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Genre: contemporary

Moral Disorder and Other Stories by Margaret Atwood

The political turmoil in the world has made me turn this year to Margaret Atwood, who is enjoying a resurgence as a result of her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale being broadcast as a much acclaimed television series.  I haven’t reread The Handmaid’s Tale, which does still stick with me from when I first read it nearly 20 years ago, but I have been working my way through her other novels.  Given the time constraints in my life, I’ve been picking them out mostly by page length, which brings me to Moral Disorder and Other Stories, a novel told in a series of short stories.

Even Atwood’s earliest novels are full of her wit, wry humor and bitingly funny characterization, so it is unsurprising to discover these same qualities throughout all of the stories, which tell the life story of a woman named Nell in short episodes.  The stories are framed by aging; in the first story, Nell is in late middle age and meditating on the nature of a long-term marriage.  In the next, she is a young girl, who has yet to meet Tig, the married man that she makes her life with.  By the last stories, Nell is long past her adventures and taking care of her elderly parents.  Although each story could stand alone, together they tell a powerful story of an ordinary, but interesting, life spent in the Canadian countryside and wilderness.

Moral Disorder and Other Stories is very much literary fiction, so some readers may find it frustrating, particularly if they’re not accustomed to the genre or to short story collections.  But for readers who are willing to forgo an orderly plot for the love of language, there are many delights to be found in each story’s vivid description and Atwood’s strong voice.

It’s morning.  For now, night is over.  It’s time for the bad news.  I think of the bad news as a huge bird, with the wings of a crow and the face of my Grade Four school teacher, sparse bun, rancid teeth, wrinkly frown, pursed mouth and all, sailing around the world under cover of darkness, pleased to be the bearer of ill tidings, carrying a basket of rotten eggs, and knowing — as the sun comes up — exactly where to drop them.  On me, for one.

One theme that has emerged for me, in reading several of Atwood’s early novels, is how prevalent the Canadian wilderness is in her writing.  Perhaps because I have always lived either in a city or in its suburbs, there’s something about the wilderness and the farm settings in Moral Disorder and Other Stories that really caught my imagination.  Nell and Tig rent a farm and then later purchase their own.  They are city people pretending at the rural life, so it is not too surprising that their first set of ducklings are eaten by owls.  After this first disastrous foray into livestock, their herd begins to expand in much more productive ways.  First there are Tig’s children from his first marriage, who visit on weekends, running wild around the farm and smoking pot in the barn.  Then there’s a high-strung dog, a herd of sheep, constantly escaping cows and eventually a fat horse.  Atwood doesn’t shy away from the brutality of farm life, as Nell trades in her city upbringing for a rural lifestyle, but she always shows the beauty in it as well.

There’s never been such a lovely spring, Nell thought.  Frogs — or were they toads? — trilled from the pond, and there were pussy willows and catkins — what was the difference? — and then the hawthorn bushes and the wild plums and the neglected apple trees came into bloom, and an uneven row of daffodils planted by some long-vanished farmer’s wife thrust up through the weeds and dead grasses besides the drive.  Birds sang.  Mud dried.

Unfortunately, for me, the last story did a poor job of finishing off the book, because some of the details contradicted and confused the overall narrative arc, which pulled me straight out of the story and had me flipping back pages to see if I had missed something. Perhaps I had – or perhaps the story kept its conflicting details because, like many of the stories in the collection, it was published elsewhere before being collected into this novel.  But for all that the novel felt unresolved because of this, I would gladly read the whole novel over to answer my questions.

It’s just that there are so many other Atwood novels that I have  yet to read…

Publisher: Doubleday
Publish Date: 2006
Hardcover: 225 pages
ISBN: 0385503849
Language: English
Rating: 3 of 5 stars

 


Genre: contemporary, literary fiction, short story collection
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The Secret Place by Tana French

Tana French The Secret Place It’s no secret that I get excited about new Tana French novels.  I have been slowly doling them out to myself, using them as a special reading treat, because I have been afraid of running out of her novels.  Now that I’ve finished The Secret Place, I have read absolutely every word that she’s published and can only wait for her next book, The Trespasser, due out in the fall.  Tana French is such a favorite that I actually order her books in paper format, because I know even before reading them that I’m going to want to keep them in my collection forever.

