Trillium

Trillium CoverI first heard about this graphic novel by Jeff Lemire last December at the Pop Culture Happy Hour live show. Glen Weldon named it as his favorite book of the year, describing it as a science fiction time-travel romance. OK, yeah, I’ll try that.

The story begins in the year 3797. Almost all humans have been wiped out by a sentient plague known as the Caul. Dr. Nika Tensmith is trying to communicate with an alien species about the Trillium flower that grows on their planet and seems to hold the key to a vaccine against the Caul. She’s making progress, but time is running out. Only 4,000 humans remain, and the Caul has reached one of the last human colonies.

As Nika continues trying to communicate with the aliens, they make her eat a Trillium flower and lead her into a building that looks like a Incan temple. Soon, Nika finds herself in a jungle, face-to-face with a human man who speaks a language she cannot understand.

The man is William, an English soldier still suffering flashbacks from the Great War. Now, in 1921, he has traveled to South America to find some secret leaves that, when chewed, are said to bring health, happiness, and power over death. William is as flummoxed by Nika as she is by him, and they spend the rest of the book trying to understand their connection.

Trillium Single ImageThis book, originally published as eight single issues, is ingeniously put together. Lemire uses his art to twine the two timelines together. Visual cues echo each other in the two timelines. At some points, the panels are inverted to show one timeline when the book is held right side up and another upside down. This visual echoes in this section (I believe a single issue of the comic) are especially stunning.

The story itself is engaging—engaging enough to hold my attention for the time it takes to read a short graphic novel, anyway. A lot of my attention, however, was focused on marveling at the cleverness of the structure. I didn’t form much of an attachment to the characters, and I really didn’t buy the romance. Toward the end of the book, Nika notes that they’ve only spent a few hours together. I kept expecting the timeline to offer more of a history that they’re unaware of, and it sort of does, but not enough to convince me.

Trillium ArtThe other thing that kept this from being quite as good as I’d hoped is the fact that I just didn’t really care for the art. I can see that it’s very skillfully done, with lots of attention to visual detail and demands of the story. But there’s a chiseled gauntness to the characters’ faces that I found unpleasant to look at, even when the characters weren’t meant to look sickly. There are some single images that I found arresting, but the overall look of this book didn’t appeal to me.

I read most of my comics digitally these days through Comixology subscriptions (currently subscribed to Ms Marvel, Hawkeye, and Fables), but this is a self-contained story, so I got it from the library instead. If you decide to read it, I recommend seeking out a print copy. I don’t think the construction of the panels and the way they relate to each other will come across nearly as well digitally. That aspect of the book is what really impressed me, and I don’t think I would have enjoyed it much at all if I hadn’t experienced it on paper.

Posted in Fiction, Graphic Novels / Comics, Speculative Fiction | 2 Comments

Another Marvelous Thing

AnotherMarvelousThingAlthough the back cover of my edition calls this a collection of interconnected stories, this book by Laurie Colwin read to me like a novella. Each of the eight chapters could perhaps stand alone as an account of a moment in a relationship, but they’re richer together. And arranged chronologically, with the exception of the initial first-person chapter, the combined stories of moments provide a complete picture—or something approaching a complete picture anyway.

The relationship at the center of the book is that of Josephine (Billy) Delielle and Francis (Frank) Clemens. The only thing they appear to have in common is that they’re both married. Billy is young and sloppy in her dress and housekeeping. Francis is older and meticulous. Billy values privacy and boundaries. She doesn’t want to talk about their spouses, and she hates visiting Francis’s home. Francis wants their lives to be an open book to each other. He tends to snoop around Billy’s house, and he talks about his wife far more than Billy would like.

With great skill, Colwin shows how these two lovers attempt to create their own world, without disengaging from their separate lives. The relationship appears doomed from the start, as Francis notes in the book’s single first-person chapter:

Our feelings have edges and spines and prickles like a cactus, or porcupine. Our parting when it comes will not be simple, either. Depicted it would look like one of those medieval beasts that have fins, fur, scales, feathers, claws, wings, and horns. In a world apart from everyone else, we are Frank and Billy, with no significance to anyone but the other. Oh, the terrible privacy and loneliness of love affairs!

