What is a family? What does it mean to be human? What’s worth fighting for? How many of us have felt (still feel) we don’t quite fit in and wonder if it’s the way we were raised or a common human condition?
Each of these three engaging new novels explores such questions with a fresh slant.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler is her sixth novel, and her fine writing makes me want to read more of her work. This book starts off one way, in the middle of the story, we are told, and quickly pulls the reader in with the promise of a secret-filled back-story about a family with missing members.
And then, less than a quarter of the way in, it becomes another kind of story. It reads as smoothly as an expert memoir and seems very real. Bits of history and common and uncommon psychological concepts are integrated into the story. The sentiment is never cheapened, and the characters’ choices are never easy.
No Country by Kalyan Ray draws the reader in early on with a couple of characters, Brendan and Padraigh, in whom you become deeply invested. The action begins in 1840s potato-famished Ireland, and with sensory detail piled upon detail, you can almost hear empty stomachs rumbling. Brendan has every reason to lose his useless religious faith. Here’s an excerpt to give you a flavor of the voice:
All Your loveliest miracles, Lord, revolve around food. On the arid stretches under glittering desert stars beyond the parted Red Sea where, stamping the Egyptian soil from their feet, the faithful partook what You provided from thin air. At Cana. On the beach by the Sea of Galilee. The last simple and Lordly Supper ... Are we not Your children too, with equal need for sustenance?
To be deep drowned by the Flood, to be swirled away by an engulfing fire—ah, that is grand, Lord, but to be eaten away by the slimy blight, its rheumy stench foetid in the nose—ah, Lord—that is a low trick. And You, our glorious Lord, are turned into a dastardly gombeen, trashing our lives and forcing our faces into our hunger-retching and gut-drool, left with nary a scrap of dignity, on a soiled and soggy floor.
You certainly come away with a renewed understanding of how the Irish were done badly by the English, and why so very many Irish people emigrated far and wide.
The action continues both in Canada and in India, and for a time, we truly care about the young men who long for a home to which they cannot return.
Just under 200 pages into the 553-page narrative, the author makes an abrupt shift: suddenly it’s 2011 and we’re following new characters, related to be sure, and then are tossed back and forth into Indian history. It took me a while to adjust and reinvest myself in the story.
Occasionally, the coincidences were simply too many, as when we find ourselves at the scene of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City and one character leaps out a window onto another who we hadn’t expected to be there at that time. Still, I admire Ray’s ability to keep all these threads going, not to mention writing in so many voices without a slip.
Finally, though, I believe the author’s heart and head are in the right place when he deals with certain themes. Among them, the abuse of power, diversity, and connectedness. At more than one point, a character comments that although it was the English this time, any other government power with the chance to abuse it would have done so (and they mostly all have, it seems).
Life Drawing by Robin Black (July 15) is a relatively spare first-person story narrated by a woman who had an affair, admitted it, and then tried to escape the past by moving with her husband to an isolated farm in the Northeast.
When their isolation is broken by the arrival of a friendly female neighbor, everything begins to change between husband and wife. What I liked about the plot was its genuine self-reflectiveness, its deep searching-out of truths about living, relationships, love, and lust. An example:
I thought of what Alison had said about becoming generic. It didn’t just remind me of my father, I realized. It was also close to what I had felt about my affair. One day we were two fantastically, uniquely interesting individuals who had been lucky enough to find each other—even if under terrible circumstances. And then, five months later, I was that pathetic woman hoping a married man who would never leave his wife for me would leave his wife for me. A cliché. A soap opera trope.
The other aspect of this very polished debut novel that entranced me was the way the author captured all the vagaries of a creative life. The wife is a painter, the husband a writer, and we are shown the ways they help or hinder one another, the various ways they experience the hazards of trying to be creative. Here’s a quote about creative flow:
It was an accurate enough way to describe what I understood myself to be, and an accurate enough way to describe the sensations that created the isolated trance into which I would fall while at work.
And then there’s the essential beauty (truth is beauty, beauty truth, after all) of the writing itself:
My conviction that the dead are dead are dead are dead had hardened, as had I, yet this tiny indefensible comfort at having my mother and my sister buried so close shimmered in me like a single, dewy blade of new green grass.