Anita Shreve, Author, Book review, Fiction, France, historical fiction, literary fiction, Little, Brown, London, Publisher, Setting, USA, war

‘The Lives of Stella Bain’ by Anita Shreve

Stella-Bain

Fiction – Kindle edition; Little, Brown Book Group; 272 pages; 2013.

I’ve read a lot of Anita Shreve in my time (12 books in total and all reviewed here), but it’s been a while since I last dipped into one of her novels — for no other reason than too many titles by other authors have been competing for my time. So, after recently finishing Anne Tyler’s rather marvellous A Spool of Blue ThreadI was in the mood for something similar and Shreve immediately sprang to mind.

I like Shreve’s work because it mixes journalistic realism with great storytelling: she tends to eschew literary flourishes for simple, yet elegant, prose. Her female characters are always strongly drawn. They’re often ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, which test them on all kinds of levels, whether that be physical, emotional or psychological. And she’s not afraid to explore moral or ethical dilemmas, or make her characters do unexpected — and sometimes unwise — things. She’s also very skilled at creating the intimate details of families.

A woman with amnesia

The Lives of Stella Bain, published a couple of years ago, is the author’s 18th novel. It’s set during World War One and tells the story of Stella Bain, an American who volunteers to work in the makeshift hospitals on the battlefields of France.

One day she wakes up in a hospital bed with no memory of who she is or why she’s there. She thinks her name is Stella Bain, but she cannot be sure, and she knows that she can drive an ambulance and is an exceptional artist. Everything else, however, is a mystery.

When given some leave, she heads to London convinced that the clue to her identity lies with the Admiralty. But not long after her arrival she begins to feel overwrought. She’s taken in by a young woman, Lily Bridge, who is married to Doctor Augustus Bridge, a surgeon who specialises in cranial surgery. He is also experimenting with “talk therapy” to help his patients.

This is all rather fortuitous for Stella, because Dr Bridge is able to help her, over quite a long period of time, to recover her past. When she finally recalls her true identity, she heads back to the US to re-establish contact with her family…

Far from predictable

This might all sound rather straightforward, or even predictable, but Shreve throws in a few curveballs by making Stella’s past history a little dubious — she once had an affair, for instance — and there are questions over her reasons for fleeing the States and heading to France long before the US had even joined the war. What is she running from — and why?

I’m not going to give away the answer to that here, obviously, but long-time Shreve fans may be interested to know that “Stella” is a character from one of Shreve’s earlier novels — the historical drama All He Ever Wanted — which adds an extra dimension to the story. Of course, it’s not necessary to have read that book, but it does provide a rather nice a-ha-penny-dropping moment if you have.

While the story could be viewed as being about a woman with amnesia, it actually goes a lot deeper than that: it’s about love and war; shell shock and emotional damage; psychotherapy and the fragile relationships between doctors and patients; what it’s like to work on the battlefields helping people who perhaps cannot be helped; and the importance of identity to our lives.  And mid-way through it turns into a rather intriguing court case that turns Stella’s story into a fight for something more important than herself.

All in all, I found this book a real treat. Yes, it’s too reliant on coincidence; yes, it occasionally veers worryingly close to sentimentality; and yes, the present tense narrative can be a little wearing. But on the whole it’s a well crafted story about a plucky woman refusing to give up her search for meaning when the odds are so clearly stacked against her. It’s also a fascinating insight into the effects of shell shock on a non-combatant, a subject I’ve not come across in fiction before.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Manybooks.net, Publisher, Setting, W. Somerset Maugham

‘The Hero’ by W. Somerset Maugham

The-hero

Fiction – Kindle edition; Manybooks.net; 211 pages; 1901.

A couple of years ago I read W. Somerset Maugham’s semi-autobiographical masterpiece Of Human Bondage and loved its mix of grim reality, heartbreak and poignancy. I didn’t review it at the time, but it did make my list of favourite books of 2013, and I made a mental note to explore more of his work.

The Hero is probably one of his lesser-known novels. First published in 1901 — fourteen years before Of Human Bondage — it explores social mores, class and morality in Victorian England. And yet there’s something quite modern about the story, which shows how a man’s outlook on life can be changed by worldly experience, and how inward-looking, parochial and claustrophobic small town life can be.

A war hero’s return

The hero of the title is James Parsons, a soldier awarded the Victoria Cross during the Boer War, who returns to his small village in Kent, England, feeling anything but heroic. Five years earlier, he had gone straight from Sandhurst to India and then on to the Cape. Before moving abroad he was betrothed to Mary, who has patiently waited for his return and become much-loved by her soon-to-be parents-in-law in the process.

