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Genre: fiction

The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood

Book cover: The Edible Woman by Margaret AtwoodMarian McAlpin is a sensible career girl, not “the other kind” that only dreams of catching a man and marrying him.  So when she meets Peter, a handsome up-and-coming lawyer at a party, he quickly asks her out.  Several months into their relationship, he loses his last unmarried friend to those scheming wifely types and, in a panic, asks Marian to marry him.

Filled with a postmodernist Thomas Pynchonesque absurdity, The Edible Woman carries the reader along from one hilarious situation to another, as Marian tries to discover why she isn’t happier about finally reaching that apex of female achievement: an engagement.  When she describes her triumph to her roommate Ainsley, Ainsley is barely interested because she’s in the middle of tricking Marian’s friend Len into fathering a baby by exploiting his weakness for underage girls.  Meanwhile, Marian falls in with a misanthropic English graduate student named Duncan that barely seems to exist of enough substance to stay alive – and it is their relationship, contrasted with the steady but domineering Peter, that forces Marian Into behaviors that she barely understands.

It is small wonder that, as the wedding hurtles ever nearer, Marian’s dissatisfaction begins to manifest physically, as her body begins to reject different types of food.  When she is forced into quitting her job, as her boss – a single career woman of intermediate skills and advancing age – doesn’t want young, married women working for her, as potential pregnancies make them too unpredictable, her body joins forces with all the other people taking control of Marian’s life.

That morning her body had finally put its foot down on canned rice pudding, after accepting it with scarcely a tremor for weeks.  It ad been such a comfort knowing she could rely on it: it provided bulk, and as Mrs. Withers the dietician had said, it was fortified.  But all at once as she had poured the cream over it her eyes had seen it as a collection of small cocoons.  Cocoons with miniature living creatures inside.

Although the novel is heavy-handed with symbolism — it is Atwood’s first — the light-hearted touch that Atwood deploys keeps it from feeling like an English class assignment.  Written in 1969, The Edible Woman gently satirizes on the beginnings of pop psychology and the emergence of a widespread feminist consciousness, while lodging the modern reader enjoyably in the formality of the late sixties, with its boundary pushing girdle advertisements and long white gloves.

Although the novel is witty, Atwood also delves fearlessly into the complexity and complicty of the power struggles within heterosexual relationships.  Before Marian and Peter become engaged, Marian adjusts her behavior to suit his moods, sidelining her own needs to please him.  Once they agree to marry, she hands over decision making to him, even down to what she wants to eat, until her body revolts.  When Duncan enters the picture, he gives Marian the impetus to choose, while his misanthrophy offers no obvious solutions.

Atwood is an accomplished poet and, by the time she wrote The Edible Woman, she had published three volumes of poetry.  Many passages that would be mundane in a lesser author’s hands read like sardonic prose poems.  In describing a Western movie that Marian watches, Atwood writes:

The coloured pictures succeeded each other in front of her: gigantic stetsoned men stretched across the screen on their even more gigantic horses, trees and cactus-plants rose in the foreground or faded in the background as the landscape flowed along; smoke and dust and galloping.  She didn’t attempt to decide what the cryptic speeches meant or to follow the plot.  She knew there must be bad people who were trying to do something evil and good people who were trying to stop them, probably by getting to the money first (as well as Indians who were numerous as buffalo and fair game for everyone), but it didn’t matter to her which of these moral qualities was incarnate in any given figure presented to her.  At least it wasn’t one of the new Westerns in which people had psychoses.

 

There are so many moments in The Edible Woman where Atwood’s prose is distracting from the story, but it is in this way, where the images suddenly strike you as so unusual that you must stop and read the passage again, enjoying the sensations that Atwood presents to you.  This is the strength of The Edible Woman, which is a must-read for any student of writing or second-wave feminism.  Atwood brings you into it with her wit and her poetry, in a journey that will still feel modern and relevant to any woman.

 

Publisher: Anchor Books
Publish Date: Originally 1969, republished June 1989
Paperback: 336 pages
ISBN: 0765331721
Language: English
Rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Genre: fiction, literary fiction, postmodernism
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The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

ocean_at_the_end_of_the_lane_us_cover

When The Ocean at the End of the Lane came out in 2013, I thought it was a fine book.  I am a long time fan of Neil Gaiman’s work, which blends mythology with contemporary stories in a fine example of modern magic realism.  I like magic realism a lot, so this isn’t a very hard sell for me at all.  So when my book club voted in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I said…sure, why not.  I’d better reread it, I thought, and since it is a short book, I left it for a few days before we were due to meet so that it would be fresh in my mind.