Perhaps Francis’s constant attempts to understand Billy’s life and to tell her about his is a way to take away that privacy and loneliness and make their affair into something that will last. Yet every time he learns something new about Billy, he is hurt by it. Billy resists his attempts at understanding, and her reluctance creates an uneasy balance, with Francis constantly looking for more than Billy will give. Sex with Francis is not a problem for Billy, but intimacy with him is. I found Francis’s pressure to be off-putting, as if he wanted to possess Billy—or his idea of Billy. When Francis learns more about Billy, he tries to dismiss it. He wouldn’t believe that she actually enjoyed nature walks with her husband or could be interested in reptiles.

This book is neither a diatribe against extramarital affairs nor a celebration of passion outside marriage. Billy and Frank are in love, but it’s an uncomfortable love, not just because of their marriages but because of who they are. But the pleasure they take in each other is genuine. Will their parting, if it comes, be the monstrous complication Francis predicts? I have my own thoughts about how things turned out—and about the other loves in these pages—but Colwin doesn’t press a particular conclusion on readers. For me, though, this is a story about intimacy and how necessary it is for a lasting, fulfilling relationship.

Posted in Fiction | 2 Comments

Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

Mrs CravenMollie Panter-Downes is probably best known for her long-running “Letter from London” column in The New Yorker. But her writing also included novels, poetry, and short stories, with most of her short works also being published in The New Yorker. This Persephone collection includes 21 of her stories, all published during World War II.

In the introduction to the collection, Gregory LeStage notes that Panter-Downes saw herself first and foremost as a journalist, and this attitude comes through in her stories. These are observational stories, focused on the characters’ actions and sometimes their thoughts, but with little interpretation. They are straightforward in style, but readers must often read between the lines to understand the situation. So, for example, in the story “In Clover,” we note this observation about Mrs. Fletcher, a woman who hosted a family of London evacuees, the Clarks:

There didn’t seem to be a disinfectant invented that could drown the Clark smell of grinding, abject poverty, very different from the decent, cottage variety with a red geranium on the window sill, which had been the worst Mrs. Fletcher had encountered up to now.

We aren’t told that Mrs. Fletcher is classist or biased against the urban poor, but an entire story filled with complaints about the Clarks, along with the word “decent” in the quote above, gives a strong idea of what sort of woman Mrs. Fletcher is.

Many of the stories concern themselves with the clash between urban and rural or between families in close quarters during the evacuation. Couples who got along well find it impossible to live together, women who enjoy peace and quiet cannot handle the disruption of a family with small children, and people with different ideas of what’s appropriate all must find a way to manage under one roof. This common home-front struggle gets more attention than battle casualties or Blitz deaths, perhaps because these were precisely the stories that Panter-Downes knew her American audience was not finding in the news.

This is very much a home-front book, focused on day-to-day issues that come with the massive upheaval of war. Panter-Downes takes these struggles seriously, but she doesn’t miss the opportunities for humor. The stories are arranged in chronological order, and they get more series as the war goes on. The early stories often are about adjusting to new conditions and the latter about the weariness of years of coping with these no-longer-new conditions.

These are excellent, finely crafted stories that give an interesting glimpse into ordinary lives during an extraordinary time. However, my own taste in short stories tends toward the more unconventional and experimental (Jon McGregor and George Saunders). And so these will not stand as favorites for me, although I can see their value, appreciate Panter-Downes’s talent, and am glad to have read them.

Posted in Fiction, Short Stories/Essays | 5 Comments

My Own Country

A Doctors StoryBorn in Ethiopia to Indian parents, Abraham Verghese decided, after finishing his medical training, to settle in Johnson City, Tennessee, where he had been a resident a few years earlier. It was the mid-1980s, and Johnson City was seeing an influx of foreign doctors who were often the only people willing to work in rural communities because they were unable to find work in more desirable locations.

Verghese had completed a fellowship in Boston, and he was glad to come back to scenic and peaceful Tennessee, a place where he could imagine raising a family. He would be able to teach at East Tennessee State University, practice at the local VA Hospital and the Johnson City Medical Center, and continue his infectious disease research into pneumonia. At the time, he did not expect to become the area’s authority on HIV and AIDS.

