Mr. Mercedes

mr mercedesIf you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you’ll know that Teresa and I are not just Stephen King fans, we’re mild-to-moderate King evangelists. He’s a genuinely good writer, and he writes a variety of things that aren’t horror at all, so we generally feel we can lure you in, even if you’re not interested in reading about Gruesome Killings From Beyond. (Though if you are, I can make recommendations there, too.)

I was very pleased to see that King was coming out with a new novel this summer, Mr. Mercedes. His last couple of books, Doctor Sleep and 11/22/63, were absolutely firing on all cylinders, top-of-his-game King — the first in particular about struggling with addiction, a worthy successor to The Shining, and the other about the consequences, dilemmas, urgencies and poignancies of time travel. With King on this kind of a roll, I was really looking forward to the new one.

Mr. Mercedes, as it turns out, is a solid thriller with nothing supernatural about it. As the book opens, someone runs a grey Mercedes into a crowd of people waiting for a job fair to open. All that solid German engineering does its work, and the attack kills eight people and injures dozens more. The killer escapes, leaving not a trace of DNA behind, and the main police officer on the case, Bill Hodges, retires with his medals before they have a single break in the case.

It turns out, though, that the killer is planning something far bigger and far worse. He reaches out to Hodges through the internet, unable to avoid drawing attention to himself and his perfect crime, and there ensues a suspenseful race: will Hodges (and a highly-unlikely assortment of helpers) get the killer before he carries out his plan?

I’d place this novel in the middle of the pack for King. We’re not talking about the quality of his more recent books; this is no Doctor Sleep and it’s certainly no The Shining. (But, thank goodness, it’s also no Christine.) It’s so radically unlikely that Hodges would not have handed over this case to current police and police resources, I kept tripping over it in my mind. King gave a lame reason for it, but he just never made it plausible for me. I was also a bit suspicious about the killer’s initial letter to Hodges. He was highly intelligent, and the reason for the letter seemed unlike his usual M.O., so it felt a bit like a McGuffin. There’s also some pretty weak characterization for all but the two main antagonists, Hodges and the killer (the killer is especially great.) Since characterization and dialogue are normally King’s strengths, I was disappointed.

On the other hand, the plot points are great. Hodges’ police work is realistic and interesting, and the corresponding work of the killer is fascinating and scary. Each little escalation on both sides is grip-the-book-harder suspenseful, if not always what you might consider prudent. If I couldn’t get behind most of the characters, I could definitely get behind two of them, and the way the hunt for the killer progressed. The final scenes of confrontation are worth staying up late to finish, but they also have a touch of satire about them that is pure King.

Middle-of-the-pack King is still worth reading, in my view, and I enjoyed the book, which I ripped through in about a day and a half. Don’t go in expecting a masterpiece, but do go in expecting to have fun.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction, Mysteries | 13 Comments

Ounce Dice Trice

ounce dice triceI don’t normally review the children’s books I read (of which, since I have children, there is a bounteous plenty), but sometimes I come across one that is such a delight, I feel the need to share it with as many people as possible. This summer, we were given Alastair Reid’s book Ounce Dice Trice, with illustrations by Ben Shahn. It’s a book about words — well, not really even about words, the way The Phantom Tollbooth is about words, but a book of words, just rolling around in them and making yourself dizzy with the way they sound and what they mean. Old words, obsolete words, beautiful words, odd words, funny words, words that read the same backward and forward — they all make their way in here, and as I read the book aloud, I laughed out of sheer pleasure.

The book starts by arranging words into lists (DROWS, for instance, read the wrong way round: MULP, ANANAB, ROTSAC, OOBAGUB, OTAMOT, REZAGRATS, NOSAM, GUBDEB, WOLLEY.) Then comes a section on names, which I believe is my favorite section of the book:

It is most important to be a good namer, since it falls to all of us at some time or other to name anything from a canary to a castle, and since names generally have to last a long time. Here are some possible names for possible things, to give you some ideas.

