Girl on the Leeside

An Irish Sleeping Beauty (West Coast of Ireland, present-day): This is a novel with a fairy-tale soul. Sweet and dreamy. Ancient and 19th century Irish and Celtic poetry grace its pages, as well as the hearts and minds of its three key characters, giving it a sense of timelessness, soulfulness.

The poetry memorializes Ireland’s mystical, magical beauty. Seamus Heaney exalted “lough waters.” William Butler Yeats wrote of “waters wild.” A. E. (George W. Russell) glorified “delicate dews” and a “breath of Beauty.” Yeats also wrote of a “faery” and a “beautiful mild woman”; A. E., a “long sleeping.”

Not all the poems are from the Old World. That beautiful fairy shows up as the girl in the title. Siobhan Doyle secretly composes her own poems immortalizing Ireland’s surreal beauty. She possesses a “fairy charm.” Even her watchful childhood friend, Maura (her only real friend when the tale begins), felt she “invented” Siobhan, that one day she’d disappear into her “fairy-mound.”

That’s because of her striking appearance – long dark hair reaching down to her knees – and her mysterious and unworldliness around people. Instead, Siobhan, a “poetic soul,” finds enchantment in ancient Irish poetry and the misty beauty of her pristine surroundings on the western coast of Ireland, the Connemara region. Someplace between Clifden and Galway, two miles down a coastal road outside the fictional village of Carnloe, you might find Siobhan lulled by her hallowed Lake Carnoe – or in Irish – Lough Carnloe.

The thing is Siobhan is not a girl. Though she’s quite small, she’s twenty-seven and still doesn’t know “how to stop being shy of people.” Her hulking, well-over six foot tall Uncle Kee, turning fifty, went to such lengths to protect her he “created a soul too gentle for this world.” He gave up alcohol when he suddenly became the parent of a frightened two-year old after his dear sister Maureen, Siobhan’s mother, was killed in an IRA bombing in Northern Ireland; presumably so was Siobhan’s father, a British soldier – a nod to Ireland’s anti-British history. He’d already forsaken his university dreams of studying Irish Gaelic poetry due to familial responsibilities but not his passion and knowledge, which he instilled in Siobhan.

For all he’s gone through, Kee keeps his feelings to himself whereas Siobhan doesn’t even understand hers. They both share a special bond for Irish poetry, Ireland, and the three-hundred-year old stone pub passed down six generations that Kee owns and the two run together – the Leeside.

Leeside, though isolated, is the cultural hub for this small, remote community. So it is remarkable how emotionally detached Siobhan has been despite friends and neighbors who gather here. Among them are Maura and her husband Brendon, their four-year-old daughter Triona Siobhan adores, a troublesome brother Nialle, and Maura’s father Seamus. Katie is another one of the regulars. She’s a brassy woman who raises Connemara ponies (Siobhan cherishes hers), who has had her eyes on Kee for a long time.

Connemara pony
By Olaf Kleinwegen, via Wikimedia Commons

A third devotee of Irish literature brings us to Siobhan’s sweet awakening. Tim, a professor of Irish studies from Minnesota, is on his way to visit Kee when the novel opens. Siobhan is apprehensively preparing for Tim’s visit, for her uncle has decided to re-open the pub to overnighters. That practice ceased years ago when an incident there threatened his precious girl. Tim has never been to Ireland, but Siobhan immediately picks up on his deep appreciation for Ireland’s “poetry, mythology, folklore, and history,” which stirs her delicate heart, unfamiliarly.

Tim also sees something of himself in Siobhan yet he intuits with tenderness she’s very different than any woman he’s ever known. While he tries to separate his feelings from his scholarship, the truth is he has fallen hopelessly, achingly, in love with her uniqueness instantly. Hence, the set-up in this old-fangled love story.

Tim’s romantic dilemma is how to penetrate Siobhan’s inner world without scaring her off and how to do that from afar. Could she ever leave a place she’s never traveled from, away from the waters that soothe her and the uncle she reveres?

For Siobhan’s part, she’s never been involved with a man. She has no idea if the emotions she feels around Tim and the “emptiness” that bears down on her once he’s gone have anything to do with love. Perhaps the “intense passions” in her poetry are guiding her, she muses, for she had a visceral instinct she couldn’t just say goodbye as he’s about to leave. So she guiltily concocts a lie that assures he’ll have a reason to stay in touch. Their twice daily email correspondences draw them closer, yet the lie shames her, stands between them, and she isn’t sure of his feelings since they’re not face-to-face, illuminating a condition of contemporary life, though so much else in the novel feels as though time has stood still.

A few more examples to make the case for the aura of yesteryear. A Prologue set in the 20th century conveys a “mystical bond between women.” The importance of female friendships being a “wellspring for each other” is a poignant theme of sharing and caring that plays through.

There’s also a nomadic caravan family that stops by the pub every September to sell their wares, including the warmest and loveliest sweaters that pay tribute to Ireland’s sheep farming history. Siobhan looks forward to seeing the merry band of travelers, especially Gwen; also her son Turf (great name given the love of the land), his wife JoJo and their children. They’re gypsies: “members of an ancient clan, ragged nobles of the road, the last strands of a vanishing way of life.”

Travellers’ Decorated Caravan
By National Library of Ireland on The Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

The concept and spirit of traveling is also expressed in the backstory of Siobhan’s mother, a restless soul; by Siobhan who is calmed by sheltering in place; and through all the armchair travelers who see the world via literature, including poetry.

It’s summertime, so we too are dreaming of traveling. Whether you’re making plans to travel from home or stay put and let fiction transport, Girl on the Leeside offers peacefulness. Peaceful like our world is not. Your trip will take you to an unhurried place of sheer natural beauty. A kinder, quieter world where life is more basic. That’s not to say these people aren’t hardworking, but they have time to count their blessings. Girl on the Leeside gently reminds us of that.

So while you’re reading, imagine yourself as Siobhan gazing into the “pearl gray” waters of her lough. Imagine glimpsing the dramatic Aran Islands a short distance away, and knowing you’re among friends who extend a “perpetual welcome.” Imagine an “untamed valley of rough beauty,” with its verdant “folds of hills and cozy knolls,” a landscape so beckoning it seems a fantasy. Then wonder like Siobhan: “How does a person really know where they are meant to be?”


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All The Rivers

Is love enough? An Israeli and Palestinian love story (seven months in New York City after 9/11, mostly): Thanks to Jessica Cohen’s beautiful translation of Israeli writer Dorit Rabinyan’s All the Rivers, this breathtaking novel is now ours to read. If the passionate prose soars in English, what does it sound like in the deep and resonant intonations of Hebrew?

I ask because this is a novel of passion about an all-consuming love affair between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man converging at a time and place that’s a perfect storm: New York City in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

In fact, everything about this novel feels immediate. From the moment Liat, 29, met Hilmi, 27, at a Greenwich Village café she “felt an immediate intimacy” as though she’d known him for “a thousand years.” He felt that connection too; within three hours he was tenderly calling her Bazi, “sweet pea.” And she immediately grasped he’d be a once-in-a-lifetime love that couldn’t possibly last. An impossible love, a forbidden love, so fraught with complications, fears, and realities it threatened her identity, heritage, family at its core.

This magnetic “push and pull” romantic drama is marked by deeply conflicting emotions and the urgency of time. Liat is a visiting Fulbright scholar getting her master’s in Hebrew translation at Tel Aviv University, due home in seven months to fulfill teaching commitments. Her scholarly pursuits fit her conservatism, and highlight the importance of translation as a career. Rabinyan and Cohen’s gorgeous literary collaboration case in point.

Hilmi is the opposite. With his hair a “sea of frizzy charcoal curls,” in contrast to her tight ponytail, his image befits his artistry and idealism. He’s been in the city for four years on an artist’s visa, teaching Arabic and working on a “dreaming-boy” project: a series of forty autobiographical drawings consuming his Brooklyn bedroom walls and floating from the ceilings like Chagall’s “floating lovers.” Awesome, vivid, dreamy echoing their love and the prose.

