Tag Archives: Graywolf Press

Familiar by J. Robert Lennon

This is what happens, she supposes to dramatic events: they create feelings that create other feelings, memories that give way to memories of having them. The 0lder you get, the more life seems like a tightening spiral of nostalgia and narcissism, and the actual palpable world recedes into insignificance, replaced by a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy.

There are days when I despair about the future of American fiction, and then there are days when I discover something extraordinary, and that brings me to J. Robert Lennon’s enigmatic, thought-provoking book, Familiar.  Last year I read and was impressed by Castle–a disturbing book which follows the relocation of a strangely disaffected man to New York State. Familiar is equally disturbing, but for this reader, it’s a perfect, unsettling novel that surpasses genre and explores questions about identity, grief, parenthood, and the possibility of … a parallel universe. Is this science-fiction or is this a story of a woman so wracked with guilt and burdened with uncomfortable, deeply regretted decisions that she has a psychotic break?

Elisa Macalaster Brown is a middle-aged woman who’s returning home to Reevesport in New York State from her annual solitary trek to her son, Silas’s, grave in Wisconsin. Silas, the youngest son of two by just 11 months, was trouble from almost the moment he was born. He dominated his older, weaker sibling, Sam, and he grew from a difficult child into an alienated teen. Silas was killed in a senseless car accident; Elisa fell apart, “became obsessed with the past, with all the wrong turns their lives together had taken,” and she endured a meltdown. Eventually the family moved away from Wisconsin to Reevesport.

On the surface, Elisa appeared to heal, but she never fully recovered from Silas’s death. On the neurotic side and pencil thin, she’s employed as the manager of a lab while her husband, Derek is a lecturer at SUNY Reevesport. Their marriage is another casualty of grief, and Elisa has a hidden affair with a local man. As Elisa makes her contemplative, solitary drive back to New York to return to her unhappy life, something happens. The crack in the windshield of her battered old Honda disappears, and suddenly she’s in a different car, wearing different clothes….

Elisa looks up the road. Only a second, less than a second, has passed, and the road has grown. It’s wider, the sky is taller. And it’s cloudy now, partly cloudy, many small clouds, as though the single cloud has spawned. No–it isn’t the road that’s wider, it’s the windshield, the windshield is larger.

She glances around her, at the interior of her car, and it isn’t her car.

Elisa is still Elisa–except she’s called Lisa by her husband and work colleagues. She returns to her home, and while it is still the same house, she notices subtle changes:

Yews they tore out a few years ago are still there. The grass, to which she had always been indifferent, is healthy and trim, and the pink dogwood, the one that had seemed certain to die but then rallied and came back to life, that dogwood is gone and in its place stands a Japanese maple.

 But these are just cosmetic changes. The ‘new’ Elisa is plumper, dresses differently, she has a different job, and she’s in therapy. Also rather disturbingly her marriage with Derek is quite different:

There is something reassuring, isn’t there, about the absence of love. This is what she has often told herself. The only real marriage is the marriage of the body and the mind. Until death do us part; a romantic lie. People can indeed be parted. Love can end, and the body and mind soldier on. To pick up the phone and find that love is gone, that’s something a person can understand. That’s a thing that happens. To pick up the phone and find that love is here, where it doesn’t belong: well.

But the strangest, most disturbing new element to Elisa’s life is that Silas isn’t dead….

Has Elisa had a psychotic break or has she entered a parallel universe in which Silas’s death, a single moment that “interrupted” and altered the course of her life did not happen? If Elisa faces the former scenario, should she risk confiding in anyone? Dropped into an alien life, so like her “old” life, and yet so different, Elisa is drawn to investigating the possibilities: is she experiencing some sort of meltdown? Which life is ‘real’? In this new life, Silas is alive, but why is Elisa totally alienated from her sons? What happens if she suddenly finds herself back in her old, grief-wracked life?  