He gives names for elephants (Wilbur, Ormond, Bendigo, Bruce, McGraw, Robertson, Wendell Tubb, Duff, and Deuteronomy, and if I ever need to name an elephant you had better believe it will be Wendell Tubb.) Names for whales (Hugh, Blodge, Barnaby, Hamish, Chumley, Murdo, Cham, Okum, Sump.) Names for houses and places (Hugg House, Broadmeadows, Windygates, Hopeshaws, Smidgin’s Nob, Long Stilt Lane, The Bobbins, Deersden, Smithereens, Old Hullabaloo, Drumjargon, The Shivers.) Names for cats, insects, nitwits, the fingers, twins (including twin kittens, squirrels, elephants, peculiar twins, and fat twins.)

He gives new ways to count to ten (ounce, dice, trice, of course, but also instant, distant, tryst, catalyst, quest, sycamore, sophomore, oculist, novelist, dentist.) There’s a whole section on mad-sounding words that I thought he’d invented but discovered he hadn’t, that lead carefully one to another and back in a circle to the first. And there are a few extra pages on curiosities, like firkydoodle and mumbudget and King’s X.

This is a book drunk on the English language (so much so that I am seldom perfectly sober…) and children, at least my children, love it as much as I did. I have in general had very very good luck with the New York Review Children’s Collection (see my review of Wolf Story, which we’re currently rereading to great effect.) Ounce Dice Trice is another huge hit, and I know all you book lovers, lovers of language, dizzied with words, would find it wonderful too.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Nonfiction | 11 Comments

The Deep

TheDeepI’ve now read almost all of John Crowley’s novels, all but Four Freedoms, as well as his collection of short fiction, Novelties and Souvenirs. I think he’s a truly great writer. He is purely original — none of his books like another, or like anything else I’ve read, even those in the Aegypt tetralogy, which are obviously linked. His prose is astonishingly beautiful, soft and rich, a woven tapestry of smoke and heather and gold and water rather than a sharp, cutting crystal. I’ve never read one of his novels I didn’t think stood head and shoulders above its kind, and sometimes they have been so meaningful to me that they were difficult to blog about. If I had just a modicum less decorum, I’d probably follow him around the country in one o’ they Ford vans.

This summer, I read Otherwise, which is a collection of Crowley’s first three novels, written in the 1970s. The first one in the collection is The Deep, which is quite a short novel at 166 pages long, though it is so packed with ideas, images, philosophy, and action that I didn’t notice its length until just now. It describes a sort of late-medieval world — kings and queens who have been locked in war for generations, horses, artisans, priestly orders, Endwives who care for the wounded and dead after battles — that rests on a flat disc, supported by a pillar that goes down into the Deep. The sun and moon and stars orbit the disc, and there are murmurs of Leviathan, who may swim below.

The politics of the world are (intentionally, I think) confusing. One side is Red and the other is Black, like a card game, though there are also hints of chess, which equally has kings and queens and knights. The names alone make it difficult to keep track of what’s happening: the list of principal characters for the Reds reads,

Red Senlin

Red Senlin’s Son (later King)

Sennred, Red Senlin’s younger son


Old Redhand, his father

Younger Redhand, his brother

Caredd, his wife

Mother Caredd


and there’s also a Learned Redhand, but he’s part of the Grays, who are a sort of priestly society which dispenses justice and wisdom to the warring factions. The Blacks are named similarly. (And guess how many of these characters are alive at the end of the novel.)

There’s a description, early on, of Gray scholars doing some sort of archaeological work, using delicate brushes to uncover a painted picture on the floor of their cloister.

Crowned men with red tears running from their eyes held hands as children’s cutouts do, but each twisted in a different attitude, of joy or pain he couldn’t tell, for of course they all smiled with teeth. Behind and around them, gripping them like lovers, were black figures, obscure, demons or ghosts. Each crown had burning within it a fire, and the grinning black things tore tongue and organs from this king and with them fed the fire burning in the crown of that one, tore that one’s body to feed the fire burning in this one’s crown, and so on around, demon and king, like a tortured circle dance.

And of course this is the truth: this world has a war to establish a king and then another war to prove legitimacy of the king, who dies in war, so another war must follow.

