Literary Corner Cafe

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Book Review - Wanting by Richard Flanagan

Wanting, the fifth novel by Tasmanian author, Richard Flanagan, opens in 1839 as a former London builder, George Augustus Robinson, aka, the “Great Conciliator,” aka, the “Protector,” has been sent to clean up the killing fields of Tasmania (Van Dieman’s Land) by resettling the remaining natives in camps, first at Wybalenna on remote Flinders Island, and then at Oyster Cove, in the south of mainland Tasmania. As he travels, Robinson notes: “There is not a boat harbour along the whole line of coast but what numbers of the unfortunate natives have been shot; their bones are to be seen strewed on the ground.”

In the camps, Robinson’s charges are “scabby, miserable and often consumptive,” and under his care, they are “dying like flies” despite the fact that he has converted them and protects them, giving them Western clothes, a Western diet, and teaching them Western prayers to pray to a Western god. Robinson puzzles about the reason for the tribes’ decline all the while knowing he is, at least in part, to blame.

One of Robinson’s charges is Towterer, or King Romeo, a chieftain of a Tasmanian tribe, his wife, Wongerneep, and their daughter, Mary. Robinson respects Towterer; he looks on him, not as a “charge” but as an equal, and after Towterer’s death, Mary, a vibrant child, becomes a part of Robinson’s own group in Tasmania.

From 1836 to 1843, Sir John Franklin, the English explorer, was governor of Van Dieman’s Land. Along with the ordinary and routine duties of a governor, Sir John and his wife, Lady Jane, were charged with establishing a semblance of Westernization in Tasmania and with converting the native people – referred to as “savages” – to Christianity. Franklin is better remembered as the Arctic explorer who died during an 1845 expedition he led to find the Northwest Passage, and whose story was brilliantly fictionalized by Dan Simmons in The Terror.

In their efforts to bring Christianity to the “savages,” Sir John and Lady Jane adopt the orphaned Mary, now seven-years-old, renaming her Mathinna. As Sir John puts it, “If we shine the Divine light on lost souls, then they can be no less than we. But first they must be taken out of the darkness and its barbarous influence.”

For Lady Jane, though, it more than “educating Mary.” Lady Jane really does love Mathinna. Lady Jane wants to be a mother. Her “wanting,” however, which she finds difficult to admit even to herself, is subsumed into the less emotional, more political, wishes of her husband, and Mathinna is put “on a rigid program of improvement.”

Several years later, in 1843, just before the Franklins are to depart for England, Lady Jane learns that her husband has sent Mathinna back to the orphanage. Desiring only to bring her home again, Lady Jane visits Mathinna, wanting “to rush down to the filthy courtyard, grab Mathinna and steal the frightened child away from all this love and pity, this universal understanding that it was necessary that she suffer so. She wished to wash and soothe her, to whisper that it was all right, over and over, that she was safe now, to kiss the soft shells of her ears, hold her close, feed her warm soup and bread.” But as worries over her family’s social and economic status get in the way; Lady Jane considers her more tender wantings to be those of “her reckless heart,” and so she abandons Mathinna, now tragically trapped between two worlds and two cultures, and accompanies Sir John home to England.

Life in England doesn’t prove happy for Sir John and Lady Jane. After Sir John is lost in the Arctic, reports surface, courtesy of Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor, Dr. John Rae, reports that would later prove to be true, that Sir John and his men had turned to cannibalism before succumbing to the horrors of the frozen north.

In 1854, an effort to redeem her husband’s tarnished reputation, Lady Jane contacts none other than the great “patron saint” of family life, Charles Dickens, asking that he debate Dr. Rae in his (Dickens’) periodical, “Household Words,” asserting that a fine, God-fearing Englishman such as her husband was would never allow himself to descend to such depths of depravity and savagery no matter how dire the circumstances. And Dickens agreed with Lady Jane, writing: “The convict, the Esquimau, the savage: all are enslaved not by the bone around their brain . . . but by their passions. . . . A man like Sir John is liberated from such by his civilized and Christian spirit.”

Dickens, in his mid-forties, is, himself going through a personal crisis. Though profoundly depressed at the death of his ninth child, Dora, and the failure of his marriage to his long-suffering wife, Catherine, he is, perhaps, at the height of his literary powers. He’d just completed Hard Times and was about to begin Little Dorrit. “His soul was corroding,” Flanagan writes. “Something was guttering within him, no matter how he fed the flame. He chose to embody merriment in company; he preferred solitude. He spoke here, he spoke there, he spoke everywhere; he felt less and less connection with any of it. Only in his work did Dickens truly feel that he became himself. . . . All he could do was try to steady himself by returning to work, to some new project in which he might once more bury himself alive.”

The project Dickens chooses to bury himself in is Sir John’s cause, and in 1857, with his friend, novelist, Wilkie Collins, Dickens wrote and starred in a wildly successful play defending the dead explorer titled The Frozen Deep, a play dedicated to showing that a “proper Englishman” does not give in to his passions like a “savage” does. And Dickens, himself, comes to see a parallel in his own marriage. “For twenty years,” he thinks, “had not his marriage been a Northwest Passage, mythical, unknowable, undiscoverable, an iced-up channel to love, always before him and yet through which no passageway was possible.” And even though the great writer still firmly believed that “the mark of wisdom and civilization was the capacity to conquer desire, to deny it and crush it,” he, too, is confronted with his own “wanting” in the form of eighteen-year-old actress, Ellen Ternan, the woman for whom he abandoned his wife, choosing instead to live in “secret domesticity” until his death in 1870.

Wanting – both the yearning and the lack – forms the thematic underpinning of this beautiful novel and its two story threads. And what these two story threads – the one in Tasmania involving Mathinna and Lady Jane, and the one in London involving Dickens and Ellen Ternan – have in common is that they both do revolve around the issue of wanting, though those in question move in opposite directions. Lady Jane represses her desire for motherhood, while Dickens gives in to his desire for a younger, more vital woman, even as he says, “We all have appetites and desires, but only the savage agrees to sate them.” Apparently not. Apparently the “stuffy” Victorians could and did give in to their own desires and wantings on occasion. And that brings us to the dilemma of Wanting: Which is worse, giving in to desire, or keeping it locked inside you? “If you turn away from love,” Lady Jane asks, “did it mean you no longer existed?”

And of course Flanagan explores what he terms the “catastrophe of colonialism,” something he’s explored in previous books, when he wrote of individuals who, like the Franklins, travel to foreign lands to impose a foreign culture on the natives of that land, and who, as a result, often do far more harm than good.

Wanting is a powerful, lyrical book, filled with many stunning images and set-pieces. There’s the image of Dickens as he’s about to meet Ellen Ternan for the first time:

The working entrance to the Haymarket Theater was a furtive door protruding into a side alley, from which the summer morning heat was raising a chutney of odors. With the toe of a boot, Dickens flicked aside the oyster shells splattered with bird droppings that were piled over the entrance steps.

And there’s Lady Franklin taking forty-eight hat boxes on a journey into the heat of southwestern Tasmania “borne aloft through its unmapped jungles on a blackwood palanquin shouldered by four barefoot convicts.” It reminded me a little of Voss, which I recently read and also loved.

Another memorable image was that of the two visiting expedition ships, docked in the harbor and decorated for a ball with “700 looking glasses, destined for use in exchange with any natives the explorers might meet in the South Polar regions,” hung off “the ships’ sides so that the Chinese lanterns with which the deck and masts were lighted reflected back and forth” across the water.

The prose is so beautiful, it sometimes reads almost like poetry:

She held her face in her hands, as if she were unsure that both it and she were still there, and looked skywards. Through the cracks between her fingers a silver light fell.

