"The Bridge of Little Jeremy" by Indrajit Garai

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A physically weakened 12 year-old boy, an artist, a hero, and a very conscientious son, narrates his adventures from Paris, where he lives with his mom and his German Shepherd Leon. Little Jeremy might not be the biggest boy for his age, but his courage, determination, and thoughtfulness prove him worthy of love and admiration. This novel contains the straightforward telling, though Jeremy’s own words, of the tortuous journey of his conscience. It’s a remarkable, dreamy telling, without tricks of plot or temporality, showing us the perils and rewards of growing up with artistic talent and an abiding love for one’s mother.
Indrajit Garai has written the tale, and displays a close familiarity with the Île de la cité and the Île St Louis in Paris. It appears also that he wrote the story in English, since no translator is given credit. That likely led to the basic and unadorned, but sweet and heartfelt style of this narrative. I congratulate Mr. Garai on writing from the point of view of a twelve year-old artist: it works wonderfully throughout.
Little Jeremy has had several operations on his heart because of a faulty valve. This misfortune means that he does not attend school and can roam about his home neighborhood with Leon. Like any neighborhood, it has its perils, human and otherwise. A fair amount happens to Jeremy during the few months of this story; some of it makes him a celebrated hero for a time.
He attacks a tormentor of his mother, firing a damaging missile with a slingshot. He rescues a baby locked in a car; discovers a work of art secreted away in a basement; as he researches the artist he unearths a hidden past impinging on his own mother and her economic wellbeing. Bravely he juggles these vicissitudes, all the while keeping his mother’s, his friends’, and his dog’s best interests at heart.
I have mentioned this is a dream-like tale. Its language gently carries the reader along, while it shows Jeremy’s nature: he is giving, contemplative, and artistic. His thoughts range a wide variety of issues, always in a methodical and balanced way. Good things happen to Jeremy during this story, and these things affect his loved ones for the better.

If you are interested in the trials of a sensitive, artistic Parisian boy about to step into his teen years, The Bridge of Little Jeremy is definitely a rewarding journey. 

"Milkman" by Anna Burns

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The first person protagonist of Milkman, an eighteen year-old girl, attends a French class of an evening. Her world threatens her with ostracization, because of certain harmless habits she displays, and also threatens her with bodily harm, and even death. For she lives in fraught times in a fraught place, a place sitting always on the precipice of deadly violence - Belfast in the 1970s.

The instructor in this French class, purportedly inculcating a foreign language to her students, asks them what color the sky is. The assured answer from all assembled, is “blue.” After questioning this answer, and after more opposition from her students, she directs all to turn to the windows and look at the sunset. There, she names a whole series of colors: orange, yellow, red, white - there’s no blue to be seen. At page 90 of the Graywolf Preprint Edition:

What if we accept these points of light, their translucence, their brightness; what if we let ourselves enjoy this, stop fearing it, get used to it; what if we take hope and forgo our ancient heritage and instead, and infused, begin to entrain with it, with ourselves then to radiate it; what if we do that, get educated up to that, and then, just like that, the light goes off or is snatched away?

Such is the hopeless outlook in this remarkable novel; such is the hopeless outlook of the time and place. 

Throughout Milkman, the nameless first-person protagonist feels the need to back up breathlessly to fill in the points leading up to the current hellish situation. She feels she must make and remake points already established, all in an effort to explain how perverse and inside-out her world is. This unique book - unique enough to win the 2018 Man Booker Prize - has little description of its physical setting, It compensates for the lack with a minute exploration of the emotional landscape.

At page 114:

In those days then, impossible it was not to be closed-up because closed-upness was everywhere: closings in our community, closings in their community, the state here closed, the government “over there” closed, the newspapers and radio and television closed because no information could be forthcoming that wouldn’t be perceived by at least one party to be a distortion of the truth. When it got down to it, although people spoke of ordinariness, there wasn’t really ordinariness because moderation itself had spun out of control … in those dark days, which were the extreme of days, if we hadn’t had the renouncers [of the state] as our underground buffer between us and this overwhelming and combined enemy, who else, in all the world, would we have had?