Into this terrible circle dance comes a Visitor, who is not of this disc world. There’s been an accident to the ship he arrived in, so he doesn’t know who he is or what the purpose of his visit may be, and while he waits to heal and discover the truth about himself, he observes the world around him. He’s a watcher, a recorder, a secretary — but by asking leaders to explain their motivations and actions, he makes them thoughtful and uneasy. He himself grows to understand and even love the people he knows, and when he leaves them to find the end of the world and ask Leviathan what he was made for, he changes the pattern of the dance.

I finished this novel profoundly confused. I hadn’t had an easy time keeping track of the characters, and the fusion of the medieval world and the futuristic Visitor (and the particular vision of God offered by Leviathan, all in one conversation at the end) seemed odd and lumpy to me. As usual, the prose is stunning, and the book is the only thing like it I’ve ever read or heard of. But I didn’t feel satisfied.

Then, as I was looking for reviews that might enlighten me, I found something online that said that Crowley had been inspired by the Wars of the Roses. All of a sudden, everything lit up in my mind. This book, of course, is not some sort of allegory of that terrible war of politics and battle and assassination, where you can make a one-to-one match of all of the characters. But the Red and the Black translate to the Red and the White roses of York and Lancaster. The names are all Henry, Richard, Edward/Edmund, and Margaret (unless you are Perkin Warbeck, Lambert Simnel, or John of Gaunt, but let’s not go there), difficult to keep track of. Strong kings, queens, knights, pretenders, locked in war for generations. And then the dance changes, and suddenly we’re in the house of Tudor, not Plantagenet.

With a new way to think about it, and something to compare it to, The Deep shifted in my mind from an odd, confusing piece to something far more weirdly realistic. Cut the Wars of the Roses out of time and place, put it on a disc, and how would it appear? What if we had asked some great entity to allow us to go back to a simpler time? Would we simply repeat our errors, not realizing that “simple” and “human nature” don’t go together? Once again, I found myself full of admiration for Crowley’s work, even so early in his career.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 4 Comments

The Gone-Away World

gone away worldI’m in a dilemma, and I blame Jeanne, the non-necromancer, almost entirely. My problem is this: Jeanne read Nick Harkaway’s stunningly great book The Gone-Away World years ago, and has been steadily plugging along at convincing the rest of us to read it ever since. I finally thought, Oh well, why not — not actually believing it would be that great, to be honest — and was made, within a couple of chapters, into a complete convert. This book went all in to be funny and skewed and angry and surprising and weird and suspenseful and interesting about human relationships, and I got caught in the slipstream and didn’t want to surface until I’d finished it (and it’s something of a door-stopper, too, at nearly 600 pages.)

My dilemma is that I can’t seem to describe it in a way that makes other people want to read it. It’s so purely enjoyable that I can’t be as analytical as I’d like, and then I sound all gushy, but it’s a strange enough scenario (and a loose enough plot) that I can’t seem to describe it appealingly for people who don’t usually read this sort of thing. Let me try, though: I’ve put it off long enough, and honestly I’m dying for more people to read this novel.

Imagine a world in which we had invented a weapon that didn’t kill our enemies, exactly — it simply made them go away, erasing chunks of reality by stripping matter and energy of its organizing principle, information. Great idea, right? (I’m shaking my head vigorously. No. Not a great idea.) The book opens in a near-future post-apocalyptic scenario in which the Go-Away War has created monsters: matter and energy seek whatever information they can find to re-organize, and terrible, painful, sometimes murderous mutations result. The narrator and his friends, including the charismatic Gonzo Lubitch, have been  given the task of fixing the Jorgmund Pipe, which sprays a chemical onto the Gone Away areas, protecting the “real” world from the mutants.

But there’s more to the Pipe, and to the Jorgmund company, and to the Go Away War, and to the narrator and his friends, than it may seem. Once the world is established, Harkaway takes us back in time: the boys’ lifelong friendship, their time at university, their military service, marriage, the war, and more. (More, you ought to know, includes kung fu masters, ninjas, arson, mimes, spies, killer bees, love affairs, and pirates, and I’m not exaggerating and I’m probably forgetting something and it mostly all makes sense. The digressions are at least half the pleasure in this book.)

