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"A Small Fortune" by Rosie Dastgir

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Alia, a young woman born of a British mother and a Pakistani father, works hard during the events of A Small Fortune to mend her fractured relationship with her father. Indeed, that relationship is one of the principal axes around which the events in this funny and touching debut novel revolve. The story captures the friction generated by other conflicts as well: that of cultures when immigrants try to adjust to a new land, that of the zealous-but-cowardly trying to get the too-trusting to do their radical and destructive bidding.

This is the story of Harris (the Anglicized name of a Pakistani man who has immigrated to London), and his extended family. Harris has survived a toxic marriage (alluded to in the novel, but not part of its events) and reaped a tidy sum in settlement. As a devout Muslim, he seeks a way to unburden himself of the funds, and help his family and loved ones in the process. He unwisely settles the entire amount (more than 50,000) on a sleazy cousin who spends a good part of it on flashy components and resents forever after any suggestion that he might pay some of it back. 

Harris is a sad sack throughout much of the book. Author Rosie Dastgir (a onetime Londoner of mixed British and Pakistani parentage) imbues him with a strong urge, but not quite the courage, to do right by his family and his faith. He shies away from asking his cousin for a return of any of his funds. He shies away from his own beloved daughter because she lives like a modern Londoner, which is clearly what she is, instead of a chaste young Muslim woman. His attempt to dictate his morality to Farrah, the charming widowed professor with whom he develops a relationship, at length estranges the two.  I had a hard time crediting this sort of behavior in 21st Century London, but I must thank Ms. Dastgir for the humanity of this character, and for the forlorn humor involved in the portrayal. 

That’s where this book is really strong: the author gives each and every character a full human shading and nuance, from the main players to the ones we only get a glimpse of. Harris’s young nephew Rashid goes through a gratifying (from the reader’s standpoint) crisis and redemption, but my hopes for a clearer settling-up of accounts elsewhere came to nothing: the sleaze-bag cousin gets himself elected to the town council and remains impervious to entreaties that he do anything honorable about his windfall. Much of this book relies on a series of willful misunderstanding and intransigence that distances characters from those closest to them. As I say, I found this the most trying area in which to suspend my disbelief.

"In a Summer Season" by Elizabeth Taylor

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The best gifts, they say, come in small packages. In a Summer Season seems a slight book for most of its length, but its subtle conflicts, frustrated hopes, and the internal journey of main character Kate’s heart – without warning these features take on a touching significance just at the end of the novel. Elizabeth Taylor (a different one) packs a powerful ending into this quiet book that one does not expect.

Kate and her family live in middle class comfort in Surrey, not too far from London, and the story takes place in the late 1950s. Kate had been widowed, but is remarried, to a man roughly ten years her junior. The bit of money they have between them allows a leisurely lifestyle: neither works, although Kate’s mother-in-law Edwina is forever trying to set up Kate’s husband Dermot in some kind of career.  This push leads to the story’s main conflict; Dermot starts an apparently benign deception that nevertheless is a key factor in the wrenching events at novel’s end.

Ms. Taylor tells this story quietly: Kate’s frustrations are relieved rather promptly in most cases; her twenty-two-year-old son advances in the family business; her daughter gets over a crush on the curate. But the theme of the unity of this family emerges, and it seems to me that Dermot, and Araminta, the young siren of the neighborhood, are simply distractions, dazzling, diverting in their way, but only that. Dermot makes Kate happy, but the slow erosion of his confidence and self-esteem build up brilliantly to his ultimate failure. It’s a difficult, shadowy thing to see coming; Ms. Taylor does such a masterful job of surprising us with the climactic events.

In a Summer Season shows us our weaknesses, and shows how capricious our ideas of happiness are. We feel forces here that are quite beyond our control, and our emotional negligence contributes massively to our lack of control. This novel, gentle and lulling throughout its main course, surprises us with its sense of inevitability at the end, and teaches us to look with fresh eyes and appreciate our loved ones and our blessings, with hearts more open. It is a valiant, worthwhile effort.

"The Air We Breathe" by Andrea Barrett

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Tuberculosis patients are transported to an Adirondack sanatorium for their rest-cure in the days just before World War I, and in Andrea Barrett’s excellent The Air We Breathe provide a microcosm for the world on the eve of losing its innocence in the “War to End All Wars.” There are many novels which show an author’s deep understanding of human nature, and The Air We Breathe belongs in the ranks of the very finest. 

Leo Marburg, a young Russian immigrant without family or cultural ties, contracts the dread consumption while living and working in Brooklyn in the spring of 1917. His arrival at Tamarack State, the institution for tuberculosis patients, precipitates at length a series of misunderstandings, and attracts the suspicion of the self-appointed authorities. His fellow inmates also succumb to unfounded suspicion, and turn on him. At novel’s end, they realize how unfair they were to their former friend, and how unjust.

Ms. Barrett does a marvelous job of bringing in the remarkable historical events at that epochal moment. The inmates, suffering from boredom and a sense of abandonment, begin, grudgingly at first, to gather once a week to hear a talk by one of their own. Late in the book, after all the reproach and recrimination have played their havoc on the principals, particularly Leo, the group reflects on a time of lost innocence (a grand job of the author to catch the tenor and momentousness of the time):
 How innocent we seem to ourselves, now, when we look back at our first Wednesday afternoons! Gathering to learn about fossils, poison gas, the communal settlement at Ovid, about Stravinsky and Chekhov, trade unions and moving pictures and the relative nature of time, when we could have learned what we needed about the world and war simply by observing our own actions and desires. We lived as if nothing was important.

In awe of events swirling beyond their walls, the inmates make the mistake of missing the feelings and personal strife right within their midst. They have witnessed thwarted love, betrayal, xenophobia, wartime jingoism, and the disillusionment of talented immigrants. The clever author accomplishes two tricks at once here: she uses the folly and selfishness of the patients to illuminate the faults of the outside world (there is a fire that generates poison gas and fatally injures three), and also shows in stark relief the truth that the less we care for our fellow beings, the less we are worth. She offers here a lesson for the world at large, and also for much smaller communities.  This is superbly thought-provoking, plainly told, and deceptively straightforward. Find the depth through the archetypes. Recommended, big-time.