Chang-Rae Lee’s On
Such a Full Sea poses a unique set of challenges: the lead character
embodies a spark of hope in the middle of a post-nuclear apocalypse, but the
author gives us only the very vaguest idea of her outcome. And throughout this
magisterial and beautiful novel, we must adjust to our own place in it, as in
very few other books. Full Sea haunts
just as it instructs; makes us dwell on love and family just as it cautions us
about approaching terrors.
In a postwar future where contaminated ground and water and
air teem with carcinogens, and nearly everyone is saddled with the “C-curse,” a
slight young girl (16, but passing for 12) leaves the relative safety of a
coastal stronghold and goes on a quest. She seeks her 19 year-old charismatic
sweetheart who was taken from her, presumably by the authorities (an amorphous
body called “the directorate”). We never learn the reason for this detention,
although he may have been made into a lab specimen, because he’s purportedly
And throughout, the author employs a unique narrating tone. It’s as though a whole town has agreed to relate its story,
and herein submits the definitive version of its vitally important,
identity-defining tale. And the story it tells! The town, a village, really, is
fully aware of this girl and her beau, and rises up in its subdued way, to
commemorate and defend the couple, and finally starts to examine itself, and
the citizens suddenly comprehend a completely different universe of
possibilities for themselves. Simply because a quiet girl ventures out into a
lethal world, looking for answers, looking for love.
Mr. Lee shows us what a post-nuclear war future would look and feel
like, and we are unavoidably reminded of our stratified Western world of today.
And what of our careful, unassuming, driven young heroine? What lessons can she
tell us? That’s the
multilayered beauty: the author presents this fresh paragon
of hope, who always behaves graciously no matter the circumstances, an
apparently immature and unremarkable girl who could in fact carry the future on
the race with her as she travels.
I don’t usually enjoy stories set in future dystopias. But
Mr. Lee’s fable turns a mirror to our own time so effectively, and with such
gracious language and consideration for the reader, that On Such a Full Sea perches perfectly on a high branch, giving us a
vessel and an example for our hope, its cautionary message delivered obliquely,
but unmistakably. Chang-Rae Lee has come out with a masterpiece.
The very prolific Bernard Cornwell continues his Saxon Chronicles series
with The Pagan Lord, the seventh entry. Now, main character Uhtred of
Bebbanburg, warrior chief for the Saxon cause against the Danish
invasions, is showing some age. He's past 50, which for a warrior in the
year 910, is pretty remarkable. In this entry he's on the outs with the
church and his devout son, and he fails in his attempt to recapture the
castle that is rightfully his. He spends most of the book a leader
without followers, a man-at-arms without a cause.
But never fear,
causes seem to find Uhtred whether he's searching for them or not.
While he and his ragtag troup are laying low in coastal Frisia, a
captured woman helps Uhtred understand the designs and desires of kings
and warlords across the British Isles. He finally decides what he must
do, and promptly leads his forces, such as they are, on a harried chase
of destruction and kidnappping across the Mercian Midlands to the Welsh
border. And at the end, Uhtred faces likely death at the hands of a
ruthless Danish force which outnumbers him at least 20-to-1.
Cornwell delights us and enthralls us with several
features in this
series. First is the perfrect verisimilitude to tenth-century Saxon
England. Second, he has chosen this epoch because it is a crucial
juncture in the history of the British Isles. Uhtred's fictional
exploits help to steer it toward English (or at that time, Anglo-Saxon)
and away from Norse. Specifically also, I have seen his battle scenes
praised, and deservedly so. They are shown in all their frightful and
action-packed ferocity, and are the result of scrupulous research. I
anticipate the next installment impatiently, because I know it will not
disappoint. They never do.
In a story that captures the zeitgeist of the moment perfectly, Scott Lax portrays the rapt and
terrified attention that a small group of young men paid to events at the
Selective Service in Washington in 1970. The
Year That Trembled follows a strict chronological line in recounting the
year in question; the Beatles, drug abuse, love lives, and what to do about the
Vietnam-era draft weighed heavily on these young men’s minds, and I can tell
you, that part of this story is eerily accurate.
This book is essentially an idyll, with young men desperate
to dodge the Sword of Damocles dangled by the Selective Service System. We
follow young Casey’s point of view as he traipses through his post high-school life,
working as a landscaper, listening to records, and watching his housemates get
high. Casey is a sensitive sort, unsure of what he’ll do if drafted, fond of
his friends, but not really engaged in his life. Casey’s love of his natural
surroundings – he lives in a farmhouse with three friends, and it is surrounded
on three sides by a lovely meadow – is a curative
against the angst of living in America at that time.
This is a focused, personal, and minute account of one young
man’s very difficult journey toward manhood. We can see Casey take the very
first, tiny steps on the path he’ll follow, and can feel the devastating
emotions that accompany his decisions. reads as an elegy; it covers a lost time, in a lost
natural world, and a life no longer available in rural America. There is real
loss, real death, in the story as well, and this novel works extremely well as
an antiwar piece – it’s disheartening to recall how powerful American interests
prosecuted such an apparently pointless, unwinnable war.