How bitterly ironic Hilmi’s home is just forty miles from Liat’s, yet worlds apart. His large, loving family lives in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel, one of the controversial settlements in the West Bank.

Is it any wonder, then, that the seven months Liat and Hilmi spend together are “mad and beautiful days?” The intensity and ephemerality of a love that “stunned and excited” all the time is conveyed in long, flowing, heartfelt prose. Paragraphs consume pages, structured in brief chapters, as if the author knows she must let the reader keep coming up for air:

“…moments when I can feel he understands me, that he can make his way in and out of my mind’s twists and turns, that I can look at his wise eyes and see the wheels of his mind spinning in perfect harmony with my thoughts. The ease, the satisfaction, the comfort that fills me in those moments. The curiosity and delight of pondering these things together. In those moments when we talk and talk and talk, I feel like I have been a sort of enigma to myself, a difficult riddle to solve, he has come along to know me and to answer all my questions … I feel I am almost becoming him, so close to him and infused with him that I can practically feel what it is like to be him.”

The novel stuns and excites in the way imagery and metaphors intensify emotions and themes. That might account for Rabinyan receiving the 2015 Bernstein Prize for Israeli writers under fifty (the 2014 novel was originally published in English as Borderlife), and that it was also banned from Israeli classrooms. Utterly adult, intimate, so we can see why young adults would also be drawn to it. So many complex questions, so few answers.

Lest the novel’s anxious time period of heightened suspicions does not fully register, it jolts by opening with the FBI knocking on Liat’s door in the Village (she’s apartment sitting for Israeli friends) a mere hours before meeting Hilmi. Someone spotted this olive-skinned, “Middle Eastern looking” woman, contacted the authorities.

If that terrific reality is not stormy enough a backdrop for the couple’s emotional storm, the author ups the ante by wrapping their love in a wicked winter, one of the worst on record (actually 2002 was one of the warmest). The symbolic fierceness of the weather pummels throughout: At first, the freezing weather huddles the lovers as if it’s just the two of them against the world. New York City beckons and they explore its neighborhoods, a treat for all who know and love the city. As their days become numbered and the limits of their relationship are tested, wintertime slides “gloomy and foggy like a film noir,” then so freezing “cold that it shocks your entire being and makes it lose hope.” As the couple’s heated arguments are triggered over politics, the weather ices like people’s prejudices.

The power of art is added to this tumultuous mix. Love has inspired a “golden time” for Hilmi’s creativity. An outpouring that possesses, exhausts, makes him weep.

As the conflict between their homelands erupts – the Iraq War – we feel like weeping too. For this is a novel about many kinds of passionate love, including love of country.

Do you believe in happy endings? Hilmi, the dreamer, does; Liat, the pragmatist does not. Hilmi believes peace will come; Liat, enraged, views his wishful thinking as “binational fantasies.” She’s surprised how alarmingly deep-seated her outlook is, more aligned with the right-wing posture of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

As I was puzzling over Liat and Hilmi’s divergent political ideologies, not even sure if Netanyahu supports a two-state solution, The Washington Post published an excellent, lengthy piece laying out how problematic swapping land for peace has devolved, how enmeshed Israeli society is in the occupied territories.

While this is first and foremost a novel about an intense romance racing against a loud ticking clock, the burning question as to whether peace can ever be achieved in the Middle East hits us in a new light. It’s striking how improbable it seems for love and politics to be separated, no matter how profound that love. As much as we hope love overcomes, equally it feels hopeless.

Of course that’s the heart-tugging question that burns here. Will love be enough?


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The Whole Way Home

Triangular Love, Home, and Country Music (Nashville, present-day): The Whole Way Home sings like real country music. “A living heart in a song.” A “dance despite the heartaches.”

“Good country music” – in the straight-talking words of Floyd Masters, Sarah Creech’s old-time country music legend turned radio sage who graces our airwaves from Vanderbilt’s station, 87.3 FM – “should make you feel something, should cover the entire territory of the heart.” Creech’s second novel surely does with prose that’s strong, tender, achy, spirited, sorrowful, angry, wary, honest.

Are you one of the two million fans of the country music TV show Nashville longing to relive the romantic chemistries and musicality between three country music stars before they killed off the female character centering them? Well, dazzling indie singer/songwriter Rayna Jaymes – that “rebel woman,” that “good-values kind of woman” – is back as Jo Lover! As magnetic and torn between “two different kinds of love” as Rayna was.

This time around Nashville’s Deacon Claybourne, the fiery guitar-strumming character wrapped up in Rayna’s history, returns as J. D. Gunn, Jo’s Appalachian childhood soulmate who, along with his band brothers the Empty Shells, is now a “multiplatinum-selling country music megastar;” and Luke Wheeler, Rayna’s calmer, more conservative heartthrob is now Nick Sullivan. Privileged, yet he earned his reputation as the “most sought after producer in Nashville, maybe in the entire music industry – he could play bass, guitar, pedal steel, accordion, harp, mandolin, piano, percussion, horns.”

J. D. is from Jo’s past: she hasn’t seen him in five years. Nick is her future. Until things change, in Chapter 1, The Wrong Chord.

That’s when country music’s latest inductee into the Grand Old Opry – Jo – walks onto the stage of the “mother church of country music,” the Ryman Auditorium, and becomes so unnerved seeing J. D. she misses an easy chord. Noticeable to anyone who knows the music.

Picture the set-up: Imagine Jo as a “young Emmylou Harris” (long black hair, tall, slender), strutting her signature red Ariat cowgirl boots, singing in her “trembling, lilting, Southern-accented voice.” She’s thirty-two, from a small mountain town in fictional Gatesville, Virginia, where “mountains and music make memories.” Her female fans – the ones she writes for – are screaming for her “mountain-girl style,” for the sweet sounds of her fiddle and mandolin, for her healing music.

1916 Gibson F-4 Mandolin
By Anita Ritenour (Flickr: Gibson Mandolin) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Hear Jo’s down-home Appalachian twang as she rouses the crowd: “Always been a lot of guessing about who I write my songs about,” she eggs them on. “But I think what really matters is heartbreak. Anyone ever experienced one of those?”

Observe she’s not a folksy Jo when she steps onto that historic stage all made-up in her hot dress and even hotter seven-carat, Assher-cut diamond. She’s engaged to three-time Grammy winner Nick, whose father owns Asphalt Records, the indie label that’s nurtured her.

Look whose sitting in that wild-for-Jo audience! Jo didn’t expect to see him, but you can’t miss his Elvis-looks: black wavy hair and “blue eyes lit up with innocent joy like paper lanterns.” Their estrangement seems to be about Jo feeling he’s sold-out to a corporate label. Once poor as “pickup sticks,” but she hasn’t forgotten what “her mama always said … don’t get above your raising.” That musical mistake is the first sign something is still there between them. If only J. D. could get her to smile at him, “that look that always did him in like the full moon over the mountaintop.” But Jo loves Nick, he’s good for her; she wants no part of J. D. Right?

Romantic tension skips through the pages. Jo’s country music men deeply love her in their own ways, which is why the novel sings. It’s not until you’re halfway through that Jo and J.D.’s backstory becomes acutely clear; it’s not until the novel’s end that the romantic triangle reshapes to two.

Like Rayna and Deacon, Jo and J. D. have a past they can’t seem to get over. But Nick’s a really decent guy, lower-key, gracious, and he offers her a love that’s purer and safer. Like Rayna and Luke, Jo and Nick are to be married on his magnificent estate (in eyeshot of J. D.’s) in an over-the-top wedding scheduled around their tour dates.

Whomever you’re rooting for, whoever wins Jo’s uncertain heart, with the TV visuals and sounds running through your head, the whole reading experience is even more immersive and satisfying.

Connie and Deacon at the Bluebird Café

The plot does bubble with some “thinking like a businessman” bumping up against “thinking with his heart.” How else could this be a candid look inside the country music industry from the standpoint of the singer/songwriter/musician as well as the business executive’s?

