Jim Kokoris probably won’t win any literary awards. He won’t be written up as a master of metafiction and the new hot author to watch. But in this booJim Kokoris probably won’t win any literary awards. He won’t be written up as a master of metafiction and the new hot author to watch. But in this book – indeed, in all the books of his that I’ve read – there is something achingly real and downright poignant that makes me want to get lost within the pages.
Here he focuses on John Nichols, a good-hearted yet flawed man, who has had primary responsibility for Ethan, his teenaged autistic son. At the start of the book we learn that John and Ethan are taking a road trip from the Chicago area to Charleston to meet the rest of the family for his eldest daughter’s wedding.
The family consists of Karen, the “queen bee” (some might say ice queen) who will be marrying a wealthy man with some very decided character flaws. Mindy, the second daughter, is an up-and-coming comedienne on the cusp of becoming really famous. And Mary, John’s ex-wife, will be there as well. As a result of an affair, she has divorced him but John still is carrying the torch for her. John intends to spring a surprise on the family once he arrives and the second part of this book is how that particular plot twist plays out.
I am not an expert on autism and I don’t know if Jim Kokoris has had personal family experience with it. I do, however, have friends with autistic sons and the portrayal of Ethan is – to me – exceptionally genuine. “My life with my son had been anything but easy,” John relates, and we learn that he’s not kidding. Ethan is full of tics (he constantly says things like, “Why. Mad?” or “Where. Mom. Be?” or “Family, family, family. USA.”) and sometimes he’ll “pull a Tonto” and fall to the ground. When he wants something, he wants it now (“I. Starving.”) Yet there’s a connection between John and Ethan that defies all the challenges and drills down to the very nature of love.
When Jim Kokoris takes on the messy family dynamics – the shared past, failed opportunities, search for one’s real role, love and guilt – he is at his zenith. The book alternates between funny and heartbreaking but at the end of the day, it’s about one family and their road to discovering what “Family, family, family, USA” really means....more
Here’s what we know about Elena Ferrante’s narrator, Leda: she’s the middle-aged mother of two grown daughters. Her daughters are living overseas withHere’s what we know about Elena Ferrante’s narrator, Leda: she’s the middle-aged mother of two grown daughters. Her daughters are living overseas with their father. She is a renowned English Literature scholar. And she is, by her own words, an unnatural mother.
In this searing book, Elena Ferrante courageously confronts one of our social taboos: what happens if, despite all our expectations, we feel diminished by motherhood? What if we choose to abandon our roles? What does that say about us?
Leda reflects, “When my daughters had moved to Toronto, where their father had lived and worked for years, I was embarrassed and amazed to discover that I wasn’t upset; rather, I felt light, as if only then I had definitively brought them in the world.”
During her vacation off the Ionian coast, Leda happens across a boisterous and possibly menacing large family, and fixates on the young dissatisfied mother Nina and her cranky young daughter (..there was something off about the little girl; I don’t know what.”) The first-person narration makes us feel almost like complicit voyeurs as Leda studies the family, ultimately committing a simple act that will be a catalyst for self-examination.
There is a raw and uncompromising honesty as Leda reveals this about her abandonment of her girls, “I was like someone who is taking possession of her own life, and feels a host of things at the same time, among them an unbearable absence.” Yet this cannot be read as a feminist parable, because she quickly follows with this, when asled why she went back, “Because I realized that I wasn’t capable of creating anything of my own that could truly equal them.”
As with Days of Abandonment, another masterful work by Ms. Ferrante, there is ferociously good writing here, laced with a great sense of immediacy and a shockingly honest sense of authenticity. It’s hard to turn away as the narrative propels us to its organic ending. ...more
There are many “searching for self” novels but none that I can recall that begin in vitro. Katherine (Kit) Carlyle is n IVF baby who retains misty memThere are many “searching for self” novels but none that I can recall that begin in vitro. Katherine (Kit) Carlyle is n IVF baby who retains misty memories of a life as an IVF embryo. In her words, “I was put together – formed – but then had to wait in the cold, with no knowledge of how long that wait was likely to be, or whether it would ever end.”
The wait, to be specific, was eight years. At that point, she was implanted and became the daughter of Stephanie, who, we learn early on, dies of cancer and David, an absent and self-absorbed CNN reporter. Father and daughter have a challenging relationship, which is heightened by Kit’s belief that her father blames the IVF procedure for her mother’s premature death.