And Flanagan is also poetic when describing the unspoiled beauty of Tasmania, that “weird land predating time, with its vulgar rainbow colours, its vile, huge forests and bizarre animals that seemed to have been lost since Adam's exile.” It’s a place where everything is both fecund and rotting at the same time like the “small meadow glistening with so many wet spiders’ webs that it seemed veiled in a sticky gossamer.”

The novel’s structure is sophisticated and complex and moves back and forth in time from 1839 through the 1840s and the 1850s, and from Tasmania to London to Manchester and back to Tasmania. I thought the book flowed wonderfully, though, seamlessly, really, and I never felt disoriented as the narrative cut back-and-forth.

This is a book that abounds in symmetries and ironies, and like me, you might have to read Wanting more than once to catch all of them, but it’s worth it because when you do, they’re beautiful.

The voice is perfect for a novel set in Victorian times – controlling and omniscient, one that can enter the minds of any of the characters at will and learn their most intimate thoughts.

The characters are fully fleshed out (or in the case of Franklin, notably absent) and totally believable. Mathinna is Flanagan’s most successful creation, and his most tragic, and the one whose thoughts we get to know the least. Perhaps this helps the reader bond with Mathinna. We have the opportunity to connect with her on a deeper, more emotional level. Ultimately, Wanting is her book, for it’s Mathinna the reader remembers most of all. Even when she’s not present in the narrative, we can feel her presence, in her red dress, dancing at the edge of the story the way she dances at the edge of our consciousness.

Flanagan ends his book, not with a negative, but with a positive, with one of the characters who didn’t turn away, one who said “yes” to love. Charles Dickens, on stage, presses his cheek to Ellen Ternan’s “uncorseted belly” and declares that “he, a man who had spent a life believing that giving in to desire was the mark of a savage, realised that he could no longer deny wanting.”

Wanting is a beautiful, intricately patterned, shimmering book. It’s a book that’s found its way into my “top ten of all time” and into my heart.


5/5 (Cover Art)

Recommended: To those who love literary fiction. The book’s dark, though beautiful. You’ll probably be impressed with its beauty, but it’s not a book to choose if you’re looking for something to cheer you up. It won: the Tasmanian Book Prize, 2011; the London Observer’s Book of the Year, 2009; the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction, 2009; and the Western Australia Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction, 2008, so I’m not the only person who thinks its wonderful.

Note: Mathinna was real. Richard Flanagan has said that the genesis for this novel was a beautiful, moving watercolor he saw in a Hobart museum. It was of an aboriginal girl in a red dress bound with a black velvet band. As Flanagan stared, entranced, the museum curator lifted the bottom of the frame to reveal two dark shoeless feet. Embarrassed by Mathinna’s refusal to wear shoes, the Franklins, in framing her portrait, had cut her off at the ankles. Years late, in Kimberley, Australia, Flanagan was told that “shoes blinded you to everything in life.”

Monday, April 23, 2012

Book Review - Absolution by Patrick Flanery

Most of us have strong views about South Africa. Most of us know what South Africa under apartheid was like, if not firsthand, then from news reports, magazines, books, or other people. In Patrick Flanery’s wonderful debut novel, Absolution, set in the years before and after South Africa’s first free election in 1994, one character who knows the “ins and outs” of apartheid is celebrated novelist, Clare Wald.

Clare’s been living a comfortable life in Cape Town, but after a strange home invasion perpetrated by a mysterious gang who wanted neither Clare’s money nor her life, she’s moved to a compound in a very exclusive neighborhood, where high walls surround the garden, where there are “panic buttons” and metal window shields, and “barbed wire shaped and painted to mimic trained ivy.”

Into this fortress comes Sam Leroux. Sam is a native of South Africa, who went to New York in order to attend graduate school. While there, he married an American named Sarah. When Sarah’s journalistic ambitions take her to South Africa, Sam makes the decision to write the reclusive and ill-tempered (she declares herself “a terror” on page two) Clare’s biography. Her work will be of interest to others, Sam reasons, because she was writing during apartheid, and she learned how to adapt in order to keep herself and her family alive. “I came to know my molester as intimately as I knew my husband – perhaps more so,” she says.

Sam and Clare engage in a deceptive pas de deux, a danse macabre, so to speak. Sam is not quite what he seems, but then the stories Clare tells Sam are not quite the truth as well. Sam wants information from Clare; Clare wants Sam to absolve her of what she sees as “her sins.”

Ill-tempered though she is, Clare is haunted by ghosts. There’s the ghost of her father, a judge during apartheid, whose liberal ideas were too much for Clare and left her feeling as though she failed him; there’s Laura, Clare’s fiery daughter, a “journalist until she became wholly invested in the armed struggle,” a woman who resisted apartheid and supported others who also resisted, and who is presumed dead, a victim of her beliefs; and there is Nora, Clare’s sister, a woman who married into the right wing of South African politics and ended up a murder victim because of it. Here is Clare as she tries to explain the fundamental differences between Nora and herself:

Nora's soil, the water she drank, the air she inhaled, it was all polluted. And while she and I grew up with the same conditions, more or less, I had a higher tolerance, natural immunities against the environment that tried so hard to twist our growth to its own malign purpose. But not Nora. She was always susceptible. She was weak.

Both Nora’s murder and Laura’s apparent death now seem to Clare to be senseless, and for some reason, she’s convinced she is somehow to blame for both. She barely bothers to go out anymore, and, she thinks, why should she? Her life is made up of the past, not the present, and the ghosts that haunt her are all she has. Thinking of Laura, Clare writes:

You are entirely within me now, voice echoing always, a million different voices, all you, borrowed from moments when I heard you as you wanted to be heard, moments you did not realize anyone was listening, perhaps in particular me. These are no substitute, they are all that I have, those million necromanced fragments of you, summoned around the pit of fire yawning between my ribs.

Clare has sentenced herself to this ghostly prison of her own making, preferring the company of her ghosts until death finally overtakes her. Nothing matters now but forgiveness – absolution – if absolution can ever be found. Her sections of the book are driven, not by the steely-spined writer who produced the bulk of her work during apartheid, but by a mother who loves and misses her daughter, a mother who wishes to “prostrate herself in the name of reconciliation and love.”

Right outside Clare’s window is her garden, of course, and Flanery uses the garden – the soil – as a metaphor for the emerging South Africa and the peaceful co-existence of “differences” in the same way Damon Galgut sometimes does. As Clare’s gardener, Adam, cultivates the soil, nourishing the new life planted in it, Clare’s words to him take on a deeper significance than simply which way is the best way to grow vegetables:

It's not a bad thing. It is merely different. You will see. And if you are right, then I shall see. But you must let me grow what I want, Adam, otherwise we will only come to grief. . .give them a chance. See if they will flourish.

Sam has some ghosts of his own to exorcise including those of his own parents, who were killed in a car bombing, and his murdered guardian. And Sam has a much deeper connection to Clare than she’s aware of. Does Clare remember Sam? Maybe, for she toys with him and withholds information just to be cantankerous and to punish Sam for not asking the questions she prefers to answer. She really isn’t a nice person at all.

As for Sam, he barely recognizes the country of his birth, and he doesn’t seem to understand, at least at first, just how much danger lurks around every corner: Even the shortest journeys must be undertaken only by car; every visitor, every stranger must be treated with the utmost suspicion no matter how innocent he or she appears to be; and all homes and offices must be encased in several layers of security, just like Clare’s.

While Sam’s friend, Greg, tries to teach him the tricks of “keeping safe,” Sam’s wife, Sarah, takes a more pragmatic view toward the violence in her husband’s native country. After all, she says, she could be robbed at gunpoint in any country in the world. And that’s true, of course. And there are people who are masters of self-deception, as Clare is, in every country, just as the search for truth is universal and not specific to Sam or to Clare or to South Africa. The fact that it’s universal impulses rather than ones specific to South Africa that drive the main characters – Clare and Sam – forward, adds to the book rather than detracts from it. It connects “them” to “us.”