The Secret Place did not disappoint, by which I mean that it took over my life in the week that it took me to read it.   If you’re not familiar with Tana French, her Dublin Murder Squad series is a collection of first-person character-driven classic detective novels told through the eyes of Dublin Murder detectives that are inevitably working the case of a lifetime.  I do not read a lot of crime fiction because of its tendency to be more focused on the details of the mystery than the characters of the story, but French combines the detective genre with thoughtful character development and the sort of poetic prose that reminds me of Margaret Atwood.  And did I mention how Irish her novels are?  French was raised all over the world, but she lives in Dublin, which is obvious in the faithful and delightful representation of Irish speech and culture.  Having an Irish spouse makes reading her dialogue a delight, because it’s so faithful that it almost feels like a private joke.

Her lip pulled back.  “Jesus fuck.  I thought they were gonna put me through a decontamination chamber, get rid of my accent.  Or throw me a cleaner’s uniform and point me at the tradesmen’s entrance.  You know what the fees are?  They start at eight grand a year.  That’s if you’re not boarding, or taking any extracurricular activities.  Choir, piano, drama.  You have any of that, in school?”

“We had a football in the yard.”

Conway liked that.  “One little geebag: I go into the holding room and call out her name for interview, and she goes, ‘Em, I can’t exactly go now, I’ve got my clarinet lesson in five?'”  That curl rising at the corner of her mouth again.  Whatever she’d said to the girl, she’d enjoyed it.  “Her interview lasted an hour.  Hate that.”

“The school,” I said.  “Snobby and good, or just snobby?”

“I could win the Lotto, still wouldn’t send my kid there.  But…” One-shouldered shrug.  “Small classes.  Young Scientist awards everywhere.  Everyone’s got perfect teeth, no one ever gets up the duff, and all the shiny little pedigree bitches go on to college.  I guess it’s good, if you’re OK with your kid turning out a snobby shite.”

I said, “Holly’s da’s a cop.  A Dub.  From the Liberties.”

“I know that.  You think I missed that?”

One of the tropes of French’s novels that I really love is the way she pulls her protagonists from earlier books in the series, developing the character by throwing them into a first-person narrative.  In The Secret Place, this character is Stephen Moran from Faithful Place.  Two books ago, he was a young man at the start of his career who is pulled in as a floater on a high-profile murder case.  When he stands out for his work on that case, he’s promoted to the Cold Case department.  When Holly Mackey, the teenaged daughter of the detective of Faithful Place, comes in to him with a new piece of evidence in the year old murder of Chris Harper, a boy that was killed on the grounds of her posh boarding school, Stephen recognizes his golden opportunity.  Desperate to be promoted to the Murder squad, he takes the card that Holly has given him to Antoinette Conway, the Murder detective that has failed to solve Chris Harper’s murder. He asks for a chance to work the case with her.

Ambitious, is our Stephen.

But first he must convince Conway that he’s worth keeping around.  Unlike French’s other novels, The Secret Place takes place in a 24 hour time period, which serves as Stephen Moran’s trial by fire.  And it is a trial by fire, as Stephen and Conway visit the luxurious grounds of St. Kilda, a boarding school for high school girls, where the headmistress makes it all too clear that she’s more concerned about the reputation of the school than bringing any kind of justice to Chris or his family.  The students aren’t any better, where rival cliques of girls try to use the detectives for their own purposes.  In order to solve the mystery of Chris’s murder, Stephen and Conway have to wade through their lies and rivalries.

Conway’s eyes narrowed.  She turned back to Joanne, slower.  Shoulders easing.

Smile.  Steady sticky voice, like talking to a stupid toddler.

“Joanne.  I know it’s hard for you, not being the center of attention.  I know you’re only dying to throw a tantrum and scream, ‘Everybody look at me!’ But I bet if you try your very best, you can hang on for just a few more minutes.  And when we’re done here, your friends can explain to you why this was important.  OK?”

Joanne’s face was pure poison.  She looked forty.

“Can you manage that for me?”

Joanne thumped back in her chair, rolled her eyes.  “Whatever.”

“Good girl.”

The circle of arena eyes, appreciative; we had a winner.  Julia and Holly were both grinning.  Alison looked terrified and over the moon.