The authentic thread continues with storylines about up-and-coming young talent like the Flyby Boys band, amplifying what it’s like to get noticed, picked up, make it in Nashville. It feels like the whole gamut: from the local “dive bar circuits” such as the imaginary Thirsty Baboon, to yearning for a gig at the legendary Bluebird Café where dreams can come true, to the heavy drinking and lusting on tour, to hearing your songs on the radio, to going viral, to the make-or-break publicity in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, American Songwriter, the tabloids, paparazzi, to 360 contracts, to the “post-Napster world” of digital streaming. The author’s research hums like she’s from this world.

The Whole Way Home also pays tribute to country music greats, names we all know and some we may not: Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Reba McEntire, Gillian Welch, Alison Kraus, Kitty Wells, Bessie Smith, Phil Dolby, Ernest Tubb, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Deford-Bailey, Charly Pride.

Don’t be fooled by the list of female artists or the sole black virtuoso who made it big. The author also doesn’t shy away from the industry’s prejudices. It’s far more profound than “country music was still a man’s world,” that it still sees women as “one-dimensional.” It doesn’t embrace a whole lot of diversity.

Racially, discrimination is illuminated in the stories of two black artists. The one that affects the plot the most involves Alan, a member of J. D’s band, who works at the Black Country Music Association, founded to address the inequities. He hails from the Bahamas but his “songs felt so true to country.” Creech invents contract deals to bring home the shame of racism, yet she imbues a moral conscience in her writing and has a poet’s way of easing the pain.

One of my favorite evocative lines recalls memories of Home, a major theme. Jo, as we’ve established, has ambivalent feelings about J. D. In one poignant scene, she:

“felt time fold in like an accordion. J. D. smelled like red clay earth, like composing leaves on the floor, like the honeysuckle vines and Confederate jasmine blooming in June, like wild roses growing on the side of the road and fresh honey from the hive and barn straw and his daddy’s cow pasture after a spring rain, like the metallic air before the storm. He smelled like home.”

Another moving scene takes place on stage, when Jo and J. D. are pressured to play together for the good of the record label. They choose an old song they wrote and sang a long time ago called “Glass Hearts.” It’s a beautiful title, one that epitomizes the novel. “Great songs don’t lose their power with age.” Neither should The Whole Way Home.


PS Could the novel’s release be timed any better? Tonight at 9PM on the cable channel CMT, Nashville returns with some new characters. Will they be as good as Creech’s?

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’Round Midnight 1

Connecting four female characters to one unique place over sixty years (Las Vegas, 1957–present): You know a novelist has created compelling characters whose stories you care about when you close the last page with tears in your eyes.

’Round Midnight is a heartfelt novel deftly tied to a strong sense of time and place. The emotional highs and lows of the lives of four very different women over a span of sixty years cleverly parallel the booms and busts of Las Vegas by Las Vegas author Laura McBride, her second novel set here.

Write what you know is lyrically on display as Vegas looms as large as the characters. Like them, it bears secrets, good times and bad, fortunes and mistakes – “pain and glory.”

“Vegas wasn’t for the weak and it wasn’t for the cowardly,” McBride tells us. So you’d rightly expect her women aren’t cowards. Take June, for example. Her chapter, the first, opens with the grabbing line: “To celebrate victory in Europe, June Stein dove headfirst off the Haverstraw Bridge.”

That’s just one of many literary hooks that keeps us turning pages. Actually, by the time you’ve read the back cover you’re already hooked by McBride’s summing up her four women with catchy phrases that make us curious about them, and how they interconnect, collide. For they must, we assume, as this is not a short story collection, rather a novel with a lot going on above and beneath the surface. So we start off with June cast as “The One Who Falls in Love;” Honorata “The One Who Gets Lucky;” Coral “The One Who Keeps Hoping;” and Engracia “The One Whose Heart is Broken.”

Next come the hooks beautifully composed in tantalizing Prologues, with an alluring clue or tidbit planted. If you read too fast, you might miss these. In June’s case, it’s the mentioning of a “fateful night.” Honorata’s overture follows, misleading us with a tip that she won over a million dollars at a Megabucks slot machine so we think her life will be charmed but take notice for she also “could almost smell the sadness in the place.” All the money in the world can’t make up for what she endures.

On the surface, a nightclub is the nexus to all four women. Each of their chapters opens there, at different time periods. Their kinship, though, is more profound, which is why the novel is so arresting.

’Round Midnight opens in the late fifties in The Midnight Room; it’s a presence until 2010 when renamed the Midnight Café, a nod to Vegas’ severe economic downturn. Attached to a casino/hotel owned by June (and her husband Del) that’s fictional, yet McBride’s Vegas is inspired by history. Since June is introduced first, we follow her the longest, from her late twenties to her eighties. With its “pin-up feel,” the El Capitan was never one of the newer, flashier hotels on the Strip but when Del bought and remodeled it and June had the vision for its success, gambling wasn’t the only game in town. Entertainment was.

It was June’s idea, a gutsy move, to hire Eddie Knox, an exotic black singer fresh from Alabama. He’s a prime illustration of how the real Vegas is woven into the characters’ stories. Vegas was known as the “Mississippi of the West,” a hotbed of racism until 1961 when the casinos and hotels became fully integrated. Big name black entertainers like Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr. and others may have performed there back then but that’s about all they could do alongside whites. The “Moulin Rouge pact” is mentioned: the only casino/hotel integrated at the time June sought Eddie out. We like all of McBride’s women. June, a white Jewish girl from New Jersey, warms our heart with her lack of prejudice.

June symbolizes so many “young and old, wanting to start a new life” in Vegas. She not only sensed “Las Vegas as the future,” but that “casinos were all about people and how many hours you could keep them in your joint.” So she, Del, and later their son Marshall, all enjoy business prosperity, but there’s an undercurrent of emotional unraveling that pervades.

Coral, a black music teacher, is the character native to Vegas, although we meet her after she’s come back home from California to live with her sweet Mama Augusta after her marriage ended in divorce. By then, her father had died and her siblings were gone. Back in her childhood home, she’s flooded with memories as early as seven when she’s first asked about her “caramel” skin and overhears something whispered at home. In scenes of togetherness over the years, we see a wonderfully loving family but Coral’s uncertainty about where she comes from poignantly shows us how deeply ingrained and deeply felt our identity is.

Honorata is Filipino. She makes her way to Vegas as a mail-order bride to a repulsive Jimbo. Launching her character in 1992 is a keen choice of timeframe as the Philippines enacted a law in the 1990s against this practice. Presumably, illegal schemes persisted. Since her uncle made the arrangements, her story begins with betrayal, and worsens.

Engracia is Hispanic, an illegal immigrant from Mexico. She’s the mother of a ten-year-old son, “perfect” Diego; her husband Juan is in jail back home. She’s a waitress and a housekeeper in her twenties, but her actions manifest as someone much older.

As it turns out, Engracia’s heart is not the only one broken. All McBride’s women experience heartbreak, for different reasons. And yet, the novel also sends the message that “joy was possible even if there was also a great deal of pain.” Yes, there’s the love and pain of marriage or the longing to be. But it’s the joys and heartache of motherhood – being a mother, doing whatever it takes to protect your child, the bond between mother and child, yearning for your mother – that transcends. The commonality of the women’s emotions, and how the choices they made in a fleeting moment had such lasting consequences is what makes this novel rise above.

Las Vegas was, and is, one of the fasting growing cities in the U.S. While we can watch videos of vintage versus contemporary Vegas and, of course, visit its attractions, if you want an authentic feel for Vegas through the decades, ’Round Midnight gives us that and more.

Las Vegas then

Las Vegas now

Drive outside of Vegas and you can still find the “barren earth,” the “rock and hill and sky,” and a “million mysterious stars above” that Coral is nostalgic for. But the mysteries evoked in McBride’s Vegas aren’t earthly, they’re man-made. Each of her women harbor mysteries. The one that may affect you the most isn’t even resolved until the final page. Still, the greatest mystery, the elusive one, is how an author can weave a tale that makes us cry.