But sometimes, when you go and read a book that you read a long time ago, you find that it is different.  And so, in my second reading of novel, no one was more surprised than me to discover that the book gutted me.  I read it slowly, pausing to re-read a passage or twist my tongue over a phrase in the book.  Sometimes it is just that when you know the ending of a book that you read it differently.  And other times, it is because you’ve changed.  Your life has changed.  In 2013, I admired the beauty of the novel, particularly in the passages where Gaiman wrote about his father, who had just passed away.  I read the second chapter and paused, because it had only been a few years since I had lost my mother, and lingered over the passages of an adult child who has become lop-sided, because their frame of the universe has just been stripped away.

I slowed the car as I saw the new house.  It would always be the new house in my head.  I pulled up into the driveway, observing the way they had built out on the mid-seventies architecture.  I had forgotten that the bricks of the house were chocolate-brown.  The new people had made my mother’s tiny balcony into a two-story sunroom.  I stared at the house, remembering less than I had expected about my teenage years: no good times, no bad times.  I’d lived in that place, for a while, as a teenager.  It didn’t seem to be any part of who I was now.

I backed the car out of the driveway.

What I did not see until 2016 was the beauty of the rest of the book.  A boy, a nameless boy, lives in a large and rambling old house in rural England.  His father’s business is failing and, to keep money coming in, the family begins letting out rooms.  One of these lodgers is an aggressive opal miner from South Africa, who runs over the boy’s cat on his way to the house.  The next night, he steals the family’s car and drives it to the end of the road and kills himself.  When the car is discovered, with the body in it, the boy is sent to the neighboring Hempstock farmhouse while his father calls the police.

Any fan of mythology will immediately recognize the Mother, Maiden and Crone in the Hempstocks.  Lettie Hempstock appears as an 11 year old girl and takes in the boy and makes a friend of him.  Her mother, Ginnie Hempstock, and her grandmother, Old Mrs. Hempstock, keep an eye on the farm and fields as they have always done.  It doesn’t take them long to notice that an ancient creature was wakened with the lodger’s suicide.

The Hempstocks are magical, but they are of the old and wild magic of the ancient stories.  When Lettie takes him with her to go banish the creature that the miner’s death awakened, the boy is drawn into a dangerous world of primeval monsters, with only the Hempstocks at the end of the lane to protect him.

The plot sounds something like any fantasy journey novel, but The Ocean at the End of the Lane reads differently, largely because Gaiman writes with a Hemingwayesque simplicity.  He throws in zingers that feel incredibly true and familiar, particularly for those of us that feel a kinship with the lost and lonely boy.

Nobody came to my seventh birthday party.

There was a table laid with jellies and trifles, with a party hat beside each place, and a birthday cake with seven candles on it in the center of the table.  The cake had a book drawn on it, in icing.  My mother, who had organized the party, told me that the lady at the bakery said that they had never put a book on a birthday cake before, and that mostly for boys it was footballs or spaceships.  I was their first book.

I kept stopping to admire Gaiman’s paragraphs, because his writing is so elegant.  The story itself is simple — it is the tale of a boy on an adventure that takes him no further than the end of the road that he lives on.  His world is a child’s world, small and intense in detail.  The protagonist’s voice is so good, rarely slipping out of the understanding of a seven-year-old and it feels very, very real.

I was shivering convulsively and I was wet through and I was cold, very cold.  It felt like all my heat had been stolen.  The wet clothes clung to my flesh and dripped cold water onto the floor.  With every step I took my sandals made comical squelching noises, and water oozed from the little diamond-shaped holes on the top of the sandals.

When the biggest monster of the story appears, she appears as the boy’s nanny.  As such characters usually are, she’s entrancing to the boy’s parents and sister, but terrible to the boy.  The unfairness of his treatment grates, particularly as she becomes more and more threatening to the boy’s survival.

“Everybody wants money,” she said, as if it were self-evident.  “It makes them happy.  It will make you happy, if you let it.”  We had come out by the heap of grass clippings, behind the circle of green grass that we called the fairy ring: sometimes, when the weather was wet, it filled with vivid yellow toadstools.

“Now,” she said.  “Go to your room.”

I ran from her–ran as fast as I could, across the fairy ring, up the lawn, past the rosebushes, past the coal shed and into the house.

