Emma Donoghue has a thing for mothers

  • The Wonder by Emma Donoghue (Little, Brown and Company, September 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: A nurse trained by Florence Nightingale travels to rural Ireland to confirm/refute that a young girl is surviving on faith and water alone.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Rural Ireland
  • Time: 19th century
  • In both her earlier novel, Room, and here, Emma Donaghue creates women characters desperate to protect children in their care. The Wonder juxtaposes faith and science, the authority of men versus women, and the power and damage of keeping secrets.

Many readers shied away from Donoghue’s Room. Most of that story took place out of sight, in a bunker where a young boy was raised by his mother, both captive to her rapist. In The Wonder, Lib, a Nightingale-trained nurse travels from London to the Irish countryside to observe a phenomenon -a young girl, Anna, seemingly surviving for months without consuming any food. Visitors have been flocking in search of blessings. The church and local leaders are concerned about the spectacle and the possibility of a hoax.

Lib and a Sister nurse are charged with observing Anna round the clock, documenting her physiological status and any possibility of food being provided. The nurses are charged to observe and record, not consult. Any judgments are to be left to the community leaders.

Lib is a fish out of water. A Londoner through and through, it is unclear why she would take this position. She has little good to say about the community or its people. And there is no evidence of contact with family or friends, seemingly both physically and emotionally alone. Only with the arrival of a journalist does she appear to have a connection in the community, though with risk.

In many ways, this is a novel of silence and secrets. The question of Anna’s family’s honesty is at the crux of the plot. The family had recently experienced the death of Anna’s brother, to whom she was devoted but it is barely noted. As the narrator and a main figure in the novel, it might be expected to learn about Lib but she is a closed book in public and in private. It is only by coming to grips with their secrets that each can be saved.

Emma Donoghue is very skilled in building tension in her stories. In Lib she has created a watchful and intelligent protector who sees her responsibility as much to Anna as to those who hired her. Anna is at the same time angelic and strong as steel, unwavering and faith-filled. Neither friends nor adversaries, each holds her own as the novel unfolds.

The Wonder was chosen by many critics as a top book of 2016. It is impossible to separate the essence of spirituality from the plot of the narrative.  As a reader, one’s individual connection with the spiritual likely will have an impact on the appreciation for the book.

 

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A mystery within a mystery to watch for!

  • Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (Harper, US release June 2017)
  • In 40 words or less: A London editor receives a mystery manuscript just as the author falls to his death. Despite her antipathy towards the author, Susan Ryeland is committed to finding the missing chapters and the real cause of Alan Conway’s death. Horowitz’s literary allusions and adroit wordplay make this a true joy.
  • Genre: Mystery
  • Locale: London and environs
  • Time: Contemporary
  • I’m a sucker for British whodunits. Horowitz is known to PBS viewers for his teleplays, Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War. Magpie Murders pays homage to the great mystery writers and detectives with more than a little tongue-in-cheek. Horowitz’s literary allusions and adroit wordplay make this a true joy and a great choice to take anywhere this summer.

For some reason, British murder mysteries seemed so much more civilized than their American counterparts. Even when one victim’s head is removed by the sword from the suit of armor in the manor hall – rather hard to believe. It’s the air of gentility, found more often in those who have suffered reverses than those on the rise, and generations of community connections despite differing social strata. Villages are traversed by walking or biking, and city dwellers live in lovely row houses or quaint flats. All of these elements, plus the necessary school ties, are present in Magpie Murders. Rather than feeling trite, it is entertaining to see how Horowitz manages to bring all these elements together, stringing out the clues bit by bit.

It’s not a great surprise that Alan Conway, author and murder victim, is disliked by many who know him. He is the ticket to his small publishing house’s success as both his publisher and editor realize. Just as his latest manuscript in about to be delivered, Conway comes to London for a dinner with the publisher at a private club. Unfortunately, all does not go smoothly. So after the incomplete manuscript appears and Conway dies, his editor is highly motivated to find the missing conclusion and the answers. She soon learns that Conway’s final mystery has far too many parallels with the leads she is following.

