Cold grey days, snow and ice, long waits for vaccines, Zoom fatigue, all add up to wonderful opportunities for reading, with fiction being an especially enticing escape.
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, came out in 2011, won the National Book Award for fiction. The narrator, Esch, is the only girl in this working-class family of five leading a hard-scrabble family on the Gulf Coast, physically and financially imperiled. Their backyard is “the pit,” a junkyard. Outside and inside, theirs is a life of squalor. Their mother died in childbirth. The father is a drinker, a doer of odd jobs, a poor communicator. Teen-aged Esch becomes pregnant by a guy involved with another girl. Her brother Skeetah breeds his beloved pitbull, China, to raise money so another brother, Randall, can go to basketball camp and secure a college scholarship. Early scenes of China giving birth to her first litter are raw, a metaphor for all unlikely to thrive. Hurricane Katrina hits. The family’s house is swept away, leaving them to escape to their grandparents’ abandoned house next door. They take refuge on the roof. China and her puppies are swept away. After Katrina, local towns lie in rubble. Skeetah insists China will come home. His love for her will be rewarded. The reader remains uncertain but is drawn to the sliver of hope that China is out there, and the family will somehow move forward. Bleak? Yes. Depressing? Yes. A tribute to human endurance? Definitely.
Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam is an enticing thriller about a Brooklyn family of four, mom, dad, two teenagers, on their week-long summer vacation, a high-end rental isolated on Long Island. It’s peaceful, gratifying, and safe……. Until a knock on their door, and the arrival of an older African-American couple, the owners of the house, who have been driven out of their 14th floor Manhattan apartment by a widespread power outage. The threat is more than an interruption to the grid and the loss of all communications. The owners have nowhere to stay, and, with great unease on both couples’ parts, the couple moves into the downstairs guest room to wait it out. Tensions build with several frightening events, all of which expose uncomfortable racial attitudes, class resentments and criticisms of parenting. All six cope differently with with their fears, by smoking, cooking, eating, obsessively tidying up. The book will resonate. It’s a short leap to wondering what we would do if…. there were a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, a pandemic……oh, wait, the latter is no longer just a fantasy. The details about what caused the Northeast to go dark are never fleshed out, adding to the reader’s anxiety. The lessons learned by the four adults are just hinted at. The wisest of the characters seems the youngest, the girl on the cusp of her teenage years. This is a page-turner. It yields much opportunity for discussion and could well be made into a movie.
The Garden of Evening Mists (published in 2012) by Tan Twan Eng has been on my to-do list ever since reading Tan’s The Gift of Rain. Also set in Malaysia, The Garden wrestles with multi-cultural hatreds and loyalties, wartime atrocities and conflicts, personal and national secrets. The writing is exquisite, painterly and laced with symbols, but is driven by the unfolding of the narrative. The narrator, Yun Ling Teoh, is taking early retirement as a judge after being diagnosed with a kind of dementia. The sole survivor of a Japanese forced labor camp in WWII, she has spent her adult life struggling with resulting physical and emotional scars. Even while trying to forget, she also wants to create a garden memorial to her sister who, with other internees, was killed in that camp just before war’s end. In pursuit of that commitment, Yun Ling became obsessed with Yugiri, the lone Japanese garden in Malaya, and its designer, Aritomo, once the head gardener to the Japanese emperor.He refuses to design her memorial garden but takes her on as his apprentice. Despite her hatred of the Japanese, their relationship becomes intimate. For both, it is a voyage of discovery, unearthing the often-shocking realities of their wartime experiences, the significance of guilt, the creation of beauty, the pursuit of peace and preservation of memories of good and evil. A haunting book, well told.
Once We Were Brothers by Ronald Balson (published in 2013) is set in the other side of the WWII theater, also exploring the wartime roles of two individuals with common roots and on opposing sides. The similarity ends there. First, the narrative. Balson’s story grabs you from the start when an elderly man, Ben Solomon, at a philanthropic gala in Chicago holds a gun to the head of the wealthy and powerful honoree, Elliot Rosenzweig, and accuses him of having been a Nazi in Poland, responsible for stealing Solomon’s father’s possessions and doing far worse as a member of the SS. Solomon is arrested and, at Rosenzweig’s insistence, no charges are filed. Solomon persuades a young attorney, Catherine, specializing in corporate matters to represent him in suing Rosenzweig. At her side is future husband, Liam, a private investigator. They are eventually won over by Ben’s story. The book is propelled by the mystery surrounding the man’s identity. The narrative is largely dialogue; the language lacks elegance; at times the story line seems predictable. But it’s an entertaining read, tense, filled with drama, and has a certain cinematic appeal. The arc of the universe does end up bending toward justice, and it ends up being a satisfying read.
Karolina’s Twins, also by Ronald Balson, is another Holocaust mystery to be unraveled by Catherine and Liam, using the same literary devices relying on dialogue, informed by deep historical research. In this book, the final discoveries provide an unexpected twist. Again, it’s not great literature but a decent yarn.