qualifications, I thought that Instructions for a Heatwave was a most enjoyable book. Yes, it’s the perfect summer read…and the perfect winter read, too.
This is an extraordinarily haunting and poignant tale, told by an author at the top of his craft, about two destinies that intersect: a young black bo...moreThis is an extraordinarily haunting and poignant tale, told by an author at the top of his craft, about two destinies that intersect: a young black boy Molo, who is renamed Daniel, and the peculiar would-be naturalist who brings him back to Sweden.
It is the 1870s: Hans Bengler, a rootless and disconnected man, travels to Africa with the hopes of discovering an insect no one has ever seen before, the latest of his quixotic pursuits. The pickings are slender, but he DOES happen across a different kind of “specimen” – a young orphan who is caged and defenseless. He decides to bring him back to Sweden with the best of intentions, but he is challenged by the cold-hearted man who found him: “I do keep order, it’s true. But I don’t rip them up by the roots so they’ll fall dead in the snow of Sweden…”
Back in Sweden, Bengler drills his own sort of catechism into Daniel: he must always say, “My name is Daniel. I believe in God.” This rehearsed sanctimony is juxtaposed against those “civilized” people with true savagery in their heart: those who regard Daniel as less than human, as an incarnation of the devil, as just another exotic specimen ripped from the dark continent.
Daniel is none of these, of course. He’s just a little boy yearning to get back home, with a childish grasp of the world and a failed understanding of what the Swedish culture demands. “I’m going to walk home across the back of the sea…,” he says. He is haunted by memories of his deceased parents who he believes are calling him back to Africa. And he knows the only way to reclaim his destiny is to learn to walk on water like the white man’s god.
There are twists and turns to this tale that the reader must discover for himself or herself. At its heart, this book is a powerful indictment against cultural insensitivity and willful dislocation, merged with a refusal to see those who are different as fully human. For everyone he meets, Daniel is no more than a curiosity, a specimen, a reflection of private fear or vaulting ambition. And therein lies the tragedy, which culminates in an ending of exquisite pathos. Kudos, too, to translator Steven T. Murray for an outstanding job.
Certain authors excel at crafting gritty and realistic recreations of the world we live in; others are expert at transforming our world into a more ma...moreCertain authors excel at crafting gritty and realistic recreations of the world we live in; others are expert at transforming our world into a more magical and fantastical one. Luis Alberto Urrea, in an astounding feat of alchemy, does both. Within the novel’s sprawling 499 pages, his depiction of Teresita Urrea – his real-life great-aunt, anointed the “Saint of Cabora” – becomes increasingly intoxicating and unputdownable.
In a sprawling yet controlled epic, we meet Teresita – the illegitimate daughter of a teen mother called “hummingbird” and the patron Tomas– right after she is deserted and left in the so-called care of a mean-hearted aunt. She is “adopted” by Huila, an old curaranda, who takes her under her wing and teaches her about desert herbs and plant medicine and the power of the unconscious. It is not long before she comes to the attention of Tomas, who accepts her as his daughter.
In a sensuous whirlwind of description, the land comes alive and our senses are besotted the noxious smells of pig sties the sharp smell of sweat, and the mouth-watering smells of Mexican foods, the bursting beauty of desert flowers and plants, the braying burros and squabbling crows. You feel as if you could step into the scene; that’s how perfectly it’s depicted.
When the novel levitates into magical realism, we’ve already signed on for the ride and put ourselves into Mr. Urrea’s very capable hands. The power of his words is that we do not merely escape from the world by entering this new one; rather, we gain a greater grasp of what it is to be human. As Teresita begins to heal with her hands and her father’s ranch is overrun by pilgrims, we stand in amazement with the People – the Greek chorus that is indelibly embedded into the pages of this book.
All of the narrative plays against the backdrop of a changing Mexico: approaching revolution, removal of Indians from their ancestral lands, southwestern border disputes, the Diaz government’s darkening suspicions and paranoia, the controlling hand of organized religion – all contrasted against one uneducated but wise girl’s healing message of love and healing.
The Hummingbird’s Daughter has it all – facts and legends that Mr. Urrea, a reporter, gathered from 20 years of research into his childhood, Western mythology, Catholic hagiography, Mexican folklore and more, interwoven with down-to-earth descriptions of poverty, warfare, torture, and grittiness. The result is pure effervescence, a testimony to the power of storytelling at its finest.
Years ago, the celebrated Russian logician Alexander Zinoviev coined the sarcastic phrase Homo Sovieticus to explore how a new species with a specific...moreYears ago, the celebrated Russian logician Alexander Zinoviev coined the sarcastic phrase Homo Sovieticus to explore how a new species with a specific mindset evolved as a result of the Communist system. In Andrei Makine’s exquisite and dreamlike 109-page novella, the reader learns about this new species through the person of Alexei Berg, a one-time brilliant young pianist.
