The Quiet Game, by Greg Iles

iles

Prosecutor turned bestselling novelist Penn Cage is still reeling from the death of his wife. He’s also worried about their young daughter, who can’t feel safe unless she is physically touching her father. Struggling to cope, Penn decides to return to Natchez, Mississippi, to his parents’ home, knowing they will be thrilled to have their son and granddaughter stay as long as they want.

Though his parents’ home seems at first the safe haven Penn is seeking, he quickly finds himself groping through a fog of secrets and the consequences of the past. Something isn’t right at home, but no one will talk about it. Even when Penn discovers his father, a (mostly) beloved GP, is being blackmailed, he has trouble persuading his father to give him more information and let him help.

While pursuing that investigation, Penn almost accidentally reopens a 30-year-old murder case, one that almost everyone in town wants to keep buried. He works with Caitlin Masters, a young woman he met and chatted with on the flight home and is shocked later to discover is the publisher of the local newspaper. Feeling betrayed, he is not sure he can trust her, despite being attracted to her.

Even with attempts on his life and threats against his parent and daughter, Penn keeps digging. He fired by the suspicion that a certain judge might be involved. A powerful man in Natchez, the judge viciously attacked Penn’s father just before Penn left for college, damaging his father and effectively destroying Penn’s relationship with his first love, the judge’s daughter. She disappears, refusing to see him.

Then Olivia returns to Natchez as well, and sets out to charm Penn.

There are lots of twists to the story and great suspense, with the stakes ratcheting higher and higher, especially once the FBI gets involved. With so many secrets and hidden agendas, Penn has to move ever faster if he is going to understand, not only who the murderer is and who was behind it, not only how to save his father from the blackmailer, but what really went on behind Olivia’s disappearance.

However, for me there was much that was not believable. I had no problem with the widespread corruption—I’ve seen too much of that in real life—but the lack of any official response to the many brutal murders and other violence that pepper this story seemed unrealistic to me. And, frankly, the author lost me near the end during a marathon escape that I know with complete confidence was physically impossible. I don’t want to give away details, but trust me on this. People are capable of many amazing feats, but not this.

I found Penn an engaging character, and the other characters are well-drawn. However, my other problem with the book was the way characters get abandoned as Penn chases after answers. His young daughter, the one whose trauma first captured my allegiance for her father à la Save the Cat? Dumped. We hear almost nothing more of her once she’s turned over to Grandma and Grandpa. As the investigation accelerates, Penn isn’t even there at night for his child, the one who can’t sleep without touching him.

Caitlin, who gets lots of attention early in the story as Penn’s love interest and helpmate in his efforts to solve the murder, gets demoted to being a rarely-seen sidekick once Olivia arrives. His parents, too, have little to do in the story, aside from having to bear a brutal attack meant to deter Penn, who curiously seems to care little about the risks to them and his daughter. I also found his blindness towards Olivia surprising in a man supposedly so astute, but I guess that’s the way it is with first loves.

Still, as I said, the book is a good, suspenseful read that has much to say about the danger of keeping secrets, how they fester over the years. It also has much to say illuminating the civil rights era. I remember the spring of 1968 only too clearly, and Iles does a good job of evoking the tensions of that time.

Reading any novel required us to suspend our disbelief; after all these are fictional people and events. Have you, while reading a novel, ever struggled to keep your disbelief held at bay?

All for Nothing, by Walter Kempowski

nothing

To this last novel, published a year before his death in 2007, Kempowski brings all the experiences of his long life. Born in 1929 in Hamburg, he was caught up in WWII, at 15 witnessing the East Prussian refugees in Rostock, the coastal town where he grew up. Soon after, he learned that his father had been killed.

He escaped to the west at the end of the war, but on a 1948 visit back to Rostock, now occupied by the Russians, he and his mother and brother were arrested for espionage and sent to a Soviet prison. Released, he was deported to West Germany and became one of that country’s most famous authors.

Drawing on these experiences, Kempowski crafts a story of an East Prussian family continuing to live their normal, even banal, lives while the first Baltic refugees fleeing the approaching Russians begin to pass their estate. Eberhard van Globig is serving in Italy, leaving his beautiful, if vague, wife Katharina to drift around their manor house or visit her pregnant friend in the nearby town while his elderly aunt actually runs the household and his twelve-year-old son Peter is tutored by a schoolmaster too old to fight who comes out from the town every day.

