Mother Country by Jacinda Townsend

To crib a disclosure I found over at Tor.com: “The author is a friend, but if I didn’t like her book, I just wouldn’t review it here.”


And what, after all, to make of a choice?

Shannon is an American woman traveling, for the second time, in Morocco with her husband Vladimir, “a man she felt she could never know from Adam.” They have their troubles: Shannon suffers severe chronic pain following a serious car wreck; she is hiding substantial student and medical debt from her husband, who is wealthy, distant and not terribly likeable. They are unable to get pregnant (for layers of reasons and with layers of results, including Shannon’s increasing baby fever). Shannon is privileged but more or less miserable, between the pain, her marijuana habit (hidden from Vladimir), the traumas of her own upbringing, and her desire for what she can’t have. She feels a bit lost, “but it was a nice lost, like being found was just around the corner in some dusty recess of the medina.”

Souria is a teenager from Mauritania, where she has been beset: her mother dead, she is kidnapped and enslaved; escapes, is enslaved again, escapes again; arrives in Marrakech friendless and pregnant, where the abuses persist until she escapes to begin a hard, simple life under her own power in Essaouira, “that frat boy of Moroccan cities” on the coast. She names her daughter Yumni, “good fortune. Success in this life,” and the child is happy and deeply loved.

To Shannon’s American eyes, however, she appears dirty and free-ranging on the sidewalks outside the shop where Souria works. And so the older, richer woman just… takes her. Vladimir’s money and their American passports transform Yumni to an American adopted daughter. The two women look remarkably alike; the child looks like her adoptive mother, such that the other parents in Louisville assume she is Shannon’s own.

I love this novel for its use of repeated lines and concepts, and questions about the nature of choice. The two threads, which eventually meet, are mostly told in the close third person perspectives of Shannon and Souria, although we get brief glimpses of Vladimir and of Yumni (later Mardi). These two main characters are well developed, but I judge them not equally sympathetic: Shannon’s life has certainly been difficult, but I judge her more harshly in the end than I do Souria, who’s had fewer options. There are parallels, though, and both women have the complexity of being neither martyr nor villain. The stories are well told, and the plot is heartbreaking, but the novel is character driven in the end, as well as being about those choices we are cued to in the first line. Secondary characters are delightfully drawn as well, which I always appreciate.

The title teases us, at first, to think about the Black American couple traveling to Africa, but it’s also a hint to themes about motherhood. The child at center winds up with something like two mothers, although a little short on fathers – her biological father is more or less a rapist and more or less unknown, and Vladimir is neither cut out for nor in love with the role. Shannon’s mother is not a benevolent force, and the loss of Souria’s mother when she was young is directly linked to what happens to her from then on. The country of Morocco is important as setting, as cultural backdrop, as a place where Shannon and Vladimir can take what they want. (I also happen to know it’s an important place in the life of the novelist, which maybe doesn’t figure in the novel, except that this writer knows her subject well.)

There are capital-I Issues here, like trafficking, colorism, American privilege, and meditations on motherhood. I don’t find the ethical question to be terribly puzzling – I think kidnapping is wrong whether it’s Souria or her daughter being taken. White Americans adopting African babies creates a problematic picture that’s too easy; I appreciate Shannon’s more complicated role as Black American, and with her own traumas and challenges. The male-female relationships are both beautifully drawn and upsetting in how universally problematic they are.

Jacinda Townsend has perhaps topped her lovely, musical Saint Monkey. This is a beauty, and timely, wise, and real.


Rating: 8 bears.

Motherthing by Ainslie Hogarth

Mothers and motherhood haunt this alarming, dark, weirdly funny novel of family ties and the power of just the right recipe to heal all wounds.

Ainslie Hogarth’s Motherthing is a grim, disturbing novel of family drama and mental illness, yet a bizarrely funny glimpse into one woman’s mind. In its opening pages, Abby, who narrates, and Ralph have recently moved in with Ralph’s mother, Laura, hoping to nurse her through her depression. But instead, Laura takes her life, Abby purloins Laura’s coveted opal ring and Ralph falls into despair. “Because even though he’d been strong when we’d moved in, strong enough to move in–equipped with resources he’d downloaded from a website called the Borderline Parent, and a swear-on-your-life promise from me that I could handle this temporary uprooting–being near her stirred rotten dangerous things inside him.”

