Day 1233: History of Wolves

Cover for History of WolvesOne of the themes of History of Wolves is the horror that can result from a belief taken too far and the subservience of one person to another. This theme resonated with me very particularly because of the history of my family.

My grandmother was a Christian Scientist. She and her mother were very active in the church, and I know from reading her diary from her college years that she took it seriously. My grandfather was an Irish-American Catholic who converted to marry her.

When my mother was a baby, she got very sick. The story goes that her parents prayed over her, but her fever did not go down. Finally, according to my mother, her father said, “Bill (her name was Beulah, but he always called her Bill or Billie), we have to call a doctor.” Christian Science went out the window, and if it hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be here today. The main character of History of Wolves, Linda, witnesses what happens in a similar situation.

Linda is a sophomore in high school during what becomes for her a life-changing year. Several things happen that she finds sexually confusing. A teacher, Mr. Grierson, is accused of being a pedophile. Another girl accuses him of molesting her but then retracts her accusation. Linda is attracted to this girl.

Linda herself has had an unusual upbringing. When she was a child, the property where she lives in the woods of Minnesota was a commune. Linda isn’t really sure whether her parents are her parents or just two adults who were left when the commune broke up. She has a distant relationship with her mother, who pays her little attention.

Across the lake, a family moves in. When Linda makes their acquaintance, only Patra, the young mother, and her son Paul are living there. Leo, Patra’s husband, is away in Hawaii working.

Linda begins babysitting Paul. We know from the beginning of the book that Paul will die and that there will be a trial. It takes quite a bit of the book to get to this event, and I think readers will understand what is going on before Linda does.

Even for a teenager, Linda is damaged and needy. She gets a crush on Patra, and that is partially what keeps her from seeing clearly.

There is a lot going on in this novel, and it doesn’t all pan out. Still, I think the novel effectively depicts traumatic events that shape the main character’s future life. I thought the novel was sometimes confusing but also thought-provoking. I read this book for my Man Booker Prize project.

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Day 1161: A Little Life

Cover for A Little LifeBest of Five!
For me, anyway, it often happens that a novel gets a lot of hype, with reviewers raving about it, and when I finally read it, it is unable to live up to its reputation. Such is not the case, however, with Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. I found it to be thoroughly absorbing, all 800+ pages of it.

It begins with four young men who all roomed together in college—Willem, Jude, J.B., and Malcolm. The novel, which covers roughly thirty years, begins when they are all struggling to make their way in New York City. Willem and Jude still share a tiny apartment while Willem works as a waiter and auditions for acting parts, and Jude works as a lawyer for the district attorney’s office. Malcolm is poorly paid and given boring work in the office of a prestigious architectural firm, and J.B. is working on his art.

In at first a very subtle way, though, the novel centers around Jude. For some time, Jude remains a mysterious presence in the novel. He was severely injured when he was young, but he never speaks of that incident or any other in his past. But Jude’s life, we eventually find, is ruled by his past, during which he was repeatedly abused.

Since college, Jude believes that he has been pretending to be a different person than he is, and that if his friends found out who he really is, they would leave him. He is full of self-hatred.

This novel is extremely powerful and deals with some heavy issues. But it is beautifully and empathetically written. It makes us love some of the characters, and the others seem fully realized. I may not have read it if it hadn’t been on my Booker Prize project list, but I’m glad I did.

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Day 919: The Cellar

Cover for The CellarI have been reading and enjoying Minette Walters’ chilling thrillers and mysteries for years, ever since her spectacularly creepy novel, The Ice House. But The Cellar is something else again. Walters’ vision has become even darker with this short novel, about what happens when a person is abused for too long.

The Songolis are an African family living in England. One day their youngest son Abiola disappears, and it takes a while before the family notifies the police. This time is taken up with trying to hide evidence that 15-year-old Muna is a slave who sleeps in the cellar. The family presents Muna to the police as their daughter and tell them she has brain damage and cannot speak English.

Muna does speak English, though. She has learned it through watching television and listening to Abiola’s lessons with his English tutor. Her situation improves as the investigation goes on, because the Songolis are afraid to abuse her when a police officer may come to the door at any time. It is quite obvious that the police suspect the father, Ebuka, but for some time we do not learn what happened to Abiola.

We do slowly learn that Muna was removed from an orphanage in Africa under false pretences when she was eight. Yetunde Songoli arrived with forged papers showing that she was Muna’s aunt. Ever since then, Muna has worked and slaved for the family. Physically abused by Yetunde and Abiola and sexually abused by Ebuka, she suspects she will soon also be sexually abused by the older son Olubayo. But with this dischord of Abiola’s disappearance already in their midst, Muna finds ways to create uncertainty within the family and drive them apart.

This novel is a difficult one to read. I can’t say more without giving too much away, but I can’t imagine a novel being much darker. I actually have to recommend one of Walters’ earlier novels if you haven’t read her yet. The Ice House is an excellent start.

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Day 450: The Bone People

Cover for The Bone PeopleThe Bone People is a very unusual novel, and I’m not sure what I think of it. I would give an unreservedly enthusiastic review except for one overriding facet of the plot and an ending that radically changes course.

