Anne Tyler, Author, Book review, Chatto & Windus, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘French Braid’ by Anne Tyler

Fiction – paperback; Chatto & Windus; 256 pages; 2022. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Sometimes a novel just strikes the right mood. You pick it up, start reading and become so immersed in the story you lose all sense of time. Before you know it, you’ve read half the book — or at least made substantial inroads.

This is how I felt when I read Anne Tyler’s latest novel, French Braid.

I am a long-time Anne Tyler fan so it’s no surprise I would like this book, but I reckon it’s the best one she’s written since 1982’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, my favourite Tyler novel. That’s probably because it shares similar traits in terms of its focus on a dysfunctional family and the way chance events shape people’s lives and how sibling relationships are dictated by power dynamics beyond their control.

One family’s story

French Braid charts the history of the Garrett family over several decades — from 1959 through to 2020 — and features all the quintessential trademarks of Tyler’s work: a tapestry of complex family dynamics, a cast of quirky but believable characters, and a Baltimore setting.

There’s no real plot; the character-driven narrative moves ahead in roughly ten-year increments and each chapter is written (in the third person) from the perspective of a particular family member. This allows the reader to get to know the family relatively well, to understand the events that have shaped each person and given rise to certain misunderstandings or lessons or viewpoints.

We witness children growing older, moving out of home, finding partners of their own and having children. The passing of time is marked by graduations, family gatherings, weddings and celebratory dinners and occasions.

It is, at times, poignant and heartbreaking and laugh-out-loud funny.

A family holiday sets the tone

The family is centred around Robin and Mercy, who get married in 1940, and their children Alice, Lily and David, whose ties and loyalties are tested and divided as they grow up to become adults with lives and families of their own.

A rare family holiday in 1959, when the girls are teens and David is a seven-year-old, underpins the entire family history and sets the tone for everything that follows. What unfolds on that lake in Maryland has long-lasting repercussions. David, in particular, is scarred by Robin’s heavy-handed attempts to force him to go swimming when he’d prefer to play quietly with his toys.

As the years slide by, the Garrett’s marriage comes under strain, not least because Mercy wants the freedom to pursue her ambitions to be a painter. She begins to spend more and more time at the studio she rents nearby, slowly moving her belongings there and staying overnight. Her adult children are under the impression she’s moved out of the family home, but it’s a subject that can’t be broached with their father, who remains devoted to his wife.

It’s the things left unsaid, the uncomfortable truths that remain hidden, which allows the family to muddle on without self-imploding. David’s wife puts it succinctly like this:

This is what families do for each other — hide a few uncomfortable truths, allow a few self-deceptions. Little kindnesses.

French Braid is completely immersive as we follow the strands of the Garrett’s disparate lives across three generations. It’s tender, wise, knowing and funny. I loved it.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Julia May Jonas, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Vladímír’ by Julia May Jonas

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 320 pages; 2022.

First things first. Do not judge this book by its cover, for the image used on the front of Julia May Jonas’ debut novel, Vladímír, suggests the content is a steamy romance, perhaps a bodice ripper or an erotic thriller. It’s not. If anything, Vladímír is a #MeToo novel or even a campus novel. Regardless, it’s literary fiction — with a droll undercurrent of snark and black comedy running throughout.

Stand by her man

In a nutshell, this is a story about a popular English professor whose husband — a professor at the same small upstate New York college at which she teaches — stands accused of inappropriate relationships with former students decades earlier.

At one point we would have called these affairs consensual, for they were, and were conducted with my tacit understanding that they were happening. Now, however, young women have apparently lost all agency in romantic entanglements. Now my husband was abusing his power, never mind that power is the reason they desired him in the first place.

Most people expect her to reject her husband and support the women who have come forward, but she stands by him (in a passive doesn’t-want-to-get-too-involved kind of way) because they have a mutual understanding about pursuing extramarital pursuits. And partly because she feels he’s just as much a victim as his accusers.

I wanted him to accept the role of the penitent. But you can’t ask someone who feels like a victim, as John most certainly did, to live apologetically. And there it was, that twisted logic. Even as we railed against victim mentality, against trauma as a weapon, we took the strength of our arguments from the internal sense of our own victimhood. John was acting like the women who accused him. He had been wronged, goddamit.