The bulk of this book is Kit’s search for memory and identity; she becomes who she is, ironically, by vanishing. Every occasion—every moment – trembles with a sense of opportunity as Kit looks to strangers to figure out what they are trying to impart. Her vanishing act takes her first to Berlin (a believer in coincidence, she goes there for the flimsiest of reasons: she overhears movie-goers talking about a jilted friend and determines to meet up with him). Even Berlin is not far enough; she journeys to a remote and dismal northern Russian settlement. Her thoughts: “Though I have met new people and visited new places, those aspects of the journey never had much relevance. What has interested me right from the beginning – what has preoccupied me above all – is the prospect of arrival.”
As Kit loses herself – even taking on the portentous new name of “Misty” – potential fantasies of her father’s desperate need to find her crowd her thoughts. This is, perhaps, the one weakness of the book: the “daddy issues” compete with the main theme, the self-search. Still, the book is wonderfully written and every locale is rendered with authenticity. This is an original novel that asks a provocative questions: how far does one go to find oneself?
There are all sorts of things that might have gone wrong with this premise: a coming-of-age Dominican girl named Velveteen who, through the Fresh AirThere are all sorts of things that might have gone wrong with this premise: a coming-of-age Dominican girl named Velveteen who, through the Fresh Air program, connects with a childless and privileged white woman, Ginger, and a horse named Fiery Girl.
The book could have been preachy or sentimental or reductive or too politically correct or overly clichéd, with its focus on rich and poor, black and white, human and animal. It is none of these things. Mary Gaitskill has written a thoroughbred of a novel, peopled with characters that are often combustible, alienated, and out of their depth.
Surely Ms. Gaitskill named her character with the beloved film National Velvet in mind – the story of a young girl who wins a spirited gelding and decides to train the rambunctious horse to win England’s Grand National race. But while that Velvet exists in a sort of fairy tale, this Velvet is a child of urban damage and dysfunction.
Told alternately from many perspectives – but mostly from Velvet and Ginger’s viewpoint (with a few chapters narrated by Ginger’s husband Paul and Velvet’s highly critical, abusive mother), the book is less about the mare and more about the meres – birth mothers and wannabe mothers, and self-mothering. It’s about stumbling in one’s walk through life and finding inner strength get up and face another day, and defining happiness and success on one’s own terms (for Velvet, it’s often as simple as a veiled compliment from a complicated mother who badly loves, or a text from a boy who may well be trouble but who has seeds of goodness in him).
And, because it’s written by an author who knows her craft, it’s a darn good story about a complex teen who – like many teens – is sometimes easy to love and sometimes exasperating to deal with. In sensitively tackling the nature vs. nurture dilemma – can a child who has everything going against her triumph – it raises thoughtful questions. This is not, by any means, a Seabiscuit; we don’t always cheer Velvet on, but we do feel for her. It’s a moving, ultimately optimistic, story of lives that intersect. ...more
As William Faulkner famously wrote in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In the latest Tessa Hadley book, the past is veAs William Faulkner famously wrote in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In the latest Tessa Hadley book, the past is very much present. And if the reader has any doubt, there’s a lengthy section that interrupts the flow of a family story, set a generation back in the past.
The book focuses on a trio of sisters (Harriet, Alice and Fran) and their oft-married brother with his latest wife who gather together for a holiday at the family house, sundry children in tow. The complexity of a family brought together is summed up beautifully by Ms. Hadley, “All the siblings felt sometimes, as the days of their holiday passed, the sheer irritation and perplexity of family coexistence: how it fretted away at the love and attachment which were nonetheless intense and enduring when they were apart.” The two outsiders who are caught up in these family dynamics are definitely outsiders: the brother’s Argentinian wife Pilar and Kasim, Alice’s ex-boyfriend’s London-born Pakistani son.
Ms. Hadley mines the roles and interactions of adult siblings with pinpoint precision. Beneath this idyllic country setting, many emotions boil to the surface (or are suppressed before boiling over) and secrets abound. The “meat” in the middle of the sandwich – set in 1968 – provides insight into their childhood, when their mother Jill leaves her neer-do-well husband and takes her three oldest children (Fran isn’t born yet) back to their grandmother, Sophy, and their vainglorious clergyman grandfather. Time after time, the reader is mildly unsettled by realizing how the past repeats itself.