Nowhere are they clearer, the ground rules under which our heroine operates. A chief paramilitary figure, whom the state clearly views as a dangerous terrorist, accosts her in a non-violent way, threatening to do harm unto death of a boy she’s sort of seeing. He knows a frightening amount about her habitual comings and goings, and sidles up to her often enough while she’s out walking or jogging to convince the entire district that they are lovers. While in fact, he never actually touches her.

Other threats and illuminations occur to our plucky girl, easy to anticipate but still unwelcome; physical damage, too, is her lot, but nothing lethal, thank goodness. 

Milkman emerges as a book-length exposition of how a young woman navigates the very real threats to her sanity and her existence. A wry humor, found throughout, acknowledges the struggle amid the arch and ossified posturings of the political parties - in very much in the manner of, “See? All this I have to put up with.” Here is a sample, the last line of Chapter 4 (p. 213) of the gallows humor which our narrator uses to survive: she speaks of the final resting place of a friend from early in her childhood, whose funeral occurs a few months after that of her newlywed husband: “… also known as ‘the no-town cemetery,’ or ‘the no-time cemetery,’ ‘the busy cemetery,’ or just simply, the usual place.”

Along with the cynicism and the barely repressed violence, this book displays its author’s largesse when considering human nature: the dangers of groupthink receive full play, as do the consequences of virulent gossip, and the vicissitudes of finding a mate. This is a rich dose of literature: full of humanity under stress, and the flowering of hope. For a true take on human nature, approached with humor and kindness, pick up Milkman.

"Flights" by Olga Tokarczuk

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Translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft.

Motion! Keep moving - that’s the very explicit message in Flights, Olga Tokarczuk’s fascinating and highly praised 2007 novel. Stand still and The Man will co-opt you, pin you down like an insect in a case, and sentence you to servitude in hell. Keep moving and you have half a chance at wisdom, at beauty, at happiness. In 2018, this English translation won the Man Booker International Prize. The book deserves it, beyond doubt.

Flights consists of more than a hundred segments of widely varying lengths. The novel’s framework slowly becomes clear, and while only a few narrative threads recur to be  updated, these are few and set out quite obliquely. Ms. Tokarczuk sets out for our consideration 17th Century practices in preserving corpses, with brilliant scenes of the busy anatomists’ operating room theaters. In an early thematic statement, the author asks, isn’t it wrong that we die? Shouldn’t we be able to preserve our bodies in perpetuity? The scenes set in 17th Century Holland bring us up close and personal to the first scientists to preserve flesh in any effective way. We return to this motif several times throughout the book, able to follow modernizations in technique along the way.

Other segments contain observations of various details and impressions of 21st Century travel: how people behave on planes; a certain universality of hotel rooms; a nervous note written on the bottom of an air sickness bag years ago; the design of airports. I don’t know if it’s actually the case in airports around the world, but in Flights, specialists - therapists and advanced students - give lectures in airport hallways about the psychology of travel. Mostly these lectures are only spottily attended or heeded - we and our author-guide are included in the crowd that doesn’t pay attention.

But: just past halfway through the narrative we meet Annushka, a disaffected housewife in Moscow. With a hopeless and restricting family life, she flees her predicament during her mother-in-law’s weekly visit. She takes to riding Moscow’s metro, finding a secluded corner to sleep in when the trains shut down for the night. A few days into this life, she encounters a mysterious woman, a vagrant clothed in multiple layers, even her face is hidden. She stands in a station hollering invective at whomever passes. Most of it is unintelligible, but Annushka eventually approaches her and, after spooking her at first, engages her in a halting conversation, fueled by the meals Annushka buys for her.

She learns the woman’s name is Galena, and Galena lives by the code of keeping moving. In her addled, outcast way, Galena serves as the Oracle of this story. At page 258 et seq, in a section called “What the Shrouded Runaway Was Saying,” the enterprising author spells out one main theme of the novel. In it we learn that the body in motion is holy and cannot be pinned down to an accounted-for, prefabricated,  predestined life. If you keep moving, you will be saved from the inhuman government’s cataloging, its endless need for strict order and adherence, birth to the grave. A quote from this poetic exhortation:

“So go, away, walk, run, take flight, because the second you forget and stand still, his massive hands will seize you and turn you into a puppet, you’ll be enveloped in his breath, stinking of smoke and fumes and the big trash dumps outside town. He will turn your brightly colored soul into a tiny flat one, cut out of paper, of newspaper, and he will threaten you with fire, disease, and war, he will scare you so you lose your peace of mind and cease to sleep.”

