Joseph Boyden

Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden skillfully blends two interlocking stories. It begins when Niska, an Oji Cree Medicine Woman in Northern Ontario, receives word that her nephew, Xavier Bird, has died in the trenches in World War I. When she learns his boyhood friend, Elijah Whiskeyjack, has survived and is on his way home, she decides to make the journey to the train station to retrieve him. But it is not Elijah who steps off the train. It is her nephew, Xavier. He has come home a broken man, both physically and mentally. He lost a leg in the war, is addicted to morphine, suffers from PTSD, and is haunted by the horror of what he witnessed in the battlefields of France and Belgium. Niska embraces her nephew and takes him to the canoe to paddle the three-day journey home.

The novel unfolds in the first-person point of view, alternating between the voices of Niska and Xavier. Aware of her nephew’s mental anguish, his physical pain, and his addiction to the white man’s medicine, Niska tells him stories of their respective childhoods, their intimate connection with nature, and the rituals and ceremonies of their people. It is through storytelling she hopes to save him by reminding him of who he is, where he came from, and the values he inherited from his culture.

Alternating with Niska’s stories are Xavier’s stories of his horrific experiences in the battlefields of WWI. At times, he seems to be speaking to Niska; at others, he mumbles to himself; while at other times, the dialogue seems to be internal and experienced as terrifying flashbacks. But at all times, the description is graphic. Xavier narrates his story through the haze of morphine. So his narrative is episodic and confused, the locations and trenches interchangeable, the action repetitive. But that is to be expected in the fog of war.

Boyden immerses the reader in the horrors of war. Bits and pieces of human limbs and rotting corpses litter the landscape. The countryside is in shreds. The mud is ubiquitous—soldiers having to crawl through it on their bellies in no-man’s-land or wade knee-deep in it in the trenches. We hear the constant barrage of guns and explosions which eventually cause Xavier to lose some of his hearing. We smell the rotting corpses, the stench of human waste and filthy uniforms on bodies that haven’t been bathed. We feel the lice crawling up and down the soldiers’ limbs and rats nibbling on human skin. We squash together, jostling for position in confined quarters. And we see the fear in men’s eyes as they are about to face death.

No one can experience the horrors of war and remain unchanged. Xavier and Elijah are no exception. At first, their bond seems unbreakable. But as their reputation as skilled snipers develops, their bond weakens and the ensuing tension becomes palpable. Elijah plummets down a path that causes Xavier to question his sanity. And, eventually, Xavier’s grip on reality also seems to disintegrate.

The alternating shifts in points of view are clear and provide a strong contrast between the killing fields of Europe and the pristine majesty of the wilds in Northern Ontario. Boyden’s characters are well-developed. Niska emerges as a strong, authentic character living in harmony with nature and intimately connected with her cultural heritage in spite of efforts to indoctrinate her into the dominant culture’s world view. Xavier and Elijah are depicted as unique individuals who develop different coping mechanisms to survive the violence and insanity of life in the trenches. Each is plagued with internal demons.

This does not make for easy or light reading, primarily because of the graphic descriptions of the killing fields in Europe during WWI. But it is a compelling narrative and recommended for anyone interested in the historical fiction of this period.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Alice Munro

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage is a collection of nine short stories by the 2013 Nobel Prize winner in Literature, Alice Munro. The stories are populated by people in different stages of life confronting different challenges—a teenager’s practical joke that opens a new life trajectory for a housekeeper; a cancer patient; an elderly Alzheimer patient; a woman coping with her husband’s suicide; and so on. But the common thread running throughout is Alice Munro’s unflinchingly honest eye at the complex interiority of her characters’ apparently ordinary lives.

Munro’s razor-sharp lens focuses on relationships between individuals, whether those are familial, marital, between friends or acquaintances. She explores the impact of the death or illness of a loved one, childhood separations, gendered inequities, disappointments in marriage, resentments, infidelities, family secrets, and the role of memory in our lives. And she does this with a quiet subtlety that allows telling details to bring a picture into focus. Very little happens on the surface of the stories. The drama, the tension, the conflicts, and the epiphany—if there is one—are all internal and revealed slowly with consummate skill. Her words do not shriek; they do not judge. They sneak up on you, packing a powerful punch that catches one unaware.

What emerges from these stories is Munro’s sensitive and compassionate portrayal of the internal lives of flawed individuals struggling with life’s challenges. She details the private lives of her characters by crafting seemingly innocuous public encounters for them. It is a testament to her great skill as a writer that she is able to penetrate beneath the superficialities of an apparently humdrum, ordinary life to reveal the rich, complex, and conflicted texture of the character’s interiority. Her vision is expansive; her skill impressive.

Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Phyllis Trible

Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Reading of Biblical Narratives by Phyllis Trible consists a series of lectures Professor Trible delivered at Yale in which she deconstructs passages from the Bible that focus on four women in ancient Israel: Hagar, Tamar, an unnamed woman, and the daughter of Jephthah. Professor Trible refers to these passages as “texts of terror” since they reflect a cruel misogyny that goes unchallenged by the narrator(s) and/or by Yahweh as portrayed by the narrator(s).

Professor Trible quotes liberally from the Hebrew text, translates specific words, and documents her extensive research in detailed notes at the end of each chapter. She performs a close textual analysis of the text using a feminist lens. In each case, she addresses the following issues: How is the sentence structured? What can we glean from its syntax? What happens in the story and why does it happen? Who has voice and who is denied voice? Who is named and who remains unnamed? What is the narrator(s) stance in telling the story? According to the narrator(s), what is Yahweh’s stance on the events and outcome? When does the narrator(s) give Yahweh a voice? When does Yahweh remain silent and why? Professor Trible addresses the significance of each of these points by interpreting the text to expose its attitude toward gender. Her conclusions are illuminating.