It’s the mystery of Laura’s disappearance that provides the main narrative thrust, however, but ultimately Absolution is a book that asks some very difficult moral questions while it explores the guilt the whites in South Africa must bear.

And, as the book swings back and forth between 80s apartheid, when liberal writers like Clare had to play a game of cat-and-mouse with the Board of Censors, to the “false face” of South Africa today, ostensibly a paradise of luxury hotels in which the “panic buttons” and the interracial mistrust remain hidden, the reader becomes more and more uncomfortable, right along with Sam, who comes to the realization that the history of his own life “keeps coming back like a chronic illness.”

Flanery tells his story in a braided plot of four strands, framed by a series of interviews. The chapters entitled “Sam” are those written by Sam, of course, and are told from his perspective. Then there are the chapters titled “Absolution,” which consist of a “fictionalised memoir” written by Clare about the break in of her home. “Clare” is a first person account of Wald’s attempts to make sense of Laura’s disappearance, and finally, “1989” which is told from Sam’s point-of-view begins at the point when Sam and Laura (yes, Laura, not Clare) meet for the very first time. I think Flanery did a wonderful job of weaving the story strands together and letting his readers know that things are seldom as they first appear to be. The author also keeps his readers from learning crucial information too quickly and spoiling the ending. And, as Sam probes Clare’s writing, political beliefs, and views on censorship, the reader comes to see that even in South Africa truth and reality are fluid and changeable.

The language of this novel is, for the most part, brilliant, though its crowning achievement has to be the character of Clare. She’s intelligent and educated, she’s cantankerous and superior, and she’s given to being rather dismissive of the pain of others: “We all know how people suffer over the unexpected violent death of a family member. . .It’s vivisection. . .It’s limb loss.” Of course, it’s much, much more than that, but anyone would be hard pressed to get Clare Wald to admit it, unless she’s speaking of her own ghosts and losses.

If Clare doesn’t seem like a very sympathetic character, well, in a conventional sense, she’s not. But she is rather like the heroine of Anne Enright’s Booker winning novel, The Gathering, or perhaps like the eponymous Olive Kitteridge. We understand her, and Flanery has endowed her with a measure of sympathy, something that could be said to be a miracle of writing in and of itself.

For me, the final pages felt just a little flat, but maybe that’s because I was expecting more. To his credit, Flanery resists the urge to tie up every loose end, to let the reader know all he might want to know. Truth, after all, is elusive and probably will never be fully known.

In the interviews that bookend the novel’s story, both Clare and Sam return to the metaphor of the soil. There is something personal both of them need to unearth, to lift from the ground “the long tail of the root, clinging to its earth of history.”

This is an intelligent book filled with intelligent characters. It’s a book that asks difficult moral questions for which there may never be any satisfactory answers. It’s a book, that like South Africa, itself, contains a beauty – and a horror – that’s truly overwhelming.


4/5 (Cover Art)

Recommended: To anyone who loves literary novels, novels that ask moral questions, or highly intelligent books filled with highly intelligent characters. Patrick Flanery’s only thirty-six; he’s an author to watch. I think this will end up being one of the best books of 2012, and Flanery, and American from Nebraska, recently acquired British citizenship, making his eligible for the Booker. Is Flanery on par with Coetzee and Galgut? It’s too soon to tell, and give him a chance, but I think he’s definitely headed in that direction. The cover art is okay, but I’m not sure that alone would induce me to pick the book up.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Book Review - Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

I love William Boyd’s novels, in particular, An Ice Cream War, Brazzaville Beach, and A Good Man In Africa. With Restless and Ordinary Thunderstorms, however, Boyd ventured – successfully, I might add – into the realm of the spy thriller. Spy thrillers have never been my cup of tea, so I was hoping Boyd would return to the well written literary novels of Brazzaville Beach and A Good Man In Africa. His latest effort, however, Waiting for Sunrise, continues covering the same type of genre territory he covered in his two previous books.

Waiting for Sunrise begins in Vienna in 1913, where we meet a young, newly-engaged actor named Lysander Rief, “a young, almost conventionally handsome man,” who knows “a lot about a few things and a very little about a great deal of things.” He was, for example, the “second leading man” in a very third rate play. Lysander, the son of a legend of the British stage and his Austrian wife, has traveled to courtly, pre-war Vienna to consult an analyst, Dr. Bensimon, regarding a psycho-sexual problem that began a la Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Lysander needs a cure before he goes home to England and marries Blanche.

The kind Dr. Bensimon, who really does take an interest in Lysander’s problems, instructs him to re-imagine a traumatic childhood scene, disclosed to her under hypnosis, and then replay that scene in his memory, rewriting it as he wants it to be, until the lie becomes the truth. Dr. Bensimon calls this "Parallelism," though it’s clear it’s simply a reworking of Henri Bergson’s la fonction fabulatrice, that innate capacity for make believe that lends color and meaning to one’s otherwise dull and bland existence. In other words, Dr. Bensimon wants Lysander to lie to himself until he, himself, believes his lies. (Boyd, who is a comedic genius, gives us a brief but funny picture of Freud pooh-poohing Dr. Bensimon’s theories in a café.)

Lysander writes in a personal diary, ostensibly as part of his analysis. Those of us who’ve read a lot of Boyd’s books, however, know that a diary is a common Boydean device. Personally, I’m getting a little tapped out as a reader with diaries and letters. Surely, writers can come up with more original ways to get their stories across. Still, Boyd is a master – at least most of the time – and I could forgive him Lysander’s diary.

We’ll never really know if la fonction fabulatrice would have cleared up Lysander’s sexual problems or not, but we know they were dispatched in short order after he embarked upon a torrid four-month affair with the beautiful expatriate sculptor and cocaine addict, Hettie Bull, also a patient of Dr. Bensimon. Hettie, who attracts men with her hazel eyes and dark beauty, eventually accuses the witless Lysander of a crime he didn’t commit, and with the help of the British Embassy and some clever disguises, he manages to flee home to England, with plans to revive his career as an actor. But, oh, the best laid plans and all that. Of course, things do not go smoothly.

Lysander’s skill with disguise intrigues a few mysterious Englishmen, the very same mysterious Englishmen who helped Lysander escape Vienna intact. Although Lysander would have preferred to “not get involved,” when someone saves your life, you don’t just tell them to leave you alone. You know you have a debt to repay. A big debt. When war breaks out, as everyone knew it would, poor Lysander, who isn’t really very likable, is sent to the front line in France, then takes up residence in a dingy London office, where he’s set on tracking a mole who’s passing secrets to the enemy. And, what began as a psychological period piece in charming Vienna is now a spy thriller is war torn London, with trips to France and Geneva.

Some readers are going to love the way Boyd’s switched it up, of course, while others, like me, won’t be quite so pleased with things. I’d rather read a story about a young man fighting his sexual demons in Vienna than read a spy thriller set in London. But the author is William Boyd. I trust him to take me somewhere I want to go.

And, while I didn’t find this book perfect, and it certainly won’t make my top five of the year, I can’t say it’s not ambitious and intricate. Boyd takes us from psychoanalysis in Vienna, to Italy, to war in the trenches of France, to Geneva, to counter-espionage in London. In the hands of a lesser writer, it could have turned into a much better written version of The Da Vinci Code. Thankfully, it doesn’t. And Boyd does vary the tone of each part of his novel, something readers will either appreciate or find disorienting. While I didn’t find any of the novel disorienting, I do wish Boyd had set the entire thing in Vienna, spy thriller or not.