In the 1980s, HIV was a new and mysterious ailment. Verghese had worked with AIDS patients in Boston and he understood how the disease spread—and how it didn’t. When he moved to Johnson City in 1985, the disease was still almost unknown in the area. Verghese was called in on some early cases, and he soon became to go-to physician for the many men and the handful of women with HIV. He began speaking in the community about AIDS prevention and testing, even presenting at the local gay bar when he realized there was no deliberate outreach to the gay community in the area.

Much of the book focuses on the stories of Verghese’s patients and his efforts to understand their stories so he could better offer the care they needed. Although certain common threads turn up in their stories, each one is different. Most of his patients are gay men who left Johnson City for a time, returning after they became sick. Several, however, lived in the area their whole lives. Risky sex was a common theme. One couple frequently drove out of town to meet men at a truck stop, and other men just took advantage of the freedom they had when they moved away to have sex with multiple partners without taking precautions (and, early on, without knowing what precautions to take). There were long-term couples and single men. One woman had been infected by her husband, who had also infected her sister. A man and wife became infected when he got a blood transfusion and passed the virus on to his wife.

At times, Verghese seems to treat his patients as oddities, asking questions that seemed less about their medical histories and more about his desire to figure out what it’s like to be gay. I think, though, that this tendency is more about his own curiosity than about seeing his patients as curiosities. And the desire to know the whole person, not just the disease, makes him an excellent physician and advocate for his patients. My unease at some of his descriptions was offset for the most part by his clear compassion and lack of judgment. What judgment he exhibits is focused on those in the medical community who fail in providing treatment.

The book’s main topic is Verghese’s work with people who have HIV, but the book also touches on life in rural communities in general and the life of immigrants in rural communities. It’s not unusual to see rural communities depicted as entirely backwards and intolerant, but Verghese shows how people’s attitudes and actions ran the spectrum. He does not pretend that it was easy—or even possible—to be openly gay and accepted in the wider community, but he reveals that many individuals were open-minded and welcoming or, at the very least, willing to live and let live. I grew up in a rural community, just a few hours from Johnson City, and his characterization of the people—both positive and negative—rang true to me.

As an immigrant, Verghese experiences some prejudice, but it’s not a constant drumbeat. Verghese speculates that his outsider status actually helps him with his patients because they’re more comfortable being open with him than they might with someone who looked like their church pastor. This aspect of the story fascinated me because the area where I grew up had few immigrants, certainly not a large community of them. The Indian community in Johnson City was large enough to draw a traveling sales team to make regular stops to sell lentils and Basmati rice out of the back of their truck. For Verghese, though, the Indian community doesn’t get a lot of his time and attention. His work becomes all-consuming.

Unfortunately, the multifaceted nature of the story, with the mix of cultures and personalities and multiple patient narratives makes the book feel overlong. Each piece was interesting, and I appreciated the descriptions of the countryside and the people’s mannerisms, but there were plenty of skimmable sections. Verghese’s personal struggles, for example, felt tedious in comparison to those of his patients.

Still, this was an interesting book about people who don’t get a lot of attention. I’m glad that they did receive attention, both in medical care and in writing, from someone as compassionate as Verghese.

Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction | 6 Comments

The Law and the Lady

law and the ladyWilkie Collins wrote four major novels during the 1860s, and they made his reputation as an author of excellent literary sensation fiction: The Woman in White, The Moonstone, No Name, and Armadale. I read The Woman in White when I was about twelve (what can I say, my mother majored in 19th-century British literature and liked to share), and over the past few years have read the rest, with the total shivery enjoyment meant for the original readers and a critical eye acquired since. But now what? Collins wrote somewhere in the region of thirty novels, and most of them didn’t make his reputation. If I want more Collins, where should I begin? Should I even read any more at all? I decided to take a gamble, and read The Law and the Lady, a detective story of sorts published in 1875. I will say that, although it didn’t quite reach the heights of the four novels from Collins’s golden age of the 1860s (no Lydia Gwilt! no Count Fosco!), it was still a fast-paced, sensational thriller, worth every nail-biting minute.

At the beginning of The Law and the Lady, the narrator, Valeria Brinton, marries her true love, Eustace Woodville. There are apparently very serious objections to the marriage, but of course no one will tell her exactly what the objections are: Eustace’s family has forbidden it, and Valeria’s family, though not understanding the grounds of their aversion, has also counseled Valeria not to go ahead with the marriage because there’s obviously something really wrong. Valeria and Eustace, however, those crazy kids, decide to go ahead with wedded bliss and complete openness and trust. (Cue ominous music.)

