Thursday, June 9, 2022

Tomb of Sand, by Geetanjali Shree

 "A border, gentlemen, is for crossing." 

Tilted Axis Press, 2021; originally published as Ret Samadhi (2018)
translated by Daisy Rockwell
739 pp


It was the first paragraph that sold me on this story, which is highly unusual but it's what happened.  Here the author  reveals that "this particular tale has a border and women who come and go as they please," but even more to the point, that 
"The story's path unfurls, not knowing where it will stop, tacking to the right and left, twisting and turning, allowing anything and everything to join in the narration.  It will emerge from within a volcano, swelling silently as the past boils forth into the present, bringing steam, embers and smoke."
I sat back, reread at that initial paragraph and guessed right away that I had here in my hands something completely and refreshingly different.  Evidently I wasn't alone -- at the website for the International Booker Prize, the blurb for this book states that the author's "light touch and exuberant wordplay ensures that Tomb of Sand remains constantly playful -- and utterly original."  And while the word "playful" fits, this novel takes a rather serious and surprising turn in its last section, making this book a most welcome addition to the world of Partition literature, described here as having 
"helped generations to make sense of a period in the subcontinent's history that is quite difficult to fathom in its entirety."  
Tomb of Sand is, as translator Daisy Rockwell notes in her "Translator's Note," 
"a tale woven of many threads, encompassing modern urban life, ancient history, folklore, feminism, global warming, Buddhism and much more."

It is all that and more; it is also hands down one of the best books of my reading year so far and sadly, I would not have known about it except that it was longlisted for the International Booker Prize which it would go on to win, deservedly so in my opinion.  I can honestly say I've never read anything quite like it.  

An older, eighty-year old woman  (known mainly as Ma)  who is a mother, grandmother and now a widow, becomes seriously depressed at the death of her husband and decides that she will not be getting up.  Wrapping herself in a quilt, she remains in her room in her son's Bade's house, with her "back to the world, as though dead"  ignoring the rest of the family's pleas for her to get up.   She had, it seems,
"grown tired of breathing for them, feeling their feelings, bearing their desires, carrying their animosities. She was tired of all of them and she wanted to glide into the wall with a tremor ..."
Things begin to change though first with the arrival of a cane brought by one of Bade's children, known as Overseas Son, a CEO of the overseas branch of the company for whom he works.  At first, his grandmother remained unimpressed; but one day her other grandson Sid comes in to her room and sees her holding the cane "at a ninety-degree angle, eyes closed, still as a statue, looking every inch an otherworldly idol."  On the verge of laughing at this sight,  Sid hears his grandmother declare "I am the Wishing Tree," which, while she continues to remain in bed, has the effect of bringing into the house a host of people hoping that she'll grant their wishes. It isn't too long afterwards that "poof, she'd disappeared into thin air," and this is where the story truly takes off, as she is sought and found and returns not to her son's house, but to that of her daughter Beti.   It isn't long until Beti notices the reversal in their roles wherein "Beti became the mother and made Ma the daughter," and while Ma's presence tends to upset Beti's independent lifestyle, Beti also sees that it's a good arrangement.  As she notes, "When Ma came to my home she began to dream new dreams."   

One of the frequent guests at Beti's apartment is Rosie Bua, a hijra (often described as  "third gender"), who is very close to Ma with whom she shares  (unknown until further on in the story) a history.   One of Rosie's plans was to someday travel to Pakistan; when tragedy strikes, Ma decides that she will go for Rosie, dragging Beti and an old Buddha statue that his been in her family for years along with her on a trip that is plagued by problems almost right away.  

It is a gorgeous book, not only brilliantly written by its author but also brilliantly and skillfully translated by Daisy Rockwell, who says in her "Translator's Notes" that "to the translator, Tomb of Sand is a love letter to the Hindi language."  Noting that the author is fluent in English, she also says that Shree chose to write in her "mother tongue," relishing the "sound of words, and how they echo one another, frequently showcasing their dhwani," described as "an echo, a vibration a resonance."  It can be
"deliberate and playful, as in double entrendre and punning, an accidental mishmash of sameness, or a mythical reverberation."