There’s a lot of story tension in this book. As Lysander edges his way into France, his power of disguise becomes necessary once again. And, back in London, he really doesn’t know who to trust, and I’m not talking about the enemy here, I’m taking about the men with whom Lysander’s working, the ones that are supposed to be on the same side. Boyd has created a series of shadowy authority figures to make Lysander’s days as anxiety-ridden as possible. And believe it or not, this slightly effete, slightly bumbling charmer we met in Vienna, comes to show that he does, indeed, possess the iciness of heart needed to star in a real life spy thriller. It’s somewhat of a surprise.

And, as much as I would have liked the action of this book to remain in Vienna, the location changes from Vienna to France to London ratchets up the momentum, not a bad thing in a spy thriller. But I missed the machinations of the evil Hettie. She was an odd duck, to say the least. I think she could have been fascinating, in a perverted sort of way. Oh, Lysander does meet Hettie again. And he’s beguiled again, silly man. But we still learn far too little of Hettie.

Boyd has always been especially good at giving his readers a sense of place, and so it is in Waiting for Sunrise. Vienna dripped, not only sexual neuroses and prewar decadence, but opera and Sachertorte as well (and who doesn’t like Sachertorte?). And the city was appropriately cluttered with period detail: clothes, meals, houses, street scenes. Vienna is a very old fashioned city, a city of tiny alleyways, alleyways that are always crowded. Boyd evoked the claustrophobia of Vienna as well as its charm. London under the shadow of war was equally evoked. Lacking all charm in the early days of WWI, Boyd’s London was a somber, gray place, filled with chilly rain, low flying Zeppelins, and fearful people who laugh a little too often and a little too nervously. The trenches of France reminded me a little Pat Barker’s Regeneration, i.e., they were horrific.

I was expecting spectacular set pieces in this book. The Zeppelin attack of London is particularly flat, especially for someone of Boyd’s powers: “[He] looked up just in time to see a window embrasure topple outwards and drag down the half wall beneath it.” It’s serviceable; it gets the job done, but I expected something lean ‘n’ mean or filled with sensuous detail, and I know Boyd is capable of writing both. And, in this book, too much is told rather than dramatized in scenes. I found that ironic, given that this book’s epigraph was from Hemingway, while Ordinary Thunderstorms, a far more energetic book, carried an epigraph from Proust.

Of course, this isn’t to say that Waiting for Sunrise isn’t better written than ninety-five percent of the books being published today. It is. I loved the Geneva interlude, and I thought it contained the book’s finest scene, a scene in which Lysander learns some surprising things about himself and just what he’s capable of. I won’t say any more about that scene here other than it involves a gold-toothed go-between and live current. And Lysander, of course. And Lysander’s gay uncle Hamo, a former major and a “not particularly famous explorer,” who happens to be a splendid creation. This elderly man scandalizes his little Kentish village when he brings his Nigerian lover home with him. I only wish Boyd had spent more time with Hamo and not hustled him offstage in favor of Lysander’s far less interesting, and twice widowed, mother.

William Boyd is an exceptional writer. He can, I know, write perfect prose. So, the less-than-perfect sentences in this book were, for me, glaring. Far too many of Lysander’s encounters were haphazard. His eye would be “caught” by someone or something, as in “Lysander turned to see Miss Bull standing there.” She – and others – appear at just the right moment “as if she had suddenly materialised.”
Boyd could have done better than this: “Once again I wonder what machinations have been going on behind the scenes.” One professional reviewer said it sounded like we were supposed to read the book as a spoof of Sherlock Holmes. And then, early in the book, Lysander is seen “staring at a flowerbed in a fearful quandary.” Well, no wonder he was staring! Who in the heck plants flowerbeds in “fearful quandaries?” It’s not a good place for them.

I don’t forgive things like the above in new, debut writers, so there’s no way I’m going to forgive them in someone as good at his craft as William Boyd.

Boyd did give the different parts of his book differences in tone and narrative voice, and I did appreciate this, but even though there’s an overlap of characters in the different sections, i.e., countries, I didn’t feel Boyd was entirely successful in tying together the disparate parts of his novel into an organic whole. The parts don’t feel interdependent enough, yet none of them can stand on their own.

I loved the frame. The first and last pages of the book are written in the second person, as if addressing the reader directly, asking us what we’ve noticed about Lysander as he goes about his day-to-day business, first in Vienna, then in London, first in the sunlight, then in the shadow. I found this highly effective, especially given the fact that Lysander was no doubt seeing a Jungian psychoanalyst, and given the fact that the events in the book led him to his Shadow.

The main narrative itself switches between the “Autobiographical Investigations” of Lysander’s diary and the third person.

I didn’t think this book was so much spy novel as it was historical thriller, and I greatly preferred it as the latter. There are some plot lines left dangling, and there are some – major ones, at that – that the reader will probably never figure out. This isn’t as meticulous a book as Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans. The answers Lysander was seeking may never be found. I think it’s best to simply read Waiting for Sunrise and enjoy it and not try to figure it all out. It’s Lysander, himself, who tells us this:

We try to see clearly but what we see is never clear and is never going to be. The more we strive, the murkier it becomes. All we are left with are approximations, nuances, multitudes of plausible explanations.

In the end, Boyd comes through with a complex and intricately plotted novel, and Lysander, confronted by both his own personal truth and by the limits of his own mortality, is a very different man than he was at the book’s beginning. That’s not bad.


5/5 (Cover Art)

Recommended: To William Boyd fans, to lovers of historical thrillers, and to lovers of literary novels. I didn’t like this book as much as I liked Brazzaville Beach or A Good Man In Africa, though I liked it more than The Blue Afternoon. It is interesting, and it held my attention. I love the cover art, and I think it's very evocative of the novel, itself. I would definitely pick this book up in a bookstore, even without seeing William Boyd's name on the cover.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Book Review - National Book Award Winner - Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Even after this novel won the National Book Award for 2011, I put off reading it. I wanted to read it; I just wanted to be able to skip over the parts centering on dog fighting, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that. I can’t skip over parts of a book unless they’re totally boring, and I knew Salvage the Bones, whatever else it was, wasn’t going to be boring.

In Salvage the Bones, her second novel, Mississippi born author, Jesmyn Ward revisits the tattered fictional town, Bois Sauvage, of her first book, an impoverished community on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast that is mostly African-American.

The “black heart of Bois Sauvage” is home to fourteen-year-old Esch Batiste, a precocious, passionate, and perceptive girl, who lives with her alcoholic and (sometimes) abusive father, Claude, her brother, Randall, who dreams of escaping the poverty of Bois Sauvage through a basketball scholarship, her brother, Skeetah, who dotes on his prize pit bull, China, and softens only for her or for Esch, and her little brother, Junior, who doesn’t do much but clamor for the attention of the other members of the family or burrow in the earth beneath the house, more animal than human.

“Home” for the Batiste family is “the Pit,” which is the name they gave their backwoods plot of land, a plot of land dominated by old, rusting cars and trucks, parked with their hood open, and feral chickens that lay eggs when the family is lucky. The family survives on Top Ramen (every night), eggs, and the occasional wild squirrel, barbecued, and eaten with stolen bread. The sheets on the bed are so dirty that “we’d wake up often in the middle of the night, itching, scratching a shin, an ankle.”

Life in Bois Sauvage isn’t all bad, though. It’s presented as a place of natural beauty, a beautiful wood planted with pecans and magnolias, and live oaks draped with Spanish moss. A place where “animals dart between the valleys of shadow” and where “birds trill up through pathways of sunlight.” Esch and her brothers swim nude in the dirty lake that formed after Esch’s now deceased grandparents sold off layer-after-layer of usable earth. The boys of Bois Sauvage shoot baskets. The girls jump rope with a makeshift jump rope-extension cord. And, here’s the one part of the book I hated, they fight dogs, including Skeetah’s much loved China. If you haven’t read this book, you might not believe a boy who puts his dog in dog fights could also love that dog with a love that’s both fierce and protective, but Ward does a fantastic job of convincing the reader of just that.

