Review 2034: The Year of the Runaways

The Year of the Runaways is another book I read for my Booker Prize project. It follows the fortunes of a group of young Indian men who are living illegally in England looking for work.

Tochi is a young man from a low-caste family who in India had been finally getting his head above water since he had bargained for an auto so that he could work as a taxi driver. But after an election where one party rabbled-roused on the slogan of “racial purity,” his entire family was murdered. He travels illegally to England to start again.

Alvar’s father’s shawl business isn’t doing well and his younger brother will soon have school fees to pay. He also wants to marry Lakhpreet, his friend Randeep’s sister. He is able to get a student visa for England with no intention of studying, because he has had to borrow money from a moneylender for his fare.

Randeep comes from a wealthier family, but his father, a government official, loses his job after a mental breakdown. Randeep is kicked out of college in India and attacked for sexually assaulting a girl because he is constantly misreading people’s reactions. To get to London, he enters into a visa marriage with Narinder, a devout Sikh.

All of these young men travel to England with completely unrealistic ideas of how much money they can make or how easy it will be to even find work. They end up living together in a house packed with illegal immigrants working for low wages at menial work, most often employed by their own countrymen. Those with families receive constant demands from them for more money. And things get worse.

This novel is a throw-back to the 19th century social realism genre. The story is compellingly told and illuminates the dilemma of the illegal immigrant. I didn’t feel particularly attached to any of the characters, but I felt sorry for all of them.

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Review 2033: Astonish Me

I enjoyed Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle, although maybe I thought it was a little overhyped. However, I liked it well enough to look for something else by her and found Astonish Me.

When ballet dancer Joan sees Arslan Rusakov dance, she falls madly in love with him. A brief encounter leads to a correspondence, and a few years later, in 1975, Joan helps him defect from the USSR. Arslan is not faithful to her, however, and once he finds that she is not a good enough dancer to dance with him, he seems to lose interest.

Joan finds she is pregnant and decides to leave the dance life. She seduces her lifelong friend, Jacob, and marries him. They settle in to a suburban life in California.

Their son Harry develops the same kind of friendship with his neighbor Chloe that Jacob had with Joan—he worships her while she seems often embarrassed by him, yet appreciates his friendship. But as they reach their teens with both turning to ballet, it becomes obvious that Harry will be a great dancer while the jury is still out on Chloe.

At first, I was turned off by Joan’s decision to deceive Jacob. I felt it was particularly unlikely for that time. However, as the novel digs deeper into the fascinating world of dance, I found it more and more compelling. I liked, too, that Shipstead’s characters have their faults. They’re human, not perfect. If anything, I liked this novel better than Great Circle.

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Review 2031: Attrib. and Other Stories

I found Attrib. and Other Stories, which I read for my James Tait Black prize project, a little intimidating, as I find reading poetry. That’s because, although I enjoy language, I use and understand it more straightforwardly.

Williams, on the other hand, clearly loves to play with language while also understanding the moments when it fails you. Two of the stories demonstrate this: “Alphabet,” in which a sufferer from aphasia is forgetting her words along with her lover, and “Spins,” where the narrator contemplates her inability to find the right word as her lover stomps out the door.

“Smote,” subtitled “(or when I find I cannot Kiss You in Front of a Print by Bridget Riley)” was a bit much for me in the verbal gymnastics department, but then its ending was so simple. The most straightforward story and the one that affected me most was “Spines,” about a family on vacation that can’t be bothered to remove a drowning hedgehog from the swimming pool.

Williams is playful and imaginative in her writing. Most of the stories (all except “Spines”) are written in the first person and feel very personal.

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Review 2027: Small Things Like These

It’s 1985, and Ireland isn’t doing well financially, but Bill Furlong is just about keeping his head above water with his coal business. He is a moody man, the son of an unwed mother who was lucky enough to be kept on by her employer, Mrs. Wilson, instead of being sent away when she was pregnant. Mrs. Wilson also paid for his education and helped set him up in business. Still, he wonders who his father is and if this is all there is to life.

