Thursday, September 28, 2023

Prophet Song, by Paul Lynch


Oneworld, 2023
308 pp


As with more than a few books I've read recently, Prophet Song drew my attention by way of this year's Booker Prize longlist, from which it has now moved on to the shortlist.  This book was such a powerful read that it made me cry at the end, and that does not happen every day.  

With no back story to explain how it happened (and really, in my opinion, one is not needed -- the reader must accept that this is how things are for this story),  a group known as the National Alliance Party has come to power in Ireland, and under the pretext of combatting the "ongoing crisis facing the state," it has issued the Emergency Powers Act.  About a week later, the Party replaced the regular Secret Detective Unit  (which, according to a bit of research on my end has the mission to investigate "threats to State security" and to "monitor persons who pose a threat to this on both national and international fronts")  with the Garda National Services Board (GNSB), who are in control of the "maintenance of public order."  One person here refers to them as a sort of "secret police," which he notes, does not exist in Ireland, but given everything that is to come, is very likely a more realistic description.   As this story begins, it is two GNSB detectives to whom Eilish Stack opens her kitchen patio door one dark night, asking for her husband Larry, who is not home at the time.  They ask her to have him call when he returns, telling her that "it is nothing to worry about."   Eilish has no idea what this is all about, but she does have a feeling that "darkness has come into the house," something that she sees "skulking alongside her as she steps through the living room past the children." 

Larry, a teacher who is also the deputy general secretary of the Teachers' Union of Ireland, a "senior trade unionist," makes his way to the station, where he is told that in the eyes of the GNSB, his behavior seems to them to be the "conduct of someone inciting hatred against the state, someone sowing discord and unrest."  Evidently the party is not happy about an upcoming teachers' strike, and Larry, as it turns out, is working with Ireland's teachers "to negotiate for better conditions." Reminding the GNSB detectives that he has every legal right to do so, he leaves, but it's with an understanding that the familiar ground upon which he has been walking has most certainly shifted.  Soon the Stacks begin to hear of friends  being arrested, of constitutional rights being suspended and there are rumors of civil unrest and internment camps.  Eilish believes her phone is tapped and later, Larry is suddenly disappeared and no one knows anything about his whereabouts.   Eilish is warned to stay quiet, but refuses to do so,  drawing  the wrath of the government;  little by little she finds herself becoming more isolated, especially at her work.  With Larry gone, Eilish is left in sole charge of the family; she is also taking care of her widowed father, who lives alone and is sliding into dementia.  It takes all she has sometimes just to keep herself together so that she can be strong for her four children as their normal lives crumble.  She will soon discover that Larry's disappearance is only the beginning of her nightmare;  as the government works to consolidate its hold on the people through whatever means necessary,  she and her four children find themselves caught up in horrific events as they become part of a "society that is quickly unravelling."   Yet, it is not only society which is "unravelling" here -- the most powerful moments of this novel focus on Eilish as the situation takes an immense and unspeakable toll on each member of her family, leaving her to make some extremely painful choices in order to protect them and above all, to ensure their survival.  

About plot I will say no more, and the above description doesn't begin to cover all of the twists and turns that make the reading of this novel such a powerful experience.  While what happens here is set amid a "government turning toward tyranny," to think of Prophet Song as simply another work of  "dystopian fiction" does not do this novel justice.  That turn toward tyranny has happened, and more to the point is happening somewhere at sometime in our world, a reality with which we are all familiar, as well as a point strongly highlighted when the author writes
"... the prophet sings not of  the end of the world but of what has been done and what will be done and what is being done to some but not not others, that the world is always ending over and over again in one place but not another and that the end of the world is always a local event, it comes to your country and visits your town and knocks on the door of your house and becomes to others but some distant warning, a brief report of on the news, an echo of events that has passed into folklore ..."

 Throughout the novel,  the author uses the present tense to not only communicate the ongoing changes that occur in the process, but also the very nowness of the situation, which is one factor in making this book so harrowing, and his examination of the lack of freedom of agency, as he notes here "when caught within such an enormity of forces" is another.   And while I will not divulge the ending, which actually flips the story back on the reader,  by the time I got there I was absolutely in tears, thinking not just of Eilish but of real-world mothers who have experienced some of the same terrors and who have somehow summoned the courage it must have taken to make the same kind of unbearable decisions, and quite frankly, who have come to a point at which they feel they must gamble everything  to protect their families under some of the same conditions.  