There’s more to this book than the almost incredible pile of plot of it, too. The Gone-Away World is fiercely angry about corporations and committee decisions about human life: the more you’re invested in them, it says, the less you are an individual, and the less you care about anything but the company’s interests. This book urges you, as a reader, to take up anything — any interest at all, from kung fu to killer bees — that makes you a better individual and better able to make your own moral decisions under unbearable pressure. It’s about honor, and sacrifice, and longing, but it’s also about grifting an impossibly expensive suit so you can fit in at a high-level corporate meeting with your… um… suit-fu.

Harkway’s prose is a total delight. I would never have believed that I could read a 600-page post-apocalyptic anti-war anti-corporation novel about university and mutants and the reality of human interaction and love, infused with a kung fu/ mime/ pirate sensibility, and feel as if some combination of Vonnegut and P.G. Wodehouse had written it. It was funny as hell, and also poignant, and able to see things in a fresh way, and I just don’t ask for much more.

This book surprised me. The plot surprised me: there’s a moment when there’s a Big Reveal and I hadn’t seen it coming even a tiny bit, and I just had to sit and laugh and cry a little and go “Wow,” and that’s rare. And the glorious prose surprised me, and I was surprised how often I laughed. I wanted to recommend it to everyone, but I can’t seem to pique anyone’s interest. Read it. READ IT. You won’t be sorry — it’s so interesting — and you might be as glad as I was; it’ll certainly make my top 5 of the year. So — actually — am I blaming Jeanne, or thanking her? Thanking her, I think. Thank you, Jeanne.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 24 Comments

Claire of the Sea Light

Claire of the Sea LightAlthough marketed as a novel, Edwidge Danticat’s newest book reads more like a collection of linked stories. Each of the stories could stand almost entirely on its own, but together, the stories are more powerful than they would be apart.

The opening story tells of a 7-year-old girl named Claire Limyè Lanmè Faustin whose mother died when she was born and whose father is now trying to send her to a new home with the wealthy cloth vendor, Madame Gaëlle. But Claire disappears before the move can be finalized, and the book turns to other characters in the seaside town of Ville Rose in Haiti. Everyone in the town seems to know everyone else, and the local radio station, with its gossipy talk shows, shapes much of town life.

In each chapter, we get to know a different character and often come to see with fresh eyes situations previously depicted. The stories are not presented in chronological order, so the book jumps around in time. Often, events depicted in a later chapter transform the reader’s understanding of an earlier one. In that respect, the stories depend on each other for their power. Together, they also allow readers to see many different ways of coping with death and loss. There’s no single Haitian way. These characters are individual, and so are there stories.

Still, although I can see how the combination of perspectives makes each story more powerful, I found myself unable to engage with the book as a whole. It is, I’m sorry to say, one of those dreaded “meh” reads. There was nothing I could put my finger on as a problem, but I couldn’t bring myself to care a great deal about these people. I think the non-chronological order, together with the fragmented nature of the narrative, kept me from feeling immersed in the town’s overall story. I couldn’t keep enough of these people in my mind or watch their development over time. The story felt disjointed, even if the book is thematically coherent with its emphasis on death and loss.

I have read short story collections that I admire quite a lot, so the problem is not that these are stories where I wanted a novel. I think, for me, the issue may be that the book is neither a novel nor a short story collection, and therefore I couldn’t work out how to approach what I was reading. I like Danticat’s writing very much, but I’d be much quicker to recommend her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, over this one.

Posted in Fiction | 10 Comments

The Passion of New Eve

Passion of New EveEvelyn is an Englishman in a violent, rat-infested New York, a city nothing like his dreams:

The first thing I saw when I came out of the Air Terminal was, in a shop window, an obese plaster gnome squatly perched on a plaster toadstool as it gnawed a giant plaster pie. Welcome to the country where Mouth is King, the land of comestibles! The next thing I saw were rats, black as buboes, gnawing at a heap of garbage. And the third thing was a black man running down the middle of the road as fast as he could go, screaming and clutching his throat; an unstoppable cravat, red in colour and sticky, mortal, flowed out from beneath his fingers. A burst of gunfire; he falls on his face. The rats abandon their feast and scamper towards him, screaming.