But just as our (nameless) 58-year-old narrator is wrestling with her anger and sense of injustice, along comes a new male colleague, Vladímír, to distract her. He’s a handsome, young, married novelist who’s just accepted a tenured position as a junior professor and she becomes increasingly infatuated with him — to the point of obsession.

The cover of the UK edition

The outfall

The story is less focused on the sexual harassment case itself — indeed, we don’t fully know the details of it — but more on how the outfall affects the narrator’s day-to-day life and her career. Her popularity amongst the students, for instance, begins to slide, because they believe she is complicit in her husband’s actions.

Meanwhile, her obsession with Vladímír makes her do risky things and behave in ways that got her husband into trouble in the first place.

The novel asks important questions about sexual boundaries and consent and whether it is possible to judge past behaviour on the standards of today.

But it also looks at what it is to grow old and how women are held to different standards than men. Other topics include motherhood, ambition, marriage, sex and lust.

It’s written in a tone of voice that is, by turns, feisty, angry, confused, flummoxed, cynical and increasingly unhinged. (On more than one occasion I was reminded of Mrs March in Mrs March.) She’s uncompromising on so many levels, but is far from arrogant: there’s just enough humility and vanity in her character to make you warm to her, whether you agree with her sentiments or not.

Vladímír is provocative and thought-provoking, the kind of novel that highlights timely issues about power and consent without offering right or wrong answers or being too heavy-handed about it all. It’s fast-paced and compelling (I read it in the space of a day) and leaves the reader with plenty to mull over and cogitate on.

Hat-tip to Kate, whose review of this novel made me want to rush out and read it myself.

Vladímír is out now in Australia. It will be published in the UK on 26 May. 

Author, Book review, Fiction, Germany, historical fiction, holocaust, Kathrine Kressmann Taylor, literary fiction, Publisher, Serpent's Tail, Setting, USA

‘Address Unknown’ by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor

Fiction – paperback; Serpent’s Tail; 90 pages; 2015.

For such a slim book, this one packs a powerful punch!

First published in 1938, Address Unknown is a timely reminder of the invidious nature of fascism and the ways in which this warped ideology can tear once-close people apart.

It tells the story of a friendship between two men — a Jewish art dealer and his business partner — that is tested by political events in the lead up to the Second World War.

Martin Schulse and Max Eisenstein run an art gallery together in San Francisco, but when Martin repatriates to Germany their friendship continues via correspondence.

An epistolary tale

Through their letters, which span the period from November 1932 through to March 1934, we come to understand the closeness of their relationship and the way in which it begins to fracture as events in Europe unfold.

When Max hears about political unrest in Germany, he is distressed by the news reports “that come pouring in to us from the Fatherland” and asks Martin to clarify what is going on:

I know your liberal mind and warm heart will tolerate no viciousness and that from you I can have the truth.

Martin’s reply, now on headed paper from his bank to avoid the censors, warns his friend to cease writing to him.

It is impossible for me to be in correspondence with a Jew even if it were not that I have an official position to maintain.

He makes deeply offensive antisemitic remarks further on in the letter, suggesting that he is now firmly on the side of Hitler, whom he refers to as “our Gentle Leader”. But Max refuses to believe that his friend has gone down this upsetting political path, writing:

I can see why Germans acclaim Hitler. They react against the very real wrongs which have been laid on them since the disaster of the war. But you, Martin, have been almost an American since the war. I know that it is not my friend who has written to me, that it will prove to have been only the voice of caution and expediency.

Within a few more letters their friendship lies in tatters, but Max does not give up easily, continuing to write even when he gets absolutely no response. There’s a sting in the tail though, one that demonstrates the life-and-death power which can be wielded by the pen.

Address Unknown takes less than an hour to read, but I dare say it will be a tale that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I came away from it reeling and I’ve been mulling over the implications, and the way in which Max levels the playing field, ever since.

Afterword by the author’s son

This edition, published in 2015, comes with an afterword written by the author’s son, Charles Douglas Taylor.

He explains that Address Unknown was originally published in Story magazine in September 1938, one of the first stories to expose “the poison of Nazism to the American public”. It was published as a book the next year and sold out in the USA and England but was banned in Europe. It was largely forgotten after the war but was reissued in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps.

A French translation in 1999 brought it to the attention of European readers for the first time. By 2010, it had been translated into 23 languages. It has been adapted for stage and performed on both Broadway, in the US, and the West End, in London.