They welcome refugees that come to the door, sharing their food with them and enjoying the songs or stories the travelers bring. It breaks up the monotony of their lives. However, we learn later that each refugee has filched something from the van Globigs before leaving. Then the self-important head trustee of the local Labor Front, who lives in the new settlement across the road and considers himself their pseudo-mayor, decides to start billeting more refugees in the manor.

Underneath the details of the days, calm, somewhat repetitive, sprinkled with quotes from poems and folksongs, there are questions being asked over and over. Should we leave now? How close are the Russians? Will our forces turn them back? If we leave, where should we go? Should we turn back or go forward?

The family exists in a pre-war bubble of serenity, Peter playing with his train set, adding to his treehouse, looking at things with his new microscope, even as the train of Baltic refugees swells and the sound of guns grows louder. The scenes grow more and more surreal.

What makes this story so remarkable is its unsentimental, objective tone. The author never even hints at what we should think about these people and their actions, letting us draw our own conclusions. The characters are given to us whole, with all their kindnesses and cruelty. Each is formed by the live they’ve lived; none are totally good or totally bad.

But always we have the title. Each of the characters—refugees, family, other locals—is obsessed with what to take when they go and mourns what they have left behind. Auntie insists on thoroughly cleaning the manor before they embark.

What do we leave behind? What use is all our learning, the poems we’ve memorised, the love we’ve given or deaths we’ve mourned? What sense can we make of life when fate so randomly bestows both favors and misfortunes? In wartime, we are constantly reminded of the capriciousness of fate. One family on a road packed with refugees is killed by a bomb while others are not. One son is killed in battle and another is not.

This quiet but intense book makes us consider all these ‘last questions’. It carries the weight of our not-so-long-ago history, which is always happening all over again. What could be more timely than a novel about refugees? It also has much to tell us about human nature. And then there’s the title.

What novel have you read that seems to carry an entire life’s worth of experience?

Ring of Fire, by Yenna Yi

Yenna

One reason I like to read memoirs and biographies is simple curiosity about other people’s lives. I even like reading memoirs that were written primarily to leave a record for children and grandchildren. Those of us who have been around for a while have seen a lot and thought about our experiences. Perhaps we’ve traveled widely or never left the county where we grew up.

Yenna Yi is one who has traveled much. In this memoir she describes growing up in Masan, a small village in South Korea, with her grandmother, mother, and cousins who joined them near the end of the Korean War. Her father died when she was one. The war and the poverty that followed it shaped her childhood, though she also recounts happy times playing with other children and shopping with her grandmother. Their one-room home was a clean and happy one.

After her first year at university, Yenna flew to Thailand for summer break to visit her mother who had remarried and moved there with her German husband. On impulse she transferred to university in Germany. There she met Steve, who would become her husband, and they eventually moved to Hawaii.

While curious about all of this, it is their life after the move to Hawaii that really fascinated me. They built a catamaran, which became home for them and their two sons for the next 12 years. They sailed around the southern part of the Ring of Fire, a horseshoe-shaped belt of volcanoes, some active, around the Pacific, taking in the costs of the Americas, Japan, the Philippines and New Zealand, with Korea barely outside.

With each island, large and small, Yenna gives us a bit of the history, some description, and a taste of their adventures: picnicking on Bora Bora, riding ponies on Niafu in the Tongan Islands, visiting Robert Louis Stevenson’s grave on Western Samoa. I kept thinking of the children and what a magical childhood—despite gales and panicked moments at sea: wind-surfing and caving on Fiji, visiting a live volcano on Vanuatu, and skiing on Mt. Hood in New Zealand.

Eventually Yenna ended up in New England where I met her. So much living crowded into one short book! I especially loved all the photographs. Intriguing as it is, the book left me wanting to know more. And wondering if I’ve been too cautious in my own life. What a world of wonders there is out there that I, with all my traveling, have never explored!

I was interested, too, in her reflections on the effects of war and greed in the countries where she lived and visited. Those of us who live in the U.S. have been spared such experiences, but she describes things such as a once-thriving port city reduced to rubble, indigenous peoples decimated by disease and discrimination, corrupt dictators leaving their population mired in poverty.