Although they have little-to-no-money, the lives of the Batiste siblings are, in some respects, rich. They’re adventurous, and each member of the family loves the other members. Esch, herself, is comforted by repeated readings of Faulkner’s novels and Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, and it’s to the ancient myths that she turns to find comfort in life.

When the novel opens, Skeetah’s beloved pit bull, China, who is “white and beautiful and gorgeous as a magnolia on the trash-strewn, hardscrabble Pit, where everything else is starving, fighting, struggling,” is laboring to give birth to her puppies. If they live and if they thrive, they will provide money for Randall to go to basketball camp. Esch isn’t thinking about money, though. Watching China birth her puppies reminds Esch of the fact that her own mother died seven years ago laboring “under her own bare burning bulb,” giving birth to Junior. Since that time, Esch has been surrounded by men. These “men” include the friends of her older brothers, with whom she’s been having sex since the age of twelve. Talking about her first sexual partner, Esch says: “. . .it was easier to let him keep on touching me than ask him to stop.”

Sex was the only thing that ever came easy to Esch, and it provided a way for her to escape, for a time, the family’s dire poverty. A junior in high school, with a passion for literature, Esch would make love with a boy in the back seat of one of the many stripped down cars that dotted the Batiste’s property, or even in the dirt, all the time pretending she was Psyche, Eurydice, Daphne, or any one of her favorites from Greek mythology. Now she’s pregnant by a friend of her brothers named Manny, a boy Esch fancies herself thoroughly in love with, though Manny dotes on his girlfriend and won’t even look at Esch anymore. Nevertheless, Esch says, “he was the sun,” and she compares her love for Manny to the mythological Jason and Medea:

When Medea falls in love with Jason, it grabs me by my throat. I can see her. I know her. In every one of the Greeks’ mythology tales, there is this: a man chasing a woman, or a woman chasing a man. There is never a meeting in the middle.

While the boys and Esch are worried about China as she “. . .tenses and there are a million marbles under her skin, and then she seems to be turning herself inside out,” Claude Batiste is worried about something more all-consuming: the town of Bois Sauvage is right in the path of Hurricane Katrina.

Salvage the Bones is constructed as a “countdown to Katrina,” in much the same way Jayne Anne Phillips’ Lark and Termite was a “countdown to a horrific storm,” though one that couldn’t approach Katrina’s power and destruction. Salvage the Bones, however, is not a “book about Katrina.” It’s a book about a family that just happens to live in Katrina’s path, and it’s far more realistic than Lark and Termite, a book that was infused with a heavy dose of mysticism and the mystical connections that can exist between siblings. The connections among Esch and her brothers are deep and raw as an open wound. There’s nothing mystical about them.

Each of the novel’s twelve chapters is narrated by Esch, in the present tense, and is presented as a sort of vignette, almost totally self-contained. Each recounts a swelteringly hot day leading up to and just after Katrina. The plot of Salvage the Bones might sound hokey and cliché. After all, motherless children, unwed mothers, and poverty stricken families abound in literature. And, though this is an ancient, archetypal tale, Ward imbues it with freshness, with a poetic fierceness all her own, while still tying the story of the Batitse family to classical tragedy. The fact that stories like this one have been told and retold makes little difference here. As Arnold Schoenberg pointed out, “There is still much good music that can be written in C major.” Ward always manages to keep her readers just slightly off-balance. When we expect kindness, she delivers violence; when we expect violence, she gives us sweetness; when we expect sweetness, she gives us heartbreak.

One thing Ward doesn’t do is present suffering as something ennobling. Had she done so, it would have struck a very discordant note in this pitch-perfect book. Those who have suffered know there’s nothing at all ennobling about it. Ward knows that all suffering, like Katrina, “cut[s] us to the bone.” This is book that pulls no punches. It’s packed with scenes of pups arriving, pups dying, the shooting and gutting of a squirrel, bloody dog fights, fingers being hacked off, dreams being destroyed, and hearts being broken. None of it is ennobling in the slightest, and none of it is meant to be.

Esch, her given name is “Eshelle,” is a wonderful heroine, but she’s far from typical. She’s a bookworm. She isn’t particularly pretty, though she’s not tomboyish, either. She’s downright sexual. A fierce, and fiercely poetic, girl, Esch narrates her book in the beautiful-but-gritty language of southern Mississippi. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain,” and his scalp “looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.”

To be sure, this is a book written in a heady, redolent language, something that is both its greatest strength and for some readers, its biggest flaw. Ward never uses just one metaphor or simile if she can use three. Her sentences are beautiful, gorgeous even, but eventually they begin to tire the reader out. She seems to love to employ techniques from ancient Greek poetry like kenning, which is the fusing of two words into one, such as rugrat, trampstamp, boytoy, or biblethumper, and more often, the epic simile, which employs narrative. For example, Esch’s father’s bandaged hand “looked like a webworm moth nest wound tight in a pecan tree, a yarn of larvae eating at the ripe green leaves beneath to burst forth in black-winged flurry in the throat-closing heat of fall.”

And there’s the description of her mother catching a shark: “She hauled it in and let out a laugh that swooped it into the sky with the pelicans and flew away, wind-ready as wide as their wings.”

It’s lyrical; it’s beautiful; sometimes it’s just a little too much. It’s vivid and it’s specific, but it can also stall the narrative and eventually, wear on the reader. Still, most of the time, I thought it worked well in this book. Ward is a classicist. This is storytelling that harkens back to ancient myth. To employ the techniques of ancient myth only seems natural, and right.

If Esch is the emotional center of this book, its heart, so to speak, it’s her brother Skeetah who drives the narrative forward, or more precisely, Skeetah’s love for China. Despite the fact that Skeetah is responsible for making China a “fighting dog,” his great love for her is never in doubt, and it’s the most memorable thing about this story, even more memorable than Katrina, herself.

Skeetah’s love for China is palpable. It shimmers; his entire life revolves around her. We know that, without a doubt. Yet the book’s bloodiest scenes – the ones in which Skeetah pits China against other dogs in illegal fights – are just as believable. As I wrote earlier in this review, an author has to be a bit of a magician to pull off something like that, and Ward does it.

Another bit of magic is the contrast between Manny’s indifference toward Esch and their growing baby and Skeetah’s deep love for China and her puppies. Manny is repulsed by a pregnant Esch, while proud Skeetah, in defiance of his father and Randall, gathers his beloved China and her puppies into the house as Katrina draws near. “Everything deserve to live,” Skeetah tells Claude and Randall. “Everything need a chance.”

There’s a clear sense of impending doom on every page of Salvage the Bones. We know the hurricane is approaching, and we want these characters to care a bit more about that than they do. Puppies and basketball scholarships and even babies-yet-to-be-born aren’t going to matter if the Batiste family doesn’t live through the storm.

And when the hurricane does hit Bois Sauvage, the reader feels the panic, the blind terror, and the cataclysmic force of all that wind and water. Katrina, too, in this book, at least, is presented as a mythological character, a savage, vengeful goddess:

There is a lake growing in the yard. It moves under the broken trees like a creeping animal, a wide-nosed snake. Its head disappears under the house where we stand, its tail wider and wider, like it has eaten something greater than itself, and that great tail stretches out behind it into the woods, toward the Pit. . . . The wind ripples the water and it is coming for us.

What’s salvaged, in this book, is more than just the bones, and it’s salvaged because of the strength of the Batiste family’s love for one another.

The right book won the National Book Award. Salvage the Bones is a magnificent work, and it has the definite feel of a classic about it. Jesmyn Ward is a writer of formidable talent and power. Expect great things from her.


