"The Road Home" by Rose Tremain

No comments
There is a very great deal that grows out of this immigrant saga; it's nothing less than one would expect out of Ms. Tremain. Our hero, Lev, leaves an impoverished Russian town for the glitz and glamor of London. Eventually he shows good aptitude in food service and dreams of opening a high-end restaurant back in his home town.

In London he learns about good product and good service, two things that have been lacking back home. He teaches as well. Those around him always come to like and admire him; he's a credit everywhere he goes. He finds and loses love; he earns a big enough settlement to seed his dream restaurant. So the road home leads through the lessons of London so Lev ("levitate"?) can return to his roots.

We have memorable secondary characters here: the ruthless London restaurateur who comes to respect Lev, the shallow love interest, the wild-man taxi-driver/entrepreneur in Russia. Tremain gives us her warm, bright humanity and her wisdom here. She continues to be one of my very favorite authors.

"Trespass" by Rose Tremain

No comments
Sometimes when watching a TV ad for a fragrance or a soft drink or almost anything, my wife or I will jokingly say, “Go ahead. Find the unattractive person in that ad.” We say it because it’s impossible to do. While reading Rose Tremain’s weighty “Trespass,” one could say the converse: “Okay, find the attractive or sympathetic person.” Because you pretty much can’t. “Trespass” portrays the lives a small number of people in late middle age as they progress into dotage. It also contains a hard-won balance, a magisterial justice, along with its brilliant depictions of Cevenol France. Along the way we witness true, anguished, human motivation, and at the end of the day, we have the unmistakably brilliant Rose Tremain behind it all.

Our intrepid author introduces us first to Anthony Verey, a once-almost-wealthy antiques dealer with a shop in a posh section of London. He realizes during a dinner with rich friends that his chance at real wealth has passed him by somehow, and that his celebrity isn’t what it once was. He realizes with excruciating pain that he is no longer spoken of in hushed terms at art openings, he no longer was "the" Anthony Verey. This timid, jealous, inadequate, precious mama’s boy must find a way out of his over-the-hill predicament. He settles of course for moving to the south of France, to the Cevennes Mountains, to be with his beloved sister so they can sort it all out. What gets sorted out, however ghastly it is, actually serves Verey rather well. Ms. Tremain presents grand timeless issues, like gentrification of old land holdings, jealousy, betrayal, greed, and the cruel horrors perpetrated within families. She sets these forces forward in an inexorable march of tragedy and retribution. It has a cinematic feel to it, one in which the audience may cheer for the wronged to come out on top, no matter the means. Our author even puts this Hollywood image into the head of one of her protagonists, as events unfold, and police inspectors ask their inevitable questions.

As always, Rose Tremain presents vivid pictures, both of outward nature, and of inward nature. The desperate ambition, the envy, the smugness of the socially superior, the grasping of the commercially opportune – our author lays these all out for our inspection, and in doing so, holds our modern adoration for money up in a mirror for us. She also reminds us that each society has its victims, and some of these victims so utterly lack for any protection or redress, that only tragedy can follow.

Ms. Tremain also invites us to decide which transgression lends its name to the novel. The British antiques dealer mulls over whether to purchase the French farmhouse, and the locals consider this a form of trespassing. Audrun, the current owner’s sister, unwell, ashamed, suffers the further indignity of being accused of trespassing because of her bungalow’s location. Anthony trespasses on his sister, and her happiness, and we also see how the locals trespass on the living forest that blankets the hills.

Once again, Orange Prize-winning Rose Tremain reinforces her powerful reputation. She has turned out a deep and serious piece of fiction, without perhaps the soaring, dreamlike escape of “The Colour” or the comic touches of “The Road Home.” This is a more contemplative work, filled with cautionary examples of greed and injustice, but also containing a grandeur, a momentous justice, wrought by the book's character seemingly least capable ot it. Recommended very highly.