Abby, very much in the throes of dealing with her own mother’s shortcomings and abuse, has identified Ralph as part mother, part god, the “Perfect Good” in her life and “the most genuinely good person in the entire world.” “Ralph would make eggs too, not specially because I was there, but because a person has eggs for breakfast. And soon, I remember thinking, clutching fistfuls of duvet to steady my overwhelming joy, I would be a person too.” In flashbacks to her childhood, she recalls a beloved couch she calls Couchy Motherthing, and constantly circles and ponders the ideal mother figure; she relies on a cookbook “for the mothers of good, happy, wholesome families, with lots of mouths to feed. And that’s the kind of mother I am too, even if I’m not yet”–because Abby desperately wants to have a child of her own, to embody the kind of mother that neither she nor Ralph got to have. She works at a nursing home where she considers her favorite resident her “baby” and, simultaneously, the perfect mother she never had. This fantasy is disrupted by the appearance of the woman’s real daughter, which might just push Abby over the edge. Because paired with her nurturing impulse, Abby secretly harbors intense rage, “murder so much more manageable right now than creating a whole entire family.” Her love verges on violence.

Hogarth (The Boy Meets Girl Massacre (Annotated)) rocks readers via Abby’s turmoil, her swings from devotion to fury, self-loathing to self-aggrandizement. Motherthing keeps readers as unstable as its narrator, struggling to manage the traumas and the waves of emotion. Abby copes with a focus on a few objects that she imbues with special significance: Laura’s ring (symbol of rejection, as Laura judged her daughter-in-law “more of a Kay Jewelers type than a vintage-family-heirloom type”), Abby’s cookbook and the recipes she hopes will save Ralph (an obsessed-over jellied salmon and an unusual iteration of Chicken à la King). The result of these roiling thoughts and images is a darkly comic, kaleidoscopic novel of unhealthy fixations, love, murder, the gifts and wounds that family can inflict and one woman’s fight to save herself.


This review originally ran in the August 4, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 little dogs next door.

The Old Place by Bobby Finger

An irritable retiree in a small Texas town stars in this sweet, poignant story about community, secrets and all the ways to love.

Bobby Finger’s unforgettable debut novel, The Old Place, hits the rare and satisfying double note of harrowing and delightful. Roughly 90 minutes outside of San Antonio, Tex., a recently retired schoolteacher navigates various relationships and juggles old secrets in the kind of small community where everyone thinks they know everything about everybody else. Mary Alice Roth is a compelling, although decidedly prickly, protagonist; secondary characters only sweeten this heart-wrenching, warm-and-fuzzy small-town drama.

In the opening pages, Mary Alice is furious at being forced out of her job, and at the young woman–new to town and newly wed into an old family–hired to replace her. She tentatively renews her friendship with neighbor Ellie, hinting at one of the novel’s first slow reveals: the two women (one widowed, one divorced) had sons the same age who were also best friends, until a double tragedy. As readers puzzle over the deaths of Mary Alice’s husband and son, her (also long-estranged) sister, Katherine, shows up unannounced and unwelcome, all the way from Atlanta. Mary Alice continues her practice of bullying and haranguing the local ladies in preparation for the annual church picnic (“All the money spent there, whether on raffles or games or rides or food, went to Him whether you believed or not”). Katherine prods her to take responsibility for an old wrong, and together they reopen old wounds. Ellie privately nurses a new romance, only adding to the ever-twisting mysteries and secrets. Mary Alice’s replacement, the newcomer, offers a refreshing outside perspective as a native New Yorker who is as surprised as anyone at how much she loves her new home.

The Old Place muses over the stereotypes of a town like Billington, Tex., where privacy is scarce and prejudices persist, but where forgiveness and even redemption may just be possible. Mary Alice is a difficult woman to like, but the people who surround her–and the life she’s lived–keep her from being pure villain. By the novel’s second half, everyone is more nuanced than they originally seemed, and the fictional Billington feels as multifaceted and significant as any real hometown. Finger is expert at the careful disclosure of one secret after another, and his characters capture hearts and imaginations. His novel beautifully profiles the iconic small town, both holding it accountable and celebrating its quiet humanity. “Even a town in decline never really stops growing. People may leave, but their stories remain, reverberating in the bones of all those left behind.” At its heart, The Old Place is about the way people relate to one another: family, neighbors, new and old friends. The messiness, pain and grace of these relationships are candidly portrayed in a story that will inspire laughter and tears, making this debut a memorable achievement indeed.


