Literary Corner Cafe

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Book Review - Booker Nominees - On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry

I know a lot of people who weren’t familiar with Sebastian Barry’s work until the publication of the Booker shortlisted The Secret Scripture. Barry, however, has been around for quite some time. He’s written five novels now, a host of plays, and three poetry collections, and he’s collected several awards for his writing including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Independent Bookseller’s Prize, and the Irish Book Awards Prize for “Best Novel.” Those of us who’re familiar with his work know that Barry writes primarily about two families – the McNultys and the Dunnes. The Secret Scripture, the book that immediately preceded this one, revolved around Roseanne McNulty Clear as she neared her one hundredth birthday. On Canaan’s Side, however, which was longlisted for the Booker, revolves around a member of the Dunne family. The Dunnes, first heard from in what is probably Barry’s most loved play and the cornerstone of his work, “The Steward of Christendom” are a family of Irish loyalists whose only sin is being on the losing side of the Troubles of 1916-22. “The Steward of Christendom” explores the life of Thomas Dunne, a “Castle Catholic,” and the chief superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police under the British. A widower, Thomas raised one son, Willie, whose story is told in Barry’s first Booker shortlisted novel, A Long, Long Way, and three daughters, Annie, Maud, and Lilly. Annie’s story is told in the beautiful Annie Dunne, and it’s Lilly whose story is told in On Canaan’s Side.

As the book opens, eighty-nine-year-old Lilly Dunne Bere is mourning the suicide of her grandson, Bill, who she raised from the age of two, and, as she now finds herself unable to face life without him, she’s writing her memoirs in preparation for her own suicide. She lets us know immediately that she’s come undone with grief:

Grief: The feeling of it is like a landscape engulfed in floodwater in the pitch darkness, and everything, hearth and byre, animal and human, terrified and threatened. It is as if someone, some great agency, some CIA of the heavens, knew well the little mechanism that I am, and how it is wrapped and fixed, and has the booklet or manual to undo me, and cog by cog and wire by wire is doing so, with no intention ever to put me back together again....

On Canaan’s Side is going to be compared with Barry’s previous book, The Secret Scripture simply because both books feature an elderly protagonist who’s intent on setting down the story of her life. In actuality, other than the above, I didn’t find the books at all alike. Reading On Canaan’s Side was a very different experience for me than reading The Secret Scripture, though I loved both books. And Roseanne McNulty Clear, the protagonist of The Secret Scripture is a very different woman than Lilly Dunne Bere. I’m not usually a fan of the memoirist who’s setting everything down for posterity, but Sebastian Barry is one of the few authors writing today – or any time, really – who can make anything work, and make it work beautifully.

The structure of the book is a simple one. It’s divided into seventeen chapters, each chapter narrated by Lilly in more or less linear fashion, and each one marking one more day since Lilly buried her grandson, Bill. The chapters are simply titled – “First Day Without Bill,’ “Second Day Without Bill,” etc., until we reach “Seventeenth Day Without Bill.”

Like Roseanne in The Secret Scripture, Lilly is an intelligent, articulate, sensitive, and poetic narrator, who has a fascinating story to tell, though she seems a bit more emotional than Roseanne Clear. A woman who came of age in Wicklow, Ireland during the Troubles that began with the Easter Rising in 1916, Lilly’s fiancĂ© was Tadg Bere, a man who’d known Willie Dunne in Belgium, and who served in the “Black and Tans” after his return home. When Lilly’s father learns there’s a price on Tadg’s head – and by extension, Lilly’s – he arranges for the pair to flee Ireland forever and hopefully, make a new life in the relative safety of the United States, on Canaan’s side.

Although Tadg and Lilly have plans in the US, life, as most of us know, rarely conforms to the decisions we’ve made for it. As Lilly and her story move from Chicago to Cleveland to Long Island, Barry makes it clear that Lilly – that none of us, really – can flee from the consequences and repercussions of our history, or from our memories.

Although Lilly comes from a background steeped in Irish history, it’s American history (both World Wars, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the civil rights movement, the political assassinations of the 60s) that forms the backdrop of this book, though the book, itself, is intimate and personal and Barry’s touch is light when writing about politics.

Having lost almost every man she ever cared about to war, Lilly becomes a symbol of the devastating effects of war on those who are left behind. To Barry’s credit, his strong anti-war message doesn’t feel like a message at all. There’s nothing didactic about this book. Barry is far too empathetic for that. So skillful is Barry in the creation of his characters, and so honest and heartfelt is Lilly’s raw grief that the reader is immediately pulled into her story. And Lilly grieves not only for those she’s lost, but for all those who have been lost, and all those who have suffered losses:

Greece, America, Arabia, Ireland. Home places. Nowhere on earth is not a home place. The calf returns to where it got the milk. Nowhere is a foreign place. It is home for someone, and therefore us all.