"How to Read the Air" by Dinaw Mengestu

I try never to let an emotional reaction to a book’s characters or events interfere with an appreciation of the writer’s prowess. And Dinaw Mengestu evokes such a sad and hopeless mood for the two marriages portrayed in "How to Read the Air" that I want to make sure readers know up front this is definitely a highly skilled writer. For all of the emotional and physical cruelty exhibited, this is a subtle piece, a piece that makes you dig for its significances and its lessons. Whether the story supports the lessons is open to debate.

Jonas Woldemariam, the son of Ethiopian refugee parents, narrates in the first person. He tells the story of his own marriage, and includes the meticulous truth about his own compulsive lying. He also re-creates the events of his parents’ marriage, the ill-fated union that led to his life, and he feels it is a worthless life. Here is one of Mr. Mengestu’s subtleties, perhaps the chief one: he has his first-person narrator fill in details of a story he cannot possibly know. The narrator apparently needs to piece together the story of his father and mother to make sense of his own seemingly marginal existence. This narrative takes on a vividness and reality as the author takes it over, and gradually the narrator’s part in the telling disappears. The story of the ill-matched parents consists in large part of a car trip from Peoria to Nashville, in which Yosef, Jonas’s father, takes a wrong turn immediately after he and his wife have a small, slightly-less-acrimonious interlude in the car. Neither partner wants to acknowledge that they took the wrong turn, and the upshot is one of the worst disasters described in the book.

So Mr. Mengestu keeps us a step removed from the parents’ story, possibly because his narrator must make it up as he goes along. In fact, he has always felt the need to prevaricate in the face of every important person or pressure in his life. He lies to his employer, his mother, and most devastatingly, to his wife Angela, another needy soul whom Jonas cannot fulfill in any long-term way. Toward the book’s conclusion, Jonas makes up an elaborate story of his father’s refugee life in Africa, only very vaguely based on the man’s life, and embellishes it for his English class students. He combines this fiction with a car trip in the same route that his parents took, and he begins to have an insight into his parents’ lives. As he finally breaks up with his wife Angela, a surprisingly amicable split, he assures her that even apart, they will have meaningful lives. How he comes to this apparently spurious conclusion is a bit of a mystery. He has some internal revelation and feels his life is affirmed. It feels tacked-on at some level – it doesn’t have an adequate foundation in the story. I hate to say this about this book, because other aspects of it are so impressive: the prose, the parallel narratives, Mr. Mengestu’s assured understanding of human nature.

Mr. Mengestu’s first book, "The Beautiful Things Heaven Bears," was an award-winning work, and though I have not read it, I’m sure, from my exposure to this book, that it must be a very gratifying piece. I cannot help but think "How to Read the Air" must represent a lesser accomplishment.

Listen to Dinaw Mengestu read from "How to Read the Air":

"The Emigrants" by W. G. Sebald

No comments
“The Emigrants” affects us very deeply, and it does this with a subtle, relentless buildup of man’s inhumanity to our chief characters, who are quite a sympathetic lot. This book has woven its enigmatic spell on some highly prominent readers, like Cynthia Ozick, Michael Dirda, Susan Sontag, and A.S. Byatt. W.G. Sebald brought this book out in German in 1992, and I want to give extra props to the translator, Michael Hulse, who captures the somber and straightforward prose so beautifully. This gem requires and deserves your attention like only a few other books.

The book’s main framework consists of a first-person narrator’s efforts to research the history of relatives and acquaintances who left Germany or other European countries for England in the 20th Century. In due course we learn these characters were fleeing Nazi ascendancy. The brief first section actually focuses on a seemingly random individual, but in fact, the character of Dr. Selwyn sets the tone for all the other emigrants: “The years of the second war, and the decades after, were a blinding, bad time for me, about which I could not say a thing, even if I wanted to.” Shortly after moving away from the property the narrator and his wife had rented from the doctor, they learn of his suicide. The lives of the other characters often lead them to suicide, too.

The language in this quiet unquiet book makes us think of simple magazine pieces, written to elucidate the lives of some individual or other. The tone is rather light and distant, and never threatens to bog the reader down in emotion. But impossible to miss: the devastation of the Diaspora and the utter impossibility of remembering or discussing the Nazi regime. The first section, a kind of introduction although not marked as such, concludes with our narrator realizing that the dead come back to us, and he further concludes that they deserve to have their stories told.