Mere days after they are married and preparing to go to Venice on their honeymoon, Valeria stumbles on evidence leading her to realize Eustace married her under a false name. (Awkward.) Eustace won’t tell her one single thing and threatens to leave her if she finds out the truth (and then asks her to trust him) but Valeria is having none of that nonsense. Further investigation on her part uncovers the secret: Eustace was tried for the murder (!) of his first wife (!!)  by arsenic (!!!) and was given the Scotch Verdict, Not Proven (!!!!). Unless Valeria can clear his name with fresh evidence, Eustace will leave for the continent and never see her again and probably die of a swoon because the woman he loves can never truly believe him innocent.

Reader, I am not spoiling anything. All this happens in about the first fifty pages. The rest of the novel is about the completely indefatigable Valeria, who uses every technique legal and illegal, from early forensics to feminine wiles, from interviews with madmen to sending private detectives to America, from seducing elderly gentlemen to learning about the law, to uncover the truth about the murder of her husband’s first wife.

The book is crammed, as you might expect from a Wilkie Collins novel, with jaw-droppingly amazing characters. It is true that there is no Lydia Gwilt, no Count Fosco. But there is instead… Miserrimus Dexter, a man born with no legs:

A high chair on wheels moved by, through the field of red light, carrying a shadowy figure with floating hair, and arms furiously raised and lowered working the machinery that propelled the chair at its utmost rate of speed. “I am Napoleon, at the sunrise of Austerlitz!” shouted the man in the chair as he swept past me on his rumbling and whistling wheels, in the red glow of the fire-light. “I give the word, and thrones rock, and kings fall, and nations tremble, and men by tens of thousands fight and bleed and die!” […] The strident wheels turned at the far end of the room and came back. The fantastic and frightful apparition, man and machinery blended in one—the new Centaur, half man, half chair—flew by me again in the dying light. […] He ground and tore his way back toward the middle of the room. As he approached the fire-place a last morsel of unburned coal (or wood) burst into momentary flame, and showed the open doorway. In that moment he saw us! The wheel-chair stopped with a shock that shook the crazy old floor of the room, altered its course, and flew at us with the rush of a wild animal. We drew back, just in time to escape it, against the wall of the recess. The chair passed on, and burst aside the hanging tapestry. The light of the lamp in the circular room poured in through the gap. The creature in the chair checked his furious wheels, and looked back over his shoulder with an impish curiosity horrible to see.

Dexter hovers on the cusp between madness and genius throughout the book. He has a servant he has called Ariel, who would be sunk in idiocy if not for her devotion to Dexter; he teases her cruelly and smothers her with kindness at whim. Dexter’s own devotion is equally whimsical, and Valeria is able to tease information out of him by manipulating his affections and desires. Which is cruel? Which is for the greater good? It is fascinating to watch Collins playing with disability of mind and body in this way, and reflecting it in the narrator as well.

Valeria herself is an interesting character. She spends a good deal of time denying her own virtues. She insists that any progress she makes is through the sheer stubbornness and willfulness that cause grief to the men in her life: old Benjamin, her retainer; her lawyer; her guardian; and most particularly her husband. She defends her husband to his mother:

“What I complain of in my son,” proceeded Mrs. Macallan, “is that he has entirely failed to understand you. If he had married a fool, his conduct would be intelligible enough. He would have done wisely to conceal from a fool that he had been married already, and that he had suffered the horrid public exposure of a Trial for the murder of his wife. Then, again, he would have been quite right, when this same fool had discovered the truth, to take himself out of her way before she could suspect him of poisoning her—for the sake of the peace and quiet of both parties. But you are not a fool. I can see that, after only a short experience of you. Why can’t he see it too? Why didn’t he trust you with his secret from the first, instead of stealing his way into your affections under an assumed name? Why did he plan (as he confessed to me) to take you away to the Mediterranean, and to keep you abroad, for fear of some officious friends at home betraying him to you as the prisoner of the famous Trial? What is the plain answer to all these questions? What is the one possible explanation of this otherwise unaccountable conduct? There is only one answer, and one explanation. My poor, wretched son—he takes after his father; he isn’t the least like me!—is weak: weak in his way of judging, weak in his way of acting, and, like all weak people, headstrong and unreasonable to the last degree.”

