Published in The Northwest Review of Books, June 2017
A wafer-thin novel from the point of view of a young man living with the aftermath of Pinochet's regime.
Published in The Northwest Review of Books, June 2017
Local author Mark Pomeroy’s absorbing and humane first novel THE BRIGHTWOOD STILLNESS is about a cluster of things: the legacy of war for those who fight and those fought over; about the friendship of two men across cultural barriers; and about Portland.
Nate Davis and Hieu Tran Nguyen are best friends and teachers at a North Portland public high school. Both are the kinds of teachers we all want for our kids: dedicated, fair and sometimes inspired despite the roughness of the school and of some of the kids. But Nate and Hieu come from very different backgrounds. Nate is a local boy, son of a single mom pregnant at 17, father vanished before he was born: he’s a nice guy still not finished growing up.
In contrast, Hieu was born in an isolated Vietnamese hamlet suffused with tradition and the spirit of his ancestors. He was just a boy when bombs dropped inexplicably on his village, dismembering his father and destroying his world. He grew up fast, developing the tough strength of a survivor.
The friendship between Nate and Hieu has grown through the years through post-work games of racquetball with a few beers to follow. Through Hieu, Nate has come to know and love Hieu’s sister Ling. The Vietnam conflict has already had a major impact on Nate’s life as well: his uncle Sammy, who had served as surrogate father, enlisted to fight in Vietnam. When he returned two years later, he had been become a stranger who shortly vanished for good, the only subsequent contact being postcards from Bali.
The novel’s action is propelled by two incidents at school: an angry ex-student has knifed Nate in the parking lot, and two girls accuse Hieu of touching them inappropriately. Nate, feeling vulnerable and questioning whether he can continue teaching, takes a leave, fleeing the school to search for his uncle in Asia, and hoping with distance to resolve his feelings for Ling. Hieu is even more shaken, the accusation against him sending shock waves through his entire family. He hunkers down in his house, his journey interior, as he remembers the war and all that brought him to the present.
Pomeroy wonderfully portrays the complex Hieu and the “tenderly crafted amalgam” of Vietnam and America that is his house and his life. His mother Hoa barricades herself in her room in front of a shrine to the ancestors, suspecting that her son is not just a victim in the situation at school, while his rebellious son Vo wants only to dress in black and escape the house to hang out with friends.
And Pomeroy paints a Portland that is a terrific corrective to the currently prevailing twee Portlandia image of tattoed baristas and organic greens. He reminds us that Portland is, also, a town where many families dine on bologna and corn chips. Where urban high schools struggle to serve kids already damaged by their own struggle to survive. And where cheap hotels on Sandy Boulevard house newly-arrived immigrants, uncertain what to make of this strange and rainy place.
In the opening sentences of Colm Toibin’s new novel, a neighbor offers unwanted sympathy in a slightly bossy tone to the newly widowed Nora Webster: it’s a slightly off-center opening perfectly illustrative of Toibin’s prose style (subtle, understated) and the true subject of the novel. NORA WEBSTER is yet another story hung on the arc of grief (a husband/wife/child dies young; how will the wife/husband/parent move forward?), but in Toibin’s hands, this structure serves more as the doorway into a quietly moving study of a complex character and her ambiguous feelings toward the web of family and neighbors surrounding her in the small town of Enniscorthy in southeast Ireland. The time: the 1970s, before the onslaught of electronic media eroded the isolation of such places.
Enniscorthy is where Toibin was born and raised, which readers of a number of his previous books (BROOKLYN, THE BLACKWATER LIGHTSHIP, THE HEATHER BLAZING) will already be well acquainted with, and which Toibin knows as intimately as Joyce knew Dublin.
Toibin captures the paradox of Nora’s grief: she can’t bear to talk about the loss of her husband Maurice anymore, yet nothing else has any importance to her. Spikey and irritable, Nora is very human, entirely believable. Only gradually does the reader learn, as she comes to learn about herself, that the people around her have always seen her as difficult, “a demon” her sister calls her, and that in the selfishness of her grief she’s been oblivious to the needs of her boys, who are also hurting.
