"The Redemption of George Baxter Henry" by Conor Bowman

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George Baxter Henry is GBH, and he makes a joke out of having the same initials as “grievous bodily harm.” There’s really not much risk of that when you pick up this breezy, off-hand little tome, unless you injure yourself one of the times you throw your head back and laugh out loud. Because you will do that certainly, if you’re anything like me. You might not find the same things funny, but there’s more than enough to tickle everyone’s fancy.

The wisecracks start early and don’t let up. George Baxter Henry, fifty-one-year-old commercial lawyer and his fractured family are traveling to France from Boston for a holiday to see if George’s marriage can be saved. He also has to deal with his coke-addled rock star son and his hateful, vituperative mother-in-law. Along the way he sheds one paramour for another, more exotic, French one. You wind up wanting GBH to come out on top because of how involved he gets with his son and what how he quietly stays out of his daughter’s way. Through some underhanded tricks and some careful research and a climactic confrontation, George Baxter Henry squeaks through.

This is a moderately enjoyable bit of fluff, touching on some serious life issues, but never getting heavy-handed about them. At least George really learns what’s important by the end of the book.

"The Paperbark Shoe" by Goldie Goldbloom

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Virginia Toad, née Boyle, has married Toad, a man whose name describes him, and lives a hardscrabble life on a farm in the Australian Outback. During the years of World War II, the drought is worse than usual, and the normal struggle to eke out a living becomes even more difficult. Then the British high command directs that Italian prisoners of war be sent to Australian farms as slave labor, and the conflicts of “The Paperbark Shoe” begin as the authorities assign two prisoners, John and Antonio, to the Toad farm.

Virginia – “Gin” – is angry at and repels the world, including her husband, her two children, and the child yet to come. She has survived a cold kind of abuse from her stepfather and has been denied a piano scholarship and tour rightfully hers. She deserved it because Gin can play – in fact, her virtuoso abilities combine with her albinism to make her a complete freak in her isolated community. She has a caustic word or response to every situation until the arrival of Antonio, an attentive, cultured man who takes time with her, can appreciate her musical skill, and eventually finds her beautiful. This is a revelation to Gin but she struggles with it because of her loyalty to her husband. She struggles until she finds that Toad has not been loyal to her.

Ms. Goldbloom compels us to see Gin’s harsh life in the harsh landscape and conditions. She makes everyone’s motivation plentifully clear; the main characters are gratifyingly nuanced and deep. The somber, almost foreboding tone throughout makes this book something of a drag, at least it did for me. There are things about this book that recommend it: the correspondence of the harsh and empty landscape to the heroine’s parched heart; the effective glimpses into Australian thought and psychology during the war; the weaving of Aussie words and phrases into Ms. Goldbloom’s staccato, hard-edged prose. This book does have an edge, and is very well written, but it is limited by its pedestrian ambition.

"Lowboy" by John Wray

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In “Lowboy” we experience the thoughts of a teenaged mental patient, Will, who has abandoned his medication. They are shocking in the sense that somehow we recognize the torture Will suffers, the agonized logic of his delusion and the urgency he feels to make things right. Author John Wray shows all this in highly effective and arresting prose. It’s exceedingly well done – it haunts the reader and we begin to fear that we too might be drawn into the madness rampaging through the book.

We fear it because our representative in the book, N.Y. Police detective Ali Lateef, begins to weaken under the influence of Will and his mother Yda. He starts his day feeling good about himself and his fitness for his job, but when Yda arrives for questioning about her missing son, the mystery and uncertainty make their entrance. The chapters from Will’s point of view are nothing short of uncanny. I could translate Will’s inner posturing and his outward mien into a highly intelligible whole, thanks to Mr. Wray’s skill. The mental problems almost seem contagious, not only to Detective Lateef, but also to us, the sorry-for-eavesdropping-but-I-can’t-help-it reader.

Two other stories come to mind, which offer intimate narratives of mental illness, Anne Enright’s The Gathering and John Burnside’s The Devil’s Footprints. Of these two marvelous pieces, “Lowboy” resembles the Enright more closely, because it devotes more of its pages to the internal dialog of the stricken person. This book also has a thriller’s nerve-wracking and inexorable pacing. Mr. Wray acknowledges a few sources at the end; if he’s able to weave such a stunning, beyond-the-pale fiction from such sketchy sources, all honor and glory go to him.