We also read of a family whose arc exists in multiple segments, far apart in the book. While on vacation on the Adriatic, the man’s wife disappears with their small son for several days. This disappearance lasts a few days, but the man feels he cannot get a straight answer from his wife about it. He hounds her for months with his single-minded questions until finally she flies for good and takes her son with her. So, one cannot or should not become too literal in looking for reasons for flight. They are obvious and many, but sometimes unnamable. Whatever the reasons for the woman’s first sojourn away from her husband, eventually he drove her off permanently.

An unusual reading experience, this. We go along section by section, anticipating that a narrative will emerge, but we must content ourselves with a very slow and oblique unfolding. The main body of the story keeps us definitely in the present day: the rhythms and sights and smells and emotions of modern travel are all too familiar. Longer segments pop vividly up, with their more orthodox story lines, like advances in the preservation of human flesh, and two separate stories of women running from their homes and their oppressive family situations.

By and by, the images and the lessons gel into clarity: flight is sacred, natural, and necessary. The seeming randomness in the segments supports the thesis: the flesh of humans who have been preserved for display or exemplifies the pinning-down of people stationary in perpetuity. The more orthodox stories show people on the move for reasons of self-preservation, and the first-person narrator herself is constantly traveling around the world. It’s a wide-ranging novel, appropriately, and achieves its overarching thesis beautifully. Take it up and enjoy it. It’s unique, compelling, a deserving prize winner.

"Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe

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Chinua Achebe weaves a tale of change in his native Nigeria in his classic Things Fall Apart (1958). He steeps the reader in the Ibo culture of seasons, society, and gods, as we follow the life of the important villager Okonkwo and his family. Change from this incumbent culture comes in the form of British missionaries who ride bicycles, and who bring a message that will disrupt and eventually destroy a way of life and belief. Aside from its ground-breaking setting, this novel’s brilliance lies in its unerring depiction of human nature, and the havoc wreaked on lives when cultures clash.

Achebe harkens us back to the Ibo of the late 19th century. We witness tribal politics, folklore, economics, and religion as we follow a couple of generations Okonkwo’s family. Okonkwo grows up resenting his shiftless father, and as he matures he shows the grit and determination to rise above. He becomes a fierce warrior, an aggressive and acquisitive businessman, and an autocratic paterfamilias. This stands him in good stead in the village, but also demonstrates Achebe’s mastery. Okonkwo is a nuanced, believable protagonist. He treats his family roughly, bemoans his sons, whom he feels lack promise, speaks roughly to his wives and daughters, and casts a jaundiced eye on any display by villagers that lacks manliness.

Okonkwo is not the only character benefiting from Achebe’s deft touch. Okonkwo’s circle of friends, strangers from neighboring villages, his wife’s family, even the British missionaries, all come to life and display real human action and motivation. On this solid base rests the inevitable conflict and disruption brought about with the arrival of exotic white foreigners, with a suspect foreign doctrine.

I found Things Fall Apart a rewarding read. It displays felicitous, energetic language to depict humans acting like humans, and in the larger context, the pain and anger and suspicion when one people would strangle an indigenous culture to “improve and purify” it. If you haven’t taken this novel up, do so by all means, and see why it is honored and its author lionized.

"The Atomic Weight of Love" by Elizabeth J. Church

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Still in her early 20s, Meridian Wallace, a Western Pennsylvania girl about to make a name for herself at the University of Chicago, becomes enthralled with Alden, a professor of physics, and twenty years her senior. She marries him just as he is dispatched to an unheard-of hamlet in New Mexico, to lend his expertise to the development of a revolutionary and terrifying new weapon. In spite of her acceptance to Cornell grad school, he moves her summarily to Los Alamos and crushes her scientific potential and hopes.

And such is Meridian’s treatment at her husband’s hands. This treatment, and Meridian’s sporadic rebellious impulses against it, power this narrative. It’s a treatment that is alive and flourishing to this day, unfortunately, but I hope it isn’t still the expected thing in American marriages that it was in the middle of the last century.  The assumptions made by American society in the 1940s were shared by young people getting married. In the novel, The Atomic Weight of Love, these assumptions are portrayed accurately.

