Review 2056: Bewilderment

Theo Byrne is an astrobiologist whose job is to search for life on other worlds. He is also a bereft widower and the father of Robin, a troubled nine-year-old boy. Robin is kind and super-intelligent, very concerned about animals, but he is also hyper-anxious and prone to horrible fits of rage. He has received conflicting diagnoses, and Theo doesn’t want to subject his growing brain to psychotropic drugs.

After a few incidents at school, Theo is aware that he soon may be butting heads with social services. So, when Stryker, a scientist at the university where Theo works, offers Robin a place in his experimental but noninvasive treatment studies, Theo accepts. The treatments seem to work magically well, but at the same time Theo fears that Robin is becoming a different person.

Theo and his environmental activist wife have brought Robin up to appreciate the abundance and beauty of natural life, so some of the most beautiful moments in this novel come during their camp-outs. Theo also entertains Robin with bedtime stories about the kinds of life that may be on other planets.

Powers has created an absolutely convincing story about the inner life of a fragile boy and his father, who is trying very hard but who himself is unusual and slightly off-kilter. He has set it in a slightly dystopian time with a Trump-like president and a background of social and environmental disintegration. The references in the beginning to the novel Flowers for Algernon set the tone for where the novel is going and despite a few smiles, there is no doubt that it is going there. Here is another troubling novel from Powers, very sad and powerful.

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Review 2030: Down Below

Leonora Carrington was a Surrealist artist who for years had an affair with the much-older Max Ernst. During World War II, Ernst kept being imprisoned as an enemy alien in France, and the resultant tribulations broke Carrington’s mental health. As she and some friends traveled to Spain to escape the German invasion, she became disassociated from reality. Down Below is her recollection of her state of mind and thoughts during her break from reality.

Reading this very short work is an odd experience, as Carrington’s delusions seem as surrealistic as any artwork. It also feels elliptical, reticent about the events that brought on her insanity and really about anything personal except her state of mind. It would have been almost impossible to understand without the background provided in the Introduction to my NYRB edition.

It’s pretty crazy. Unfortunately, this breakdown made her a heroine of Surrealism, which must have been personally difficult for her.

Just as a coincidence, shortly after I read this book, I read Julie Orringer’s The Flight Portfolio, about Varian Fry, the man who helped many writers and artists, including Ernst, I think, escape the Nazis. Review coming in a few months.

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Review 1841: #1954 Club! The Bird’s Nest

When I saw that a Shirley Jackson novel I hadn’t read qualified for the 1954 Club, I knew I had to read it.

Twenty-three-year-old Elizabeth Richmond is a quiet girl with very little affect. Her mother died a few years ago, and she lives with her aunt Morgen. When she reluctantly seeks help for debilitating headaches, she is referred to Doctor Wright. After a series of baffling hypnosis sessions, Dr. Wright realizes that Elizabeth is exhibiting multiple personalities.

Elizabeth herself is restrained and has difficulty expressing herself. Another personality, which Dr. Wright calls Beth, is sweet and melancholy. Eventually, a third teasing and raunchy personality, Betsy, appears, and after a disastrous trip to New York, there is Bess, obsessed with the money she is due to inherit. Wright believes he can fuse these partial personas into a whole person, but soon they are fighting for their existence.

I don’t know how likely this novel would be considered now by those in the mental health profession, but it seems to be right up there for the 1950s. The novel is both bizarre and a little frightening and weirdly, macabrely funny, both effects which are probably intended. As to the novel’s resolution, well, that’s less likely but entirely 50s in nature.

I can see why some other of Jackson’s works are better known and more widely read, but The Bird’s Nest is still very good.

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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 1485: Bitter Orange

Best of Ten!
Frances, on her deathbed in some sort of institution, remembers the events of a summer 20 years before, in 1969, when she came to know her only friends. Frances’s mother has recently died when she takes a job at a crumbling mansion called Lyntons where she is to report on any interesting architectural features on the grounds to its new owner. There she meets Peter, who has been similarly employed to evaluate the house and its contents, and Cara, his wife.

Cara and Peter befriend Frances during a heady summer of near camping out in the destroyed house. The three soon begin picnicking and enjoying themselves while Cara tells Frances fascinating stories about their previous  lives.

There is clearly something a little overstrung and off about Cara, but Frances is entranced by the friendship she has never had before and also falling in love with Peter. Even when the two show they are not particularly honest, she is not dissuaded, despite hints from her other friend, Victor, the vicar.

This novel is wildly atmospheric while somehow remaining quiet. There are odd, unexplained touches—a telescope inserted into the floor of Frances’s attic bedroom, so that she can see what happens in the bathroom below, imagined smells, noises, and glimpses of faces in the attic, suggesting a haunting. Slowly, we realize that Frances has her own problems.

This is a haunting novel, evocatively written, about loneliness and longing, about the fathomless qualities of guilt. I was riveted by it.

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Review 1368: Owls Do Cry

It’s obvious that Owls Do Cry was written by a poet. The writing is beautiful, but since I am not very good at poetry, I have to admit that I didn’t always understand what was going on.

The Withers family lives in a small town in southern New Zealand. They are very poor, and the children are called dirty at school and subjected to humiliations. They like to go to the town dump to look for treasures.

At 12, the oldest girl, Francie, must quit school to do housework for a wealthier family in town. Toby, the only son, is subject to epileptic fits. Mr. Withers verbally abuses his wife. Then one day there is a terrible accident, and Francie is killed. Some time later, Daphne is hospitalized in a mental hospital, just as Frame herself was.