5/5 (Cover Art)

Recommended: This a difficult book to read because its tragedy is so great and so raw. Animal lovers like me are going to have an especially difficult time with parts of it, and many will have to skim certain pages. Still, it’s such an astonishing book that I can’t help but recommend it, with the warning not to expect comfort. And I know I said the extended metaphors and similes could be a bit overdone. I stand by that, but they are so beautiful, and this book is so well written, I couldn’t possibly give it any lower that a perfect 5/5. That's China on the cover, and he's a very fitting image for this book.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Book Review - Nobel Prize Winning Authors - Voss by Patrick White

Lately I’ve been searching for really outstanding books set in Australia to read, and that search led me to Australia’s first, and so far only, Nobel Prize winner, Patrick White and his extraordinary novel, Voss. Voss is the fictionalized account of the life of German explorer Ludwig Leichardt and his 1848 trek into the heart of the Australian desert where only aboriginal tribesmen dared to roam, and his subsequent disappearance. Much has been made of White’s fictionalization of the life of a real life explorer, but it should be remembered that today, the fictionalization of real life accounts is pretty routine.

Johann Ulrich Voss is determined to be the first white man/European to cross the Australian desert from coast-to-coast, though neither he nor White’s readers will be prepared for what happens once Voss sets out. His motley group is financed by the wealthy Sydney resident, Edmund Bonner. Before Voss sets off on his cross-Australian trek, however, he meets and falls in love with the Bonners’ orphaned niece, the English girl, Laura Trevelyan. Laura and Voss have a special connection, a strange bond, a real meeting of the minds, or souls, if you will, however neither recognizes the strength of that connection until Voss is hopelessly lost in the Australian desert. Although Laura and Voss have spent little time together, their bond is so powerful that the farther the Voss expedition heads into the desert, the more powerfully Voss and Laura are connected. There are letters, and in one Voss proposes. Laura happily accepts. Theirs in such an unlikely romance, but in White’s hands, it’s totally believable and even tender.

From the beginning, Voss is presented as having one heck of a god complex. “I am compelled into this country,” Voss tells Mr. Bonner. And when Mr. Bonner asks, “Have you studied the map?” Voss replies with typical hauteur, “The map? I will make it first.” And that pretty much sums up how Voss felt about each and every situation in which he found himself, with the exception of situations involving Laura, of course.

White writes of his hero, “At times his arrogance did resolve itself into simplicity, though it was difficult, especially for strangers, to distinguish these occasions.” For Voss, “[p]laces yet unvisited can become an obsession, promising final peace and goodness.”

One can’t, however, sally forth into the central Australian desert in the nineteenth century and expect to return safely without developing a little humility. For Voss, however, that humility came just a little too late:

He himself, he realized, had always been most abominably frightened, even at the height of his divine power, a frail god upon a rickety throne, afraid of opening letters, of making decisions, afraid of the instinctive knowledge in the eyes of mules, of the innocent eyes of good men, of the elastic nature of the passions, even of the devotion he had received from some men, and one woman, and dogs.

You might think Voss’ megalomania, his defiance and his arrogance, make him a particularly odious character, but such isn’t the case. He’s quite fascinating and vividly drawn. He’s so well drawn and so complex that he seems to leap off the page.

Laura, too, who feels she’s traveling a spiritual path that runs parallel to Voss’, and who is ennobled and redeemed by all that befalls Voss’ expedition, is an equally complex and headstrong character. And it’s Laura who understands that Voss was doing more than traversing Australia’s barren interior. He was, Laura says, creating a myth. A visitor tells Laura, “We are in every way provided for, by God and nature, and consequently, must survive.”

Laura replies, “Oh, yes, a country with a future. But when does the future become present? That is what always puzzles me.”

Laura believes a country without a myth – or myths – is nothing but a savage wilderness. She says, of Voss, “His legend will be written down, eventually, by those who are troubled by it.”

Laura, in other words “gets it.” And she “gets” Voss as well. She may be the only person who ever has.

Voss is a beautiful book, written in beautiful, rich, precise prose. The prose is, in fact, so precise that it makes the reader stop and marvel. Fairly early in the book, White writes that: “The darkness was becoming furious.” Furious. Have you ever seen darkness become “furious?” I have, but I don’t know that I would have thought to write about it using that particular word. It seems to anthropomorphize “darkness” a little too much when taken out of context. When read in the context of the entire novel, however, it “fits” perfectly. Such is the genius of Patrick White.

And then there’s this: “All this queerness was naturally discussed as the carriage crunched onward, and the German, walking into the sunset, was burnt up.” Burnt up? It’s precise, and you’ll marvel at this perfect choice when/if you read the book.

Some of White’s sentences are clipped and defined, while others are long and fold back in on themselves. Both work beautifully, and each seems the perfect choice for the job it has to do.

Voss and Laura are such fully formed characters that they spring instantly to life, and one comes away from this book believing that Voss was the real-life German on whose life the character was based, and that Laura must certainly have existed, somewhere, in some time. Even the minor characters are beautifully delineated:

His Excellency the Governor wished Mr. Voss and the expedition God-speed and a safe return, the Colonel said, with the littlest assistance from his fleshless face, which was of a rich purple where the hair allowed it to appear. And he clasped the German’s hand in a gloveful of bones.

Voss is a book filled with vivid images like the one quoted above, with images of Voss as he was “burnt up,” with the darkness as it becomes “furious.” And those images stay with the reader long after he or she closes the book. In fact, they tug at the reader’s consciousness, luring him back to Voss’ story when he really should be doing something else.

Voss is a historical novel, but it’s also a deep psychological portrait. It’s a journey of the mind, of the consciousness, as well as the physical body.

Voss understands this, and Laura comes to understand it, too. The fact that Voss dies in the searing heat of Australia’s heart doesn’t make his journey any less real or any less important.

White wrote Voss in a style called “High Modernism.” High Modernism, according to Norton celebrates “personal and textual inwardness, complexity, and difficulties.” Unfortunately, this literary movement had faded from favor by the end of the 1920s, and today, White isn’t read nearly as much as he should be. Oh, the post-modernists are still in favor. Go into any bookstore and you’ll find copy-after-copy of novels filled with the exuberant and whimsical prose of David Mitchell, the furious prose of Salman Rushdie, and the stylized prose of Alice Munro. And that’s great. They’re all great writers. But you’ll be hard pressed to find any of White’s books. That’s so unfortunate because Voss is probably as perfect as a novel can get, and it’s certainly a ripping good tale. Part of the problem might be that Australia’s changed since White wrote Voss. It’s no longer a vast, dangerous wasteland in which even a seasoned explorer can meet a terrible and unexpected end. Yet people are forgetting, I think, Voss’ spiritual journey, to the center of the soul, and the spiritual journey Laura takes with him. A journey like that is still a journey to uncharted territory, and is still worth the price of admission to Voss’ world alone. As Laura puts it:

This great country, which we have been presumptuous enough to call ours, and with which I shall be content to grow since the day we buried Rose. For part of me has now gone into it. Do you know that a country does not develop through the prosperity of a few landowners and merchants, but out of the suffering of the humble?

Voss is an ultra-Australian novel, and that’s just what I was looking for. And no matter what you might think of Patrick White, who could be scathingly dismissive of other writers, he was truly a genius, and Voss is one of the masterpieces of the twentieth century.

When White wrote about books that were important to him, he said that one seems to “go on living in them for ever, possibly because they give glimpses of a heartbreaking perfection one will never achieve.”

So it is with Voss.


1/5 (Cover Art – Penguin Classic)

Recommended: To everyone who loves perfectly written literary fiction.