The author died in 1996, aged 93. You can find out more about her via her Wikipedia page.

Allen & Unwin, Author, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Robert Lukins, Setting, USA

‘Loveland’ by Robert Lukins

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 344 pages; 2022. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The ways in which a woman reclaims her past — and her power — are at the heart of this very fine novel by Robert Lukins.

Loveland tells the story of May, an Australian woman, who goes to the US to claim an inheritance: a decrepit house on the edge of a poisoned lake in Nebraska.

Going to visit the house, left to her in her grandmother’s will, for the first time offers May a chance to momentarily escape her controlling husband and the teenage son she feels increasingly alienated from.

And it’s also an opportunity to find out more about her grandmother, Casey, who never spoke about her past. What secrets did she hold? And what happened to make her emigrate to Australia all those years ago?

Dual storylines

These dual storylines, one set in the 1950s, the other in the present day, gently unfold to reveal a tapestry of love and deception and thwarted opportunities and controlling, misogynistic behaviour by the men in both women’s lives.

Over the course of the story, we get to know both women intimately. We see how May ignored the red flags and is now only coming to terms with the fact that her marriage has not been a healthy one.

On the day of their wedding, Patrick had twice gone to the toilet to cry. That’s what he said. What he told May as they stood together and waited for the celebrant to finish her speech on the sharing of joy, new discoveries, and of the couple being not perfect but perfect for each other. Patrick had whispered in May’s ear that he’d been in tears after breakfast and again just minutes before the ceremony. He’d asked if his face was puffy and if she could tell. The crying had been over his worry that May wouldn’t pay him enough attention and that he’d be ignored amid the commotion and stress of the day.

And we learn that Casey’s young life in Nebraska was also marred by an aggressive man who manipulated her to his own ends.

Not a misery novel

But this is not a stereotypical novel about domestic abuse or intergenerational violence. It’s completely free of cliché, free of pity, free of sentiment.

Lukins does not portray the women as helpless victims. Nor does he frame the story about the men or even May’s troubled relationship with them. Instead, the narrative follows May as she finds her voice, realises the truth and summons the inner strength to break the abuse cycle and begin anew.

It’s hard not to see May’s work fixing up her grandmother’s house as a metaphor for fixing herself and the fortitude and resilience required to build a new life.

Loveland is an exceptional novel. It’s eloquent, nuanced and compassionate.

And Lukins, who holds the secrets of the story close, revealing nuggets of information only when necessary, has crafted a compelling second novel, a worthy contender to his atmospheric debut, The Everlasting Sunday, which I much enjoyed when I read it in 2019.

Please note, this book has only been published in Australia. International readers can order direct from the publisher Allen & Unwin. (Shipping info here.)

Author, Book review, Colombia, Fiction, literary fiction, Patricia Engel, Publisher, Scribner, Setting, USA

‘Infinite Country’ by Patricia Engel

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 191 pages; 2021. 

If anything positive is to come out of the Covid-19 global pandemic it is that Australian citizens, locked out of their own country (or even their home state) thanks to border closures, might gain a better appreciation of what it is to have freedom of movement.

Perhaps they might even develop greater empathy and compassion for migrants and refugees struggling to find a new homeland in which to make a better life for themselves.

This was front and centre of my mind when reading Infinite Country, a timely novel about immigration, by Patricia Engel, because so much of it charts the despair, frustration and anxiety of families separated by borders.

In this case, the family is from Colombia. Young married couple Mauro and Elena and their infant daughter Karina flee the violence in Bogotá to make a fresh start in the United States.

But over the course of the next 15 or so years, things don’t always go according to plan, and their hopes and dreams are stifled by racism, exploitation and, when their temporary visas run out, fear of arrest and deportation. This fear later spreads to their US-born children who are “undocumented illegals”.

On the run

The story opens with a killer first line:

It was her idea to tie up the nun.

This is where we meet Talia, a 15-year-old Colombian, making her escape from a correctional facility for adolescent girls high up in the mountains. Talia has been sent to the facility for committing a horrendously violent, but spontaneous, act that may or may not have been warranted.

But now she’s on a mission to get back to her father’s apartment in Bogotá so that she can pick up the plane ticket that is waiting for her — that ticket will get her to the US, where her mother and two older siblings live.