Sebastian Barry, of course, began his career as a poet, and part of this wondrous book’s power lies in the power of Barry’s language. His lyrical prose is filled with hypnotic rhythms, perfect details, and vivid images. He knows exactly what to write to evoke the emotional reaction in the reader he wants:

But there was something tugging, tugging at me now, Lilly says at one point, some intimation, like a drop of lemon in a jug of milk, to sour it for the soda bread.

This concentration on just the right detail ensures that On Canaan’s Side will be an intense and immersive read, and one in which the most brutal events of the book will be diffused somewhat by a dreadful and beautiful strangeness. Barry, himself, has defended his intense poeticism: "If you listen carefully for how people are talking to you in Ireland, in certain districts, it is quite elaborate, there is a strangeness to it."

This is, without a doubt, the most beautifully written novel I’ve ever read, and for all its poetry and lyricism, to its enormous credit, I never found it overwritten. In attempting to convey the depth of her grief at her grandson’s death, Lilly writes:

What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking? It might not be much more than silence, and certainly a small slight sound.

Lilly’s voice, in Barry’s sure hand, is a radiant Irish voice. This is Lilly as she begins to describe her small house in Cleveland, Ohio, where she lived in the 1930s:

Our little house had a view of the lake, just. You had to crane your neck, and all you saw were factories and jetties, but it was there, the water. The lake had its own aroma, from a hundred ingredients, mixed by the god of that lake. There was great soothing in that smell.

And, when remembering the heathery white hills of her Irish girlhood, Lilly, herself, becomes caught up in Barry’s intense lyricism, his poetic cadences:

I am writing it, I am writing it, and I spill it all out on my lap like very money, like riches, beyond the dreams of avarice.

At one point, Lilly says her heart …lifted like a pheasant from scrub…its wings utterly opened in fright and exulting. And, when describing the whole of her life, she writes: My years have no width or length, have no dimension at all, just the downturn of a bird’s wings. So quick.

Lilly’s story is, primarily, a story of exile, suffering, and horror, though it’s shot through with glittering strands of beauty, wonder, and tenderness that tug at the reader’s heart. Sometimes, there are even brief glimmers of happiness. I’m thinking, in particular, of a five-hundred-word sentence that recreates the uphill climb and the downhill rush of a rollercoaster at Luna Park on which Lilly rides with her friend, Cassie Blake and a Cleveland police officer, Joe Kinderman, and also describes how Lilly feels about her friends. I heard Sebastian Barry, himself, read this section, and the power of his words is nothing short of tremendous, making it impossible for any reader with an open heart to come away from this book dry-eyed.

For the most part, I’ve avoided a plot summary. It would only be fair to let Lilly – and Barry – tell you the details of Lilly’s life. On Canaan’s Side is not a comforting read, and it’s not sentimental. In fact, Barry eschews sentimentality. There are, he says, some Irish, and even more Irish Americans, who cherish a sentimental view of Ireland, one that really has little to do with Ireland’s history, especially the bloodshed of the twentieth century.

If you’ve read many reviews of this book, you’ve no doubt read about a plot twist near the book’s end. It’s surprising – not shocking, but surprising – and I think it’s entirely credible. I felt the book was enhanced by its inclusion, and I’m glad Barry decided to make use of it.

Most wrongs are never righted. The so-called “sins of the father” continue to reverberate down the ages and visit tragedies on the sons. Sebastian Barry’s vision, as I’ve interpreted it, is to expose those unrighted wrongs, and with the healing balm of language begin to bring light into the darkness. He searches out memories, memories in which “a measure of tragedy is stitched into everything if you follow the thread long through.” And don’t we all have threads of that sort woven into the fabric of our lives?

I don’t believe anyone who reads this book will soon forget Lilly Dunne Bere or the events that made up her extraordinary life. This book affected me like no other ever has. If you love literature, and if you love what literature can do, you need to read this book.