Instead of the glamorous film star of his dreams, Tristesse de St. Ange, Evelyn finds a woman who draws him to her room. There this succubus, Leilah, takes the punishment Evelyn believes she deserves, the victimization she was born for. Their brief relationship, with its ongoing exchanges of power (or so Evelyn says) ends with pain and blood and a baleful triumph as Evelyn takes off for a drive across the country.

That drive takes Evelyn to an underground desert land called Beulah, where a woman who has made herself a goddess called Mother decides to make Evelyn the bearer of her new world. Redubbed Eve, our protagonist must consider a fate previously unimaginable.

To say this novel by Angela Carter is strange is putting it mildly. Eve’s odyssey through her new identity and the new version of America keeps readers in a state of unease throughout. I’m struggling to even know how to describe the central character, sometimes Evelyn and sometimes Eve, sometimes he and sometimes she, both and neither. At first, Evelyn doesn’t know how to explain his (her?) identity either:

I would say that, at this time, I was literally in two minds; my transformation was both perfect and imperfect. All of New Eve’s experience came through two channels of sensation, her own fleshly ones and his mental ones.

What happens to Eve is different from merely making a man feel a woman’s experiences. Eve still has Evelyn’s mind. Yet living in his new Eve’s body causes changes in that mind.

Although I was a woman, I was now also passing for a woman, but, then, many women born spend their whole lives in just such imitations.

To what extent do our performances of gender constitute passing? The pressure to conform to gender norms is strong, so strong that many will conform despite their inclination. I’m sure there are some fascinating trans readings of this book, but this sense of passing resonates from a cis perspective as well, inasmuch as we might conform to social expectations of our gender even when we don’t feel naturally inclined to. Gender, in this book, seems to be very much about our relationship to others—but the book is unclear about the extent to which this is so. Calling a person a man doesn’t make that person a man, but can making a person act like a man make that person a man? I don’t think Carter answers any of these questions definitively, but she seems to allow for some degree of fluidity in gender. I like that she doesn’t nail her view down. Given that the book was written in 1977, the discussion doesn’t feel altogether dated as awareness of trans people is growing. The book seems like it can shift with the times as understandings change.

The gender issues the book raises are what makes the book work for me, but the depiction of a dystopian America at war is less successful. I couldn’t wrap my brain around what Carter was doing here. As Eve takes her odyssey around the western U.S., she has experiences that feel like they’re supposed to mean something, but they don’t go anywhere. It’s just one set of oddball images after another. A revolving house, a band of young soldiers headed to California, and old woman on a beach. Her descriptions are potent, but I’m not sure what the potion is supposed to do. The last few chapters of the book were occupied with these images, plus a much too on-the-nose bit of birth imagery, and the good stuff was left behind.

Yet even in those muddy final pages, I found myself thinking of William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” a poem (one of my all-time favorites) in which “things fall apart” and “the center cannot hold.” Evelyn becomes Eve—the categories many consider basic seem to be slipping—and “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” As Eve rises out of the desert, is there a “rough beast” that “slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 5 Comments

The Orphan Master’s Son

Orphan masters sonMy literary journey through North Korea continues, this time with a novel, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. Part memoir, part biography, and part propaganda, the novel takes readers to the center of power in North Korea, as it follows Pak Jun Do from the Long Tomorrows orphanage and work camp to the underground offices of Kim Jong-il.

The story of Jun Do’s early years makes up the first half of the book. It’s a seemingly straightforward telling, although Jun Do rarely seems to understand just what he’s doing and why. He’s plucked from a work detail and trained to become a kidnapper, then a radio operator at a listening post on a boat, and finally a member of a diplomatic mission to Texas. At each assignment, Jun Do does what he’s asked and tries to avoid trouble—or at least that’s the story he tells. For Jun Do, the right story is the key to survival. That’s how things work in North Korea. Dr. Song, one of Jun Do’s companions on the journey to Texas, explains:

“Where we are from,” he said, “stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.” Here, Dr. Song took a sip of juice, and the finger he lifted trembled slightly. “But in America, it is the man who matters. Perhaps they will believe your story and perhaps not, but you, Jun Do, they will believe you.”

Jun Do’s gift is being able to adapt to the stories being told around and about him and even guide the story in a direction of his choosing. The state decides he’s a kidnapper, so he is. He and his shipmates decide he’s a hero, and the state approves, so he’s a hero.