According to Professor Trible, the Egyptian maid, Hagar, represents the outcast, the ostracized, the exploited, and the powerless under the mercy of the ruling class. She is the black female exploited by Sarah when it suits her purpose and sent into exile with her son, Ishmael, when her presence is perceived as a threat to the hegemony of Sarah’s son, Isaac. Tamar is raped by her brother, Amnon, and is cautioned to remain silent about her violation even though her life has been ruined. The Unnamed Woman in Judges 19:1-30 suffers betrayal, rape, torture, murder, and dismemberment. She crawls to the doorway after a night of terror, at which time her master, the Levite, nonchalantly places her on his ass and heads home. It is unclear whether she is dead or alive at this point. And, finally, there is the story of the unnamed daughter of Jephthah who is sacrificed because of her father’s promise to Yahweh.

By highlighting the plight of these four women, Professor Trible relocates them from the margin to the center. She gives them a voice and, in doing so, memorializes them. She acknowledges their trauma and honors their sacrifice. She gives them a vehicle to describe the unmitigated terror and cruelty they experienced in the hands of powerful men while she simultaneously exposes the misogyny infecting these passages of the Bible. And, as she poignantly reminds us, violence against women is not a thing of the long ago past but continues to plague us well into the present.

This book makes a significant contribution to feminist critiques of religious texts. It is highly recommended, especially for anyone interested in the representation of women in religious texts.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Akwaeke Emezi

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi is a highly unusual novel. The narrative unfolds by alternating the first-person point of view of each of the many personalities inhabiting the single body of the central character, Ada.

The novel opens with the voice of “We” who self-identifies as an ogbanje (a spirit in Igbo folklore) and as a child of Ala, the python. “We” inhabits Ada’s body while Ada she is still in her mother’s womb and continues to reside there after her birth, interacting with Ada and directing her movements. “We” temporarily recedes into the background with Ada’s arrival in America to study.

After Ada is raped by Soren, Asughara emerges. Asughara, a second spirit, thrives on violence, partying, promiscuity, alcohol, and drugs. Asughara directs Ada’s movements and speech, all the while fighting for control of Ada with another of Ada’s resident spirits, Yshwa (Ada’s Christ). And then we meet a fourth spirit, St. Vincent, who loves women and appears only in Ada’s dreams—her “dreambody.”  

If all this sounds convoluted, that is because it is.

The novel eschews a logical sequence. Much of the narrative is cryptic and incoherent in nature. Smatterings of the same event are alluded to intermittently through the differing perspective of whichever spirit has the dominant voice at the time. The structure moves in a circular motion, looping back on itself, moving forward, and adding a little more detail with each subsequent retelling. The fragmented nature of the structure reflects the shattered pieces of Ada’s life: the bits and pieces have to be reassembled in order to generate meaning and wholeness.

As the novel unfolds, we learn Ada experienced sexual assault as a child and was severely beaten. She begins cutting herself at the age of twelve to appease her raging internal spirts and she continues to do so for twelve years. As an adult, she is suicidal, anorexic, and struggles with her gender identity. She finds little comfort in therapy and converses regularly with each of her internal spirits, all of whom claim they are there to protect her and have her best interests at heart.

Akwaeke Emezi has written a highly original, complex, and unsettling novel that lends itself to levels of interpretation. The ogbanje inform Igbo folklore and play a prominent role as spirits capable of inhabiting a body and controlling its behavior. But here they can also be seen as buffers created in the mind of a young child to shield herself from the abuse she suffered. She projects these buffers to the outside world in order to protect her inner core. They assume a life of their own in her mind. Plagued with guilt and self-blame for the abuse she experienced, she punishes herself by feeding her internal spirits with cuts in her skin. She absolves herself for destructive and callous behavior toward her many lovers by claiming Asughara controls her. All the while, she wages a constant battle within herself and between her many selves for control.

The complexity of the novel’s narrative structure and intense subject matter may not appeal to some readers. But it is to be commended for its originality, lyrical prose, and ability to depict an intimate portrait of splintered identities within a traumatized individual.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Richard Wagamese

The narrator of Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse is Saul Indian Horse of the Ojibway Nation in Canada. The novel opens with Saul as a recovering alcoholic and resident at The New Dawn Center, a treatment center for alcohol addiction. Saul is invited to recount his story. And so begins the harrowing tale of Saul’s childhood, adulthood, and gradual decline into alcoholism.

Having lost his all family, a terrified eight-year-old Saul is captured and taken to St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School, a place he describes as “hell on earth” where all manner of sexual and physical abuse occurs. The nuns and priests routinely beat the children; expose them to inhumane treatment; humiliate them; try to instill in them shame at their skin color, culture, and belief systems; and mete out severe punishment if they hear the children speaking in their native tongues. In short, they unite in a concerted effort to eradicate the Indian out of the Indian through the use of corporal punishment, starvation, torture, and fear. And this is all done in the name of Christianity.

In addition to these horrors, the children are routinely subjected to night time sexual assaults by nuns and priests who either get into bed with a child or remove the child to another room to perpetrate atrocities. Life is so horrendous for these young children that many of them die and/or commit suicide. They are buried in unmarked graves, their deaths shrouded in silence as if they never existed.

The young Saul is eventually befriended by Father Leboutilier at the school. Leboutilier ignites Saul’s interest in ice hockey. Saul practices furiously and passionately, developing speed and dexterity that attract the attention of scouts. Saul leaves the school to play hockey with a native team and then is invited to play in a higher league with all white team mates. Subject to racist taunts by teams and audiences alike, Saul experiences racism in all its virulent forms. He tries to navigate a place for himself within the game, but when his attempts are rebuffed with racial slurs and physical attacks, he retaliates with violence and is ejected from the game. He then drifts from one odd job to the next, gradually declining into alcoholism until he enters The New Dawn Center.

It is while he recounts his story that Saul is finally able to articulate his experience of child sexual assault at St. Jerome’s School. This revelation comes as a shock to the reader since Saul gives no prior indication of being a victim of child sexual assault. He comes to realize that his love and dedication for hockey was really a coping mechanism, a desperate means to escape the horror, guilt, and shame of his sexual abuse. The novel concludes with a hopeful note as Saul is finally able to confront his past and tell his story as a survivor.