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Lilac Girls

Unspeakable Horrors, Unsung Heroism – WWII history you might not know (Manhattan & Connecticut; Lublin, Poland; Fürstenberg, Germany; Paris, France, 1939-1959): “It’s not so much you should remember the name. We should be living every day with the standard he set,” says The Washington Post’s Geoff Edgers about “the greatest reporter of our time,” David Halberstam, unknown or forgotten these days. I cite this because Lilac Girls was inspired by a real life WWII humanitarian most of us probably never heard of. Thanks to Martha Hall Kelly’s ten-year effort to bring Caroline Woolsey Ferriday to life, the standard she set – her philanthropic legacy, compassion, doggedness, and resourcefulness – is now out there to inspire.

Chances are you might also not know about the plight of over 200,000 dislocated children in France cared for in mansions converted to orphanages; what went on inside the Ravensbrück concentration camp – the only camp solely for women, intended for 7,000 but rose to 45,000 “living skeletons” by 1945 – far less infamous but equally sickening; and that of the six million Poles who perished during the Holocaust, three million were non-Jewish.

Which makes Lilac Girls a remarkable novel among a bumper crop of remarkable Holocaust novels capturing us of late. A novel of stark contrasts: A heartwarming do-gooder’s story of tremendous generosity, advocacy, and benevolence to aid and comfort WWII orphans and Ravensbrück survivors pitted against monstrous, cold-bloodedness perpetrated by Hitler and his evil followers. It’s a testament to the author’s rendering that we come away celebrating humanity at its most exceptional rather than have our spirits broken.

One reason the novel is so compelling is that all the important characters are based on real historical figures. It’s unusual for so many novelistic characters to come from history. In the hands of this skilled writer, these characters engage us so authentically they come alive, palpably. In so doing, they convincingly make their stories even more unbelievable.

Contributing to this is the author’s tight, revealing dialogue. Though her debut novel, Kelly’s clearly brought her top-notch advertising copywriting skills with her penning dialogue that’s engaging, cinematic, and spot-on in imparting the personalities, beliefs, and prejudices of three females – all drawn from history – our narrators.

Since this is fiction, we can’t be sure everything we read about them is 100% true but it doesn’t matter. Kelly’s extensive research (take a look at her fascinating, detailed website after you’ve read the novel) and talent enables us to step into the shoes of these three women, giving us three perspectives to examine the war and a realistic sense of what it might been like to live through an insane era we’ll never really be able to grasp entirely. Who could?

Contrary to today, back then everyone knew someone affected by the war. If you’ve ever wondered why your grandparents or parents never spoke of the horrors, Lilac Girls answers why. Would we have found the super-human strength and courage to endure the torture in the camp like the survivors did? How would we have gone on afterwards? Would we have sustained Caroline’s “positivity” selflessly for twenty years in spite of personal losses and longings? Are these ponderings why we can’t get enough of Holocaust novels?

The three female narrators who help us to understand are:

Caroline Ferriday: A former actress whose New York high-society “set” mingled with the Vanderbilts and the Whitneys yet she’s not the stereotype of her uppity, self-indulgent friends. Rather, a delightful carbon copy of her endearing mother, who latches onto “charitable opportunities in the way some eyed a plate of pastries.” Both are Francophiles (her mother owned an apartment in Paris; also a summer house in Bethlehem, Connecticut, now an historic landmark you can visit like the author did), so her mother’s connections got her a meaningful position (volunteer) at the French Consulate assisting French families in the U.S. and orphans in France. The moment war breaks out in 1939 when Hitler invades Poland which happens in Chapter 1 (chapters superbly chronicle the enormity of Hitler’s aggressions), Caroline jumps in to assuage the chaos on both sides of the Atlantic. As war deepens, so does Caroline’s involvement.

At thirty-seven, when we meet her, she’s the only one of the three who brings us some respite – a romance – with delicious prose like her opening line: “If I’d known I was about to meet the man who’d shatter me like bone china on terra cotta, I would have slept in.” She charms us, certainly not what we’re expecting! We’re grateful for this balance in a novel of this magnitude. Her love affair with Paul Rodierre, an “achingly beautiful” married French actor with a “Cheshire Cat smile” is, in keeping with the novel’s authenticity, based on a true relationship; only the man is fictitious. The early stages of their playful liaison enable flirty, sharp-witted, self-deprecating humor, but once war explodes the lighter-heartedness darkens as Paul feels compelled to return to France to find his estranged wife, Rena, whose father is Jewish.

Kasia Kuzmerick: Inspired by the real Nina Ivanska, from Lublin, Poland. At sixteen, she joins the resistance movement. Kasia will change the way you think of organizations like the Girl Scouts. We meet her when “Poland no longer exists as a country.” These brave teenagers played a significant role in Poland’s active underground. We learn a great deal about the victimization of Polish women during the Nazi regime through Kasia and her best friend Nadia (whose grandfather was Jewish); Matka, her mother (a former nurse and artist); and her sister, Zuzanna, inspired by Nina’s real sister, Krystyna (also a nurse). That’s because all end up at Ravensbrück.

Ravensbrück Concentration Camp
Photo by ho visto nina volare from Italy (ravensbruck, il lager delle donne)
[CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

(After Hitler, the Soviets oppressed the Poles until 1989. Lilac Girls brings your closer to this country’s repression more than I’d ever appreciated.)

Dr. Herta Oberheüser: While far fewer pages are consumed by one of the only female doctors at Ravensbrück, her psychopathology up-close is still mightily hideous and heinous. A fervent German nationalist who craved respect and power in a society that treated women as inferior to men, she applied for a position as a medical doctor at the concentration camp under the guise it was a women’s “reeducation camp” for prisoners. Though she had good reason to escape her home in Düsseldorf, Germany, needed the money, and a former classmate, Fritz Fischer, worked there, she disgusts us regardless. Early on, when it was obvious what “not for the squeamish” really meant, she could have left. Instead, she not only willingly participated in the cruelty to the bitter end, but was proud to earn the War Merit Cross, a distinction she shares with Adolph Eichmann and Albert Speer.

Lilac Girls abounds with strikingly contrary images. For instance, Ravensbrück was built in Fürstenberg, a resort town described as “a scene from a Black Forest box.” Yet inside: a “special kind of terror we would grow used to.” Herta sees the camp as a “place of superior value.” She says: “how nice to see immature linden trees, the hallowed “tree of lovers” in German folklore, planted at regular intervals along the road.” When in fact that farcically named Beauty Road was satanic. The absurdity of calling notices mailed to families whose loved ones were wiped out at the camp “comfort cards” versus the “comfort boxes” Caroline painstakingly and lovingly pieced together (from former, exquisite costumes she saved) and went to great lengths to send to the orphans is repulsive. What to say of the guards enjoying music amidst barbed wire buzzing?

So you might be thinking: How could Lilac Girls possibly lift us up with all the chilling ugliness? Kelly wisely lets the lives of these three women play out after the war. That answer comes in the unfolding and the ending, when the title becomes clear. The contrasts are stunning.


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The Women in the Castle 4

German complicity in Nazi Germany and the German Resistance Movement (1938 to 1950, also pre-WWII & 1991 in flashbacks and endings; mostly German towns): Entire fields in philosophy and psychology are devoted to the complex study of morality. In The Women in the Castle, Jessica Shattuck is laser-focused on the moral legacy of ordinary German citizens who were complicit in one way or another as Hitler’s Nazi regime committed atrocities against humanity. Moral questions leap out from practically every page.

That’s because this is a profoundly personal novel. Shattuck is of German ancestry and her beloved grandmother (who lived until almost 100) was a member of the Nazi party. Reckoning with that agonizing incongruity makes for a most unusual, penetrating, and timely WWII novel that begs for an overarching moral code in national political discourse and conduct.

