About Grace, by Anthony Doerr

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By a strange coincidence, I stumbled on another story with a protagonist whose dreams interact with our waking world. Unlike in The Lathe of Heaven, David Winkler’s dreams do not change the world, but they sometimes predict with uncanny accuracy what will happen.

It’s a heavy burden: to see unfolding before you the events you alone know are leading to tragedy, unable to convince others. Only his mother believed him, after an incident when he was a young child. He dreams of meeting a woman—the woman, as Sherlock Holmes would say—in the grocery store and when he does, pursues Sandy despite her wedding ring.

He does win her, but when later he dreams that he accidently drowns their infant daughter Grace, he is unable to persuade her of the looming danger. The only way he can think of to prevent that tragedy is to run away from both of them. Landing in St. Vincent with no means to support himself, he is eventually adopted by a local family.

Winkler is more sensitive than most people. Isolated since his mother’s death, struggling with social norms, he makes strangely self-destructive decisions. These put him in challenging and life-threatening situations, whether it’s starving on a Caribbean beach, lost in a desert without his glasses, or suffering through a bitterly cold winter in the northern Yukon with only a wood stove for heat.

There he again takes up his study of snowflakes, abandoned when he ran off with Sandy. Water in all its forms is a recurring character in this book. “We live in the beds of ancient oceans.” Doerr brilliantly integrates the science into the story so that it doesn’t stand out.

I had spent a long time dissecting Doerr’s incredible second novel All the Light We Cannot See, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Like Winkler incredulous at the intricacy of a single snowflake, I looked at a single page of that book, a single paragraph, a single sentence. I was in awe of the brilliance of the overall structure and of each atomic fragment.

While the language here is equally gorgeous and has moments of transcendence, especially when describing nature’s power and beauty, this first novel of Doerr’s does not quite hang together for me. The jolting movements between the phases of Winkler’s life left me gasping for air; the mentally and physically punishing stretches made me want to skip ahead; and most of the major characters did not fully come to life for me.

This could be because I was reading the book during a stressful time. The great teacher/writer/agent Donald Maass asks us writers to consider if our protagonist is someone readers will want to spend a substantial amount of time with. Ultimately, for me at least, Winkler was not interesting enough to engage me for the days it took to read this book.

Yet I loved the role of nature in all its majesty. I loved the poetry of the writing. I loved the liminal space between opposites: heat and cold, love and hate, conflict and reconciliation. I loved the ending.

Have you read a novel where you loved the ending?

The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula K. Le Guin

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I read a lot of science fiction in my teens, mostly because my older brother was into it and let me raid his library. Then I read a lot of scifi/fantasy in my late twenties; I was in a difficult place and wanted to be anywhere else. It helped. So during this tense and terrifying week, I returned to that strategy. It’s been long enough that those books are ripe for rereading.

This 1971 novel begins with a man waking up amid fallen concrete blocks feeling dizzy and nauseated. Eventually a medic brings him around, shocked by how many different meds the man had taken.

George Orr has been taking multiple medications to keep himself from dreaming, because his dreams come true—literally. Not all of his dreams, but now and then he has what he calls an “effective” dream and when he wakes, the world has changed to conform to that dream. And he is the only one who knows that has happened; he is the only one who remembers the way the world was before.

As a result of his overdose, he is sent to Dr. Haber, a psychiatrist working on a machine similar to an EEG that can control the type of waves in a patient’s brain to induce dreaming. Over the course of the book Haber uses his machine coupled with hypnotic suggestion to try to instigate and control George’s dreams. But the effect is usually unpredictable and sometimes catastrophic, because dream logic comes up with its own way of implementing Haber’s directions.

One constant, though, is that with each dream Haber gets a promotion and more power. He claims he only wants power in order to help people by solving the terrible problems in society. But Haber’s vision of an ideal society is a little scary given his belief in utilitarianism and eugenics. Haber’s ability to implement his beliefs using George’s dreams combined with his own insatiable hunger for power and fame drive the world down a dangerous path.

