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Thursday, July 12, 2018

Review of BLUEBIRD, BLUEBIRD by Attica Locke

3.5 Stars
I chose to read this book because I have read Attica Locke’s previous novels and really enjoyed them.  And then I learned that this one received the 2018 Edgar Award for best novel.

Darren Mathews is a black Texas Ranger who ends up becoming involved in twin murder investigations in East Texas.  The body of Michael Wright, a black lawyer from Chicago, is found in the bayou behind a café owned by Geneva Sweet, a 69-year-old black woman.  Three days later, the body of Missy Dale, a white waitress in a nearby redneck bar, is found in the same bayou.  Darren thinks the deaths are connected, though “the order of the killings: black man dies, then the white girl” doesn’t fit the “agreed-upon American script” in which a black man commits an act of violence against a white woman and is then punished by the white community. 

Darren has to deal with personal issues and obstacles in his investigation.  Because he has refused to stop being a Texas Ranger, his marriage is in difficulty.  This and a recent suspension have led to a serous drinking problem.  The murders occur in a tiny rural town, and the townsfolk and local law enforcement close ranks against an outsider.  Then there’s Wallace Jefferson III, a local white businessman and landowner who seems to have undue influence and whose bar seems to be a gathering place for a chapter of the Aryan Brotherhood. 

Darren emerges as a credible and complex protagonist.  It is not his personal demons that are most interesting; instead, it is his loyalty to Texas that stands out.  “He was Texas-bred on both sides, going all the way back to slavery” and “What they were not going to be was run off.”   Ironically, “The belief that they were special, that they had the stones to endure what others couldn’t, was the most quintessentially Texas thing about them.  It was an arrogance born of genuine fortitude and a streak of hardheadedness six generations deep.”  Darren had been taught that “You could run, wouldn’t nobody judge you if you did.  But you could also stay and fight. . . . ‘The nobility is in the fight, son, in all things.’”  He sees his job as a way of fighting for the right of blacks to claim a home in Texas:  “’The badge was to say this land is my land, too, my state, my country, and I’m not gon’ be run off.  I can stand my ground, too.  My people built this, and we’re not going anywhere.’” 

The one character who is not credible is Randie, the widow of Michael Wright.  She arrives to claim her estranged husband’s body and wants to know what happened.  She is a career woman, “a fashion photographer, rather sought after around the world” yet she behaves in an unconvincing way.  For instance, she walks into a redneck bar alone and doesn’t understand the hostility she encounters?  As a black, she has never experienced prejudice?!  She is an independent woman who has travelled the world but she is reduced to a screaming, trembling hysteric? 

There is considerable commentary on the issue of race and justice.  Though one of Darren’s uncles believed that “the law would save [blacks] by protecting us – by prosecuting crimes against us as zealously as it prosecutes crimes against whites,” another uncle stated “the law is a lie black folks need protection from – a set of rules that were written against us from the time ink was first set to parchment.”  “For black folks, injustice came from both sides of the law, a double-edged sword of heartache and pain” because “for every story about a black mother, sister, or wife crying over a man who was locked up for something he didn’t do, there was a black mother, sister, wife, husband, father, or brother crying over the murder of a loved one for which no one was locked up.”  And then there’s this telling statement about the current state of affairs:  “[Darren’s] uncles adhered to those ancient rules of southern living, for they understood how easily a colored man’s general comportment could turn into a matter of life and death.  Darren had always wanted to believe that theirs was the last generation to have to live that way, that change might trickle down from the White House.  When in fact the opposite had proved to be true.  In the wake of Obama, America had told on itself.”

The ending of the book suggests that there could be a sequel or that this is the first of a series featuring Darren Mathews.  I will definitely be looking out for any follow-up or any future books by this author because she provides the reader with a great story and food for thought as well.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Review of TANGERINE by Christine Mangan

3 Stars
It is 1956 in Tangier.  Lucy Mason shows up for an unannounced visit with her estranged friend Alice Shipley.  The two had been college roommates and inseparable friends in Vermont until some unspecified tragedy resulted in their not having spoken in a year.  In that year Alice married and moved with her husband to Morocco.  How did Lucy find her?  Why did she come to Tangier? 

In alternating chapters, the two women discuss both the past and the present.  Both are unreliable narrators.  Alice is emotionally fragile; in Tangier, she struggles with anxiety and loneliness, and she speaks of “darkness and shadows” hovering above her “so that at times I questioned the accuracy of my mind, of my memories” (185).  Lucy is more independent but experiences “a slight fluttering” in her ear which was diagnosed as “a nervous condition” (24-25).  And then there’s her unhealthy obsession with Alice.  Their versions of past events conflict so the reader is left to wonder who is telling the truth. 