Ursula Monkton was standing just inside the back door of the house to welcome me in, although she could not have got past me.  I would have seen.  Her hair was perfect, and her lipstick seemed freshly applied.

And then it gets worse.  And then better, because the boy has made a friend in Lettie Hempstock.  The Hempstocks are entrancing, as old as the earth itself, and their ways are straight out of a thousand fairy tales.  The Hempstock farm is a place that you can’t help but want to visit, with it’s roaring wall-sized kitchen fireplace and good-smelling stews and roasted carrots.

Lettie’s mother was already hauling a tin bath from beneath the kitchen table, and filling it with steaming water from the enormous black kettle that hung above the fireplace.  Pots of cold water were added until she pronounced it the perfect temperature.

“Right.  In you go,” said Old Mrs. Hempstock.  “Spit-spot.”

I looked at her, horrified.  Was I going to have to undress in front of people I didn’t know?

The Hempstocks remind us that a world that is filled with evil must also be filled with love.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a simple story, but a beautiful story, in the way that only simple stories can be. I highly recommend that you read it through, then turn around and read it again.

I’ll meet you at the end.

  • Publisher:William Morrow and Company
  • Publish Date: June 18, 2013
  • Hardcover: 178 pages
  • ISBN: 9780062255655
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Genre: adventure, fantasy, fiction, magic realism
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The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

theburgessboys

Prepare yourself, readers, for a book that is equally about place as people.  The 2013 novel, The Burgess Boys, written by Elizabeth Strout, is as much about the internal culture clash of being from two places as it is about the Burgess siblings, who are brought together when Susan Burgess’s teenaged son commits a hate crime in their home town of Shirley Falls, Maine.

The novel quickly begins to revolve around the relationship between Susan’s brothers, Jim and Bob Burgess, who both became lawyers and left the small Maine town for New York City.  Jim, the family favorite, made his fame as a brilliant criminal lawyer early in life by successfully defending a guilty-as-sin singer, in a trial that should remind readers of O.J. Simpson.  And yet, his success as a lawyer has come at the cost of his personal relationships.  Jim is, to put it as nicely as possible, a big jerk.

Bob, in comparison, has settled for a less glamorous life, living in the shadow of his brother and putting up with Jim’s constant abuse.  Divorced by his wife Pam over his infertility, he wanders through his days drinking more than he should and watching his neighbors, while still seeking for a meaningful relationship with Jim.

Unlike her brothers, Susan Burgess has remained in Shirley Falls, where she clings tightly and angrily to an image of life that she feels slipping away.  When the town becomes host to an influx of Somali refugees, the native residents are forced to learn to interact with a new culture that seems impossibly foreign to their own.  For Susan, a cold and hard woman who cannot even accept Unitarians, this seems impossible.  When her son Zach, a lonely and silent boy that is dominated by his mother’s anger, throws a pig’s head through the window of the town’s mosque during Ramadan, Susan calls on Bob and Jim to come help with his legal defense.  Forced into returning to Shirley Falls, Jim and Bob struggle with their adult relationship with their sister and their memories of the town and the freak accident that killed their father 30 years prior.  Although their adult lives have been purposefully separate, their shared guilt at their involvement in their father’s death both binds and separates them.  Uniting once again for the sake of family brings up these old wounds and throws them into the light of revelation.

Elizabeth Strout is  a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist (Olive Kitteridge, 2008) and this excellence of writing shows in The Burgess Boys.  Although the actual events of the novel are rather sparse, the prose is captivating and filled with gentle insights into human nature.  By far, the hero of the novel is Bob, who gently plays the role of Switzerland between Susan and Jim.  He wades through the novel with his gentle imperfections, drawing the reader along as he tries to draw meaning from the failures of his marriage and family.

Bob was not a young man, and he knew about loss. He knew the quiet that arrived, the blinding force of panic, and he knew that each loss brought with it some odd, barely acknowledged sense of release. He was not an especially contemplative person, and he did not dwell on this. But by October there were many days when the swell of rightness, loose-limbedness, and gentle gravity came to him. It recalled to him being a child, when he found one day he could finally color within the lines.

As Zach’s trial approaches, Strout brings us further into Bob’s life, exploring his love of New York City and his failed marriage to Pam, who, like Jim, continues to befriend Bob for her own selfish purposes.  Although Bob’s loneliness shines through the story, his introspection keeps the story moving along.  You cannot help but love him for his acute observations and good-natured ability to be the middle ground between the extremes of his family.