What does it mean to say someone has a moral compass? Can immoral behavior be justified to survive? Or, is there “a right and a wrong in every situation”? What if you only “half-knew” something was horrific? What if you were unobservant or too self-involved or allowed yourself to be deceived? How far should accountability go if you participated in one of the many ideological and militaristic child-molding programs of Hitler’s Youth Movement like the types characters in the novel did – older boys groups (Jugend), older girls groups (BDM), rural youth camps (“children-to-the-land-programs”) – even if you entered unaware? What about the stigma of having been reared in a “Children’s Home” for Germanisation? The abuse and scarring of children burns throughout.

Tackling these moral questions is a minefield. Not everything is black or white and nothing is easy to swallow. It’s not meant to be. Questions that have gnawed at Shattuck for it appears at least twenty years when she first interviewed her grandmother at her farm in Germany; and imaginably with much angst during the seven years she researched (extensively) and wrote this chilling novel (her third.) Questions weighing on the author for what must feel like a lifetime. Questions that should weigh on us too. These are dark times.

So it follows then that the prose feels like the author poured herself into the novel. Many sentences flow in a manner of deep absorption like the concentration Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes in his theory on the science of mental flow, examined more pointedly as it pertains to the writing process in Writing in Flow. As such, Shattuck’s prose is as clear and as dogged and take-charge as the novel’s moral conscience, conceived in a character of “unflappable strength”: Marianne von Lingelfels.

On the night of the Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass, when 30,000 Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps), thirty-one-year-old Marianne is preparing for a harvest party at a forsaken Bavarian castle. The fortress belongs to a countess, the great aunt of her husband Albrecht, a diplomat in the Foreign Office. The countess is Marianne’s role model for she’s a broad-minded intellect, outspoken even today from her wheelchair. Which is why Marianne has taken on the herculean task of divining an “anarchic, un-German atmosphere” in a country immersed in a “wave of rigid and peevish militancy.” The first of many daunting challenges rock-solid Marianne pulls off.

It’s at this fateful party that the infamous July 20th 1944 assassination plot against Hitler was hatched. Among the guests in on the conspiracy are Marianne’s cherished childhood friend, Connie Fledermann. Handsome, charismatic, impulsive, and a “passionate champion of what he felt was right,” the opposite of Marianne’s cooler, more deliberative husband. She might even have married Connie if she were a softer, lighthearted, prettier, sexier version of herself, feelings apparent when he introduces her to nineteen-year-old, beautiful Benita he plans to marry. Marianne is her opposite: “stern-faced,” could care less about how she looks and dresses, well-educated, and politically-minded. She and Connie see eye-to-eye on important things: Germany has become a “savage land.”

In history’s real assassination attempt, the resisters included Claus von Stauffenberg and Ludwig Beck (both mentioned), and others. In Shattuck’s rendering Connie is one of those others. Albrecht was in on the conversations but he had mixed feelings, believing justice would prevail.

“There are thinkers and there are actors,” Albrecht says. Albrecht’s the thinker, Connie’s the doer, and Marianne is both. Her character is ideal for carrying out the novel’s plot: a promise she made to Connie at the party that she’d “be the commander of wives and children” should the co-conspirators’ scheme go awry, which, tragically, we know it did. This all happens in the Prologue.

The reader, then, is prepared for Part I when it opens. Not only are Connie and Albrecht dead but “Germany itself was dead, and half of the people at the party were either killed, destroyed by shame, or somewhere between the two.” Marianne is left a widow with three children (Elisabeth, Katrina, Fritz) holing up in a few rooms of the antiquated castle she’s now inherited, protected due to her aristocratic status and the fact that the castle, located in Ehrenheim, sits within the American Occupation Zone. She is, though, surrounded by a town of fervent Nazis and later the Russians come.

Occupation Zones, 1945
By glglgl [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0]
via Wikimedia Commons

Marianne’s life is now consumed by her moral pledge, both in the immediate aftermath of WWII rescuing and protecting widows and children of resisters and in later years for the cause of displaced persons. She and two women she rescues make-up the women in the castle.

The most emotional salvation is, understandably, Connie’s Benita and Martin, the son she was pregnant with when Marianne met her at the party. Benita is the spitting image of Nazi Aryan racial adoration but when Marianne liberates her she’s a shell of her former alluring, flirtatious self. Martin, the first she extricates, is also traumatized. The other emancipated widow Marianne knows even less about, the wife of the man who announced Kristallnacht at the party. Ania is “unreadable” until the latter portion of the novel when her hard backstory comes to life. Her two boys, Wolfgang and Anselm, are like her: “silent and knowing.” Everyone bears unspoken, harrowing pasts. Had Marianne known of these, perhaps her relationships and actions would have turned out differently. As the novel moves back and forth in time, place, and character we see how stark class differences and circumstances influenced who these people were when they came together at the castle. Not meant to excuse, but to help understand.

Shattuck explains how her three women are connected:

“Connected not through allegiance to any group or party or particular way of thinking but through the reality of the moment, through their shared will to get through the next hours, the next day, and the one afterward, and through their shared determination to keep their children safe.”

Despite the novel’s soberness, two uplifting scenes stood out. One takes place on Christmas day when the castle folk and townsfolk attend mass. The priest’s sermon falls hollow on battered souls. But music, Beethoven’s 9th, has the power to stir; Marianne is wondrous at how such a delicate instrument like the violin was salvaged amongst all the ugliness. In those ephemeral moments, the churchgoers felt “invited to be a small piece of eternity.” This is not about forgiveness, but the preciousness of all human life.

The other scene involves a willow tree, a leftover from a time when the ground in Dortmund (the town Ania’s from) was marshy. The weeping willow tree – “it’s bent, grief-stricken shape is a product of its longing” – serves as a metaphor for the horrors of the Holocaust. It endures yet it weeps.


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No One Is Coming to Save Us

The Psychology of Poor (Piedmont region of North Carolina; contemporary): How’s this for a shocking statistic. In just eleven years (2001-2012), some 63,000 manufacturing plants vanished from America’s towns. Ordinary livelihoods and identities attached to them also shuttered. For the “ordinary poor” in the poorest of towns where “not much happens here except the same, same” these causalities are a deathblow. No One Is Coming To Save Us – even the lyrical title tugs at us – takes us inside the psyche and broken hearts of black characters hard-hit in one of these communities.

Pinetown is located in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, not far from the lovely Blue Ridge Mountains, but not much feels lovely there today. Although “people didn’t experience joy” in the olden days, at least they experienced “the immediacy of the life they were living” and were “young enough to believe in happy endings.”

Stephanie Powell Watts, award-winning professor of African American literature at Lehigh University, writes wonderfully long, winding, rhythmic sentences that often fill up one paragraph on the page, sentences that swing to and fro meshing past and present together, creating a dream-like narrative with a sense of entanglement. In fact, Pinetown characters are tangled up in a maze perilously searching for a way out. If only they’d chosen a different path, things might be different they think.

Beyond its searing literary value, Watts’ novel is a sociological and psychological study of what that blow means to black characters who’ve lived their entire lives in this town and don’t have much else, if anything, to fall back on. This is the essence and culture the novel feeds on.

Zooming in on how many broken lives came from furniture plant closings in the Piedmont area, the so-called “Furniture Capital of the World,” the figure reaches close to half. We see the aftermath, bumped up against the past, realizations that “life has amounted to too little.” When everything “screamed cheap, cheap, cheap and worse than that – desperate,” what does that do to your sense of worth? Relationships? Desire, strength to change?

It may be surprising to learn that this beautiful coastal and mountainous State has some of the worst poverty in the nation, especially rural counties like Pinewood. The deserted town reminds us of the collapse of white West Virginia coal country, or white, blue-collar Rust Belt communities, lives torn apart as result of free trade and globalization. Places that have been getting attention of late – Trump country. If my googling is right, the Piedmont area also voted overwhelmingly for Trump. The author, then, does us a service by zooming in on another section of America cast aside.

