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Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Unusually, I was assigned a work of fiction for my study of nonfiction writing.

Set in Fingerbone, a little town in Idaho, this novel is told from the perspective of Ruth, and details her upbringing, along with her younger sister Lucille, by various female relatives. The town of Fingerbone and the surrounding environment, but most especially the lake, play important roles as characters in their own right. Themes overtly include transience and impermanence, and Robinson (who won a Pulitzer for Gilead) employs a subtly shifting narrative voice. A strong sense of place is another obvious feature and focus of this quiet but disquieting novel. Lovely sentence-level language and syntax set atmosphere as well.

I believe I was assigned this book for sense of place, firstly, and for narrative shifting. I was drawn instead to the recurring image and role of water, though, and of that lake in particular. It reminded me of The Chronology of Water and Notes From No Man’s Land for those recurring images that form a theme. I love this kind of imagistic theme, and the way it can provide emotional impact both so subtly and yet so strongly. I’m on the lookout for books that do this kind of work, so keep me in mind.


Rating: 7 mentions of Noah.

The Goddesses by Swan Huntley

This psychological thriller takes a pleasantly average woman to lovely Hawaii, where she is charmed, then devastated.

“We came here to escape.” From the outside, it might look like a dream: moving the family to Hawaii, career advancement, surf and sand for the kids. Nancy and Chuck and their teenaged twin sons, Cam and Jed, set up house in Kona. The boys are “stoked” at the opportunity, but Nancy isn’t. She is furious that Chuck cheated on her back in San Diego, and exasperated with her boring, predictable self. She hopes that Hawaii will be a new beginning. She starts eating healthier, sits in a different bleacher row at the boys’ water polo games, switches the towels around, puts the mugs in the cabinet facing up instead of down. She starts going to morning yoga classes on the beach, and that’s where she meets Ana.

In The Goddesses, Swan Huntley (We Could Be Beautiful) builds a complete inner world for Nancy. She narrates the story, sharing her feelings and reactions with the reader: her fascination with the beautiful, confident, charismatic Ana; her frustration with bumbling Chuck; her pride in her developing shoulder muscles and newfound strength. Yoga and Kona, the farmer’s market and the freedom of knowing no one, and especially her growing friendship with Ana, make Nancy optimistic about the future and her ability to reinvent herself. Even her marriage with Chuck sees some healthy rejuvenation. But the Nancy relating this story has the wisdom of hindsight, and can’t help but sneak in the odd, sinister comment about what that future holds.

Ana helps Nancy trade in her minivan for a BMW convertible. They spend their days lolling in Ana’s Jacuzzi, at her little pink house on the beach. Nancy–or Nan, as Ana calls her, the same three letters forming both names–starts to stay out some evenings, leaving her husband and sons to prepare their own dinners, because her new friend needs her. The reader, prodded by the warning tone in Nancy’s narrative voice, can’t tell what’s coming, only that “Nan” is a bit too easily taken in, Ana a bit too needy.

The Goddesses is a novel of lush green foliage, brightly colored hibiscus, new beginnings and old mistakes: hope and betrayal twined together. Huntley’s prose is clipped, declarative: “Our cars arrived. We’d had them shipped.” Her characters are adequately developed, her setting evocative, but it is the stealthily twisting plot that makes this novel sparkle. She offers an earnest, likable protagonist in Nancy, then plunges her into psychological challenges she never saw coming. Even in paradise, beautiful exteriors are not necessarily to be trusted.


This review originally ran in the June 16, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 Buddhas.

Flesh and Bone and Water by Luiza Sauma

Luiza Sauma’s first novel features an upper-class family using indulgence and dishonesty to deal with loss. Flesh and Bone and Water opens with a letter addressed to the narrator, André Cabral, a doctor in his late 40s living in London, separated from his wife and long estranged from his home country of Brazil. The novel then shifts to tell much of André’s story through flashbacks, from his childhood in Rio de Janeiro through his now-failing marriage in “o primeiro mundo, the mythic first world” of Europe.

André was a member of Rio’s privileged class, his family served by empregadas (maids) and guarded from “undesirables” in a fortress-like apartment building with spiked walls, CCTV and porteiros (caretakers). But unlike his friends, he wonders about the differences between his life and that of his family’s empregadas, Rita and her daughter, Luana. The death of André’s mother rocks the household: his younger brother, Thiago, clings harder to Rita, while their workaholic father makes clumsy attempts to parent his two sons. André withdraws from school and social goings-on, and feels increasingly drawn to Luana, a girl his own age who has always been present; he finds her new curves alluring. Though he’s dating an appropriately upper-class schoolmate, André becomes obsessed with his maid. And now, all these years later, middle-aged André is feeling adrift in a country not his own, when he gets a letter from Luana.