In the most imaginative, fascinatingly complex novel I’ve read since Steve Erickson’s Zeroville, author J. Robert Lennon plays with issues of identity, grief and memory through Elisa’s character. Elisa, of course, is driven to discover the truth behind the ‘splitting’ she experienced. Mentally, it’s a dangerous, disturbing journey, for she begins to unravel the delicate facade of stability and functionality she and Derek have built over the years. Increasingly she turns to yet another universe for the answers she seeks: the world of the internet–a world in which we can all be anything we want to be, and a world in which reality has no place.  Silas argues that “stories exist to make sense of life.” How much of Elisa’s two lives are ‘stories’ that try and make sense of what happened?

Most of us, I suspect have experiences that occurred due to some fluke, some incident. If we hadn’t crossed that road at the moment. If we hadn’t picked up the phone. If we hadn’t taken that trip. That’s the sort of collective experience that the author taps into here, so even though what happens to Elisa has its fantastic element, it’s easy to identify with her dilemma. What would we do if given an opportunity to enter a universe without the one terrible incident that marred our lives? Would that new life be better, worse, or just different? This intelligent novel does not seek to provide easy answers for the reader–instead the novel is a deeply engaging, intense exploration of complex ideas. Grief, guilt, mental illness and regret all create whispering imagined parallel universes, but has Elisa gone one step beyond?  Every word, every scene complements the mystery, the anomaly of Elisa’s experiences and memories. Incredible, intriguing, hypnotic, and troubling, this novel is one of my Best of 2012.

He saw himself in a strange city with his friend, except that the face of the friend was different.

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Lennon J. Robert

Seven Houses in France by Bernardo Atxaga

Something about the title Seven Houses in France from Basque author Bernardo Atxaga caught my attention and the plot description sealed my decision to read the book. The setting is not France but 1903 in the Belgian Congo–hell on earth for the native people and a jolly good time for the 17 white officers stationed there whose main problem is boredom.  The officers on contract assigned to the garrison at Yangambi are there to oversee rubber operations for King Léopold, and there in the jungle, far from their wives and families, some standards of behaviour are maintained, while others are not. The result is a society organised by the white officers acting as overseers with enforcement by the askaris–“soldiers recruited from Zanzibar and from among the cannibals in northern Congo.” Military discipline is lax–raping and pillaging the locals is ok and even encouraged, but it is important to keep one’s uniform jacket buttoned.

The plot concerns the relationships and tensions between a handful of white officers at the garrison. The seven houses in the title exist primarily as a gilded carrot for commanding officer Captain Lalande Biran, officer for Léopold, and part-time poet who originally hailed from Brussels. Biran agreed initially to work in the Congo for 5 years with the plan, concocted by his long-distance wife, that they buy seven houses within those 5 years. But 5 years has become 7 years and now Biran’s wife, Christine,  is in the middle of purchasing the seventh house. She writes letters demanding more money for the latest house, and this translates into Biran and his cohort Lt. Van Thiegel making extra shipments of their lucrative sideline in elephant tusks and mahogany which is sent to their business partner, the mysterious Monsieur X, a corrupt official in the court of King Léopold. 

She was always demanding more: more ivory, more mahogany, more effort. Not content with being the owner of six houses in France, one of them a villa in Biarritz that had once belonged to a Russian Prince, she wanted another, a seventh house, in St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, one of the most expensive places in the civilised world. And the price he paid was to spend seven years in the Congo, two more than the five they had initially agreed. 

There’s the sense that this woman will not stop at the number seven, and her appetite for houses is reflected in the letters she sends to her husband in which she urges him to increase exacting plunder–elephant tusks and mahogany–from the jungle. While the Force Publique squeezes rubber quotas from the local natives, Biran and Van Thiegel do some additional, profitable, secret squeezing of their own, so that we see this direct pipeline which bleeds off the resources of the Congo at great cost to the local population, the wildlife and the environment. All this in order to satisfy the whims of a randy, aging Léopold and a frivolous woman who wants to own more houses than she can possibly live in.

Van Thiegel, an eleven-year veteran of the Foreign Legion, has spent 9 years with Force Publique, and most of his pay is sent home to his widowed mother in Antwerp. While Biran focuses on his poetry and his wife’s endless appetite for real estate, Van Thiegel keeps track of a different sort of booty: women

Ever since his days as a legionnaire, Van Thiegel had kept a notebook entitled Mon histoire sentimentale, in which, in blunt military manner, with no embellishments, no beating around the bush, he kept a note of all the women he had known: where they came from, how much he paid for them, and where the act had taken place. After accompanying the hunters as far as the palisade, he returned to his office and took the notebook from the desk drawer in which he kept it.