But when Jamie comes back to England he realises that he has no feelings for Mary. He knows it is his duty to marry her  “and yet he felt he would rather die”. That’s because he is rather obsessed with a married woman he met in India — the wife of his best friend — and though nothing really happened between them he thinks of her all the time.

He paraded before himself, like a set of unread school-books, all Mary’s excellent qualities. He recalled her simple piety, her good-nature, and kindly heart; she had every attribute that a man could possibly want in his wife. And yet—and yet, when he slept he dreamed he was talking to the other; all day her voice sang in his ears, her gay smile danced before his eyes. He remembered every word she had ever said; he remembered the passionate kisses he had given her. How could he forget that ecstasy? He writhed, trying to expel the importunate image; but nothing served.

When he makes the decision to break off his engagement, Jamie unwittingly offends everyone in the village — including his parents — who had only days earlier given him a hero’s welcome.

They had set him on a pedestal, and then were disconcerted because he towered above their heads, and the halo with which they had surrounded him dazzled their eyes. They had wished to make a lion of James, and his modest resistance wounded their self-esteem; it was a relief to learn that he was not worth making a lion of. Halo and pedestal were quickly demolished, for the golden idol had feet of clay, and his late adorers were ready to reproach him because he had not accepted with proper humility the gifts he did not want. Their little vanities were comforted by the assurance that, far from being a hero, James was, in fact, distinctly inferior to themselves. For there is no superiority like moral superiority. A man who stands akimbo on the top of the Ten Commandments need bow the knee to no earthly potentate.

From there, the story twists and turns — will they get back together again? will Jamie track down the woman he truly loves? — as it winds its way towards an utterly shocking and heartbreaking ending.

Romance, war and morality

At its most basic level The Hero is a simple love story gone wrong, which confronts in no uncertain terms the 19th century idea that marriage was a contract between two people regardless of whether they loved one another or not.

On a deeper level, it explores Victorian morality — sexual restraint and a strict social code of conduct under a rigid class system — and shows how it’s not always clear-cut and leads to unhappy outcomes. Jamie’s stance, of doing the “right” thing for him and Mary, highlights the strength of character required to stand up for one’s own convictions in the face of total opposition.

War — and courage — is a metaphor that runs throughout the narrative. From Jamie’s time on the battlefield, he knows that sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the greater good — he applies those same lessons to his love life, even if that means he is seen as being cold and hard-hearted:

The general in battle now is afraid to strike because men may be killed. Sometimes it is worth while to lose men. When we become soldiers, we know that we cease to be human beings, and are merely the instruments for a certain work; we know that sometimes it may be part of a general’s deliberate plan that we should be killed. I have no confidence in a leader who is tender-hearted.

Overall, I really loved this book. The characters, albeit stereotyped, are just wonderful: so parochial and meddling, but with their hearts ultimately in the right place. And it’s written in such a humane way that even though some of them are dreadful busybodies and  full of their own self-importance, you admire their desire to protect Mary’s reputation — at whatever cost.

The Hero is an utterly tragic tale, but Maugham never manipulates his reader’s emotions for effect — instead he builds up a picture of Jamie’s moral dilemma, his inner-most turmoil and the courage required to plough his own furrow — and allows you to come to your own conclusions. It’s a style I like… and I’m delighted there’s so many more Maugham books left for me to explore…

Afghanistan, Atiq Rahimi, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Patience Stone’ by Atiq Rahimi

The Patience Stone
Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 136 pages; 2009. Translated from the French by Polly McLean.

If you want to read an important book about the subjugation of women, then put Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone on the top of your list. This novella, first published in France in 2008, won the Goncourt Prize that same year. It’s a rather shocking and deeply affecting read, and I know it will stay with me for a long time to come.

A bedroom confession

The Patience Stone is set in a single room in a war-torn city in Afghanistan. Outside, gun fire and explosions can be heard, along with the hurried footfalls of men carrying weapons, but inside the room it is largely quiet.

The room is small. Rectangular. Stifling, despite the paleness of the turquoise walls, and the two curtains patterned with migrating birds frozen mid-flight against a yellow and blue sky. Holes in the curtains allow the rays of the sun to reach the faded stripes of a kilim. At the far end of the room is another curtain. Green. Unpatterned. Concealing a disused door. Or an alcove.

In this room there is a man and a woman: the man is in a coma, with a bullet in his neck, and he is lying on his back under a dirty white sheet, his gaze fixed on the ceiling; the woman — his wife — sits beside him, feeding him through a tube, lubricating his eyes with drops and all the while praying for his recovery.

When the unnamed woman is not praying, she fills the time and the silence by talking to her husband — she treats him like a “patience stone” to which you:

“…tell all your problems to, all your struggles, all your pain, all your woes… to which you confess everything in your heart, everything you don’t dare tell anyone. You talk to it, and talk to it. And the stone listens, absorbing all your words, all your secrets, until one fine day it explodes. Shatters into tiny pieces.”