Talia’s frantic road adventure, hitchhiking across the country while avoiding the authorities, is interleaved with her parent’s love story, including their journey to the US to begin afresh long before Talia was born.

These two narrative threads come together when we discover that US-born Talia was sent back to Colombia as baby to be raised by her grandmother. This decision, based on economics, means the family now straddles two countries — and two different worlds — and because of legal issues there is no freedom to move between them.

Exposing the myths

Infinite Country is excellent at exposing the myth of the US as a golden land of opportunity and as a place of safety.

What was it about this country that kept everyone hostage to its fantasy? The previous month, on its own soil, an American man went to his job at a plant and gunned down fourteen coworkers, and last spring alone there were four different school shootings. A nation at war with itself, yet people still spoke of it as some kind of paradise.

As the family struggles to find work and accommodation, moving from one unsecure job to another, from one lot of overcrowded accommodation to another (at one stage they live in their car, in another they share a single room above a pizza shop with a Pakistani couple), their situation never seems to improve.

Both Elena and Mauro are exploited as cheap labour, unable to afford a decent place to live and constantly on guard for potential deportation. Social and economic mobility is non-existent. Even educational opportunities are limited.

And the option to go back is not an option at all.

Going home was never an option for these women. When Elena brought up the possibility of packing up, taking the children to Colombia […], Norma [a fellow immigrant] warned: ‘This is a chance you won’t get again. Every woman who has ever gone back for the sake of keeping her family together regrets it. You are already here. So are your children. It is better to invest in this new life, because if you return to the old one, in the future your children may never forgive you.’

Despite this, Elena is torn. She would love to go back to see her hardworking mother, to raise her daughter, and is “never sure if she’d made the right decision in staying”. She is plagued by guilt.

Eventually, she’d understand that in matters of migration, even accidental, no option is more moral than another. There is only the path you make. Any other would be just as wrong or right.

The price of migration

And, as much as immigrating is seen as a chance at a better life, it comes at a cost. This is how Mauro wants to convey it to his daughter Talia just as she’s about to board the plane to be reunited with her mother after 15 years:

What he wanted to say was that something is always lost; even when we are the ones migrating, we end up being occupied. […] What she didn’t know, Mauro thought, was that after the enchantment of life in a new country dwindles, a particular pain awaits. Emigration was a peeling away of the skin. An undoing. You wake each morning and forget where you are, who you are, and when the world outside shows you your reflection, it’s ugly and distorted; you’ve become a scorned and unwanted creature.

Infinite Country is eloquently written and brims with humanity, compassion and cold, hard truths — it’s completely free of sentiment and yet it is powerful and moving.

I ate it up in a single day. And I love that it ends on a hopeful note.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Book of Unknown Americans’ by Cristina Henriquez: A story about two immigrant families from Latin America facing racism, victimisation and poverty as they try to forge new lives in the US.

‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’ by Yuri Herrera:  This occasionally violent novella focuses on a young Mexican woman who illegally enters the US to search for the brother who had gone there to “settle some business” for an underworld figure.

‘The Tortilla Curtain’ by T.C. Boyle: A compelling story that showcases the stark difference between the haves, in this case a rich American family living on a gated estate in California, and the have nots, a young Mexican couple hiding out in a nearby canyon having crossed the border illegally.

Atlantic Books, Author, BIPOC 2021, Book review, Bryan Washington, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, USA

‘Memorial’ by Bryan Washington

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 284 pages; 2021.

After reading what feels like a trillion novels about young 20-something women trying to sort out their lives in the 21st century, how refreshing to read a novel from the male perspective!

Bryan Washington’s Memorial is about two gay men from diverse backgrounds trying to decide whether to commit to each other or not. Both have complicated relationships with their parents (particularly their fathers), which adds to their emotional impotence, and neither seems able to express the three simple words we all long to hear: “I love you”.

It’s written in a restrained style, albeit with plenty of sex scenes and lavish descriptions of food (if you are not hungry before reading this book, you will be during it). And it’s free of speech marks, which seems to be a “thing” in all the new novels I have been reading lately.

Relationship rut

The story is focused on two men who are in a relationship rut. Benson is a middle-class Black man working in childcare, while Mike is from a lower-class Japanese background (but raised in the US) and is now employed as a chef.

