review · historical fiction

The Letter Bearer, by Robert Allison

Perhaps the worst thing that ever happened to the protagonist of Robert Allison’s Homeric novel, The Letter Bearer, is that he wasn’t killed outright when he rode over a mine somewhere in the Libyan desert. Death is everywhere in this tale. The rider’s wounds might kill him. If they don’t, then the Afrika Korps, the Italians, or the Senussi might get him. If he manages to evade the Axis or the locals, the desert has a good chance of killing him through heat and dehydration.

In hypnotic prose, things go from bad to worse to abysmal for our protagonist. As soon as he regains consciousness, the rider (so-called because he was riding a motorcycle when it hit that mine) is discovered by a couple of Afrika Korps soldiers. One of them steals his dog tags as a good luck charm and the other takes his watch. We only learn later how our protagonist lost the insignia on his uniform. The rider lost his memory in the explosion and now he has no chance of learning who he is unless he has the extraordinary luck of being found by someone who knows who he is.

After being left for dead by the Germans, the rider is found again—this time by a small group of British deserters. One of them who has a bit of medical knowledge patches him up, removing the shrapnel buried in his ribs. But all is not well. The deserters are not about to take the rider back to the British Army. These guys are on the run from everyone. All they want is to find somewhere relatively safe and well enough supplied to see out the war.

The rider faces physical challenges as he heals, mental challenges as he struggles to recover his memory, and emotional as he works his way through the sack of mail he had with him since the mine explosion. He has a vague hope that he might be the author of one of the letters and that reading them might trigger his memory. He reads these letters so often while trying to force his memory that he begins to imagine himself meeting the wife of one of the letter writers.

The Letter Bearer follows the rider through his long Odyssey. He faces hardship after hardship, dreadful bad lucky, language barriers, and more as he tries to find his way back. It’s hard to pin down details of when and where this book takes place other than it’s somewhere in the middle of the North African Campaign in Libya. Some readers may be annoyed at the vagueness, but I think it was incredibly effective at creating the experience of a man who finds himself defenseless in the middle of a war zone. It also helps capture the chaos of war from a soldier’s point of view, who only wants to survive and doesn’t know the big picture. This is an intriguing, original war novel.

British light tanks in the Western Desert Campaign, 1940. (Image via Wikicommons)
historical fiction · literary fiction · review

An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World reminded me just how much I love unreliable narrators who are unreliable because they have deliberately disconnected themselves from the world around them. Others can see the disconnection, but they can’t. These kinds of characters allow me to do two of my favorite things. First, I get two stories the for the price of one between what the narrator is telling me and what’s actually happening. Second, I get to psychoanalyze the narrator. They’re not lying to the reader because they’re a criminal. They’re lying to themselves for a reason I get to discover for myself. It’s an English major’s delight.

By 1948, Masuji Ono has retired from his work as a successful painter. He lives in a wonderful house. His oldest daughter is married with a child and his younger daughter is in the middle of marriage negotiations. He lost his son in the war but, on the whole, Ono is satisfied with his life. It’s only over the course of the book that we learn just how much Ono is ignoring and distorting about his own history—especially his role in creating propaganda for the Imperial Japanese government before and during World War II.

An Artist of the Floating World unspools over the course of about eighteen months. We join Ono as he and his younger daughter, Noriko, are in the early stages of marriage negotiations with the Saito family. As part of these negotiations, the Onos are investigated to learn more about the finances, background, and so on. Ono is not worried. His older daughter, Setsuko, however, has some worries about what the investigation might turn up. Her comments about what the Saitos might find out about him bother Ono enough that he starts to look up people he knew before the war. He meets with the man who helped him sell propagandistic paintings. He tries but fails to meet with the student he wronged, the one who ended up imprisoned for years for anti-Imperial activities.