Kerewin Holmes is a wealthy half-European, half-Maori woman who builds a tower on the New Zealand seaside. She clearly identifies more with the Maori culture than the European. Kerewin is an artist who for some time has been unable to create art and has separated herself from her family. She fills her tower with beautiful objects and oddities and stays away from people.

One day she comes home to find a young boy hiding in her house and quickly discovers he does not speak. The boy takes a liking to her, which turns out to be unusual. Although the boy appears to be purely of European descent, the man who eventually arrives to pick him up is a Maori man she has seen bragging in a local bar, Joe Gillayley.

The boy, Simon, turns out to have been a shipwreck victim as a very young child, the couple found with him not his parents. His identity has never been discovered, and Joe and his family adopted him. However, Joe’s wife Hana and son Timote died later from an illness.

Simon has an unruly streak, and Kerewin finds him spending the day with her at the tower when he decides to skip school. Kerewin feels there is something wrong about both the man and the boy, but soon begins to care about them and even tries to find out about the boy based on an unusual ring in his possession.

The blurb on this book calls it a mystery and a love story, but if you go into it with that kind of expectation, you are going to be confused. The narrative style is unusual. It is told from multiple viewpoints, although mostly from Kerewin’s, and Kerewin makes up poetry or sings little songs almost constantly. As the novel progresses, more Maori cultural references and mysticism appear.

Spoilers in this paragraph: I would normally not reveal this important a plot point, as it appears well into the book, but I feel I have to in order to explain my mixed reaction. It takes some time before Kerewin discovers that Joe, who usually treats Simon lovingly, sometimes beats him savagely in an attempt to control his behavior. Moreover, the whole town appears to be aware of this but does nothing. Kerewin is torn because she feels Joe really loves Simon and bitterly regrets these beatings, but she does not seem to realize (nor is there a sense of this in the book at all) that this is classic abusive behavior. So, no one turns Joe in to the authorities. Kerewin’s solution is to beat the crap out of Joe, as she has training in aikido, and then to make him promise not to discipline Simon without talking to her. This solution is obviously a stupid one, although it works for some time. When things come to a head, the result is horrendous.

Then the novel continues from there in another direction, which is disconcerting. I could not reconcile my feelings about what happens to Simon with my interest in the book up until that point. In fact, having the novel almost immediately shoot off in another direction was very distressing to me, and even though it eventually returns to the original events and ties everything up, the direction it goes in the closing sections seems to belong to a different novel.

If the child in peril theme is not one for you, I can tell you that the ending is unexpectedly and, I feel, unrealistically happy, and delves into the theme of a re-emergence of Maori culture. Maybe I am viewing this novel through some kind of cultural myopia, but the ending seems to me to magically wipe out a lot of problems, including legal complications. I understand that this novel was severely edited from its original form, much against Hulme’s wishes, which makes we wonder what the original novel would have been like.

Day 267: Black & White

Cover for Black & WhiteI had an ambivalent reaction to Dani Shapiro’s Black & White. By coincidence, while I was reading it, I read an article about adult survivors of child abuse that helped me focus on what was bothering me about the themes and conclusion of this novel. I’ll talk about that later.

Clara Brodeur has not seen her mother since she left home at the age of 18. She is a seemingly ordinary housewife with a nine-year-old daughter, but she has a secret. Her mother is Ruth Dunne, a world-famous photographer who made Clara’s childhood miserable by documenting it with evocative, nude photos.

Clara’s life is interrupted by a phone call from her older sister Robin telling her that their mother is dying, and she can’t cope anymore. Despite herself, Clara finds herself in New York City, where she is forced to face her feelings about her mother.

The strength of this novel is its finely observed descriptions, especially of Clara’s memories of the photo shoots–both from the point of view of a young child and then overlaid with adult awareness. Shapiro accomplishes the difficult task of explaining only with words both how striking Ruth’s photos must be and why they are disturbing. Clara feels that she has had her life stripped bare for the entire world and her relationship with her mother destroyed because of Ruth’s obsessions.

Of course, the novel evokes questions about art and its importance, whether the creation of an object of art justifies Ruth’s treatment of Clara, the impact of abuse upon the family, and so on. Perhaps I should warn now about spoilers, although I will try not to reveal too much.

Emily Yoffe’s article in Slate deals with how there is often a societal pressure put upon adult survivors of child abuse to reconcile with their abusers  and bring them back into their lives as the abusers get older. She points out the possible destructiveness of this expectation as well as the possibility of more harm to the original victim, or as she puts it better, “the potential psychological cost of reconnecting.”

One of my problems with this book is that it buys wholeheartedly into this assumption that reconciling with and forgiving one’s abuser is automatically healing for the abused, with a much too indulgent and simple-minded conclusion. Robin has been telling Clara “it’s not about you,” and suddenly she realizes that is true. But it is about Clara. Moreover, when Clara asks why her mother didn’t stop, her husband answers “Because she couldn’t.” I’m sure that is true, and Ruth’s form of abuse is admittedly different than sexual or physical abuse, but if you ask a sex offender why he or she doesn’t stop, you’re going to get the same answer.

Shapiro’s novel provides too facile an answer to her heroine’s problems and then wraps everything up in a pretty package. Not a satisfying or particularly realistic ending to a novel of promise.