Their relationship is told in three parts. The first, from Benson’s perspective, details what happens when Mike’s mother arrives for a holiday on the same day her son flies to Japan to visit his dying father. This leaves Benson alone with his almost-mother-in-law, a woman he’s never met before let alone shared a house with and had to entertain. Their odd-couple interactions are awkward — “So, how long have you been sleeping with my son?” — but eventually morph into something resembling friendship.

The second part is told from Mike’s point of view and charts his time in Osaka with his ill father, Eiju, who runs a small bar that his son will inherit, while the third part shifts back to Benson’s perspective before ending on a hopeful note.

Well-rounded look at a relationship

Nothing earth-shattering happens in this book. The plot is thin and occasionally moves ahead through text messages or via photographs snapped on Smartphones (some of which are reproduced in the novel).

Sometimes a little nugget of information is dropped into the narrative or someone says something particularly scathing — “You’re trash, he said. Great, I said. That’s big of you. You came from trash, and you’ll always be trash” — which alters our perspectives on the characters. This is a great device for allowing us to understand both Benson and Mike’s motives and thoughts, to see how their actions and behaviours impact the other person, giving us a more rounded version of them as a couple.

Like the much-lauded work of Sally Rooney, Memorial is a story that simply explores human relationships and the ways in which entanglements with lovers, friends, family and colleagues shape our lives. And it looks at decision making: how our actions have consequences and being an adult is about accepting responsibility for the things we do and say. (Even the dads in this story have to grow into this idea.)

Washington also turns his eye to commitment. What is it, and is it worth pursuing? How do we plan for a future together if we don’t know what that future holds?

One night, I asked Ben what he wanted. We steeped on the top of our mattress like tea bags. The A/C wheezed overhead. Ben sat up. He smiled. Honestly, he said, I hadn’t expected this to be anything. Oh, I said. Yeah. Whatever happens, happens. Isn’t that what you wanted? I want whatever’s best for both of us, I said. There’s no best. Things just happen.

This is my 10th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour this year. 

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Sigrid Nunez, USA, Virago

‘The Friend’ by Sigrid Nunez

Fiction – Kindle edition; Virago; 224 pages; 2019.

This is the third book by Sigrid Nunez that I have read this year. She was a new discovery for me back in January, when I fell in love with her wonderful novel The Last of her Kind, but I’m fairly certain that if I had read The Friend first I probably wouldn’t have bothered reading anything else by her.

Not that this is a bad book. I enjoyed it. But its rambling nature, its lack of plot and structure, tested my patience at a time when I had little patience to test.

I know it pre-dated What Are You Going Through, but it felt very much like a companion piece to that novel — and maybe that’s why it didn’t really work for me: I simply read them too close together.

A canine inheritance

The Friend is about an unnamed middle-aged woman who inherits a dog after her best friend, a male creative writing professor, dies and leaves his great Dane to her. The inheritance, like his death (a suicide), is unexpected. Despite their close friendship for more than 30 years, the idea that the woman would look after his dog if he died has never been discussed: she finds out the (not particularly welcome) news when his third wife invites her for a coffee.

The dog, Apollo, is beautiful, docile and loyal, but he’s huge and he takes up so much room in her Manhattan apartment he has to sleep on her bed. And yet, for all the inconvenience and stress of living together in such a confined space, the pair of them get along well. He teaches her patience. She begins to fall in love with him.

But his presence in the building is forbidden by her landlord who has banned pets. There is a very real possibility that she will lose her much loved rent-controlled apartment if she does not find another home for Apollo.

That sense of jeopardy is what holds the entire narrative together — will she keep the dog and be turfed out into the street, or will she find a way to get rid of him?

Recurring themes

This, however, is a thin premise for a plot; most of the novel reads like a series of essays (the book is comprised of 12 parts) that focus on recurring themes. These include, among others, suicide and its aftermath; platonic friendship, sexual relationships and marriage; grief and bereavement; academic life; creative writing, writing as a profession and literature; dogs as companions and dogs in literature.

These forays or diversions read like long passages of stream-of-consciousness or eloquent diary entries — and there’s a hint of meta-fiction throughout (is the narrator, for instance, really Nunez in disguise). They’re brim-full of insights and there’s an emphasis on detail, and despite some heavy subject matter — this is, after all, a book about suicide and its aftermath — there’s a seam of humour running throughout the narrative, a slight poking of fun at the ridiculous concept of a small woman looking after a gigantic dog.