Billed as “The Great Gatsby brilliantly recast in the contemporary South” (quoted from the back cover) because an evocatively named character Jay – formerly J. J. Ferguson, a foster child who grew up in Pinetown, somehow made it out but now’s returned after seventeen years – seems to have “made it” big. The novel opens when Jay’s building a palatial home overlooking the foothills in “a section where the people are rich and their lives are so far from yours you almost expect them to speak another tongue.” Hoping to revive and reinvent the past with Ava, his childhood friend and once sweetheart, bringing whiffs of Daisy Buchanan.

While the novel is brilliant – prose that sings a song of such sadness – a different genre of book comes to mind: J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Ellegy: A Memoir of a Family in Crisis, which skyrocketed to national fame to grasp what drove poor white people in droves to vote for Trump. Watts has done the same for poor black people in this area of the South.

Much is told through the third-person, omniscient voice, allowing the author to delve perceptively, knowingly into the “drag of poverty.” Washington Post reporter, Michelle Singletary, recently denounced people who “talk about the poor, especially people who haven’t experienced poverty, [yet] it’s often without context or compassion.” Definitely not the case here. Watts hails from around this geography, so her writing rings authoritative, authentic, and raw emotionally.

The range and nature of these feelings – chronic strain, disappointments, regrets, anger, hurts, betrayals, and concerns of characters who feel very real – also comes from first-person dialogue that jumps out fast and furious.

Two of the most resounding voices dramatize the novel’s other profound theme – motherhood. A mother and daughter pair. They’re also connected to Jay’s past, so they’re also the most stirred by his reappearance.

Heavyhearted Sylvia is approaching seventy having “spent her whole life tensed and waiting for the worst to happen.” Fears she’ll end up miserably unhappy and lonely like her mother appear to have come true. Ava is almost forty, a wicked age for someone desperate to be a mother. Sylvia walks on eggshells around her, doesn’t know how to ease her pain or why her daughter is so distressed. Ava has a good job and dresses the part, working as a loan officer at a bank. Yet Ava’s all-consumed with her failures of trying to conceive and the constant praying she will. For Ava childlessness is a burden equivalent to a “moral mistake.” Ava laments “maybe in heaven you get back all the time you lost hoping.”

Mother and daughter have “sorry husbands,” even sorrier marriages. Both men expendables of the factory shutdowns. Depressed and lost, that doesn’t excuse their weak behaviors. Be it the drip, drip, drip or the sucker punch of their absences – physical and emotional – Watts gets us inside the heads of these women as to why it’s brick hard for them to let go of their pasts. “The hardest thing you’ll do is keep moving forward,” Sylvia prods Ava.

Both are jolted by Jay’s arrival, breaking the pattern of nothing ever happening. He causes mother and daughter to examine what’s become of their lives. He too can’t get beyond the past.

Another unusual event is announced on page eight. An outsider, Marcus, has been mysteriously calling Sylvia from the county jail. Black, twenty-five, he reminds Sylvia of her son, Devon, whose presence hovers but we don’t find out what’s up with him until we’re almost three-fourths through. His begging Sylvia for help speaks to someplace deep within her she keeps hidden. To underscore her “heaviness,” Watts imagines her as fat, adding more weight to her self-reproach and feelings of disregard.

Imagine how bad things have turned out when a “segregation-era chic” restaurant named Simmy’s near one of the closed factories stands as a dark reminder of when blacks couldn’t even enter the front door, yet the two husbands (and others) still hang out here.

It’s not just furniture jobs that have gone by the wayside. Gone are extended families and extended gatherings when hours of cooking special foods “meant celebration.”

Now the best anyone can do is just get by. Except for the promise of Jay.

And the one colorful character we must celebrate. Lana, Sylvia’s glass-nearly-full sister, who takes great pride in her beauty salon and cares about her downtrodden sister. She brings “brightness, her humor, her unmuddied outlook of the world.” Lana’s someone who has successfully reinvented herself.

Naturally, we wish others could do the same. We too can’t help but want happy endings.


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The Barrowfields 2

Haunted house, mountainscape, characters – a Southern Gothic novel (Appalachian region, Blue Ridge Mountains, North Carolina; three generations spanning the 20th century): For a blog that prizes prose above all, The Barrowfields is a stunner. It wins for beautiful, atmospheric, sorrowful prose. A blend of formal, literary/poetic, Appalachian dialect, conversational, and a bit of legalese. Versatile prose that rhythmically evokes “eloquent sadness” set in a beautiful, forlorn place with a heavyhearted clan.

To get a feel for the melancholy tone, listen to a piece of classical piano music played by our narrator, Henry Aster. Chopin’s C-Sharp Nocturne, he says “begins in sadness, moves to bittersweet remembrance, and then returns again to sadness.” Much like this standout debut:

A concise, tantalizing Prologue hints at someone’s existential angst. As opening lines go, it grabs like the opening line of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic romance novel, Rebecca: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Why is that line so famous? For one thing, the unknown narrator’s voice flows poetically, and it enigmatically forewarns. Compare Lewis’opener: “The desk is the same as he left it.” In case we don’t notice a similarity, he repeats the cadence and unease with two closing lines, first from the opening line of Albert Camus’classic The Stranger: “Mother died today” followed by “I’m beginning to understand.” Which, of course, the reader doesn’t, hooked to figure it out. That doesn’t happen until page 346 of a 348 page book, keeping us in the dark as to the novel’s overshadowing mystery: Where did the character who abandoned his writing table go? The scant details the Prologue offers inform us that the he in question was working on a novel, apparently cast-off nine years ago.

The significance of the unpublished novel is examined within the larger context of three-generations of the Aster family, recounted for us by third-generation narrator, Henry. They all come from “an achromatic town high in the belly of the Appalachian mountains,” evidently inspired by the North Carolina mountain town region the author is from.

Old Buckram is a fictional “town of ghosts and superstitions,” population in the hundreds. The “streets and sidewalks are lonely and seldom traveled” as this is a place of “unrelenting poverty” where decent people persevere like Helton and Maddy, Henry’s grandparents, because “mountain folks have a hell of a lot of character and ruggedness.” The landscape right outside of town – the novel’s namesake – is equally ominous. The Barrowfields is a mountainous area “where by some mystery nothing of natural origin will grow except a creeping gray moss which climbs over mounds of rocks and petrified stumps.”

Already, dark features of a Southern Gothic novel unfold:

  • premonition about a deflated character
  • woebegone, small southern town
  • eerie landscape
  • strong sense of place
  • mournful passages

Exploring what it means to call a novel Southern Gothic is even more germane to The Barrowfields because the narrator’s father, also named Henry, is all-consumed with the gothic works of Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkner, and William Styron. His highbrow fanaticism with the great books of literature starkly contrasts with the dirt poor, remote community barely eking by, thereby setting him apart. The outsider character a gothic feature. Picture him wearing a “long black rider’s coat,” à la Poe.

We come to know father and son in another sinister setting: their out-of-place “immense house of black iron and glass.” A haunted house another characteristic of the genre. The rest of their immediate family includes Mother (yes, Henry refers to his parents old-fashionedly) Eleonore, and Threnody, his sister nine years younger. Her odd name signals she’s another character out-of-step with the community. Their “lonely old house” (and Old Buckram and the Barrowfields) all loom large, like characters.

The house is an “architectural curiosity” once owned by a tobacco magnate of R. J. Reynolds. Shadowed in the mountain hollows, turns out Henry has good reason to view the house as a “vulture house.” At the end of Part 1 (the novel is retrospectively structured in four parts), he swears to himself: “I’m not coming back here … This place, with all its bleakness and sorrows, is not for me.” Years later, we see how “a place where your soul resides and where all your ghosts and demons still persist will remain for all the years of your life no matter how far away you travel.” (Apparently, quoted from his mother’s favorite book by the aviatress Beryl Markham.)