Just as much of a character is the landscape, which Tessa Hadley painstakingly describes. Her portrait of the cottage and the land are lyrical and all the reader’s senses are tapped into. Nostalgic houses in decay (both past and present) are tried-and-true metaphors but even so, The Past is elevated by the sheer beauty of the description. By the time I turned the final pages, I felt that I knew these individual family members very, very well.
When an author names his main character Pip – a name immortalized in Charles Dickens masterwork, he is almost baiting the reader to make comparisons,When an author names his main character Pip – a name immortalized in Charles Dickens masterwork, he is almost baiting the reader to make comparisons, so let’s get those out of the way first. Here, Pip is female, not male, although she’s still mesmerized by a charismatic flame (Andreas, a Julian Assange type anti-hero who shines as brightly as Estella), and she, too, is in search of her birthright. The themes are every bit as compelling: love and rejection, wealth and poverty and the predestined triumph of pure over evil.
Oh, and of course, the novel is BIG. Nearly 600 pages, to be exact. In a nod to Dickens, there are multiple plot lines, coincidences, and hold-on-to-your-seat dramatic twists. But make no mistake, while Franzen gives a nod to Dickens, this book cannot be construed as a homage to him.
The book is encapsulated by its title: purity. On the surface, Purity is the birth-name of Pip. But is there such a thing as purity? Can there truly be pure motives, pure ideologies, pure goodness, pure connections, pure love? In this Franzenian universe, the answer seems to be “no.” Everything is tainted by a “moral hazard” (a term Pip learns in economics).
Here we meet characters who are struggling with their own definition of “good”: Pip-the-pure…Andreas, a Snowden (or more aptly, Assange) leaker from East Germany (and later Bolivia) who is ostentatiously for transparency and yet commits a felonious deed for reasons that others might deem as pure…Pip’s mother Anabel who forsakes “blood-tainted” family money to live a chaste-like, pure life of poverty…Tom, Anabel’s ex-husband, a muckraker journalist who is a good, yet pliable person who isn’t, by any means, ALL good.
Woven into this tapestry are Important Themes: misguided state ideologies and lack of openness, the vacuity of some experimental films, the failings of feminism, the crush of student debt, the eternal quest for power and connection, the false lure of cults and social media, the narcissism of the famous, and all too often, the damage created by suffocating and often too eccentric parenting. (Parents don’t fare too well in Franzen’s world).
One friend described this book as “flawless” and it’s not quite that; some of Franzen’s romantic dialogue (between Pip and Andreas, for example) made me groan just a bit and some of his female characters skirt a little too close to comfort with being well-written stereotypes (crazy moms, women who want to discuss their feelings ad nauseum, women who only feel lascivious during certain moon cycles). Then again, the men don’t come out smelling like roses either: they are often testosterone-driven, narcissistic, love-phobic.
These quibbles aside, this theme-driven book kept me engrossed well into the night, in ways that his last book, Freedom, did not. Ultimately, Purity is a paradox: an incredibly hopeful book about the folly of moral absolutism, the bequeathing of a broken world and the impossibility of being good.
At a time when the buzz has reached a crescendo around the prequel to To Kill A Mockingbird, Courtney Allen steps up to center stage with a book thatAt a time when the buzz has reached a crescendo around the prequel to To Kill A Mockingbird, Courtney Allen steps up to center stage with a book that beautifully incorporates some of the classic’s elements: a coming-of-age story, early racism, even a courthouse trial.
But make no mistake, Down From The Mountain is an original work, and the similarities are far fewer than the differences. Courtney Allen channels the voice of a rural young man named Silas McCarter, whose southern-Georgia Appalachian family is scraping by in the late nineteenth century…and then his pregnant sister Clara vanishes.
And, as they say, the plot thickens. Who is the father of Clara’s child? Is there foul play?What happens when you are forced to make harsh choices for mere survival? And how much can a down-and-out family bear?
Courtney Allen deftly hits all the hot buttons of a good hybrid thriller and historical narrative in his plotting: greed and betrayal, shocking violence, close-minded people, irrational family feuds, (think: Hatfields and McCoys) rural culture, and ultimately, what a sense of home really means.