This review originally ran in the July 26, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 tubs of potato salad.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

This book found its way onto my bookshelf and lived there a while before I picked it up, at which point I didn’t even know what it was about. I purposefully avoided even flipping it over to read the back-cover blurbs and went in thoroughly blind. Early on, it’s about a family of immigrants from Cameroon to New York City, beginning to make their way there, and I began to have a bad feeling – for a novel to work, there has to be conflict, right? I wanted things to be easy for this family (a couple and their young son), but I just knew (because of how stories work) that something had to go wrong. I was tempted to flip the book over, but I resisted, and I’m really glad they did. That’s going to affect how I write this review: I’m glad I kept my ignorance and experienced the story as an innocent, so to speak, and I want that for you too. I absolutely recommend this book.

If you’re game for just a little more information, here are some observations in white text (highlight to read): The father/husband figure in this story feels very fortunate to get work as a chauffeur for an important figure at Lehman Brothers. Well, that name alone tells us a lot about where the plot turns, doesn’t it. Near the end I found myself strongly reminded of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (a book that’s very important to me). There’s a hint there, too. These remarks are only as spoiler-y as the back-cover blurbs, FYI.

I will say that our central characters are Jende and Neni Jonga, the Cameroonian immigrants, and eventually their counterparts, Clark and Cindy Edwards, who are white New Yorkers of great wealth. The two families become somewhat intertwined, and it is to Mbue’s great credit that despite enormous differences, they conflate as well. A Q-and-A with the author at the back of my paperback tells us that Mbue didn’t necessarily set out to do this work, and did not find empathy for the Edwardses easy. It’s not empathy that lets anyone off of any hooks either, though.

It might be said that this is a book about immigration politics (or any number of other capital-I Issues: capitalism, race and American racism), but I think it’s true – and I think it’s a strength – that it’s about the Jongas first (and secondarily the Edwardses), and about those Issues only because they are the ones that the Jongas live through, if you will.

It’s a beautifully told, absorbing story to get lost in. Each character has a distinctive voice, and even though none is a saint, they all earn our compassion. Mbue is an impressive writer and I was pleased to spend this time with her characters.


Rating: 8 bacon-wrapped shrimp.

Sundial by Catriona Ward

This unnerving novel of family history and impossible choices is part ghost story, part terrifying reality.

Catriona Ward (The Last House on Needless Street) places mundane, everyday frustrations alongside profound chills in a novel of family, tough choices, secrets and terror. “It’s the chicken pox that makes me sure–my husband is having another affair.” At the beginning of Sundial, readers wonder what feels just a little off about the suburban household where Rob and her husband, Irving, bicker and feud and raise their two daughters, Callie and Annie. Irving has a nasty temper; Rob is bitterly frustrated: “These days I don’t understand why anyone bothers to watch soap operas or go to movies. Living is enough. It is so intense and painful.” Annie is a sweet, docile child; Callie has a discomfiting fascination with murder and death. When the bones of small mammals begin to show up in Callie’s room, Rob feels that things have gone far enough, and takes her elder daughter away for a spell–to Sundial, Rob’s family home in California’s Mojave desert, an abandoned hippie commune and site of terrible unnamed wrongs.

Through flashback-style stories Rob tells Callie, readers learn of Rob’s past: she had a twin sister named Jack, and the sisters shared an unusual upbringing, surrounded by half-wild dogs, scientific experiments, wayward graduate students and shadowy, evil acts. Something dark lived or lives in Rob, or Jack, or Callie, or possibly all of them, and it gradually dawns on readers that Rob is mulling the unthinkable choice to save one daughter or the other. Her secrets come out only slowly and in fits and starts, and it’s often unclear what is imagined, what is paranormal and what is plain human malice. “It’s possible to feel the horror of something and to accept it all at the same time. How else could we cope with being alive?” The novel’s perspective shifts between Rob then, Rob now and Callie, so a character may appear innocent in one chapter and dangerous in the next. At least one of these narrators is surely unreliable, but it takes until the final pages to piece together the unsettling enigma of Rob’s family history and the possible futures for her girls.

With the special horror of creepy children and the very real torture of abusive adults, Sundial serves up a deeply, deliciously disturbing family mystery, populated by ghost dogs and misguided scientists as well as apparently nonthreatening neighbors. A slow burn leads into a quick ratcheting up as this psychological horror deals its final blows.


This review originally ran in the January 6, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 cinnamon candies.