I loved this book and cannot say enough good things about it; this story will haunt me for some time and it is one I most definitely recommend.  

Sunday, September 10, 2023

A Study for Obedience, by Sarah Bernstein


Knopf Canada
193 pp


I meant to get this post done much sooner, but sadly another death has darkened our doorway so it's been a few rough weeks around here for the two of us.  But it's time to move forward.

The narrative in Study for Obedience is related by an unnamed narrator (whom we find out later is Jewish, which has more than a small amount of bearing on her story), who, as she reveals, was the youngest child in her family, and that since childhood, her role had been to provide her siblings 
"with the greatest possible succour, filling them up only so they could demand more, always more, demands to which I acceded with alacrity and discreet haste..." 
In other words, her life had been one of putting the needs of others ahead of her own, the consequences of which were her slide into a life of self denial and solitude, "pursuing silence to its ever-receding horizon."   She has no sense of belonging, and her "pursuit" of offering "the most careful consideration to the other, to treat the other as the worthiest object of contemplation" has left her "reduced, diminished..." and in her words, ceasing to exist.   It is not surprising then that when her brother calls her to come to his home because he needs someone to look after his house while he is away for long periods on business, that she accepts his request. His wife has left him, along with their children, and so for our narrator, it is a chance to live in seclusion and to "be quiet."  His house is in a "remote northern country" which happens to be where her "family's ancestors" had lived before being "dogged across borders and put into pits," and indeed was once owned by those who had led the "historic crusades" against them.  It is with her arrival that the story begins in earnest, especially once she decides to venture out into the town and discovers that the people, who seem to have no issues with her brother, want nothing at all to do with her. Perhaps, she thinks,  it is because she can't speak the local dialect. Anyway, for whatever reason, she decides to volunteer for community service by putting her name on a rota sheet of chores the locals share. Despite her misgivings afterwards about doing that, her brother sorts things out for her long distance, on condition that she does her work quietly and alone.  Not at all a problem for our narrator, but troubles begin just shortly after, when strange events alluded to at the beginning of this book start to happen, including a dog having a "phantom pregnancy," a sow who had "eradicated her piglets," and things that "were leaving one place and showing up in another." 

Just when I was convinced that we're venturing into a sort of folk horror zone here, the brother returns home not quite himself and there is a major shift that occurs which moves  Study for Obedience into different territory altogether, one which gets to the very heart of this book.  While I won't discuss what that shift is or exactly or how it comes about, suffice it to say that the novel deals with the acquisition, uses and misuses of power;  the complicity of silence and the weight of history, both personal and otherwise, are also key ideas that run throughout this novel.  And while not the horror story I thought it was going to be, this is still quite a disturbing tale that I couldn't stop thinking about for days after I'd finished reading it. 

It wasn't until the second time through that the proverbial light went on in my head.  While  Study for Obedience is short, coming in at just about 200 pages, it is most certainly not your average plot-driven novel requiring more time on my part to get through it.  Toward the end it becomes much more philosophical in nature than I had expected, making the reading a bit on the difficult side, and I'll be honest here -- it became a bit cumbersome languagewise for a while.    However, the patient reader is definitely rewarded and quite frankly, once I cottoned onto what was going on here, I was completely in awe at this author's talent, making it a book I can certainly recommend.  

Thursday, August 24, 2023

This Other Eden, by Paul Harding


W.W. Norton, 2023
210 pp


"Terrible how terribly good intentions turn out every time." 

I love finding novels that are based on, or in this case "inspired by,"  real events,  especially when I am completely ignorant of the facts behind the fiction.  The story found in Paul Harding's This Other Eden, now longlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize, is one of these, with the action taking place in Maine on a small island, "hardly three hundred feet across the channel from the mainland."   

Back in 1793, Benjamin Honey " -- American, Bantu, Igbo -- born enslaved -- freed or fled at fifteen..." and his wife Patience, "nee Raferty, Galway Girl..." arrived on what would later be called Apple Island,  and after settling in planted the apple seeds he'd so carefully cherished and taken care of over the years.   He had come there with a childhood memory of his mother and time spent in an orchard, also remembering the "fragrance of the trees and their fruit," as well as a "vision of the garden to which he meant to return."  For Benjamin, that garden was Eden, "no mystery."   Fast forward to 1911; Esther Honey, Benjamin and Patience's great-granddaughter, now has the role of family matriarch.  Since Benjamin's time,  other people outside of the Honey family had come to live on the island as well, with blood running "from every continent but Antarctica."   The children help out with the chores and also roam freely, often with the island's three dogs which are fed from whatever scraps the families can muster.   It is a small but close-knit, mixed-race community where the living is on the hardscrabble side, yet for the reader, there is every sense that Apple Island is some sort of haven, a refuge from the outside world for these people.   
Also on the island during the summers is Matthew Diamond,  a missionary who serves as  teacher at the small school there.   Esther finds herself with misgivings about the situation, certain that 
"there would not be a soul left on the island within five years. She'd heard it all before, threats and promises both, threats being far more common than promises, but either way no one had actually set foot on the island to see out their intentions, well-meaning or otherwise."
She also believed that