Flowers of Edo, by Utamaro, an artist who is referenced in this novel. (Image via Wikicommons)

Ono strongly reminds me of Stevens, the protagonist of The Remains of the Day. Both characters have a firm vision of who they are and what they want to be. Stevens wanted to be the epitome of a butler and that’s what he turned himself into, at the cost of living an ordinary life. Ono wants to be a respected artist, looked up to by younger generations of artists. He is also deeply nostalgic for the way life and society used to be before the war. Several times during An Artist of the Floating World, Ono remarks on how a couple of the younger characters have condemned the actions of some Japanese leaders and business men during the war. Even though some of these men were convicted of war crimes, Ono always says that things were complicated “back then” or that what happened wasn’t all that bad. Ono has either turned a blind eye to the atrocities committed by Imperial soldiers or has kept himself deliberately ignorant. When he does come close to thinking that maybe his own propaganda work was wrong, Ono rationalizes away any culpability. He’s so smooth about it it’s breathtaking.

An Artist of the Floating World itself also reminds me of The Remains of the Day. Even though they are both set on opposite sides of the world, they are set in very hierarchical and reserved societies. The characters in An Artist of the Floating World are highly deferential and oblique in their criticisms. It took me a few dozen pages to learn how to read this book. Once I got a handle on the dialogue, I realized that this book seems to have more subtext than actual text. It is very much a joy to read for those of us who like to take books apart to see how they work, like me. I strongly recommend this book for English majors and anyone who loved The Remains of the Day and are looking for something similar.

historical fiction · mystery · review

The Wolf and the Watchman, by Niklas Natt och Dag

Trigger warning for extreme violence and sexual sadism.

About two years ago, I heard someone say that they didn’t like a book because it put thoughts in her head that she didn’t want polluting hear brain. After reading The Wolf and the Watchman, by Niklas Natt och Dag, I now know exactly what she felt like. This novel is almost relentlessly vile, as character after character is shown to be violent, duplicitous, or sadistic. There are almost no good people in this book and lots of very bad things happen to just about everyone. It is as if someone took the author aside and said, look, people like dark books, so go and write the darkest, grimmest, nastiest things your brain can come up with. That’s what reading The Wolf and the Watchman is like.

The novel begins with two children hauling Stockholm watchman, Mikel Cardell (violent), out of his drunk and take him to a body found in an open sewer. Cardell retrieves the body, only to find that it is entirely limbless, with its eyes, tongue, and teeth removed. When dying former lawyer-turned-detective Cecil Winge (manipulative) finds out about the case, he wants to solve it and asks Cardell to be his partner. Once Cardell is beaten up in a sure sign that the pair are on to something and they both discover the incredibly awful fate of their murder victim, we are taking on a long side trip to learn about the last months of Kristopher Blix (a naive coward who really will do anything to save his skin) and learn how Anna Stina Knapp became a woman willing to do shockingly awful things to stay out of the workhouse.

The side trips are relevant, but it takes a while to understand how they’re related to the overall plot—especially Anna Stina’s story. It’s only in the last quarter of the book that we rejoin Cardell and Winge for a series of hairpin plot twists and even more appalling revelations as they finally discover who their victim was and how he came to be floating in sewage.

I was drawn to The Wolf and the Watchman because of its setting. I clearly am a sucker for places and times I haven’t yet visited in fiction. This book was also described as The Alienist in Sweden and I just couldn’t resist. I wish I had. This book is not among the best of the Scandinoir tradition; it’s not even among the second best. The characters give unnatural speeches. The motive behind the main crime is implausible and convoluted. And all of this is on top of almost 400 pages of relentless inhumanity. I don’t recommend it at all.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, for review consideration.

historical fiction · literary fiction · review

Home, by Leila S. Chudori

Leila S. Chudori’s Home (translated by John H. McGlynn) circles around a black day in Indonesian history, while not revealing much about what happened on September 30, 1965. Instead, it details the long aftermath of the violence and the violent, repressive crackdown on communism through the lives of Dimas Suryo and his family. McGlynn’s translation includes some poorly chosen words and the book could have done with more editing, as it contains some typos.

Dimas Suryo, like many people in Indonesia, was targeted by the regime simply because he spent time with members of the PKI, the Communist Party of Indonesia. Dimas was lucky enough to get out of the country before September 30, but his first love and some of his relatives and friends were rounded up, interrogated, tortured, and imprisoned by President Suharto‘s regime. For years after his escape, Dimas feels guilty for his relatively easy life in Paris while so many others suffer. He also laments the fact that he can never go home.