Shortly before Christmas, he delivers an order of coal to the convent, which runs a laundry and a school for girls. There are rumors about fallen women being forced to work there and to give up their babies. But other rumors say the nuns do the laundry.

Locked in the coal shed, he finds a dirty, barefoot girl. When he takes her to the door of the convent, the nuns send her for a bath and invite her for tea. She comes in later and says the girls were playing a game with her. Bill is later ashamed of himself for saying nothing, even though she begged him to ask about her baby.

When he tries to speak to his wife about the incident, she is clear that he should not cross the nuns. So are other people. But he reflects that it would have been his own mother in the same situation 40 years ago.

At 114 pages, this novel is short, really a novella, and moody, seriously examining the subject of people’s responsibilities to others. It is purely written, pared down to its basics. A note at the end provides statistics about the Magdalen laundries, the last of which didn’t shut down until 1996.

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Review 2022: Literary Wives! Red Island House

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs.

Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

My Review

It seems I’ve been reading books set on islands lately—Greenland, Manhattan, and now Madagascar. Like Madagascar, Red Island House is lush and mysterious, the story of a disintegrating marriage.

Shay comes to the Red House newly married to Senna. They seem an inexplicable couple. She is an American of mixed race, educated, thoughtful, tall, and beautiful. He is much older, short, white, Italian, uneducated, and self-made wealthy, also loud and impulsive. On impulse, he has bought this oceanfront property on a small island off Madagascar. He has built an overpowering but beautiful house, which will be the Senna’s summer home.

In this novel constructed of short stories, Lee tells the story of the Sennas’ marriage in terms of their relationship to the house. Shay feels sympathy for the Malagasy people, and is torn by the feeling that her situation in this huge house waited on by many servants in one of the poorest nations in the world is not very far from colonialism. Thus, from the first, she has an ambivalent relationship with her own role as mistress of the house.

The novel begins with Shay’s understanding that the man Senna has hired to manage the house, Kristos, is her enemy. When the Sennas are in the house, her husband spends a lot of time with Kristos, off fishing and probably carousing, and after Senna has been around Kristos for a while, he snaps and shouts at Shay. Shay is conscious of disappearing goods and money, but when she tries to talk to Senna, he is rude and dismissive. On the surface polite, Kristos undercuts her.

Shay learns from the housekeeper, Bertine, that Kristos, who has contacts in bad places, is using magic against her. So, Bertine takes Shay to see the Neighbor.

As in each story Lee explores some colorful character or incident, the novel covers 30 years in the Sennas’ marriage. Shay’s relationship with the island gains ambivalence after the couple converts the Red House into a bed and breakfast, and it slowly becomes the haunt of Senna’s male friends, who shift their focus from fishing to teenage sex workers as they age.

The novel is gorgeously exotic, serious, and eloquent. It’s about race, class, hope, betrayal, and the couple’s finally divisive approaches to moral problems.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Lee uses Shay’s relationship to the Red House as a symbol for the Sennas’ marriage. In the beginning of the novel, the couple goes to see its foundation on their honeymoon, and at the end of the novel, she makes a last visit to it to say goodbye to it and her marriage, and I think to meet its inheritor, her husband’s illegitimate son by a Malagasy prostitute.

I find Shay and Senna an inexplicable couple from the beginning. They are such opposites that it’s hard to believe they would even like each other, let alone love each other, but we are informed that they do. And they remain married quite a long time, although Shay has to overlook a lot.

Lee tracks the relationship to the house in one insightful chapter at the end, where she takes it through the newness of the honeymoon period through the burgeoning of having children and farther until it becomes a fantasy playhouse for a bunch of pathetic, randy old men—Senna being one of them.

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Shay’s relationship to Senna also varies as she considers the role she has taken at the Red House. She is too informed about her family’s and race’s past heritage in slavery to feel comfortable in what she sees as a colonial role in Madagascar. Although she feels she can’t understand the country, she understands it much better than Senna, who views it as a place of fantasy. As he spends more time there, she spends less.