Note: The cover of the Penguin Classics edition is so bad I almost didn’t buy the book. Being a very visual person, it actually interfered with my reading enjoyment. In addition, it bears no resemblance to the story the book tells. Publishers, please take the advice of Julian Barnes regarding cover art. It’s more important than some publishers seem to think. I’ve chosen to display a different, slightly more aesthetically pleasing cover image here.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Book Review - Three Weeks in December by Audrey Schulman

Three Weeks In December, Audrey Schulman’s latest novel, takes place in East Africa, and is two stories, really, though both stories revolve around people who are more or less outcasts in the community in which they live and who make great strides in discovering who they really are when they’re sent to live and work among strangers in a strange land. Each story covers the same three weeks in December, and each is told in alternating chapters, built around a genuine historical event. The first story takes place in 1899, while the second takes place in 2000.

The first story revolves around Jeremy Turnkey, a fragile young civil engineer, who is the only American working for the British in the construction of a five hundred mile railroad across British East Africa, from Mombasa to Kisumu, in what is now southern Kenya. Jeremy, who hails from Maine, intends to remain in Africa and make it his home once his engineering job is over. “[h]e felt he had been born anew in Africa, with the delight of an infant in each unfamiliar sight and with the same inability to recognize danger.”

To help Jeremy complete the railroad are hundreds of African natives and even more workers imported from India. Unfortunately, as the men approach the Tsavo River, where they will build a bridge, at least twenty-five percent of them begin to sicken from the malaria that is endemic to that waterway. And if malaria doesn’t get them, there are jungle ulcers, or parasitic worms that hatch in their feet and eventually feed on their brain that will.

Although Jeremy seems a little clueless about Africa, at least at first – he does, after all, insist on bringing his horse to the jungle, and the horse suffers for Jeremy’s indiscretion – Jeremy is not clueless. Nor is he heartless. He works long hours, and he does his best to make sure the laborers working under him are safe. The most immediate threat to Jeremy and his men comes from two huge rogue lions, one of which is more than nine feet long, and who have a definite predilection for dragging the men out of their tents at night. These lions are so powerful they managed to kill two people, twenty miles apart, on the same evening, and even for a lion, that’s no mean feat. As the boss, Jeremy must protect his men, something it would appear he’s not cut out for at all. Otombe, however, is.

Otombe, a beautiful man of incredible physical grace and stamina, is Jeremy’s African guide, and with Otombe, Jeremy, now sick with fever himself, keeps nightly vigils over the course of several weeks, in an attempt to kill the lions. Besides protecting his men, Jeremy feels that killing a lion or two will help him in his plans to make a home in East Africa. “Shooting a few pesky predators is an integral component of the colonization process,” a British colleague tells him. “I have seen it work time and again. The tribes immediately become more pacified, convinced we whites offer certain benefits.”

But killing the lions would also cause Jeremy to lose the pleasure of Otombe’s company, something he is loathe to do. Somehow, Jeremy will have to come to terms with the warring forces inside him, and chart a map to his own survival.

The second story strand takes place during the same three weeks in December as Jeremy’s does, but in the year 2000, and it revolves around a woman, also from Maine, who, like Jeremy, has been ostracized by her community. Max Tombay is a postdoctoral ethnobotanist with Asperger’s syndrome. When Max’s story thread begins, she’s being asked by Panoply Pharmaceuticals to journey to northern Rwanda to a gorilla sanctuary in the Virunga National Park in order to discover a mysterious vine that grows there, one that contains powerful natural beta blockers and would be capable of saving the lives of thousands of cardiac patients, while greatly enriching Panoply’s shareholders, of course.

Max knows that job offers – good job offers – will be few and far between, and if she doesn’t take the position offered by Panoply, she might very well “spend her life researching deodorizers.” In the search for an elusive vine, however, Max’s Asperger’s – and the pinpoint focus it gives her – usually a deterrent, will be a benefit. So Max accepts, and soon finds herself in the midst of three female scientists who are making a serious study of mountain gorillas.

“You search as long as you want, very long I hope,” one of them tells Max, “but I am not helping.” None of them is helping. The three scientists are “normal,” i.e., they do not have Asperger’s; they are, as Max calls them, “neurotypicals.” They are not happy to see Max, and even more unhappy with her mission in Rwanda. Should Max discover the vine, harvesters employed by the drug company would overrun the park and destroy the gorillas’ habitat, which the researchers fear will soon be under siege from poachers and a strange band of drugged rebel children called the Kutu, led by a Congolese warlord who favors tattered wedding dresses and cannibalism.

Schulman does a very good job of portraying Max’s Asperger’s and her extremely heightened sense perceptions. When she was a child, “sensation seemed to pour in as an uncontrolled flood, shimmery and overpowering,” Schulman writes. As an adult, Max has control of her condition, most of the time, through sheer willpower, a diet of oatmeal, rice, tofu, and bananas, a wardrobe of gray pants and gray tee-shirts, and the practice her devoted mother gave her in learning to “read” facial expressions by noting the movement of the specific muscles in use.

Asperger’s under control or not, Max in Rwanda is Max completely out of her element, and this makes her a vivid character – far more vivid than poor tragic Jeremy – though Max can, at times, come across as distinctly “bristly.” This “bristlyness” is softened, however, as we get to know Max and share in her painful past and the challenges she faces daily as she deals with her disability. And, as we get to know her, most readers will, I think, care deeply for her, especially as she discovers a real empathy with the gorillas.

I loved the structure of this book, but I’ll admit, it carries the inherent danger that one of the storylines is going to be far stronger than the other, thus overwhelming it. And so it is in this book. Max’s story is the real story here, and this is coming from someone who began reading the book determined to find preference with Jeremy’s. I dislike reading about people with Asperger’s (no offense is meant, it's painful for me to do), and, as a general rule, I prefer stories set in 1899 to those set in 2000. Still, even though Max’s story is so strong, one can’t deny the emotional pull of the far quieter Jeremy’s. When I was reading Jeremy’s story, I was anxious to get back to Max’s, and when I was reading Max’s, I was equally anxious to get back to Jeremy’s. Both of these persons are looking for themselves, for truth, for life, and yet both, if they are successful in what brought them to Africa in the first place, will bring death and destruction to the continent. If Jeremy is successful in getting the railroad built, “civilization” and suffering will find its way into East Africa; if Max finds the coveted vine, human lives will no doubt be saved, but the gorillas will be destroyed. And, both Jeremy and Max feel the lure of holding back, of deliberately not completing their jobs, of preserving the status quo.

Naturally, comparisons are going to be made between this book and Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. I can state without equivocation that I greatly preferred Three Weeks in December. The psychological portrait of its protagonists is deeper and richer and more mature, and though Patchett writes beautifully sensual prose in State of Wonder, giving a reader a vivid close up look at the Amazonian jungle, I found myself more “at home” in Schulman’s book, and she, too, is vivid. I could “smell” the river water, feel the long grass brushing against my legs, squint against the bright sun burning through the acacias. Schulman also made me feel much empathy and affection for the gorillas. The passages revolving around them are extremely moving.

The stories of Jeremy and Max run parallel to each other, and Schulman does tie them together at the end of her novel. Most readers are going to be able to predict just how she does it, even those like me who aren’t usually good at that sort of thing, but that takes nothing away from the enjoyment of their stories.

This is a beautifully written novel revolving around highly unusual people who are simply searching for a place in the world. It’s a book that affected me deeply and it’s not one I’ll ever forget.


5/5 (Cover Art)

Recommended: Anyone who liked Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is probably going to love this novel. I think it’s a deeper, richer, and far more believable novel than Patchett’s Amazonian story. This is a beautiful book that at times is truly heartwrenching. The book's cover art is beautiful and very fitting for the story the book tells. This is a softcover book, but it does have French flaps, which I love.

Note: In his Booker acceptance speech last year, Julian Barnes stressed the importance of cover art. As an amateur photographer who wants to learn more, I've always been very aware of cover art, so beginning with this book, I'm going to give each book I review a "grade" on its cover art as well as the overall "book grade."