His characters – Silas and Clara, orphaned early in life, and Uncle Troy and Aunt Bly, the family members who have served as their protectors – are satisfyingly real. For the audience it’s targeted to – those who enjoy harsh-reality turn-of-the-century coming-of-age stories – the rewards are ample. The reader can anticipate being transported to the rural countryside and a time when life was both simpler and far more complex.
Disclosure: I was provided with a free copy of Down from the Mountain from the author – whom I have never met -- encouraging me to write an honest review. I am rarely receptive to these overtures, but the author’s strong belief in his book (at a time when mainstream publishing has become big business) won me over. Fine writers like Courtney Allen, who obviously have the talent and the vision to create compelling stories, need their advocates too. This debut novel will have readers avidly turning pages to get to its poignant and gratifying conclusion....more
Paolo Giordano – a 32-year-old Italian physicist – creates portraits of wounded individuals who yearn to bond through companionship yet often find solPaolo Giordano – a 32-year-old Italian physicist – creates portraits of wounded individuals who yearn to bond through companionship yet often find solitude more comforting. I was haunted by them and eager to read his third book, Like Family. I was not disappointed.
When read quickly – and at 146 pages, it can easily be read in one sitting – Like Family at first appears like any other cancer story. A young couple – an unnamed narrator, a physicist who may or may not be partially based on the author himself, and his wife Nora hire a widowed housekeeper, referred to only as Mrs. A. Gradually, her importance in the household increases as she takes over the role as nanny to their son Emanuele, who is not extraordinary enough for his father.
Mrs. A, though, has cancer. As her cancer progresses in its inevitable and programmed way, it also becomes a metaphor for the couple’s own lives (“A young couple can also fall ill, from insecurity, from routine, from isolation.”) In losing her – a woman who is like family – they also begin to lose themselves.
It’s a simple story, really, and one that has been created before. But Paolo Giordano raises this question: All these cancer stories are the same, yes, but does that mean that all lives aren’t unique, deserving of their own story? Can one person become a shield for a young family that’s “a nebula of self-centeredness in danger of imploding” and if so, what happens when that person removes herself from the equation? And perhaps most importantly, what does it mean to love somebody?
As in his other books, Paolo Giordano writes profoundly and elegantly, capturing the pathos of life in a few well-chosen words. His genius comes from his ability to mine the interior thoughts of characters who – by choice or compulsion – cannot break through to nurture themselves or each other. In many important ways, Like Family is a meditation on life, death and most of all, love. ...more
If there was any doubt that Anthony Marra was a writer to be reckoned with after A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, his ambitious new book should disIf there was any doubt that Anthony Marra was a writer to be reckoned with after A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, his ambitious new book should dispel the last of it.
These nine interconnected stories – to my mind, a novel – are masterful. Its theme might be summed up in this sentence: “Nadya knew the sensation, the eeriness of discovering a corresponding point between past and present, of realizing that not all memory is mirage.”
Indeed it’s not. In the first story, set in Leningrad in 1937, Roman Markin, a virtuoso artist-turned-censor, specializes in removing those who have fallen from favor from photographs to ensure those photographs are politically correct. Gradually he begins to insert his own brother’s face, one of the purged, as well as a talented ballerina he’s erasing. He reflects, “For art to be the chisel that breaks the marble inside us, the artist musts first become the hammer.”
All stories flow from this one. In Granddaughters, the next story, we meet Galina, the ballerina’s beautiful granddaughter, who captures the Miss Siberia crown and moving up in life while her first love, Kolya, is sent to fight in Chechnya.
In the particularly poignant A Prisoner of the Caucasus, we meet up with Kolya and his fellow prisoner Danilo. There, he “eats his bread, and sleeps with the knowledge that today hasn’t added to the sum of human misery. For now at least it’s peace of a kind he hadn’t imagined himself worthy of receiving.”
More interconnections follow. We meet the offspring of Roman Markin’s purged brother – a nephew who shows up at the 2013 exhibition of Roman’s work with his own son. And certainly, we recognize the points where past and present intersect.
Throughout, Anthony Marra paints a bold canvas of Russian life from the 1930s to a dystopian future – brushstroking in the paranoia and doublespeak, the labor camps, the lengths young men must travel to avoid being used as fodder in Chechnya (Palace of the People is particularly affecting when Sergei, the grand-nephew of Roman Markin and about to be sent to the front, realizes that he is not an assistant to a legless friend of the family but an apprentice).