Recommended: Without reservation. This is undoubtedly the most beautifully written book I’ve ever read. However, lest I’ve dwelt on the book’s language too long, let me assure you that the story of Lilly Dunne Bere is a compelling one. Barry does not, in any of his books, sacrifice story for poetry.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Book Review - Contemporary Classics - A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

Vikram Seth’s gigantic (it’s close to 1,500 pages) novel, A Suitable Boy is set in Brahmpur, a fictionalized Northern Indian city on the banks of the Ganges River. The action takes place from about 1950 to 1952, four to five years after India gained independence from Great Britain in 1947. As such, there’s been a lot of political turmoil in India, with Partition, etc., but even though politics plays a big role in the lives of the characters, Seth never lets politics dominate his story. A Suitable Boy is, first and foremost, a book about people.

The book opens with the wedding of Savita Mehra and Pran Kapoor, two people who are entering into an “arranged” marriage and have barely laid eyes on each other prior to their wedding day, something that doesn’t seem to bother either bride or groom. The mother of the bride, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, who might be said to be the character around whom the book revolves, informs her younger daughter, Lata, that she, too, will someday marry “a suitable boy” her mother chooses. Lata, however, has ideas of her own.

The wedding of Savita and Pran, like the wedding of Arun Mehra and Meenakshi Chatterji, which took place prior to the book’s opening, helps in uniting the novel’s four main families: the Mehras, the Kapoors, the Chatterjis, and the Khans. Seth has provided a family tree in the front of the book, but readers soon learn “who belongs to whom” and there’s no confusion when reading the novel. As the reader follows the triumphs and tribulations of the four main families, India during transition impacts their lives, and a richly textured portrait of life among the upper middle classes on the subcontinent emerges.

Although a part of the book, of course, follows Mrs. Rupa Mehra’s quest to find “a suitable boy” for Lata, and Lata’s quest to choose a husband for herself, this story thread is by no means the only one in the novel. Maan Kapoor, the younger brother of Pran, might be said to play as large a role in the novel as do Mrs. Rupa Mehra and Lata. And it’s Maan, primarily, through his friendship with the lawyer Firoz Khan, who unites the Hindus and the Muslims in A Suitable Boy.

Everything these characters do impacts the lives of the other characters. All the lives seem intertwined, and the reader gets to know everyone just about equally. For example, when Pran falls ill, it’s not only the Mehras and the Kapoors who are involved. The Chatterjis have reason to visit the patient as well, and Pran’s physician is none other than Imtiaz Khan, the twin brother of Firoz, Maan Kapoor’s best friend. I loved the way Seth intertwined the lives of his characters. It drew me more fully into the book.

The themes in A Suitable Boy are family themes, of course, but the book also abounds in political themes given the fact that it’s set in India only a few years after independence and partition. I admit to being least interested in the political sections, but still, I did find them somewhat interesting, and there’s no doubt they were well written. We see, though the eyes of the book’s characters, the struggles between Hindus and Muslims, between governmental parties, between the city and the countryside. India is in the process of defining itself, without the British and without the northern states that were partitioned to Pakistan. Most of the time, when reading the political sections of the book, I just wanted to hurry and get back to reading about the characters I’d grown to love, though I didn’t skip any sections, and really never wanted to, long as the book is.

The caste system in India might be confusing to some readers, though Seth doesn’t make it overly so. I knew the upper classes wanted their sons and daughters to marry within the same class, but I didn’t know the difference between brahmins and khatris, for example, and really, I still don’t know completely. I just know they usually don’t intermarry, though one couple in the book, the already mentioned Arun Mehra and Meenakshi Chatterji, are a khatri and a brahmin. I learned that “Mehra” is a khatri name.

While Seth lets us know that “caste matters” in 1950s India, he doesn’t over-burden the Western reader with details. What came as an even bigger surprise to me was that lighter-skinned Indians were very strongly opposed to the darker-skinned Indians, and I was even more shocked when a friend from Sri Lanka assured me this is still true today. I was a little shocked when Mrs. Rupa Mehra told Lata in no uncertain terms, “I will not have a black grandchild.” However Meenakshi Chatterji is described as being quite a bit darker skinned than the Mehras, and Mrs. Rupa Mehra dearly loves Meenakshi’s daughter, Aparna, so I guess complexion wasn’t always a factor in the choice of marriage partner.

Some people have criticized A Suitable Boy as being “too sentimental” and “not gritty enough.” It’s true that Seth only glossed over the gritty underworld and the petty criminal element that form a part of any large city in any country, but I think he can be forgiven for that. This book isn’t meant to be a police procedural or a detective novel. It’s not, for instance, Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, which does take a close look at a police detective in modern day Mumbai. And, Seth was writing about the upper middle classes and the upper classes. The characters in this book aren’t the kind of people who are going to become involved with the criminal element. That said, there was some glossing and sugar-coating in this book. The women, for example, were too free to do as they pleased, even the Hindu women. Lata Mehra, for example, an unmarried, nineteen-year-old girl, at one point, accompanies Amit Chatterji to his bedroom in the Chatterji mansion. Granted, it was entirely innocent, and they were only going to look at some of Amit’s books, but really, in 1951 India, I don’t think any nineteen-year-old girls would be accompanying thirty-year-old men to their bedroom for any reason. This didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the book in any way, though.