Shay is an independent woman, so it beats me why she doesn’t leave Senna earlier. We are told she has been coached by her Italian friends to accept his infidelities, but it isn’t until she has that burst of hurt and jealousy toward the end of the novel that we understand there is still a lot of feeling there.

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Review 2015: A Girl Called Rumi

In 1981, nine-year-old Kimia is a strong-willed girl having problems with the restrictions of post-revolution Iran. Her parents’ fight for freedom has ironically ended in an almost total lack of it. Kimia hates her chador and prefers roaming around with her cousin Reza, despite it being a crime for girls and boys to play together.

One day the two children find a trap door that leads to the home of Baba Morshed, a storyteller. As he tells an ancient Persian story about the Simorgh, a mythical creature like a bird, the children can see the figures in the tale. Kimia continues to return to hear Baba Morshed’s cryptic tales.

In 2009, Kimia lives in California and works as a life counselor. She is still traumatized by events from 1981 and sometimes cuts herself. She is also full of anger against her mother. She is horrified when her mother tells her she wants to return to Iran and Kimia and her brother Ammad must come, too. The trip to Iran reveals family secrets but also involves unexpected dangers.

I liked this novel for its glimpses into Persian culture and descriptions of its food. However, some of you will not be surprised to learn that I wasn’t as comfortable with the magical realism, especially as it isn’t completely clear whether it’s the children’s imagination, rendering the ending less believable.

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Review 2012: Mohawk

The town of Mohawk, New York, seems very similar to Empire Falls, the setting of another Russo novel. It’s another rustbelt town on the skids supported by the leather industry, which is now being found responsible for polluting the town. Of Russo’s works, it is these tales of ordinary people in rustbelt towns that I think are best.

This novel centers mostly around one extended family but with plenty of auxiliary characters. Dallas Younger is a feckless, unreliable but kind mechanic divorced from Anne, who has moved back to Mohawk from New York largely because she’s in love with Dan Wood, the wheelchair-bound husband of her cousin. Anne’s father, Mather Grouse, is known for his upright life, but he has a secret involving Wild Bill Gaffney, a mentally handicapped young man who was in love with Anne when they were in high school.

Russo’s characters are flawed but mostly likable and fully realized. This novel has a complex plot that is masterfully handled. The novel skips from 1967, when Anne’s son Randall is unhappily attending middle school in Mohawk, trying to avoid a group of bullies and purposefully scoring a bit low on his homework because it doesn’t do to be so smart, to 1971 when he is 18, has quit college, and is avoiding the draft.

For a long time, I avoided reading Russo’s novels because they sounded depressing. They are not. Instead, they demonstrate a warm understanding of and fondness for human nature. This novel sustains me in my belief that his rustbelt novels are his best.

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Review 2009: The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet

Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet is a 12-year-old boy who spends most of his time on a Montana ranch mapping things. Not just making geological maps but mapping the everyday activities on the ranch—his sister’s technique of shucking corn, the regularity of his father’s sip of whiskey, as well as numerous scientific subjects. In fact, his mentor, Dr. Yorn, has encouraged him to submit drawings to various journals, and he has had some published.

T. S. does not feel comfortable at home. He is mocked by most of his schoolmates. He feels he is a disappointment to his rancher father, and his scientist mother, whom he calls Dr. Claire, seems to be completely obsessed by the search for a particular beetle. Worse, his oldest brother has recently died.

One day he gets a call from the Smithsonian. It appears that Dr. York submitted one of his diagrams as an entry in a prestigious fellowship and he has won. Dr. Jibsen, unaware of his age, informs him he is expected at the Smithsonian on Thursday to give a speech.

At first T. S. hesitates about accepting the award, but then he decides to go to Washington. He packs up some things and hops a freight train east.

Liberally decorated with T. S.’s drawings and musings, this novel is inventive and sometimes funny. In a way, it is meant as a wild romp with a philosophical dint, so maybe we’re meant to overlook the truly implausible aspects of the story, such as that a recipient of an important award would have someone on the Smithsonian end immediately organizing his flight.