For me (and each reader is different), The Tsar of Love and Techno is even better than Mr. Marra’s debut book. It is powerful and profound. NOTE: I received a free copy of this for an honest review. ...more
It is impossible for me to review this book without first addressing the “why” of its genesis. Just last year, Nigeria – the birthplace of Chinelo OkpIt is impossible for me to review this book without first addressing the “why” of its genesis. Just last year, Nigeria – the birthplace of Chinelo Okparanta – passed one of the world’s most punitive laws against same-sex relationships, including lengthy prison sentences and in the northern states, death by stoning. As someone who strongly believes that healthy and reciprocal love between two people – regardless of gender – is always a good thing, I can’t help but applaud this young author for providing a voice for so many in Nigeria who are forced to deny their authentic selves.
That being said, I typically default in reacting to a book not to its worthy themes, but how it succeeds in advancing those themes. And here, I must admit to some disappointment.
Having read Happiness Like Water, I know what heights Chinelo Okparanta is capable of reaching. In that collection, she writes devastatingly about women and children seeking shelter from abusive husbands, gay lovers who must forego love because one is acquiescing to an arranged marriage, and other traumas. It was – and remains – a fine debut.
In Under the Udala Trees, Ms. Okparanta states that her novel is attempting to “give Nigeria’s marginalized LGBTQ citizens a more powerful voice, and a place in our nation’s history.” The book is, at its core, a coming-of-age story in which the narrator --Ijeoma – is sent to live with friends of the family during wartime. Her sexual and emotional awakening at the hands of another displaced girl, Amina, sets in motion a long struggle for self-acceptance.
Ms. Okparanta writes beautifully, lucidly, and at times, devastatingly; at no point did I want to abandon the book. In fact, once I started reading, I eagerly turned pages. But I couldn’t help but feel as if she were leading me to conclusions, rather than let me reach them on my own. Nigeria is the second-most religious nation in the world; the author writes, “It’s the Church that has interpreted God’s words to its own benefit…My point is that business is the reason for things like doctrines. Business is the reason for words like ‘abomination’.”
No argument there. But somehow, I wanted Ms. Okparanta to go further than what has now become the sad givens: the hypocrisy and perniciousness of religion, the valuing of male children above female children, the forcing of loving people to deny their own realities in order to conform and to enter into false marriages. In ways, I felt this novel could easily be classified as young-adult fiction (and, for the record, there’s nothing wrong with that. My belief is that To Kill A Mockingbird, one of the classics of American fiction, is also YA). For me – and this is entirely subjective – I wanted more thematic surprises. ...more
The title of this new Colum McCann collection – one novella followed by three short stories – is unabashedly borrowed from Wallace Stevens’ haiku-likeThe title of this new Colum McCann collection – one novella followed by three short stories – is unabashedly borrowed from Wallace Stevens’ haiku-like poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”…an exercise in varying perspectives that issue from the poet’s imagination.
It’s almost like a Rubik’s Cube: turn the author’s imagination this way and one thing will appear; turn it another way and something else comes to the surface. Yet every single movement centers around how we search for meaning, narrative, and grace in a world that may seem random.
In the novella, an octogenarian judge named Mendelssohn – same name as the gifted classical composer – arranges to meet his churlish son Elliot on what will be the last day of his life. Thirteen chapters – some narrating his progression through that fortuitous day, others focused on detectives who are, in effect, autopsying that day by cutting it into tiny slivers, introduces a host of minor characters with their own perspectives as this cacophony of melodies finally crescendos to the final true note. It’s a deceptively hard feat to pull off, and Mr. McCann does so beautifully.
In the shortest piece, “What Time is it Now, Where You Are?” the perspective of a writer (perhaps the author himself) is displayed, as we, the readers, become witness to the very art of creation and shifting perspectives.
Sh’khol, the next piece, centers on a mother spending Christmas in Galway with her deaf and often uncommunicative young son, who disappears around the time she is translating a beautifully written story by an Arab Israeli abut a middle-aged couple who lost their two children. Sh’khol – there is no relative word in other languages – defines a parent who has lost a child. Fact and fiction, the perspective expands to include both.