Seth’s prose is plain and unadorned, and that’s as it should be. In a book this size, anything else would stand out and become difficult. The author even employs a third person, fully omniscient narrator, and it works. Perfectly. I can’t imagine the story being told any other way.

Although this book is one of the longest I’ve ever read, it’s not a difficult read, and the pages fly by. I found myself fully engaged with the characters by the end of page 1, and I hated to put the book aside every night to go to sleep. The book, and the characters, became my constant companion, and I was truly sorry to see the novel end.

A Suitable Boy is a beautiful book. It’s Dickensian in scope, and it will pull you in and keep you there for the duration. It’s become one of my all time favorites. I really can’t praise it highly enough.


Recommended: Readers who love big, old-fashioned books that really tell a whopping good story will no doubt love this one. Don’t let its length scare you away. The pages fly by, and you'll love spending time with these characters.

Note: Seth is publishing A Suitable Girl in 2013, which will tell the story of eighty-year-old Lata’s search for “a suitable girl” for her grandson. I can’t wait to meet a Lata who will be old enough, in the new book, to me the mother/grandmother of Mrs. Rupa Mehra (Lata’s mother) in A Suitable Boy. It will be interesting to see how Lata has evolved.

Edit: It's been several weeks since I've finished this book, and I really miss both the story and the characters. It's that kind of book.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Book Review - Literary Memoirs - A Haunted Love Story by Mark Spencer

Mark Spencer is well known as the popular Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at the University of Monticello in Monticello, Arkansas and as the talented writer of several wonderful, prize-winning books of fiction, both novels and short stories. A Haunted Love Story, however, will introduce readers to a new side of Mr. Spencer, that of writer of creative non-fiction and memoirist.

When Mark Spencer and his wife Rebecca traveled with their three children from Oklahoma to Arkansas they all fell in love with a stately “convoluted, but also elegant” Victorian home located right on the town’s Main Street. Determined to buy it, though it wasn’t even for sale, Mark and Rebecca had no idea – at first – that the home they’d fallen in love with had quite a history. It had been, the Spencer family would soon learn, voted the “most haunted house in America” in an online survey conducted a full three years prior to the writing of Mark’s book.

The first half of A Haunted Love Story details Mark and Rebecca’s attempts to buy the house – known far and wide as the “Allen House” – from its previous owner, an eccentric “Dallas kind of gal” Mark dubbed “Marilyn,” a buxom blonde who could often look twenty-five or thirty years younger than her chronological age, and one who, it would appear, really didn’t want to sell the house at all. How many people wait two years to take possession of a house they love simply because the owner can’t bring herself to let it go? I would bet not many, yet that’s exactly what Mark and Rebecca did, sometimes with comic effect. As for the long wait to make the house their own, Mark and Rebecca must have known then what I came to know several years later – the Allen House needed and wanted them there, and it was determined it would have them. It had a purpose for the Spencers, and part of that purpose has been fulfilled by the writing of this book.

Even though the entire town of Monticello had warned them, Mark and Rebecca really had no idea what they were getting into when they and their children finally moved into the house of their dreams. They thought they were getting a beautiful Victorian mansion to love and to restore and to call their home, and so they were. Not much time passed by, however, until Mark and Rebecca realized they’d gotten so much more. The people who told this unsuspecting couple that the Allen House was haunted weren’t joking or simply repeating town superstitions and fears. The Allen House, the Spencer family came to realize, really was haunted.

In the first part of the book, Mark gives his readers an interesting and intriguing history of the Allen House that encompasses more than one hundred years and will surely fascinate any reader who’s ever wondered about the spirit world, no matter what his or her beliefs. The family even calls in credible paranormal investigators, the “Louisiana Spirits,” to conduct a thorough examination of the house and confirm or deny the presence of the spirits who made themselves known to the Spencers. I, myself, once lived in a house with excessive poltergeist activity, as did my own mother, yet I tended to be a non-believer where the spirit world was concerned. After all, I could only “hear” my poltergeist; I couldn’t see him or her. But even though I’m a non-believer, I was totally engrossed, and sometimes downright scared, by Mark’s detailed descriptions of the spirits he and his family encountered in their home, and I must say, I’m not quite the skeptic I once was. Mark and Rebecca eventually became convinced that no less than six spirits are haunting their beautiful new home, and one of the most active is Ladell Allen Bonner, one of the daughters of the home’s first owner.

