North Woods by Daniel Mason is an exquisite book about a house in a forest in western Massachusetts, and all the people who have lived in that house going back to colonial times, starting with a pair of lovers fleeing the constraints of Puritan society. Each chapter is devoted to successive inhabitants of the house, and the unfolding of their stories evokes no less than the color and timbre of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories. Enduring throughout these tales, which eventually intertwine with each other to reveal connections, is the forest itself, which lives, breathes, gives birth, dies, and gives birth again. In this, Mason evokes the writing of Richard Powers.
The very last character Mason introduces is a post-doctoral scientist who might have stepped right out of Powers’ The Overstory. Absorbed in studying the transitions of the forest even as she uncovers stories of the inhabitants of the yellow house, she says “The only way to understand the world as something other than a tale of loss is to see it as a tale of change.” This is the author’s theme, whether he is writing of the natural world or the human inhabitants, or perhaps, the reader wonders, they are one and the same. A rich literary experience.
Prophet Song by Paul Lynch, the 2023 Booker Prize Winner, is a superbly written book about the dystopia of our times that will leave you in tears at the end. Lynch’s use of words to paint pictures and the rhythm of his phrasing are often richly poetic, flowing forward with few paragraph breaks. The mood is dark and frightening. The story line often evokes the terror of Franz Kafka, but Kafka’s evocation of empathy is sterile by comparison. The third-person narrative is sometimes stream-of-consciousness, from the perspective of Eilish Stack, a mother caring for four children ranging in age from 17 down to infant, and her senile father. Her husband Larry, a teachers’ union leader, is at odds with an increasingly authoritarian government and disappears one day. What happens to the other boys, first to Mark, the 17-year-old, and later to Bailey, 13, draws the reader deep into a totalitarian country of curtailed freedom, dangerous resistance, societal breakdown, civil war, daytime and nighttime nightmares. I won’t detail what transpires for Eilish, her teenage daughter and toddler son.
That this drama unfolds in Ireland, which we often regard as a country that has solved, or nearly solved, so many of its problems, heightens the risk for all of us living elsewhere. The terror is visceral. At the end, this book leaves us with a deep and sorrowful gasp. Its cri de coeur is our own.
The Bee Sting by Paul Murray is a big story (650 pages) about an Irish family living outside of Dublin, struggling with the economic crash of 2008, combating the very real effects of climate change, and that’s just the backdrop for their individual problems. Every member of the once- successful family has deep-rooted personal issues, some going back generations, ranging from poverty to domestic abuse, alcoholism, repressed homosexuality, less-repressed lesbianism, social insecurity, loneliness, brutality, social media addiction and on and on.
Some of the family members start out as unsympathetic, contemptible creatures. The narrative, however, weaves back and forth among them, with successive chapters told from the increasingly revelatory perspectives of the various family members. The mother, Imelda’s thoughts are in a frenetic, stream-of-consciousness style, and she goes from being cheesy, funny, greedy and garish to wounded, pathetic, self-assertive, lonely and sympathetic. The book takes its title from the bee sting Imelda gets on her eye on her wedding day. A portent of things to come?
The father, Dickie, (older brother to popular soccer star and doomed Frankie), starts out as studious, responsible and disciplined and ends up as, well, I’m not going to spoil the story for you. Written with brilliance of language and creativity of style, the book offers moments of humor and love, and probing insights into the complexity and casualties of the human condition. The Bee Sting was short-listed for the 2023 Booker Prize (among six finalists) and is a rewarding experience for the lover of books.