Winter reading – pt. 1, fiction by Marjorie Arons Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons Barron’s own blog. 

You don’t ski? You can’t bear the cold outside? You can stay warm, cozy and energized by making friends with a book.

The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis is an unraveling mystery focused on a prominent Israeli cabinet minister who, to escape a high-profile disagreement with his Prime Minister, betrays his wife by decamping with his mistress for a week’s vacation in Yalta. A hero in Israel for having been imprisoned in Russia on trumped-up charges and emerging as a Refusenik leader, he meets the man who, at the behest of the KGB,  had betrayed him causing his 13 years of imprisonment.

Threaded through the narrative of this spy story are life’s most profound questions. What is the nature of morality? Are guilt and innocence absolute, or assessed in the context of extenuating circumstances: What does it mean to be a Jew? Who is a Jew? What is the nature of duty, to one’s country, one’s family and oneself?  In an interview, the author asks, “What is my obligation to my children? Is it to live my life in a morally consistent way so as to set a good example for them, or is it to make various compromises….to shield them from discomfort and pain? And is there an absolute answer to this question?” In economical prose, Bezmozgis  gives the reader a page turner and an intriguing way of pondering some of the major ambiguities of life.

The Story of A Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam is a short, intense novel that will stick with you.  Set in ravaged Sri Lanka in the civil war of the last decade, it follows one day in the life of young Dinesh, who spends his days at a makeshift clinic, moving injured people inside for treatment, carrying out shrapnel-ridden bodies, burying limbs severed during the nightly bombing by rebel forces. Seemingly numb to the violence, Dinesh leaves the clearing each evening to sleep in a remote location by the sea, where he believes he will be safe from the coming night’s carnage. An old man arranges for Dinesh to marry his daughter, Ganga, so she will be protected after his death. The richly written novel covers just one day, but digs deep into the meaning of life. With intimate details, Arudpragasam contemplates what must a person must have just to survive, down to the most basic physical and emotional needs.  The travails of the terror-stricken migrants evoke the horrors of Kyiv or Kherson and refugees elsewhere living on the edge. This a first novel, revealing the author’s rich imagination and empathy, auspiciously hinting at books to come.

Lessons by Ian McEwan spans the history of our generation, the recorded events of the last eight decades, through the life story of Roland Baines, an English lad sent off as a child to boarding school by his WWII officer father and passive mother. The story spans his life from early childhood, first love (a creepy affair with his piano teacher), to his first wife (who abandons him and their infant son to become an accomplished novelist), to the longtime friend (who became his second wife.) The stories weave back and forth, against the backdrop of world events, always probing his interior experiences. As McEwan often presents, his male protagonist demonstrates sensitivity to the disparate women in his extended family and circle of friends and acquaintances.

The book is multi-layered, probing, thoughtful and reflective, always exploring what makes a life meaningful and fulfilling. The title references the music lessons that framed that first passion, the lessons Roland randomly learns from life’s circumstances, and the lessons he hopes to impart to his grandchildren as he approaches 80 years old.

The Furrows by Namwalli Serpell is about lives crushed by death, focusing on Cassandra (“C”) Williams who, at the age of 12, tries and fails to save her seven-year-old brother, Wayne, from drowning in the churning furrows of the sea. C is blamed for little Matt’s disappearance, and years of therapy and revolving shrinks can’t keep that event from dominating her life. Her father leaves the family. Her mother insists Matt is still alive and forms a foundation to help parents of lost children. “Furrows” may also refer to the lines in foreheads of people forever frowning from life’s troubles. Later in the book it comes to signify how one’s life wrinkles between undifferentiated narrative and periods of intensity surrounding extraordinary events. Wayne not only reappears in C’s dreams but in her life, even in the form of someone who bears his name – someone to whom she is drawn and with whom she becomes sexually involved. So, is he live or is it Memorex?

Is this how grief distorts reality, especially when that grief is laced with enduring guilt?  We all must deal with the finality of death, and grappling with it can leave us at sea. The Furrows is intriguing from a creative perspective but leaves the reader in a really uncomfortable place.

Trust by Hernan Diaz is set in the early part of the 20th century. The book is divided into four parts. The first is a story told an omniscient observer about a reclusive wealthy man. Brilliant with numbers, he manipulates the stock market during the 1920’s and becomes even richer.  His wife is equally withdrawn, possibly on the spectrum or even mentally ill, whose only interest is in the arts. Part two is a draft of the same story, told by the aggrieved subject of the fictionalized story. His first-person defense sometimes just comprises notes on which he wants to elaborate later. The third part is told by a woman hired by that same wealthy man to write the “correct” narrative he wants told about his wife and him. In the final part, the hired writer discovers a journal by the late wife, revelatory about her own role in the saga and, needless to say, a totally different, surprising but, to me, satisfactory account of what may really have happened. Or did it?

It’s a literary Rashomon piece of writing, and, in the end, it’s up to the reader to decide wherein lies the truth. I found the structure a little bit weird, becoming intriguing only when I figured out what Diaz was doing. That took a while, but it happened.