The pace of the first part of the book is glacial.  It is only when the mystery of the tragedy in Vermont is explained that things pick up.  Unfortunately it is then that the reader’s credulity is stretched to its limits.  The villain’s machinations suggest she possesses exceptional foresight.  The success of her schemes also requires great serendipity, unqualified stupidity on the part of the police, and extreme gullibility on the part of several people. 

Why is Lucy is always stumbling?  When Lucy first arrives, she describes stumbling so her knee “connected with the hard, dusty road beneath” (17).  Later she collides with Alice “so that she fell to the ground, a cry escaping her lips” (187).  Shortly afterwards, Lucy stumbles again “enough to wrench my ankle so it smarted” (193).  And then again, “I lost my balance, falling to the hard, dusty ground” (204).  Alice becomes equally clumsy:  “I jumped at the sound of her voice, slipping in the process, my already bruised knees connecting with the hardwood floor” (213).  Yet one of these klutzes somehow acquires both mental and physical dexterity and becomes a criminal mastermind?

Neither of the two women made a connection with me.  Alice is the demure rich girl who lets herself be manipulated by the insensitive cad she married on short acquaintance.  Lucy has more spunk but she also does stupid things like becoming involved with a man who has a reputation as a grifter.  Both are emotionally overwrought and constantly over-analyzing everyone’s facial expressions, gestures, and words.  There’s just too much needless drama for my liking.

This book came to my attention because it became the subject of a bidding war in the U.S.  where Harper Collins bought it for a reported $1.1 million. It has since been optioned for film by George Clooney’s production company, with Scarlett Johansson billed as the star.  It is huge hype for a debut to live up to, and I’m afraid the book does not.  I almost always prefer a book to its film version but perhaps in this case the film will be better than the book?

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Review of THE HOME FOR UNWANTED GIRLS by Joanna Goodman

3.5 Stars
In 1950s Quebec, Maggie Hughes, a 15-year-old, becomes pregnant.  Her family forces her to give up the baby and to cut off all contact with her boyfriend, Gabriel Phénix.  Her decision haunts her in later years so she sets out to find her daughter, but her search is constantly stonewalled.  Maggie’s perspective is alternated with that of Elodie, Maggie’s daughter.  We learn of her life in an orphanage and then in a psychiatric institution when the Duplessis government of the province had many orphans declared mentally deficient in order to receive more funding from the federal government.

The book focuses on a dark chapter in Quebec’s history.  I had heard of Duplessis orphans but knew little of the details.  The government’s role in what happened to children born out of wedlock, children “born in sin”, is made clear but so is the role of the Catholic Church.  Various orders of nuns were complicit in the scheme to maximize federal funding. 

The novel also highlights English/French divisions in Quebec.  Most of the story is set in the Eastern Townships where both French and English “live in relative harmony – that is, relative to Quebec, where the French and English tolerate each other with precarious civility but don’t mingle the way other more homogeneous communities do.”  Maggie’s father, Wellington Hughes, is English and her mother is “pure laine French” so her home is “like the province in which she lives, where the French and English are perpetually vying for the upper hand.”  Her father wants his children to speak French because it will help them in business but he sends his children in English schools because “’French is the inferior language’” and “He’s cautioned Maggie many times about French boys, always reminding her that they're mostly poor, don’t finish school, and their teeth rot before they turn forty [because they drink so much Pepsi].” 

It is the characterization of Wellington Hughes that is most complex.  He is an interesting mix of contradictions.  He looks down on French Canadians but he marries a woman who “has never made any effort to absorb even the rudiments of the English language.”  He threatens to disown Maggie if she sees the French Canadian Gabriel but has a different opinion of Gabriel’s sister.  Much is explained about him in the latter half of the novel so Wellington emerges as a fully developed character who arouses both anger and sympathy in the reader.

On the other hand, Sister Ignatia emerges as the villain who has no redeeming qualities.  Her treatment of the children in her care is truly sadistic, but the lies she tells are perhaps her most unforgiveable actions.  It is difficult to think of her as a practicing Christian; at one point, she says to Elodie, “’I am your judge, and I judge not only your transgressions today, but all of your sins, as well as the sins of your parents.”  At various times she is described as having “black eyes and flared nostrils” and “a menacing half smile” and “bat-like eyes” and a “grim demeanor, cartoonish frown, and harsh voice”.  Unfortunately, by not showing any positive traits, the author turns Sister Ignatia into a cartoonish villain.