We writers are advised that, along with hooking the reader’s attention, we should use the first page to teach the reader how to read our book. Make sure they know what genre it is. Identify the protagonist, their goal, and what or who is preventing them from achieving it. Give at least a hint of what themes will be explored. I have to say that rereading the first page of this book after finishing it changed the story for me and filled me with awe at Le Guin’s mastery of the craft.

What’s also interesting is how much Le Guin is able to explore different philosophies and approaches without slowing the story. In my workshops we’ve been talking about generating suspense, and she has definitely crafted a page-turner. George’s dreams and the new world each creates are fascinating. And often destructive, to the point where one wonders how this world can possibly survive.

Well, out of the frying pan, as my mother used to say. It felt like the story of the last four years, right from the first page: waking up to an unrecognisable world, one that has changed in catastrophic ways. Still, I’m glad I read it this week. And now things have changed again. Someone has had a good dream.

Do you read scifi/fantasy? Why?

Blackberries, Blackberries, by Crystal Wilkinson

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Wilkinson’s first book is a collection of short stories—perfect for my attention span just now! These stories feature Black women in rural Kentucky, young and old, each with her individual take on the world, her own idea of herself.

In some stories, such as “Tipping the Scales”, we meet women who can’t be bothered by society’s conventions. A big woman, “not sloppy fat, though,” Josephina Childs has “sure had her hands full in the men department most all her life.” All her life she’s been aware of how “the whole town ‘bout tripped over” themselves to find out what was going on with her mother in the house Ethel’s lover build for them. So when Josephina wants children, she goes ahead and has them. I could hardly wait to find out what happens as she charts her own path among the gossiping townsfolk.

A few stories are from a man’s point of view, such as “Mine” in which Joe Scruggs complains about his former girlfriend Racine. She’d left him when she found out he was cheating on her. Now he sees that she has cut the long, straightened hair he’d loved in favor of short natural hair. Worse than that, she’s had breast reduction surgery and “black women do not get their breasts worked on.” The voice is pitch perfect as Joe thinks about what he sees as Racine’s insult to him and about Darlene, the woman he cheated with, now his wife. It’s a strong indictment of a man’s idea of ownership.

Wilkinson’s use of voice carries each of these stories. Without resorting to dialect, she captures the individual rhythms of her characters’ thoughts and speech. In “Mules” she finds just the right voice for a naïve girl, just starting to develop and learning to navigate the complicated and risky world of men. In “Deviled Eggs” Wilkinson gives voice to a young girl who is dragged along when her mother goes to her job as a domestic servant and has a startling lesson in racism from the elderly white woman who thinks she is doing the child a favor. In “Need” we meet three characters in a café, two women embarking on a difficult conversation and their male waiter, each with a distinctive voice.

I’ve been thinking recently about the shape of short stories, how they begin, how they end. The variety of story shapes is this collection is part of what makes it so enticing. Some stories spiral back to their beginning, while others rise to a new understanding. Many for me ended in ways that surprised me, taking a direction I hadn’t expected: Wilkinson displaying the penchant for independence we see in many of her characters. I love being surprised!

In every story, Wilkinson demonstrates the writer’s mantra that the personal is universal. These may be Black women in Appalachia, but I saw myself in each of them. Reading their stories has been a gift, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

Do you like reading short stories? Can you recommend a collection?

Trip Wire, by Charlotte Carter

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Another mystery, this time set in Chicago in December of 1968. It’s the end of a tumultuous year that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the Summer of Love, and in Chicago itself the violence around the Democratic National Convention.

Seeking independence, Cassandra has left the home of her well-off grandaunt and granduncle to live in a multiracial commune in a questionable part of town. She’s in her early 20s, cutting college classes to read books on politics and social justice. When she met Wilt, a charismatic Black man, she found a friend who was on the same wavelength, and was delighted when he encouraged her to join the commune where he and his white partner Mia lived along with several others.

She delights in her new freedom and friends, happy to have found a family she has chosen rather than the over-protective relatives who took her in after her parents’ death. There are tensions, not only family issues but also marijuana use perhaps affecting her schoolwork, sexual freedom coming up against learned ideas about relationships, decisions about who else to admit into the commune.