Admittedly I didn't get all of the references and spent much time with my tablet on my lap while reading, but really, it just didn't matter to me -- I absolutely loved this book.  It is a great example of what a writer can do not just with story but also with language and storytelling;  above all it is a book about borders, physical and otherwise.  "A Border," as Ma says to a group of men in Pakistan, "is for crossing" and it is just a joy to read about how many borders this woman (and other people as well)  refuses to be confined or defined by as she comes into her own.  As the back-cover blurb notes, it is a "timely protest against the destructive impact of borders and boundaries, whether between religions, countries, or genders."  There is so much happening in this book that makes it pretty impossible to encompass in a brief post, but it is rare that I find something like this novel which, despite the tragedies here, is so very life affirming in so many different ways.  If you need the quick story fix you won't find it here; I'd recommend it to those readers who are willing to take a chance on something very different than the norm.  I feel so lucky having made my way through these pages; it's a novel I will never, ever forget.  

a quick BTW:  I've recently read that Tomb of Sand will be available in the US as of 2023, but I bought my copies (yes, I made an error and ended up with two)  from Tilted Axis Press and having forgotten I'd done that, I turned to Waterstones in the UK.   I'm beyond happy I bought my book when I did.  

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Elena Knows, by Claudia Piñeiro


Charco Press, 2021
originally published as Elena sabe
translated by Frances Riddle
152 pp

(read earlier, in March)

  I bought Elena Knows last July, set it aside, and just recently took it off its shelf when I learned it is one of the books on this year's International Booker longlist.  The fact that it went on to make the shortlist was no surprise to me --  I'm a huge fan of Claudia Piñeiro's novels; I think I've read each one that's been translated into English and they've all been excellent.   I've also become a huge fan of Charco Press, a small publisher with a track record of great books, and Elena Knows is no exception.   

Elena's daughter Rita died on a rainy afternoon, found by some boys sent by the priest to ring the bells ahead of the 7:00 mass.  Her body was hanging by a rope in the belfry; her death declared a suicide.  But Elena knows that her daughter would never take herself to the church while it was raining; if she was there, she thinks, it must be that someone had "dragged her there, dead or alive."  No one will listen to her, not the coroner, not the police inspector, and not the priest, but she knows Rita would never have killed herself.  After all, "No one knows as much about her daughter as she does."  It had to be murder, but Elena knows she could never prove it on her own.

 The reason Elena can't do anything more about her murder theory is that she suffers from advanced Parkinson's, which she calls her "fucking whore illness," or "Herself," a disease that severely limits Elena's movements but not her mind, so 
"Even if she uses all the tricks in the book, she won't be able to uncover the truth unless she recruits another body to help her."
Believing that a woman named Isabel, whom she hasn't seen for twenty years but feels that she is someone who "feels the need to repay a debt" is the right person to help her discover the truth about Rita's death, Elena sets off across the city of Buenos Aires to find her.   The novel is divided into three sections, each corresponding to the timing of Elena's meds; she only has a certain amount of time during which her pills allow her legs to function.  Elena's life is measured in this way; not in hours but in intervals of medication.   Beginning with her second pill of the day, the story  captures Elena's difficult, painful but determined journey to find Isabel, while  flashbacks reveal her somewhat conflicted relationship with her daughter as well as the burdens not only of the disease on Elena, but also those taken on by caregivers.   As Elena faces the difficulties in navigating the streets of Buenos Aires (which are explained in  detail), we also learn just how difficult it is to navigate those bureaucratic agencies meant to help someone in Elena's condition.  While the going seems slow in spots, it's the final section that packs the major punch as Elena and Isabel finally meet and Elena comes to realize exactly what it is she doesn't know. 