As Stephen and Conway start piecing together the story as they interrogate the girls at St. Kilda’s, French uses flashbacks to follow the girls’ lives in the year prior to Chris’s death, using Holly and her friends to bring the reader along on a journey of suspense and suspicion.  She does it beautifully, capturing the emotion and precariousness of teenaged life in such a precise and realistic way that it seems impossible that French is not a teenager herself.  These moments sneak up on the reader, pulling us along with the events of school life at St Kilda’s until we feel like we’re one of Holly’s gang, navigating the beginnings of adulthood in a simultaneously thrilling and dangerous environment.

As the countdown to Chris’s death marches on, French reveals the privately vicious world of the teenagers, as they jockey with one another for status.  Although their days are filled with classes and scheduled study time, their free hours are spent at the local shopping mall, where the boys from a nearby boys’ boarding school also hang out.  As the St. Kilda’s girls try to figure out boyfriends and friendships and identity, we are filled with the knowledge that this very normal tangle of relationships will turn into a deadly combination.  Each scene feels both like an opportunity to look for clues and a familiar and personal experience.

Chris sits down next to her.  Selena has never been this close to him before, close enough to see the scattering of freckles along the tops of his cheekbones, the faintest shading of stubble on his chin; to smell him, spices and a thread of something wild and musky that makes her think of outside at night.  He feels different from anyone she’s ever met: charged up fuller, electric and sparking with three people’s worth of life packed into his skin.

Readers of French’s other novels will also recognize the eerie role that the grounds of St. Kilda’s play in the novel.  The girls are locked in at night — and for good reason — as the woods on the property come alive at night with all types of wildlife. As the girls find their way out onto the grounds at night, St Kilda’s changes from an institution to a place of mystery and power, long before Chris Harper is found dead.  While some readers might find French’s tendency towards mysticism off-putting, The Secret Place gives a very concrete answer to each mystery that it presents, which was almost disappointing to this Tana French fan.

Almost.

  • Publisher: Viking Press
  • Publish Date: September 2, 2014
  • Hardcover: 452 pages
  • ISBN: 9780670026326
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 4 of 5 stars

My other Tana French reviews:


Genre: contemporary, crime, fiction, mystery
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In Another Life by Julie Christine Johnson

InAnotherLifeWhat happens when love lingers long after death?  This is what Julie Christine Johnson asks us in her debut novel In Another Life, which is a genre-bending tale set in the Languedoc region of southern France that explores the many varieties of love that we encounter during our lives.  Johnson combines a contemporary love story with a dramatic retelling of one of the darker periods of Christian history, when the 14th century Catholic Church launched the Albigensian Crusade to wipe out the Cathars.  Never heard of the Cathars?  Neither had I, which was a fascinating aspect of the novel.

The Languedoc region was the home of the Cathar faith, a medieval gnostic Christian sect that incorporated reincarnation into Christian doctrine.  Johnson centers the medieval events of the novel on the assassination of of the Archdeacon Pierre de Castelnau, a 13th century ecclesiastic whose death launched the crusade.  But those are just the facts that we’re handed down from history.  Johnson guides us through the last years of the Cather resistance by introducing us to Lia Carrer, a modern day graduate student who is writing her doctoral thesis on the Cathar faith.

Newly widowed, Lia Carrier returns to the Languedoc, where her closest friend, Rose, has settled as the wife of a successful wine maker.  Wounded and still grieving the seemingly accidental death of her husband Gabriel, Lia moves into Rose’s guest house and returns to work on her doctoral thesis.

On her first night in France, Lia is startled by the sight of a man at her window, who disappears by the next flash of lightning.  He’s quickly replaced by a Bonelli’s eagle, a bird so rare as to be facing extinction.  It happens so fast that Lia isn’t entirely certain what she’s seen.

She backed away from the glass with a curse of surprise but stopped as something white flashed just beyond the window. In the space between heartbeats, she saw the face of a man. Moonlight revealed fierce dark eyes and the etched planes of cheekbones. A seeping black streak marred the left side of his face, running from his temple down his cheek to the corner of his mouth. The palm of a hand came into view, reaching toward her. Her own hands flew up and smacked the glass as adrenaline, warm and electric, seared the weariness from her bones.

It should not — and does not — surprise the reader when Lia recognizes that face at her window as Rose’s new neighbor Raoul d’Aran, who has quite a few secrets of his own.  Woven into the events unfolding in the 21st century are scenes from the 13th, where we learn of Raoul’s history as a winemaker, husband, father and leader of the last Cathar rebellion.  As the plot quickly moves forward, Lia begins to see, impossibly, how the deaths of her husband and of the 13th century Archdeacon might just be intertwined.