After Dimas tells his story, his daughter, Lintang, and his ex-wife, Vivienne, take over duties as narrator. Dimas covers the early 1950s to the early 1980s. Lintang and Vivienne cover the 1980s to 1998, when Suharto was at long last ousted from power. While the first half of Home is an elegy for what Dimas lost, the second half is about Lintang’s quest for the other, Indonesian half of her identity. Dimas mourned his lost home for decades, but never really told Lintang what it was like. Her exposure to Indonesia (which she frequently spells out in her letters and emails for some reason) comes through her father’s cooking and her three “uncles,” who also escaped just before the crackdowns.

I liked the second half of Home a lot more than the first. While I sympathize with Dimas, he often struck me as a prig who lacks understanding for human foibles. Lintang is much more interesting. I almost wish that Home has just been her story because it’s a lot more action-packed and focused as a narrative. I much preferred Lintang’s discovery of her heritage and her father’s homeland a lot more than Dimas’ intractable grief. A lot of the first half, I feel, could have been edited out.

Home is the second book I’ve read set in Indonesia. It is not nearly as successful for me as The Question of Red because of it runs too long, is uneven, and needed more editing. At least Lintang’s story came second, so I can feel as though the book ends on a much better note than it began with.

historical fiction · literary fiction · review · short stories

Snow in May, by Kseniya Melnik

It’s a little black-hearted, but I suspect that we read stories about hard luck and bad decisions because they remind us that at least things are as bad as they are for the people in them. I thought about this a lot as I read the stories in Kseniya Melnik’s collection, Snow in May. I didn’t set out to read hard luck stories when I picked it up; I just grabbed it off the shelf at my library because I liked the cover. But then, I should have known that I’d get a stiff dose of hardship from any piece of fiction set in the Soviet Union or Russia.

Some of the stand outs from this collection include:

“Love, Italian Style, or, In Line for Bananas.” This story features a hard choice. On the one hand, the protagonist can choose a night of passion with a visiting Italian athlete (and face the inevitable consequences of consorting with capitalists). On the other, she can do her duty to her family in Magadan and stand in nearly endless queues to secure foods and goods that she can only buy in Moscow. Unfortunately, it appears that Fate is making things even more difficult for our protagonist: she has the worst streak of luck in her entire life.

“Closed Fracture.” In this story, a Russian immigrant to the United States receives a phone call from his best friend from childhood. The call functions like Proust’s madeleine and sends the immigrant on a long journey back through his memories to the winter he broke his leg and his life diverged from his unlucky friend’s.

“Our Upstairs Neighbor.” In this story, a young woman attends a somewhat ludicrous concert in honor of one of the Soviet Union’s greatest singers. The singer never shows. When the young woman asks about him, she learns that her grandfather knew him. Her question to her grandfather about why the singer didn’t show elicits a long, meandering story about the singer via her grandfather’s life. He argues that, to understand the now, we have to know everything that came before.

While the stories in Snow in May didn’t knock my socks off, I enjoyed how many of them linked together to share a multi-generational family story of surviving under the last decades of the Soviet Regime and the first decade of the Russian Federation. Everyone hustles to get a better life for themselves and their relatives, only to stumble or rise when Fate or Luck intervenes.

Nearly all of the stories in Snow in May are set in Magadan, Russia, between the late 1950s and the early 2000s. (Image via Wikicommons, cropped by me.)
Nearly all of the stories in Snow in May are set in Magadan, Russia, between the late 1950s and the early 2000s. (Image via Wikicommons, cropped by me.)
historical fiction · review

A Boy in Winter, by Rachel Seiffert

This brief novel by Rachel Seiffert has a misleading title. The boy in A Boy in Winter, Yankel, frequently takes backstage to other characters. While Yankel is off stage, hiding and caring for his younger brother, we visit three other narrators. These narrators relate the events of a terrible few days in a western Ukrainian village, the days when the SS and Wehrmacht take the Jews away.