Throughout the story, of course, it's also impossible not to ponder the mystery of Rita's death in the back of your mind.  As Dr. Fiona Mackintosh of University of Edinburgh notes in her Afterword to this book, Elena is presented as a very unlikely "elderly detective-heroine,"  an 
"objectionable and outspoken woman suffering advanced Parkinson's who stubbornly persists against the odds in investigating the death of her own daughter."
Yet as is the case in the other books I've read by Piñeiro, crime fiction is the vehicle by which the author makes astute observations on society, and in this book she raises, again quoting Mackintosh, issues that are "universal, timely and complex," including "the obstacles of a woman's right to control her own body, the myths and realities surrounding motherhood, the mental and physical constraints on women's daily routines, and the increasing challenges of an ill and ageing body."   In point of fact, bodies loom large in this novel.  There is much, much more of course, but I don't want to give anything away that might constitute a spoiler.  Let's just say that in a very big way, this book is definitely timely, and I'll go out on a limb to say that it's a necessary read, especially given what's happening here in the US at the moment.  An absolutely powerful story that overpowered me and made me cry (I'm sure because of the excellent translation by Frances Riddle), I would recommend this book to anyone.  I do hope Charco Press will bring more of this author's books into translation -- she is absolutely one of my favorite writers and has been for a long time. 

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Dirty Bird Blues, by Clarence Major


Penguin, 2022
originally published 1996
376 pp


"Blues done saved as many lives as church songs." 

I'm not exactly sure where I first heard about Dirty Bird Blues, but I think it was this year's inclusion in the long-established collection of Penguin Classics that sold me.  According to Penguin's website, their classics collections
"represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines,"  
and are also meant to "guide you through a reader's odyssey."  This latest addition to the series is by Clarence Major, about whom John Beckman has provided a brief biography as part of  his introduction to Dirty Bird Blues;  I also went to BlackPast for more info about this author.  He's published nine novels, two short fiction volumes and sixteen poetry collections; he is also "an accomplished visual artist."    About this book, Beckman quotes Major as saying that it is "another kind of experiment, this time with the language of the blues," to which Beckman adds that the novel is "powered by realism, and its experiments only enhance the effect."   It's also a novel I read twice; the second time through only boosted my admiration of this story in which a young, conflicted musician must reckon not only with balancing his artistic life with family responsibilities, but also must navigate a racist society while learning how to deal with problems of his own making.  

Chicago, Christmas 1949, and twenty-five year old  Manfred (Man) Banks is trying to climb into a window which gets stuck and then "Suddenly this big boom."  He's been shot, but thanks to the "good liquor coating him" he feels nothing.  Shot a second time, he makes his way to the black hospital where he's listed as a "charity case" before his treatment, after which he is then questioned and harassed by two black cops. The man who shot him is a preacher with whom Man's wife Cleo and their baby daughter Karina has been living for a while after Cleo left him. Cleo's leaving was apparently by mutual agreement -- they "couldn't keep food in the cupboard, couldn't feed the baby, refrigerator empty. " All of this, Cleo reminds him later, was too hard on their baby; Eddie, the man she's with now, "is good to her, she gets everything she needs."  She and Man still love each other; she wants him to "grow up" and to put her and the baby before his drinking;  he  wants to make it as a musician, not an easy task in Chicago, where as his fellow musician/friend/drinking/carousing partner Solly Thigpen notes, "it's hard to get anybody to pay any tention to you in a big town."  Realizing that he can't pull another stunt like he did,  understanding that "I got to walk straight fore I can fly," and knowing that  he wants Cleo back, Man decides to take his sister up on her offer for him to come to Omaha where he can stay with her family until he gets on his feet.  