Nora is surrounded most closely by her formidable Aunt Josie, a brother- and sister-in-law, and two sisters. Beyond crowd neighbors and townspeople who have known her since childhood, who she knows will comment on her every action. These include the nun Sister Thomas, a sort of preternatural “fixer,” whom people turn to in need, who tells Nora, “(Enniscorthy) is a small town and it will guard you.” Still, Nora chafes at the strictures of the community, where she is sure she will be judged even more harshly for buying a phonograph (a waste of money!) than for wearing a red raincoat. But the community holds surprises for Nora.
Toibin has written bolder books, most recently THE TESTAMENT OF MARY, a bitter and biting novella written from the point of view of the mother of Christ, and THE MASTER, a recreation of the later years of Henry James. All his books share
precise, restrained prose, which can, in its simplicity, reach elegance. In NORA WEBSTER there is no drama writ large, no fireworks. Rather Nora’s life is like most of our lives: an old unkindness comes home to roost; standing up to a bully gives one a surge of power; one thing leads to another. Some will say of this book that not much happens, but over the course of its three-year timespan Nora learns about herself and her children, and surprises herself making choices Maurice would never have made. Life does, indeed, go on, and we are enriched.
Sea of Hooks is a terrifyingly beautiful novel by Portland resident Lindsay Hill. I can’t think of the last time a book wrapped itself around me with such instant intensity, pulling me into another space, another life. One so steeped in pain from the first paragraph—yet I couldn’t put it down.
Christopher, the protagonist, is as unique in his way and as endearing as the autistic protagonist of the same name in Christopher Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Hill’s Christopher starts as a small boy living in a kind of patrician-manqué milieu in San Francisco in the 1950s and ‘60s, in a household of secrets and silences. His fearful, brittle, and controlling mother communicates with her son by spot-grilling him on contract bridge strategy. His father is hard-drinking, there but not-there. Christopher lives on tiptoe, afraid any aberration will set off his mother, whom he must at all cost protect.
Under the shell of normalcy he carefully constructs, his inner life is imaginative and strange beyond measure: knife-people sharpen themselves beneath his bed at night; his nights are awash with “other people’s dreams;” “messengers” in the form of detritus from other peoples’ lives speak to him. “Christopher tried to read what was written on the surface of the messengers . . .but everything moved around like curtains lifting in wind in front of windows, and . . . it was more as if the messengers were magnets pulling everything through him as if he occupied a giant space where tornadoes lived . . . .” His efforts to contain inner chaos strain him to near fracture.
Interwoven with the life of the child Christopher is a personal pilgrimage Christopher takes to the Buddhist monasteries of Bhutan as a young man seeking solace and answers to his life’s questions.
Images of fire and ice flare and freeze on the pages, which are also littered with images of glass and shattering. Small Christopher lies in bed awake at night suffering from an earache but can’t call for help because he’d been told “never to come into his parent’s room at night . . . . (so) he would lie in the absolute silence of the flat and waiting to cry out was like holding a rock above a sheet of glass, second after second knowing you will drop it.”
The narrative reflects this brokenness: it is written in many discrete units, from a line to a few paragraphs, which at first seem random, as if the story had been torn into confetti, thrown to the winds, then assembled. Yet read on: the assemblage is artful, creating its own poetic patterns and rhythms which pull the reader forward, and rarely has form so perfectly expresssed content.
Hill excels at creating characters wounded, evil, and sympathetic alike, in all their weird specificity, and there are mysteries in SEA OF HOOKS spinning lines of tension that pull you through. Yet this is also a deeply metaphysical book. Hill’s meditations on memory and the relation of past to present are as deep (and a lot more concise) than Proust’s. But it is the ancient and mysterious world of Buddhism that saturates the narrative. The Buddhist view of the world as a realm of suffering perfectly mirrors Christopher’s experience. The novel’s central parable is told by the Buddhist teacher, Patrul Rinpoche, as an image of compassion (which, curiously, first appears in a dream of Christopher’s): a mother runs along the bank of a rapid river, keeping up with her drowning child, running along the bank because she has no arms. This enigmatic koan threads through the novel, surfacing at intervals, gathering meaning with each appearance.