 "no good ever came of being noticed by mainlanders, which always meant being noticed by white people -- plain white, her mother and aunts and cousins called them, to distinguish them from the lighter-skinned Apple islanders..."

Diamond means well, and takes special interest in his students, including Tabitha Honey, who "took to Latin as if she were not learning it but remembering it,"  Emily Sockalexis, whose skill in mathematics has Diamond scrambling to "relearn" in order to keep up with her, and then there's Esther's grandson Ethan, who has a natural talent for drawing.   At the same time, as Diamond writes to a friend,  inasmuch as his faith tells him  that "all men are his brothers, all women my sisters, all souls my family,"  he has a "visceral, involuntary repulsion" when he is in "the presence of a living Negro."   But events begin to take a dark  turn when, as noted in the dustjacket blurb, Diamond's "presence attracts the attention of authorities on the mainland," many of them who subscribe to the contemporarily-popular pseudoscience of eugenics; journalists' photos also draw negative  attention to the islanders.   Trying to help, Diamond begs a friend to sponsor Ethan, whose light skin allows him to pass for white and secures him a spot off the island where he can continue to grow his artistic abilities. Esther is on board with this idea, knowing that he has a chance in the outside world, and Ethan makes his way off the island and to a life Esther hopes will be filled with promise and reward.  But Diamond's attempt at helping Ethan sparks tragedy; back on the island, this small community is rocked by  events that unfold quickly, all of which will result in devastating consequences for each and every person who lives there.  

children from the Malaga Island schoolhouse -- from
Greenhut Galleries

I've read this book twice now, once before I'd researched the reality behind the novel  and then after, and I have to admit that the second read with the knowledge I'd gained helped me to appreciate it more.   The historical material is horrifying and yet fascinating.*  The real and long-buried story belongs to the people of Malaga Island, who in 1912 were forcibly evicted by the state from their homes  due to "a chain of tragic events," as explained in Atlas Obscura, "spurred by the racist 'science' of eugenics married with political corruption."  It was also, in part, caused by ignorance and the contemporary  abhorrence of miscegenation.   Eviction of the living was bad enough, with some islanders being diagnosed as "mentally incompetent" and "remanded to" the Maine School for the Feeble Minded, but it got worse -- the small cemetery was dug up, the remains were combined and they were taken away from Malaga Island altogether.  While these events feature in This Other Eden, Harding doesn't exactly rewrite the story, choosing instead to focus more on a handful of people on the fictional Apple Island.  I haven't been there but his depiction of the island seems true to life, down to the old shell middens, and  he's bestowed his characters with distinct and individual voices along with the quirks that make them human.   I have to be honest here:  while buzzing through different online interviews with the author, I gleaned a bit of understanding regarding the author's focus on art in this novel  -- as he stated in an interview at Lit Hub
"As I do with all my novels, everything I'm reading, all the paintings I see, all the music I'm listening to, everything somehow or another gets thrown into the manuscript, in its earliest stages"

but in my own humble opinion, his time spent with Ethan's slowly-growing awareness of the beauty of the natural world and learning how to capture it in his art just went on too too long to the point where I actually lost interest, wanting to get back to the main throes of the story. I wasn't a huge fan of the biblical allusions/references either -- sometimes they felt a little strained as well as heavy handed.  But those are my particular niggles, and to each his/her own.  

I probably wouldn't have bought this book had it not appeared as part of the Booker dozen, but in the long run, and for many reasons, I'm glad I did. 

* Maine State Archivist Kate McBrien has an insightful and well-researched presentation on Malaga Island that is available on youtube. I recommend it wholeheartedly.  

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Hungry Ghosts, by Kevin Jared Hosein

"Moths see light and fly to it... Always searching for the border between deep darkness and the billows of the moon.  The moonlight to them is hope. But to a moth, there are many things that resemble moonlight.  It is that hope that turns on them and gets them killed."