This book is a disturbing read.  Sympathy is certainly felt for Maggie who had virtually no choice but to give up her illegitimate child.  She was young and lived in a religious society which had no compassion for someone in her position.  But it is the treatment Elodie receives that is most horrific.  I kept thinking that surely this mistreatment must be an exaggeration of what orphans endured, but even cursory research reveals that the author’s depictions are accurate. 

I definitely recommend this book to Canadians.  We should know about this dark episode in Canada’s human rights’ history.  I hope to find a book that presents the view of the Quebec children who were sold by Catholic orphanages to Jewish families in the United States. 

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Review of THE GUSTAV SONATA by Rose Tremain

4 Stars
This book has been on my to-read pile for quite a while.  It came to my attention because it kept appearing on the lists of well-known literary prizes and it also appealed because of its setting.  Other than Heidi, one of my favourite childhood books, I’ve read few books set in Switzerland.  I’m pleased that I finally got around to reading it. 

Like a sonata, the story is told in three movements.  The first part, set in the late 1940s, focuses on the childhood of Gustav Perle.  He lives an impoverished life with his emotionally distant mother Emilie but his world opens up when he befriends Anton Zweibel, a Jewish boy who is a precocious pianist.  Part II flashes back to World War II.  We learn about Emilie’s meeting with Erich and their marriage until Erich’s untimely death after he makes a decision that has devastating consequences for himself, Emilie, and Gustav.  The third part, set in the late 1990s, focuses on Gustav and Anton’s faltering relationship as Anton moves to Geneva obsessed with acquiring fame as a pianist, despite his debilitating stage fright.

The novel examines the implications and human costs of self-restraint.  When he is a child, Gustav is repeatedly told that he must master self-control.  Emilie tells him he has to be like Switzerland:  “’You have to hold yourself together and be courageous, stay separate and strong.’”  A tutor repeats this advice by describing a coconut:  “the shell is hard and fibrous, difficult to penetrate.  It protects the nourishing coconut flesh and milk inside.  And that is how Switzerland is . . . We protect ourselves . . . with hard and determined yet rational behaviour – our neutrality.’”  Gustav does achieve emotional self-mastery but he becomes an anxious individual; he describes himself as being “obsessive in his quest for superficial order and control” and with “an intolerable pain in his heart.” 

The novel also shows what life was like in neutral Switzerland during the war.  Switzerland was committed to remaining neutral but was terrified of antagonizing Hitler lest he turn his attention to the country:  “Fear of a German invasion is a daily agony for the country, seldom talked about, yet always felt.”  As one person points out, “’fear of that extreme kind affects how people behave.’”  Because of fear of an over-concentration of Jews, what was known as Überjudung, the Swiss government passed a law stopping the flow of Jewish refugees.  The police were expected to enforce the law, but Erich, a policeman, says “’But people forget that policemen have human feelings and sympathies’” and “’We strive for indifference.  As members of the police we are taught to feel it.  But is not indifference a moral crime?’”  It becomes obvious that many Swiss chose to turn a blind eye to the war; certainly, Emilie is guilty of willful ignorance because “she has no wish to think about things that are happening outside Switzerland.”  Even her husband calls her ignorant and blind, and there’s an apt description of her as a “terrified creature – a bat clinging to the wall of its cave.”  Switzerland remained neutral but there was a human cost and not just for the Jews who were turned away.

Characterization is certainly a strong element.  Emilie emerges as the least sympathetic character.  Though her life with her mother and events in her marriage explain her behaviour, it is still difficult to forgive her treatment of her son; she is cold, severe, and neglectful.  She is self-centred and self-pitying and not deserving of her son’s love which seems boundless:  “He knew that, in spite of everything, he still loved her.  In some part of himself, he’d always believed that his mother couldn’t die before she’d learned to love him.”

Gustav, of course, is the most sympathetic.  He is a gentle soul, always compassionate and kind-hearted.  He seems driven to look after other people.  His most outstanding trait is his ability to love others who do not always love him in return.  Besides Emilie, there is Anton who is sometimes so self-absorbed and disloyal.  It is difficult to see Gustav so unhappy especially when he describes himself as a “loser sent away to hunger and solitude.”  The reader wishes that Gustav were less staid and decorous.   His steadfastness may be rewarded but that reward is a lifetime in coming. 

The style of the book can be described as understated.  The diction is clean and precise with no excessive emotion, like the neutrality of Switzerland and the self-restraint of Gustav, yet somehow it highlights the underlying strong emotions felt by the characters. 

I am so impressed with this author that I’m amazed at my ignorance of her work.  I will definitely be checking out her other novels.