The last entry stated that there had been 184 women and girls: 155 blacks and 29 whites; 159 free and 25 paid for.

Van Thiegel begins fantasizing about number 200, planning to pay prostitutes so as not to ‘waste time’ in order to get to that special number 200. Being in the jungle, far away from any brothels, however, doesn’t stop the soldiers from racking up sexual partners. Regular runs are made to the native villages to capture women, and the easy access to women is, Van Thiegel admits, “why most of us put up with being here.” Biran, however, won’t rape just any woman. Ever considerate of his rapacious inconsiderate wife, he insists on only raping virgins in order to avoid syphilis. Biran’s orderly, Donatien has a standing Thursday appointment to capture a virgin from the jungle and deliver her to Biran, and when Biran is finished with her, sneaky Donatien, whose goal is to open a brothel, is getting plenty of career experience with a cage handy in his quarters in which he can stash the Captain’s leftovers.

Yes, Yangambi is a charming place for the white officers who are free to do pretty much whatever they want with the locals, and into this cesspit arrives a strait-laced and devout young officer from Britancourt, Chrysostome. Chrysostome, who happens to be an expert marksman, acts as a catalyst in the unfolding drama. Problems between the officers begin on the first day of Chrysostome’s arrival with a celebratory shooting contest of Mandrill monkeys sporting red fezs and tied to trees. Chrysostome’s perfect performance ousts Van Thiegel from the garrison marksman role. Chrysostome is rewarded with a huge number of bullets (a valued commodity in the Congo), and Van Thiegel seethes with resentment which builds into rabid hatred as the hot, boring days at the garrison continue. Compounding the problem, Chrysostome dislikes gathering women for Biran’s Thursday rapes, and Van Thiegel labels the new officer a “poofter.”

One of the biggest questions I had about the novel prior to reading it was just how the author would handle describing the treatment of the native population. Author Atxaga took the subtle route; atrocities against the local population occur in the background with a casual, low-key nonchalance. The massive cruelty of the white officers is shown to not be particularly sadistic and intentional as much as casual and almost distracted. But this rancid display of human cruelty is no less revolting for its lack of maliciousness.

If they were to use a cartridge to kill  the gorilla, that would mean having to use the butt of their rifle or their machete as a way of subduing or breaking any uncooperative workers and, worse still, being obliged to tell a lie and report that the missing bullet–which was not theirs, but the property of King Léopold–had remained lodged in the body of the rubber-tapper in question. Fortunately, the higher-ups in Léopoldville did not demand to see the whole corpse as proof, being satisfied with a hand or even a finger, small objects which, once smoked, could safely be sent in the post in an ordinary envelope.

There is no one likeable here. All of the characters–even Chrysostome (who is the closest we get to a hero of any kind)  are brutalised in some way or another. Biran chews over the delicacy of poetry lines in his head in order to replace the atrocities in front of his eyes, but no one seems to find the slaughter of natives or monkeys to be particuarly extraordinary or even very interesting.  Atxaga creates a poisonous situation that is no less revolting for the casual nature of the violence and a situation in which masculinity is measured by one’s ability to accept dehumanisation and brutality: the William Tell shooting contest held with native children, the casual rapes which are seen as one of the perks of the job, and the thoughtless starvation and treatment of the natives. While the white officers worry about being ambushed by the mostly invisible natives who hide in the depths of the jungle, the biggest threat of violence seems to be from each other.

I’d not read Bernado Atxaga before, and my impression was that his books weren’t dark enough for my tastes. In this case, at least, I was wrong. I’m hoping that someone buys the film options to this book, and I’m picturing some of my favourite actors in the lead roles….

Review copy. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

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Filed under Atxaga Bernardo, Fiction

The Life of an Unknown Man by Andreï Makine

“When you expect nothing more, life opens up to what is really important …”

Old and new Russia meet in the superb, elegiac novel The Life of an Unknown Man by Andreï Makine. The story begins with fifty-year-old Russian exile, Shutov alone in his Paris flat remembering moments from his failed two-year-long relationship with his young lover, Léa. They met accidentally–she was a budding writer from the provinces with no place to live and was easily impressed with the cachet of living with a much-older published Russian émigré author. Shutov “is the absolute prototype of a man ditched by a woman young enough to be his daughter,” so he wallows in self-pity even as he performs a post-mortem of a relationship doomed to failure.