An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn

What is Odysseus, in the end – the hero whose final act of vengeful violence is compared, by means of another memorable simile, to a bard stringing his lyre – but the poet of his own life?

This is the first book I read in 2022, and I feel sure it will make the year’s best-of list, so that’s an excellent start. Another happy synchronicity: I bought this book based off a review I read, but find that Mendelsohn is also the author of a book I’ve had on my shelf for a few years, from a grad school reading list I never got to: The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million. After this read, that one just moved up the list.

An Odyssey is a memoir focusing on a father/son relationship and a journey, both a literal one and the figurative path to greater understanding facilitated by a yet more famous Odyssey. Daniel Mendelsohn’s father Jay is eighty-one years old the spring he asks his son Dan if he can sit in on his undergraduate seminar course on Homer’s Odyssey. Dan says yes, and together with a small group of college freshmen, father and son explore a work of classic literature and, as Dan sees it, their own relationship. Just after the course ends, they go together on a Mediterranean cruise that follows Odysseus’s presumed route home from the Trojan War. A year later, Jay would be dead.

I bought this book because I read a lovely review of it (which I now cannot find. I thought it was Shelf Awareness but apparently not), but then it sat on my shelf for some time, I think because the concept sounded a little precious, a little pat. And it could have been, in the wrong hands, but Daniel Mendelsohn was the right writer for this story, and I’m so glad. For one, he has a deep expertise in Homer and indeed in the classics – as I briefly (in high school) aspired to do, he learned Greek and Latin sufficient to read Homer, Ovid and Virgil (etc.) in their original forms, just for a start. He is the kind of thoughtful, introspective student of relationships and families that I most appreciate as a writer. He has the nuance to handle such a premise – father and son study the Odyssey and take a trip together – with the subtlety it needs. Talk about a book matched to its reader: Homer, parent/child relationships, contemplative memoir… and a focus on teaching. The result is a beautiful book that I’ll be thinking about for a long time.

Here are a few lines that made me pause.

I was going to read Greek, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the elaborately unspooling Histories of Herodotus, the tragedies constructed as beautifully as clocks, as implacably as traps…

How lovely – and makes me think of Amy Leach’s “Pea Madness.”

And so ring composition, which might at first glance appear to be a digression, reveals itself as an efficient means for a story to embrace the past and the present and sometimes even the future – since some ‘rings’ can loop forward, anticipating events that place after the conclusion of the main story. In this way a single narrative, even a single moment, can contain a character’s entire biography.

A single moment containing a character’s entire biography feels like why I read and write.

About competing literary interpretations,

Whatever else it may mean, the fact that both of these hostile camps could make use of the same examples to prove diametrically opposed interpretations suggests a truth about how all of us read and interpret literary texts – one that is, possibly, rooted in the mysteries of human nature itself. Where some people see chaos and incoherence, others will find sense and symmetry and wholeness.

Following a half-page discussion of the etymology of a certain word that I care about,

In time, this wistful word nostos, rooted so deeply in the Odyssey‘s themes, was eventually combined with another word in Greek’s vast vocabulary of pain, algos, to give us an elegantly simply way to talk about the bittersweet feeling we sometimes have for a special kind of troubling longing. Literally this word means ‘the pain associated with longing for home,’ but as we know, ‘home,’ particularly as we get older, can be a time as well as a place. The word is ‘nostalgia.’

This takes me immediately to a Jason Isbell song (forgive the whiplash), “Something to Love,” and the line “don’t quite recognize the world that you call home.” Naturally, this is a song about art and creativity, and it is sung in the voice of a parent speaking to his child. The idea that two people a generation apart – parent and child – necessarily come from different worlds, because of the way the world changes over time, has been a powerful one for me in the last decade or so.

Here’s another passage that gets to the heart of some of (again) my own thinking about parents.

If only they knew the real him, I thought. Glancing around at the others as they listened to Daddy, at the charmed smiles on Brendan’s and Ksenia’s faces, and then back at his face, relaxed and open, mellow with reminiscence, a face so different from the one he so often presented, at least to his family, I wondered suddenly whether there might be people, strangers he had met on business trips, say, bellhops or stewardesses or conference attendees, to whom he showed only this kindly face, and who, therefore, would be as astonished by the expression of contempt that we knew so well as we were by the rare glimpses of the other, softer side. How many sides did my father actually have, I asked myself, and which was the ‘real’ one? Perhaps this expansive and charming person, so different from the crabbed and coiled man whom only a month or two earlier, I ruefully thought, my Odyssey students had come to know, this song-singing old gentleman who could be so affable and entertaining with total strangers on a ship in the middle of the sea, was the person my father had always been meant to be. Or, perhaps, had always been, although only with those others, the bellhops and stewardesses. Children always imagine that their parents’ truest selves are as parents; but why? ‘Who really knows his own begetting?’ Telemachus bitterly asks early in the Odyssey. Who indeed. Our parents are mysterious to us in ways that we can never quite be mysteries to them.