A new start?  Certainly it's a new city; Man plays his music and sings at a local neighborhood joint called The Palace where he leaves the crowd "begging for more" and gets offered a part-time gig; he lands a day job and in anticipation  of Cleo joining him, finds an apartment for his family.  He's still hitting the Old Crow (the "Dirty Bird" of the title) pretty regularly, yet as happy as he is to be with Cleo when she comes to town,  
"already this new sense of responsibility he was feeling toward Cleo and Karina shook him. It felt like chains."

Then, when his best bud follows him to Omaha from Chicago, she warns him against 

"all that stuff with Solly again, all that drinking and staying out all hours and stuff, falling in drunk,"
and reminds him that she'd come out there because he'd "agreed to act right."   But Man  enjoys hanging out with the very irresponsible Solly with whom he feels no need to "grow up."    He finds himself in a sort of inner conflict between the two; one would think that some compromise seems to be in order but it doesn't seem to be in the cards on Man's part.   On top of his other ongoing problems (especially the racial issues that he finds himself falling victim to)  and his troubled past, this conflict will (quoting the back cover blurb)  soon lead him into a "nightmarish descent into his own troubled depths."  

The story's a good one, and yet the joy of reading  is found less in the plot than in the "language of the blues" the author employs throughout.  "Singing," we are told at the beginning, was Man's "way of talking out this furious, crazy thing in him that made him glide, leap, holler, and scream as if over treetops without even moving," and the blues, as he says, "done saved as many lives as church songs."  His lyrics and his often-surrealistic dreams offer not only a look into Man's troubled psyche, but also, as the book description notes, "keep bringing him back to face himself."  As Yusef Komunyakaa notes so eloquently in the foreward he's written for Dirty Bird Blues,  
"Man isn't merely a bluesman, but he is an artist, always engaged, like a John Coltrane -- not satisfied with the mere fingering of the elemental strings of his existence but determined to see into the mystery of his being, as well as gaze up at the sky or seek out a woman's eyes."
What is also really interesting and noteworthy is how the author sets up both Man and Solly as near-mirror images of each other -- I won't say more but it works so very nicely as the book moves toward its ending.    

I read Dirty Bird Blues as part of Black History month, a fine choice and it's a novel that has stuck with me since finishing it both in terms of content and especially because of the writing. Clearly Major is a gifted, out-of-the-box writer, and it didn't take long before I was completely immersed and entranced.  I can definitely recommend it.  

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

A Mother's Tale & Other Stories, by Khanh Ha


C&R Press, 2021
141 pp

paperback (from the author, thank you!!)

Some time ago I stopped becoming active in book tours because of my own still-unread, Library of Congress-sized tbr pile, but for this author, whose books I've read before,  I made an exception.  Given that we're still in the midst of  downstairs remodel hell where my day often lasts from 6:30 a.m. to like 7 pm, that's a big deal. Khanh Ha's work is well worth it -- his writing touches on human connections in the most horrific and challenging of times; here he has put together eleven short stories that, as the blurb notes, have to do with the Vietnam War in some fashion and the people involved who try to salvage "one's soul from living hells."   

I'm particularly picky when reading a short story collection or anthology -- in my mind, the opening story should provide a guide to or at least whet the appetite for what will be coming next.  No worries here:  "Heartbreak Glass" is a great beginning.   A young man who will soon be going into the army as a soldier in  the Vietnam War befriends a lonely man he calls Uncle Chung, who, before he himself had gone to serve in the army fighting Americans, had been a foreman in a machine shop.  Only thirty-one,  Uncle Chung had lost all of his limbs and his sight as a result of the war, and now lives a somewhat marginal existence with his young wife, who is not as  sympathetic and caring as one might imagine.  The young man, who also brings him medicines from time to time, tries to absorb  "the horror of the war" through Uncle Chung's stories of the battlefield, but there are other horrors Uncle Chung has had to face since his return home.  As with  the stories that follow this one, "Heartbreak Glass" makes for compelling reading, and offers a compassionate poignancy that crawls beneath the skin until the very last word.  

