Day 1206: The Good People

Cover for The Good PeopleHannah Kent seems to be fascinated with historical true crime cases. Her Burial Rites was about a woman found guilty of murder in Iceland. The Good People is about the inhabitants of a poor, superstitious valley in Ireland in 1825.

Nóra Leahy has had a year of misfortune. Not long ago, her son-in-law arrived to tell her and her husband, Martin, that their only daughter had died. He brought with him their grandson, Micheál, to care for.

Unfortunately, Micheál at four is not the bright, babbling toddler he was the only other time they saw him. He does not seem to be able to use his limbs and does not talk. Instead, he screams all the time to be fed.

Martin cares for Micheál and gives him affection, but Nóra hides him away from the neighbors. Then Martin dies, falling down suddenly at a crossroads.

The manner of Martin’s death provokes comment but so does the hidden child.

Even after Nóra brings home a hired girl to help with the work of caring for the child, Micheál seems an unbearable burden. Nóra begins to believe that her grandson was “swept away” by the fairies, the Good People, and that she has a fairy child in his place. She consults Nance Roche, an old wise woman who treats the villagers’ ailments.

Nance herself has enemies in the valley. In particular is Kate Lynch, because Nance refuses to help her with a piseóg, or curse, against Kate’s husband, who beats her. Although Nance refuses to deal in curses, Kate leads others to talk of strange dealings when things begin to go wrong for the valley. Also, the new priest, Father Healy, has begun speaking against Nance at mass.

All of this builds a feeling of dread. Kent has beautifully evoked the way that superstition plays a part in the people’s everyday lives. We know something bad will happen; we’re just not sure what.

Although I would have read The Good People anyway, it is a novel for my Walter Scott Prize project. I found it mesmerizing.

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Day 1205: The 1977 Club! Coming into the Country

Cover for Coming into the CountryI was so impressed with John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World that when I found Coming into the Country during a trip to Powell’s, I snapped it up. Just incidentally, I found it fit into the 1977 Club.

McPhee is recognized as one of the pioneers of creative nonfiction. His Wikipedia entry, in comparing him to Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, says he “produced a gentler, more literary style of journalism that more thoroughly incorporates techniques from fiction.”

Coming into the Country is about Alaska, as it was in the mid-1970’s. The book is divided into three parts, focusing on different visits he made there. “The Encircled River” describes a trip he took within the Arctic Circle with a group of scientists. In “What They Were Hunting For,” McPhee travels around with a state-appointed committee that has been tasked with finding a new location for the state capital and explains the political situation in Alaska at the time. It was ironic to reflect that the capital never moved. “Coming into the Country,” the longest section, is about the life, people, and politics along the Yukon River, still at the time one of the most rugged areas of the state.

1977 club logoThese reports all feature McPhee’s trademark details of person and place that make his writing so interesting. I was also pleased, in googling some information, to discover the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve website, which had photographs of some of the people and places McPhee talks about.

I found Annals of the Former World, which explored the geological formation of different parts of the United States, to be profound. Oddly, the subject of Coming into the Country seems more removed, yet McPhee makes it compelling reading.

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Day 1204: The 1977 Club! The Women’s Room

Cover for The Women's RoomThere’s nothing subtle about The Women’s Room. It’s a book I reread for the 1977 Club, and I was curious about whether it would affect me the way it did the first time, years ago.

It is the story of Mira and her awakening consciousness of the role of gender in our society. In its time, the novel was an important feminist work that profoundly affected the thinking of many women and perhaps some men. I remember vividly watching the movie on TV with a male coworker. He was astounded at the examples of sexism but even more astounded because I kept saying “That’s happened to me,” pretty much for every example.

French uses the vehicle of the novel to tell the stories of many women. First, it focuses on Mira’s suburbanite girlfriends when she is a young wife and mother in the 1950’s. Without fail, they are all treated poorly by their husbands. She prides herself on being the perfect wife and mother even though she finds life unfulfilling, but that doesn’t save her from a divorce when she is in her late 30’s.

The bulk of the novel focuses on the women she befriends as a graduate student at Harvard. These women are awakening to paternalism in our society. Still, they, too, are all betrayed in some way by their husbands or boyfriends.

I’m struggling now to express my many thoughts with some kind of coherency. One is about the crudeness of it all. First, I was struck by some of the things the men said to their wives in the early portions of the novel and by how the wives accepted this kind of stuff without being outraged. I’m talking about terrible name calling and reducing everything to sex. These women were more my mother’s age than mine, so I have no way of telling whether these scenes were exaggerated.

But overall, I feel that French makes a lot of generalizations and stereotypes men as badly as the men stereotype the women in her novel. I was always confused in the 70’s by some men who seemed to equate feminism with man-hating, but rereading this novel, I can see where that idea comes from.

Finally, it is just plain crude. I understand that women were taking pride in being able to discuss sex and use words that were only allowed to men before, but the language really grated on me. Moreover, there is free use of ethnic slurs. Maybe we’re supposed to know that they are used ironically, but there’s no overt indication that this is the case.

1977 club logoI think The Women’s Room is important as a historical document but not as literature. There are, for example, many places where the story is interrupted by little polemics by a narrator who is unnamed until the end of the novel (although it’s not too difficult to figure out who she is). I found these interruptions, where the narrator has to overtly draw conclusions about the events, irritating and unsubtle, as if French thinks her readers are too stupid to come to the right conclusions. Same with many of the discussions between her characters, although that’s a better way to handle the subjects.