I should also point out that it’s all written in the second person; the “you” is the dead friend, but by the last chapter the “you” has become the dog. Make of that what you will.

The Friend is an intriguing concept for a book. But for all its humanity and its intelligence and its look at an “outsider” — an unmarried woman finding true companionship with a dog  — I found the story didn’t really hold my interest. Perhaps that’s because it’s the kind of book you really need to be in the mood for.

Don’t let my review put you off though. Annabel liked it more than me — and so did Eric.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Sigrid Nunez, USA, Virago

‘What Are You Going Through’ by Sigrid Nunez

Fiction – paperback; Virago; 210 pages; 2020.

Sigrid Nunez’s latest novel What Are You Going Through is a beguiling story that doesn’t really fit into a box. The blurb writers have tried to paint it as a tale about two friends, one of whom asks the other to be there when she chooses to die euthanasia style, but it is so much more complex and convoluted than that.

This is a story about stories — the stories we hear, the stories we write, the stories we tell ourselves. (“This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” the opening line from Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, is a constant refrain.)

It’s about truth and fiction, confronting our fears, searching for hope to sustain us and caring for others. Most importantly, it’s about life and death, and asks pertinent questions about what makes a good life — and what makes a good death.

Helping a friend out

What Are You Going Through is told through the eyes of an unnamed narrator, a middle-aged writer who has never been married or had children. She has an ex-partner who is a professor and well-known author, and when the book opens she (secretly) attends a talk he is delivering “based on a long article he had written for a magazine” about humankind’s death wish.

It was all over, he said again. No more the faith and consolation that had sustained generations and generations, the knowledge that, though our own individual time on earth must end, what we loved and what had meaning for us would go on, the world of which we had been a part would endure — that time had ended, he said. Our world and our civilization would not endure, he said. We must live and die in this new knowledge.

This, essentially, is a foreshadowing of a predicament the narrator finds herself in when she agrees to be with her terminally ill friend at the end of her life. The end, however, won’t be from natural causes. Her friend has decided that she will take a lethal tablet at a time of her choosing because she’s seeking peace, not the pain and agony of a death from cancer.

The narrator agrees to help because “I knew that, in her place, I would have hoped to be able to do exactly what she now wanted to do. And I would have needed someone to help me.”

A book of two halves

What Are You Going Through is a book of two halves. In the first, Nunez takes her time to build up the idea that all people really want out of life is to be noticed, to be seen, for others to understand what they are going through. And in the second, she recounts what happens when the narrator and her friend rent an Airbnb for a short holiday in which they will go exploring, eat out and generally relax before one of them will take a lethal drug to end it all.

There’s a lot to like about this book: the finger-on-the-pulse commentary about modern living and the craziness of our lives in general, the easy-going narrative style, the humour and the cool, calm intelligent voice of the narrator.

The meandering anecdotal style threw me at first, but once I warmed to it I loved not knowing what to expect next. That’s because much of what the narrator tells us is observational, a bit like a personal diary in which she recalls scenes she’s glimpsed, people she’s met and conversations she’s overheard.

On more than one occasion I was reminded of Helen Garner’s wonderful Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1, 1978-1987. (As an aside, Nunez and Garner seem to have similar writing styles and observational skills, the ability to create a whole scene or feeling from the briefest of detail. And it hasn’t escaped my attention that Garner’s novel The Spare Room is also about a friend dying from cancer.)

Despite the heavy subject matter, I rather enjoyed What Are You Going Through. Having read Nunez’s brilliant 2006 novel The Last of Her Kind earlier this year, I had high expectations. I wasn’t disappointed.

I read this for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Bookish Becks.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Joyce Carol Oates, literary fiction, Macmillan, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Black Water’ by Joyce Carol Oates

Fiction – hardcover; MacMillan; 156 pages; 1992.

I first heard about Joyce Carol Oates’ novella Black Water via Cathy’s recent 6 Degrees of Separation post.

This slim book is based on the infamous 1969 Chappaquiddick incident in which Senator Ted Kennedy’s car crashed into the water, killing his 28-year-old passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, who was trapped inside.

Oates transposes this real-life tragedy to a different time (the early 1990s) and place (Grayling Island, Maine), and tells it from the point of view of the female victim.

