Review 2024: The Promise

Damon Galgut is an excellent writer, but I have had varying reactions to his work. Of what I have read, I liked In a Strange Room best and his last novel, Arctic Summer, least. Despite its having won the 2021 Booker Prize, I feel only a tenuous connection to The Promise.

The novel is about the disintegration of a white South African family over 30 years. It returns to the family roughly every 10 years at the death of a family member.

Thirteen-year-old Amor Swart overhears her dying mother ask her father for a promise. Rachel wants Manie to give the house she’s living in to Salome, the servant who has cared for Rachel and brought up her children. Manie promises, but in the last few years he has fallen under the thumb of greedy Dominee Simmers, so he gives land to the church but does not fulfill his promise and gets angry when Amor asks him about it.

Amor’s brother Anton gives Amor mild support, but he is obsessed by having shot a woman recently during some civil unrest. When he returns to the army after the funeral, he decides to desert.

Nine years later, both siblings return to the family for their father’s funeral. Amor wonders whether the promise will now be kept.

This novel is narrated omnisciently, but the point of view occasionally shifts from one character to another and from one scene to another without warning. It also sometimes takes on a folksy tone, as if the narrator is a storyteller talking directly to the reader.

I felt a lot of distance from Galgut’s characters. The only really sympathetic characters are Amor and Salome, but Salome is only there on the edges—treated in this novel much like she would have been in real life—and Amor is not much of a presence in the novel. We are told she is kind and easy to talk to, but we are not privy to many of her thoughts or or actions as we are to those of some of the other (male) characters. Perhaps that’s why I felt so much distance from the novel.

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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 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 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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Review 1824: The Big Music

This high-concept novel is admittedly a bit demanding to read. Although it is the story of difficult family relationships, a distinguished heritage, a dying man, it is written to convey a sense of the piobaireachd, the classical form of bagpipe music, a type of music dependent upon repetition and embellishment.

John Callum Sutherland, an old man nearing his death, is trying to complete a piobaireachd called “Lament for Himself.” Because of his fears of his father, a famous piper, John Callum as a young man left behind his long, distinguished family history and vowed never to return. Only once he returned after his father’s death and met Margaret MacKay, the housekeeper, did he realize what he missed by leaving, the music and the great love.

Now, dying and off his meds, John Callum needs a new note for his piobaireachd. He decides he can find it by taking Katherine Anna, Margaret’s infant granddaughter as well as his own, to his small hidden hut where he works on his music. As he goes, he imagines the melodies made by Helen, Margaret’s daughter, when she finds her baby is missing.

Margaret has summoned Callum Innes, John Callum’s son, from the south because she knows John Callum doesn’t have long to live. Callum has never lived in the remote family home in Sutherland. He has only spent his boyhood summers there and has never felt part of it. He too fears his father.

This novel is about a family home, a family legacy, music, and the relationships between fathers and sons. It is at times touching, but it appeals more to the cerebral than to the emotional. Not only is the novel written in the form of the piobaireachd and attempts to convey the music, but it is heavily annotated and makes the novel itself, and the writing of it, the center of the story in the postmodern fashion. Finally, it provides nearly 100 pages of appendixes for those interested in the history of the family, the piobaireachd form, the geography of the area, and many other topics.

I found this novel, which I read for my James Tait Black project, more intellectually interesting than involving. I have to admit to tiring of some of its repetitions, most often of the footnotes in continually referring readers to the appendixes.

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Review 1685: Our Endless Numbered Days

Best of Ten!

In 1976, eight-year-old Peggy’s father James spends his time talking with his survivalist friends while her mother, Ute, prepares for a concert tour. Ute has been gone several weeks when James tells Peggy they are going on vacation. They travel from London to Germany camping in a tent, finally arriving at a small cabin that is falling down. James tells Peggy that everyone is dead and they are the only people left in the world, which has been destroyed.

In 1985, Peggy has been returned home to Ute and her brother Oscar, who was born after she and James left. She is struggling to adapt to the real world.

This novel reminded me very much of Paul Theroux’s Mosquito Coast, only with an added twist. Still, it is absolutely gripping, as James gradually loses touch with reality.

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Review 1681: Mamma

Diana Tutton only wrote three books. All of them feature dysfunctional families, although Guard Your Daughters is a quirky but relatively traditional romantic novel. Mamma is more unusual.

Joanna has been a widow for 20 years, because her husband died unexpectedly in the early days of their marriage. Although only 41, she has a 20-year-old daughter, Libby, with whom she has a close and loving relationship.

Joanna has just moved when Libby comes for a visit and informs her that she is getting married—to an Army major named Steven. The marriage is to be soon, because Steven expects to be deployed overseas within a few months.

At first, Joanna is not sure what attracted Libby to Steven. She finds him unattractive, and at 36, he is closer to her age than Libby’s. However, circumstances throw them together to live with her, and she begins to understand that she and Steven have more in common than Steven and Libby. With her feelings for Steven growing, Joanna must figure out how to navigate this emotional situation.

Tutton depicts these relationships skillfully, in a way that makes you feel only sympathy for the characters. It is an empathetic and emotionally astute portrayal.