The novel skips forward 25 years to the 1950’s. Mr. Withers is retired, and Toby is now the bully of the household. Daphne is still hospitalized, and Theresa, the youngest daughter, has married and moved away.

Janet Frame was the first writer to tackle the subject of mental institutions. This novel is harrowing and occasionally satiric. However, I often couldn’t follow the poetic passages. I read this for my Classics Club list.

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Review 1366: Guard Your Daughters

About every nine months to a year, I sign up for a six-month subscription with Persephone Press. I have enjoyed most of these books and have found several delightful. Such was the case with Guard Your Daughters, originally published in 1953.

Morgan loves her home and family, but her family is very isolated. Her sister, Pandora, is married, but none of the other four girls have opportunities to meet people, particularly men. Their father is a famous mystery writer who tends to remain aloof from his fans, but the actual problem is their mother. They adore her, but her mental problems require her to have absolute calm.

When Gregory’s car breaks down outside the house, Morgan insists he stay for supper and then is hard-pressed to come up with a meal because of the straits of post-war England. All seems to go well until the girl’s mother meets Gregory and declares he is not to be invited back.

Chafing under a life of restriction, Morgan hopes to be allowed to visit Pandora. However, their mother decides that Cressida is to go instead.

On a jaunt to the movies with her youngest sister, Teresa, the girls are offered a ride by Patrick, a cousin of nearby Lord Malfrey. When he finds out who their father is, he is excited to meet him. All goes well until they find out Patrick has ulterior motives.

This novel is charming, reminding me a little bit of I Capture the Castle or Cold Comfort Farm. It is light, with a more serious ending, and you come to care for this eccentric family.

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Day 779: The Quickening Maze

Cover for The Quickening MazeThe Quickening Maze is the first book I read purposefully because it’s one of the finalists for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. By coincidence, I had already read half a dozen finalists and winners, and when I learned that Helen of She Reads Novels was trying to read them all, I decided to join her.

This novel is based on events in the life of the poet John Clare, known as the “peasant poet,” a man of rural background who was steeped in his natural surroundings. Unfortunately, Clare is having some mental problems and is staying in an asylum in Epping Forest. Nearby is Alfred Tennyson, whose brother Septimus also resides there.

John Clare seems to be doing well under the treatment of Dr. Matthew Allen. When we first meet him, his movements are relatively unrestrained and except for some confusion about a girl he knew named Mary, he seems sane enough. He is soon given a key to the gate so that he can walk in the forest.

Another patient important to the novel is Margaret, who is regularly transfixed by visions of angels and messages from god. At one point as Clare’s mental state deteriorates, he mistakes Margaret for his Mary.

Dr. Allen seems to have a gift for dealing with his patients during a time when mental health practices were deplorable. However, he also has a fascination with risk, and soon he is trying to talk his friends and the Tennysons into investing in his new invention, a machine for following the shape of furniture and carving additional pieces.

Hannah Allen at 17 has decided that Alfred Tennyson is the man she’d like to marry. She boldly begins seeking him out, not realizing that he is preoccupied with his brother and with grief over the death of a good friend.

Although this novel is more about the internal workings of some of the characters’ minds than its historical setting, it is beautifully written and atmospheric. I was interested in this narrow slice of history and curious to look at some of Clare’s poetry.

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Day 727: I Know This Much Is True

Cover for I Know This Much Is TrueI have only read one other book by Wally Lamb, the more recent The Hour I First Believed, and when I began reading I Know This Much Is True, it was like deja vu all over again. In a very long novel, crass, belligerent, macho protagonist with anger issues ignores his own problems in attempting to cope with a family member with serious mental health difficulties.

In this case, Dominick Tempesta has a twin brother Thomas who is a paranoid schizophreniac. Thomas has seemed to do very well lately, so Dominick is shattered when Thomas goes to the public library one day and chops off his own hand in an effort to halt Operation Desert Storm. When Thomas is sent to Hatch, the high-security facility for the most dangerous patients, instead of Settle, where he usually goes, Dominick is convinced there is some mistake. His misgivings are confirmed when Dominick himself is severely beaten by one of Hatch’s security guards while he’s trying to get someone to call Thomas’ doctor. He begins trying to get Thomas out of there.

In his efforts, he meets with Thomas’ social worker Ms. Scheffer and with Dr. Patel, one of the therapists who is supposed to evaluate Thomas. Dr. Patel asks Dominick to discuss his and Thomas’ past with her so that she can gain more insight about Thomas. But eventually she begins treating Dominick.

So, the present-day chapters of the novel, set in the early 90s, are interspersed with chapters describing incidents from Dominick’s childhood and adolescence. These incidents include upbringing by a mild-mannered mother and abusive stepfather Ray, Dominick’s constant curiosity about the identity of his real father, Dominick’s jealousy at their mother’s favoritism for Thomas.

In the end, you get to understand and feel for Dominick, if not actively like him. His insight about himself is helped along by finding a manuscript written by his grandfather, another similarity with his other novel. This novel explores issues such as bullying and abuse, mental illness, the way Americans raise boys, the closeness of twins, the way our own history flows from the history of our parents.

As with the other book, I liked it well enough but perhaps not well enough to subject myself to another 1000 pages of Wally Lamb.

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