Dan, my very supportive husband, often wonders how there can still be people in Britain given the number of poisonings, falls, stabbings and hunting accidents that occur under suspicious circumstances. Somehow the bucolic settings make crime seem oh, so different, from the flashing lights and screaming sirens of American crime stories. Crime is intensely personal and localized, motives deep-seated and clear.

For fans of classic British mysteries, there is so much to like. Horowitz is reveling in each allusion he scores and inside publishing barb he plants. If you are intrigued, this is your June read.  It is coming out next week, just in time to take along wherever you go this summer.

Taking in the big picture with ‘The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem’

  • The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi (Thomas Dunne Books, translation 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: A window into the difficult life in Jerusalem primarily between the end of WWII and the beginnings of the State of Israel.  Yishai-Levi weaves together stories of four generations of a family descended from the exiles of the Spanish Inquisition.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: Jerusalem
  • Time: 20th century
  • This book, a bestseller in Israel, is a cross between a love letter to the seven generations of Jerusalemites in her family before her and a revelation of genuine cultural elements that created the boundaries in which her characters lived. Ideal for book group discussion.

Sometimes the appeal of a book goes beyond the story.  Sarit Yishai-Levi’s novel is rare in time, setting and community.  For those Israelis descended from Spanish Jews who migrated to Jerusalem in the early 19th century or earlier (often via Greece), the language and culture of the Ermosa family and their neighbors ring true.

In the Spaniol community, it is vital that marriage partners come from within the community. Many of the marriages are arranged, formally or less so. For several generations, it has been the curse of the Ermosa men that they fall in love with unsuitable women. Reined in by their parents, they marry more “suitable” partners and live with a longing for what they have lost. This disaffection is similarly passed down from generation to generation.

The pivotal character in The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is Luna, the eldest and most beautiful of the three Ermosa daughters. Luna is her father’s favorite but a thorn in her mother’s side. She aspires to a fashion magazine lifestyle, separating herself as much as possible from the expected path.

The family’s life is circumscribed by the neighborhood and the family business. The expectation is that daughters will receive a basic education, get married and settle near family, working in the store only if truly needed. Everyone lives in close quarters with none of the conveniences one might imagine of a merchant family in the 1940’s. Their world begins to change dramatically as local boys return from serving with the British in WWII. These young men are looking to establish themselves and to choose their partners. Some become a part of the growing cells working to undermine the British Army enforcing the Mandate. These are some of the external forces compelling change in Luna’s generation.

Most Israeli novels seen in the US marketplace have been written by men. These men are usually the sons or grandsons of Eastern European immigrants that arrived either in the pioneer days or came as a consequence of the Holocaust. Less frequent are writings by the descendants of Jews of the Middle East, North Africa or the Iberian peninsula. The strength of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is the window it provides into the lives of the deeply rooted community where Ladino, not Yiddish, is the language of the home, and the cultural orientation is to the Middle East, not Europe.  The success Yishai-Levi has received with this novel is as much a testament to the love she shows for her Sephardic roots as it is for the story she has told.

 

Texas, 1870 in ‘News of the World’

  • News of the World by Paulette Jiles (Harper Collins, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: A 70-year-old former soldier and itinerant news reader is asked to return a young girl kidnapped by the Kiowa Indians to her remaining family. Jiles beautifully paints a picture of the land, their growing relationship and the challenges they face.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: Texas
  • Time: 1870
  • This book, based on actual historic figures, captures the hardship and beauty of life in Texas at the cusp of statehood. It was deserving of National Book Award consideration.

One of the most difficult things a writer can do is tell a straightforward story simply and with beautiful language. News of the World is such a success.

Texas in 1870 was a very rough and unforgiving land. Paulette Jiles’s poetic skills are everywhere in the sparse yet descriptive language she uses to bring the story alive. In a surprising small novel, Jiles tells the story of a young girl taken to live with the Kiowa Indians after they murdered her parents and sister. Rescued by the army, she is entrusted to a seventy-year-old former military officer who commits to bringing her back to her surviving relatives.