A Mother's Tale and Other Stories explores very personalized and individual experiences of the war, especially the lasting effects of the conflict that has taken its toll not only on the soldiers and ordinary people of the time,  but also on those left behind.   The titular story, for example, finds a mother who has come to Vietnam to hopefully locate the remains of her son; the characters from this tale have recurring roles in other connected stories in this collection as well. In  "The River of White Lilies" (one of my personal favorites), an  American soldier comes to see the people of a small village as the very human beings that they are, and in more than one story, the story is related from the point of view of the dead, now ghosts who recall their memories.  The blurb notes that this book is "rich with a dreamlike quality,"  the stories sharing a "common theme of love and loneliness, longing and compassion,"  and much more to the point, the author reveals how "beauty is discovered in the moments of brutality, and agony is felt in esctasy."   

Alongside the visible physical damage, these stories also offer insight into the often-hidden psychic trauma that lingers after any war, and I will warn potential readers that in both areas the reading can be tough to get through on an emotional level from the outset.  At the same time, the quality of the writing in these stories sort of helps to mitigate the sadness, making it so you can't help but want to go on from story to story, facing whatever may come your way.    Very nicely done, a book I can certainly recommend.  


As I mentioned, I read A Mother's Tale & Other Stories as part of a book tour; my many thanks to Teddy Rose who put the tour together and especially to the author.  You can follow the tour schedule, read more about the author and even sign up for a chance to win a free copy of this book at the Virtual Author Book Tours website here

Thursday, September 23, 2021

The Great Circle, by Maggie Shipstead


Knopf, 2021
593 pp


I bought this book back in May and since then it was awarded a spot on the Booker Prize longlist; recently it moved on ahead to the shortlist.  I had originally picked it up due to the dustjacket blurb, which promised an "unforgettable, mesmerizing new novel," along with the story of "an epic tale of two extraordinary women whose fates collide across geographies and centuries."   I hadn't quite planned to get to the novel as quickly as I did but its placement on the shortlist moved up the reading timeframe.  My thinking here was that "oh! It made the shortlist so it must be awesome."   More on that later. 

In 1950 a young woman by the name of Marian Graves disappears along with her navigator Eddie Bloom  during her attempt to "circumnavigate the globe longitudinally," flying "by way of both the North and South Poles."   After leaving Queen Maud Land, where they had last been seen, the plan was that they would fly over Antarctica, passing over the South Pole and then on to the Ross Ice Shelf to Little America where they would land and refill the plane with gasoline that had been previously cached.  The last leg of their journey would take them to New Zealand, but something happened and the Peregrine was never seen again.  Years later, during a scientific expedition to explore the remnants of Little America III, Marian's handwritten journal was discovered protected by a life preserver.   Her journal was published, as was a novel based on her life;  in the 21st century,  young actress Hadley Baxter is handed a script for a movie called Peregrine based on that book.  Hadley, whose career was looking pretty hopeless at this point due to her own recklessness, gets a second chance when she is asked to take on the role of Marian in the film.   The stories of both of these women are presented in interwoven narratives that move back and forth through time as,  according to the dustjacket notes, "the two women's destinies -- and their hunger for self-determination in vastly different places and times -- intersect in astonishing ways."   

The description ticked many of my reader boxes, and with the judges' decision to forward this one on to the shortlist, I was eager to get to it.  Not too long into the story I was already wanting to put it down and never pick it up again, but I perservered.  First of all, I really disliked Hadley's story -- I could have cared less about her Hollywood experiences, her sex life and her stupid self-destructive behavior;  that entire storyline could have been completely removed leaving only Marian's story and I wouldn't have minded at all.   And even that took time to get rolling, beginning five years before Marian was born with a botched christening of a ship, a young woman's seduction of the captain of that ship (Marian's future parents),  her memories of childhood incest, their subsequent marriage and the birth of twins leading to post-partum depression before a Lusitania-like explosion during which mom abandons the babies and dad saves them and then spends years in prison, leaving the twins with his brother in Montana.  Moving on with the story from there, it's pretty much a continuation of the kitchen-sink approach where anything and everything happens, covering Marian's life from eight years old on to her decision to make the pole to pole flight in 1949, culminating of course in her disappearance in 1950 .  Of course, by the time we discover what really happened, the book is almost over; in my humble reader's opinion, some solid editing and judicious paring would have tightened it all up to make the book a much better read.    There's also the matter of the destinies of the two women intersecting -- all I will say is that there are a number of parallels between the two that seemed forced, as well as a number of coincidences in this story that defy the imagination.  Finally, there is more than one instance where the novel just plods, testing my patience to its utmost.    I have to say that the best part of this book is at the end with Marian and Eddie as they make their journey around the world; some of the best and most beautiful writing in the novel is found there.   