In spite of the fact that Shutov has published a few books in France, he remains a lonely émigré–still completely Russian–even though he left that country during the final years of the Soviet Union twenty years earlier.

“An exile’s only country is his country’s literature.” Who said that? Shutov cannot place the name in his confused thoughts. Some anonymous expatriate, no doubt, waking in the night and trying to recall the last line of a rhyme learned in childhood.

For a long time he had lived in the company of the faithful ghosts that are the creatures brought into being by writers. Shadowy figures, certainly, but in his Parisian exile he got on well with them. On a fine summer’s day in Moscow Tolstoy saw the figure of a woman through an open window, a bare shoulder, an arm with very white skin. All of Anna Karenina was born, if we are to believe him, from that woman’s arm.

As the story plays out, it becomes clear that as an émigré, Shutov is essentially lost in time and place. He doesn’t fit into his newly adopted country, and when it comes to his homeland, he is stuck in the Soviet past that no longer exists. Nabokov knew that he could never go home again as that ‘home,’ as he knew it, no longer existed. Shutov thinks otherwise. Faced with Léa’s arrival to pick up the last of her belongings, Shutov impulsively decides to return to Russia–ostensibly to seek out Yana, a woman he knew thirty years before in Leningrad.

Leningrad has, of course, reverted back into being St. Petersburg, and Shutov arrives  in the middle of the St Petersburg tercentenary celebrations and a “confusion of styles, the disappearance of a way of life and barely the first babblings of a new manner of being.” Street celebrations yield surreal exhibitions. Actors dressed as executioners and figures of terror have now become figures of fun:

“Three days of this burlesque May Revolution to undo decades of terror, to wash away the blood of real revolutions. To deafen themselves with the noise of firecrackers so as to forget the sound of bombs. To unleash these merry executioners into the streets so as to blot out the shadowy figures that came knocking at doors in the night not so long ago, dragging men out, still half asleep, throwing them into black cars.”

Behind the Winter Palace a placard announces a “family portrait.” Seated on folding chairs, a Peter the Great, a Lenin, a Stalin, and, beyond an untoward gap, a Gorbachev, complete with birthmark painted on the middle of his bald head. Stalin, pipe in mouth, talks on his cellphone. A Nicholas II and a Brezhnev (the missing links) rejoin the group, laden with packs of beer. Laughter, camera flashes. The barker, a young woman in a miniskirt, moves among the crowd: “Now then, ladies and gentlemen, spare a coin for the losers of history. We accept dollars too …”

“They’ve managed to turn the page at last,” Shutov says to himself. And the thought of being left behind, like a dried flower, between the preceding pages, gives him the desire to hurry, to catch up on lost time.

There was a time when a visitor from Europe to the Soviet Union had a certain air of privilege, but now Shutov is shabby in comparison with his affluent Russian friends.

Having come as a nostalgic pilgrim, he finds himself surrounded by modernity gone mad, a mixture of American razzle-dazzle and Russian clowning.

 Almost as though he’s been locked in a time warp, Shutov cannot align his past with the excesses of New Russia, and instead of becoming soothed and reassured by his visit, he’s increasingly disturbed and alienated by what he sees. Shutov watches Russian television–that touchstone of culture:

On the screen is a thoroughbred dog, with a long, haughty, nervous muzzle. Hands with varnished nails fastening a glittering collar about the animal’s neck. A figure appears: 14,500. Fourteen thousand five hundred dollars, the presenter confirms, and specifies the precious stones that decorate this accoutrement. A sequence of other models: rubies, topazes, diamonds… The numbers lengthen to match the rarity of the gems. The next scene features a dog with clipped hair, whose body, sensitive to the cold, is to benefit from a distinctive garment. Fox fur, beaver, or sable capes … The same range of furs for its ankle boots … the program now moves on to a more difficult species to domesticate. A lynx, which must undergo a pedicure if you care about carpets and furniture. A vet is seen filing down the animal’s claws … For a dwarf hippopotamus, whose well-being depends on a good level of humidity, the installation of a hygrometer is essential. The brightness of the colors on your python’s skin can be enhanced by a wide range of food supplements …

