Book Review: Beloved by Toni Morrison

I’ve read Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye previously and had a vague idea of what Beloved was about so I knew I was in for a heavy read. To be honest, I’d put off reading this novel for that very reason. Yet as I read Beloved, I was reminded that sometimes it’s important to look closely at hard things. Hard things like slavery, racism, abuse, death. These are realities of life and our world history and to look away from them is to deny the pain that has been caused, that real life people have suffered through, and continue to suffer through. While this is a fictional novel, it deals with many historical truths, particularly just how horrific slavery is.

The present tense of the novel takes place in Ohio, a few years after the end of the Civil War. Sethe and her daughter Denver live alone, haunted by the ghost of Sethe’s first daughter who died as a baby. Sethe was a slave who escaped while pregnant with Denver. She was reunited with her children, sent ahead, but has never seen or heard from her husband since.

Sethe’s history – and the story of those around her – slowly unspirals. The book is fairly non-linear with several sections in a sort of stream-of-consciousness. Stories are revealed in pieces, things so horrific the characters can hardly bear to speak of them or to let them dwell in their minds. Each has a terrible tale to tell – Paul D and his time in prison, Ella and her time with “the lowest yet”, Baby Suggs and the children that were taken from her – killed or sold – one by one so that she taught herself not to love them. And Sethe and the truth of what happened to her daughter.

One day Sethe and Denver return home from the carnival and a young woman is sitting in front of their house. She calls herself Beloved and seems to not know who she is or where she came from. She seems to know things about them and Sethe and Denver come to believe that she is the ghost of Sethe’s first daughter, returned to them. What her intentions are remain unclear. And how Sethe will react to the horrible history this spectre forces her to look at.

While slow to start as I tried to piece the plot together, I was soon absorbed in these characters and their stories. It was hard to read, especially as I look at my own two daughters, my mind reeling away from the idea of such things happening to them. My own privilege allows me the luxury of looking away away from this terrible history but I believe it’s important to listen to these stories, to remember that fiction can be full of truth.

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Book Review: The Wind is Not a River by Brian Payton

The Wind is not a River – Brian Payton (Ecco, 2004)

In this novel, Brian Payton explores a lesser known portion of World War II history – the Japanese invasion of Alaska. At least, this was unknown to me and I consider myself decently informed.

Our main character is John Easely, a journalist who has snuck his way into the Aleutian Islands where the native peoples have been either captured by the Japanese or forcibly evacuated by the Americans. The region is closed to media and the story is unknown in the rest of the world. The novel opens with Easely surviving a plane crash but not knowing if he’ll survive in the hostile environment. Hostile both because of the Japanese soldiers and the physical environment.

The story alternates chapters with our second main character, Helen Easely, John’s wife. The pair parted on poor terms but love each other dearly. After weeks go by without word from John, and little information is provided about what’s really happening in Alaska, Helen decides to take matters into her own hands and follow John to Alaska through any means available.

By focusing on a part of modern history unfamiliar to most readers, Payton automatically creates interest. Which helped me get through the early chapters of the book where I didn’t feel that attached to what was going on. There’s a lot of drama in Easely’s situation but Helen’s chapters mostly seem to focus on her job and her elderly father’s illness, neither of which are particularly compelling. As Helen moves towards finding out where John is, her story becomes more interesting and I found myself enjoying it more. This was a part of history that was more familiar but still something I hadn’t read about in fiction. While John’s survival is compelling, it does get repetitive and for much of the book he seems to do the same things over and over again, with varying degrees of success.

There is a kind of side story (where the title of the novel comes from) that has potential but is underdeveloped and ends up feeling unattached and strange compared to the rest of the story. Unfortunately, the ending hinges around this secondary story and characters and so I found it quite unsatisfying. There’s also a lot alluded to or mentioned in passing about the peoples of the Aleutian Island and I would have loved to learn more but Payton doesn’t delve further into it.

Overall, the novel ended up feeling like it could have used another draft or a bit more polishing. There’s a strong potential here but it’s not quite fulfilled.