Ecco, 2023
327 pp


Trinidad is one of our favorite Caribbean island destinations so when I heard about this book, I knew I had to read it.  I also love Caribbean literature and I was not at all disappointed with this novel --  Hungry Ghosts is a dark yet phenomenal story and Trinidadian author Kevin Jared Hosein is a phenomenal writer.  

The family at the center of this story lives in a small space known as "the Barrack."   These structures, as we are told, were "sugarcane estate barrack(s)," and were 
"scattered like half-buried bones across the plain, strewn from their colonial corpse. In their marrow, the ghosts of the indentured. And the offspring of those ghosts."
  It's the 1940s, and in the rural countryside of Trinidad, the Saroop family, Hansraj (Hans), Shweta and their son Krishna,  share the five-room, "tangle of wood and iron" barrack with four other families,  each occupying a 10x10 foot room. Although there are partitions between the rooms, they do not allow for any sort of privacy; these impoverished families live with no running water, dress in clothes made of old flour sacks, and cook outside in a "communal yard," also the place for "drinking and fighting."    Shweta is haunted by the loss of her baby girl Hema, about whom Hans will never speak and who has become, as one of the older women in the barrack revealed to Shweta,  a "preta -- a hungry ghost" whose insatiable hunger must be appeased, as well as that of the other ghosts Hema brings with her.   Shweta has a hunger as well: she dreams of getting out of the Barrack, escaping this "fossil embedded in quicksand" and buying a plot of land in Bell Village, 
"the dogma of a new world, howling and preaching steel and diesel and rayon and vinyl and gypsum and triple-glazed glass,"
in hopes of securing for her family a better quality of life.  The Barrack and its inhabitants fall at the lower echelon of a carefully-maintained social and class structure; while Krishna is the only barrack child enrolled at the school (which he despises) in Bell Village, the village children never let him forget where he lives or his barrack upbringing.  Although there are other Hindus who attend the school, some are "Hindu at home but Presbyterian at school," at a time when identifying as Christian offered the promise of better opportunities.  Towering over all of these people are the Changoors, Dalton and Marlee, who live uphill at Changoor Farm.  Wealthy and powerful, no one really knows how Dalton came to have so much money, and no one really knows Marlee, who generally stays inside the walls of the house.  She has no real friends and rarely interacts with people on the outside. Things change though when Dalton disappears with no warning, leaving Marlee a "cryptic note" on the kitchen table that says very little.  She is now alone on the farm with the three hired workers (who by Dalton's orders were to "never set foot inside his house")  one of which is Hans Saroop.   Marlee makes up stories about Dalton's absence, reassuring the farmhands that he will be back, but when she receives a ransom note attached to a dead rat demanding money, she offers Hans a high-paying job staying at the farm as a guard until Dalton's return.  Hans knows that with the money that Marlee is willing to pay he can make a down payment on the patch of land in Bell Village and improve his family's life; what he doesn't know is that his decision will launch a tidal wave of completely unforeseen consequences.  Actually, now that I'm thinking about it, there are any number of people in this novel whose choices will have a major impact  not only on their own lives but those of others as well.  

While Hans believes in that "flicker of a daydream" that offers the the promise of escape, what he doesn't understand is just how quickly a dream can turn into a nightmare, especially as he tries to keep his feet planted in two different worlds in a system that is so entrenched.    He doesn't know what others know, that he's "floatin' through maya ...Mistaking dreams for the real world."  This notion of a better world as illusion is prevalent throughout this novel -- so much so that at one point somebody notes that  
"Moths see light and fly to it... Always searching for the border between deep darkness and the billows of the moon.  The moonlight to them is hope. But to a moth, there are many things that resemble moonlight.  It is that hope that turns on them and gets them killed."

Eventually it becomes very clear that Hema is not the only ghost that haunts these people; there are many others with their own unfulfilled and unfulfillable appetites that ultimately lead them into despair.  In the bigger scheme of things though, it's the ghosts of Trinidad's colonial past that are the most haunting of all.   "Behold hell" indeed.   

Once again, just a barebones look at a fine novel; if I wasn't so behind lifewise I could talk about this book forever.   I absolutely loved Hungry Ghosts mainly because of the author's original approach in exploring the history of his homeland and his heritage.  While the novel is often brutally violent and emotionally difficult to read, the author's prose is just beautiful, offering readers the sensation that they are there in that time as a witness to a slice of Trinidad's past.  Definitely highly recommended -- I will read whatever this author has to offer in the future. 