In the last half of the book, though, we see the story change. Here, a North Korean interrogator begins telling the story of a man named Commander Ga, a Taekwondo champion, husband of North Korea’s greatest actress, and friend of Kim Jong-il. Commander Ga is now in the interrogator’s chair… or is he? Our narrator cannot be sure. His colleagues insist that the man is an imposter, but their note stating “Is not Commander Ga” gets an immediate answer that says just “Is Commander Ga.” So the interrogator proceeds to extract “Commander Ga’s” story from him—and this story picks up where Jun Do’s left off.

The interrogator’s account is interspersed with chapters breathlessly addressed to “Citizens!” These daily announcements are the venue for sharing the year’s “Best North Korean Story.” This “true story of love and sorrow, of faith and redemption, and of the Dear Leader’s unending dedication to even the lowliest citizen of this great nation” stars none other than Commander Ga.

The drama of the book becomes not just what will happen to the characters but which story will win out. In fact, part of the book’s cleverness rests in how it’s not clear which victory is most important. If a good man lives, but his story is co-opted by the state, is it a victory? Is there a way for a citizen to control the story?

The previous books I’ve read about North Korea show how important the control of information is to controlling the people. The characters in this book seem to have a tacit understanding of what’s going on. Some of this is due to their station in society. If you’ve been to Japan, it’s not hard to figure out there was no Arduous March there. But it’s easier to believe there was. Even those who aren’t so get glimmers of the truth, but it’s hard to hold onto it. Parents will quietly share reassuring stories of inner rebellion with their children, but years of not being able to speak those stories aloud make it easy to forget them when those children are adults.

As readers, immersed in multiple, conflicting stories, we’re left uncertain of which events happened and which events are true. Events that actually happened may not be remembered, and events so preposterous they could not have happened may become implanted in people’s minds. So which story is true? In a topsy-turvy way, this book is a testament to the power of story. Stories shape the truth—and not just in North Korea.

Posted in Fiction | 17 Comments

Among Others

Among_OthersJo Walton’s Among Others is the 1979 diary of Mori, a 15-year-old Welsh girl. As we gradually pick up bits of her history (because who would write down an entire narrative in a private diary?), we learn that she and her twin sister stopped her mentally-ill mother from ruling the world through black fairy magic, but that they suffered an accident in which Mori’s sister was killed and her own leg was severely injured. We also learn that Mori is a constant reader, mostly science fiction and fantasy but also history and classic literature. And that those two things — the fairy magic and the books — are equally important, equally serious, equally real — in her life.

As the book opens, Mori has been sent to an English boarding school, because her mother is no longer fit to care for her (if she ever was.) She has hours free to read, because she can’t participate in games and her lessons are easy for her, and many of her diary entries consist of brief analyses of the SF books she’s consuming wholesale. (There are never any plot summaries — only social, ethical, and stylistic questions that arise. If you haven’t read the book she’s discussing, you’re very much invited to.) But she’s an outsider, and completely alone, not knowing how to access her familiar magic (in Wales, fairies speak Welsh, but they won’t speak to her here in England at all) or how to make friends or where to look for people who like the same things she does. She needs wisdom and protection, and at first she finds it nowhere. Eventually, through magic (or not — this is left completely ambiguous), Mori finds a community, advisors, and new strength, but she still has to count on her own power to serve her in a final conflict with her mother’s dark forces.


I was trying to think through the difference between magic and not-magic in this book. It’s a bit tricky to determine. It’s not as if, for instance, books are “real life” and magic is separate from that. Walton establishes firmly that magic doesn’t exist without a deep connection to the real world: food you’ve cooked yourself, for instance, or blood, or trees and plants, or wild land that hasn’t been turned into a regulated common. It also has to do with language and belief; so, obviously, do books. Books are a solace and a joy in an otherwise isolated life. They are proof that there are authors whose minds happily meet our own, and proof that there must be other readers, too, who love the same books for the same reasons we do. That real connection is the same kind of connection we have with food, or blood, or land. So is it a sort of magic? Walton offers, I think, the idea that both writing and reading are magic, in a way, and reach back down to a rootedness and connectedness that can refresh and save us, however strong or isolated we are. Yet fairies aren’t actually people, and neither are books. We do need both (books and people, I mean, not fairies and books.)