Richard Wagamese has written a compelling novel that penetrates into the heart of the cultural alienation, displacement, and implacable racism experienced by the indigenous people of Canada. Wagamese’s prose is lucid, unadulterated, and sparse when describing horrors and cruelties; it is lyrical and profound when describing the affinity with nature, belief systems, rituals, and spirituality of the Ojibway people as recounted by Saul’s grandmother; and it is thrilling when capturing the exhilaration and freedom Saul experiences on the ice with his breathtaking skill. Saul emerges as a believable, memorable character, struggling to come to terms with his traumatic past. He is portrayed with a sympathy and compassion that is magnified by the knowledge that real First Nations children experienced similar trauma.

Richard Wagamese has written a stunning novel exposing the horrors of Canada’s church run residential schools while combining it with the story of a young man’s struggle with alienation and trauma as he slowly navigates toward community and self-acceptance.

Highly recommended in spite of—or because of—its difficult subject matter.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Pat Barker

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker begins with the Greek sacking of the kingdom of Lyrnessus just before the fall of Troy. It ends with the death of Achilles. The story is in three parts. Part I is told in the voice of Briseis, a young queen of Lyrnessus, after she is taken captive by the Greeks and awarded to Achilles as his sex slave. Part 2 sees Briseis in the camp of an angry Agamemnon after he has been forced to return Chryseis to her father. It includes the death of Patroclus, Achilles bloodthirsty rampage against the Trojans, and his killing of Hector. Part 3 chronicles Achilles’ subsequent mutilation of Hector’s body, the return of his corpse to Priam, the death of Achilles, and Briseis’ departure for Greece as the wife of Alcimus.

Briseis narrates the events in Part 1 in what is the strongest and most compelling section of the novel. After witnessing the brutal slaughter of her husband and brothers by Achilles, she is carted off with the rest of the captive women to be parceled off to the Greek victors as sex slaves. She lives in the Greek camp with other slave women and is at the beck and call of Achilles’ whims—sexual or otherwise. It is while she is at the Greek camp that she befriends Patroclus.

Barker’s powerful description of the Greek camp is immersive. Through the eyes, ears, and nose of Briseis, we experience its confined and oppressive quarters, its filth and stench, its rats and dogs, its Greek warriors in all their drunken and bawdy behavior, and its slave women living in constant and unmitigated fear. Briseis acknowledges her situation is better than some since she is Achilles’ concubine and, therefore, off limits from Greek pawing hands. But she conveys her strong sense of trepidation that the slightest wrong move or wrong word on her part may cause Achilles to discard her, at which time she becomes available fodder for Greek warriors.

In addition to the endless violence and bloodshed that threads its way throughout the novel, what emerges in this section is the bonding that takes place among these resilient slave women, deprived of all personal agency, some of whom are already pregnant by their captors. They advise each other, support each other, and do their best to navigate a safe space for themselves amid the horror and carnage.

With Parts 2 and 3, Barker abandons the exclusive first-person narration of Briseis and, instead, alternates it with third person limited omniscient with its focus primarily on Achilles. This shift in point of view is unfortunate, causing the novel to lose much of its strength. The focus transfers primarily to the male players, their thoughts and interactions. Although Briseis observes and comments on the events, she is increasingly shuttled off to its margins. What emerges in Parts 2 and 3 is a straightforward retelling of the Greek epic interspersed with Briseis’ point of view.

Another problematic issue with the novel is the tendency to inject modern slang and curse words in an attempt to convey realistic conversation. In what is otherwise eloquent prose and evocative description, the use of modern derogatory epithets for women and their body parts sounds jarringly incongruous. There are, perhaps, more effective ways of conveying realistic conversations without having them sound so out of place.

In spite of these shortcomings, the novel has much in its favor. The characters are complex, robust, and realistically portrayed—Achilles with his mummy issues, internal conflicts, brutality toward some, and tenderness toward others; Agamemnon with his cowardice as he hides behind a blustering ego; Patroclus with his love for Achilles and kindness toward Briseis; and Briseis with her compassion and strength as a survivor and who, much to her credit, does not fall passionately in love with Achilles.

The character portrayals; the realistic immersion in the Greek camp; the movingly depicted scene between Priam and Achilles; and the strength of Part 1 for offering a powerful voice to the women captives, their de-humanizing conditions, and the impact of war on their shattered lives make this a compelling read.

Recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Maria Dahvana Headley

Very loosely based on the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf, The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley takes place in and around Herot Hall, a gated community in suburbia, replete with manicured lawns; regimented flower beds; and all manner of up-to-date security systems designed to keep outsiders off its pristine grounds. Herot Hall is an oasis where residents preside over a stream of never-ending dinner parties and children’s play-dates.

Our attention is drawn to Willa Herot, mother of Dylan, and wife of Roger, the heir of Herot Hall. Willa leads a surreal existence, a life riddled with popping pills and alcoholism. She is surrounded by a bevy of older women with surgically enhanced body parts, immaculately coiffed hair, and scrupulously polished fingernails. They swoop in on Willa at regular intervals to ensure her home, family, and dinner parties are up to snuff.

And then there is Dana Mills, a veteran of a desert war suffering from PTSD. Caught by her captors and somehow surviving a televised execution, she wakes up several months later to find herself pregnant. She returns to her home town and lives in hiding with her son, Gren. They live in tunnels and an abandoned train station buried deep within a mountain overlooking Herot Hall.

Convinced Gren looks like a monster, Dana showers him with unconditional love and a fierce determination to protect him from outsiders who will target him because of his difference. Her warnings to stay away from the monsters in Herot Hall go unheeded when Gren’s curiosity gets the better of him. He ventures down the mountain and befriends Dylan Herot. Their friendship becomes the catalyst that leads to an inexorable collision course.

Headley sets up a series of contrasts between Willa and Dana. Willa lives under a microscope in her brightly lit home with its large windows. She can rely on the support of power-wielding women to help her pick up the pieces every time her life falls apart. In contrast, Dana lives in darkness in the belly of a mountain with Gren as her only support and companion. Willa’s dinner parties with their sumptuous meals and tinkling glasses are described in vivid detail while Dana survives on whatever she can scrounge from the land and animals she can trap.