In fact, accuracy is one great virtue of this book. Meridian, whom Alden calls Meri, allows her husband to make unilateral decisions for her, decisions regarding the taking of her virginity, and where she will and will not study, where they will live as he works, he even makes judgments about her friends. Throughout, he exercises his autocracy with a snob’s dismissive ease, assured in the superiority of his perspective. From time to time Meri chafes under his rule, and carves out a life for herself, following her passion for ornithology to make a talented amateur’s study of a population of crows.

Then along comes Viet Nam and upheaval in American society. Meri’s love for Clay, a beautiful young man, engenders her much-needed awakening; her rebirth reminds Meri of her own worth and capacity for love. This leads to her final triumph of self-respect, as it were, as we observe her good works over the years.

Author Elizabeth J. Church provides a vivid character and puts her to a number of good uses. First, she illustrates a culture in America which subjugated wives and women in general to the will of husbands and men. Second, she brings to life a turbulent time in the height of the Viet Nam war, refracted through the prism of her heroine’s life. She uses this highly apt backdrop to portray an intelligent, sympathetic protagonist’s growth and adaptation. All this is done so honestly and deeply: Alden’s moments of oafishness are balanced against his well-meaning moments; Clay’s impatience shows a youthfulness yet to be tempered by much experience; even the secondary characters are fully nuanced. This is a sensitive, affecting story, easy to believe and appreciate. I was very happy to make Meridian’s acquaintance. 

"Everything Under" by Daisy Johnson

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The murky forces in Everything Under confuse and intimidate us, the wide-eyed readers, just as they confuse and intimidate the characters. A boy who decides to grow up a woman has prescient gifts, which she uses until she forgets to. Another character wills a new gender for himself after a trauma, and a monster lives below the surface of the river, but can walk upright on dry land, and may want to kill. Many believe it is also intent on stealing. 

Be prepared for a novel that will make you alert by jumping between thread and thread; it will also keep you waiting … and doubting … and craving answers right up to the end and beyond. This is an arresting novel, in the best sense of the word. You will stop, and sit up, and wonder how its debut author, Daisy Johnson, produced such a stunning and unconventional work right out of the box. It’s a dark delight.

Gretel grew up with her mother Sarah on a boat moored in a river. She is not educated in public schools until her mother abandons her when she’s a schoolgirl of 16. Gretel spends years trying to hunt her mother down, but when she finally finds her, after perhaps a further 16 years, her mother’s mind has deteriorated. Fiona, born a boy, witnesses several bulls being castrated, and chooses the female gender for herself. Eventually Fiona finds Margot (born Marcus) living with her adoptive parents. Loss, and quests to repair losses, dominate the plot here, but the plot holds a secondary place to the images and the fraught emotions. Instead, author Daisy Johnson looses tidal forces of terror, psychic ability, crypto-language, and accidental death to power her narrative along.

Adult Gretel recalls episodes from her early teens, in which she imagines she’s keeping her younger self company, observing her mother through a roof portal on the boat. At these times, she imagines the bogeyman, the (physical?) distillation of all of her and her mother’s fears. This creature, legend has it, can breathe underwater and walk on land; is pale white and nearly hairless, is longer than a man is tall, has short, stubby legs, and steals things. Including children.

As the book proceeds, we catch apparent glimpses of this monster from time to time, coming and going in its not-quite-visible way, in the time it takes to gasp. Characters, particularly Sarah, refer to it and warn other characters to beware. At last, however, the monster of the rivers apparently shows itself clearly enough for Sarah and Gretel to give honest, physical chase.

The novel exhibits a strong sensual undertone. Genders are bent and malleated rather often as we go. Sarah discovers the truth about Marcus/Margot’s body in a flash of image and sexual activity that finishes abruptly in a gloss, like the wake of a moving boat. In fact, much of the narrative has an ethereal, out-of-focus quality, exactly appropriate to the subject. 

The narrative fits into a present-day framework in which mother Sarah and daughter Gretel (whom Sarah sometimes refers playfully calls Hansel) are reunited in a tense, unloving standoff. And once the monster is tracked and dealt with, Sarah’s reason for living expires.

Gloomy and atmospheric, with its hauntingly raw emotional palette, Everything Under is a stunning debut which takes the reader outside herself, and deposits her squarely in the middle of its minefield. A challenging, haunting read, a raker-up of our darker moods, and yet a rewarding read nonetheless. Definitely a piece of provoke one’s mind and heart, and compliments to fiction rarely come higher than that. 