Flesh and Bone and Water is André’s story. But it is also about race and class in 1980s Brazil, the struggles of a family torn by grief and the uprootedness of expatriates. Sauma’s prose is lush with sensory detail, emphasizing the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of a Brazil that is far from André’s daily reality, yet close to his heart: trickling sweat; the comforting coconut milk, peppers and lime smells of moqueca (fish stew); hot beach sand underfoot; mother’s perfume; “a white plastic jug covered in condensation, full to the brim with cold, sweet mate.” When André opens Luana’s first letter, “the paper smelled woody, humid, faintly tropical. The past has a certain scent, don’t you think?” Deeply atmospheric, this literary novel emphasizes people’s ties to place and to one another, and the deceptions they resort to, for better or worse. Sauma subtly offers the observation that memory can be every bit as tricky as an outright intention to deceive.

Ranging across time and place, richly detailed and thick with emotion, Flesh and Bone and Water is an impressive debut. Strong characters, a twisting plot and compelling settings make this a pleasurable and memorable read.


This review originally ran in the May 16, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 glasses of cold, sweet mate.

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, trans. by Lisa Dillman

This is an astonishing novel that I’m so glad I learned about from my MFA program director, Jessie Van Eerden.

Signs Preceding the End of the World is a very short novel, at under 100 pages. Herrera wastes no space on setting or set-up, but puts his reader directly into the action, leaving her to figure out when and where we are. Without taking too much of that experience away from you, I will say that our narrator, Makina, is preparing to leave her hometown (“the Village”) and head north, looking for her brother who left before her. She is a remarkable young woman, nearly fearless, and comfortable with a variety of underworld characters in the Village, whose connections will help her in her travels.

This is a book about boundaries, borders; change, movement, travel, transition; and about translation, language. All of these subjects have multiple meanings, so that a so-brief little book with actions just sketched in, and no background, works on an enormous number of levels. I dearly love this layered style, where one border stands in for all borders, and every detail can be mined for implications. I always think that a book like this has something to offer for everyone: for the surface-only reader, all the way through the dissertation-seeking academic. Not to mention that this book has been translated from the Spanish (and to a few other languages as well as English), so the question of translation within its story is continued outside of Herrera’s own work.

[This is the place to mention that Lisa Dillman’s Translator’s Note is perhaps the best I’ve ever read (though likewise brief). She goes directly to the question that made me turn to the Translator’s Note when I was on page 16 of the novel, which is always nice! and explores the beauty of the book as well as discusses her own process. For readers interested in the puzzle of translation, this novel would be worth reading just for this question, even if it were not an extraordinary read in itself.]

The work of Signs is emphasized by its brevity, I think. Makina’s journey and challenges are archetypal, and I mean by that that she must stand in for a huge swath of our world’s population, as well as that Signs hearkens to mythology, and any number of archetypal journey-stories. The quick-sketch nature of the book helps to demonstrate or play out these facts. It’s not that there aren’t details:

Rucksacks. What do people whose life stops here take with them? Makina could see their rucksacks crammed with time. Amulets, letters, sometimes a huapango violin, sometimes a jaranera harp. Jackets. People who left took jackets because they’d been told that if there was one thing they could be sure of over there, it was the freezing cold, even if it was desert all the way. They hid what little money they had in their underwear and stuck a knife in their back pocket. Photos, photos, photos. They carried photos like promises but by the time they came back they were in tatters.

(I love the ambiguous pronoun ‘they’ in that final phrase. Were the people in tatters, or the photos? or the promises?)

Although I can sense the fable/archetypal nature of this story, my background in those areas, particularly in Mexican culture, is not strong enough to see all the connections. So, that’s a level on which I have more to study about this lovely little book. Easy to read, but will continue to yield meaning on multiple readings, I can tell (and as Jessie says).

Yuri Herrera is a talent, and Lisa Dillman as well. I am looking forward to meeting Yuri at this summer’s residency in West Virginia, where he’ll be a guest writer. Wish I could meet Lisa, too.


Rating: 8 jackets.

Eggshells by Caitriona Lally

A narrator who belongs in a fairy tale becomes lost among the indifferent streets of Dublin in this quirky, imaginative debut novel.

eggshells

Caitriona Lally’s first novel, Eggshells, portrays an unbalanced but charming narrator stuck in an overwhelmingly complex Dublin, searching clumsily for home. In the opening pages, Vivian settles into the house she’s recently inherited from her great-aunt Maud, who “kept chairs the way some people keep cats.” This dusty, cluttered house suits the eccentric inheritor, who avoids mirrors and hygiene, preferring to cultivate her own “earthy tang.” Vivian believes that she is a changeling, fallen out of a world of fairies and elves and into this one by accident. Her daily chore is to find a magical door through which to reenter her rightful place in that other world.

