A gifted Irish author offers another take on his country’s Great Famine through the eyes of a teenage girl as she travels through a land wracked by want.
When a blight hits the potato harvest of 1845, a pregnant widow with four children seeks to spare her 14-year-old daughter, Grace, from hunger, maybe, but certainly from the appetites of her own insatiable lover. She cuts the girl’s hair, dresses her as a boy, and sends her off to seek work. Grace is soon joined by her irrepressible brother Colly, 12, who gives her a few lessons in maleness. Their time together is cut short when he is swept away in a teeming river as they try to salvage a drowned sheep. She lucks into work helping to herd cows, but betrayal and murder await down the drovers’ path. She joins a road crew, but her first period surprises and unmasks her, stirring unwanted interest. A fellow worker saves her from would-be rapists and travels with her on adventures that seem to cover about half of Ireland by foot. Their unmeasurable route is through deepening despair and the hell beyond mere hunger—“past want to a point that is longing narrowed down to the forgetting of all else”—and the descent into crime and then a blackness: indeed, four Sterne-like blank black pages to signify perhaps more than pen can write, even one as eloquent as Lynch’s (The Black Snow, 2015, etc.). Grace walks under “a sky of old cloth and the sun stained upon it.” Elsewhere, “the air is stitched with insects.” And sometimes Lynch seems to move beyond normal language: “A soul being loosened from a whin is shaped like a shout” (whin is gorse and the context is dead souls at dusk).
This is a writer who wrenches beauty even from the horror that makes a starving girl think her “blood is trickling over the rocks of my bones.”
After stretching the boundaries of fiction in myriad ways (including a short story written in Tweets), Pulitzer Prize winner Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad, 2010, etc.) does perhaps the only thing left that could surprise: she writes a thoroughly traditional novel.
It shouldn’t really be surprising, since even Egan’s most experimental work has been rich in characters and firmly grounded in sharp observation of the society around them. Here, she brings those qualities to a portrait of New York City during the Depression and World War II. We meet 12-year-old Anna Kerrigan accompanying her adored father, Eddie, to the Manhattan Beach home of suave mobster Dexter Styles. Just scraping by “in the dregs of 1934,” Eddie is lobbying Styles for a job; he’s sick of acting as bagman for a crooked union official, and he badly needs money to buy a wheelchair for his severely disabled younger daughter, Lydia. Having rapidly set up these situations fraught with conflict, Egan flashes forward several years: Anna is 19 and working at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, the sole support of Lydia and their mother since Eddie disappeared five years earlier. Adult Anna is feisty enough to elbow her way into a job as the yard’s first female diver and reckless enough, after she runs into him at one of his nightclubs, to fall into a one-night stand with Dexter, who initially doesn’t realize whose daughter she is. Disastrous consequences ensue for them both but only after Egan has expertly intertwined three narratives to show us what happened to Eddie while drawing us into Anna’s and Dexter’s complicated longings and aspirations. The Atlantic and Indian oceans play significant roles in a novel saturated by the sense of water as a vehicle of destiny and a symbol of continuity (epigraph by Melville, naturally). A fatal outcome for one appealing protagonist is balanced by Shakespearean reconciliation and renewal for others in a tender, haunting conclusion.
In Brooklyn in the early 20th century, The Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor are intimately involved in the lives of their community.
When a depressed young man with a pregnant wife turns on the gas in his apartment and takes his own life, among the first to arrive on the scene is an elderly nun. “It was Sister St. Savior’s vocation to enter the homes of strangers, mostly the sick and the elderly, to breeze into their apartments and to sail comfortably through their rooms, to open their linen closets or china cabinets or bureau drawers—to peer into their toilets or the soiled handkerchiefs clutched in their hands.” By the time the fatherless baby is born, St. Savior will have been so instrumental in the fate of the young widow that the baby will be her namesake, called Sally for short. Sally will be largely raised in the convent, where her mother has been given a job helping out with laundry. The nuns also find a friend for the new mother—a neighbor with a houseful of babies—then they finagle a baby carriage, and “the two young mothers negotiated the crowded streets like impatient empresses.” This desperately needed and highly successful friendship is just the beginning of the benign interference of the Sisters in the private lives and fates of their civilian neighbors. Partly told by a voice from the future who drops tantalizing hints about what’s to come—for example, a marriage between the occupants of the baby carriages—this novel reveals its ideas about love and morality through the history of three generations, finding them in their kitchens, sickbeds, train compartments, love nests, and basement laundry rooms.