In spite of their differences, the two women have in common a struggle to survive. They are isolated and trapped in different ways. In the gated community with its locks and bolts and social expectations, Willa strives to make meaning in a life she finds insignificant and a lifestyle peppered with lies and deceptions. Meanwhile, festering away in the entrails of a mountain, Dana struggles with flashbacks and hallucinations that color her perceptions of reality.

This is an ambitious novel. In some ways, it is perhaps a little too ambitious. The point of view constantly shifts with a plethora of different voices, including Dana’s first person, the Greek chorus-like women of Herot commenting on events, the spirits inhabiting the mountain, third person limited omniscient, and others. The shifts are disconcerting. Add to the mix hallucinations and imaginary conversations with imaginary people, and it becomes a challenge to know who is saying what to whom, what is real and what is imagined. The last section of the novel, with its rapid pace toward a final crescendo, is confusing and baffling.

In spite of these short comings, the novel is a compelling exploration of current concerns clothed in an ancient myth. It explores significant themes of race and class divisions; othering; “us” versus “them;” privilege; the lingering effects of war trauma; life-thwarting societal expectations; maternal love; the price we pay to survive; and the manner in which female power is exercised in a male-centered culture. It poses the following underlying questions: where are the monsters? Are they inside us or outside us? And who are the real monsters? Is it those who live in their pristine surroundings determined to sustain their way of life, no matter the cost? Or is it those “others” rejected by society and forced to inhabit its margins?

The novel doesn’t provide answers but it does ask the right questions.

Recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Paula Gunn Allen, ed.

Spider Woman’s Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women, edited with an introduction by Paula Gunn Allen, is a must read for those wishing to gain an understanding of the culture and context within which Native American women write.

This slim volume is divided into three sections: The Warriors, The Casualties, The Resistance. Gunn Allen introduces each section by situating it within its cultural context. Each section includes traditional writings that have been transmitted orally for many decades, as well as contemporary examples by well-known authors, such as Louise Erdrich, Anna Lee Walters, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Linda Hogan.

Gunn Allen’s excellent introduction to the collection provides a brief historical overview of the oppression and broken promises experienced by Native Americans. She also situates the traditional tales, some of which are biographical, and she draws connections between these tales and their contemporary counterparts. Her introductions are enlightening in that she approaches each section by clarifying terms and context, revealing nuances and subtleties in Native American writing that may not be readily apparent to all readers.

Some of the traditional tales may pose a challenge for readers steeped in the Western tradition of story-telling because they do not necessarily adhere to a linear, cause and effect pattern. They weave in and out, frequently circling back on themselves, revealing biographical details about Native lives and perspectives. The contemporary writings pick up many of the same themes of traditional tales while situating them in modern society. The themes remain the same: the struggle to maintain tradition, culture, kinship, and values against the onslaught of a dominant culture that tries to subvert all things Native. 

A compelling collection of traditional tales and contemporary short stories, some of which are heart-wrenching.

Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Herman Melville

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was a mixed bag. Parts of it were brilliant with language and scenes that echo some of Shakespeare’s plays. But other parts were a bit of a slog.

Melville incorporated a variety of different genres and shifted points of view for no apparent reason. Some of the chapters appeared to have little bearing on the narrative and would have been more at home in an encyclopedia entry on everything you want to know about whales and/or their depiction in art. These chapters could have been excised with no damage to the main story line, which is about a man’s all-consuming obsession for revenge, an obsession that ultimately destroys him and most of his crew.

Recommended but with some reservations.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

C.S. Lewis

In Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis uses the myth of Cupid and Psyche as a vehicle to explore love in its many forms. The story takes place in Glome, a pre-Christian, polytheistic culture ruled by a tyrannical king who fathers three daughters. The narrative unfolds in the first-person point of view of Orual, his eldest daughter and Psyche’s sister.

Orual is castigated because of her ugly face. Her ugliness shocks all who see her, so she veils her face to diminish the impact of her defining feature. Psyche, on the other hand, is renowned for her sublime beauty and generosity of spirit. Orual assumes the role of her protective guardian, showering her with love. But this love is not unconditional. It is selfish, self-serving, and destructive. When Psyche is selected as the sacrificial bride to the Brute (Cupid), Orual is convinced she has been devoured by the Brute and embarks on a journey to bury Psyche’s remains. She finds Psyche is not only alive but is thriving and happy as the bride of the god. Psyche reveals the god comes to her only at night, and she is not permitted to see his face. And this is where Orual’s envy and possessiveness become paramount. Consumed by jealousy and anger at Psyche’s estrangement from her, Orual destroys Psyche’s happiness, deluding herself into believing she is doing it for Psyche’s own good.

Orual displays the very human trait of conceptualizing events and relationships only in terms of how they impact her. She cannot see beyond herself and lashes out at any hint of independence from people she cares about. She perceives herself as a victim, little realizing she has victimized others. As an aging queen, she gradually recognizes the possessive and destructive nature of her love, her role in extinguishing Psyche’s happiness and in consuming the lives and activities of those around her.

Orual grapples with questions concerning the nature of the divine and the concept of love for the divine. Unlike Psyche, she is incapable of loving the divine without seeing it. She questions the existence of the gods, the nature of divine justice, and dismisses faith as mere superstition. She cannot “see” what Psyche sees and is consumed with resentment because Psyche has entered a different realm of existence as a result of her love for the divine.

Through his characters, Lewis explores the nature of divine justice, love for the divine, and faith in a supreme being. He also probes the relationship between beauty and love and the forms of love that can exist between two people, ranging from that which is selfish, possessive, and destructive to a selfless love capable of self-sacrifice to ensure the happiness of the beloved.

At its most basic level, this is a story of Orual’s gradual transformation from a character struggling with her identity as an ugly girl, plagued with doubts about the existence of the gods and the nature of divine justice to one who gains self-acceptance and who finds redemption by embracing spirituality and faith in the divine. It is a testament to Lewis’ skill as a writer that he opens this complex, multi-layered novel to a variety of metaphorical interpretations, including the possibility of reading it as an allegory for Christian theology, while simultaneously depicting diverse characters who are vivid and life-like in their expression of human emotions and motivations.

Recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Eowyn Ivey

Eowyn Ivey’s To the Bright Edge of the World is inspired by the real life journey of Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester through Alaska’s unchartered territory in the 1880s. Ivey’s blend of fact with fiction results in a gripping novel.

The narrative unfolds by alternating between Forrester’s journal entries, his wife’s diary entries, the ramblings of an emotionally distressed member of Forrester’s team, descriptions of artifacts, and a series of letters between one of Forrester’s modern day descendants and the exhibits curator at the Alpine Historical Museum in Alpine, Alaska. The constant shifts in perspectives present an initial challenge to the reader, but it isn’t long before one settles into the rhythm of the book and is able to follow with ease. The narrative technique enables the reader to hear the unique voices of each of the characters and to view circumstances through their eyes. The two most prominent entries are those of Forrester and Sophie, his wife.

As Forrester and a small group of men trek through Alaska’s interior along the Wolverine River, Forrester records the journey in his journal. These journal entries describe the grandeur, wildness, and breathtaking scenery that is Alaska. The vivid detail immerses the reader in raging rivers, majestic mountains, rugged terrain, extreme seasonal changes in weather; encounters with wild animals; and the experience of hunger, thirst, sleep deprivation, and sheer exhaustion. And as they trek through unchartered territory, Forrester and his men interact with tribes of indigenous people, some of who are understandably suspicious of the white man’s intentions.

Forrester also includes out-of-this world experiences that have no rational explanations—a woman whose arm reveals her goose feathers; a trickster raven whose intermittent and implausible appearances thread their way throughout the novel. Forrester hints these may be hallucinations caused by exhaustion, hunger, and/or dehydration. Or maybe not.

Meanwhile, Forrester’s wife, Sophie, anxiously awaits his return at the Vancouver Barracks. Her diary entries reveal her own set of challenges. Refusing to conform to the chauvinistic constrictions placed on her gender, she forges her own path. She converts her pantry into a dark room, purchases a camera and all the necessary equipment, and pursues her passion of photographing birds. By the time her husband returns from his expedition several months later, Sophie has made a name for herself as an accomplished bird photographer whose photographs are included in a number of scientific journals and magazines.

It is a testament to Eowyn Ivey’s remarkable skills and wide range as a writer that this novel differs significantly from her previous novel, The Snow Child. Both novels capture the mystery of Alaska and its breathtaking topography in language vividly descriptive of the land and its people. And both inject an element of magical realism into the narrative. But there the similarity ends.

To the Bright Edge of the World blends adventure, exploration, history, folklore, ethnography, and an endearing love story between two people that transcends time and distance. And to remain authentic to the historical period, Ivey does not shy away from depicting the insidious racism of the colonizers chomping at the bit to subjugate the indigenous people, appropriate their land, and strip it of its natural resources.

Ivey transplants the reader to a different time and a different place. The novel shifts seamlessly between the various formats. The writing is engaging, vivid, and, at times, poetic. The research is extensive. The characters are fully developed, each speaking with a unique and engaging voice as to be able to step off the page. Ivey’s blend of fact with fiction coupled with her skilled execution combine to make this a compelling read.

Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Heather Tucker

The Clay Girl by Heather Tucker chronicles the childhood and adolescence of Ari/Hariet Appleton. The youngest daughter in a family of six girls, Ari tells her story in the first-person point of view. The novel begins with Ari as a young child being bundled off to her aunt’s house when her father commits suicide. After a brief stay with her aunt, Ari goes back to live with her mother and stepfather.

To say Ari comes from a dysfunctional home is a gross understatement. Her father raped and impregnated one of his daughters and sexually molested the others before committing suicide. Her mother is abusive, cruel, neglectful, selfish, homophobic, and riddled with drug and alcohol addiction. Her first stepfather provides the stability Ari needs, cradling her with unconditional love and security. But after his death, Ari’s mother marries an abusive police officer. Her mother and new husband retain custody of her, primarily because they are after the money she inherits from her step-father. Ari has to navigate her way through school, hold down two jobs, and tread very carefully at home to avoid the physical, mental, and emotional abuse regularly inflicted on her by her mother and new step-father.

It is heart-wrenching to read the struggles and obstacles Ari experiences as she grows into her adolescence. Her constant companion through the tumult is her imaginary friend, an inner voice manifested as a seahorse named Jasper. Ari and Jasper have ongoing conversations, with Jasper commenting and advising Ari on how to navigate the turmoil.

This is an engaging, page-turning novel with many strengths. The characters speak in brisk, animated dialog. The narrative chugs along at a swift pace. As the protagonist and the teller of her own story, Ari is likable, intelligent, talented, resilient, witty, and street-smart. Her horrific experiences endow her with the ability to view the world with unabashed honesty. We watch as she skillfully skirts the land mines placed in front of her.

But the novel also has some missteps, the most notable being that it stretches the limits of plausibility. Ari not only manages to bounce back from multiple attacks of verbal and physical abuse, she somehow thrives on them. She excels academically at school in spite of her spotty attendance. Her teachers are more intent in encouraging her to pursue her academic and artistic talents than in safeguarding her from the abuse they know she suffers at the hands of her guardians. They bandage her battered and bruised body and send her back to her abusers armed with little more than comforting words and encouragement to pursue her writing.

The many characters in Ari’s life are one-dimensional. They are either hell-on-wheels (her mother, father, and second step-father) or saintly, loving, and supportive (her aunts, first step-father, teachers, and friends). The latter lavish Ari with continuous praise to the point of tedium. And in many ways, Ari is too good to be true. A young child whose father was an incestuous pedophile, whose mother is an addict, whose step-father is physically and emotionally abusive, and who is hurled from one traumatic event to another can hardly maintain the up-beat, can-do, generous spirit Ari exhibits.

In spite of these shortcomings, the novel has much to commend it. Through the eyes of a child, we see the interplay of child abuse, pedophilia, sexual assault, substance abuse, homophobia, greed, and cruelty. We also see the redemptive power of love in a child’s life. The narrative sustains reader interest. We continue to read if only to learn what new horror Ari is subjected to and if and how she manages to maneuver herself out of it.