Unsurprisingly, Vivian’s obsessions and whimsies make modern Dublin’s other residents uneasy. She has few contacts: her nosy neighbors, given to shaking their heads; a flummoxed social worker; and an impatient older sister: “her world is full of children and doings and action verbs, but I’m uncomfortable with verbs; they expect too much.” The sisters share the same name, Vivian, although sharing is not the right word: the older sister comfortably inhabits the name, while Lally’s protagonist is forever displaced, lacking an identity of her own.

Vivian walks the city and takes buses and cabs, exploring streets with promising names (Poppintree, Lockkeeper’s Walk, Ferrymans Crossing, All Hallows Lane) and performing tricks and charms–circling a particular pole three times, whispering to herself, and otherwise alarming passersby. She maps these routes and analyzes the shapes she’s walked, looking for meaning. She advertises her search for a friend named Penelope (“Pennies Need Not Apply”). Vivian is, in her awkward way, a giver: she leaves cryptic but (she believes) encouraging notes in books that she donates to charity shops, and €5 notes in the pockets of cardigans on sale in thrift stores. She makes lists in her notebook–names of birds, favorite sweets, museum artifacts–anywhere she might find weird words and possible anagrams. Vivian’s fascination with wordplay echoes Lally’s knack for language, and this emphasis is one of the great charms of Eggshells, a sweetly off-kilter novel about loneliness, communication and finding one’s place in the world.

Vivian stumbles, and may never find the portal to the place she yearns for. But she makes shaky progress: acquiring a pet goldfish, throwing a dinner party of sorts, finding a new friend with traumas and eccentricities of her own. Eggshells is ultimately a funny, occasionally grim story centering on a sympathetic character who is either disturbed or a changeling from a fanciful world: it is for the reader to decide.


This review originally ran in the February 16, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 goldfish.

The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivák

This novel of love, grief and the cycles of life veils its profundity in deceptively simple everyday events.
the-signal-flame

Andrew Krivák (The Sojourn) paints indelibly rich scenes and relationships with The Signal Flame, an astonishing novel set in a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains. A strong tie to that setting is one of the elements that binds together a community and a family struggling with loss and continued life.

The people in Dardan mourn patriarch Jozef Vinich. He is survived by his daughter, Hannah, and her son Bo; these three generations have been touched by war. Jozef lost fingers in World War I; Hannah’s husband survived World War II but returned in ignominy, a deserter later killed in a hunting accident; and Bo’s younger brother, Sam, has been missing in action in Vietnam for some months. As they grieve for Jozef and Sam, Hannah and Bo must also navigate a lingering feud with another local family, the management of a business and a farm, a natural disaster and a legacy Sam has left behind.

The town of Dardan and its inhabitants are eloquently portrayed, both in the everyday and exceptional. Krivák’s writing is beautiful, luscious but never overwrought; he recalls Norman Maclean in the understated loveliness and clarity of both language and meaning. He imbues his story with methodical pacing, a strong sense of place and a perfectly expressed sense of the quotidian: The Signal Flame takes place between Easter and Christmas of 1972, but encompasses a world of human experience. This is an extraordinary novel to be savored.


This review originally ran in the February 10, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 9 letters.

Human Acts by Han Kang, trans. by Deborah Smith

South Koreans struggle to comprehend a 1980 uprising and the violence that follows.

human-acts

Human Acts is the second novel by Han Kang (The Vegetarian) to be translated into English. An introduction by translator Deborah Smith provides valuable context for this meandering book, which uses a dreamy atmosphere to explore the violence of a 1980 student uprising in South Korea.

Kang approaches the horrifying events of the Gwangju uprising obliquely. She doesn’t shy away from the shocking details–indeed, the novel opens with a young boy taking a brief respite from his work cleaning and caring for an overflow of unidentified dead bodies in a converted government office. But instead of spotlighting this violence, Kang focuses on the lives of individuals, beginning with Dong-ho, the boy caring for the dead, and then rotating through the views of those around him. First-, second- and third-person perspectives reinforce the feeling of circling the center of this event. After Dong-ho, the reader meets his best friend, shot dead in the streets; the two young women he works with; and his grieving mother. In a state of massive unrest, violence and terror, these characters appear dazed. Others look back over the decades that follow, including an editor wearily battling censorship and former prisoners struggling with old trauma. This range of voices, their sense of shock and unreality, along with the title, explore the possibilities of humanity: human acts can be variously brave, selfish, gentle and cruel.

Human Acts is a remarkable novel, at once lyrical, dreamlike and horrific. Smith’s succinct introduction is an excellent aid in understanding both Kang’s message and her artistry.


This review originally ran in the February 3, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 bodies.
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