And the language! Lindsay Hill is a poet, author of six books of poetry. He writes with the exquisite precision and economy of a poet, while also stretching words and sentences to convey the near impossible. Here’s one “unit” in its entirety:
“You are trying to go home in your speaking, in the wagon of spells, in the cart heaped with straw, pulled by the great horses of language and longing.”
There are linguistic payoffs on every page. Hill can also be exceedingly funny. Consider this: “Clabert . . . was what the community of decent people would commonly call a feckless, vacillating, worthless drunk, whose sloshy nature and intermittent acerbic wit created the overall impression of a swamp with a single snake. . . . Confiding a secret in Clabert was like putting a cup of coffee on the roof of your car and driving off.”
Unbelievably, this is Hill’s first novel. More believable when you know he labored on it for 20 years; it reflects the depth and richness of a life’s work and love. Recognition has begun: it has just been included in Publisher’s Weekly 10 Best Books for 2013, one of only five novels. May it find the passionate readership it deserves.
Guilt and Responsibility in the Post 9/11 Landscape: Forgetfulness, by Ward Just The Oregonian, September 24, 2006
Four hostile men carry an injured woman down a rough path in the Pyrenees. The men believe Florette, the woman, to be American, which increases their resentment, but she is French, though married to Thomas, an American ex-pat painter. Florette and Thomas live in a nearby village; she had just stepped out after Sunday lunch for a walk when she fell and broke her ankle. She doesn’t understand the men’s hostility, or why, before they make it down the mountain, they slit her throat.
Thus the reader of Ward Just’s haunting novel Forgetfulness plunges into the world of Thomas Railles the day his wife is murdered. The Pyrenees have long been threaded by routes trod by smugglers and outlaws of various kinds; but in this post-9/11 world Thomas’s two friends from the realm of American espionage quickly discover that the killers were Moroccan free-lance terrorists.
Thomas is not altogether a stranger to that realm. His friends Bernhard and Russ, whom he’s known since their childhood in the Midwest, were recruited into covert operations out of college, and they have drawn Thomas into their work from time to time. His involvement was peripheral, innocent on the face of it, and he’s never been informed of the context or consequences of his minor acts. Still, Thomas may have played a part in the betrayal of an elderly Spaniard he admired whose portrait he painted on behalf of his friends. Thomas quit his involvement but carries a sense of responsibility for the man’s murder. Thomas must contemplate whether Florette’s death is retribution for a previous act of his.
Forgetfulness has dramatic moments, and it has been compared to work by Le Carre, but Just’s focus is more subtle. In counterpoint to Thomas’ efforts to come to terms with Florette’s death, as well as his later chance to participate in the torture of her murderers, is the story of St. John Granger, another ex-pat in the village who went AWOL from the British army during the appalling carnage of the battle of Thiepval in World War I. His relatives judge him harshly, but Thomas does not. An angry and wounded American 9/11survivor deliberately picks fights with anyone he can in a village cafe, as if justified in seeking vengeance anytime, anywhere. Thus the author refracts and reflects our responses to horrific acts: fury, panic, the desire for vengeance, bewilderment, self-righteousness, guilt, even the desire for forgetfulness. Yet the juxtapositions ask us to look beyond these gut reactions to the cycles of mutual destruction that gave them birth. What, in the end, is a moral response?
The author of fourteen previous novels on the intersection of the political/historical and the private, as well as a former war correspondent, Just is well qualified to tackle his subject. He has produced a wise and surprisingly lovely book which, despite its title, will not easily be forgotten.
After her husband Peter is killed in a car accident, grief-stricken Yvonne flies alone to Datça, on the coast of Turkey, where Yvonne and Peter honeymooned twenty five years before. The ‘widow putting her life back together’ has become a staple of women’s fiction, but it would be a mistake to think Vendela Vida’s new book is another ho-hum example. The plot here is almost the reverse, Yvonne’s process closer to disintegration. She arrives in a place that is no longer what she thought—beach strewn with garbage, shops shut, restaurants tawdry--nor can she recapture her memories. She doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t understand the world around her. Her control slips. An undertow of menace tugs, but how real are the dangers, how much are they a projection of her vulnerability?