If you’re looking for something different, something that will take you around a good part of the world and human nature, try this memoir.

Have you read a memoir that took you to other lands?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Springs of Affection, by Maeve Brennan

Brennan

Maeve Brennan was a staff writer for The New Yorker, and by all accounts a colorful character. In his Introduction, William Maxwell described some of her antics such as hanging her large framed photograph of Colette by Louise Dahl-Wolfe on the wall above his desk, removing it later when he said or did something she didn’t like. One day it was back again. It came and went “like a cloud shadow. I never knew why and thought it would be a poor idea to ask.”

The stories in this book, all quite stunning, are set in Dublin where Brennan grew up. The first set seem to be autobiographical. They are in first person and the characters have the names of Maeve and her family. The home is the rowhouse on a dead-end street in a Dublin suburb where Maeve grew up.

Each recounts some incident—whether small, such as a man coming to the house to sell apples or the delivery of a new sofa, or large, such as a fire in the garage out back or raids by men looking for her father during a time of dissension between those in favor of a Republic and those supporting the Free State—but imbues it with such accuracy and character that it seems to hold a whole lifetime.

These stories remind me of writer and teacher Meg Rosoff advising us writers to look at the incidents that stick in our memory’s colander, those seemingly unimportant bits of the past. Yet there is a reason we remember them, and if we dig deeper we may be surprised by what emerges.

The second section is a series of stories exploring the particulars of Hubert and Rose Derdon’s unhappy marriage. Their only son John has become a priest, leaving Rose bereft. Over the course of the stories, details emerge about the family dynamics and the psychological burdens borne by the couple.

The stories in the third section are also about a marriage, not quite so fraught as the Derdons’ but held in a precarious balance. Martin and Delia Bagot lead mostly independent lives, he working late while she is responsible for the house, garden and two girls. However, the eponymous final story, told through Martin’s twin sister Min after the couples’ deaths, gives us a different slant on their relationship, though not perhaps the one Min intended.

What especially fascinates me about the Derdon and Bagot stories are the narrative scenes. As writers we usually balance narrative, also known as exposition, with dramatic scenes. These scenes usually have action and dialogue and conflict between characters. However, it is possible to write scenes that are all narrative. Usually writers are advised not to include long narrative passages, as they can be boring and slow the story to the point where momentum is completely lost.

However, a narrative scene is different, containing all the drama and emotion of an action scene. C.S. Lakin says, “What makes for great narrative scenes is the character voice.” I agree, but Brennan in these stories also shows the value of burrowing deep into her characters’ hearts and minds. Her astute understanding of their psychology, their fears and dreams, their upbringing and social context makes for stirring reading.

For example, 87-year-old Min is still furious about Martin having married Delia, even though both of them are now dead. She believes that his doing so broke up their family, saying of their mother:

. . . who had sacrificed everything for them and asked in return only that they stick together as a family, and build themselves up, and make a wall around themselves that nobody could see through, let alone climb. What she had in mind was a fort, a fortress, where they could build themselves up in private and strengthen their hold on the earth, because in the long run that is what matters—a firm foothold and a roof over your head. But all that hope ended and all their hard work was mocked when Delia Kelly walked into their lives.

This is telling about something that happened instead of showing it in a scene with action and dialogue. Yet it works, because of the vivid language, the voice—can’t you just hear Min?—and the accuracy and precision of the author’s insight into this character.

As I closed the book, moved by Min’s unconscious revelations about herself and by the two couples and Maeve herself as a child, I found myself thinking about my own childhood. Like Brennan, like all of us I suspect, those early years of family and the house that contained us have almost mythic status in my imagination. I can understand how she wanted to return again and again to that well of inspiration.

Have you read a collection of short stories that you’d recommend? Perhaps they carried you away to a faraway place or gave you a new understanding of human nature? Perhaps they introduced characters whom you can’t seem to forget?

The Lying Game, by Ruth Ware

Lying

More a suspense novel than a mystery, this 2017 novel from Ruth Ware starts with a body turning up by a tidal estuary on the south coast of England. The next day Isa Wilde, living in North London with her husband and six-month-old daughter, receives a text saying simply “I need you.”