As Mark details in the book, the first owner of the Allen House was wealthy businessman, Joe Lee Allen, who had the house built for his beloved wife, Caddye and their three daughters, Lonnie, Ladell, and Lew. The girls grew up in the Allen House, and when Ladell and her husband Boyd divorced, Caddye and Joe’s middle daughter came home to live with her mother.

Ladell was a real “southern belle,” born to wealth and privilege. Everyone in Monticello knew her, and she knew everyone else. The townspeople were curious about Ladell’s life, and when she swallowed mercury cyanide on Christmas 1948, the townspeople were, understandably, curious about that as well. That curiosity persisted for sixty years, until the Spencer family bought the Allen House.

One day, when Mark was alone in his home, he felt an irresistible urge to explore the attic. There, hidden under a loose floorboard, he discovered eighty-one love letters written to Ladell, the bulk of them from a man known as Prentiss Hemingway Savage, that at long last shed some light on the overwhelming sadness in Ladell’s life and pointed to a reason for her suicide.

The second half of this immensely readable book, culled from letters written by Prentiss Savage himself, details the tragic love story of Ladell and Prentiss, a handsome, wealthy, and very married oil executive, originally from Monticello, who had moved “up north,” to Minnesota. Old acquaintances who’d been reunited at a Hot Springs, Arkansas horse race, Prentiss found love with Ladell in mid-life, apparently too late, at least in Prentiss’ estimation, to leave “H.” his wife and make a home and a life with Ladell.

Even if you’re a “doubting Thomas” and don’t really believe in the ghost stories and paranormal activity recounted in the first half of the book, I don’t see how anyone could fail to be deeply touched by Mark’s sensitive and empathetic exploration of Ladell’s doomed love affair with Prentiss.

As I read, Ladell, Prentiss, Caddye, and the others who populate this book really came alive for me. I felt that I was witness to the sad – and not so sad – events that took place in Ladell’s life. I felt at least part of the great heartbreak she must have felt, and the fact that I did is testament to Mark’s perceptive writing. I can see why the spirits of some of the people who’ve lived in the Allen House still feel the need to haunt it and why they can’t let go of the life they lived on this earth and move on.

I loved the fact that Mark included excerpts from the letters. It was astonishing and riveting to hear part of this story told in the words of one who lived it. I couldn’t put the book down even though I was tired and needed to go to sleep. My need to know how things developed between Ladell and Prentiss was far greater. Ladell – a middle-aged Southern divorcee – was far from the “typical” romantic heroine, but she was real, a real human being connected to another real human being that I know and respect. Her story took on enormous importance for me.

Of course no one, not even Mark, knows all that happened between Ladell and Prentiss. Some of the details – and this book is richly detailed – had to be “filled in” by Mark. Always a sensitive writer possessed of much empathy, I think Mark really shines in this book. It’s never lost on him that he’s writing about real people, people who ate and slept and cried and laughed and just plain lived in the very house in which Mark’s living in now. As I read, I had the overwhelming feeling that if this wasn’t exactly how things played out between Ladell and Prentiss, then the difference was so minuscule as to not even matter.

A Haunted Love Story is far more than a ghost story or a story of paranormal activity. It is, in the truest sense, a love story. It details the love Ladell had for Prentiss, the love Caddye had for Ladell, the love Ladell had for her own son, Allen, the love shared among the members of the Spencer family, and the love they feel for their beautiful home. This is Mark’s “thank you” to the history of his home, and his love letter to his own wife for taking this sometimes strange and beautiful journey by his side. More than anything, though, this book was confirmation to me that love is, indeed, eternal.

I’m not a “crier.” Books and movies don’t make me shed tears. At least not generally. This one did. I can’t stop thinking about Ladell and the overwhelming sadness this lovely human being had to bear. Contrary to what some might expect, Ladell has not moved on. She’s still at the Allen House and still living with Mark and Rebecca and their family. However, with the publication of this beautifully written book, and the details of her sad history finally made known to all, I hope that Ladell Allen Bonner feels at last some measure of peace and tranquility.


Recommended: Definitely, and not just to those who enjoy books featuring ghosts. This is also a beautiful love story – two beautiful love stories – as well as the memoir of a family who finds a home they didn’t expect. It contains comedy and tragedy, but above all, it is honest, moving, and beautifully and sensitively written. It will enrich the life of all who read it.