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Book Review - Ghost Light by Joseph O'Connor

This is the first book by Joseph O’Connor (yes, he’s the brother of Sinead O’Connor) I’ve read, but I can tell you, it won’t be the last. I loved Ghost Light, and I intend on investigating this wonderful Irish author further. Joseph O’Connor’s writing runs the gamut from non-fiction and journalism to screenplays, stage plays, and novels, of which Ghost Light is his seventh.

Ghost Light revolves around the great Irish playwright (and co-founder, with William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory, of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre), John Millington Synge, and his fiancée, the Irish Catholic actress, Molly Allgood, an actress who performed under the name of Maire O’Neill. Synge was fourteen years older than Molly, and a Protestant, things that did make a difference. Their engagement, in fact, their entire relationship, was frowned on by just about everyone, including their families and Yeats. Molly’s friends and family believed she was being led astray by the older Synge, while Synge’s friends and family thought his romance with Molly would cause his art to suffer, thus affecting the success of the Abbey Theatre. Synge had graduated from the university, while Molly had trouble with everyday spelling and punctuation. Synge encouraged Molly to read better books, and to study poetry so she could critique his own work. But Molly Allgood was no student.

As a general rule, the pair kept their love more or less a secret, and when Synge, who was suffering from Hodgkin’s disease, went to convalesce in England, he was filled with worry and suspicion, afraid that a younger “man-about-Dublin” would steal Molly away in his absence. And, though Molly did allow other men to admire her from a distance, she increasingly found Synge’s all-too-frequent absences and the fact that he hovered between sickness and health a bit “too much.” She was, after all, in the prime of life and blessed with good looks, energy, and vitality.

After Molly’s triumphant performance in his play, The Playboy of the Western World, Synge was even more in love, and told Molly: “You are my whole world . . . you that is, and the little shiny new moon . . . .”

When Hodgkin’s claimed Synge’s life in 1909, just weeks shy of his thirty-eighth birthday, Molly was forbidden to go to his funeral by his family.

Though both Molly Allgood and John Synge were real persons, and though Molly was, indeed, Synge’s lover, O’Connor makes it clear that Ghost Light is a work of fiction rather than a biography of a love affair. In fact, at times, the book is all fiction save for the fact that Allgood and Synge were real:

The experiences and personalities of the real Molly and Synge differed from those of my characters in uncountable ways, writes O’Connor. Most of the events in this book never happened at all. Certain biographers will want to beat me with a turf-shovel.

I don’t doubt they will, but the fact that O’Connor made a lot of his facts up didn’t, in any way, dim my enjoyment of his book. I think Ghost Light is am amazing book, and I enjoyed every minute I spent reading it.

The novel opens in 1952, in London, where Molly’s living in a rundown lodging house on the Bayswater Road. Once the toast of the Irish theatre, Molly’s now destitute, and her life revolves around tea, tobacco, and cheap gin. There is, however, one bright spot in Molly’s life: She been hired by the BBC to read a part in a radio play, and even though she knows it’ll be some time before she’s paid, she will be paid – eventually – and the part will jog the memories of those who once saw her and loved her on the Irish stage.

Like many of Sebastian Barry’s books, Ghost Light is a “memory piece.” As Molly walks from Bayswater, across town to the recording studios of the BBC, she thinks about a letter she’s received from a California student who wants an interview:

I could offer a small sum as remuneration for your time. Would an amount of, say, $50 be acceptable? Alternatively I should be happy to send you anything you require to that value, since I know certain goods and foodstuffs are still quite scarce in England. There is another financial question I would like to broach, Miss O’Neill, and I hope I shall do so without offense. I understand some years ago you sold to his surviving family all your letters of an intimate nature from Synge. My institution has authorized me to say, should other manuscripts having to do with JMS and his circle remain in your possession (scripts, revisions, juvenilia, notebooks, drafts, fragments, abandoned works, et cetera) we would be honored to acquire them for our archive.

If Molly had anything of value left, given her circumstances, one would think she would have sold it already. And so she has. A second-hand dealer in Russell Square has purchased all of Molly’s possessions deemed to have been valuable – with the exception of one. Molly still has the very first letter Synge ever wrote to her, a letter in which he apologizes for the criticisms he made of her during a rehearsal at the Abbey Theatre:

It was bloody of me and I am sorry, Synge writes. I allowed myself to become upset. You must permit the words to lead you to the heart words come from. You requested of me advice. That is it.

As Molly walks from her dilapidated rooming house to the BBE broadcasting offices, her mind returns to Dublin in 1908 and her memories of Synge. As she travels the London streets, Molly encounters people and places that remind her of her past, and the reader learns how she met Synge and became his lover. We learn that though she loved him dearly, her relationship with Synge brought Molly more heartbreak than happiness, though it did become the one dominant relationship in Molly’s life.

I thought I would heartily dislike O’Connor’s use of the second person to tell his story, but after reading only two or three pages, it came to seem natural to me. Molly is, after all, speaking to herself. And, using the second person allows O’Connor to layer his story for maximum impact on the reader and to develop a number of disparate themes. We learn about fin de siècle Irish theatre, repressive Irish family life, decline and destitution, the fickle nature of celebrity, and more.

This is a rich novel, with well-developed characters that really come to life. I loved Molly. Her inner voice was radiant, even though it was, at times, filled with self-pity and self-hate. And, she was Irish to her core. This is Molly as she looks at a painting in the National Portrait Gallery:

Heavens to Betsy, what an ugly old trout. Face like a bag of rusted spanners. Imagine, someone paid good money for that glower to be painted. More beauty in the door of a jakes, that’s the God's honest truth. My Jesus Almighty, but there’s hope for us all, Molls. ‘The Duchess of Blandford’. Looks like Mussolini in a wig. Il Duce with udders. God help us.

I found I couldn’t forget Molly, and I felt I understood her pain. Rather than be angry with her when she considers selling Synge’s letter for a bottle of liquor, I understood her destitution, I felt her pain and her poverty, and her need for comfort, even if that comfort was only going to last an hour or two. In Joseph O’Connor’s able hands, Molly Allgood’s a character who simply leaps off the page.

This is a story than goes back and forth in time. I liked that, and I think it worked perfectly in this book. I know some readers like their novels very straightforward and very linear, however, but even those who do will probably like Ghost Light. The jumps in time are so well handled and smooth.

There will be readers who will criticize this book as containing “too much truth” to be a novel, and there will be readers who will criticize it for not being straight biography. I can understand that, but “based on a true story” doesn’t really bother me at all, and it does give O’Connor the opportunity to answer some of the burning questions those of us who love Synge’s plays have always wondered about. Did Synge really, truly love Molly? Did they ever consummate their love? Given the age difference and his ill health, how much did Molly love Synge?

Here’s Molly, in a fictional letter written to Synge from an island off the west coast of Ireland, a place where Molly had gone to learn Irish:

And everything about you gives me the courage I never, ever had and without you I’m like a ghost drifting through some old house of a life and there’s nothing about you I don’t love.

That’s so beautiful that true or not true, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss reading it.

Ghost Light, for me, is a wonderful Irish novel, and the fact that it’s about the theatre and those in the theatre, which I love, and that it revolves around Synge, who’s plays I adore, is just an added bonus. The best thing about the book, however, were the authentic Irish voices:

Johnny Synge’s bit of native. The proddy’s little squaw. That Kingstown playboy’s huer. Insults hurled long ago by the wags of witty Dublin, still audible after more than forty years.

I’m going to read O’Connor’s two previous books, Star of the Sea and Redemption Falls, both very wonderfully received, and darker books than Ghost Light. I expect to love them both.


Recommended: To those who love the theatre and really well written Irish novels, or simply literary novels of any kind. I studied drama and I act in my local community theatre, so I might have loved this book a bit more than some, but still, theatre lover or not, Joseph O’Connor is an author worth investigating and following.