"Painter of Silence" by Georgina Harding

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Author Georgina Harding takes a unique look at World War II’s effect on a small area of Romania, through the eyes of a deaf mute man, and the effects she achieves are nothing short of spectacular. Well, “spectacular,” may be a poor descriptor – this book is full of subtle touches rendered in gorgeous language, and the accumulating power is spectacular. And the high skill in the prose extends to the intricate plot, as well. No wonder it was short-listed for the 2012 Orange Prize; this book gets my highest recommendation.

Augustin is born to a peasant mother who cooks at a large house in rural Romania. It gradually becomes clear the child cannot hear, but unfortunately not before it is too late to try to teach him. As he reaches pubescence his work ethic and kind heart have carved out a niche for him on the estate. Then the war comes and the household splinters; Augustin, nicknamed Tinu, ends up relocated and finally imprisoned by the new Communist authorities.

As luck would have it, he ends up in a hospital and one of the nurses is from the family he used to serve. She struggles to bring him out of his shell, and is helped by others on the staff. Tinu touches all he meets; people open up to him in these troubled times and reveal their innermost selves. He becomes a receptacle not only of what people tell him, but of the experiences of the entire country. And through it all, Ms. Harding’s prose contains gift after wondrous gift.

A sample from early in the book:

Dusk was falling across the garden, the hills, the view of the village. In the river, darkening scraps of colour grew sodden and began to sink unseen. The boy walked home across the grey fields. All colour was gone now; the plank fence about the yard, the barns, the woodpile reduced to a smudged charcoal blackness.

Another, two thirds through, to show a brilliant image achieved by the author:

The deaths and the processions press and tangle in his memory. No pattern to them, no chronology either. There are tanks, men, horses, lines of men, dressed in the colours of the soil, of mud and dust; and if they were stripped of their clothes they would be pale and bare like pale stalks that should be concealed beneath the ground, covered over again with soil.

This stunning image mixes in Augustin’s mind with the figures he has seen on the walls of the churches: “… pale lines of naked men marching up and down the scenes of judgement.” So the war’s all-encompassing devastation takes on the appropriate magnitude: Judgment Day. 

Obviously no further judgment on the Second World War was needed, nor on the repressive impulses of the Eastern European regimes that followed it, but Painter of Silence’s contribution is a unique one. It places a young, defenseless man at the center of the storm, and he suffers through it with his unique handicaps and strengths. He accretes a more universal role in his suffering, and the author accomplishes all her grand ambitions in somber, beautiful, even-keel language that suits the subject perfectly.

This book is exceptionally artful, a complete joy to anyone who appreciates deep purposeful prose and lofty ambition. Take this beauty up.

"East of Denver" by Gregory Hill

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In "East of Denver" Gregory Hill treats us to the hard luck story of Emmett and Shakespeare Williams, a father and son who are about to lose everything. Shakespeare, 36 years old, has returned to his boyhood home to help his prematurely demented dad, but it's too late. A crooked banker in town has fleeced Emmett of everything: his land, his home, his government subsidy, his single-engine Cessna.

Mr. Hill makes a brave attempt to be amusing, and he sometimes succeeds. But in the end, there isn't a single noble character (other than soft-in-the-head Emmett), a single redeeming sentiment, a note on any scale other than hopeless gallows humor.

At least it's short and gives a few laughs along the way.

"Tita" by Marie Houzelle

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In Tita a highly precocious seven year-old girl grapples with the day-to-day issues of school, church, friendship, and family. She lives in a small town in southern France at mid-20th century, at a time when tradition and the Church face the pressure of change. This little girl reads Stendhal, Proust, and Herman Wouk, and while she doesn’t always comprehend every adult nuance, her reading gives her many insights unusual for one of such a tender age. Throughout the book she delivers this book’s main charm: her pithy, spot-on critiques not only of notable authors, but of the adult folly around her. 

As unlikely as all this sounds, Author Marie Houzelle successfully treads a fine line with this unique and endearing character: the young thing wrestles with the issues of childhood of course, but her keenly honest observations place her in two worlds: she’s seven, but she’s getting – and applying –  insights from some major prose artists.

Tita has a unique voice and viewpoint. She comes ingenuous to all situations, as only a seven year-old can. She faces issues typical for a schoolgirl: the prospect of staying in the same school with a horrid teacher; whether her family has enough money to stay in their house; the way her mother stretches the truth to serve her vanity; surviving a disastrous two weeks at camp. Through it all she delivers her obiter dicta so candidly, so incisively, that it achieves a lasting charm. Ms. Houzelle is to be congratulated. One might be tempted to doubt Tita’s ability to take cues from such advanced reading, but there’s never a time when it doesn’t work. Tita the character is perfect. Take up the book, by all means, and make her delightful acquaintance.

“Kraken” by China Miéville

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The word “inventive” describes China Miéville’s Kraken the way “okay-looking” describes Halle Berry or Charlize Theron. Mr. Miéville turns London into a living creature whose viscera can be read, and every character within it has some magical power or other (“knack”), including the cops. The inventions continue and continue: once the dead giant squid is beamed out of the science museum, tank and all, the action ratchets ever upward, leading to talking tattoos, a London embassy belonging to and occupied by the sea, a haruspex who reads London’s future when part of its pavement is dug up (and the city bleeds), and much, much more.

We view these strange events through the eyes of Billy Harrow, a curator at the museum where the giant squid (the “kraken”) had been on display. He finds himself allied to Dane, one of the true believers of the kraken cult. While hunting down the missing animal (one god among a panoply in this wild premise), they snoop for clues, run for their lives, gain powers, and interact with all manner of creative peril. At length, all understand that the end of the world threatens, and Billy has to try to save the day.

This is truly a tour de force of invention by Miéville, that most inventive of novelists. This particular alternate universe features powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men – and everyone has them. The interest comes from the utterly endless variety the author has conjured up, and I’ll tell you, I was exhausted by it at the end. The breathless climax is a rewarding bit, consistently far-fetched and outré as all that has gone before. This is a highly ambitious piece, exceeding 500 pages, and never once are you allowed to catch your breath. Mr. Miéville charges through it all, and keeps us following along, wondering what impossible thing will happen next, and how it will be accomplished. Charge in, and get ready to have your mind stretched.