Then they discover the brutally murdered bodies of two of their members. As Cassandra tries to untangle why they were killed, she is confronted by how little she knows about her new friends, while navigating the questionable tactics of the police and resisting her family’s attempts to make her come home.

The secrets and hidden agendas that make mysteries so fascinating are well-constructed here. The story kept me guessing, surprising me at times. I also found Cassandra a realistic and intriguing woman, simultaneously familiar and different, someone I enjoyed spending time with. All the characters come alive, not just their flaws and fine points, but also the different worlds they straddle.

Carter succeeds in capturing this period, which I remember only too clearly. Seeing it again through the eyes of a young Black woman, with all the additional hurdles and advantages, fascinated me. For example, much as most of us hippies distrusted the police, a person of color has more factors when deciding whether to call them when a crime is committed.

And thinking of the differences and similarities of the country during that election and the current one has given me a slightly different perspective on today. Change is hard, and the Age of Aquarius which once seemed within reach is something we are still seeking.

Anyone who is interested in a glimpse of what the 1960s were like, looking beyond the memes and stereotypes, will enjoy this book, as will mystery readers. I’ll be looking for more books in Carter’s Cook County mystery series.

What do you look for in a mystery series?

In a Dry Season, by Peter Robinson

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This summer’s drought and the dire predictions of a shortage of potable water made me think of this mystery from the author of the DCI Banks series. Of course, the metaphorical interpretation is just as important. The disasters roaring across the U.S. and the world have left many writers—and others—paralysed.

It’s been 20 years since I first read this book and found it even more fascinating this time around.

A prolonged drought has uncovered a Yorkshire village that had been buried under a reservoir for decades. Although it is supposed to be off-limits, a local boy can’t resist exploring the buildings and unexpectedly discovers a skeleton. Banks is sent to investigate by his Chief Constable as punishment for an earlier clash between the two.

Assisted by the local DS, Annie Cabbot, Banks tries to identify the skeleton and reconstruct the events of 50 years earlier. At the same time, the events resonate with him, reminding him of Jem, a friend from his younger days who came to a sad end. Then there’s Annie Cabbot. Still mourning the end of his marriage ten years earlier, for the first time Banks feels the stirrings of attraction.

As if those threads were not enough, interwoven with the investigation and Banks’s memories is a first-person account by a then-young woman of the village during the Second World War, as well as the story of an elderly novel-writer being harassed by anonymous phone calls.

A writer in the middle of writing their first novel remarked to me the other day, “This is hard! There are so many things to keep track of.”

It’s true. Novels have so many moving pieces, it’s hard to keep track of them all. Has this minor character appeared often enough that a reader wouldn’t have forgotten them? Did this theme work its way into every part of the story? Did I remember what season it was, what day of the week, what color that character’s eyes are? Writing a mystery is even worse; you have all those red herrings and unreliable characters to work in.

I’m stunned by how well Robinson manages the complexity of his storylines here. I use spreadsheets, outlines, journals and hand-drawn maps, and have replaced physical index cards with virtual ones. It’s not uncommon to peek into an author’s study and find one or more walls completely covered with notes and drawings and maps. Novelist Laura Lippman sometimes posts pictures of her insanely complicated charts.

I don’t know what Robinson’s process is, but the effect here is amazing. So many disparate threads, each with their own continuity, bouncing off each other. The timing is perfect. Just when you are starting to think, What has happened to . . .? that thread reemerges.

And with each scene, information emerges prompting new questions, heightening the suspense, making me ask—as my three-year-old friend often bursts out with in the middle of a story—What’s going to happen? Best of all, everything that does happen grows organically out of the story, without artificial dramatics.

Reading and thinking about an amazing story helps to bring rain to my dry places. Writing a novel is hard, but Peter Robinson makes it look easy.

Have you read any of the Inspector Banks series? Is there another mystery series you’d recommend?

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk

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An unusual and fascinating novel, Tokarczuk’s book explores the border between poetry and prose, story and fairy tale. The quirky voice of the narrator is firmly established with the first sentence and sustained throughout the book.