I consider the artifice of Will’s internal and external dialog, at length, beyond compare. So much is devoted to them that the passages take on a life of their own, which seems appropriate given his schizophrenia. It’s all there. Desperation, the genius observations, the hallucinations, the perverse application of his own mad framework to every look, object, and word.

Every look, object, and word in this novel will impress, haunt, and harrow you throughout. I’m sure I didn’t expect this. My only experience with Mr. Wray, The Right Hand of Sleep, did not prepare me for it. Then again, nothing can prepare you for Lowboy.

"The Laws of Harmony" by Judith Ryan Hendricks

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Judith Ryan Hendricks gives us the tribulations and crankiness of Soleil (who goes by ‘Sunny’) in “The Laws of Harmony.” Even given the struggle of her childhood in a New Mexico commune, and all the resulting issues she has with her mother, we still find it hard to engage our emotions or hopes for her.

Sunny Cooper pushes people away from herself. Her large unresolved resentment of her mother Gwen precludes closeness with others, even the handsome, compelling Michael, who proposes to her. She balks and makes him wait for her to come around to the idea. But Michael’s duplicity, legal trouble, and disappearance generate not only the tension that pushes the narrative forward, but it pushes Sunny to move from Albuquerque to a remote island off the coast of Washington state.

Here she meets the permanent (non-tourist) population, a mixed lot who try to offer help and support, which Sunny feels ambivalent toward, and doesn’t want to accept. Ms. Hendricks makes an attempt to wrap up the story’s threads and does so at some basic level, but again, I found my emotions only half-engaged.

“The Laws of Harmony” spends a fair amount of its capital in expansive descriptions of mundane tasks: food prep and cooking, showering, tidying up, or simply walking through a ferry terminal. Events and thought process quite central to the novel, however, have a glossed-over feeling at times. Chief among these: Sunny’s near-constant anger and anti-social behavior. This does soften near the end, but I don’t think it’s adequately founded in the story. I don’t see her motivation. Sunny’s evolution from being someone with a hard, isolated outlook into a person capable of accepting and giving human kindness, starts by novel’s end, but the ending has an abrupt, rather arbitrary feel. There are sections that amuse, and I did find myself laughing at some of the dialog, but overall, I felt I could spend my time on projects with a greater reward.

"The Elegance of the Hedgehog" by Muriel Barbery

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There come times when you hope you aren’t the boy who cried “Wolf!” too often, whose statements about this or that book have caused calluses to grow in people’s hearts and not to trust their devoted reviewer. If they have, I want to take it all back and beg you to trust me about this book. A bestseller in Europe, highly praised wherever it was reviewed (this space will be no exception), “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” will stun you with its own elegance, with its erudition, and with its wisdom.

Originally published in 2006 in France as “L’élégance du hérisson,” this marvelous second novel of Muriel Barbery charts the highly refined intellectual journey of a fifty-four-year-old Paris concierge from isolation to a full, loving embrace of her life and loved ones. Our heroine, Madame Michel, has read deeply and widely of the world’s narrative masterpieces, and has delected the great art of the world, recognizes and appreciates the world’s great music, and is more than passingly familiar with the themes of modern philosophy. And in her strong intelligence, her reading bears the fruit of a highly sophisticated wisdom. (However, all is not Tolstoy, Mozart, and Vermeer: at a critical juncture in the narrative, Madame Michel finds meaning and persuasion in a lyric by rap artist Eminem.)

Madame Michel’s narrative alternates with that of Paloma, an unhappy young girl who is part of a family that lives in the apartment building. Each in her own way, they ponder the function and effect of Art in our lives, and jointly their understanding has a deep and highly persuasive effect on us. The book is completely beguiling – a delight to read and thought-provoking in the extreme. Mme Barbery brings us into the confidence of these two very different-but-similar female characters. We love Madame Michel and learn to love Paloma as the book proceeds, and the alliance of the two is too brief – we regret that it can’t take up more of the story – such is the author’s effectiveness with her characters.

I need also to devote a moment to the seamless and virtuosic translation by the novelist Alison Anderson. This could not have been an easy book to translate, but this just might be better than Michael Hulse’s rendering in English of W.G. Sebald’s “The Emigrants.”

For most of this unique book, philosophical considerations share space with skewerings of modern manners and pretension. The fact that such beautiful and heartbreaking love unfolds late in its pages just strikes me as miraculous, and a tribute to Mme Barbery’s powers. I doubt very seriously if I will a better book this year.