Book Review: The Good People by Hannah Kent

The Good People – Hannah Kent (Little, Brown & Company, 2017)

With her second novel, Hannah Kent confirms that she is a master of historical fiction. As with Burial Rites (read my review here), Kent uses a true historical story to build her novel around. This time the setting is early 19th century Ireland and the tale revolves around “the good people” – the fairies and the belief in them that is slowly being pushed out by modern thought and religion.

The story focuses on three women. The first is Nora, who we meet on the day that she is left widowed by the sudden death of her husband, Martin. This follows less than a year after their daughter’s death and leaves Nóra as the sole guardian of her grandson, Micheál. Four years old, Micheál has come to Nóra without the ability to walk or talk, though she remembers him as a healthy, thriving toddler. Nóra becomes convinced that the child is a changeling and enlists the help of Nance, an outsider in their small community who understands the good people and their ways and promises to restore Nóra’s grandson to her. Mary, a young girl hired to help Nóra care for Micheál is caught between loyalty to her mistress and concern for the child.

As with Burial Rites, Kent’s descriptions of place and character are strong. Rural Ireland in the 1820s is dirt-filled, smoky, and crowded. Starvation is always close by. People live in close quarters, with each other and their animals. Kent’s descriptions of the daily rituals that survival requires – the building of fires, the milking of cows, the collecting of rushes for the dirt floor are fascinating and add well to the atmosphere without become overwhelming or boring. The story is dark both in place and content. We see the superstition that guides every step of these peoples’ lives. These rituals are very interesting to read from a modern perspective and the novel does well at drawing at the growing tension between these traditional beliefs and the modern world.

While the story is based around the facts of a true historical event, I think it was best to know nothing of the facts before reading the story. Without knowing how it ends, the events are even more compelling (and shocking) as Kent reveals them. Either way though, this is an excellent novel and shows Kent’s growing talent.

Book Review: The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill

The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill (HarperCollins Publishers, 2017)

I’ve read all of Heather O’Neill’s published work and reviewed two of them here. (Daydream of Angels  and Lullabies for Little Criminals) Obviously, I enjoy her work and thankfully her latest novel didn’t disappoint. If you like O’Neill’s previous work, then I think you’ll be pleased with The Lonely Hearts Hotel.

Using Montreal once again as her setting, this time O’Neill takes us to the early 20th century, beginning in the 1920s, post-World War I. I found the historic setting worked superbly for O’Neill’s style and characters. Her work always has a grubby yet fairy tale-like feel and the 1920s and 30s seems perfectly fitting for this.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel is the story of two orphans, called Pierrot and Rose. Both abandoned as infants, they are raised by nuns in the same Montreal orphanage. Both endure abuse (though of a vastly different kind) at the hands of the nuns yet it turns out that both Pierrot and Rose are hugely talented performers. They begin to perform in the homes of the Montreal wealthy and they form a powerful bond of love and partnership. Eventually separated, neither forgets that first and powerful love, or the dream they formed together of their own show and spectacle. When they are reunited, they quickly fall in love and work to make their dream a reality.

This story is dingy and magical. There is heroin addiction and prostitution, tragic clowns, a jewelled apple, and a complex web of characters who you can’t help but fall in love with. Pierrot and Rose make for an interesting couple at the heart of the novel. Rose in particular has a fascinating character arc and O’Neill uses the time frame well to demonstrate how a woman of Rose’s ambition suffered in a time when so little was allowed for women. Rose steadily develops into a woman of ruthless conquest, letting very little come in the way of her goals, and yet she manages to be sympathetic. I wanted to cheer for her simply because she had to work so hard to do even very little and to overcome the setbacks of her gender in that era. I think this is some of O’Neill’s best work yet and I hope she delves into the past more in her future work.

Book Review: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child - Eowyn Ivey (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books, 2012)

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books, 2012)

She had watched other women with infants and eventually understood what she craved: boundless permission – no, the absolute necessity to hold and kiss and stroke this tiny person…Where else in life, Mabel wondered, could a woman love so openly and with such abandon?