"Cocktails With A Dead Man," poems by Joseph Albanese

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At the back of Cocktails with a Dead Man Joe Albanese lists a series of journals which have published his poems. I’m glad he’s found a number of fora for exhibiting his work; the works here collected take on an unremitting palette, tingeing most entries in the color of lament and loss. The 75 works share brevity and plain elucidation but stay for the most part in the realm of the abstract, rather than play to the reader’s imagination.

I wished for more concrete images in this group. They are few and far between in these poems, and so all the more striking when we find them. One example showing solid imagery, a piece called “Neon Crowds and Mirror Fights” describes the destructive potential of a neon “Open” sign diffused in an evening fog: “It could split the universe in two / as it has done to you many times …” The injury and irreparable hurt rule this poem as it does so many in this collection. 

Even when he uses a concrete image, as in the case of a kindergartener’s Crayola eight-pack, with its strict limit on opportunity, the poet puts it to use in his overall theme of loss and foreshortened choice: “ … or / if I only choose them because I knew I have to complete life’s assignment, / and that’s what I’ll be stuck with for the rest of my life.”

There are no poems here that could be called long, and sometimes the brevity serves well, as when Mr. Albanese plays with the language to achieve an effect. Here is “From You I Crumble” in its entirety: “here I sway, I know my weeds / form mutes each scene through broken fray / she’s cost of dream, I lied to myself / but you valley to protect my stream / from that I’d jump but crash straight through / these fragile knees / you’ve always been the gentle breeze and / handed shield - me, brittle leaf.” Besides the use of “valley” as a verb (meaning to shelter?), and the uncertainty I feel with the words “form” and “handed,” we note also the liberties taken with the rhyme scheme, unorthodox subtle echoes occurring mid-line. And again the theme of relationship across a gulf, perhaps impossible to span, gives you the flavor of the collection.

The emotions wash over us, and this poet opens his heart to us with all its difficulties and setbacks. I would hope, though, that he begin to focus these honest emotions into concrete form, that he find the worldly material to give them physical shape and heft, rather than remain so insistently in the conceptual. These poems need the clarity of everyday images; Mr. Albanese has talent - the heart and the urge are palpable. 

"The Vanished" by RC Binstock

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In “The Vanished,” author RC Binstock melds two narratives into one memorable story. In it he recounts the slow, halting recovery of a family still trying to find its footing a year after suffering a horrifying, life-altering tragedy. This matching of two disparate arcs delivers a striking tale of hope and regeneration.

Malcolm and Aaron, brothers in the Bernard family of Boston, each struggle in their own way to cope with the wrenching loss of their sister Barbara and her two small children, who died when their airliner exploded over the North Atlantic. The health of their parents, Dan and Naomi, begins to fail under the strain. And Barbara’s widowed husband James goes to ground in England, frightening two families, and adding to the strain.

In another narrative vein, Binstock aims his considerable talents at the trials of the 19th Century French master, the artist Jean-François Millet. An artist who gained renown in his lifetime for scenes of peasant life, but whose reputation was fodder for critics and political theorists, produced a handful of works mentioned in the novel, and which bear strongly on the author’s design and intent. 

Throughout the modern-day events of this novel, the lost loved ones haunt the survivors the way only such victims can. Malcolm, the oldest sibling, faces paralyzing fears about future events outside his control. So much so that he cannot proceed in his work as a sculptor and art professor. The scene where his prodigal black-sheep brother Aaron shows up at his house and the two a night-enshrouded rapprochement is one of the most memorable in the book. It contains a frankness, an energy, and a tenderness in which the brothers display every palette in the spectrum of family relations.

Through Malcolm, the artist and aesthete, we see the works of Millet, stunning and evocative, at this remove in time. Millet has no political agenda, paints no symbols, other than forgettable early-career devotional work, but only wished to portray the world and the people in his native Normandy. Events and themes echo across the decades: Malcolm is enthralled by Millet’s vision of the open horizon of the limitless sea (see The End of the Hamlet of Gruchy by Millet), but in Millet’s own life, a painting of a devout couple taking a prayer break while sowing a field (see The Angelus) takes on the most weight.