The Lovers is the third novel by Vida in what she has described as a trilogy about rage and violence. The first was And Now You Can Go, in which a young American woman, after being held up at knife point, heads to the Philippines; in Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, an American woman responds to her father’s death by traveling to Lapland to solve the mystery of her heritage; now The Lovers, where a grieving woman lands in Turkey. All three tales do involve rage and violence—in unexpected ways. What is also striking is how, in each, Vida employs unusual foreign locales with sensitivity to explore truths about those countries and cultures as well as her heroines.
This slim volume is remarkable for how much story it packs, testifying to the economy and skill of the writing. As Yvonne meets her landlord, Ali; his separated wife Őzlem; a surly waiter; Ahmet, a boy playing with shells on the beach; and others, she peals back the layers of her grief to face the betrayals (many from coping with their addiction-prone daughter Aurelia) in a marriage their acquaintances called ‘perfect.’ “I came to let go of grief and lies,” Yvonne says, and in the course of some odd and some terrifying events along the Aegean Coast, she does.
Vida is an unobtrusively skillful storyteller, building many small pungent scenes, including a standoff between Yvonne and the hostile waiter, or when Yvonne dances with the young Aurelia at a wedding and is flooded with love for her daughter. Dry humor lightens darker moments, as do wonderfully-written observations. As Ozlem hesitates before divulging a secret, “Even the air between them seemed to be dented, waiting to be straightened again.”
The Lovers reminds me strongly of Mary Lee Settle’s 1978 National Book Award winning novel Blood Ties, which explores the relationship of a group of ex-pats, particularly one American woman, with locals in a nearby town on the Turkish coast. In her ambitious work, Settle employs a bigger canvas and treats its Turkish characters more fully. But she shares with Vida a clear-eyed view of how Americans are often perceived abroad, and why. Both books deserve a wide reading.
Afghanistan is very far away, and the news from there is almost always bad. Yet the U.S. is currently an invasive force in this distant land, mired in its fractured, bloody politics in a way that, many believe, will be harder and more costly to extricate ourselves from than Iraq will be.
Pakistani author Nadeem Aslam has written a heart-breaking new novel, The Wasted Vigil, exploring the current human landscape there. Fittingly, this important book is not so much a tragedy as a compendium of the tragedies that is Afghanistan today: although the Russian invasion and Taliban rule are passed, the effects still reverberate through the lives of the survivors, and the U.S. is currently a presence. Each outside force interacts with the competing warlords who remain the local power structure. All are motivated by single-minded self-interest; the Afghani people are their pawns, at best.
The Wasted Vigil makes this real through a cast of varied and scarred characters. Marcus, an elderly British doctor married Qatrina, an Afghani woman (also a doctor) years before and lives in a house outside the town of Usha where much of the story takes place. Qatrina is dead and their daughter Zameen long disappeared, though Marcus still searches for Zameen’s lost son. Lara, a young Russian woman, finds her way to Marcus as she searches for her brother, said to have gone AWOL from the Russian army. CIA operative David met Zameen in Peshawar, years after she disappeared from Usha, and fell in love with her. Young Afghani Casa grew up an orphan in a training camp for martyrs under the tutelage of a local warlord. When Casa is injured, David rescues him and brings him back to recover in Usha, without knowing his identity. This novel deserves as wide an audience as the bestselling The Kite Runner, though the narrative in The Wasted Vigil is more diffuse. The stories of its characters are braided backwards and forwards in time, gradually revealing how each arrived at the house in Usha, as suspense builds around what will happen to them there.
Aslam balances the brutality they experience with a lush prose style studded with glowing and remarkably beautiful images, a contrast reminiscent of Russian writer Andrei Makine’s Dreams of My Russian Summers. Aslam’s writing is particularly luminous when describing the representational paintings which cover the walls of the house which Marcus saved from the Taliban by covering them with mud, and the enormous head of a Buddha in an underground perfume factory. Aslam suggests no solutions for this troubled country, and no easy redemption for its people. Yet these works of art, of the people’s culture, though battered and abused, survive.