Fortunately, Eleonore has other interests – horses, flowers, birds – that nurture her optimistic, sweet spirit like the “soul of a little songbird.” She needs bolstering as our sense of foreboding becomes a reality for a family cooped inside a “monstrous gothic skeleton” of a house with a ghostly past. Henry’s father is an absent presence, devoting every waking (and drinking hour) when he’s not small town mountain lawyering sequestered in a “cubical chamber” surrounded by his coveted library of rare books. Meanwhile, everyone else – innocents – must bear the brunt of his “unspeakable melancholy.” Innocent characters another element of Southern Gothics.

Whereas Eleonore is the hardiest soul, her son denies the heavy burden weighing him down; Threnody, who idolizes her brother, is the most transparently affected. Brother and sister share their father’s intense need for reading and storytelling. A lifeline for this isolated family.

Phillip Lewis is a lawyer from these rural mountain parts. By creating two lawyerly characters – father and the son who becomes one – he has found a novelistic way to pay tribute to small town southern lawyers who “quietly do more good for people and communities than probably anyone would realize.”

The author has also conceived of another key character who combines darkness, mystification, innocence, and romance – another gothic element – Story. An apt name for she has a baffling backstory Henry gets entangled with. They meet in his senior year of law school; for Henry its love at first sight. She’s beautiful, but he seems also attracted to her as he recognizes “some distant sadness from wounds afflicted long before.” As a consequence, their relationship moves tentatively, though the dialogue is crisp and charged. Whenever Henry is around her he’s “melting” or “desires her to the point of delirium.” When he’s not, he can’t sleep or concentrate and drinks heavily. The reader can’t help but think: like father like son.

Googling, I learned gothic literature also contains a comedic component. Admittedly, I struggled with that one as nothing seemed in the least bit funny or darkly humorous until Henry adopts a giant, unruly, loveable dog whose witty antics include destroying Henry’s collection of “Wordsworth, Yeats, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Coleridge …” Of Buller Henry amusingly observes, he “apparently preferred the romantics.” Picture a devoted alpha dog barreling at you, all licks, comfort, and lightheartedness.

Before law school, even at college, Henry endured a “cloistered existence.” In law school he makes friends, particularly with J. P., whose coarseness sticks out, reminding us how different Henry really is from his peers.

Henry’s passionate about timeless things – literature, music, night-gazing. So while the novel has a brooding spirit, there’s also an inspiriting thread about enjoying all that’s beautiful before time runs out.

An overarching theme, highlighted by citing Thomas Wolfe on several occasions, is whether any of us can truly go home again. For years Henry did leave the macabre house – to Connecticut for college, Chapel Hill, North Carolina for law school, and Charleston, South Carolina where Story is from. You’ll see, though, that “no one can never leave a place completely.” Perhaps, the most potent message of all.


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Harmless Like You

Conceptualizing Invisibility, Conceptual Art (New York, Connecticut, Berlin; 1968 – 2016): There are many ways to describe this psychologically complex, artistic novel but harmless isn’t one of them. By the time the full measure of harmfulness sinks in, you’ll be two-thirds through and in awe of how such exquisite sadness could be so exquisitely written.

Apropos to its creative rendering, avant-garde art is the medium linking two generations of emotionally damaged, estranged protagonists – a mother and the son she abandoned at two. Yukiko – Yuki – Oyami is so sad and dazed “it was as if someone peeled off her skin so that the whole world felt achy and glowing.” A struggling-to-be-an artist Japanese-American immigrant whom we meet in 1968 at age sixteen after ten years of living in-between the Village and Chinatown. In-between-ness, a fringe existence, a “constant state of disorientation” and loneliness, feeling you don’t belong anywhere, define Yuki.

Jay Eaves, her adult son, struggles differently. A Japanese-American-French-Canadian owner of a Brooklyn art gallery specializing in Asian/Asian American art by female artists, he’s profoundly angry, lost in his marriage, terrified of new fatherhood. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t represent Japanese artists but it takes time to absorb the weightiness of the emotional scars of his mother’s abject rejection because Jay’s contemporary story is told in shorter chapters that progress non-linearly.

Yuki’s chronological, longer chapters reflect the significance of art and her downward spiraling as headings darken over the years. The novel opens at its most hopeful, with shiny chapters named for colors like Quinacridone and Celadon Gold. Later titles are foreboding, named for bleaker colors like Caput Mortum (brownish-plum) and Ivory Black or brighter paints like Vermillion that “always poisons.”

Yuki and Jay haven’t seen each other until the novel’s hauntingly beautiful three-page Prologue, when an unrecognizable son comes knocking on her Berlin door. Yuki greets him aged beyond her sixty years, bundled up in scarves, cold as she was always skinny, a “habit of deprivation” that seems anorexic. Jay dreaded coming, but was duty-bound. He’s just loss his loving father, who bequeathed his Connecticut estate to Yuki; he has papers for her to sign. It’s not until the last sentence on page 3 that the reader surmises her child is male. Enigmatic prose that beguiles and turns pages for we want to know: What drove Yuki to desert Jay? Who was his father? When did she live in Connecticut? Why did she leave? What brought her to Berlin? Mysteries that unravel little by little, cleverly.

Artistry is also seen in the originality and acuteness of the prose evoking emotional pain. A psychologist would have a field day diagnosing the emotions depicted. Yuki says there’s “no place she could imagine being happy,” so leave happiness off this clinical list. At the beginning, she wished to do something her parents would be proud of her, but even then she was melancholy. As her life spins unhappier, she accepts years of a physically abusive relationship with an older man (not Jay’s father) if only to be shocked awake. The author seeks to jolt and awaken us too. This is not a making-it-in-America immigrant experience. This is all-out alienation.

Finding a way to express herself through art takes on a life of its own. Detached from her Japanese culture and clashing with the American, worlds that call for translations, she’s drawn to art as “light and shadow required no translation.” It makes sense, then, that the sixties and the seventies are crafted as Yuki’s most vivid years, echoing an influential era of radical experimentation with art. Since she’s forever dissatisfied with her art, trying to breakthrough with various art forms – photography, watercolor, drawing, painting – we wonder if Yuki ever found moments when she was happy at her craft and did she make “it.”

Was she ever even a happy young child? When we’re introduced to her she’s already hungering, though she appreciates her mother’s “perfection” of preparing special Japanese foods. Both parents are stoical: her mother for adapting to this strange new land and her father for bearing the enslavement of a Japanese internment camp. Though he’s a successful Japanese car company executive, he’ll never forget what our “ugly country” did to him. So he awaits returning to Tokyo in six months, which is when Yuki’s coming-of-age story kicks-off.

She’d been biding her time. Until she befriends dazzling Odile, gets so caught up with her beauty Yuki chooses to completely cut herself off from her parents and culture, remaining on. While she still wants to be a “good daughter” from afar, you’ll see how wildly and sadly her plans go astray. By the time she’s in a relationship with Jay’s rocklike Canadian father, her body and soul have been so battered there’s even an “ache in her eyes.”

All this pain has redeeming value: at least she knows what she wants her art to say: “communicate even one ridge of pain.” That’s the point of the novel. Painting a daunting tableau of a range of dislocated emotions when ties to family, home, culture are severed. What does identity loss, emptiness, anonymity look and feel like?

In this picture’s foreground are ambivalence, turmoil, violence, and artists pushing boundaries: Jay’s “Chinese and Korean, on both sides of the Pacific” art patrons who felt “at best ambivalent about the Japanese”; scorching TV and magazine cover images of helicopters delivering body bags and the faces of traumatized Vietnamese girls; and the rise of modern art movements inspired by artists like Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, whose names are brushed on the pages. Avant-garde art that assaults the “soft-touch” of Japanese calligraphy, also embellished across pages. Especially poignant is the Japanese character for Love. Complicated to write, like the love Yuki seems incapable of and Jay frightened of.

Yuki and Jay’s voices exhibit two sides of grief. Yuki’s is the sensitive voice of a shy “ghost girl.” Depression turned inward, with loud voices screaming inside her head. Jay’s profane voice is rage and sorrow turned outward.