I didn’t think this novel was flawless. Walton did maybe too good a job making the fairy magic seem ordinary and everyday to us, since it was something Mori grew up with. Then when we came on a really dramatic moment, such as at Halloween or at the end, the strangeness seemed over-the-top: why now? Why wouldn’t Mori know how to handle it? I really liked the discussion of the ethics of magic, but it seemed interestingly out of context for fairy magic, since (as far as I know) fairies have no ethics. I’d have liked to see some discussion of that. And (perhaps on a smaller scale) was Mori’s book-loving boyfriend, Wim, supposed to be a good guy? I thought he was kind of a jerk. Hang in there, Mori, you can do better.

Overall, however, I thought this was a wonderful novel. The tone was perfect, and it was such a joy to see all the books Mori was reading, and her eventual shift from someone alone, isolated by circumstance and pain, to someone connected to a larger community of friends and family, and all through books. It felt like a myth: Persephone coming through hell to be mostly safe on the other side, just a little pomegranate juice on her sleeve. I’m very glad I read it, and I still feel the happy resonance.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 20 Comments

The Taste of Sorrow

Taste of SorrowNow that I’ve read all seven novels by the Brontë sisters, I am proceeding to books about them. First up is Jude Morgan’s wonderful novel about their lives. As far as I can tell, not having read any biographies of the sisters, Morgan hews closely to the known facts about the Brontës, but this book feels like a novel, not a biography. (I’ve seen it called a “fictional biography,” a term that seems like a contradiction, yet fits this book perfectly.)

Morgan begins with the death of Maria Branwell Brontë, mother of six children and wife of Patrick, an Anglican clergyman from Ireland who is now left with a family he can’t quite figure out how to manage:

Six motherless children to be educated and provided for; five of them girls, with no money to entice husbands. A dark lake of future, and sailing we cannot see the banks.

The three eldest daughters, Maria, Elizabeth, and Charlotte, are sent to a charity school for clergyman’s daughters at Cowan Bridge, later to be followed by Emily. Those who’ve read Jane Eyre will recognize the place immediately. Later, Charlotte will remark that the girls at Cowan Bridge had no voice, but years later, she could speak for them in her depiction of Lowood. Only at Lowood, we watch only one child die. Charlotte lost both her older sisters through a typhus outbreak at the school.

Other echoes from the novels appear throughout Morgan’s book, but Morgan wisely does not attempt to manufacture real-life models for all of the people and events in the novels. The echoes here are known pieces of the sisters’ biographies. We recognize Constantin Héger as Charlotte’s Professor and one of Anne’s charges as Agnes Grey’s Tom Broomfield. But there’s no obvious Edward Rochester or Heathcliff analogue. Neither is Charlotte a precise copy of Jane Eyre or Lucy Snowe or Emily of Catherine Earnshaw. Readers who know the novels well may spot a reference to a tree split down the middle or a mention of madness being like an attic, but these moments are treated as asides, as mere Easter eggs for those in the know to see and smile at. The focus instead is on the minds that created Jane and Catherine and Shirley and Helen Graham of Wildfell Hall.

And these are great minds, each one different from the other. That is something else Morgan does well. The three sisters—and their brother Branwell—are all individuals, and Morgan’s imagining of their personalities fits the works they produce. Charlotte worries over doing the right thing and fears for all their futures. Emily wants nothing other than to be alone. And Anne just does the right thing, even when it’s painful, without putting up a fuss. Charlotte’s view dominates, perhaps because she lived the longest and was more open about her story, but each sister is significant. Anne and Emily get roughly equal attention, and Branwell nearly as much. (The U.S. publishers made the mistake of renaming the novel Charlotte and Emily, sidelining Anne in a way that Morgan does not. I’m glad I got my copy in England, so I can have a copy with the more appropriate title.)