Living alone in an isolated community in western Poland, Janina is an older woman who manages the griefs that accumulate over the years, her vocation of astrology, and the translations of William Blake’s poetry that she and a friend are doing. Despite her various physical ailments, she looks after the other homes during the winter, making sure the martens don’t get in and the pipes don’t freeze. Only two other people live there during the winter, Oddball and Big Foot. These are her names for them, as she names almost all the characters.

Then Big Foot turns up dead under mysterious circumstances. He was a loathsome creature in her eyes, a poacher who didn’t care how cruelly he hurt the animals he snared, someone who showed no respect for the non-animal natural world either, cutting down trees for no reason. Yet his death moves her. Oddball insists that the two of them wash and dress the body before the police come. She says:

There we stood in the cold, damp room, in the frosty vacuum prevailing at this dull, gray time of night, and it crossed my mind that the thing that leaves the body sucks a piece of the world after it, and no matter how good or bad it was, how guilty or blameless, it leaves behind a great big void.

Such a powerful way to describe a death. Their call to the police is delayed because not only is the signal spotty, but they often get a signal from the other side of the nearby Czech border instead of their own signal.

Borders are a recurring image, not just between countries, but between a remote community and town, fields and forests, humans and animals, grief and love, one person’s truth and another’s, language and reality. In fields near her house the hunters from town have erected huts they call “pulpits” where they hide in order to shoot the animals that come near, lured by the food the hunters have spread. I’m jarred by the idea of doing murder, preaching murder from a pulpit. Yet it’s so true.

More deaths follow, stranger and stranger. But there are greater mysteries here. What life is worth more than another? What actions are justified by law or ethics, and which one dominates the other? Are we as helpless as we think we are? How do our homes, so meticulously described in this book, reflect us and nurture us and protect us—or not? What is our relationship with the wild, meaning the portion of the natural world that we do not manage?

The title is from Blake, as are epigraphs for each chapter, adding to the fantastical atmosphere. The story sometimes feels like a fable, sometimes a prose poem, sometimes a wrenching view of age and isolation, sometimes a paean to friendship. For Janina does have friends: Oddball, her neighbor; Dizzy, her compatriot in translating Blake; Good News, who runs a second-hand store in town; Boros, an entomologist she meets in the woods.

I found this book so rich, so thought-provoking that I not only listened to the audio book, repeating many chapters two or three times, but also bought the paperback book and am reading it. I loved the narrator’s performance in the audio book, but with the physical book I am seeing different things, appreciating different things—mostly to do with language. Thus, I’m continuing the story’s exploration of borders between one sense and another, between the physical and the metaphysical.

Have you read a novel so fascinating that you immediately reread it?

Abigail, by Magda Szabó

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Szabó‘s novel The Door made a strong impression on me so I leaped at the chance to read this newly translated book, also set in Hungary. Originally published in 1970, it is the story of 15-year-old Gina who in 1943 is exiled from Budapest by her beloved father, sent to boarding school near Hungary’s eastern border.

Gina is bewildered and furious at being sent away from her father and her social life in the city, which ranges from her friends at school to the more sophisticated people she encounters at the home of her aunt, especially a young lieutenant. The General’s sister may be flighty, but she is Gina’s only other relative. Yet Auntie Mimó is not allowed to know where Gina is going. No one is.

Headstrong, a little spoiled, Gina rebels, finding creative ways to break the rules at the strict academy. When her clothing and few possessions are taken from her, she finds a way to secret a few. She mocks the games and traditions of her fifth year class and later leads them in a series of pranks.

She can only talk to her father by phone once a week in the presence of the humorless Director and the Deaconess; Gina’s forbidden to complain to him. Only later does she come to understand his motives in hiding her away. The war is not going well for the Axis countries and there are fears that Germany will occupy its supposed ally. Thus, this book complements my recent nonfiction reading about WWII.