Everything that her readers, the National Book Award committee, and the Pulitzer Prize judges love about McDermott’s (Someone, 2013, etc.) stories of Irish-Catholic American life is back in her eighth novel.
Short-story virtuoso Saunders' (Tenth of December, 2013, etc.) first novel is an exhilarating change of pace.
The bardo is a key concept of Tibetan Buddhism: a middle, or liminal, spiritual landscape where we are sent between physical lives. It's also a fitting master metaphor for Saunders’ first novel, which is about suspension: historical, personal, familial, and otherwise. The Lincoln of the title is our 16th president, sort of, although he is not yet dead. Rather, he is in a despair so deep it cannot be called mere mourning over his 11-year-old son, Willie, who died of typhoid in 1862. Saunders deftly interweaves historical accounts with his own fragmentary, multivoiced narration as young Willie is visited in the netherworld by his father, who somehow manages to bridge the gap between the living and the dead, at least temporarily. But the sneaky brilliance of the book is in the way Saunders uses these encounters—not so much to excavate an individual’s sense of loss as to connect it to a more national state of disarray. 1862, after all, was the height of the Civil War, when the outcome was far from assured. Lincoln was widely seen as being out of his depth, “a person of very inferior cast of character, wholly unequal to the crisis.” Among Saunders’ most essential insights is that, in his grief over Willie, Lincoln began to develop a hard-edged empathy, out of which he decided that “the swiftest halt to the [war] (therefore the greatest mercy) might be the bloodiest.” This is a hard truth, insisting that brutality now might save lives later, and it gives this novel a bitter moral edge. For those familiar with Saunders’ astonishing short fiction, such complexity is hardly unexpected, although this book is a departure for him stylistically and formally; longer, yes, but also more of a collage, a convocation of voices that overlap and argue, enlarging the scope of the narrative. It is also ruthless and relentless in its evocation not only of Lincoln and his quandary, but also of the tenuous existential state shared by all of us. Lincoln, after all, has become a shade now, like all the ghosts who populate this book. “Strange, isn’t it?” one character reflects. “To have dedicated one’s life to a certain venture, neglecting other aspects of one’s life, only to have that venture, in the end, amount to nothing at all, the products of one’s labors utterly forgotten?”
With this book, Saunders asserts a complex and disturbing vision in which society and cosmos blur.
This sparkling first novel sends a young man through a gantlet of troubles and amusements in 18th-century Manhattan.
Within minutes of deboarding from the brig Henrietta in New York harbor, anno Domini 1746, Richard Smith seems to attract trouble. First the 24-year-old Londoner presents a local merchant named Lovell with a bill demanding 1,000 pounds sterling. It’s a huge sum for the time, and Smith’s sharp tongue does little to smooth the transaction. Next day, his purse is stolen, and that night, invited to dine with the merchant, Smith is rude to his hosts and nettles the merchant’s daughter Tabitha. Among other things, he abets her sister’s taste in novels (“pabulum for the easily pleased”). Before the week is out he is mistaken for a papist and pursued by a drunken mob in a marvelous chase scene through Manhattan’s much fewer mean streets. His rescuer that night, Septimus Oakeshott, secretary to the governor, will unwittingly embroil Smith in the city’s chief political dispute. Spufford (Unapologetic, 2013, etc.), who writes in the Fielding-esque style of the period and displays a sure hand thereto, packs so many surprises into this sprightly picaresque that an extended precis would be full of spoiling answers to such queries as: why does Tabitha limp? Why do Smith and Septimus duel? Is it because of their dark secrets? Why is Smith really in New York? And who is the narrative’s “true” author? Spufford suggests in an afterword that he was aiming for "a colonial counterpart to Joseph Andrews,” but there’s a touch here also of the Ian Fleming books that he warmly recalls in his autobiographical The Child That Books Built (2002).