To her husband’s baffled dismay, Isa immediately packs up her baby and leaves for the village of Saltern, where 17 years earlier she had briefly attended a boarding school. There she’d become tight friends with Kate, Thea and Fatima, getting up to all kinds of mischief, sneaking cigarettes and alcohol, slipping out at night.

They also played what they called the lying game. The game had many rules, including points for how persuaded the unfortunate recipient was by their lies. That summer the four of them formed a bond strong enough to bring them back all these years later.

Kate, who sent the text, still lives in Saltern, in a ramshackle building called the Tide Mill on the other side of the Reach—the local name for the estuary—from the school. Her father Ambrose had been the art teacher at the school, enabling Kate to board there. His relaxed bohemian ways left the girls free to escape school regularly to make their way across the Reach to the Mill where they let loose as only 15-year-old girls can, swimming and drinking and exploring.

And confronting something that not only could blow the four apart from each other, such that they had not seen each other for 17 years, but was so explosive a secret that fear of it had haunted them all that time.

The book is more psychological suspense than the runaway train of a thriller. I appreciated the insight into the characters, all of whom we encounter through Isa’s eyes. I was fascinated by the changes in the young women. Fatima has become a doctor and begun practicing her faith, disconcerting the others with her hijab and refusal of alcohol. Kate has become an artist like her father, but barely making enough to hold body and soul together. Thea’s intensity and tendency to anorexia have only increased, while Isa has settled happily into marriage, motherhood, and a civil service job. They all have a lot to lose.

As a writer, I appreciated Ware’s sure-footed ability to take the reader in and out of the past without ever leaving us floundering, wondering what time period we were in. Good transitions and textual clues ensured that we always knew which time period we were in.

I also was impressed by her use of setting. The details we encounter through Isa’s eyes not only create vivid images of the places themselves but also add to the atmosphere and underline themes throughout the book. For example, at one point Isa is describing Saltern village and mentions the fishing nets hung on many of the cottages, presumably to add to the village’s appeal as a tourist destination. However the drooping, grey webs of netting make her wonder how anyone could bear to live enclosed by them.

Another example is the Mill itself. Remembered as a lost paradise, it has decayed through years of neglect to the point where it is not only falling apart, but is actually sinking into the sand. It has gotten so bad that during some high tides the electricity shorts out and the footbridge over the millstream to the land beyond is flooded.

Too much? Readers’ tastes vary, but I enjoyed how Ware could take clichés such as a house built on sand, being caught in a spider’s web, or crossing a treacherous bog and make them work, creating an intense atmosphere and increasing the suspense. The twists and turns of the story make the plot exciting, but more importantly reveal new layers of all of the characters, large and small.

What novel of psychological suspense have you read lately that you’d recommend?

The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez

The friend

Nunez’s new novel, winner of the 2018 National Book Award, is a quiet and intelligent story of friendship, love and despair, tackling the questions most of us wrestle with at various times in our lives: Should I change my life? Is it worth going on as I have?

In examining these issues, the narrator addresses her longtime friend, a fellow writer and English professor, who has recently committed suicide. Closer than lovers, with a friendship more lasting than any marriage, the two had known each other for years.

He had been her own teacher once, a man who believed teaching to be essentially an erotic relationship, and in those days charmed his students into falling for him, drawing on his female students for one of his three wives and multiple lovers over the years. But he had grown old. Now physically unattractive, his student conquests no longer loved him, but relished the power of taming their teacher.

The narrator too is appalled by much of the younger generation she is teaching, though for different, more intellectual reasons.

She ranges over a variety of subjects, bringing in literary anecdotes and references—making it a joy for a fellow reader. But every idea she takes up is ultimately related to learning to live with loss. Already isolated by choice—unmarried and most often solitary—she is tempted by her pain to move even further away from the world.

The external problem she faces is her friend’s dog, a Great Dane. Wife Three, the final one, insists that he wanted the narrator to take the dog after his death, even though he’d never mentioned it to her. The narrator, a cat person living in a tiny, rent-controlled, NYC apartment where pets are not allowed, is horrified.

Yet she takes him. And a relationship grows between the two. The dog, renamed Apollo by the dead man, becomes one of the strongest characters in the book. Yet grief looms here as well, for the dog is already close to the end of its brief life span.