Although the intrigues of medieval Church history might seem like a hard sell for a modern audience, Johnson brings enough of the personal into the 13th century events to make them relevant and alive.  It is, above all, love that moves the story forward and a shared grief that draws Lia to Raoul.

A gust of cold air pulled at her hair like the fingers of a ghost, tossing it across her face. Lia tucked the loose strands into her coat collar. “Your wife’s name was Paloma,” she said. Raoul winced, as though the sound of her name caused him physical pain. “What were your children’s names?”
“Bertran was my son,” he replied. “Aicelina was my daughter.”
His simple declaration broke her heart. There is no other way to say your loved ones are gone but was and were. “Those are old Occitan names.”
“My wife was from Languedoc, like your family.”
“Do you have family in Languedoc still?”
“No. There’s no one left.” His answer was a door clicking shut. Quiet, but final.

One of the best qualities of the novel is Johnson’s love of France, which comes through in the vividly depicted setting.  Drawing on her background as a wine buyer and frequent traveller, Johnson fills the novel with delightful sensory details that take the reader away.  Why not indulge in some of the delights of French wine country?

Lia walked into the covered pavilion of the marché. Fish caught before dawn released aromas of the sea that mingled with the scent of vanilla-sweet crepe batter on a hot griddle and the sultry whiff of cumin and cardamom as spice merchants opened their bags. A tiny patisserie stood tucked between the long, refrigerated cases of a cheese-monger and a vendor of cured meats. The shop specialized in the pastries of Catalunya, the territory just across the Spanish border that shared so much of Languedoc’s history and culture, and Lia made her last purchases there.

Delicious.  Don’t you want to go to France?  Isn’t this why we read?

Johnson’s writing is rich and the story line interesting and adventurous, filled with just enough of the mysticism between past and present to keep the pages turning.  Lia’s love and appreciation of the finer things in life are a delightful escape from the humdrum, but the real reward of the novel is discovering how the Cathar story really ends.  In Another Life brings a relatively unknown period of history to life by filling it with memorable characters and a love of the Languedoc region that will make you want to book a flight immediately.

  • Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
  • Publish Date: February 2, 2016
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • ISBN: 1492625205
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Genre: contemporary, fiction, historical fiction, women's fiction
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The Japanese Lover by Isabelle Allende

Allende-JapaneseLover
“There’s a difference between being old and being ancient. It doesn’t have to do with age, but physical and mental health,” Cathy explained. “Those who are old can remain independent, but those who are ancient need help and supervision; there comes a moment when they’re like children again.”

Isabel Allende’s latest novel, The Japanese Lover, brings us into the luxurious and artistic world of Alma Mendel, the matriarch of the wealthy San Francisco Belasco family. Facing the end of her life, Alma leaves behind the mansion where she has lived since she was a child in favor of the Lark House, a surreal retirement home where yoga classes and political demonstrations interrupt conversations about voluntary euthanasia and pot smoke curls out from underneath the closed doors of its ageing residents.

Like Allende, Alma is an immigrant, and one of the themes of the novel is America from the perspective of the new American.  Alma’s story unfolds as she befriends another immigrant, a young Romanian named Irina Bazili who has taken a job as a caretaker at the Lark House.  When Alma hires Irina to be her personal secretary and help her sort out her few remaining possessions, curiosity draws Irina into teaming up with Alma’s grandson Seth to solve the mysteries of Alma’s life.  Who keeps sending Alma the letters and flowers that arrive weekly in her small apartment?  Where does Alma go when she quietly disappears for the weekend?  Seeking escape from the trauma of her own dark past, Irina loses herself in pulling together the Belasco family history.

It is through Irina that we learn about Alma’s past as a young Polish girl sent her to her American aunt to be saved from the Nazis.  She could easily be a tragic figure, but Allende cleverly places her in a privileged and loving family, drawing both the reader and Alma into the beautiful mansion of Sea Cliff, where Alma finds a lifelong friendship with the gardener’s son, Ichimei Fukuda.  By the time the news of her parents’ inevitable death in the concentration camps arrives, it’s nearly a footnote to Alma’s new American life.

But the war isn’t done with Alma. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Fukudas lose their life savings and home and are taken to an internment camp to wait out the war.   Although Alma and Ichimei continue to exchange letters, his are so badly censored by the camp administrators as to be illegible.  Alma’s life at Sea Cliff continues, but the grief at their separation deepens Alma’s bond with Ichimei.