Shutov is confused by New Russia and its “frenzied materialism.” With a growing sense of displacement he meets Volsky, an elderly man, survivor of the Siege of Leningrad, Stalin’s Purges, and years spent in a labour camp. Listening to the man telling his poignant story which begins in 1941, Shutov learns the value of a moment of compassion, hears how the human spirit soars over brutality, and how love endures despite monumental adversity….

The Life of an Unknown Man is split into roughly two parts–Shutov’s broken love affair and his visit to St Petersburg followed by Volsky’s story. Volsky is a living relic of Russian history, and it’s through Shutov’s meeting with this remarkable ‘unknown man’ that Shutov finally is able to come to terms with his own life. I cannot praise this extraordinarily moving novel enough, and it’s destined to make my ‘best of 2012’ list.   

The Life of an Unknown Man was originally published in French as La Vie d’Homme Inconnu. The author was born in Siberia in 1957 and has lived in France for over 20 years. My copy came courtesy of the publisher. Translated by Geoffrey Strachan

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Filed under Fiction, Makine Andreï

Spring by David Szalay

Think of the thousands of people you meet over the course of a lifetime. Then deduct the ones you can’t stand. Of those left, how many can you actually maintain a relationship with for, let’s say, an hour, a month, six months, a year? If you start looking at relationships in terms of reduction, it seems amazing that people ever live together let along manage sustained relationships that last decades. Then I begin to wonder if relationships are simpler when you’re younger. After all relationships in middle age tend to bring a lot of baggage to the table, and this is just one of the problems in David Szalay’s relationship novel Spring.

From the description of the book, it was difficult to gauge whether this tale, ostensibly about a relationship between a couple of Londoners, would be something I’d enjoy, and a surface glimpse of the description could lead to the conclusion that this is a ‘light’ romantic read. Instead Spring is a clever look at the difficulties in a burgeoning relationship between the main characters James and Katherine. It’s 2006, post-boom, and that in itself is a grabber for me.  James is on the downside on the economy and leading a severely diminished life: “For quite a few years the space in which he lives has been shrinking.”  But now he’s in the process of trying to edge his way back up, and middle-class life is beginning to look like an attractive prospect. James has a “checkered past” which includes being a film producer (0nce), a pizza shop owner, and the owner of a dodgy internet site which offered racing tips. At the top of his game, he owned an internet start-up worth millions, lived with a trophy girlfriend, and was the owner of a posh house on Victoria Road that “was never properly finished.”  

And then nothing, and the liquidators seized the house on Victoria Road while the Milanese artisans were still tiling the single-lane swimming pool…

 He stirs the razor in the scummy water. The next spring–après le deluge–found him washed up in Fulham. Then there were other places, each smaller than the last, and finally Mecklenburgh Street. The ex-local-authority flat is in an unfaced terrace of London brick. The front doors of the houses are painted black-dust-bleared fanlights, massed doorbells. The basement flats have their own entrances. Metal steps, textured like a fire escape, tack down via a square landing. The area is littered with dead brown leaves. The bedroom curtains are permanently closed.

He pulls the plug and the shaving-water noisily sinks away. No more magnificence. Now he just wants things to be okay. He wants somewhere okay to live. An okay job. One or two holidays a year. Perhaps a few modest luxuries. A middle class life in other words. And a woman. Of course a woman.

The woman James hopes to make a permanent fixture in his life is Katherine–a woman he met at a wedding. She works as a manager of a luxury hotel, but her life is complicated by the fact that she’s still married and separated from her photographer husband. This makes Katherine a woman in transition. Are people in transition more vulnerable? When the novel opens, James and Katherine have been seeing each other for a couple of months, and James is no nearer to gauging Katherine’s true feelings for him. A recent getaway to Marrakech didn’t seem to stir the romance James expected, and instead for part of the trip Katherine seemed oddly detached.