I was drawn along at first and ready to suspend my disbelief, but first, what can your hero do while he spends several days on a freight train getting to Chicago. Nothing, right? If you are expecting a picaresque series of adventures like I was, you’ll be disappointed. But T. S. has brought along one of his mother’s notebooks, which is how he discovers she is writing a novel about one of his father’s ancestors. Larsen inserts the entire contents of the notebook into the middle of the novel, with a few interruptions. At first, it was interesting, but after a while I sighed every time I saw the typographic clue that the novel was restarting.

This is all fairly unimportant, though, against the criticism that T. S.’s voice is never convincing as that of a 12-year-old, genius or not. Yes, he is childish at times, but then his voice is much too young for a 12-year-old. But most of his musings and concerns are those of an adult.

Is the book fun to read? Yes, mostly. But I tired of it after a while.

I read this book for my James Tait Black project.

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Review 1998: The Glass Hotel

A woman, Vincent, falls into the sea at the beginning of The Glass Hotel. Then the narrative returns to the past, covering about 20 years in time.

As a young woman, Vincent works as a bartender in an expensive hotel in Caiette, a small, isolated village on Vancouver Island. One day a strange message is painted on one of the lobby windows. Vincent is sure that her brother Paul, also employed by the hotel, did it because of his behavior and because she pulled a similar prank in high school. However, she doesn’t discuss it with him because shortly thereafter she meets Jonathan Alkaitis, the wealthy owner of the hotel, and leaves with him.

To get away from Caiette, Vincent has become Alkaitis’s much younger trophy wife. At least, she is pretending to be his wife. They aren’t actually married. Although there are other plot lines in this novel, most of the action centers around the discovery that Alkaitis has been running a Ponzi scheme.

There are a lot of characters in this novel, but Mandel doesn’t do much to make readers interested in them. In fact, I was struck about halfway through the novel when Alkaitis remarks that Vincent is interesting. There is very little dialogue in the novel, and frankly, Mandel hasn’t done much to show that she nor, really, anyone else is interesting.

Frankly, most of the characters in this novel are morally bankrupt. I was going to say excluding the investors, but actually they had to be either clueless or greedy, because most people would know the returns Alkaitis was paying were unlikely.

The last few pages of the book were really good, but do they make the rest worth reading? All I can say is I found the novel slow moving, and I kept putting it down. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t much like it, either.

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Review 1888: The Fishermen

The family life of ten-year-old Ben begins to disintegrate when his father, a bank employee, is transferred to a town in a dangerous area of Western Nigeria. Ben and his three older brothers begin fishing in a forbidden river. About the time they get into trouble for that, Abulu, a madman who makes prophecies known to become true, makes one about Ikenna, Ben’s oldest brother. It is that Ikenna will be killed by a fisherman.

Ikenna becomes convinced that his brother Boja is going to kill him, even though the two have always been close. His attitude toward his family changes. He becomes angry, disrespectful toward his parents, and solitary. He locks himself into the room that he shares with Boja, only letting him in when he is out of it. Eventually, there is a shocking crisis.

I know a lot of people have liked this book, which I read for my Booker Prize project, but it didn’t do much for me. Most interesting about it was the background of Nigerian home life and customs, but these are not ours, and what, for example, might be called strictness in Nigeria is for us child abuse. Let me just say that for a novel about four brothers not set in wartime, this novel is extremely violent, graphic, and even at times amoral.

Then there is Obioma’s writing, which I found immature. A lot has been made of his unusual metaphors, but many of them don’t work very well or are just plain awkward. Occasionally, he uses the wrong word, like “haul” instead of “throw,” unless perhaps that is some kind of idiom I’m unaware of. He also loves to use polysyllabic words instead of simple ones, giving an overblown effect to his writing.

I didn’t notice some of these faults in his subsequent novel, but instead in that one I noticed lots of misogyny. I’m not proving to be an Obioma fan.

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