Obviously this book will appeal to anyone who has given their heart to an animal companion. For those, like me, who enjoy animal company without necessarily having an intimate relationship with them, will enjoy the intelligent conversation, the insight into the world of writers and of teaching at the college level. And everyone will enjoy the humor that leavens the narrator’s sometimes gloomy subjects.

It is the narrator’s voice that carries this story. In a dry, unsentimental tone and using straight-forward language, she investigates the most dire, emotional problems we face. How are we to live? What makes it worth going on? What do we leave behind?

The only time the tone falters, for me, is when the author briefly plays a bit of a game with the reader. But that aside, this is a remarkable book, unlike anything you’ve likely read before.

Have you read a quiet novel that surprised you with its power?

Questions for Ada, by Ijeoma Umebinyuo

Questions for ada

My friend Audrey recommended this extraordinary collection of poems. Umebinyuo’s first book has received lots of well-deserved praise for its passion and openness. You can read individual quotes online, but reading the book as a whole is a different experience altogether.

She writes of love and brutality and pain in the lives of women and of men, too. Yet each poem tells us that we can still rise. Umebinyuo is the sister, the best friend, who knows all our secrets and encourages us to go on. In “Poem No. 1” she tells us:

I did not know
the bodies of women
were meant to be
a museum of tragedies,
as if we were meant to carry the ocean
without drowning

Yet she understands that we are:

. . . imperfect daughters
still trying each day
not to call themselves failures

you are here. you are becoming.
isn’t that enough?

The emotion in even the shortest of these poems is astonishing. Many of the poems are direct, some even telling a story. Others are more oblique, such as “Maternity” told through the eyes of a child, watching the shadows of her mother and auntie.

Her sometimes surprising images, such as women carrying the ocean without drowning quoted above, stir my imagination. And this, from “Obioma”:

Your father came back
a soldier from peacekeeping
with a calloused heart
left somewhere between Sierra Leone and Liberia;
he says war grinds pain into souls.

One night,
you saw him talking speaking to himself
screaming his anger,
eating the moon for dinner.

I am especially moved by her evocation of the immigrant experience, from the brief but powerful “Diaspora Blues” to the song of praise in “First Generation” which begins:

Here’s to the security guards who maybe had a degree in another land. Here’s to the manicurist who had to leave her family to come here, painting the nails, scrubbing the feet of strangers.

Umebinyuo’s poems give us the courage to go on. She tells us to care for ourselves, as in “The Clinic”: “Write yourself a love poem, / welcome yourself home. Even amid the sorrow and grief, she looks for celebration, as here, from “Morning Liturgy”:

I want to write about
women who scream with joy.
at the sight of you
dancing for joy
at your arrival
I want to write about
women who pray for me
in a language so beautiful
english will bow.

I look forward to see what else she will write as she grows as a poet while continuing to bring her ability to plumb the depths of emotion that flood our lives.

Have you discovered a new poet—or poet new to you—whom you recommend?

Borderlines, by Archer Mayor

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If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I like mysteries. Their literary quality is often outstanding, and I always love a good puzzle. This second book in Archer Mayor’s series featuring Joe Gunther hits every mark, making it one of the best police procedurals I’ve read.

Gunther, a policeman in Brattleboro, Vermont, has been seconded to the State’s Attorney at the opposite end of the state. Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom is an isolated, rural area far from the state’s scenic mountains and tourist destinations, and depressed economically, even in 1990 when this novel came out.

He’s familiar with the area, having spent childhood summers here with his aunt and uncle. He’s looking forward to time with his now-widowed Uncle Buster, whose benevolent support he could use as he wrestles with questions regarding both work and love.

In the gripping opening scene, Gunther’s journey is interrupted by an illegal shot, but he is quickly reminded that his authority as a law enforcement officer is limited in the Northeast Kingdom, which is “populated by people who had chosen to put their independence and wariness of the rest of the world above the hardships of living here.”

The pace doesn’t let up, as Gunther arrives in Gannet, the small village of his childhood summers. Ramshackle and rundown, the town allowed half of its building to be bought up by an intentional community, seen by some as a cult. Tensions between the Order and the town have grown, only to explode when a couple from Massachusetts arrives to rescue their daughter. The tension is nicely modulated, with plenty of scenes of Gunther sitting on a step with a childhood friend, walking with his uncle, or phoning his girlfriend to vary the suspense before building to a satisfying climax.