I received a copy of this novel from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 1678: The World My Wilderness

Seventeen-year-old Barbary Deniston has grown up running wild in occupied France and was a member of the enfante maquis of the French Resistance. Now that the war is over, she doesn’t seem to know the difference and is still involved with the maquis, which is hunting down collaborators. Her mother, Helen, was neglectful while happy with her stepfather, but now that he has died, they’ve had a falling out. Helen decides to send her to London to live with her father, Gulliver. Also going is her stepbrother Raoul, who is to study and learn his uncle’s business.

Barbary is a fish out of water in her father’s upper-middle-class home. He is too busy with work to pay attention to her, and his wife, Pamela, dislikes her. In many ways immature, Barbary believes her parents would reunite if it weren’t for Pamela and her baby son, so she is determined to dislike them. Her father enrolls her at the Sloane and just assumes she goes there, but she and Raoul roam the streets and find a ruined section of London that reminds them of home. Soon, they are associating with deserters and thieves.

Macaulay treats all of her flawed characters with empathy, but it was hard for me to relate to Barbary. However, this novel made me realize how chaotic post-war France and London must have been. I haven’t read any other books that deal with that subject.

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Review 1677: Sisters

September and July move suddenly from Oxford with their mother to a decrepit and dirty house on the moors. They have lived there before—the house belongs to their father’s family—but to July the house seems freighted with a depressing atmosphere and full of odd noises.

Something bad happened at school, but July can’t remember what it was. Her depressed mother spends all her time in bed, leaving July and September to fend for themselves. Judging by their games, I thought at first that the girls seemed only about ten or eleven, but we find out later they are several years older. September is the leader, insistent and fiery, sometimes cruel. July is the appeaser, but she has trouble with her memory and sometimes has waking dreams.

In a section from their mother Sheela’s point of view, we learn that she worries September might be demonstrating the same kinds of traits that made Sheela afraid of the girls’ father. Her relationship with him, it appears, was of both love and hatred. Sheela has also worried about the closeness between the two girls, which shuts her out. They behave like twins even though they are 10 months apart.

This novel is a fabulously atmospheric character study. It pulls us forward, making us wonder what is going on. What happened at school? What will happen next? The writing is at times poetic in quality.

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Review 1670: Classics Club Spin Result! The Brothers Karamazov

I selected The Brothers Karamazov for my Classics club list because I read it many years ago for Russian Literature and found it fascinating. I was curious how I would regard it now.

The plot of the novel is seemingly straightforward, but it is complicated by the characters’ relationships and several subplots, some of which are only tangentially related. Fyodor Karamazov has three sons whom as children he left to be raised by the servants. The oldest, Dmitri (or Mitya), is an ex-soldier whom Fyodor has cheated of part of his inheritance from his mother. Now, although Dmitri is engaged to Katarina, a girl of high moral values, he has fallen madly in love with Grushenka, a girl with an unsavory past, and Fyodor is trying to compete for her. The second oldest, Ivan, is a cold intellectual atheist. The third son, Alexei or Alyosha, is studying to be a monk.

In my old Penguin Classics edition, the novel is split into two volumes. It is not until the second volume that the action takes place that is the centerpiece of the novel. Fyodor is murdered. Mitya has been working himself into a frenzy and making threats so is immediately the prime suspect. Did Mitya kill his father or was it someone else? If so, who?

We readers know what Mitya did that night, so we can answer the first part of that question but not the second part, at least not right away. Dostoevsky (I’m going to use the spelling of his name that I’m accustomed to, and that indeed is on my old Penguin copy rather than the one shown on the title page above) isn’t interested so much in that but in what happens next. And ultimately he is engaged in pitting atheism against belief in God.

In my student days, I found the long philosophical passages in this novel fascinating. These days, I don’t have as much patience with them and I actually skipped a couple of chapters once I got their drift. The amount of time spent on Father Zossima, for example, a relatively minor character who dies in Book One, is a little inexplicable to me now. I can’t help feeling he might have been based on a real person whom Dostoevsky revered, but his presence in the novel doesn’t seem important enough to warrant several chapters being devoted to his life and sayings.

This is not to say that I didn’t find the novel compelling. Although it is long and sometimes difficult, there was something about it that made me want to keep reading it.

The novel is written with an unusual approach to point of view. The narrator is an unidentified person from “our town.” But the narrator is privy to scenes he could not possibly have witnessed. Yet, the point of view is not omniscient. For example, we see what Mitya does on the night of the murder even though there is no actual witness to that, but we don’t see the murder.

As usual with Dostoevsky, most of his characters are in a frenzy. Were 19th century Russians really this excited? Well, they’re not in Tolstoy, but most of Tolstoy’s characters are upper class, while Dostoevsky’s are not. So, I don’t know whether this is a class difference or a difference in the author’s perceptions or what. And speaking of class, the attitude toward peasants here is not great, and there are also other politically incorrect comments on occasion. Just a warning.

The Brothers Karamazov is considered Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, so if you are interested in Russian literature, you should definitely read it. Dostoevsky’s preoccupations are not mine, however, and I think even less so as I get older. I couldn’t help parsing some of the arguments and thinking about an implicit slant to them. The best example is an assumption—a sort of cognitive leap—that is very important to the plot and is stated several times by different characters. The cognitive leap is that if God doesn’t exist, “everything is permitted.” Only one character questions this assumption—that there is nothing within humans besides religion to stop them from doing horrendous things. But his suggestion is brushed aside because Dostoevsky wants you to conclude that there is a God and his arguments don’t work as well if you believe in inner goodness or inherently moral or ethical behavior. I guess.

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