He thought of the people in the world who felt saved by city. He was one of them. Whatever darkness leaked its way in, there were always lights on in different windows here, each light like a gentle touch on his shoulder saying, Whatever is happening, Bob Burgess, you are never alone.

By choosing to center the plot around a hate crime, Strout manages to inject a moral tone and a contemporary feel into her books without preaching.  When she writes about culture clash, she does it with the hand of someone who loves her characters and sees the humanity in all of them.  Reading The Burgess Boys in 2016, as the U.S. heads toward a heated election where refugees are a central issue, feels particularly relevant.  Yet Strout reaches into the heads of all of the interested parties, doing as much justice to the culture-shocked Somali refugees as the entrenched white residents of Shirley Falls that resent the changing culture of their town.

About the Somalis, a few townspeople did not speak at all: They were to be borne as one bore bad winters or the price of gasoline or a child who turned out badly. Others were not so silent.

While the political background of the novel could easy drag down the story, ultimately, The Burgess Boys is about a family that suffers because of its long-held secrets.  When the secrets reveal themselves by the end of the novel, as secrets must, the family moves into a satisfying place of redemption, while the reader leaves with just a bit more wisdom about the complexity of love.

“You have family”, Bob said. “You have a wife who hates you. Kids who are furious with you. A brother and sister who make you insane. And a nephew who used to be kind of a drip but apparently is not so much of a drip now. That’s called family.”

So it is, Bob Burgess.  So it is.

  • Publisher: Random House
  • Publish Date: March 26, 2013
  • Hardcover: 326 pages
  • ISBN: 1400067685
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Genre: fiction, literary fiction
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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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Her Name Is Rose by Christine Breen

HerNameIsRose Iris Bowen has just been sacked.

It’s not her fault, as the author of a weekly gardening column in a regional newspaper, that the publishing industry has been in decline and budgets are being slashed everywhere.  Her work is good.  A lifelong gardener and natural writer, she has been performing well, despite having lost her husband to cancer only two years prior.  But the world is changing.  Perhaps, her editor suggests, she could guest write a blog for free for a while?  If it becomes popular…well, what writer doesn’t know the thrill of writing for exposure?

Quiet and undemanding, Iris tries to focus on her job options, but her bigger problem that day is her mammogram.  In her forties, it is time for Iris to go for her screening, which has taken on a particular terror after the quick death of her husband.

The old linoleum was so polished that with every move, as she crossed and uncrossed her legs, it squeaked.  The chill in the air made her shiver.  She clutched her breasts.  Nobody had touched them since Luke.  She held her breath and counted.  exhaled long.  Breathed again.  One, two, three–

When the results from the mammogram reveal that there’s an distortion in her left breast that will require further testing to rule out cancer, Iris’s world is turned upside down.  She fears for herself, but she’s more frightened because she is the adoptive mother of a 19 year old daughter named Rose and she is terrified of leaving her orphaned at such a young age.

Rose, a musical protégé, is in London studying to be a classical violinist at the Royal Academy.  Like Iris, she is still wrapped in her grief for Luke, and filled with questions about her future.  When her final master class goes badly wrong, she makes a grand gesture that throws her entire future into question and amps up the tension of the novel.

Back in Ireland and facing her own mortality, Iris recalls the promise that Luke extracted from her before he died — that she would track down Rose’s birth mother, who had been a young American graduate student at Trinity College.  Iris goes to the Adoption Board in Dublin and discovers only a decades-old address in Boston.  Ignoring her follow-up appointment and telling no one where she is going, Iris impulsively books a plane ticket and sets herself to follow the footsteps of her daughter’s birth mother.  She has planned her trip so impulsively that she even forgets to pack a nightgown.

Looking at herself in the mirror now as she was ready to go downstairs, she felt acutely like an imposter.  (What does one wear when meeting the woman who birthed your child?)  She sat down on the edge of the bed and took off the sandals and put on the heels.  She wanted to look smart meeting Hilary Barrett.  She wanted to look like she’d measured up to the mother Hilary had probably hoped for when she gave her baby over to the adoption agency all those years ago.  She tried to think about what she was wearing tjat day, but she couldn’t remember.