Recommended with reservations.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Robert Low

The White Raven is the third book in Robert Low’s Viking Oathsworn series. Low doesn’t disappoint. This is book is as exciting as The Whale Road and probably even better than The Wolf Sea. Low picks up the thread where he left off in The Wolf Sea. Orm Bearslayer, leader of the Oathsworn, wants nothing more than to settle down and have a quiet life. But circumstances are against him and he is forced to lead his men on another adventure, this time across the frozen steppes in frigid weather.

Bound by their oath to each other, the Oathsworn set off to avenge an attack on their settlement and to retrieve those taken as hostages. They become embroiled in a cat and mouse chase to obtain the hoard of treasure buried in Attila’s burial mound. There is continuity from the previous books even though one doesn’t have to be familiar with them to enjoy this book as Low provides brief explanatory paragraphs when necessary.

The White Raven continues the tradition of its predecessors by plunging us into the chest-thumping, sword-thrashing, axe-wielding, womanizing, foul smelling, and vulgar speaking world of Low’s Vikings. But our immersion in this very masculine world is tempered somewhat by the presence of two very strong prominent females who are more than capable of navigating in male domain and who give as good as they get. And then there are the fierce Amazonian tribeswomen. They earn the respect of the Oathsworn because, like them, they are bound to each other by an oath of loyalty and are willing to fight to the death to honor their word.

The novel is choke-full of thrilling action. The characters are well-developed and engaging. Amidst the blood and carnage, Low sprinkles references to the Slavic and Norse mythology and folklore embedded in the characters’ daily lives. One of the most intriguing characters is a young prince with a talent for telling fables and folktales that capture the attention of this band of burly men as they huddle together for warmth.

Robert Low’s extensive research on the era adds authenticity and credibility to the people and events. He is a gifted story-teller who totally immerses the reader in the rough and tumble, full-blooded world of the Vikings in all its vivid, sensory detail.

Highly recommended, especially for lovers of historical fiction.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Christa Wolf; Trans. Jan Van Heurck

Cassandra by Christa Wolf, translated by Jan Van Heurck, presents the fall of Troy and its aftermath through the first-person point of view of Cassandra, a daughter of Priam and Hecuba, the king and queen of Troy. According to Greek mythology, Cassandra was given the gift of prophecy by Apollo after she promised to become his consort. When she reneged on her promise, Apollo cursed her so no one would believe her prophesies.

We meet Cassandra as she is about to face her death. She weaves descriptions of her current situation with flashes of the past. She describes the deterioration of Troy into a virtual police state, a situation that creeps up fueled by a war that generates fear and superstition among her people and within members of her family. She is horrified by the changes she witnesses in the behaviors and values of those she loves. She warns of the impending doom, but her voice is marginalized and eventually silenced. She witnesses the brutality of war, the deaths of family and friends, and the destruction of her city.

Through Cassandra, Wolf voices her opinions on the insanity of war and its corrosive impact. As the novel unfolds, we see truth manipulated to serve political aims. Hostilities force people into adopting positions contrary to their previous nature. Deceptions and lies are reiterated until they assume the strength of dogma. The whole fabric of society crumbles until what remains is no longer recognizable. In war, everyone loses.

One of the many interesting aspects of the novel is the way in which the women of Troy carve a physical and psychological space for themselves outside of male domain. There is a sense of sisterhood and unity among women. They share intimate details of their lives, soothe each other’s wounds with healing balms, administer medicinal herbs and plants, and interpret dreams. Cassandra finds solace and comfort in the company of these women, a respite from the male machinations in the palace.

The book includes a collection of four essays in which Wolf describes her travels to ancient sites in Greece and Crete. Cassandra’s vision and voice are never far from her mind and eventually take shape as Wolf treks through these ancient sites. Woven into her travelogue are her musing on Cassandra. We are given a fascinating glimpse into the mind of an author’s creative process taking shape as it is being informed by her travels, research, and readings of Classical literature.

Wolf’s writing is intense and powerful. She conveys her views with passion and conviction. The writing is dense and energetic. At times, it can pose a challenge to keep track of her meditations on Cassandra, on the fall of Troy, on the impact of war, and on the political upheavals caused by the Cold War during the 1980s when she wrote the novel. But it is a challenge worth facing because what emerges is the voice of a talented author with a profound sensitivity to the state of the world and the political turmoil that surround her.

Recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Eugene Vodolazkin; Trans. Lisa C. Hayden

Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin, translated by Lisa C. Hayden, is the story of Arseny, a fictional fifteenth-century Russian folk healer, holy man, mystic, and pilgrim. Orphaned at a young age, he lives with his grandfather, Christofer, who teaches him to heal the sick through prayer, a healing hand, and traditional folk remedies using plants and herbs.

When Christofer dies, Arseny assumes the role of village healer. He experiences distinct stages in his life, each of which corresponds to a change in his name. As Arseny, he is the village healer and the lover of Ustina. When she dies giving birth to their stillborn baby, Arseny blames himself and embarks on a life of atonement, traveling from one village to the next. Every good deed he performs is done on behalf of Ustina; every mishap or catastrophe he experiences is interpreted as punishment for Ustina’s death.

Temporarily assuming the name Ustin, he abstains from speech and is known as a mute holy man with miraculous healing powers. He reverts to the name Arseny, goes on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and survives an attack by bandits. Upon his return, he joins a monastery and is given the name Amvrosy. People flock to the monastery to experience his healing powers. He adopts the name Laurus in his declining years and leaves the monastery in search of a quiet place to die. Taking up residence in a cave near the village where he was born, he continues to heal the sick until he dies peacefully in his sleep.

This is a highly unusual novel that defies classification. Although situated in the Middle Ages, it feels timeless. The narrative is episodic in nature with unexpected shifts in time. One of its recurring themes is the proposition that time progresses in a circular motion. The past and future mingle with the present. The past is a constant present in Arseny’s mind, and the occasional forward leaps into the future occur through prophetic visions of the 20th Century. Arseny’s life journey illustrates the theme by coming full circle when he returns to the place of his birth to die.