A first-rate entertainment with a rich historical feel and some delightful twists.
The unlikely friendship between a canny widow and a scholarly vicar sets the stage for this sweeping 19th-century saga of competing belief systems.
Widow Cora Seaborne knows she should mourn the death of her husband; instead, she finally feels free. Eschewing the advice of her friends, Cora retreats from London with her lady’s maid, Martha, and strange, prescient son, Francis. The curious party decamps to muddy Essex, where Cora dons an ugly men’s coat and goes tramping in the mud, looking for fossils. Soon she becomes captivated by the local rumor of a menacing presence that haunts the Blackwater estuary, a threat that locks children in their houses after dark and puts farmers on watch as the tide creeps in. Cora’s fascination with the fabled Essex Serpent leads her to the Rev. William Ransome, desperate to keep his flock from descending into outright hysteria. An unlikely pair, the two develop a fast intellectual friendship, curious to many but accepted by all, including Ransome’s ailing wife, Stella. Perry (After Me Comes the Flood, 2015) pulls out all the stops in her richly detailed Victorian yarn, weaving myth and local flavor with 19th-century debates about theology and evolution, medical science and social justice for the poor. Each of Perry’s characters receives his or her due, from the smallest Essex urchin to the devastating Stella, who suffers from tuberculosis and obsesses over the color blue throughout her decline. There are Katherine and Charles Ambrose, a good-natured but shallow society couple; the ambitious and radical Dr. Luke Garrett and his wealthier but less-talented friend George Spencer, who longs for Martha; Martha herself, who rattles off Marx with the best of them and longs to win Cora’s affection; not to mention a host of sailors, superstitious tenant farmers, and bewitched schoolgirls. The sumptuous twists and turns of Perry’s prose invite close reading, as deep and strange and full of narrative magic as the Blackwater itself. Fans of Sarah Waters, A.S. Byatt, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things should prepare to fall under Perry’s spell and into her very capable hands.
Stuffed with smarts and storytelling sorcery, this is a work of astonishing breadth and brilliance.
Walking the hypnotic line between tragedy and fairy tale, O’Neill’s latest novel (The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, 2014, etc.) follows two spectacularly talented orphans as they fall into the bleak underworld of 1930s Montreal.
Both born in 1914 to poor teenage mothers ill-equipped to take care of them, Rose and Pierrot are abandoned at the same joyless orphanage, left to be raised by the same joyless nuns. But even as young children, their chemistry is evident, so much so that the Mother Superior makes a note to keep the then-4-year-olds apart. “It was necessary to thwart all love affairs in the orphanage,” O’Neill writes. “If there was one thing responsible for ruining lives, it was love.” But like talent, their bond is irrepressible: Pierrot, it turns out, is a brilliant pianist despite a total lack of formal training, while Rose is mesmerizing onstage, a born comedian. Together, they enchant the city’s elite, performing as a duo for Montreal’s wealthiest households. For a while, at least, the nuns need the money more than they need to keep the pair apart. But the artistic romance of their childhood comes to a crashing halt in adolescence, and—with some interference from the sisters—their fates diverge: sensitive Pierrot is taken in by a fabulously wealthy old man who is enchanted with his musical gifts, while self-assured Rose is sent to work as a governess, looking after the children of a powerful businessman who runs the city’s illicit nightlife. Such stability is short-lived. With the Great Depression swirling around them, both Rose and Pierrot descend into a dark world of sex, drugs, and crime, each of them haunting the city in search of the other. Grotesque and whimsical at once, the love story that unfolds is a fable of ambition and perseverance, desperation and heartbreak. But while Pierrot is unforgettable, the novel belongs to Rose, a woman who—if she cannot carve out space for herself in upstanding daylight—will rise to power in the underworld of night. O’Neill’s prose is crisp and strange, arresting in its frankness; much like the novel itself, her writing is both gleefully playful and devastatingly sad.
Big and lush and extremely satisfying; a rare treat.