Not unlike Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner, he happens across the narrator who is enduring a transportation delay with “human matter, breathing like a single organism, its resignation, its innate disregard of comfort, its endurance in the face of the absurd.” Together, they manage to get aboard an archaic third-class coach, where Alexei weaves his story to his new friend.
Alexei’s parents are arrested by the pre-KGB for being part of the “rotten intelligentsia” during Stalin’s reign of terror in the 1930s, just as Alexei is posed to make an eagerly-awaited solo debut. Knowing his own arrest is imminent, he flees to his fiancee’s father’s home, waking up in the middle of the night convinced that he is about to be betrayed. After hiding briefly in his uncle’s barn, Alexei scours the bodies of dead Russian soldiers to find one who is close to him in appearance. He assumes that soldier’s identity and enters the war “indistinguishable in the column”, cloaked in his disguise.
In taut, lyrical, beautifully-paced notes, Makine traces Alexi’s survival trek, and with an extraordinary economy of words, captures the terror of striving to make it through the Stalin years. The sparse portrait of a man caught up in a forgotten life is described thus: “He told himself that in this life there should be a key, a code for expressing, in concise and unambiguous terms, all the complexity of our attempts, so natural and so greviously confused, at living and loving.”
There is, of course, a denouement scene: creativity, in Makine’s world, is indestructible and survives in whatever spare soil it is planted. This exquisite elegy of loss – a multi-note symphony to the indestructibility of the human spirit—reaches a crescendo that is beautifully realized and will not soon be forgotten. (less)
Who IS the eponymous “good doctor?” Is it Laurence Waters, the idealist, naïve, committed new physician who is primed to make some waves in a threadba...moreWho IS the eponymous “good doctor?” Is it Laurence Waters, the idealist, naïve, committed new physician who is primed to make some waves in a threadbare, mostly deserted hospital in post-apartheid South Africa? Or is it Frank Eloff, the disenchanted current doctor in self-exile and who is far more in touch with the realities of the area?
In some ways, it is both: these two men become inexorably connected. Laurence Waters arrives on the scene as a result of a new South African law which requires newly-minted doctors to serve in remote rural postings. Laurence seizes the moment: it is his chance to make a difference in a changing country. But, as Frank soon realizes, Laurence can be simplistic: “all the complexities and contradictions reduced to a single moral needle-point.”
Frank is the more interesting of the two, morally more complex. Unlike Laurence, who has a black American activist girlfriend whom he keeps at arm’s length, (“behind the brave aspirations, what did these two have in common? Their relationship was just another idea – dry and sensible” (Frank has been windswept by life. His wife left him for a man he considered a friend; additionally, he faced his own moral test with apartheid and failed through inaction. A morally ambiguous relationship with a local woman adds to Frank’s inability to act decisively.
Yet the two – who end up roommates at the hospital – end up in a danse a deux. Frank muses, “We were twined together in a tension that united us; we were different to each other, though it was to our nature to be joined and woven in this way. As for the points that we were spanned between – a rope doesn’t know what its own purpose is.” One gets a sense of South Africa on the cusp: dedicated to “change and innovation” of the future but condemned to move forward inch by inch, if at all, and twined from the past to the future.
This is a poignant book, a lethal one, with echoes of JM Coetzee or perhaps Graham Greene. It is a linear story that belies the powerful themes that lie close to the surface: idealism versus reality, trust versus betrayal, blinding faith versus nihilism, action versus inaction. In a world where the past is demanding restitution from the present, and where the present is not always what it seems, this beautifully understated story gathers momentum as the pages turn. (less)
Coming-of-age books have long captured the interest of readers, from contemporary classics like Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird to Louise...moreComing-of-age books have long captured the interest of readers, from contemporary classics like Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird to Louise Erdrich’s excellent novel The Round House. In the very best of these stories, a young boy or girl is forced to witness the ugliness of society and then must move forward – suddenly older, wiser and sobered.
And so it is here with Montana 1948, an absolutely breathtaking and spare novel, with images so searing that the line between reality and fiction was totally blurred.
The premise: 12-year-old David Hayden – only son of the Bentrock, Montana sheriff, grandson of the dominating ranch owner and former sheriff, and nephew to the town’s doctor – has its world turned upside down when Marie, the Sioux housekeeper, accuses his uncle of unspeakable things. The aftermath sets brother against brother, son against father, and the plainspoken townspeople against the voiceless Indians.
In the space of a few weeks, David will see first-hand what occurs when practicality and expediency are set against moral absolutism and when long-time family loyalty comes crashing against one’s personal sense of what is right and what is just.
I cannot give enough accolades for this book. There is not one single excess word; each word reflects the purity of prose that is the mark of only the finest writers. Yet in a mere 169 pages, Larry Watson sets up a situation of such moral complexity – and introduces characters that are so real, vibrant and flawed – that it is literally impossible to read the book in more than one sitting. This superbly rendered novel has all the markings of a classic. It is a near-perfect book. 6 stars. (less)