And what a confession this woman makes. Initially her voice is timid and afraid  — “Don’t abandon me, you’re all I have left” — but it grows increasingly angry as she comes to terms with the fact that the pair have been abandoned by her husband’s family. Only her aunt, an outcast herself, has stood by her and helps looks after the couple’s two young daughters.

But as the story progresses, this rage is then turned towards her husband, as she recalls their life together — the first three years of their arranged marriage were spent apart while he fought in the war — and the ways in which he has abused her — sexually, physically and emotionally — ever since their marriage was consummated.

Women as second-class citizens

On the whole, the woman’s tale is largely a sexual confession, where her needs have been wholly subjugated by her husband’s desires. She rails against the way she has been treated as nothing more than an object for her husband’s sexual gratification, then made to feel dirty and whore-like for daring to menstruate.

Her bold revelations might be heart-breaking, painful and courageous — they get increasingly more fevered and explosive as the story progresses, she’s definitely no puritan and there are hints she’s becoming unhinged — but they give voice to millions of women who have suffered at the hands of male brutality and patriarchal tribal customs throughout the centuries.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that what goes on in this room between the silent man and the uncensored woman is a microcosm of society in Afghanistan today, where women are second-class citizens, denied basic rights to education, health care and personal independence. For that reason, reading this novella filled me with a slow-burning fury, not dissimilar to the reaction I had when I read The Bookseller of Kabul in 2005.

A confronting read

There’s no doubt that The Patience Stone  shines a light on some confronting and challenging truths — about war, religion, men, sex and misogyny — but it’s done in a rather understated way.

Its gentle, stripped-back prose is possessed of astonishing power, perhaps because it reads like a play, complete with stage directions — “In the street we hear someone shouting Halt! And then a gunshot. And footsteps, fleeing” — and a dramatic monologue. I kept thinking it would make a terrific film because it felt so visual and emotional — and then I discovered it was made into one last year:


I’m not sure I’ll be rushing to rent it, but it’s definitely gone on to my wish list. If it’s anything like the book, it will be compelling, intimate — and unforgettable.

 

Author, Book review, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Publisher, Richard Bausch, Setting, Tuskar Rock Press, war

‘Peace’ by Richard Bausch

Peace

Fiction – hardcover; Tuskar Rock; 171 pages; 2009.

There’s a lot to be said for short, succinct books, especially if they deliver punches that feel more powerful — and more targeted — than might be achieved by novels of much longer length. It takes a particular skill to craft stories that have been honed to the bare minimum without losing the essence of what makes them special.

Richard Bausch, an American writer, has that rare talent to convey meaning and emotion in a tightly written narrative in which every word has to justify its existence. No surprise, then, that he’s largely known as a short story writer.

Peace, first published in 2009 — in the then new Atlantic imprint Tuskar Rock started by Colm Toibin — proves that in the right hands a story doesn’t have to be 500 pages long to have an impact. I came away from this one reeling not only with the drama of it, but also the beauty of Bausch’s lyrical, stripped-back prose hugely reminiscent at times of all those Irish writers I’ve come to know and love. On more than one occasion I was reminded of John McGahern — which is high praise indeed.

Dying days of war

The story is set in Italy at the tail end of the Second World War. A group of American soldiers on foot patrol are trying to locate the enemy, which is on the retreat.

The weather is atrocious, the soldiers are exhausted (some are ill with dysentery) and morale is low. When their sergeant commits a war crime — he deliberately shoots an unarmed woman because “she would have shot us all if she could” — those who witness it are too foot-sore and weary to report it. But this one act hangs over all who saw it, haunting their days and their nights.

Three of those witnesses — Marson, Asch and Joyner — are sent on a reconnaissance mission, up a steep mountain with an old Italian man as a guide. What ensues is a difficult journey that is fraught with danger, not only from treacherous terrain and freezing rain and snow, but German snipers hidden in the woods.

Stress and fear

Under these stressful and challenging conditions the soldiers’ fears are heightened and yet they cannot forget what they saw the day before, discussing it over and over amongst themselves — was the act justified? should they forget it or report it? are they complicit in the crime? — which only serves to deepen the ructions and tensions between them.

This is a useful device for Bausch to examine each man’s character, to fill in their back stories and to explore their own individual morals and beliefs. What emerges is a carefully drawn portrait of a trio of soldiers, fighting on the same side, but all with different prejudices, opinions, fears and foibles.

“You guys are Christians,” Asch said. “You believe in an angry God who’s interested in payback. Right? ‘Vengeance is mine’ — all that. Well, we’re gonna pay for yesterday. I think we might be paying for it now.”
“You’re so full of shit,” Joyner said. “Let go of it, will you? It’s our religion so we’re the ones who’ll go to hell, not you.”
“I’m not even going to answer that,” Asch said. “Jesus, Joyner. The way your mind works.”
“It’s stupid to argue about it here,” Marson said.