The novel goes back in time to their first sexual encounters–no overly detailed passages here, but the author does not spare his characters any humiliation in their initial awkward sex. There’s no real question of love between these two, or even of passion. It’s more about how two people got to this point in their lives, and how they deal with loneliness while trying to recoup their lives from disaster.

The author’s focus on the delicate and often desperate politics of James and Katherine’s relationship has both its funny and poignant moments, but one of the primary difficulties James faces is trying to understand just where he stands with Katherine. While neither character is particularly likeable, they are not unsympathetic. Author Szalay doesn’t put all of his character cards on the table immediately, so we discover things about James, for example, at the same moment as Katherine. While James has an edge of shadiness (just what is going on with his part ownership in a racehorse, for example?) Katherine is a cipher. She can’t seem to make up her mind about what she wants–sex or  no sex, time alone or time together. For his part, James isn’t able to read Katherine well. Should he push her? Is she too passive? Does she just need time or is this an excuse?

I just need some time on my own, she said. I need a weekend on my own. I need to get my head together. I haven’t stopped moving since we got back from Marrakech. I haven’t had any time to myself. I still haven’t finished unpacking  … I’m sorry.

Then she said, Thanks for understanding. Thanks for making it easy for me.

Later he wondered whether he had made it too easy for her. What should he have done though? Made a scene? Tried to force her to see him? Even if he had wanted to do that, he just didn’t seem to feel enough at the moments when it might have been a possibility. He only felt a kind of numbness, and the infantile frustration of not getting what he wanted.

The two main characters engage in a somewhat tepid relationship that ostensibly is supposed to allow them to get to know each other better, and while James and Katherine eat together and sleep together, they seem to be worlds apart. Spring explores the painful difficulties that encompass that well-worn phrase ‘getting to know’ someone, and Szalay reveals what a hopelessly bogus statement that is even as James and Katherine negotiate their pasts, morality, personal space and parties attended by a few truly desperate souls.

Spring is not a perfect novel. At a couple of points the narrative shifts to a different point-of-view and this proves to be distracting and jarring–especially since the author has spent such effort on the intense relationship focus between the two main characters. That complaint aside, Szalay writes marvellously. Here’s Freddie, long-term acquaintance of James:

On Monday they meet in Earls Court–one of those streets of trucks stampeding past exhaust-fouled terraces, of youth hostels, and veiled slummy houses full of subletting Australians, and other houses with tarnished nameplates in Arabic on the doors and the paint falling off in stiff pieces. There, under a two-star package-tour hotel, they meet. Freddie is piquey and jaundiced. In one of his down moods. His hair looks like it has slipped off his head–there is none on top, where the skin has the look of a low-quality waxwork, or the prosthetic scalp of a stage Fagin, but plenty further down, where it trails like the fringe of a filthy rug over his collar–the old collar, white-edged with age, of an otherwise blue Jermyn Street shirt stolen from his landlord.

One last point, the back cover states that Szalay was born in Canada and that he’s named as “one of the twenty best British novelists under forty.” Does Canada claim him too? How does that nation-claiming thing work?

Review copy courtesy of publisher.

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Filed under Fiction, Szalay David

Castle by J. Robert Lennon

“Perhaps on some level, every human interaction was a psychological experiment.”

I’d wanted to read Castle by American author J. Robert Lennon for some time after coming across the title on Asylum. I’ve read opposing reviews of it, and was somewhat concerned about a mention of animal cruelty–a subject I take issue with in books and film. I once saw a scene of a horse slaughter in the film Maitresse (Gerard Depardieu wanted a horse steak), and the scene was so disgusting, it wouldn’t leave my mind, and it raises the issue of the need to give the viewer or reader fair warning of the content ahead of time.

But back to Castle… So the wildly different reviews and the threat of the animal issue made me delay reading Castle for some time. I finally got to it, and regretted not getting to it sooner. This is a strange, uncomfortable and hypnotic story that gets under the skin for its focus on human manipulation and I enjoyed it so much, I just bought a copy of Mailman by the same author

The first person narrative is told by Eric Loesch–an odd man of unknown, middle age, a loner who shuns all forms of society. When the book begins, it’s 2006 and Eric has returned to his old home turf in upstate New York:

In the late winter of 2006, I returned to my home town and bought 612 acres of land on the far western edge of the county. The land was forested, undeveloped, and surrounded by hills and farms; no one had lived on it for years. According to my information, it had been bought by the state from a variety of owners during the 1970s, with the intention of turning it into a recreational wilderness. But the state ran out of money and the project never got off the ground. The land, and the farmhouse that stood on it were forgotten.