Just wow. 

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Cursed Bread, by Sophie Mackintosh

"We are so often wrong about the ones we love, slowly debasing ourselves, so gradually we barely notice we're doing it."

Doubleday, 2023
190 pp


The truth is that after the first thirty pages or so of reading this novel, I stopped and added to my goodreads status something to the effect that I hoped that it got better because I wasn't really enjoying it to that point.  Well, never a quitter, I kept reading --  not only did it get better, but after that first stopping point I did not want to put this book down.  Not at all.  

Cursed Bread begins with the arrival of a new couple in a small, unnamed town in postwar France.  The Ambassador (no other name given) has (he says) been tasked with a "government project, a kind of survey" to "learn more about the real people of this country. To truly get to know them, the citizens who make it what is is."  The women in the town are quite naturally curious about his wife Violet, but none more so than Elodie, the wife of the town baker, who narrates this story looking back on events that  eventually led her to "a convalescent place by the sea" after some pretty horrific happenings in her town.   At the outset she wonders about her memories, "holding them up to the light" and questioning whether "it really did happen like this."  And, if it did, could she "tell it differently?"  Our storyteller decides that "perhaps it's best to be honest," so we must place ourselves in her hands.  

Elodie was a woman "starving for contact,"  desperately wanting to feel noticed, needed and desired, someone who sensed that there was something more out there for her than the proscribed, humdrum life she currently lives, and a woman whose appetites for passion and intimacy had gone unsated. Her initial meeting with Violet happened in the bakery,  and although they hadn't exchanged any meaningful words, she notes that afterwards, Violet had "haunted" her thoughts.   After a strange, voyeuristic  encounter at a party given by the newcomers at their home, it was as if Elodie had been struck by lightning, leaving her with a heightened awareness of the dark, erotic electricity bouncing between the Ambassador and Violet.   From then on, as she notes,  even brief glimpses of Violet would create "a pulse of something" running through Elodie.  As time goes on, Elodie takes every opportunity she can to insert herself into Violet's life, and Violet begins to pay more attention to Elodie, sharing some intimate details of her relationship with her husband while at the same time keeping other things shrouded in mystery.  Eventually, Elodie finds herself obsessed with this woman, becoming fixated on her own fantasies to the point that her desperation and desire lead her down a dark path in hopes of appeasing her own hungers.  As the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur, she fails to realize that her choices also leave her vulnerable to those who might take advantage for their own agendas. 

Between chapters the novel also contains letters written by Elodie to Violet from her seaside safe space as she tries to sift though her memories, but it appears that perhaps Elodie has not been as "honest" as she earlier proclaimed she would be.  And while the focus of this story centers on the relationship and dynamics between Elodie and Violet, as the dustjacket notes, "beneath the tranquil surface of village life, strange things are happening"  leaving in their wake "a dark intoxication"  that manifests itself in  madness, hallucinatory experiences and for some people even worse fates.  

 An extremely brief and barebones post here certainly,  but Cursed Bread is a visceral read that must be experienced firsthand. At its heart, the novel examines the power of desire, which can be both destructive and self-destructive and in this case transformative; it is dark and claustrophobic, seasoned by an ongoing sense of danger that ratchets up the tension until the end.  

  It is only at the end of Cursed Bread in a brief "Author's Note" that we learn that
"In the summer of 1951, the small French town of Pont-Saint-Esprit succumbed to a mass poisoning.  There are many theories regarding the source of this catastrophe. None have ever been proved."
This event has been thought to have been caused by ergot poisoning -- le pain maudit (cursed bread) -- but who knows -- there have been a number of theories floated about regarding this incident.   I don't necessarily think that  the author is trying to simply fictionalize that traumatic event here, but setting the novel  against the backdrop of the Pont-Saint-Esprit worked for me, since the effects of the poisonous relationships in this story couldn't  help but to seep through to the rest of the town.   And while completely different,   I couldn't help but to be reminded of Barbara Comyns' excellent Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, the blurb of which mentions a newspaper article with the headline wondering "Who will be smitten by this fatal madness next?," which, given what happens in Cursed Bread, seems more than appropriate. 

Although a lot of professional critics and more than a few readers have given this novel rather tepid reviews, I loved it and definitely recommend it for those looking for something a bit different and something  definitely on the darker side.