In Boston, a deeply emotional Iris finds herself at an eccentric B&B, run by a good-hearted but lonely widow who talks entirely too much for Iris’s taste.  The other residents also forcefully intrude on Iris’s solitude, forcing her to unburden her fears onto strangers as she figures out how to face them. She meets Hector Sherr, a celebrated jazz pianist who is instantly drawn to the red-headed Irish widow, and who refuses to let her go on her journey alone.  When Iris feels her own attraction to him, she must face the fact that Luke is dead, but she is still very alive.  In Ireland, Rose faces a parallel journey to her mother, as she is courted a the custom violin that is proclaiming to have fallen in love with her at first sight.

As Iris looks for Hilary, the members of Hilary’s world also find their ways into the narrative, and the novel’s theme of unlikely connections between strangers emerges.  They are being drawn together by Rose, who is ironically unaware of her own importance to the story.  The novel takes place only over the span of a few short weeks, but as the lives of the characters turn, the setting of time and place begins to feel magical.

Her Name is Rose is foremost a novel about love and loneliness, where sadness often serves to unite strangers and make unlikely friendships.  Although there’s nothing surprising in the denouement, all of the characters are so sympathetic that it remains a compelling and heart-warming read to the end.  Iris’s identity as a gardener and Rose’s role as a musician also fill the book with beauty.  When their talents merge in the final emotional scene of the novel, it just feels right and true.

  • Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
  • Publish Date: April 14, 2015
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • ISBN: 1250054214
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Genre: chick lit, fiction, women's fiction
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The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti


thegoodthief

 

The Good Thief, by Hannah Tinti, is my running favorite out of all the books I’ve read this year.  It is the sort of adventure that picks the reader up, introduces her to a broad spectrum of memorable characters, then races towards a creative and surprising conclusion.  Throughout the adventure, Tinti also plays with the idea of morality — her good thief is a twelve-year-old orphan that is brought into a world of petty criminals and asked to do things that repeatedly test the morality of his religious upbringing.  As Ren observes the bizarre workings of the adult world around him, he must decide where his own moral compass lies.  Is it wrong to steal, if stealing feeds you?  It is wrong to lie, if lying can save your life?

When the novel opens, Ren introduces us to the harsh world of the monastery that serves as his home.  Although he has no parents, he has found some love in his friendships with the unlucky twins Brom and Ichy and with his relationships with the priests who raise the boys at the orphanage.  Still, he longs for a family, as well as the answer to the questions of his origins.  And, perhaps most curious at all, how did he lose his hand?

When Benjamin Nab arrives at St. Anthony’s and adopts him as his long-lost brother, Ren thinks he’s going to finally have some answers to his questions.  But it quickly becomes apparent that Benjamin is a talented liar and shyster, who is dedicated to teaching Ren how to survive, at any cost.

“Don’t be a fool,” said Benjamin.  “I’ve never been to India.”  He bunched one of the blankets behind his head.  “You better get some rest.  We’ve got to be up in an hour or two.”

The boy took a step back.  “But you said–“he began.

“I know what I said.  Didn’t you listen?  What did I tell you before we went inside?”

“You told me not to say anything.”

“And what else?”

“To learn.”

“We needed a place to sleep.  And now we have it.  I told them what they wanted to hear so they’d give it to us.  It’s as simple as that.”

Charming and quick-witted, Benjamin shows Ren how easily people are manipulated, but also the cost that comes from doing so.  Benjamin, Ren and their partner Tom make their way to North Umbrage, where they become involved in stealing bodies for a local doctor — a vastly more profitable enterprise than the petty thievery that they’d been surviving on.  They rent rooms from a Mrs. Sands, a youthful widow with a hearing problem, who quickly steps as the mother that Ren longed for.  But her world is just as mystical as the other adults in Ren’s life, and her house is filled with mousetrap girls, a mysterious nightly visitor and stories of a drowned boy that give Ren more questions than answers.  When the hired thugs of the local robber baron discover their nocturnal activities, Ren and his friends finally face very real consequences for their crimes — and Ren discovers that getting what you’ve wished for is not always what you need.

The frogs were out.  Earlier it had rained, and now as the wagon passed the marshes in the dark, there was a chorus of syncopated croaking.  Benjamin sat in the driver’s seat, a lantern balanced on the floor.  Tom was beside him and Dolly and the boys were in the back, clinging to the sides as they bounced over holes in the rocky path.  The horse strained through the night against the weight of them all.  Every half-mile she stopped, as if she had given up completely.  Benjamin flicked the whip, and the mare trudged on.