Creeping sense of unease

As the narrative progresses, the reader begins to share the soldiers’ growing sense of unease and paranoia: will they be ambushed by the enemy? Is the Italian man as innocent as he purports to be? Is their mission a complete waste of time?

Peace explores all kinds of issues assorted with war, not least the fine line between courage and fear, and the temptation to behave in ways that would be out of keeping under normal, peace-time circumstances. It highlights the immense task that young, largely immature, men had to endure: Asch and Joyner are barely out of their teens, and Marson, who is their corporal, is only in his mid-20s and yet here they are confronting death — the likelihood of theirs, the prospect of killing others — on a daily basis. Bausch never makes them heroic, but instead shows their innermost struggles to make sense of a world gone mad. There is fear, foreboding and anger on almost every page, but there is also tenderness and heartbreak as each man determines what it is to be good in the face of so much horror.

Despite being less than 180 pages, this is an emotionally intelligent book dealing with weighty themes. It brims with tension and moral complexity but is dotted with lovely moments of quiet reflection that make it an astonishing, curiously gripping and heartfelt read.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Iraq, Kevin Powers, literary fiction, Publisher, Sceptre, Setting, USA, war

‘The Yellow Birds’ by Kevin Powers

Yellow-birds

Fiction – hardcover; Sceptre; 240 pages; 2012.

You’ve probably heard a lot about this book already. It’s been reviewed here, there and everywhere. And just a couple of weeks ago it won the Guardian First Book Award. It is, quite frankly, an astonishingly good first novel. It is not only a devastating account of the Iraq war, it is a compelling exploration of the aftermath on those who return home shell-shocked and psychologically damaged.

A promise that can’t be kept

The author, Kevin Power, served in the US Army in 2004 and 2005, where he was deployed as a machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar in Iraq. The Yellow Birds might be fiction, but I expect quite a lot of it is rooted in fact.

The first person narrator is  John Bartle, 21, who befriends Daniel Murphy, 18, when the pair of them are in training at Fort Dix.  For no other reason than they are both from Richmond, Virginia, Bartle takes “Murph” under his wing, a bit like an older brother would, and then makes a promise to Murphy’s mother that will haunt him for the rest of his life.

“And you’re going to look out for him, right?” she asked.
“Um, yes, ma’am.”
“And Daniel, he’s doing a good job?”
“Yes, ma’am, very good.” How the hell should I know, lady? I wanted to say. I barely knew the guy. Stop. Stop asking me questions. I don’t want to be accountable. I don’t know anything about this.
“John, promise me that you’ll take care of him.”
“Of course.” Sure, sure, I thought. Now you reassure me and I’ll go back and go to bed.
“Nothing’s gonna happen to him, right? Promise that you’ll bring him home to me.”
“I promise,” I said. “I promise I’ll bring him home to you.”

Of course, it’s glaringly obvious that Murph is not going to return home from war, but the manner in which he dies and the events leading up to his death are far from straightforward.

I could say the same about the structure of this book, which swings backwards and forwards in time between Bartle’s pre-war life, his tour of duty and his repatriation. This fragmented and disorientating format serves to mirror Bartle’s mindset — it is an ingenious way to tell a story that is very much focused on the psychological fallout of war.

This means The Yellow Birds is not an easy read. If you like linear narratives, you may well find this one confusing, although it is broken into clearly signposted sections — “September 2004: Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Iraq” and “November 2005: Richmond, Virginia”, for instance — to help guide your way.

A confronting and often disturbing read

The Yellow Birds is also confronting — as you would expect from a story about war. But even though I’ve read countless books of this nature (and grisly true crime), there were many scenes depicted here that I found particularly gruesome and disturbing (a booby-trapped body on a bridge, for example) and even throwaway lines — “The bodies were hidden in alleys, were found in bloating piles in the troughs of the hills outside the cities, the faces puffed and green, allergic now to life” — possessed the devastating power to shock.

But it was the detached, numb-with-grief voice of Bartle upon his return to the US that I found most chilling. This glimpse into a returned soldier’s mind, unable to deal with the future based on what had happened in his past, is what I will remember most about this harrowing, heartbreaking tale. His loneliness, his despair, his anger — and his embarrassment — resonates off the page.

The Yellow Birds has been compared to Erich Maria Remarque’s classic Great War tale All Quiet on the Western Front — and with good reason. This is not a book that glorifies war or makes heroes out of those who take part; instead it illuminates the futility (and predictability), and leaves you with the burning question, what is the point of so much loss of life?