Year That Trembled
The Year That Trembled
enjoys a strength of storytelling based on personal, amusing, and very real observations.
For me, who experienced this time first-hand, it was a trip down memory lane.
For other readers, it offers a spare, economical, and very heartfelt journey.
Stories about recovery from loss come in many forms and many
moods. Linda Olsson has provided a classic, an exemplar of the type in The Memory of Love. The life of Marion,
with its tragic circumstances and heart-rending pathos, provides an impossibly
bleak background. Marion is our steam-rolled protagonist and we spend nearly
the entire narrative pondering if recovery is even possible.
Linda Olsson deploys a technique of interspersing the
heroine’s memories with present-day events, that closely resembles
consciousness itself, and we follow Marion’s struggle in a territory devoid of
self. Ms. Olsson’s skill here is simply unsurpassed. Layer onto these very
effective transitions the metaphoric New Zealand landscapes, the wide variety
of secondary characters – some are polar opposites in virtue – and the whole of
Memory shines, it reverberates with
the author’s skill and ambition.
The focus of our story, Marion, just having passed fifty
year in age, has retired from a career in medicine. She has divorced and moved
to a beach in New Zealand to live by herself. For various reasons she avoids
certain memories – she has become good at this, out of necessity. As the book
progresses, Marion lets herself embrace and examine her memories, ghastly as
some of them are, because of a young boy’s new presence in her life. He and she
share each other’s precarious existences – neither can really trust life,
can ever believe they could enjoy it.
Young Ika (a slightly mispronounced form of Mika) comes to
live with Marion, unofficially of course, since there are still family members
in the picture.
Ika barely communicates; his responses are monosyllables and
occasional nods. This parallels Marion’s relationship with her own memories. As
Ika opens up more to life, because of Marion’s presence in it, Marion begins to
embrace and come to terms with her own unbelievably dark past.
The poetry of transcendence, blind day-to-day survival, the
lovely possibilities in giving of oneself – all dwell and coexist in The Memory of Love. I’m in awe of the
skill and balance and eye for detail and gentle yoking of mood-changing
metaphor. A number of years ago I read and deeply admired Ms. Olsson’s Astrid and Veronika. This book is even
better than that grand achievement. I would urge you in the strongest possible
terms to take this up if you want to experience a glowing masterpiece.
With haunting and desperate inward dialogues, and frequent
shifts in point of view, Samantha Hayes engages us in her clever thriller from
the very outset. Until You’re Mine plunges
us into the deep end of a thick emotional soup in which women unable to
conceive a baby circle, vulture-like, around a clutch of expectant mothers. The
lead-up and payoff of this creepy tale are rewarding and unexpected –
congratulations to Ms. Hayes for a perfect and unerring job.
We meet the very appealing Claudia, who has married into the
family of widowed Naval officer James, and his twin four-year old sons. Claudia
is quite pregnant, and into this happy group comes Zoe, hired as a nanny to the
twins, because Claudia’s due date is so soon and James will be leaving on a
mission. And the creepiness starts – and then is really
revved up by a couple
of gruesome murders of very pregnant women. Enter a husband-and-wife team of
police detective inspectors, complete with their own baggage, and the twists
and turns inevitably follow.
This is beautifully realized work. The denouement will
please any fan of thriller crime fiction, and the portraits of our mostly
female cast of characters only add to the value here. I raced through this book
in a couple of days, even with my demanding work schedule, truly unable to put
it down. I’m sure you will find it just as riveting, and be just as impressed
with the clever Ms. Hayes. Take it up!
With The Bloodletter’s
Daughter Linda Lafferty retells the legend of mad Don Julius, illegitimate
son of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, and his murder in 1608 of an innocent
Bohemian bath maid. This telling takes the form of a thriller, but the author
is too wise to think her readers are as much in the dark as the citizens of the
The story features a good many actors with axes to grind,
maybe too many to do any single character the justice of a full fictional treatment.
The king imprisons his schizophrenic bastard son Don Julius in a newly purchased
castle and simultaneously awards him lordship and governance over the region.
The bath maid catches his eye, and her ambitious mother engineers a near-fatal
assignation for her and the prince. Death and destruction threatens the town
unless the prince gets his way in the end. In addition, Catholics and
Protestants in Hungary must unite to fight the infidel Ottomans who encroach
ever farther into Europe. There’s a lot going on, and affairs of state, even
when they involve mad murderous princes, take precedence over the most basic
characterization and internal dialogue.
I found precious little to sympathize with along the way,
and felt finishing the book was simply an exercise gratefully completed. I do
appreciate the research
that went into this, and the honest attempt to capture
Don Julius’s madness; these were effective and commend the book. Overall,
however, it was time that could be better spent.