A fateful meeting

When 26-year-old Kelly Kelleher meets The Senator at a Fourth of July party she is immediately enamoured by him, not least because she wrote her thesis on him and his three campaigns for the Senate. She harbours a dream to work on his presidential campaign.

The much older politician (he’s in his 50s), who has been separated from his wife for 30 years, is immediately struck by the young blonde woman with the green eyes, and the pair hit it off, so much so that they exchange a secret kiss and then go for a long drive.

It’s during this drive, in a race to get to the last ferry that evening, that the Senator’s rented Toyota leaves the road, crashes through a barricade and ends upside-down in the brackish water. The Senator manages to escape, but Kelly is trapped inside, unable to get out because her legs are pinned by twisted metal.

In her shock not knowing at first where she was, what tight-clamped place this was, what darkness, not knowing what had happened because it had happened so abruptly like a scene blurred with speed glimpsed from a rushing window and there was blood in her eyes, her eyes were wide open staring and sightless, her head pounding violently where the bone was cracked, she knew the bone was cracked believing that it would be through this fissure the black water would poor to extinguish her life unless she could find a way to escape unless he will be back to help me of course.

The narrative is largely comprised of Kelly’s thoughts as she realises she is trapped and that The Senator is not coming back to rescue her. As she dies, her thoughts are a jumble of memories, mainly recent ones, as she recalls events at the party, snippets of conversation, the unexpected (but delicious) kiss she receives and the attention The Senator lavishes on her.

The chapters are short, sometimes just a page long, and the prose style alternates between long, breathless sentences, and short, choppy ones, reflecting Kelly’s changing moods – from excitement to disbelief to fear and panic.

It’s an easy book to read, even if the contents are occasionally heartbreaking, for here is a happy carefree young woman who has had her life cut abruptly short by a man drunk behind the wheel — and the man has now fled the scene.

Unfortunately, Black Water, which was first published in 1992, is currently out of print. I purchased mine secondhand online via Abebooks.

I read this for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Bookish Becks.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Jacqueline Woodson, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

‘Red at the Bone’ by Jacqueline Woodson

Fiction – Kindle edition; W&N; 208 pages; 2020.

Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone came recommended to me with much fanfare. It’s been nominated for many prizes (including the Women’s Prize for Fiction), been a runaway bestseller and named as one of the books of the year in countless media outlets (New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today et al).

It features everything I love in a great story: well-drawn characters, vivid prose, a strong narrative voice, thought-provoking themes (including race, class, sexuality, teen pregnancy, social mobility and ambition) and an original structure that interweaves different storylines and jumps backwards and forwards in time.

But this novella about a Black American family, told from multiple points of view, didn’t really work for me. Perhaps it didn’t help that the week I read it I was distracted by (1) the never-ending USA Presidential Election count and (2) a looming deadline for a massive project at work. Given different circumstances, I may well have found this story more engaging and immersive than I did upon my initial reading.

Melody’s family history

The story revolves around Melody, a 16-year-old about to make her coming of age debut, in 2001. She’s wearing a beautiful white dress that was made for her mother, Iris, who never got to wear it because she fell pregnant when still a schoolgirl.

As Melody descends the staircase in her grandparent’s brownstone house in Brooklyn, the time-shifting narrative explores all the interconnections in Melody’s family, detailing the personal histories of her parents and grandparents, to create an authentic portrait of an ordinary hard-working family wanting the very best for their loved ones.

He wanted Melody to never have hands like his mother’s. And maybe that was what being not poor was. They were not poor. Well, Melody wasn’t.

Red at the Bone highlights the repercussions of a teenage pregnancy on two young parents and their respective families.

It looks at how Melody’s father, Aubry, did not realise he was poor until he met Iris and got introduced to her (slightly larger) world; it shows how Iris, having birthed her daughter at 15, refused to be defined by motherhood and escaped to college to pursue a better, more ambitious life; it examines the struggles of Melody’s grandparents, Sabe and Po’Boy, who grew up in the shadow of the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921; and it takes all these narrative threads and cleverly shows how the history of this one family shapes Melody’s values and world view.

It’s an ambitious story wrapped up in one neat package. It’s just a shame it didn’t quite hit the spot for me, but that’s more my fault than that of the author’s. Sometimes it’s simply a case of right book, wrong time…

I read this for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Bookish Becks.