What’s best here is Gunther himself. With this character Mayor finds just the right balance of thought and action. Gunther’s quiet, unassuming voice sets him apart from sometimes brash or bragging detectives. Though there’s not a lot of soul-searching, he’s quick to acknowledge his own mistakes. We’re given all we need to perceive his sorrow at the way the village and its people have deteriorated. The loss of his childhood refuge provides shading to Julie’s story, the young woman whose parents have come to steal her from the cult.

There is one twist that seemed to come almost out of nowhere. Mystery writers have the daunting task of planting enough clues to significant plot twists so that readers think Oh, of course! Why didn’t I see that? while not so many that we guess it too soon. Mayor did an excellent job of preparing for all the plot twists here, save one, noticeable only because of the superb plotting everywhere else.

In talking about the elements in fiction, plot and character are the stars. Increasingly, though, I find myself drawn to novels in which the setting is richly evoked and becomes almost another character. Mayor does that here, brilliantly. The environment he evokes helps us anticipate and understand the people in this story, all brought to life, no matter how small their role. It also charges the mood of the story.

When I was younger, the Kingdom had been much as the name implies – a magical other world, removed from the mainstream and endowed with a specialness in the minds of those who knew of it. Its topography, both rugged and cursive, could reject and embrace, kill and nurture. It was a place where land and weather ruled, where the beauty came less from the majestic mountain views found further south, and more from the perpetual surprises that lurked behind the low, ever-present hills. Even at its harshest, the Kingdom was seductive, as when its omnipotent sky darkened with boiling blue-black clouds, low slung and pregnant with threat.

Its people, like those of Gannet, clung to this mercurial terrain mostly out of choice . . . They were independent, self-supporting, proud, and generally uninterested in what was happening outside of their boundaries . . . But, obviously, the fabric of the Kingdom had begun to strain and yield.

Even now, several decades after publication, this book is a valuable resource if you want to understand the crumbling lives of the rural poor. Mayor’s insight into his fellow Vermonters is demonstrated on every page. As death investigator for Vermont’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, and formerly a detective and volunteer firefighter, Mayor brings the authority of real-world experience to this spellbinding tale.

Have you read one of Archer Mayor’s books? What did you think of it? Do you have a favorite?

Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler

OctaviaEButler_Kindred

I’d heard so many good things about Butler’s work, and especially this early (1979) stand-alone novel of hers, and I was not disappointed. I was a little surprised, because it was not the science fiction novel I expected, given that is how it is classified. No matter. I was entranced and changed by the story it actually tells.

Kindred is the story of Dana, a modern-day woman of color who is mysteriously transported back to a pre-Civil War slave plantation. Not only is Maryland’s Eastern Shore a far distance from her home in Los Angeles, in time as well as miles, but it is a shockingly unfamiliar culture.

She sees a young red-haired boy who is drowning and rescues him. Apparently, she has been drawn back by Rufus’s fear of dying. She continues to move between the past and present, something neither she nor Rufus has conscious control over. Time moves faster in the past, so she encounters Rufus at different ages. Dana’s white husband Kevin also gets drawn back with her at one point, and his experiences highlight how much Dana’s changed status is due to her gender as well as her skin color.

What is astounding in this book is the way Dana comes up against the small and large ways that life is different for her in Rufus’s world. No matter how much I’ve read of histories and novels and slave narratives, no matter how many museums and former plantations I’ve visited, nothing brought home to me the live of a slave the way Dana’s experience does.

Why? Partly of course that’s due to Butler’s extensive research. Even more, it’s due to her vivid writing—the strong characters, the plot that never stops, the high stakes, the familiarity in her use of slave narratives as story structure.

But most of all it’s because Dana is me. The differences in our race and cities mean nothing compared to our common culture. Experiencing the indignities, injustices, and downright torture of that life through Dana’s frame of reference opened my eyes in a new way to the abuses of slavery. Here is a woman who expects to wear pants, be able to read a book and write a letter, speak up for herself and demand justice, even to go where and when she pleases. Deprived of all that, powerless, considered property, something less than human, without even the survival mechanisms other slaves have learned, Dana must find a way to endure her trips back in time.