Eowyn Ivey brings a powerful edge to this re-telling of a Russian fairy tale. This is a story of motherhood in its many forms, a story of longing. Ivey captures these feelings so well that it made for an often painful read. Yet, a good pain. A pain that says, Yes, you are not alone.

Jack and Mabel are entering the second winter on their Alaskan homestead and are not sure they will survive, either physically or mentally. Early on in the novel, Mabel ventures purposefully out onto the not quite frozen river, daring the ice to break beneath her feet. They are struggling against the land, against the long and dark winters, against the rift that has grown between them in the years since their baby died at birth.

One night, the first snow of the season, they make a girl out of snow. The next day the snow sculpture is gone but a strange little girl begins to appear in the woods nearby. Mabel and Jack start to wonder if she has been borne out of their own longing or a delusion of isolation. Or is there something more sinister at play?

Ivey does a brilliant job of unfolding the novel along the line between fact and fairytale. There are hints at the possibilities on both sides and the reader is left to make their own decisions. Faina – the little girl – is otherworldly. Magical and yet with that dark edge that comes in to so many fairytales.

The story seems to expand as it progresses; more is learned about Faina, more characters are introduced as the lives of Jack and Mabel expand. The story takes a surprising turn but the conclusion feels honest to both the characterization of Faina and to the fairy tale element.

The setting of Alaska in the 1920s works well. There is, of course, the similarity to Russia in the long, dark winters, as well as the isolation and difficulty of every day existence. Ivey demonstrates both the beauty and the terror of the place. The paradox of falling in love with a place that can kill you but, if you know how, can also keep you alive. Perhaps even a little girl, alone in the forest.

It was beautiful, Mabel knew, but it was a beauty that ripped you open and scoured you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all.

 

Book Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

IMG_6117Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last person to be sentenced to death for a crime in Iceland. She died by beheading in 1830. In Burial Rites, Hannah Kent offers a fictional idea of what Agnes’ last months might have been like, as well as what the truth may have been surrounding the murder for which Agnes was convicted. The basic outline of the plot and the characters are true but the details have been filled in by Kent and she has done a fine job.

The story begins after Agnes has been sentenced to beheading and is moved from imprisonment to stay with a family. The death sentence looms over her but a date has not been set so she doesn’t know how long she has left. The family – Jon and Margret and their two daughters – don’t want a murderess in their home but are given no choice. Agnes is put to work just as their other servants are and, gradually, the family becomes used to her presence. Along with this is the priest responsible for helping Agnes prepare for death. This is a young assistant reverend called Toti, who Agnes has requested particularly. He is unsure and unprepared on how to help Agnes but she slowly begins to reveal her past to him.

The story alternates between a third person narrator, usually getting in closest to Toti, and a first person narration from Agnes herself. This way the reader becomes privy to some of the details of the story that only Agnes knows and that she doesn’t share with anyone else, even as she becomes more comfortable with both the family and Toti. It’s a somewhat awkward construct but an effective way for us to learn things that only Agnes knows. Agnes quickly becomes a sympathetic figure as she tells us of her rough and lonely childhood and then the relationships that brought her to death row.

One of the most interesting parts of this novel was simply the setting of 19th century Iceland. While I’ve read lots of books set in 19th century Europe, I’ve only read novels of modern day Iceland and this was vastly different from both. The details about life on the farm – how the family prepares for winter, how their house is constructed – were fascinating and obviously well-researched and Kent does a great job of bringing them into the story. They never feel tacked on but become important aspects of the plot. For example, the practise of everyone – servants, accused murderers, and daughters of the family, male and female – sleeping in one room together. This is hugely different from the norms of 19th century England and obviously changes how the characters interact and how certain information is discovered. Or smaller details like the extravagance of coffee or how a hostess will help a guest take off his shoes and coat. Kent weaves this details into the plot with great skill.

Even more impressive, Kent maintains a great deal of tension right to the end of the novel, even though, this being historically based, we know how the story ends. The slow reveal of truth and the developing relationships between the characters aid in this a lot. I look forward to reading more from Hannah Kent.