Current stats for this this book show that sixty-three percent of Amazon readers have given  it a 5-star rating and forty-two percent of goodreads readers have done the same.    For me, there was an over-the-top, melodramatic component to this novel that just left me cold and had me skimming pages.    I really wanted to love this story, but I just didn't.  I've read too many truly fine novels recently to count this one among them.  

Sunday, September 12, 2021

The Fortune Men, by Nadifa Mohamed


Viking, 2021
372 pp

(read twice)

The Fortune Men focuses on a Somali immigrant, Mahmood Mattan, who in 1952 was accused of the murder of a shopkeeper in Tiger Bay, Cardiff.  I had absolutely no idea going into this book that it was based on a true story,  one I'd never heard about but one which the author obviously believed needed retelling; in this interview she notes that she had a "feeling" that it was a story she "couldn't shake."   By the way, clicking on that first link gives away the story, so don't go there unless you've read the book first. 

The novel begins as the radio announces the news of the death of King George VI in Berlin's milk bar, a hangout for "many of Tiger Bay's Somali sailors."  Mahmood had been to sea as well, but has spent the last three years doing "just foundry work and poky little boilers in prisons and hospitals."   As we're told, "The sea still calls" to him, but his Welsh wife Laura and their three young boys "anchor him here."  On that night, as "news of the King's death drifts from many of the low-slung wind-blown terraces," he walks down Bute Street and notes "a few lights still on" at some of the businesses he patronizes, including that of Volacki's, "where he used to buy seafaring kits but now just bags the occasional dress for Laura."  It is a small shop left by her father to  Violet Volacki, who lives there with her sister Diana and niece Grace.  After the shop closes, and as they are having dinner and making plans for the upcoming Purim festival, the doorbell rings.  Although Diana encourages Violet to let whoever it is wait until tomorrow, "that bell and the shop have a hold on her that she can't resist," and she goes out to answer the door.  That will be the last moment that Diana and Grace see Violet alive; she is later found dead, murdered in her own shop.  

Word quickly spreads that the killer was a Somali man, and Mattan is arrested, first on two minor charges for which he is put behind bars, while the inspector handling the case also knows Mattan will be going down for Violet's murder.  There is absolutely no evidence pointing to Mahmood as the killer; Diana and Grace both say that he is not the "coloured" man they viewed from the dining room as Violet went to answer the doorbell.    As the dustjacket blurb reveals, and as the author fully establishes here,  Mattan is a 
"chancer, sometime petty thief... a smooth-talker with an eye for a good game. He is many things, in fact, but he is not a murderer." 
However, none of that matters -- as is made clear to Mahmood, "You'll hang, whether you did it or not."  

This book, with its subject matter, should have been right up my reading alley, and the first time through I thought perhaps there was something wrong with me because I didn't really engage with it all that well.   That fact really bothered me for a long time, leading me eventually to  believe that I must have read it at the wrong time while  grim happenings were going on in my own world and my attention was mentally elsewhere.   That was three weeks ago, and I decided to give it another go this past week since the situation at home has drastically improved.  The second time through (and this time with hindsight into the reality behind the fiction),  I engaged with it much more, catching many things I'd missed the first time, and while certain parts of the novel still seemed to drag a bit in the telling, all and all it became a better book on this last reading.  