There are many lessons here for fiction writers. One is the use of voice. Dana’s modern-day narrative voice reinforces the connection with the reader while emphasising how far away she is from the time of slavery. This is starkly apparent when she is forced to put on a slave-voice to protect herself.

Another is not only the importance of research, but how to use it effectively. It is clear that Butler has done her research well, not only into antebellum plantation conditions, but also into slave narratives and historical accounts of slavery. Yet, she employs that research lightly, including details only as appropriate for plot and character. For example, at one point when she’s back in Los Angeles, Dana throws away her books on African-American history because she now sees the flaws and gaps in their depiction of slavery. I expect Butler could have listed texts and quoted examples, but wisely refrained.

Yet another lesson is for fiction writers looking for a new way to write about a common theme. I think of it as the what-if game. What if you took a classic western and put it in a different setting, maybe outer space? You might come up with Firefly or Star Wars. What if you took a classic vampire story and used a different—even implausible—protagonist? You might have Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Twilight. What if you took one of your own experiences and gave the protagonist different characteristics from you (good, bad or both) or a different time period or a different culture? How might that story play out?

Or you can use the tropes of science fiction/fantasy genre to explore modern-day problems by taking them out of the modern day. That is what Margaret Atwood did in her classic The Handmaid’s Tale. And it is how Octavia Butler shows us that, instead of papering over them, we in the U.S. must confront the ugly crimes of our past in order to move forward.

Have you read any of Octavia Butler’s books? What did you think of it?

The Book of Emma Reyes, by Emma Reyes

reyes

A review by Marjorie Agosin in the Women’s Review of Books sent me in search of this epistolary memoir. She says, “After I completed reading this intense and brief collection of letters, which have such a sense of immediacy, I realized they were written by a woman who was illiterate as a child and only learned to write at age fifteen.”

Reyes, who died in 2003 at the age of 84, lived in Paris where she was known as an artist, friends with Sartre, Frido Kahlo, and Diego Rivera. She was also known as a fascinating storyteller, full of stories of her childhood in Colombia. Germàn Arciniegas, a historian from Colombia persuaded her to write some of them down by sending him 23 letters between 1967 and 1997. I only wish there had been more.

The translator Daniel Alarcón says in his introduction, “Her vision is acute, detailed, remorseless, and true. There is no self-pity, only wonder, and that tone, so delicate and subtle, is perhaps the book’s greatest achievement.”

I quote others because I am utterly bamboozled. How does she do it? She starts in a one-room hovel in San Christóbal in Bogatá, where she lives with her sister Helena, a boy she calls Piojo, and a woman—apparently unrelated to her—called María who terrifies her. Immediately we are oh-so-carefully walking with her to the garbage heap carrying the brimming bedpan, their only toilet, tiny Emma’s sickening daily chore. The garbage heap is where all the children play and—once the bedpan is emptied and wiped out—the scene of an imaginative game the children play.

There is no hint of self pity, no complaint about having only two sets of clothes—everyday and Sunday best—and four pieces of furniture. When María goes away with Piojo, she locks the sisters inside the hovel. “The bedpan filled up. . . so we started using the large serving plate. The neighbor came by only once a day and left us a big pot of porridge . . . We cried and screamed so much that the neighbors came to the door to try and console us.”

Only the beginning of Reyes’s trials, yet each is narrated in this matter-of-fact way. I could not look away. I could not stop reading. The second half of the book takes place in a convent, where she and her sister are taken in after being abandoned at a railway station. Reyes describes the nuns so precisely, and the mix of terror, mind-numbing work, rare kindness, and childish playfulness are so vivid that you can’t help but feel you, too, have experienced life at this convent too.

It seems impossible that a child could be so resilient as to emerge from such a childhood with the courage and endurance to face all the griefs and successes that still lay in wait for Reyes. I wish she’d written more letters to cover all those years.

This is the most powerful memoir I’ve read in years. In his introduction, Daniel Alarcón says that he came to this book when

. . .a stranger literally pressed it into my hands at the Bogatá Book Fair in 2014.
“You must read this,” she said. “You have to.”
Now I urge the same of you.

As I do of you. Read this book!

What memoir have you read that made you feel you’d lived that life?