“Where are we going?” Ichy whispered.

Ren glanced at Benjamin and Tom, their shoulders hunched together in the darkness.  “Fishing,” he said.

It is this sense of the mystical crossed with the mundane ordinariness of day-to-day life that makes Tinti’s storytelling so enjoyable.  She captures the setting well, using the picturesque backgrounds of early rural New England to create a world where her outlandish characters seem right at home.  Ren’s earnestness is delightful, as he comes to love the scoundrels that he’s fallen in with as the family that he never had.   Equal parts coming-of-age story and adventure novel, The Good Thief is a book that is hard to put down.

  • Publisher: The Dial Press
  • Publish Date: August 26, 2008
  • Hardcover: 327 pages
  • ISBN: 0385337450
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Genre: adventure, fiction, historical fiction
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For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Front cover For Whom the bell TollsWritten in 1940, Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls is a 500+ page diary of the four days leading up to an assault on Segovia in the Spanish Civil War.  The hero of the novel is Robert Jordan, an American professor whose Communist sympathies have led him to volunteer to fight for the Republic, a revolutionary government that is fighting the fascists for control of Spain.  Written in a close third perspective, the novel follows Robert Jordan — who is alternately known as Ingles and Roberto  — as he meets up with a band of guerilla fighters hiding in the mountains ahead of the fascist lines, and lays the groundwork for a major Republican assault.  His job is relatively simple — he is a trained dynamiter that must ensure that a strategic bridge is blown up as the attack begins.

But the simple task is not easy.  When Robert Jordan meets up with the guerillas, he discovers that their leader Pablo has been ousted in favor of his mujer Pilar.  Pablo becomes a metaphorical stick of dynamite in the group, as he drinks and insults his companions, and Robert Jordan wonders whether or not it would be better to kill him before the attack begins.  His mind is further distracted from the task at hand when he meets Maria, a young woman who has survived a gang rape by the fascists that executed her parents.  Drawn instantly to her, he falls in love and enters a whirlwind relationship with her that is intensified by the dangers of the upcoming battle.  Knowing well that his chances of survival are slim, he engages Maria as his common-law wife within hours of meeting her.

In the mountains in the days before the attack, the relationships between the characters are intensified, as there is little to distract them from each other or the coming danger.  As Robert Jordan balances the needs of his mission with his own introspection and his feelings for Maria, we are treated to Hemingway’s understanding of the complexity of the emotional state of soldiers at war.  Robert Jordan fights through his fear, while also revelling in the camaraderie of strangers thrown together for a common and dangerous purpose.

I have been all my life in these hills since I have been here. Anselmo is my oldest friend.  I know him better than I know Charles, than I know Chub, than I know Guy, than I know Mike, and I know them well. Agustín, with his vile mouth, is my brother, and I never had a brother. Maria is my true love and my wife. I never had a true love. I never had a wife. She is also my sister, and I never had a sister, and my daughter, and I never will have a daughter. I hate to leave a thing that is so good. He finished tying his rope-soled shoes.

Hemingway also delves briefly at points in the novel into the mind of Anselmo, Robert’s Jordan’s guide and the viejo of the group in order to give us a sense of Robert Jordan from the outside perspective. Anselmo fights with his moral understanding that killing is wrong, even though he knows that it is necessary to protect himself and the lives of his companions.  Through the parallel views of Robert Jordan and Anselmo, we get a deeper portrait of the psychology that allows an ordinary person to destroy human life.

All that I am sorry for is the killing. But surely there will be an opportunity to atone for that because for a sin of that sort that so many bear, certainly some just relief will be devised. I would like to talk with the Inglés about it but, being young, it is possible that he might not understand. He mentioned the killing before. Or was it I that mentioned it? He must have killed much, but he shows no signs of liking it. In those who like it there is always a rottenness.

Although the novel could easily be a relentless barrage of the human cost of political upheaval, there is an enjoyable bravado that Hemingway employs in his characters that really gets the reader on their side.  Robert Jordan knows that his task is nearly impossible to survive, but he still wonders if he has a future back home in Montana, while Pilar revels in the base sexuality of the  love affair between Robert Jordan and Maria.  Agustin can’t utter a sentence without profanity (though, charmingly, these words are represented as ‘unprintable’ and ‘obscentiy’, which leads to charming phrases such as ‘I obscenity in the milk of your mother’). Even Maria, whose backstory paints a truly damaged woman, shows the world her courage through her willingness to love Robert Jordan. Pablo is the closest thing to a villain that the novel has, but his true crime is only cowardice, as he allows his fear to drive him into inaction and then, later, sabotage.