The Belascos’ garden remained deaf to the defamatory propaganda campaign against the Japanese, who were accused of unfair competition against American farmers and fishermen, threatening white women’s virtue with their insatiable lust, and corrupting American society by their Oriental, anti-Christian ways. Alma only found out about these slurs two years after she had arrived in San Francisco, when from one day to the next the Fukuda family became the “yellow peril.” By that time she and Ichimei were inseparable friends.

Like Allende’s other novels, The Japanese Lover is filled with life, which is refreshing way to depict the elderly inhabitants of the Lark House as they contend with the declining abilities of their bodies.  At 336 pages, The Japanese Lover is practically a novella by Allendean standards, but it fits in the broad range of themes of her longer novels, which made parts of the narrative feel rushed.  There are several points where the story suffers for the brevity, but mostly in  the romance between Alma and Ichimei.  Despite the title, Ichimei is a flat character, a remote figure that creeps in and out of the edges of the story.  Although Ichimei plays such an important role in Alma’s life, their relationship lacks the solidity of a true romance and feels more like a romantic dream.

And yet.  And yet, it is still an Allende novel, filled with realistically flawed characters who must confront the darkest realities of human behavior.  At the end, the real point of the novel is obvious: that there are many kinds of love that see us through our lives and that to live without love is the greatest tragedy of all.

 

  • Publisher: Atria Books
  • Publish Date: November 3, 2015
  • Hardcover: 322 pages
  • ISBN: 1501116975
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Genre: contemporary
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Sisters of Heart and Snow by Margaret Dilloway


sisters-of-heart-and-snowIn Sisters of Heart and Snow, Margaret Dilloway returns to the central theme of her award-winning novel An American Housewife; the biracial and first generation Japanese-American experience.  Sisters Rachel and Drew Snow are the daughters of a merciless American businessman and his Japanese catalogue bride Hikari, who are thrown together as adults to take care of their declining mother after nearly two decades of estrangement.  When Hikari sends Rachel after a book that she hid in a closet in the family home, she enlists her sister Drew to help her retrieve it and translate it.  The book quickly becomes a mystery for the sisters to solve, as their mother’s increasing dementia makes her unavailable to provide any answers as to why it was so important to her.

Rachel and Drew find a translator for Hikari’s book, which turns out to be the legend and life of Tomoe Gozen, a famous onnamusha of middle age Japan and concubine to the feudal warlord Yoshinaka.  When Yoshinaka makes a marriage alliance to Yamabuki, a delicate young courtier who is ill-suited to their rough rural life, Tomoe surprises herself by developing a deep friendship with the girl that comes to hold more meaning than her love affair with Yoshinaka.

Outside, Yoshinaka sat atop a snorting black Demon, in his full battle gear of bearskin shoes and grand iron helmet.  Minammoto banners waved in the summer air.  Hundreds of soldiers cheered when they saw her.  “Tomoe!  Tomoe!”

She lifted a hand and their voices rose.  Without looking back at her family, Tomoe walked out from the porch and across the courtyard.  Cherry Blossom waited, with her scarlet saddle, her silken blankets, her tasseled bridle.

“Let us go!”  Yoshinaka shouted!  “We will show my cousin who the true leader is!”

Tomoe nodded and swung atop the horse.  They began walking out of the fortress, the dust kicking up.  Tomoe sat tall.  Only once did she turn  in her saddle and watch as the figures of the women on the porch grew smaller and smaller, waving at her until they shimmered and faded, like a memory.

As the sisters follow Tomoe’s life, they each wonder what their mother’s message was.  Does the relationship between these two legendary women parallel their own?  Is Drew the warrior, Rachel the wife?  Or was it meant to be the reverse?  Searching to understand their mother’s love, Drew and Rachel search the story of Tomoe for the parental involvement that they never found at home.

While the book-within-a-book structure of Sisters of Heart and Snow is a familiar one, Dilloway’s writing and thoughtful insight into the psychology of her characters makes the novel a compelling and sincere story about healing from family dysfunction. Lost in their own problems, the sisters must work to find common ground and a permanent place in the other’s life.  Now a mother herself, Rachel struggles with accepting her young daughter’s upcoming marriage, while fighting to keep her father from moving their mother to an overcrowded and underfunded nursing home.  Returning to San Diego at Rachel’s request, Drew quickly becomes involved in the day-to-day routines of Rachel’s family life, while she tries to piece together her own ambitions and a desire for the sort of lifetime partnership and love that she sees in her sister’s marriage.