Well, yes, Mrs. Macallan. We can all see that, too, from about the third page of the novel. But Valeria will have none of it. She insists that Eustace is delicate-minded, not weak. She protects him, excuses him, adores him. Why? We don’t know. To the very last line of the novel, Valeria pleads with us to think kindly of Eustace, for her sake. The narrative effect of this, of course, is to make us think of Eustace as a damp rag, and to admire Valeria enormously. What other woman, having been treated this way, would do so much? Valeria’s faults become her virtues; Eustace’s delicacy is his worst fault.

Indeed, this helps explain the title of the book. This novel isn’t about Eustace and Valeria at all, even though the trial is about his behavior and his verdict. It’s about Valeria struggling with evidence, with law, pure and simple. Eustace is more or less a cipher and an abstraction. It is the law and the lady — (or the lady, or the tiger?) — and it is up to you to read the book and see which will win, and how.

Posted in Classics, Fiction, Mysteries | 14 Comments

Wish Her Safe at Home

Wish Her Safe at HomeDo you ever rehearse conversations you plan to have—or wish you’d had—in your head as you’re driving down the road or walking down the street? Have you ever caught yourself speaking the words aloud, even right in public?

Oh, just me then. Or me and Rachel Waring (which doesn’t bode so well for me, I think).

Rachel Waring spends a lot of her time in a dream world, imagining how things ought to be or what she can do to increase her happiness. When this novel by Stephen Benatar begins, she’s just inherited a house in Bristol from her great-aunt and, at age 48, she takes advantage of the opportunity to quit her London job and move into this new home. Her lively imagination makes it easy for her to see the potential in the run-down house and in her new life.

Previously, of course, I had often discovered the secret of happiness: courage on one occasion, acceptance on another, gratitude on a third. But this time there was a rightness to it—a certainty, a simplicity—which in the past mightn’t have seemed quite so all-embracing. Gaiety, I told myself. Vivacity. Positive thinking. I could have cheered. Still sitting at my table in the empty cafe I knew that concerning the house I had made the right decision. Bristol, me with a new start. London in my imagination had now become grey; maybe always had been? Bristol was in flaming technicolor.

You don’t have to be an especially alert reader to realize that Rachel’s gaiety and vivacity make her appear a little odd. She’s prone to engaging strangers in intense conversation and making sudden bizarre comments that make sense only to her—and to the readers who have access to her thoughts. The book was published in 1982, but Rachel’s cultural references come from old movies and Disney films, making the book and Rachel herself seem out of time. There are just enough mentions of then-modern conveniences, such as a video recorder, to make it clear that Rachel is the one who exists in a different era.

Rachel’s positive thinking means ignoring the bank statements indicating her account is overdrawn and continuing to spend money as if there’ll be no limit to her funds. One marvelous scene has her in church imagining herself having all sorts of interactions with the vicar—or is she imagining them? As readers, we’re kept inside Rachel’s head, and there, reality and fantasy are one and the same. If she can’t tell the difference, neither can we.

It’s possible to sketch out a general outline of Rachel’s life, based on the information she shares. To get at the truth of what the various events mean (and which ones really happened), we must read between the lines. There’s reason to believe that she’s been badly treated, and she’s certainly easy to take advantage of. But positive thinking does not always mean positive actions, and Rachel’s delusions become increasingly sinister as the book goes on, leaving us to reconsider others’ treatment of her.

In the introduction to the NYRB edition, John Carey writes about how the first-person narration keeps us rooting for Rachel. Personally, I didn’t experience that. I was fascinated by her. I kept wondering what she’d do next. But I wasn’t sure I wanted her to get her way. (Maybe it’s because early in the novel she interrupts a woman reading quietly in a tea shop!) I did want her to be safe from herself and from others, but what does it mean to wish someone safe? Does it mean wishing her safe at home? For Rachel, perhaps not.

Posted in Fiction | 14 Comments

The Post-Office Girl

PostOfficeChristine Hoflehner has a stable job in an Austrian village post-office. It provides a steady income, even if the work is dull and her lifestyle modest. When she was just 16, the Great War snatched away Christine’s opportunities for anything better than modest and dull, and now at 28 she hardly remembers what it feels like to be really happy. Happiness is “like a foreign language she learned in childhood but has now forgotten, remembering only that she knew it once.”