He was seeing the expanding wedges of threes, silver and thundering in the sky that were coming over the far shoulder of the mountain where the first sun was striking.  He watched them come shining and beautiful in the sun. He saw the twin circles of light where the sun shone on the propellers as they came.

One of the most memorable chapters of the novel is when Pilar tells Robert Jordan about the Republican victory in her home town, so that he will understand what Pablo was before he lost his nerve.  The chapter stands out in the brutality of the Republicans, who punish the Fascists and Fascist sympathizers.  Forced to walk a gauntlet, the losers march to their deaths, while the Republican winners are equally horrified and enthusiastic about meting out revenge.  Hemingway’s moral is clear — even the idealistic Republics use the same behavior as the Fascists, making it clear that idealism doesn’t protect anyone from their own culpability in the violence of war.

Pablo is very intelligent but very brutal. He had this of the village well planned and well ordered. Listen. After the assault was successful, and the last four guards had surrendered, and he had shot them against the wall, and we had drunk coffee at the café that always opened earliest in the morning by the corner from which the early bus left, he proceeded to the organization of the plaza. Carts were piled exactly as for a capea except that the side toward the river was not enclosed. That was left open.

Although war is shown as a terrible thing, Hemingway also shows us  moments of beauty in it, both in the emotional human connections and the aesthetic appreciation of war machinery.  The battles seem quaint to the modern reader, as the guerillas learn to use their maquinas — the automatic machine guns — and escape from battle on horses.    When the sleek planes of the Fascists fly overhead, the guerillas are almost certain that they are dead. As with all war stories, the stakes are as high as is possible; through every moment of the novel, each character knows that they risk their own death.  For many of the characters, it is even worse — they risk surviving and remembering the killing that they did in the name of idealism.

His eyes, watching the planes coming, were very proud. He saw the red wing markings now and he watched their steady, stately roaring advance. This was how it could be. These were our planes. They had come, crated on ships, from the Black Sea through the Straits of Marmora, through the Dardanelles, through the Mediterranean and to here, unloaded lovingly at Alicante, assembled ably, tested and found perfect and now flown in lovely hammering precision, the V’s tight and pure as they came now high and silver in the morning sun to blast those ridges across there and blow them roaring high so that we can go through.

Mostly, Hemingway leaves us with the solid understanding that there is no escaping the war when it takes place in your country — a lesson that is all too real when we compare the death tolls of Americans and Iraqis.  At some points of the novel, the similarities are eerie between the two conflicts, which gives For Whom the Bell Tolls a particular modern relevance.  Yet, at no point do the characters of For Whom the Bell Tolls question their idealism; for whatever reason they are drawn into the war, they are committed to seeing the fighting through, no matter the human cost.  Does that echo the voices of our soldiers today?  I am not so sure.

The title is based on a John Donne poem, which I will leave you with:

No man is anIland,intire of itselfe; every man is a peece of the

Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie
were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne
were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in
Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the
bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publish Date: October 21, 1940
  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • ISBN: 0684803356
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: classics, fiction
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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 Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver


the-poisonwood-bibleAs I have been watching the news unfold over the last few months, I have been reminded of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which is a novel that I haven’t been able to put out of my mind since I read it. It seems that every week or two has brought a new story of black men being killed by police officers under questionable circumstances. Over and over again we’re hearing a narrative that we’ve long known to be true — that to be a young black man in this country is a particularly dangerous business.

The unfair treatment of black men by police has been a social problem that I have known about my entire life.  Likewise, the main subject of The Poisonwood Bible — the disastrous effect of colonialism in Africa — is another narrative that we’ve all heard over and over. As with our national narrative, we have heard the problem described so many times that any real change seems like a hopeless dream. Kingsolver, in writing a novel about the Congolese, has contributed in the way that writers do — she’s written a compelling story to give human faces and names to big social problems. She gives us the who and also the why, taking the abstract ideas of colonization, unimaginable poverty and political corruption and turned it into a story about these specific people in the Congo. She shows us faces and makes us care about her characters, while forcing us to examine the ideas we were taught about Africa as schoolchildren.