The first narrator we meet is the one I’m most conflicted about. Based on an actual German engineer, Otto Pohl has been sent to Ukraine to built a road across the marshes. At times, he reminded me of Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson from The Bridge on the River Kwai. Otto has only joined the Nazi Party and the Wehrmacht to avoid bigger trouble. His wife thoroughly disapproves. And yet, Otto wants to built a road that will last. He tries very hard not to think about the fact that the immediate use for the road is for the German Army Group South to funnel men, weaponry, and supplies deeper into Soviet territory. He has also turned his attention firmly away from the concentration camps and brutality of the Nazis all around him.

The second narrator is a sudden hero. When she discovers Yankel and his brother about to go into a house that has been raided by the SS, Yasia hides them in her cousin’s woodworking shop in town. Unlike a lot of her other fellow Ukrainians, Yasia seems much more interested in surviving the near future instead of claiming independence from the Soviets, the way her family and fiancé are. She doesn’t think about the consequences when she spirits the two young boys away. The third narrator, who only appears in a few chapters, is Yankel’s father, Ephraim. Through his eyes, we see the bewilderment and fear of the Jewish people who have been forced into an old factory before a terrible, terrible event occurs.

A lot is packed into A Boy in Winter. All of our narrators provide troves of backstory and history, without bogging down the pace of a plot that unspools over a couple of days. On paper (‘scuze the pun), I should have liked this novel better. There are heroes. There is well described scenery and plenty of emotional depth. But I’m left feeling dissatisfied by A Boy in Winter. Perhaps it’s because I wanted to know more about the silent boy in question. Perhaps it’s because I had no time for Otto’s cluelessness and cowardice. Yasia did a lot to keep me reading, but not enough for me to recommend this book to other readers.

historical fiction · literary fiction · review · short stories

Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich

Trigger warning for rape and suicide.

I am continuing my out-of-order dive into Louise Erdrich’s collections of interlinked stories featuring characters on an Ojibwe/Chippewa reservation somewhere in the Dakotas. Love Medicine is one of the earliest of these; it includes stories originally published as far back as 1984. Several of the stories in this collection is, as the title hints, about love. But this collection also revolves around love’s darker implications: jealousy, grief, and unrequited love.

Love Medicine spans 1934 to 1985. Over the course of the novel, I saw two sides form up. On one side is the sprawling family of Lulu Nanapush. On the other is the equally sprawling, but more dysfunctional, family of Marie Lazarre Kashpaw. In between these two women is Nector Kashpaw. Nector was in love with Lulu before he literally bumped into Marie and, somehow, ended up married to her. Nector loves Lulu for the rest of his life. He also loves Marie. Marie loves him and is jealous of his love for Lulu. Lulu also loves Nector, but her love is more expansive than either Nector’s or Marie’s. This tangled, mostly unspoken web affects the original trio and appears to affect generations of their descendants.

The novel begins with a story that encapsulates much of the emotional range of the rest of Love Medicine. June Morrissey is traveling back to the reservation. The last of her money was spent on the bus ticket. At one of the stops, she meets a man and decides to have sex with him. After the act and the man suddenly falls asleep on her, June slips out of the warm truck and walks away into a snowy night. She ends up freezing to death. This first story shows us sexual need, a hint of addiction, and death by either misadventure or suicide. As the collection progresses, we see these actions and emotions repeated in variations.

In some stories, it seems as though characters were doomed because of their DNA or their parents’ sins. In others, we see characters wrestling deeply with grief for their lost loved ones. We also see a deeply broken culture—a recurrent theme in Erdrich’s novels. These characters have nothing to turn to when they have no idea what to do next. The local Catholic church is warped by brutal mysticism. No one knows the old ways anymore. So many of the characters are just following their emotional impulses. These emotions can be deadly; people drown in them. And, as one character tells us later in the collection, drowning is the worst death for a Chippewa.

Love Medicine is depressing. Though there are moments of humor to lighten things up, this collection is like having one’s face pressed up against a window to watch miserable people on the other side and not being able to look away for relief. The scholarly literature I read when I was helping students do research on The Round House has taught me that Love Medicine is an important book in the overall series. In the end, Love Medicine is a hard book to read but necessary, if one is to fully understand the world Erdrich created.