The work of this painter, winnowed down by the author to two emblematic works, lend depth, interest, and cogent comment on the latter-day events of loss and redemption. This scheme reveals to us a clever and persuasive storyteller at full power. This is a lovely and redemptive read.

"I Exist. Therefore I Am" by Shirani Rajapakse

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While reading I Exist. Therefore I Am, I had the sensation of being submerged. I felt trapped deep an endless sea, with no hope of seeing the surface. Author Shirani Rajapakse’s stories of women in modern India has the effect of burying all hope for these females, these second-class citizens. While it is an oppressing collection, it was clearly designed to be so; while its function is to expose and obliquely denounce, its variety does nothing but strengthen and reinforce its message.

Ms. Rajapakse leads off the collection with “Drink Your Milk and Go to Sleep,” and establishes right away the grisly and hopeless tenor of the series. A unfortunate woman has married into a family suffering from the superstitions typical of certain classes of Indian society. So her new family inevitably finds her culpable when she gives birth to female children. This young mother resorts to her only recourse after so many births of the wrong sex again and again. It’s shocking and horrifying.

“Shweta’s Journey” recounts a modern young woman’s descent into household servitude and enslavement at the hands of a purported religious leader. Her naïveté plunges her into this self-obliterating hell; her fear for her life keeps her there.

Even women who have passed a long, satisfying life with family and spouse have an expiration date, apparently. In “Death Row,” Ms Rajapakse recounts the slow, tortuous journey to death of many older widows whose families no longer want them. It matches the bleakness of these women’s spirits with the bleak conditions in which they are forced to live out their days.

The title story features the plaints and exhortations of developing female fetus, and are thus simply inaudible. It echos the heartache of the first story and reflects the devastated lives of so many of India’s women.

Current cultural and religious conflicts have their airing here: young carefree women who have been kidnapped and subjugated into wives by Muslim men hold no hope of ever being rescued, and scant idea of even being missed. This sad state distills the sad theme of the collection into one brief story.

There are ghastly crimes in these pages; there are hopeless laments; each tells a different aspect of the complete pulverization of the female character in India. The author has followed up her award-winning poetry collection, “Chant of a Million Women” with an alarming and sensational collection of short fiction calling attention to the plight of women in India. Pick it up; prepare to be educated and appalled.

"Where My Heart Used to Beat" by Sebastian Faulks

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Sebastian Faulks presents a book-length confessional of a man alienated from his own feelings in Where My Heart Used to Beat. Robert Hendricks grows up in England, having lost his father in the Great War. His mother refuses to talk about his father, saying it would be “too painful.” Hendricks’s life becomes painful in its turn, too, and through a physician’s knowledge of symptoms, and the self’s absorption with its own history, he tries to get some sort of closure on the pain.

Born during the cataclysm of World War I, Robert grows up with his mother, reads incessantly, has a very active imagination and desire to read, and eventually goes to university. His degree in medicine assures his installation as an officer in a celebrated British Army regiment for World War II. He serves with distinction in Dunkirk, North Africa, and Anzio. It is the fraught and frustrating Italian that seems to do in his mental state. While recuperating from wounds, he falls in love with a comely Italian woman, who proves to be the love of his life.

Hendricks tells these episodes late in his life to an elderly doctor on an island off the south coast of France. These conversations amount to an extended therapy session where Hendricks is encouraged to unburden himself. Talk ranges far and wide. The older doctor admires the book that Hendricks wrote in the 1960s, about mad people, and how they could best be supported, because curing them seems beyond the reach of the medical community. 

I read of this Hendricks, of his problems and doubts, but nowhere along the way did he engage my sympathies. He is a fine fellow, stalwart with his comrades at war and caring   with his patients as a doctor. But the purported alienation he feels, his inability to find comfort or a happy ending … I missed the part that would have made me feel these in my viscera. That may not have been Mr. Faulks’s point, but in a novel of this kind - a highly personal journey in search of comfort or love or support - it certainly seems like it has to have been.

This novel is quite vivid in its descriptions of the British experience in World War II. Its philosophical asides - spoken by our first-person Dr. Hendricks - about the violent worldwide paroxysms of the 20th Century, and how they become embedded on an individual’s soul, are undoubtedly strong. These supports deserve a clearer and more forceful main plot, I felt.