On teaching:

It was from Fred that I understood that beauty and pleasure are at the center of teaching. For the best teacher is one who wants you to find meaning in the things that have given him pleasure, too, so that the appreciation of their beauty will outlive him. In this way – because it arises from an acceptance of the inevitability of death – good teaching is like good parenting.

This feels like a revelation but also something I recognize because I already understood it. It gets at why passion and excitement make for good teaching. And there’s a profundity to the idea that teaching is about what lives on beyond us. Although shortly after, he’ll make the point that teachers never know who they will reach with which lesson, because these things take years to reveal themselves; just as our own teachers rarely know who they have reached. I think again of Mrs. Smith, who introduced me in high school to Homer and Hemingway.

These moments go on and on. I love a book that offers both lovely lines and thought-provoking ideas.

The only critique I’d make of this exquisite work is some minimizing or simplification of women, especially by contrast to another recent read, Natalie Haynes’s excellent Pandora’s Jar, which was one of the best books I read in 2021, and helped inspire this read. (I regret that my weird reading-and-review schedule has reversed the order in which they appear here.) Haynes set out to address the roles and reputations of women in the Greek myths, and Mendelsohn concerns himself with fathers and sons, so, fair enough. But there were a few moments where I felt Mendelsohn missed a chance to see certain issues of gender, such that it felt like an oversight to me. It’s up for debate, of course, what agency Odysseus gets for his affairs with Calypso and Circe and his flirtations with Nausicaa and others (as opposed to the-gods-made-him-do-it), but to credit his “allegiance to his wife… withstand[ing] the seductive attentions of various goddesses and nymphs” seems a bit rich. I missed a more nuanced treatment of gender relations, both in Homer and in Mendelsohn’s own life. But perhaps this is unfair, considering his stated focus on male relationships.

I’ll be thinking about An Odyssey for a while.


Rating: 9 doors.

The Stone World by Joel Agee

Immediately following World War II, an intuitive boy from the U.S. in Mexico carefully observes his changing world in this scintillating work of literary fiction.

Following his memoirs (Twelve Years; In the House of My Fear) and translations, Joel Agee’s first novel, The Stone World, is a dreamy, haunting immersion in the mind of a child in a gravely serious adult world. The story spans mere months in the life of six-and-a-half-year-old Peter, who prefers to go by Pira, as his Mexican friends pronounce his name. (Pira wishes he was Mexican; he has learned that gringo is not a compliment.) This is a quietly profound study of boyhood, in some ways almost humdrum: Pira writes a poem, borrows a significant item from a parent and breaks it (and lies about it), falls out with a friend, learns about the world. But the backdrop is late-1940s Mexico, where Pira lives with his American mother and German communist “second father” (his biological father lives in New York), and they rub shoulders with a range of characters: American, Hungarian, Mexican, rich, poor, activists and organizers and artists, including Frida Kahlo.

Pira is prone to involved imaginings, including dreams but also waking visions, as when he lies on the cold stone floors of the family’s small patio and feels himself sinking into another world. There is a literal fever dream as well (brought on by a serious allergic reaction), but even the half-sleep of the afternoon siesta can transport the boy–a very serious thinker–into realms of fantasy, where he decides that a nearby decaying bull’s carcass is the famous bull that has just killed a beloved Spanish bullfighter. Through the eyes of this curious, philosophical, sensitive child, the whole world is fresh and new, colorful, beautiful and dangerous.

Joel Agee is the son of celebrated novelist James Agee, and Pira’s life resembles his creator’s, who likewise lived in Mexico with his mother and German stepfather in the late 1940s. The Stone World is concerned with relationships, interpersonal and political: Pira is friends with boys his own age, as well as his pet dog and parrot and the family’s cherished maid, Zita. The politics of his parents and their friends (with their talk of parties–but not in the usual sense) are initially boring to young Pira, but real-life risks and even arrests bring the issues home to him: “He didn’t understand, but there was an explanation.”