When Stefan Zweig’s novel, translated by Joel Rotenberg, begins, Christine is given a chance to experience a couple of weeks of joy. Her aunt has invited her to come stay with her on holiday in Switzerland. And so, Christine, who no longer knows how to be happy, is able to experience the kinds of excitement she missed out on in her youth. After her initial awkwardness wears off—and with the help of her aunt’s fashionable taste—she’s drawn into the whirlwind of parties and excess. She dances and flirts and stays out late, relishing every moment.

She’s like a drunkard, aware of nothing but herself and her own state of exaltation … In her giddiness, unable to imagine that everyone isn’t burning with enthusiasm, isn’t in a fever of high spirits, of passionate delight, she’s lost her sense of balance. She’s discovered herself for the first time in twenty-eight years, and the discovery is so intoxicating that she’s forgetting everyone else.

This state of intoxication cannot last, of course. It was just a vacation, and the question that remains in the background as Christine finds (or loses?) herself is what will happen when she returns to real life. How will her new (true?) self live as a post-office girl? Can she avoid that fate entirely?

At the Swiss hotel, Christine takes on a new name, Christiane van Boolen, identifying herself with her uncle’s more distinguished family name and abandoning her modest Austrian one. This is the identity she wants to maintain because this is the self that knows happiness. I found it interesting that her previous experience of happiness ceased at age 14 because Christiane van Boolen often seems hardly older than 14. Forced by circumstance to grow up too soon, she now turns back time.

But it was those growing-up years that made life in the post office bearable. Christine Hoflehner learned to be mature during the war and to bear hard circumstances. Christiane van Boolen never went through that. In choosing to see Christiane van Boolen as her true self, the self she’s finding for the first time, she’s giving up on the strength that made her life possible. When Christiane sees trouble, she laughs it off or finds a quick escape. But Christine’s troubles must be endured.

This is a tremendous novel about the unfairness of life. The back cover of the NYRB edition notes that it “lays bare the private life of capitalism.” (Note: That back cover also gives away plot developments from the final few chapters.) Money provides all sorts of freedom, and Christine now understands just how pernicious the inequality is. There are scenes toward the end that hammer on this point, as Christine finds a friend who is as appalled by the system as she is. These are some of the less effective scenes in the book. It’s far better when it focuses on how these new experiences have changed Christine from the inside and how she learns to cope (or not) with her new understanding of the world.

One of the things I’m wondering as I think of this story is whether Christine would have been better off never to have gone to Switzerland at all. Was it better to have never seen what could be, to never find that other self? Somehow, though, it doesn’t seem right to say that. It feels like saying it’s better to be unaware of inequality, but what good is there in knowing things could be so much better when you’re powerless to do anything? Christine has no appropriate way to seize power over her circumstances, as the book’s final ambiguous chapters reveal. If she cannot learn to be content, what else is there to do?

The other night, I saw Man of La Mancha for the first time and wept openly and rather messily during the first reprise of “The Impossible Dream.” (and all subsequent reprises). In isolation, it’s not the kind of song that tends to get to the hard-headed realist that I tend to be, but the juxtaposition of Quixote’s hope and Aldonza’s tragedy got to me. And as I try to consider Zwieg’s book, some of the same questions I had about that story keep coming to me. Will Aldonza be better off knowing that she was, for a while, Dulcinea? Can she continue to be Dulcinea when her Quixote is gone? What would that even look like?

Christine is no Aldonza. Her tragedy is not nearly so dramatic, and her hopes not nearly so noble. Aldonza would probably be delighted to be in Christine’s place. But I sympathize with them both, and they both leave me with questions about the place of dreams and desire in our lives.

Zweig’s novel ends on an exasperatingly sudden note, a cliffhanger with no resolution. I think, for her, there can be no resolution. The path she’s set out on will never lead to contentment. What happiness she finds will always be tenuous. Maybe, for her, those fragile moments of happiness are worth the risk that she’s taking. I don’t think we’re meant to endorse her choice, but Zweig helps us understand it and fear for where it will take her. And so I do.

