Regular readers of my blog have expressed their displeasure that, when I wrote my last blog on non-fiction books, I promised a follow-up blog with my recent adventures in fiction but failed to do so. In the spirit of some unnamed Virginia politicians, I apologize for the lapse and humbly offer the following.
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson is timely against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un. But it suffers by being like two books. The first part is from the perspective of Jun Do, an orphan in North Korea, dehumanized by the harshness of his life. The state conscripts him into the army, teaches him English, trains him at sea in electronic spying, and sends him forth as a kidnapper for the government. He becomes a skilled torturer and interrogator, learning to function in dark, subterranean prisons. His story exemplifies the brutality of North Korea, amplified by the epic propaganda of state-controlled media. In the second part, Jun Do has escaped from prison where he himself was tortured by General Ga, who ran the prison. He assumes Ga’s persona and even moves in with the General’s wife, opera singer Sun Moon. The voices alternate from Jun Do having assumed General Ga’s identity, to an interrogator/torturer in charge of a captured Jun Do/General Ga, to the voice of the state propagandist blaring episodes of each year’s “best North Korean Story” over loudspeakers in public places. The technique is confusing, though it enhances the precariousness of life in a totalitarian state. The darkness is unsettling and haunting. Don’t read at bedtime.
The Gathering by 2007 Booker Prize writer Anne Enright. One hesitates to say that one novel captures the Irish soul (or any other national “soul,” for that matter), but The Gathering offers some insight. The focus is on a large Irish family, with narrator, Veronica Hegarty, returning home to identify the body of her brother Liam, who has committed suicide. He is her favorite among all the siblings, though he is an alcoholic and a “messer.” The wake and the funeral give Veronica many opportunities to parse the family history: addiction, poverty, abandonment (at least four of the 12 kids raised by the grandmother, whose husband was not the only man in her life) and sexual abuse. Veronica is torn by guilt that she might have done more to prevent the suicide, and her grief estranges her from her own husband and daughters, with whom she shares a comfortable middle-class life. With steely insight and mordant humor, she dissects all the family’s struggles, sexuality, and enduring dysfunction. Compelling narrative, beautiful mastery of language, unblinking insight into character.
In Paris in the Present Tense by Mark Helprin, Jules Lacour is a 70+ cellist and teacher, a veteran of the Algerian war for independence, a Holocaust survivor, a widower obsessed with getting enough money to send his small grandson abroad for treatment for his otherwise terminal cancer. An obsessive athlete and incurable romantic, he gets into a predicament that makes him the target of a police murder investigation, providing a thread of tension through passages of sumptuous writing. Any reader who loves Paris will be intoxicated by the lush descriptions of the architecture, vistas and byways, the suffusion of art and music, but also profoundly disturbed by the simmering hatreds among immigrants and citizens, Muslims and others and a rising, toxic anti-Semitism.
Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere is as good a read as her Everything I Never Told You. Set in the seemingly idyllic Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, it looks behind the manicured lawns and fashionably draped windows to explore racism, class tensions, family dysfunction and dark family histories. There are clashes of families and of values, mysteries to be solved, ambiguities to be parsed. Ng probes relationships between mothers and daughters, which are as fraught in this privileged and outwardly progressive community as anywhere in the country; adolescence is complicated and often dark. The unraveling, focused especially on two particular families, is riveting.