"Prison Noir"

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Edited by Joyce Carol Oates

The stories in Prison Noir have a sameness of setting, being written by prison inmates about prison plots and themes, but they diverge in tone and focus, and have just as much sophistication in structure and theme, as any short piece of fiction by any professional. I enjoyed them quite thoroughly – to an extent that surprised me.

The stories cover a gamut: one piece details the experiences of a man imprisoned in solitary for so long that he hallucinates that he has a highly unwelcome (but rather well-read) cellmate. Other stories offer the possibility of pitched physical battle, but never come to it; other stories offer us and the characters insights about charity, redemption, freedom. One thing they all have in common, and there’s no mistake about Joyce Carol Oates’s editing influence here, is the accurate portrayal of the human spirit under duress. Characters’ hopes in this volume will mainly be dashed, and the better the prisoner adapts to his or her incarcerated life, the better their chances at long-range survival.

I recommend this slim volume of short stories. They convey to us the claustrophobia and constant tension of inmates, and the unavoidable toll these take on lives and psyches. They also reveal to us a highly talented group of writers with a wide variety of thematic concerns. A highly admirable collection, worth some of your time. 

"The Light Between Oceans" by M.L. Stedman

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M. L. Stedmans’ debut work of fiction, The Light Between Oceans is another exhibit in the case against reading cover blurbs. This book had a note using the term “heartwarming,” which is not appropriate for this book, in my opinion.  Light Between Oceans is a fine effort that deals with love, war-ravaged psyches, and the jealousy of the maternal instinct. It’s also a well-unified piece, using the bright spot of the little girl to encapsulate the shining light of opportunity and love between two opposed mothers. But I would hardly consider this novel’s events or conclusion “heartwarming.”

Ms. Stedman’s book contains the story of a lighthouse keeper and his wife, a young couple who have suffered through several miscarried pregnancies. One day a miracle falls to them: a baby washes up on their remote island in a rowboat, the man in the boat with her (apparently her father) dead from cardiac arrest. The plot has interesting points, and is made quite believable by the author. But flaws creep in … I had a difficult time with how willing the young mother (Isabel) was to assume the duties of and give the love of a mother. My suspension of disbelief was further strained by Isabel’s apparent willingness later in the book to let people think the absolute worst of her incarcerated husband.

Nevertheless, this book’s descriptions of beautiful and captivating little Lucy-Grace are perfect – never off by even the tiniest bit. She embodies the shining hope and ideal object of love for two different women, and thus stands out as the light between two oceans. However, this book made me tense, as I kept expecting a certain outcome, but was disappointed in that expectation. And the very end didn’t quite seem necessary, and had a definite formulaic feel, which the rest of the book certainly did not.

A family saga, set in a unique place – off the southeastern coast of Australia – that deals difficult family, legal, and psychological issues, this is a flawed but interesting debut. This author shows promise, but I recommend waiting for subsequent efforts.

"The Forgotten Waltz" by Anne Enright

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The events of The Forgotten Waltz lead us down the trail toward Evie, the just-prepubescent daughter of philandering Seán, and she’s a quirky, uneven character to carry all that energy. And up until the last sections of the book, she doesn’t play a particularly prominent part in the story – she’s important, there’s just not a lot of text devoted to her. Forgotten Waltz is a surprising book, considered in the context of Ms. Enright’s Booker-winning The Gathering. It has none of the deep psychological strife, and abjures the artful burgeoning clarity of that masterpiece. But it is nevertheless a compelling read.

In The Forgotten Waltz we follow the thoughts and sometimes the emotions of Gina Moynihan, a Dubliner in her early 30s, who although married, pursues an affair with married Seán. Her inward dialogue rings too true: she kind of knows what she’s doing is reprehensible and costly, knows why she’s now caused alienation and sorrow in two families, but – she and Seán will try to make a go of it, at least for now. And slowly, the importance of Evie, Seán’s 14 year-old daughter, starts to grow. By the end of the book I thought of her as about to exercise the judgment of the world – will she survive and thrive while aligning herself with Gina, or will she turn her back and thereby take her Dad – and Gina’s happiness – away?

I’m convinced of this importance for the character by the open-ended way Ms. Enright leaves the issue – there is really no way to ascertain Evie’s state of mind from her statements. It gives us the opportunity not only to understand the critical nature of the issue for Gina, but also to speculate as to the outcome. But a fortiori it gives Gina’s and Seán’s misadventures the slight possibility of durability, of the certifying mark of longevity, and we don’t know if we want that for Gina. As a character, she engenders no sympathy, and this is perhaps Evie’s function. It could be that the youngster’s final judgment dooms Gina, and this is a highly persuasive, perhaps the most logical, reading.

I looked for parallels with the grand and magisterial The Gathering, and I did find them. We get the same crystal clear and true-to-life inward dialogue in the main character. Although the morality of the two characters from the two books is at least very divergent (if not diametrically opposed), we understand the series of machinations and rationalizations that Gina goes through, and this is a great accomplishment, make no mistake. Ms. Enright set out to portray a realistic progress of an adulterer, which by playing it perfectly straight, she achieves extremely well. By then placing her fate in the hands of a shaky and retrogressive teen, she leaves the end of the story open, and the reader is free to form her own conclusions.

This is a very balanced and honest conjuring. We enter the head of our anti-hero and see its none-too-pretty workings clearly, and this is the great success of Forgotten Waltz.