Posted in Fiction | 16 Comments

The Icarus Girl

icarus girlThe Icarus Girl is Helen Oyeyemi’s debut novel, one she wrote when she was only 18 years old. I’ve read two of her other novels (White is for Witching and Mr. Fox) and been entranced. This novel was much more obviously a beginner’s book, both simpler and smaller in scope, but it is also the debut of someone with tremendous powers. This is a reworking of the doppelganger story, the lurking twin; it tells about the damage caused along hairline fractures in culture, to adults as well as to children. If I’d read this novel first, I would definitely have wanted to read more.

Jessamy (Jess) Harrison, eight years old, is the daughter of an English father and a Nigerian mother. She’s a difficult child, given to hiding in cupboards, to writing precocious poems about death, to uncontrollable screaming fits, to fever. Her parents, understandably troubled, decide to take Jess to Nigeria for her birthday. Jess is excited:

 But if she had known the trouble it would cause, she would have shouted “No!” at the top of her voice and run back into the cupboard. Because it all STARTED in Nigeria, where it was hot, and, although she didn’t realise this until much later, the way she felt might have been only a phase and she might have got better if only

(if only if only if ONLY Mummy)

she hadn’t gone.

In Nigeria, Jess wanders into a deserted part of her grandfather’s compound, and meets a little girl named Titiola. (Jess can’t pronounce it, and calls her new friend TillyTilly: a doubling name, a twinning name.) There’s something off about TillyTilly from the beginning: her eyes are so dark as to be pupilless, and she is too tall and too small at the same time. But Jess needs a friend, and she and TillyTilly have adventures, going into forbidden and impossible places together.

And when Jess returns to England, there is TillyTilly. (“Me and my parents have just moved in around the area,” says TillyTilly, but no parents are ever in evidence.) Gradually, Oyeyemi weaves nightmare in with this bright realism. TillyTilly is casually savage, offering to “get” Jess’s enemies in ways that are increasingly more violent. I had begun to suspect long ago that TillyTilly was an imaginary friend, but Oyeyemi leaves it frighteningly ambiguous, as TillyTilly turns against Jess herself: stories of lost selves, dead twins, and shattered cultures surface briefly and are lost in fever and fear. Neither the British way (psychology) nor the Nigerian way (ibeji, the statue made of a lost twin to ease its passage in the afterlife) work for a half-and-half child. This reminded me of why Oyeyemi titled the book The Icarus Girl. It’s sometimes hard to remember that Daedalus didn’t just tell his son not to fly too high — he also told him not to fly too low, too close to the sea. It had to be an impossible middle path for the half-and-half child. He was bound to fail.

As I said, this is obviously the work of a talented author — but equally obviously a debut book. Jess (and perhaps, in flashes, TillyTilly) is the only character who’s fully fleshed-out. Her parents, her therapist, her Nigerian family are all pretty flat. The prose is heavily stylized, coming from an eight-year-old’s perspective, and is both too childish and too precocious to swallow easily. She isn’t playing with forms and tropes here, as she will later in Mr. Fox. Yet with all its faults, this book is much more interesting than vast swathes of highly-praised literary fiction. Writing between the natural and the supernatural, Oyeyemi is superb at showing how the pain of fractured culture radiates out along Jess’s fault lines.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 8 Comments

Le Port des brumes (Death of a Harbormaster)

port des brumesThe second book I taught in my French Crime Fiction class this semester was an early novel from a favorite author: Georges Simenon. Simenon (who was actually a Belgian, but who’s counting) wrote nearly 200 novels over several decades, as well as numerous short works — a kind of record for sheer hard work and persistence. Many of these novels are mysteries or thrillers, nearly 70 of which are about the police inspector Maigret. Most of the rest are what Simenon called “romans durs,” gritty novels of psychological suspense. Simenon is a wonder. He must have written some duds in there — you don’t write several books a year without missing fire once in a while — but every book I’ve ever read by him has been tightly-plotted, concise to the point of being terse, interesting, often witty, and full of insight. Le port des brumes is no exception.

This book begins with amnesia, and ends with remembrance. A man is discovered wandering the streets of Paris, his memory entirely gone and a scar on the side of his head. Research discovers that he is Captain Joris, from a small port town called Ouistreham. Commissaire Maigret is given the task of bringing him home safely, but the morning after they arrive, Joris dies from a dose of strychnine. But who would kill an amnesiac? What could he remember to tell anyone? Maigret is plunged into the atmosphere of the town and its canal as he tries to solve the crime. It’s a tiny town, with a small round of suspects and a definite rhythm:

Ouistreham was a very ordinary village, at the end of a bit of road lined with small trees. The only thing that counted was the harbour: a lock, a lighthouse, Joris’s house, the Buvette de la Marine .