Kingsolver sets up her perspective by narrating her story through the eyes of a white American missionary family, who go to the Congo less than a year before the revolution and American-controlled counterrevolution that made Mobutu Sese Seko a dictator for three decades. The bulk of the story is told by the four Price daughters, who range in age from six to sixteen. There is Rachel, who mourns the loss of her comfortable suburban American lifestyle and resents nearly everything about her new life. The twins, Leah and Ada, are sharply intelligent and insightful about the world around them, but tied up in their own drama about the family dynamics. The baby of the family, Ruth May, charms us as she makes friends as the open-hearted way that only young children do.

When the Prices arrive in the poor village of Kilaga, they are immediately thrown into culture shock. When they emerge from the plane from Georgia, Leah tells us that:

We stood blinking for a moment, staring out through the dust at a hundred dark villagers, slender and silent, swaying faintly like trees.  We’d left Georgia at the height of a peach-blossom summer and now stood in a bewildering dry, red fog that seemed like no particular season you could put your finger on.  In all our layers of clothing we must have resembled a family of Eskimos plopped down in a jungle.

The material sacrifices that the Prices have made to move to the Congo pale in comparison with their neighbors. When the Prices packed to leave, they were flummoxed by the weight limit of what they were allowed to bring on the plane, trying to fit all of the clothes and tools that they’ll need for the year into fifty-four pounds of luggage and whatever they can wear. The Congolese, on the other hand, have so little that the elderly of the village watch a hair dressing party

working their gums, dressed in clothes exactly the same color as their skin, from all the many ground-in years of wash and wear.  From a distance you can’t tell they have anything on at all, but just the faintest shadow of snow-white hair as if Jack Frost lightly touched down on their heads.  They look as old as the world.  Any colorful thing they might hold in their hands, like a plastic bucket, stands out strangely.

It quickly becomes clear that the native Congolese were given a deck of playing cards with all the diamonds stolen, while the Europeans are given another, more complete, set. When the Belgians release their hold on the Congo, the Europeans and Americans that the Prices have met flee, with as much of their stolen wealth as they can carry out.

And yet, while the economic situation of the Congolese could easily make the novel relentless in its depictions of the harm the Europeans and Americans have done, Kingsolver makes the political personal by involving us in the familial struggles of the Price family. Burdened with a mean and authoritarian father, whose religious zealotry isolates him from everyone around him, the Price girls must navigate their childhood carefully. It is a complex family relationship, where the girls compete against one another to try and find their father’s love, while also learning to survive in a foreign world. When Kingsolver stages the trials of adolescence against the missionary background and combines it with dysfunctional family dynamics, she creates a page-turning narrative that lingers with the reader for a long time after the final page is turned. Leah tells us that

our whole family was at odds, it seemed: Mother against Father, Rachel against both of them, Adah against the world, Ruth May pulling helplessly at anyone who came near, and me trying my best to stay on Father’s side.  We were tangled in such knots of resentment we hardly understood them.

Kingsolver writes powerfully and beautifully, bringing difficult social and family issues to life through her narration.  We get a sense of the beauty and promise of the Congolese, while not descending into a simplistic portrait of good versus bad, black versus white. Through their burgeoning relationships with their neighbors, the Price children discover beauty and absurdity within the world around them and within their own family. What at first seems bizarre and strange becomes comprehensible and natural as they learn the social context around the unfamiliar behavior of the Congolese. As their year in the Congo extends, it is American norms that begin to seem strange. When Patrice Lumumba comes to power, Leah Price stands in the crowd and dreams as a Congolese.

Nothing will take away the suffering of the thousands of black men that have wrongly become victims to the prejudice of our penal and legal system. Likewise, we can’t undo the actions of our government that have contributed to the political instability of the Congo. In both cases, we see the same theme — a status quo that works hard to keep itself, at the cost of fairness and justice.

Kingsolver, writing in 1998, asks a very similar question in The Poisonwood Bible to the questions we see being asked today about our legal system.  Will there ever be justice for the crimes committed by the Europeans and the Americans in the Congo? Can corruption be removed when it comes from the top? Can we escape the ideas of our past to create a fair tomorrow?

With over half of its wealth still being exported, continuing civil war and record-setting levels of poverty among its people, it seems that the majority of the Congolese are still waiting to find out.

More on the Congo:

Amy Ernst

  • Publisher: Harper Perennial Modern Classics
  • Publish Date: July 5, 2005
  • Hardcover: 546 pages
  • ISBN: 0060786507
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Genre: fiction, historical fiction
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