Vodolazkin skillfully evokes the zeitgeist of the late Middle Ages with its pestilence and periodic outbreaks of the plague, its reliance on herbs and plants for healing, its superstitions, and its pervasive Christianity that permeates all aspects of life. Unusual events, prophetic visions, miracles, extra-sensory perceptions, and mysteries abound. Interpreted religiously, they are treated as a matter of course.

The diction is unpretentious, almost child-like in its simplicity, contributing to the feel of a fable told for moral edification. Interspersed throughout are conversations rendered with Chaucerian spelling—the addition of an extra ‘e’ to the end of a word or the substitution of ‘y’ for ‘i’. There is also the occasional lapse into 20thC slang, striking for its incongruity.

Perhaps one of the most endearing qualities of the novel lies in its sympathetic treatment of Arseny, a humble man who articulates profound insights in simple phraseology. He communicates with wild animals, treats victims of the plague with impunity, and has several narrow escapes from death. He abstains from worldly comforts, embraces physical deprivation, seeks simplicity, and desires nothing more than to alleviate the pain and suffering of others. A devout Christian who lives his faith, he engages in one-way conversations with God and with the deceased Ustina whose untimely death catapults him into a life of penance. His predominant quality is his humility.

This is an inspiring novel with elements of mysticism, magical realism, and allegory, all of which are infused with an atmosphere of fables, fairy tales, and myth.  

Highly recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Angela Carter

Enter the topsy-turvy world of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus where you will travel from London to Petersburg to Siberia, where you will encounter waltzing tigers, literate chimpanzees, introspective elephants, a clairvoyant pig, and where you will meet a motley crew of very unusual characters. Best of all, you will go on this raucous journey with the inimitable Fevvers— a part woman, part swan hybrid. She is a tall, statuesque aerieliste with a penchant for spouting earthy, no-nonsense wisdom in her delightful Cockney accent.

We first encounter Fevvers as she is being interviewed by Jack Walser, an American journalist. She claims to have been hatched from an egg; abandoned; raised in a brothel by Lizzie, her surrogate mother and constant companion; sprouts wings; learns to fly; and joins Colonel Kearney’s circus to become the talk of Europe with her dazzling skills on the trapeze. Walser falls in love with her and decides to join the same circus disguised as a clown to unearth her secrets. What follows is a rollicking ride from one bizarre event to another, parts of which are told in Fevvers’ raunchy dialog infused with feminism and a gritty, down-to-earth perspective.

Angela Carter takes the reader on a magical carpet ride. The price of admission is to abandon the world of reality and logical thought. Her prose is brisk, colorful, engaging, and smattered with some inspirational words from Shakespeare, Blake, and Yeats among others, as well as with the occasional dip into scatological humor. Her abrupt shifts in points of view keep readers on their toes. One never quite knows what to expect. We are hurtled from one bizarre happening to another—much like a trapeze artist soaring in mid-air with no knowledge of where one will land or what awaits upon landing.

This is an exhilarating ride made all the more delightful because we are accompanying the thoroughly enchanting, totally unconventional Fevvers. In her cockney accent, swan’s feathers, larger-than-life body, gritty wisdom, and voracious appetite, what’s not to love?

Highly recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Nadine Gordimer

How do you define home? Is it where you were born? What about family? Is it the people who raised you? These are some of the issues Nadine Gordimer explores in her novel, The Pickup.

Meet Julie Summers. Born into an affluent white South African family, she is the poor little rich girl skirting through life, working at an unfulfilling job, spouting pretentious jargon with liberal friends. Ashamed of her wealthy father and her social butterfly of a step-mother, she rebels against everything they represent. Although thirty years old, she has yet to find her place in the world. Then, one day, her car breaks down. And Julie’s life changes.

Enter Abdu/Ibrahim, a young Arab mechanic who repairs her car. It’s no surprise when the two become lovers. Abdu’s illegal immigration status is discovered by authorities. He has 10 days to leave the country. Julie decides to join him. They get married and board the plane to an unnamed country somewhere in the Arab world.

Abdu/Ibrahim is ashamed of the primitive conditions of life in his village. He is baffled by Julie’s cheerful willingness to acculturate to her adopted home, to embrace its rituals and traditions, its gendered roles and restrictions. He anticipates her announcement on any given day that she is heading back to daddy in South Africa. Meanwhile, he races from one consulate to another, desperate to obtain a visa to any western country that will accept him. Eventually, he obtains a visa to America and makes plans to leave his village, fully expecting Julie to accompany him. But Julie has other ideas. She refuses to leave. She has found home. She has found family.

In the hands of an inexperienced writer, the story borders on being cliché. Poor little rich girl falls in love. Marries a man beneath her social standing. Follows him to a foreign culture. Finds her place in the world. But the story is anything but cliché in the hands of Nadine Gordimer, the winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Gordimer treats her characters with empathy and sensitivity. Her portrayal of even tertiary characters is masterful and authentic. She captures the halting English and cadences of Abdu/Ibrahim; his desperate struggle to escape from his village; his eagerness to plunge headlong into a country he knows nothing about in the hope of a better life; his yearning for success within a capitalist society; and his complete inability to understand his wife. In Julie she captures her slow and bumpy transformation from recognizing the superficial life of white privilege that characterized her previous existence to an understanding that what constitutes home and family has little to do with material wealth. Julie immerses herself in the daily rituals of cooking and cleaning; of the muezzin’s call to prayer that punctuates the rhythms of the day; in the silence of the desert that speaks to her; and in the cooperation, community, love, and warmth she finds in her adopted family. Both Abdu/Ibrahim and Julie are searching for home, for a place to belong. Ironically, their search leads them in opposite directions.

Gordimer’s writing style presents some challenges. Fragments and incomplete thoughts abound. The language shifts from internal thoughts to spoken dialog without the usual indicators of quotation marks. Gordimer dispenses with, “he said/she said,” so one has to use context to determine who said what. But once you get accustomed to the writing style, the language flows seamlessly from thought to spoken word, from one character to another in a way that accurately captures the fragmentary nature of our thoughts and conversations.