Eric is a strange, withdrawn man, and there are hints of something rather dark in his background–in both his recent and distant past. The nearest town, the town Eric grew up in, is Gerrysburg with a population of 2,310 people. While Eric seeks the familiar (his old home, for example), he shuns any friendly overtures from the locals, and insults anyone who tries to pierce through his somewhat economical, carefully measured speech and behaviour. People who are drawn back to their old homes are often motivated by sentiment, but there’s no sentimentality in Eric’s make up; his narrative and actions are both strictly practical, and after buying the dilapidated farmhouse, Eric gets to its methodical restoration.

Here’s a glimpse into Eric’s mind as he eats at a local restaurant:

The place was sparsely patronized by scattered collections of hippies and loners, who thoughtfully chewed their food without saying much to one another. There had been a time in my life when I had reacted to such people with deep disdain. In those days, I viewed pacifism and activism as expressions of cowardice, and had even gone as far as to pick fights with anyone who espoused such radical ideas. Indeed, I considered such people inherently, and wilfully, weak–and believed that their political views were merely a convenient way of justifying their weakness. Eventually I would learn that all human beings are inherently weak, and that our efforts to overcome that weakness are little more than pathetic sallies up the face of an impossibly high mountain. As a result, I came to a somewhat nuanced understanding of “alternative” lifestyles. But I was still uncomfortable in the presence of such people, finding them unreasonably indulgent of their frailties. Furthermore, I could feel their judgment of me: doubtless they found my trim profile, stern bearing, and unwavering gaze discomfiting. The people here tonight, however, appeared focused on their food and on one another, and I was left in peace.

It’s a chilling passage–not only for the way in which it reveals Eric’s alienation, but also for the way it reveals his thought process which is loaded with cognitive dissonance. He mentions that he used to “pick fights” with people like his fellow diners, but at the same time he notes that now he’s “left in peace” because everyone is concentrating on their food. The unspoken twisted logic here reveals that while in the past he agitated for violence, he believes that the trigger came from external sources rather than from within. It’s also clear that Eric sees himself as superior to other people. This sense of superiority shows in Eric’s few interactions with the locals. He lectures a shop clerk and freezes the real estate agent’s friendliness chalking it up to her desire to extend the relationship from the professional to the personal.

Eric seems to have few plans for his new home, but in the middle of his renovations, he inspects the title to his property and discovers that there’s a plot of forest and rock in the middle of his land that he does not own. To add to the mystery, the name of the owner is blacked out. This sets Eric off on a mission to hike to the rock and the forest and investigate for himself.

To say any more about the plot would be to spoil the book for any potential readers, but I will say that Castle is primarily an intense psychological novel. As the story develops, exactly why Eric is compelled to return to his roots remains a mystery which grows as information about Eric’s past is slowly revealed. Some reviews mention experiencing difficulty with exactly what Eric does or does not remember–in other words is Eric’s lack of memory believable or is it just a plot device to make the book more intriguing? I’d land on the former as Eric is the classic unreliable narrator, and his mental problems aren’t easy to peg (and I don’t want to reveal spoilers). On one hand he’s abrasive and antisocial to the point of pathology, but on another level, there’s decades-old damage there that has never been addressed and is largely buried, waiting to be re-discovered. The key thing to the book is that it’s unclear just where reality and fantasy separate, and that has to stay in the fore.

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Filed under Fiction, Lennon J. Robert

The Report by Jessica Francis Kane

“The appropriate authorities will probe, appropriately, the matter to the fullest.”