After reading this book, Afghanistan will never feel so far away again, nor will you be able to read news of the ongoing conflicts there without flinching at the human cost. Aslam’s book brings that alive brilliantly.
Colum McCann is one of those rare writers who can weave the intimate and incandescent details of a particular life effectively into the grand sweep of history. As in his prior novels Song Dogs, This Side of Brightness, and Dancer, he does it again brilliantly in Zoli, his latest work based loosely on the life of a Polish Romani poet Papusza, who lived from 1910 to 1987.
Zoli is a girl born in a company of harp-playing Romani who wander the byways of Slovakia before World War II. “Gypsies” to outsiders, the Romani are rarely represented in fiction; if they are, they are often vilified or romanticized. McCann does neither. Instead, he illuminates both the harshness and beauty of these fiercely- independent people who, to this day, largely reject assimilation and play by their own rules.
When Zoli is six, the rest of their group is herded onto a frozen lake by fascists who set fires around the ice and wait, with guns, for it to melt. Zoli survives alone with her grandfather. Unusual for a Romani, he admires Lenin and Marx and knows how to read. Even more unusual, he sees that Zoli is taught. Along with Zoli’s natural talent for composing songs and poems, her literacy determines her fate, after the terror of war reduces their lives to the most marginal of existences in caves clawed out of mud, subsisting on frozen potatoes stolen from the fields.
After the war, Zoli emerges as a singer. She is discovered by poet and socialist activist Martin Stransky and his sidekick, Stephan Swann. In the optimistic early days of the construction of People’s Socialism, they bring her into the public eye as the “perfect proletarian poet,” and the “new gypsy.”
Thus, unwittingly, Zoli is made into a representative of her people--a people who chose to disappear rather than participate in any one else’s ideas of governance--just at the time when idealism and optimism are corrupted. Swann betrays Zoli, just as socialism betrays the Romani, who are brutally trapped by a regime whose officials burn the wheels of their wagons to end their roaming, then forcibly install them in drab city high rises. Though she fights to prevent this, Zoli is blamed and banished from the tight-knit community which is all she’s ever known.
Yet she survives and, after harrowing flight, finds love and a haven in which to rebuild her life, allowing the author to bring the story up to 2003. This strategy lets him touch on what has changed for the Romani and what has not, brilliantly preventing the reader from dismissing the enigma of their plight as something comfortably in the past.
Zoli is a realistic and harsh story written in luminous prose, filled with precisely beautiful descriptions, as when a bureaucrat is described as “tall, gray-haired… with an air of pencil sharpeners about him,” or when the child Zoli, observing the sky after the drowning of her family, sees “stars like clawmarks.” McCann has written a terrific portrait of a woman, a people, and a seventy-year slice of European history.
In Michael Ondaatje’s new novel, Divisadero, one of the characters, Anna, ponders why she loves catching up with an old friend while traveling at night. She thinks, “It’s like a villanelle, this inclination of going back to events in our past, the way the villanelle’s form refuses to move forward in linear development, circling instead at those familiar moments of emotion.”
This is a fair description of the book itself, and one of the several places where Anna seems to speak for the author, who started as a poet, more than usually explicitly. Divisadero itself, as Anna later explains, while being the name of the San Francisco street she lives on, also means “a point from which you can look far into the distance. It is what I do with my work, I suppose. I look into the distance for those I have lost, so that I see them everywhere.” Loss, and the potency of the past, and those known and loved then are the themes this book returns to time and again.
Briefly, the book divides into two sections. One is the story of Anna and Claire, brought up as sisters in rural Petaluma by a taciturn father who has also taken in an orphaned boy, Cooper. When the girls are sixteen this assembled family is exploded by a violent incident which drives them apart and, as Anna says, sets fire to her life.
Jump to years later: Anna works as a historian, studying other people’s pasts while hiding from her own. Claire is a legal investigator, probing others’ present lives, but emotionally disengaged. Cooper, a gambler, is seduced by a woman living in the eternal now of drugs; their encounter leaves him severely damaged, memory destroyed--barely human, Ondaatje suggests.