In the hands of such a skilled and nuanced writer, this material glistens and tilts with both beauty and menace. Pira is captivating, and The Stone World is completely absorbing. Readers should clear their calendars until the final page has been turned, and then leave time for the contemplation this novel deserves.


This review originally ran in the December 21, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 marbles.

Red Thread of Fate by Lyn Liao Butler

Amid grief, betrayal and exposed secrets, a new widow learns to forge unexpected bonds.

Lyn Liao Butler (The Tiger Mom’s Tale) offers secrets, tragedy, hope and redemption in a novel centered on family and forgiveness. When Red Thread of Fate opens, Tam is on the phone with Tony, her husband. They are a bit short with each other; the marriage has been a little off, but they’re generally headed back on track and preparing to adopt a little boy from China, which both look forward to. Then there is cursing, a roaring sound–and just like that, Tam is a widow. The shocks come quickly, one after another: Tony was not in Manhattan, where he should have been, but in Flushing, Queens, and accompanied by a cousin Tam thought he’d been estranged from for years, killed by the same truck that struck Tony. Then Tam is surprised to be named guardian of the estranged cousin’s five-year-old daughter, even as her son-to-be still awaits adoption in China.

Tam, the California-born daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, and Tony, an immigrant from China, negotiated an uneasy peace with their families and their new lives in New York City, and with each other. Upon her own immigration, Tony’s cousin Mia lived with the couple for nearly two years, before unspecified events broke up the happy household. Now Tam is left to untangle the mysteries of Tony’s life, which seem to multiply the more she learns; Mia’s history is even more enigmatic, but Tam is committed to parenting her orphaned niece. She carries a guilty secret of her own, too.

By nature a shy and private woman, Tam is prompted by her new life–widowed, a single parent, grieving–to accept help, against her instincts. Slowly, she builds a family and a community: taking in her niece, moving toward adoption (which must be renegotiated now that she does not have a husband), deepening friendships and finding new ones, even beginning to mend relations with her mother. This process also involves navigating cultural nuances and divided loyalties. By the time Tony’s secrets come fully to light, Tam is a changed woman, with new strengths and allegiances, and better equipped to meet her many challenges.

Red Thread of Fate is a novel about what ties people to one another, and the nature of those bonds, the unintended consequences of choices and the possibility of a fresh start. With contemplative characters, surprising humor and a twisting plot, Butler’s thought-provoking story of nontraditional family models will appeal to readers interested in fate and identity.


This review originally ran in the December 6, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 wontons.

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

Humans haunt more houses than ghosts do. Men and women assign value to brick and mortar, link their identities to mortgages paid on time. On frigid winter nights, young mothers walk their fussy babies from room to room, learning where the rooms catch drafts and where the floorboards creak. In the warm damp of summer, fathers sit on porches, sometimes worried and often tired but comforted by the fact that a roof is up there providing shelter. Children smudge up walls with dirty handprints, find nooks to hide their particular treasure, or hide themselves if need be. We live and die in houses, dream of getting back to houses, take great care in considering who will inherit the houses when we’re gone.

Family, home, and sense of place. Pathos and humor. What’s not to love? This is a Great American Novel, telling the story of one prodigious family over generations, and in it the story of a city and more: the Turners’ Detroit is the story of the Great Migration, of racism and striving. Francis Turner came up from Alabama to Detroit in 1944, to be later joined by his wife Viola and first son, Charles or Cha-Cha. From there, from one rental house to another, the family grew, purchasing the house on Yarrow Street in 1951, where they would raise thirteen children, whose ages span 23 years. Readers meet these character briefly in 1958 and then spend much of the book’s space in 2008, as a widowed Viola weakens in Cha-Cha’s home and the old house on Yarrow falls into decay (and, if you remember 2008, there will be financial repercussions). The timeline jumps around: The Turner House is most concerned with 2008 and the final disposition of the title house (and its matriarch), but to tell that story, we have to flash back. Not all thirteen of the siblings get equal time, of course; the eldest, Cha-Cha, and the youngest, Lelah, play large roles, as do patriarch and matriarch, and a few others along the way, including partners.