And the rhythm of this harbour, the two daily tides, the fishermen going past with their baskets, the handful of men only occupying themselves with the comings and goings of the boats…

death of a harbormasterThe wall of silence among its inhabitants — from mayor to deckhand — badly hinders him and his assistant Lucas, but Maigret’s keen psychological insight and intuitive leaps bring him to a solution at last.

As in many Maigret novels, the weather plays a big role. One of Simenon’s great strengths is his ability to evoke a sense of place, whether it’s a small, almost claustrophobic town, a Parisian street, or the inner sensation of having a head-cold. The thick fogs of Ouistreham, pierced only by the lighthouse’s roving eye, are a metaphor for the initial confusion of Maigret’s mind. Later, when the story comes to a climax, there’s a huge storm outside, the wind and rain lashing against the boat where Maigret is finally extracting some information from the characters. Afterward, the fog has finally retreated onto the bay, the sun shining on the waves — and the Maigret can begin to see his way clear.

This mystery, like others of Simenon’s, is concisely written, with a vocabulary of under 2000 words. Commissaire Maigret himself is written an ordinary Frenchman, not someone from the upper crust, and he expresses himself in ordinary language. But Simenon is no ordinary writer. His insight into victim and perpetrator alike — into communities and even into nations — sets him apart. If you’ve never read a Simenon novel, start anywhere you like with Maigret. You won’t go wrong.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | 3 Comments

The Bones of Paris

bones of parisI’ve been a fan of Laurie King’s Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes mysteries, as well as her present-day Kate Martinelli series, since 1995. Enjoying those series as much as I do can sometimes mean that I’m initially disappointed when King writes something that doesn’t take me back into Mary Russell’s world. But I have always enjoyed King’s work — even her standalone novels! — and Touchstone, written in 2007, was no exception. That book was a historical mystery-thriller, set just after the first World War in England, and its story and characters touched and engaged me.

The Bones of Paris, Touchstone’s sequel, is set in 1929, three years after the first book’s literally explosive events. The three characters have scattered: Bennet Grey, the human lie detector, to an isolated farm in Cornwall; Sarah Grey to heal her wounds in Paris; Harris Stuyvesant to pick up a private detective’s living here and there across Europe. But when Stuyvesant is asked to find Philippa Crosby, a missing girl who was last seen in Paris, he’s glad enough to have an excuse to see Sarah again as well.

Searching for Philippa, Stuyvesant finds a Paris obsessed with art and death, film and violence, sex and pain. The Grand Guignol alternates scenes of torture and slapstick, and the audience leaves a little more able to deal with their emotions about the Great War. Surrealist films show slashed eyeballs, severed hands. Man Ray takes extreme close-ups of straining muscles and sweating skin, and creates a mural for a Danse Macabre. In this environment, could a girl — or several — just disappear?

This book is darker than most of King’s work. She doesn’t just suggest some of the grisly stuff Stuyvesant sees, she describes it in detail. When is art a healthy way for people to work through their own darkest emotions, and when does it cross the line? When it exploits someone? When it uses a dead body? When it’s real?

Still, as interesting as the crime was — and as interesting as it was to get a glimpse of Paris during the Jazz Age — The Bones of Paris wasn’t one of my favorite King novels. Stuyvesant himself is a boring point-of-view character for me. He has a strong tendency to get drunk and use his fists when he’s frustrated, and in a mystery novel, there’s a pretty high chance you’re going to get frustrated on the regular: by witnesses, by girlfriends, by the case itself. That kind of act wears very thin on me. I prefer Bennett Grey, who is tortured by his extreme shell-shock but who at least doesn’t act like Ernest Hemingway. But we don’t get quite enough of him to please me.

If the sound of this book — Paris, the Jazz Age, encountering Man Ray and Cole Porter and Natalie Barney — entices you, then I suggest you start with Touchstone. King is always worth a read, and Touchstone will tell you whether you want to move on to Paris — the city of light, and also of darkness.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mysteries | 8 Comments