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan describes herself as “British, Chinese, Japanese, and American.” In an interview, she explains that she “spent her life alternately between London and New York, each time missing the other place, feeling as if there was more home there than here.” Her debut novel, then, is personal, which is why it feels so topsy-turvey authentic.

Some current events are also relevant thematically. There’s an art exhibition by an experimental Japanese artist who came of age during the sixties that’s causing a sensation at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. The artist, Yayoi Kusama, has been living in a mental institution for thirty years. Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott describes some of her works as a “somber sea of sadness” and the overall effect is:

“not so much the visual repetition that stuns you, rather, it’s the solitude, the kind of solitude that inspires thoughts like ‘I am trapped in my life …”

Kusamo’s exhibition is visually stunning; Yuki’s feels muted and somber. Yet both might be suffering mentally alike.

There’s also recent reporting on the “invisible wounds” of traumatized refugee children, and other accounts of the psychological stress the anti-immigration ban is having on Dreamers.

The trauma of separation is boundless.

The conceptual art movement of the sixties, in which originality of the idea not the aesthetics was paramount, seems inexplicably odd to many. Yuki, I think, is imagined as a conceptualist. Likewise, “odd” is a word Yuki perceives of herself. It’s also the same apt descriptor for Jay’s bald, old, diabetic cat Celeste, whom he can’t let go off. But it’s not odd why. Animals love us and are devoted to us in ways humans sometimes can’t. Celeste assumes a strong presence, reminding us of our essential need for attachment.

Yuki agonizes to find her artistic voice – what to say and how to say it. To contrast, Buchanan’s voice seems effortless, purposeful, and deeply emotional. Quite an exhibition!


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Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars

A deceptive mystery set in London’s “Swinging Sixties” (October 30, 1965 – November 18, 1965): On the surface, this is a mystery about a moody actress gone missing in a moody city. Like all crafty deceptions, it turns deeper than that. Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars is a heady mix of historical fiction when “the world had decided it would make no more sense.” A novel more serious than the lighthearted title suggests.

Moods move upbeat and downbeat. Lively backdrops transport the “baroque loveliness” of the “largest theatre district in the world” along with the sultry, Caribbean-influenced jazz scene. Biting social/cultural commentary on racism and prejudices towards people of color, immigrants, the gay community, and others not “English as toast” presents a tumultuous city of dramatic contrasts amidst a “great wave of malevolence.” London is multi-layered, like the novel.

Since this is a novel tied to a London play (Field of Stars) penned by a British author who is also a playwright it caught my attention, believing if you write what you know it’s likely to feel authentic and be crafted in atmospheric prose. That it is. Miranda Emmerson knows London’s “Theatreland” (Soho, West End). She also knows the faces of other London neighborhoods as the search for the vanished starlet Ionathe Green – Lanny – traces and races through London like a street map.

The actress’ costume dresser-turned-gumshoe Anna (Miss Treadway) was the last to see Lanny leave the Galaxy Theatre, described in glimmering prose:

“A world of angel faces, ribbons and masks; opera glasses in their little cages, pill-box hatted ice-cream girls in sharply starched black and white. It was a world seemingly unchanged in the past fifty years, a place suspended in time.”

Emmerson’s prose is also historically accurate. Be forewarned it’s populated with the same offensive language denigrating people by the color of their skin as you’d find in an historical novel set in America’s Deep South. The ugly “c” word was apparently “common parlance in the sixties” of Britain, particularly fervent as an influx of immigrants flooded into the country from the Caribbean and Africa. The anti-immigrant movement was not restricted to blacks. Sentiments against the Irish were fierce too. Trying to understand this disturbing history, I learned that in 1962 Britain passed its first Commonwealth Immigrants Act, eerily reminiscent of the anti-Muslim ban the Trump administration proposes. This London is an equal opportunity discriminator against all persons differing.

At least we can take heart that the author has created a shining character from Jamaica: Aloysius, a proud accountant. His elegance, gentleness, compassion, and handsomeness inside and out leap off the pages. You’ll fall in love with him. He joins Anna on her consuming hunt for Lanny, for she, unlike the police, feels an urgency to find or find out what happened to the leading lady. He’s attracted to her and protective, realizes she can’t do this alone. The two meet at a rocking jazz club, a client of his, after Anna learns Lanny was spotted at the Roaring Twenties (out of sync with her go-it-alone persona). It’s one of a number of legendary nightspots depicted in the novel, where the music of Jamaica – Ska – pulsates.

Mini-skirts were also the rage. So conservative, bookish Anna stuck out with her oxfords and “librarian’s clothes.” Yet Aloysius (also a literature lover) sees her as “beautiful,” as she sees him. After four unkind years in London (except for his landlady who treats him like her own) adjusting to the “white person nod,” Aloysius confides he’s only “had the pleasure of an honest conversation about twice a year.” Anna, who shies away from intimacy for a reason that becomes clear at the ending, isn’t sure if Aloysius manifests “beauty from his features” or the “kindliness he exuded.” It’s both, which is why she admires and respects him. This gentle-man begs us to be better than we are. “Why do we need to refer to the color of people’s skin?” he implores.

Like an interesting play, the novel delivers an ensemble of diverse characters. Some represent goodness; others definitely not. All seem to share a deep desire to reinvent themselves. Of course it’s the good ones who make the novel hum.

Here’s a glimpse into some characters without giving anything away:

  • LANNY: Forty-year-old Irish American diva “charming the Home Counties.” Hasn’t forgotten her tenement-Boston early years. Not much is known about her when she disappears.
  • ANNA: Despite top billing, probably the fuzziest. Twenty-some and reserved, we know there’s something in her past she wishes forgiveness for. As her search with Aloysius intensifies, so does their relationship.
  • ALOYSIUS: “Genteel voice,” even when he’d be justified to act otherwise.
  • OTTMAR: Owner of a Turkish café that’s a “little slice of Istanbul,” where Anna used to waitress. Worried sick over one of his daughters, rebellious Samira. Can’t understand “why the love he had to offer seemed to cure nothing at all.” We feel his pain.
  • LEONARD: Owner of the Galaxy Theatre and an apartment close to Ottmar’s café. His profanity flashes “manic grief” and resentment over the discrimination he endures as a gay man.
  • BARNABY/BRENNAN: Irish detective on the West End police force who has changed more than his name. Wants to succeed so badly he’s let his marriage and fatherhood go adrift.
  • JAMES: Reporter who broke the story, “Disappearance of a West End Star.”
  • INSPECTOR KNIGHT: Barnaby’s cynical, foul-mouthed boss in no hurry to investigate a missing, aging actress.
  • SAMIRA: Perhaps the most outside of them all, reflective of the novel’s unflinching treatment of the immigrant experience. “No one is like us,” she cries. “No one’s Turkish. No one’s Muslim” … “at school I’m this thing. This thing that doesn’t fit. I feel like dirt.” This may not be the novel we’re expecting, but it’s exemplary.
  • ORLA: Brennan’s Irish wife, another goodhearted soul leading an awfully lonely existence. She “had a light that shone on the people around her,” making her despair even more egregious. Lives in a “bubble” with her baby girl, Gracie.

As the plot drives headlong looking for Lanny, these characters call out for a more mindful, accepting society. Ottmar asks: “After all the thousands of years and all that philosophy and religion and books and poetry, after the millions of elections and debates, that’s as good as we get?” Similarly, Aloysius wonders: “Maybe we all have to look out for each other?” Questions that will linger long after the mystery is solved.

So grab your Columbo trench coat, Aloysius’ fedora hat, Anna’s ticking-clock determination, and Barnaby’s notebook to crack the case. Don’t get too distracted by the “little Versailles” theatre district, marketplace hustle of Covent Garden, jazzy rhythms, Turkish delights, Soho hippies, Georgian residences, moonlight over the Thames, and all the mayhem. A lot to take in.

London’s shifting “Swinging Sixties” may have “seemed romantic” to the dreamers in the novel, but it reveals a darker underbelly. Along the way, many characters also reveal they’re hiding something. They’re not – we’re not – as different as others would like us to believe.


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