I keep thinking about the epilogue, considering the fact that the real Mahmood Mattan had someone in his corner to try to right the egregious wrongs done to him (albeit posthumously);  it makes me wonder how many people of that time and that place had been victims of the same racism, xenophobia, betrayal, and  police complicity and have similar stories yet untold.  The Fortune Men is not at all a feel-good novel, but it is a very human story, bringing forth from the past a sad truth that remains extremely relevant today.  

Sunday, August 29, 2021

An Island, by Karen Jennings


Holland House Books, 2019
179 pp


"... he would not leave; he would never leave. The land was his always." 

The first time I read about this book after its placement on this year's Booker Prize longlist, I knew I had to have it, and I absolutely knew within the first few pages of reading it that this was a book that I was going to love, given its subject matter.  The surprise was just how very much it crawled under my skin. 

It was the blurb that sold me on this book:  
"... A young refugee washes up unconscious on the beach of a small island inhabited by no one but Samuel, an old lighthouse keeper. Unsettled, Samuel is soon swept up in memories of his former life on the mainland: a life that saw his country suffer under colonisers, then fight for independence, only to fall under the rule of a cruel dictator; and he recalls his own part in its history..."

Samuel, in his seventies now,  had been used to discovering bodies washing up on the island over the over the last twenty-three years he's been living there; this  "young refugee" is the latest  in a series of thirty-two "nameless, unclaimed others."   At first, officials would come out to look for bodies, to "find all those who suffered under the Dictator"  so that now the nation could  "move forward," but as time went on and more bodies came to shore, officials brushed them off as possibly "another country's refugees," now unwanted.   Samuel was told to do what he wanted with them; it was not the government's problem.   This time around though, Samuel was surprised to find the man alive.  Planning to send him back on the supply boat coming the next day, Samuel takes the man into his cottage, feeding him and giving him warm clothing,  just waiting until "the island was his again."  However, even though they don't speak the same language,  the refugee panics at the sight of the supply boat before its arrival, and begs Samuel for help. Samuel recognizes something in that plea for help, and the other man is there, it seems, to stay.  His presence there rekindles bits of Samuel's memory of his pre-island days; memories that were "things best forgotten now approaching as steadily as waves approach the shore."  As more of his past is revealed, in the present he wavers between trust and paranoia toward the stranger, the latter growing steadily as he wonders about this man's true intentions.  

To say too much more about this novel would be criminal; I will only reveal that even though this story is less than two hundred pages long, there is much to unpack here, including the upheavals in ordinary people's lives as they suffer through political strife and struggle, and the emotional and physical tolls that remain as a result.  As the memories come back, so too does Samuel's awareness of the humiliation he'd suffered over the years, and he comes to the realization that this "land was his, always."  Soon  the presence of this outsider becomes untenable; this is Samuel's  home, and no one will take it from him. 

As bleak as this book is, as allegorical as it may be, it is a beautifully-written, insightful novel that begins rather quietly before readers are abruptly jolted back into the past, returned to the present, and jolted back again.   I'm wondering if these interruptions are meant to somehow mirror Samuel's mind, as it is certain interactions between him and the stranger which cause these memories to come to him, something as simple as the sight of a flower that the other man has made from odd bits laying around Samuel's cottage.  It can make for reading distraction,  but Samuel's past has a direct connection to what will eventually happen in his present.  I love the way the author set this all up, including the early foreshadowing  that sets the atmosphere, and then the slowly-building drama that results from Samuel's somewhat broken memories of the past.  And do pay attention to the red hen, although I won't say why.  There's so much more, of course, but this is truly a novel to be experienced.  

 Don't let the short length of  An Island  fool you -- it is a powerhouse of a novel that even now, several days after finishing it, is still haunting me.  

I am recommending it to everyone I know.