The sisters are individuals, but they influenced each other, as anyone who’s read their books could see. This is not a story of three individuals but of a family of writers. Watching their writing develop from fantasy play to a vague idea in the back of Charlotte’s mind to a genuine secret plan was a great pleasure. Morgan takes his time getting to this point, and there are years of separation between those early tales of Angria and Gondal and their first steps toward publication. As they gather around the table, sharing poems with an eye toward possibly making a collection, they have no idea how momentous the moment is:

At first, an incredible shyness—as if they are thrown back to being children and seeing each other undressed or bathing. They say nothing, or they say nothings; that’s a pretty line, that’s a sad one. And then they truly begin to talk, because they have to, because they have always had to since the days of the Twelves and the Genii, whenever words and images and dreams are at stake.

Emily’s so powerful. Almost oppressively so sometimes: you seem to feel the weight of the thought like a slab across you. Well: Emily not displeased. (Emily almost forgiving Charlotte but still determined that this sharing is the end of sharing, that they take this exposure no further. Charlotte tacitly acquiescing, but still prodding and shepherding along.) In Anne’s, such melancholy. It disturbs, knowing her quietness, her straightness of regard, all the time, this, unsuspected—but why didn’t one feel the shudder, hear the sigh? Well, sometimes in writing one takes oneself off like a garment, says Anne. Not so Charlotte. She knows it. Her work is bulbous and misshapen with self, as she sees it. Sometimes it shines, but sometimes the shine is the scaly glimmer of decay.

Of course, Charlotte does manage to convince Emily to take their writing public, but with the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. At each step, future success seems near impossible, but they persevere, and so some of the greatest novels in the English language were written. I admit to tearing up a bit when Charlotte, after seeing her first novel rejected, sits by her father’s bedside after surgery and comes up with the idea for Jane Eyre: “Time to make a noise,” she thinks. And what a noise they made!

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 10 Comments

The Murder Farm

Murder FarmThis novel by German author Andrea Maria Schenkel and translated by Anthea Bell begins with a foreword in which an unnamed narrator writes of spending the summer after the war with relatives in the country:

During those weeks, that village seemed to me an island of peace. One of the last places to have survived intact after the great storm that we had just weathered.

Years later, when life had gone back to normal and that summer was only a happy memory, I read about the same village in the paper.

My village had become the home of “the murder farm,” and I couldn’t get the story out of my mind.

With mixed feelings, I went back.

The book that follows is made up of the recollections of people the unnamed narrator spoke to about the Danner farm, now the notorious murder farm. Neighbors remember the family that lived there and what they saw in the days leading up to the tragic event that gave the farm its new name. Other chapters show the events as they happened, as experienced by the people who were there. Only gradually do we, the readers, learn what happened.

The novel is based on a real-life unsolved crime in rural Bavaria in the 1920s. Schenkel keeps the farm in Bavaria, but in the fictional village of Tannöd (the German title of the novel). And instead of setting it in the 1920s, she places it in the 1950s, which allows her to incorporate the characters’ musings on the recent war and the horrors they experienced then into the story.

It’s a short novel, taut and suspenseful and possible to read in just one or two sittings. Its structure is ingenious, building slowly toward revealing exactly what the crime was and how it happened. The gruesome details about the murders are doled out carefully, often beginning with a character disappearing behind a door, not to be seen again for many chapters. The doom feels certain, but is it? What did happen? Interspersed among the chapters are selections from a prayer book, adding weight with its pleas for God to “Be merciful unto them! Spare them, O Lord!” We cry along with the prayers as we watch a child walk down a hallway or a young maid going to bed. Could there be hope for them?

The family at the center of the novel was not well liked. The family was the subject of gossip, and it seems that there was good reason. Old Danner was said to have been cruel to the Polish girl who was assigned to their farm as a foreign worker and committed suicide in their barn. There were rumors of incest, and the paternity of daughter Barbara’s two children was murky. The prayers start to feel different. Frau Danner held a worn old prayer book in her hands and says her faith is the only thing that kept her going. Are these her prayers?

This is a chilling book, dark, disturbing, and delicious. It’s the first of Schenkel’s novels and has just been published in the United States. Four of her five novels have been translated into English and published (or about to be published) in the UK. I hope more of them make their way here quickly.

Review copy received through Netgalley

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | 15 Comments