Anna provides the bridge to the second story when she travels to rural south-central France to research the life of poet Lucien Segura, whose story is interspersed with hers: pre-World War II years of peasant life, the horrors of the war, his later flight from a failed marriage deeper into the countryside.
Both stories are intriguing, but how does the second story amplify the first? This is the question readers will debate. Of all Ondaatje’s fictional leaps, it is the widest. The theme of the weight of the past echoes across the divide, but is it sufficient to unify such disparate narratives into one?
For me the familiar pleasures of reading Ondaatje largely suffice: his gorgeous evocation of places and their histories, fascination with human work and the act of creation, the poetic precision of his language. As usual, he fractures the narrative, skipping in time and space and between characters, inviting the reader to engage with the text to put the pieces together.
This is vintage Ondaatje, more reminiscent of The Skin of the Lion and The English Patient than the more recent Anil’s Ghost. Yet Divisadero struck me as simultaneously more obscure and more explicit than any of these. Perhaps because of the disunity of the two stories, he is more overt about its themes—you feel him throwing them as lines over the chasm. If the echoes had been stronger and thus there’d been less need to explain, this might have been a great book. As it is, it is still very good Ondaatje, which is saying quite a lot.
Sometimes a book comes along that breaks the mold, that starts somewhere original and goes on from there. Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier, which has sold phenomenally in Europe, is such a book: ambitious and idiosyncratic, demanding and rewarding. It’s faintly reminiscent of that other recent European import, Carlos Zafón’s Shadow of the Wind, sharing with it a memorable and quasi-mystical opening scene, with the addition of chunks of philosophy á la Mann’s Magic Mountain.
A scholar, a colorless man, teaches dead languages at a Swiss lycée. One morning on the way to work he spies a woman teetering on a bridge in a downpour. She reads a letter, crumples it, throws it over, and seems about to follow. His presence stops her. She leans down, takes a pen from a pocket to write a phone number from the letter on his forehead lest she forget it. They speak French, but it’s not her native language. “What’s your mother tongue?” he asks. “Português,” she responds.
That encounter and the word, the sound of it and the romance of the place he’s never been, awaken the linguist, Gregorius Mundus, from a life of sleepwalking. In a shop, he discovers a book of philosophic speculations by a Portuguese doctor, Amadeu de Almeida Prado, which speaks directly to his soul, as if written for him alone. Mundus leaves everything and departs for Lisbon in search of the author.
Night Train to Lisbon is the tale of Mundus’ journey into the life of the charismatic and self-doubting aristocrat Prado, who, it turns out, is dead. Mundus searches out those who knew him best, encountering, among others, Prado’s sister Adriana, frozen in her devotion to him; Joâo Eça, a torture victim and fellow member of the resistance against the fascism of the Salazar dictatorship; Prado’s ‘sacred friend’ Jorge O’Kelly, a working class pharmacist; and Estefânia Espinhosa, the beautiful woman with a photographic memory who came between the two friends—complex, fascinating characters all. As Mundus comes to know Prado through them and is transformed by the relationships that spring up, his inquiry helps them resolve their complicated feelings for the man.
Prado’s philosophical musings are dispersed through the pages, and through them the reader also encounters this restless iconoclast. In his struggle to become himself,
he muses on the significance of language, the gift of friendship, the existence of God, the possibility of personal transformation and of making moral choices in impossible situations.
Does this sound indigestible? I hope not. For me, this beautiful book, philosophical inquiry included, lit a fuse that snaked its way into my consciousness, sending out sparklers of light that made me feel more alive, more awake, for days. I hated to see it come to an end. What more can one ask?
The Brightwood Stillness
by Mark Pomeroy
by Colm Toibin
Sea of Hooks
by Lindsay Hill
by Ward Just
by Vendela Vida
The Wasted Vigil,
by Nadeem Aslam
by Colum McCann
by Michael Ondaatje
Night Train to Lisbon,
by Pascal Mercier
by J.M. G. LeClezio
The Tiger's Wife
by Tea Obreht
by Barbara Kingsolver
by Chris Cleave