A series of characters take us, Virgil-like, through varied versions of hell, but these are hells of frustration, of inefficacy. There is no help on Earth for the despised and reviled Jew. Sections dealing with two prominent characters take into account these characters’ visits to respective cities, each freighted with symbolic importance. The narrator’s great-uncle Ambros travels with his master to Jerusalem just before the First World War. They find a practical ruin. Everywhere, springs have dried up, once-spectacular buildings and temples have sunk and fallen, waste clogs the streets, and the city, even with its untold shrines, churches, and missions, appears abandoned. Later in the book, the narrator moves to Manchester, in the U.K., the onetime humming hub of the Industrial Revolution. There he visits with Max Ferber, an artist convinced of his own failure, and who works at painting in an odd, physical way, that leaves dried paint droppings and coal dust inches deep on the floor of his studio. Here too, the once proud, globally important city falls into ruin, dries up, its heyday long past.

And there it is: the center of the Jewish faith, the symbolic pinnacle which believers the world over acknowledge and cherish, lies devastated. All holy places, temples, shrines, and significant symbols – gone. And commerce, that other stalwart leg on which the Jewish community stood, lay in ruins as well. All crumbles to dust, forgotten in history's ultimate pogrom.

There is much here to explore and much to admire. I have not made a study of the critical literature that follows this book, but suffice it to say the language serves its ends splendidly, by placing before us, unadorned, the frank and violent prejudices that last to this day. Sebald shows us the great black hole: the unnamed and unspoken-of decades surrounding World War II, and the devastation they wreaked on a wide variety of individuals. A somber read, yes, but I promise you, a worthwhile one, one which won’t drag you down, but only make you think. And make you wonder at its creator, W.G. Sebald, and his unforgettable artistry.

"The Diviner's Tale" by Bradford Morrow

No comments
Well into the worrisome and threatening events of “The Diviner’s Tale,” Nep Brooks, the protagonist’s aged and failing father, tries to cobble together an expression to say everything was fine. “Right as ruin” comes out, and for that moment in the book, proves right enough. Cassandra Brooks, our doubting-but-plucky heroine, dowses people’s property, using the arcane and archaic skills to divine for water and other substances, but when she sights a girl hanged in the forest, our narrative plunges into its gripping and atmospheric cycle of menace.

More thriller than mystery, “The Diviner’s Tale” takes us on Cass’s journey through the thicket of the town’s adverse opinion, her mother’s Christian faith and disapproval, and her adored father’s fading health. The story builds its momentum slowly but surely, through a series of eerie reminisces, harrowing visions in the current day, toward a terrifying climax that we know we should have seen coming. Through it all Cass wavers between following her father’s advice (and diviner’s trade) and adopting a more orthodox life. She even attends church with her mother. But as her twin sons (inchoate diviners themselves) and the reader knows, orthodoxy won’t cure what ails Cassie.

And what ails her occupies considerable space here. At times I wished for a quickening plot, as we toured through her youth, doubts, and bad memories. There are times when Cass's doubts seem over-heavy, like she can't get past her mother's objections, or her father's fake confession of charlatanism. I wanted her to trust her instincts and her special gifts a little more. But as we march toward the climax, the pace at last turns out to be just right, since it gives the story's profound evil to its truly menacing depth. Cass, whose life and hopes alternate between quirky practice and threatening vision, engenders our sympathy, as do the other colorful characters. We pale for the fate of the kidnap victim Cass helps find, and whose trust Cass earns. We also wait with bated breath as even her delightful twin sons are threatened.

Brad Morrow succeeds at those great challenges the thriller writer sets for himself: do we care what happens to the victims, and does the climactic action quicken our pulses? To both questions, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” For the Brooks family, the patriarch, through Cass, down to and including the twin boys, this book is a memorable find, and terrific company in its haunting way.