As happens in so many broken families, every move the sisters make is fraught with the emotional history of unhappy memories.  As they move forward through the story, the sisters also move backwards into their childhood memories, where they must confront their wildly different experiences.  Their father’s bullying and their mother’s seeming negligence scarred Rachel and Drew, and much of the novel is engaged in coming to terms with what it means when your parents fail you.

Dilloway lets the story unfold simply, letting the straightforward thoughts of her characters dominate the prose.  As Rachel reflects on her childhood, she does it with the memories of a young adult, but with the understanding that only adulthood and time can bring.

I longed to talk to her, to cry into her shoulders, and several times I almost did.  I went to her quilt room where she sat sewing, sewing, sewing, like she was in some kind of factory with an imaginary deadline.  As I stood in the doorway, watching her head bent under the orange yellow desk lamp, I knew two things to be true.  She had her own demons.  And because of those, she’d be unable to be a mother in the way I needed a mother.

Even her memories of her father lean more towards understanding than anger.  While Killian hasn’t lost the power to hurt Rachel, he has lost his power to surprise her.  Her understanding and acceptance of his character protects her, while giving her the strength and determination to keep protecting her mother from him.

“Thanks,” I said, in response to the cash he handed me.  I’d trained myself not to respond to his barbs now, not the way I had when I was little.  When somebody is like him, you expect all kinds of mean things to come out of his mouth.  It barely affects you anymore.  Or so you think.  It’s like swallowing something sharp without realizing it, the object sitting undisturbed until years later, when your insides suddenly begin to bleed.

Likewise, the story of Tamoe Gozen is filled with moments of insight, as Tamoe balances her relationship with Yamabuki with their shared lover Yoshinaka.  Tomoe’s story is action-filled and fast, contrasting with the slower pace of Rachel and Drew’s unfolding drama.  Yet, Tomoe’s story fits well into the novel, as Rachel and Drew draw on it for inspiration and strength.  Although the road is rocky, they work to form a family again, just as Tomoe and Yamabuki did, when they could so easily have been rivals.

Without Yamabuki, Tomoe thought, she would have turned out like Yoshinaka and her brother.  Bitter, inflexible, battle-hungry, unable to take pleasure in anything but a fight.  It was because of Yamabuki that Tomoe had learned to enjoy the daily humdrum routine of life.  To find the poetry hidden in laundry day.  To learn how to become a mother.  To love somebody better than you loved yourself

The obvious theme of Sisters of Heart and Snow is the power and difficulty of sisterhood.  Dilloway looks at it from every angle, drawing together a thoughtful story of modern adulthood that stays with the reader long after the last page is finished.

  • Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
  • Publish Date: January 1, 2015
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • ISBN: 0399170804
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 4 of 5 stars

 


Genre: chick lit, contemporary, fiction
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The Round House by Louise Erdich


The-Round-House

“My father had a voice that could thunder out; it was said he had developed this. It was not a thing he’d had in his youth, but he’d had to use it in the courtroom. His voice did thunder out and fill the Emergency entrance… Now that his anger was the thing filling the air, crackling clean, I was better. Whatever had happened would be fixed. Because of his fury. Which was a rare thing and got results. He held my mother’s hand as they wheeled her into the emergency ward. The doors closed behind them.”

When Geraldine Coutts arrives home, bloodied, trembling and smelling of gasoline, her twelve-year-old son Joe slips into the back seat of the family car to gently hold her bleeding head. When his father Bazil tries to drop him off at his aunt’s house to protect him from seeing his mother in the hospital, Joe challenges his father and a look passes between them that Joe describes as being “odd, as if between two grown men, and I had not been ready.” This moment begins the major theme of the novel, in which Joe is forced through the trauma imposed on his family to take on adult responsibilities beyond his years. Erdrich portrays this tug between adulthood and childhood as Joe looks through court cases with his father and hunts for clues with his friends at the round house, the Obijwe ceremonial building where his mother was attacked. Through years of land acquisitions, the round house now lies at the edge of the reservation, creating an essential question of geography, as the boundary between reservation and state land determines the legal jurisdiction of Geraldine’s case. Although Geraldine’s attacker is quickly identified, she cannot state precisely where the attack occurred, which puts it into a legal grey area that allows her attacker to walk free without a trial.