There is a bit of a mystery at this story’s heart, too: Cha-Cha saw a haint in the Turner house when he was just a boy, and in his 60s he sees it again, while driving an 18-wheeler for work, which ends his career. His efforts to resolve this haint – its reality or unreality, its meaning – drives much of the book’s plot, serving as the main conflict in the 2008 timeline, although readers gradually become aware of how tenuous the family’s very existence was in the 1944 timeline as well. And Lelah is fighting demons of her own – as are all thirteen siblings, presumably, as are all of us. It’s an expansive story like that.

One man’s haunting is another man’s hallowed guest.

There is humor as well as pain, and many truths about families and homes, especially large families. One sideplot, which is both heartwrenching and funny, involves a minor character whose curiosity about big families causes her to make some spectacular missteps. As an outsider to large families myself, I sympathize, and I enjoyed this glimpse into a big, warm, loving, dysfunctional, unwieldy example.

He felt like a hostage in his own house. He saw now that these parties were larger than him and Tina, and even Viola. That his family could go on party prepping in Cha-Cha’s house when his home life was an obvious wreck indicated of a lack of respect. This was what happened when an open-door policy–something Cha and Tina had prided themselves on–ran amok. When mi casa es su casa was taken literally. His house had become an extension of the Brotherly Banquet Hall of their youths, except his siblings slept here too, and paid no security deposit for damage. In exchange, Turners thought their presence was expression of love enough; that they’d booked flights and crossed state lines to invade Cha-Cha’s space was supposed to be some sort of gift to him. It felt more like an ambush.

You know I have a special weakness for literature that tackles our relationships to places. Detroit is not a city I know well, but this version certainly felt fully formed to me; I didn’t look up street names but these are real places as far as I’m concerned, and that’s good enough. The importance of home, of connection to place and (sometimes) to the walls of one place in particular is very much a part of my worldview.

This book is about families and relationships, about connections to the past, about mysticism, about race and housing discrimination and Detroit and the Great Migration and the United States, about the significance of place and home. It is beautifully written and entirely absorbing; none of these characters is without flaws, but the narrative oozes with empathy through it all. It’s a masterpiece.


Rating: 8 hot links.

The Hummingbird by Sandro Veronesi, trans. by Elena Pala

This family saga set in Italy, with one life at its center, is moving, literary, philosophical and multi-layered.

The Hummingbird by Sandro Veronesi (Quiet Chaos; The Force of the Past), translated from the Italian by Elena Pala, is a shape-shifting, multigenerational novel of family, love, loss, joy, change and pain.

When readers meet Marco Carrera, the year is 1999 and he is a 40-year-old ophthalmologist in Rome, about to meet destiny in the form of a psychoanalyst breaking his confidentiality oath. From here, chapters jump back and forth in time from 1960 to 2030. Readers meet the great love of Marco’s life, visit his childhood, witness his marriage and divorce. When he is just a boy, Marco stops growing, remaining small and childlike well into his teenage years: his mother nicknames him “the hummingbird” for his stature, a moniker that will echo into his adulthood. He becomes a father and eventually a grandfather, so that four generations of his family flash kaleidoscopically across these pages; Marco is ever at the novel’s center, however, even as he is accused of holding still through life’s storms. “You can keep still as time flows around you, you can stop it flowing, sometimes you can turn back time, even–just like a hummingbird, you can fly backwards and retrieve lost time.” The novel mimics this movement with its nearly stop-action chronology.

Some chapters take a straight narrative form, others are transcribed conversations, letters, postcards or e-mails. Elena Pala’s translation from the Italian feels perfectly suited to this twisting, many-faceted form, as different voices take the lead. The pieced-together story moves between Rome and a Tuscan coastal town where the Carreras have a vacation home; its characters travel much farther (Spain, Germany, the United States), but Marco’s orbit is limited. Rather, as he keeps still, his family and friends revolve around him.

In these various forms, across time and space, Veronesi refers to numerous other literary voices (a Samuel Beckett epigraph sets the tone) and concepts from ophthalmology, psychotherapy, architecture and design, among other disparate fields. The Hummingbird is clearly an intellectual exercise, but can also be read more simply as a story about a single, deceptively ordinary life: Marco might appear unremarkable at first glance, but he has lived remarkable tragedies and triumphs, which will define him. He is affected by his experiences as if by ocean waves, his life a series of natural forces, or natural disaster. Packed with pathos, humor and tragedy, the novel’s finish is both a quiet goodbye and a crescendo, the only fitting end to such an unobtrusive but resounding life.


This review originally ran in the December 2, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 appointments.
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