The Report, written by Jessica Francis Kane, is a novel which attempts to understand the real-life tragedy that took place in 1943 during WWII. While most of us think of air raids wreaking damage on cities and their populations, the novel examines an extremely bizarre, tragic event which left 173 people dead as they sought shelter from an air raid that never happened. This tragedy is known as the Bethnal Green disaster, and here’s a brief outline of events:

During WWII, on the night of March 3, 1943, people crowded into London’s Bethnal Green tube station which served as an air raid shelter. That evening 173 people were killed–not from bombs falling from enemy planes–but from asphyxiation as they tried to enter the underground tube station by its sole entrance–a series of steps divided by a landing. The accident was terrible, but was it preventable? The tube station was supposed to be a refuge and instead it became a death trap. What went wrong?  The events of the next few days compounded the tragedy as the government first claimed that the deaths were caused by enemy bombing, and when that didn’t fly and the people didn’t shut up and go away, then came the “hurried, private” Gowers inquiry which was put together with lightening speed over a three-day period. The grieving families demanded answers, and magistrate Lawrence Dunne was appointed the task of conducting a sealed inquiry into the incident.

The novel goes back and forth in time from that fateful evening to thirty years later when an enthusiastic and ambitious documentary film maker, Paul Barber, seeks out Lawrence Dunne–now ‘Sir’ Lawrence Dunne–a lonely old man who lives alone with his memories and his various awards.  Dunne’s house has the un-used, unwanted feel of a museum that’s never visited. Paul notes:

“The house was grand but overstuffed, decorated not quite as the country retreat he’d expected. Instead it felt like a room holding the furniture and memorabilia of a life lived a long time ago somewhere else.”

The plot alternates between Dunne and Paul’s tentative relationship and the events surrounding the disaster thirty years earlier. The novel clocks the moments leading up to the tragedy, including details which became ominously significant when it came to the report, and the dreadful, bitter aftermath for the survivors:

Some in Bethnal Green were eager for the report, sure it would reveal something to help them make sense of the senseless. Others only felt suspicion. The inquiry, they believed, was merely a distraction, something authorities did in order to avoid accountability. How could someone not present that night tell them what happened?

This type of novel must be especially difficult to write. After all the reader knows the story (and its ending), but here the story isn’t the disaster itself–it’s the layers of details underneath: where was the policeman who was supposed to aid in crowd control? Was there a lightbulb throwing feeble light on the steps that led down to the station? Why were the crowds especially edgy that night? What was the truth of the ominous boom the crowds heard?  And why was the Bethnal Green station the only station that lacked a centre handrail?

Following the tragedy a number of rumours surfaced:

Overnight, some authority had made a decision: the accident would be kept secret. The large number of dead was difficult to hide, however, so after a few hours the authorities announced that the shelter had, in fact, taken a small , direct hit. The population of Bethnal Green, puzzled by the total absence of any bomb damage, remain unconvinced. Then it began to rain, the perfect climate for rumour: it was Fascist incitement, a Jewish panic, an Irishman holding the gate against the crowd. There’d been a land mine, a new German weapon, a gas leak.

And then there’s Paul Barber–a young man who wants to tell the story of the disaster yet another way. He’s particularly interested in the way Dunne chose to write the report. Here’s Paul and Dunne:

“You faced an impossible task–to make sense of a pointless tragedy–and in three weeks you interviewed eighty witnesses and wrote a full report yourself. That would be inconceivable today. Today it would take two weeks merely to decide on the members of the investigating commission.” He stopped, but Dunne’s pleased expression encouraged him. “Then there’s the writing itself. It’s artful and compassionate–the opening, especially, of course.The story I want to tell is how and why you told the story of the tragedy the way you did.”

“Death demands ceremony. An inquiry is just a kind of ceremony.”

Paul shook his head. “The inquiry, yes. Call it ceremony. But not your report. It was something else.”

By the time the novel concludes, most readers will have gathered an opinion about the events of that night. As with any fiction novel based on true events, I found myself wondering just where fact and fiction merged. It’s impossible to read The Report, I think, without having sympathies for all those touched by the event. The plot’s central device (which I can’t mention as it’s a plot giveaway) was slightly forced into the novel’s structure, and it doesn’t mesh overall with the novel’s elegiac sensitivity. So while not an absolutely perfect novel, nonetheless, The Report is exquisitely constructed, and a rather beautiful novel that negotiates the disturbing tragedy with delicate yet compassionate artistry.

Review copy courtesy of Graywolf Press

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Filed under Kane Jessica Francis