While this is historical fiction, both of the primary characters are grounded in fact. Knowing this gives the reader a platform to better understand the dynamics of life during this period.

Both are outsiders. He is an itinerant news reader, paid to read selected stories from newspapers around the world to audiences in saloons around the country. He has a keen awareness of schisms in the country and picks and chooses what he shares to avoid creating additional unrest. She no longer speaks English and is completely acculturated to the Kiowa way of life. He becomes her teacher and protects her from men who wish to victimize her further. She, too, feels a responsibility towards him and uses the skills she gained to save them both.

This is a turbulent time in Texas. There is great lawlessness with predatory alliances, some as an outgrowth of the Civil War, others familial or opportunistic. Few women live in the towns and many of them are in brothels. The Captain and Johanna are forced to travel under cover of darkness for their own protection. The land itself is a major character in the book. Jiles language is so precise you can see the terrain and feel the dust as they travel.

Despite the seriousness of their circumstances, this is not a doom and gloom novel. As they come to know and understand one another, there is a genuine affection that develops. There are cultural differences that must be bridged and there is humor.

It is rare to find a book that tells its story so well in such a compact package. For that reason, I hesitate to divulge any additional elements of the plot. As Captain Kidd’s and Johanna’s journey together draws to an end it is difficult to read because these are characters I would like to spend much more time with. This is a book I can recommend without reservation.

 

Howard Jacobson’s ‘Shylock’ is contemporary and biting

  • Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson (Hogarth Shakespeare, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Commissioned as one in a series of Shakespeare’s plays reconceived as contemporary novels, Jacobson skewers the “reality TV”  rich while Strulovitch, a wealthy Jewish philanthropist, questions his Jewish identity and worries about his daughter, all under the eyes of Shylock.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: England
  • Time: now
  • This book showcases the timelessness of Shakespeare’s characters and themes with Jacobson’s keen language and sardonic wit.

Simon Strulovitch lives in the countryside near Manchester, England. On a winter’s evening, he visits the grave of his mother, Leah, only to meet Shylock, still in mourning and speaking to his wife, Leah. Strulovitch invites him home and thus begins a contemporary recasting of The Merchant of Venice. Howard Jacobson is well-known for his biting assessments of his characters and their social standing.

Venice plays a major role in the story. On his honeymoon with his first wife, Strulovitch quickly realizes her idealized vision of him doesn’t mesh with his conflicted Eastern European roots. Strulovitch was angry and saddened at his father’s disownment of him for marrying outside of the faith. Upon his second marriage, there was a reconciliation and Strulovitch became a great collector of Jewish artists though his ambivalence about his Jewish identity remained.

Tragically, Kay, Simon’s second wife was felled by a stroke when their daughter Beatrice was young. Kay was left a wordless invalid and Strulevich effectively became a single parent. Shylock and Strulovitch have much in common in dealing with their daughters and as outsiders in the communities in which they live.

A mash-up of reality television elements – food and advice tv – along with a Kardashian-like figure and her acolytes are satirical devices that draw Beatrice, an aspiring performance artist, to her rupture with her father.

Woven throughout the novel is overt anti-Semitism in the community and among those Beatrice has chosen as her associates. When Beatrice, just turning 16, runs off with a football player suspended for his Nazi hand motion, Strulovitch wants him to pay.

Shylock is the classic foil to Strulovitch as he wrestles with his values and where he draws the line on taking action. It does take a leap to accept Shylock’s presence in 21st century England. However, the essential issues that these men, both as fathers and as Jews, face have changed little over the centuries. For this reason and because Jacobson can turn a phrase, that this reimagining of The Merchant of Venice is well worth reading.

This is the second of these novel riffs on Shakespeare I have read. I may give another a try.

(My earlier read was Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl based on The Taming of the Shrew and here is my write-up. My take on recent theatrical riffs on The Merchant of Venice is here.)