“My father was punishing hot dog thieves and examining washers—not even washing machines—just washers worth 15 cents apiece.”

The Round House, which won the 2012 National Book Award for fiction, was clearly written to draw attention to the terrible technicality in the American legal system that permits violent crimes committed by non-Natives on Native American reservations to go untried. Erdrich artfully draws the reader in and makes us walk alongside Joe and Bazil, infuriating us with the racial inequality of the American legal system and forcing us to witness the damage that rape does to a victim’s family long after the actual attack. Before the rape, Joe has had an idyllic childhood that has left him with an absolute faith in the power of his parents. Geraldine’s attack betrays Joe’s childhood belief in a world in which evil is always punished, as he soon discovers that even his father’s authority as a tribal judge cannot provide Geraldine protection from her rapist. Joe quickly learns the difference between law and justice– and how treaties signed before his great-grandfather’s birth will allow his mother’s rapist to walk free, while punishing Bazil with the inability protect his wife through the system that he has served all of his life. When Joe looks at his father’s legal judgments for clues to her attacker, he learns that Bazil’s courtroom is filled with trivial cases, rather than the crime drama trials he had always imagined. Although Joe often bikes past the tribal graveyard and recalls stories of lives destroyed by racism and violence, it is this discovery of the “toothless sovereignty” of the tribal courts that brings home to Joe how racial legal inequality affects him directly. When Geraldine’s attacker begins to taunt the family by frequenting their family businesses and shopping at their local grocery store, twelve-year-old Joe begins to ask what he must do to save his family.

The Round House is a brave departure from Erdrich’s signature style of the multi-narrator community story. She steps easily into the skin of a twelve year old boy, bringing us to a world of first crushes, stolen beer, Star Trek, friendship and bicycles. Joe’s pack of friends search for clues to Geraldine’s attack between swimming breaks, shifts at Joe’s first job, camping trips, pow-wows and spying escapades. We laugh as we witness Joe experiencing his first crush on his beautiful and, more importantly, busty Aunt Sonja and our heart breaks with him as he goes through the painful lessons of a maturing young man. When Joe and his friends confront and learn the history the new priest and former Marine Father Travis, they are awed by him in the way that only young men would be. Joe tells us that, “not only did he own a copy of Alien, not only did he have an amazing and terrible wound, but he had called us humiliating names without actually resorting to the usual swear words.” Throughout the novel, we watch as Joe is tries to understand an adult world that he does not yet belong to by looking up at the adults around him.

As with every Erdrich novel,The Round House draws us onto the reservation, walking us through Joe’s complex world of relatives, friends, extended family and community. Joe’s life is rich with the history and legends of Ojibwe culture, and we follow him as he explores the lines between myth and reality in order to understand what has happened to his family. Although some of the characters and scenes do not tie neatly into the narrative of the story, they add a much needed humor and human interest to the novel that cuts into the despair stemming from Geraldine’s attack. Joe travels everywhere with a pack of his three best friends, who spend their summer looking for free meals from their collective aunts, uncles, grandmothers and cousins. Joe’s uncle Whitey serves up “rez steak sandwiches,” while his friend Zack’s Grandma Ignatia gives them meat, frybread and stories about her youthful sexual escapades. Joe’s aunt Clementine leaves him with casseroles and the responsibility of keeping an eye on his great-grandfather Mooshum, who tells tribal stories about turtles, spirit guides and wiindigoos. The past is never far from the reservation and Erdrich uses Joe’s relationships with his tribe to introduce us to a world where the often tragic past is always a subtle part of present events.

Joe narrates the story of his thirteenth summer from the distance of adulthood and occasionally his older self interjects into the story, providing a context that adds beauty. When he writes about emotional connection to his father, he tells us that he still wears his father’s clothing after following his father into the law. We understand the depth of Joe’s relationship to his parents, because he tells us that, “I needed him so much. I couldn’t really go into it very far, this need, nor could my mother and I talk about it. But her wearing his robe was a sign to me of how she had to have the comfort of his presence in a basic way that I now understood”. Above all,>The Round House is a novel about the strength of family love. Although the story begins with the worst of human nature, witnessing the Coutts band together to heal shows us the best of humanity. From tragedy and injustice, Erdrich creates a novel about courage and the love that a boy feels for his parents.

 


Genre: contemporary, fiction, literary fiction, native american fiction
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