Although my memory of my first reading of this book, when I was in my 20’s, was that I was struck by how much of it mirrored some of my experience, I do remember that French wrote another book, which I also read. And I remember thinking, oh, more of the same stuff, and putting it aside.

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Day 1203: The 1977 Club! The Honourable Schoolboy

Cover for The Honourable SchoolboyI actually read this novel before the 1977 Club was announced, but I was pleased to find that it was published in that year. I have a couple of other books I’m reviewing this week that I read especially for the club.

Here are my previous reviews of some other books published in 1977:

* * *

I wasn’t aware that there was a sequel to John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy until I picked up The Honourable Schoolboy and started reading it. It is truly a worthy successor.

In summarizing the plot, I have to give away a key point of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but a point revealed toward the beginning of the novel. In that novel, of course, George Smiley uncovered a mole for the Russians high up in British intelligence. Because of the mole’s position, as The Honourable Schoolboy begins, all of the service’s spy networks are compromised and must be dismantled.

With a small staff of personnel who were dismissed during his predecessor’s reign, Smiley must figure out a way to make the service viable again. He has the idea that they can look for intelligence in the lacunae of his predecessor’s work, that is, look for promising leads that were suppressed.

1977 club logoThey find one, payments by the Russians to an account in Hong Kong, first small ones but later very large. Since the “spook house” in Hong Kong has been closed, Smiley recalls a journalist, an “occasional” agent, Jerry Westerby, from retirement in Tuscany to investigate this lead. A tangled path leads him from a Chinese businessman in Hong Kong to the man’s former prostitute English mistress, a Mexican drug courier in Vientiane, and some ugly dealings.

It is always amazing to me that Le Carré can evoke as much excitement from a paper chase as from an action sequence. Once again, he is in top form with a taut thriller. This novel is set against a backdrop of Southeast Asia exploding into chaos with the end of the Vietnam War. Westerby’s investigations take him to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Phnom Penh, Vientiane, and Saigon.

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Day 1202: The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow

Cover for The Mystery of Mrs. BlencarrowFlighty Kitty Bircham has flown to Gretna Green to elope with her swain when she discovers in the marriage record a juicy bit of gossip. The respectable and dignified widow from her village, Mrs. Joan Blencarrow, has married someone secretly. Indeed, she has been married for three years!

Kitty is so excited about her discovery that she fails to notice the name of Mrs. Blencarrow’s husband. Instead of running off with her own new husband to London as planned, Kitty goes straight home, figuring this juicy bit of news will win her forgiveness from her mother.

Soon the neighborhood is agog. Is the rumor true or not? Mrs. Blencarrow even has a visit from her own uncles trying to find out, but she only tells the vicar the truth.

I was somewhat dissatisfied with this Victorian era sensationalist novella, which is a character study rather than a mystery. Part of the truth comes out fairly quickly, but it isn’t hard to guess the other part. And we get a very unfinished story. Why did the couple marry? That’s not at all clear. Are we to believe it was from passion? That’s hard to believe considering her later reaction. What is clear is that Mrs. Blencarrow thinks she will be in disgrace if the truth comes out. But that doesn’t answer the question of why they married in the first place.

Mrs. Blencarrow is an interesting person, and this is a very short work, so a qualified approval.

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Day 1201: In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills

Cover for In the Shadow of 10,000 HillsRachel Shepherd has recently lost the child she was expecting. Her husband, Mick, expects her to grieve for a month and then get over it, but she cannot. She thinks a lot about her father, Henry Shepherd, who disappeared from her life when she was seven. Her mother has also recently died, and in her things, Rachel finds a newspaper clipping of a young African-American girl in church during a sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr., the photo taken by her father as a young man.

Rachel figures this photo must have been important to her father and decides to try to find her father through this girl, now presumably an older woman. However, the woman does not answer her emails.

That woman is Lillian Carlson, who now lives in Rwanda. Henry had been living with her until two years ago, when he also disappeared from there. She does not feel that she can tell Rachel anything helpful, which is why she hasn’t responded.

Lillian provides a home for children orphaned during the Rwandan genocide. Tucker, an American doctor, has a room in her house, where he also keeps Rose, his adopted Rwandan daughter. Tucker decides it could be good for both Lillian and Rachel if they met, so he invites Rachel to come in Lillian’s name.

The core of this novel is devoted to the events of the Rwandan genocide and their continuing ramifications, during the time this novel is set (2000), for Lillian and her household. In particular, Nadine, a girl taken in by Lillian and Henry, was the witness of a horrific event.

I didn’t really engage with this novel, but I’m not sure why. I do know of one thing that particularly irked me, and that was the sections from Henry’s point of view. First, although they show his thoughts, they are written more in a speaking style, a style no one would use in thinking. For example, a rough such recollection (not a direct quote) of one thought was something like Gee, what does a guy have to do . . . . You see what I mean, utterly unconvincing.

And in general there is the type of person Henry is. For most of the novel, he just sort of lets fate push him around, and when he takes an action, he refuses to deal with its ramifications. He most often doesn’t take responsibility. Since a great deal of this novel revolves around the results of his actions, I found this infuriating.

link to NetgalleyFinally, I think the characters in general are too prone to be one-sided. Take, for example, Mick. He gives Rachel a deadline for grieving for her child. He has to spend every holiday with his parents. He won’t compromise. He’s not bad, really, but it’s clear from the beginning that he and Rachel will split, so he shows no qualities that would make her want to stay. These are characters serving the plot rather than ones who are convincingly complex.

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