Finally, in Treaty, an elderly nun Beverly – brutally raped in her youth – catches a glimpse of her rapist, now a dignified peacekeeper, on TV. It is established that her memory is fading; what is the perspective? Is “Carlos” the same person who brutalized her in truth? How has he discovered grace? Who this man is depends on perspective.
This is a magnificent book without a false note. Absolutely a five-star read. ...more
They say you “can’t go home again.” Actually, you can. As a former Brooklynite of Jewish descent, I felt as if I were time-traveling back to the “oldThey say you “can’t go home again.” Actually, you can. As a former Brooklynite of Jewish descent, I felt as if I were time-traveling back to the “old neighborhood” within the pages of Ben Nadler’s The Sea Beach Line. Mr. Nadler knows Brooklyn well – Borough Park, the D train, the old walk-ups, Coney Island, Sheepshead Bay, Manhattan Beach – and he brings the borough (and later, downtown New York) to life.
At the core of this byzantine plot – narrated by Izzy Edel, who learns via postcard that his estranged and shady father Aloyzy has gone missing and is presumed dead -- is a search for father and identity. It’s a search that is not unlike Telemachus’s search for his father Odysseus who left Troy when Telemachus was still an infant. Not unlike that epic, Izzy must exile himself and go through journeys and trials before he can claim his rightful position in life.
Izzy’s own journey takes him to Greenwich village, where he takes over his father’s role in selling books from an outdoor cart, and it leads him to Rayna, a vulnerable woman who appeared (he believes) in his father’s left-behind sketches and who has amorphous ties to a Hasidic sect. It takes him to the underbelly of life, where mobsters lurk and secrets are kept. And it also takes him to his Jewish roots, where folklore and the Talmud combine with the modern day world to weave a tapestry of the fullness of life.
Not unlike Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind – with its famous cemetery of forgotten books – this is also a book about the constructs of fiction, the tales we follow and live by, our desire to become our own storybook hero. Readers who enjoy Zafon or Michael Chabon will particularly relate to Ben Nadler’s writing style, which combines street realities, pulp fiction, and an almost fabulist undercurrent. Out of the murkiness, answers begin to emerge, including the answer to the most important question of all: “Who am I and what is my purpose?”
When the first story of a collection starts out like this: “The one clear thing I can say about Wednesday, the worst and most amazing day of my life iWhen the first story of a collection starts out like this: “The one clear thing I can say about Wednesday, the worst and most amazing day of my life is this: it started out beautifully,” you know you’re in the hands of a good story-teller. And when it soon becomes clear that the “I” in this story is a misunderstood tiger, you also know that this is a writer who is not afraid to take chances.
Parameswaran’s world is always slightly off-kilter, with often well-meaning characters and animals who are navigating the life vs. death conundrum and totally puzzled by the concept of love. In this first story, The Infamous Bengal Ming, the tiger thinks he’s in love with his handler, but his primal urges still reign supreme.
In I Am An Executioner – arguably the very best of this collection – an executioner-by-trade justifies his profession in fractured and mangled English. “It made me wonder the universe, even we was here many years,” he marvels, as he does his work with “no fussing” and tries to win the affections of his disdainful new bride who is put off – yet strangely attracted – by her husband’s unsavory profession and his impending execution of a young girl for reasons unknown.
There are many inventive and sometimes, ingenious stories in this collection. In “Four Rajeshes”, the aforementioned Rajesh, a railway station manager, admits and yet fights his man-love that appears to be going off track, all the while obsessing about the mysterious gibberish written by his newly-hired clerk. In the sci-fi last story, On the Banks of Table River, two disparate worlds – Earth and Planet Lucina – come together and the life-death mystery again takes center stage: “Think of life as a story. Each one must come to an end, for it to have form and meaning. What gives life to the stories are the bodies at the end of it.”
There’s more: an exCompuUSA employee sets up a fake medical practice, even performing surgery – although he doesn’t have an ounce of qualification, while his wife hides the secret of her growing cancer. A housewife attends a Thanksgiving party, even though her stubborn husband’s corpse is sprawled on her living room floor. And so on. All in all, this is a satisfying collection that augers a bright talent. ...more
Elizabeth Hay has long delighted and transported me with her work: the lost souls working together in a small Yellowknife radio station (Late Nights oElizabeth Hay has long delighted and transported me with her work: the lost souls working together in a small Yellowknife radio station (Late Nights on Air), the two tempestuous sisters in the fairytale-like A Student of Weather, the interweaving of human relationships in Alone in the Classroom.