This is a wonderful novel that slowly grows on you as it builds to its climax through the use of telling details. Offering a vision of how we can communicate and relate to one another across barriers of difference, The Pickup is a compelling story told by a master of the craft.

Highly recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Patrick Chamoiseau; Trans. Linda Coverdale

On the surface, Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated from the French and Creole by Linda Coverdale, is a straightforward story of the struggles of an old slave as he escapes from a Martinique plantation. Chased by a vicious dog and his master, the slave enters a lush rain forest where nature runs rampant, providing fodder for hallucinations and wild imaginings.

But this is anything but a straightforward story. One could argue it is not really a story at all but a thrilling piece of lyrical poetry. The sheer energy and lyricism of the language propels the story forward, embroiling the reader in the lushness of its diction while immersing us in the plushness of the rain forest. The narrative is gripping, fast-paced, and dense.

As the elderly slave breathlessly runs, twists, and turns in this wild terrain, his mind hallucinates with twists and turns. His journey deep into the forest is transformative, triggering a journey deep into his past. What’s real and what’s imagined become inextricably intertwined with the elderly slave populating his narrative with flashbacks of his harrowing journey from Africa; and with references to and imaginings of the Creole culture of Martinique; with Caribbean history, mythology, and folklore. The reader is swept up in a wave with no sure footing as to what is happening. The journey is archetypal. The forest assumes mythical proportions, housing monsters, mysteries, and secrets older than time itself.

This book may not be for everyone. Smatterings of words in French or Creole, references that require flipping to the Notes at the end of the book, prose that is lyrical and non-linear, and the juxtaposition of the real with the imaginary make it a challenging read. But it is a worthwhile read for anyone who enjoys being swept up by exhilarating prose with an electrifying, haunting quality.

Highly recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Nadine Gordimer

You wake up one morning and you realize you and your family are in danger. You are no longer safe in your home in Johannesburg because of the popular uprising against the apartheid. You consider yourself to be a liberal white, someone who supports civil liberties and equality for all. But that makes no difference. You will be targeted if you stay in your home. What do you do? Where can you go?

This is the situation of the Smales family in July’s People by Nadine Gordimer. Mother, father, and their three children are out of options. So July, their servant of 15 years, offers to take them back to his village. For the first time in their lives, the Smales find themselves living under primitive conditions in a barely habitable dwelling with no running water and no proper sanitation. They have nowhere else to go and are entirely dependent on July for their survival. The balance of power has shifted. How July and the Smales navigate this shift is the subject of Gordimer’s novel.

The tension surfaces most clearly in Maureen Smales’ interaction with July and in her attempts to navigate a space for herself in July’s village. It does so initially in the details of everyday life. It is no longer relevant to sustain the master/servant relationship when the daily routines of eating, sleeping, cooking, and personal hygiene are shared on an intimate level. Eventually, the tension comes to a boil when July confronts Maureen because of her past treatment of him as her house boy. She is shocked by his accusation since she considered herself to be compassionate and humane toward July. But what she comes to realize is that no matter how compassionate or humane she had been, the very nature of their relationship and the context under which they operated deprived July of his dignity. In the face of systemic oppression, kind gestures are ultimately meaningless.

Gordimer’s exploration of the July/Smales relationship is a microcosm of the shift in power that occurs on a large political scale. The two sides struggle to find a balance, to ascertain how to view themselves, how to view each other, and how to interact with each other under these new circumstances. Gordimer does not provide any easy answers. The patterns of behavior are so ingrained that it is not easy to transcend them. The novel ends inconclusively with Maureen running toward the sound of a helicopter which may or may not be their salvation. The future is uncertain for the Smales and for July and his people.

Gordimer packs a lot in this very short novel. The characters are complex and multidimensional. They show their anxieties, conflicts, and struggles as they try to adjust to their new circumstances and shifting power structure. The dialog was authentic. July’s cadences and diction were especially effective in conveying his voice. The imagery captured the sights, sounds, and smells of a primitive village lacking in all modern conveniences.

This is not a light read, but it is a powerful one. Recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Tommy Orange

There, There by Tommy Orange is a stunning novel, skillfully orchestrated and breathtaking in execution. The voice is powerful, full of rage, poignant, and heartbreaking.

The narrative unfolds from the point of view of twelve characters whose backstories reveal their struggles with poverty, drug-addiction, and alcoholism as they seek to understand and wrestle with their Native American identity. They converge at the Big Oakland Powwow in a riveting climax. With its characteristic pageantry and spectacle of traditional dance and music, the powwow attracts large numbers of people, including a group of young men who are there to commit a crime—to steal its lucrative prize money.

The narrative begins in the past with shattered families plagued with poverty and drug-addiction. It leaps forward in time with a new generation, some of whom are eager to claim their Native American heritage. The point of view shifts from past tense to present tense, from first person to third person, from one character to another. Each character speaks with a distinctive and authentic voice. Depending on who is speaking, the tone varies from resignation, to anger, to rage, to frustration, to a drug-induced or alcohol induced reverie. The sections get progressively shorter to quicken the pace as we hurtle toward the climax.

As the novel unfolds, we learn some of the characters’ lives intertwined in the past and some are related—a son encounters his father for the first time; a woman suspects the older woman she just met may be her birth mother; a grandmother sees her grandson for the first time. Underlying these interwoven stories is the heavy burden of a marginalized people struggling desperately to survive against brutal atrocities and attempts at erasure.

This is an incredibly powerful, gut-wrenching novel. Tommy Orange captures the heartache and struggles of each of his characters. After simultaneously introducing the characters and revealing their backstories, he slowly but surely leads them to converge in a climactic finish at the powwow. Orange sets the stage is if directing a play with each character making a separate entrance from a different corner of the stage. He navigates the drama, inching his characters forward until they meet at center-stage in a violent crescendo. The effect is riveting; the pace relentless; the voice explosive; the language breathtaking.

An amazing debut novel from an extremely gifted writer. Very highly recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review