This is a writer who has never been afraid of cross-fertilizing her style, creating that perfect hybrid of an intimate mastery of words with a splendor of vision and always focusing on the power of place and the power of the human voice. Needless to say, I was delighted to become an early reader of her newest work.
The theme of the book is the schisms that divide us and sometimes bring us together. Jim is an American boy who is torn between his Canadian mother Nan’s love of eastern Ontario and his dour father George’s desire to remain in New York City. As a young boy, Jim is constantly torn between life’s dichotomies: nature vs. urban life, hurt vs. forgiveness, independence vs. duty, life vs. death. All of this plays out against the backdrop of Quebec’s squeaky close 1995 referendum on sovereignty vs. unity, as a divided country held its breath.
At times, the parallelisms between Jim’s life and the Quebec seemed a little too neatly telegraphed. Take this, for example, referring to Nan: “She wanted to feel more alive, that’s what she wanted. To live an independent and courageous life. And with that bracing thought something clicked in her brain and she understood Quebec. She understood a place torn between staying and leaving, and therefore always dissatisfied.”
In other places, the book shines as it teases the reader with the rhythm and flow of natural and connective life. The rivalry of two brothers, a mother and oldest son estrangement, blended families that struggle to define their individual places, a sister and brother who can’t quite bring themselves to reconciliation, a complicated husband-wife marriage that becomes even more complicated when a best friend shows up…all of these are ordinary events and yet form a tapestry of life as it moves forward.
For a great part of this novel, I was waiting for something to happen, a collision between characters that would result in something entirely life-transforming. It was only when I was into the beautifully-crafted last third of the book that I recalled the old adage: life happens within and without you. Indeed, as these characters navigate their competing loyalties, they recognize (to quote Four Quartets) that “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Jim’s life is not by any means complete, but in integral ways, he is whole. ...more
It is rare that the trajectory of a novel can be surmised by a character’s name. But in Moses Sweetland, Mr. Crummey’s cantankerous and fiercely honesIt is rare that the trajectory of a novel can be surmised by a character’s name. But in Moses Sweetland, Mr. Crummey’s cantankerous and fiercely honest character, the author may well be signaling the key themes of his novel.
Moses, of course, is the Exodus hero of the Bible, a story that begins in Genesis. An important prophet, born n a time when his people were an enslaved minority, he demands release. And Sweetland speaks for itself. In this novel, Sweetland also represents a remote island off Newfoundland. Based partially on fact (after Newfoundland joined Canada, the government instituted a resettlement program, forcing thousands of citizens to relocate, abandoning their centuries-old lifestyles).
As the novel begins, the government is offering the residents of Sweetland a magnanimous resettlement program with one catch: every person must sign on. Many are glad to do so, but not Moses. Now in his early 70s and unmarried, his homeland is everything to him. Symbolism abounds: Moses worked as Sweetland’s lightkeeper (“let there be light”) until the lighthouse was automated. He is, in ways, the “priest” of the island: saving a boatland of fleeing Sri Lankans, paying tribute to the dead, and standing up to the pervasive lure of money in exchange for generations of history.
Ghosts haunt his memories: ghosts of the Sri Lankans, his now-gone sister who was forced into a loveless marriage with a decent man, his “almost” fiancée, his dead brother. Accompanied at different times by a young boy named Jesse who may be on the autistic spectrum and later, the dog of the other last hold-out to the deal (aptly named Loveless),Moses must primarily rely on his own survival instincts. As ghosta and memories crowd his brain, he begins to understand that life is nothing more than a made-up thing, with “bits and pieces of make-believe cobbled together to look halfways human.”
Make no mistake, though, Mr. Crummey does not subjugate his plot or his characters to his overriding themes. The characters are achingly real: Moses’ good friend Queenie Coffin (again, the symbolism of names) who is an agoraphobic who remains indoors feasting on badly-written romance novels; his one-time great friend Duke Fewer, who maintains the only barbershop without ever actually giving a haircut; Pilgrim, his blind brother-in-law; and perhaps most of all, Jesse, the quirky and dearly-loved boy who Moses befriends.
Sweetland made me sad…but it also made me think and it made me feel. If that’s not a 5 star, I don’t know what is.