While having many characteristics of a traditional coming-of-age story, and echoes of books like Jane Eyre, Gina’s story is unusually perceptive and complex. My book club read this, as we had The Door, and we discussed the significance of the title. Abigail is the name of a statue of a woman holding a vase in the school’s garden. The girls believe that the statue comes alive to help them, so when they are in trouble they leave a note in the vase. This legend lends a magical touch to the story.

We wondered why this statue, significant as it is in the story, should be the title. I believe it’s for the same reason the author includes several flash-forwards, brief messages from a future Gina telling us how a particular thread will turn out. At first I was surprised that the author would give away these endings; surely the goal should be to build suspense rather than deflate it. Then I realised that the author didn’t want these threads to run away with the story. She wants us to stay with Gina and how she learns to recognise and admit when she is wrong, not least about the Abigail legend which works as a symbol of Gina’s arc.

One of my book club friends asked if this book is for adults or young adults. Publishers and bookstores may categorise it as a Young Adult book simply because of the protagonist’s age, but I would say it is also for adults.

While it’s obviously a book that would appeal to young adults, there’s plenty to interest those of us who are no longer in that age group. There’s the vivid reminder of what it was like to be 15, so sure of things and so often wrong. There’s the vivid evocation of time and place: an ancient monastery turned boarding school in remote Árkod in the last years of WWII.

There’s also the experience of a mind gradually opening to new ideas, to seeing her own mistakes, adjusting her worldview, understanding people from their own point of view rather than what we think they must be feeling.

I can’t think of anything more relevant to this particular moment we find ourselves in. This book has made me recognise how my own outlook and opinions have hardened as I’ve aged. As a result, I’m trying to cultivate again the kind of mental resilience that Gina demonstrates—not an easy task!

There is much more to this book—the subtle use of symbols, the remarkable shifts in characterisation, the minimal yet effective evocation of setting—all of which I plan to examine more thoroughly in hopes of improving my own writing. Still, Abigail is a fun and poignant story for non-writers, adults and teens alike.

Have you read a story set in a boarding school that lingers in your mind?

Mrs. Pollifax and the Hong Kong Buddha, by Dorothy Gilman

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My mother and I had a complicated relationship. We were never close. I had a passel of younger siblings and, what with one thing and another, she seemed largely absent as I was growing up. Looking back I can see and appreciate the small, generous things she did for me, but at the time she seemed like the adults in the Peanuts cartoons: offstage, uttering strange quacking sounds.

Once I had children, I appreciated her more, not surprisingly. We developed a casual friendship where we emphasised the things we had in common and didn’t discuss the many areas where we disagreed. We both liked watching ice skating competitions and Masterpiece Theater. I became infected by her love of dark cherries and sandwiches made of parsley and cream cheese. In return I taught her to use mushrooms in cooking and to make bread. Together we learned how to can peaches from Baugher’s in Westminster, Maryland.

We both liked reading Georgette Heyer’s novels, she for the romance and me for the wit and historical accuracy. And we both loved Dorothy Gilman’s series of Mrs. Pollifax novels. Although we believed ourselves to be complete opposites, my mother and I both saw ourselves in Emily Pollifax. If we were a Venn diagram, Gilman’s character sits firmly in the sliver shared by our two circles.

Becoming somewhat bored with her New Brunswick, New Jersey life, her Garden Club and nosy neighbors, Mrs. Pollifax, a widowed senior citizen, decided to do something new, something she’d always wanted to do. She walked into the CIA and applied to be a spy.

As it turned out, the CIA had a use for someone who didn’t look or sound like anyone’s idea of a spy.

In this seventh book in the series, Mrs. Pollifax is sent to Hong Kong to check on an agent, one well known to her from a previous adventure. This agent has gone curiously silent, and the CIA has become convinced that his superior in Hong Kong is compromised.

On the flight out she meets a gentle man who turns out to be a psychic, though he can never see his own future. And in the hotel, to her surprise, she runs into a reformed cat burglar she met in an earlier story, now posing as the third richest man in the world.

One of the fun quirks in these stories is the way Mrs. Pollifax meets odd people, some of whom turn out to have skills she needs. I love discovering the interesting qualities they are hiding and also her thought process as she decides whom she can trust. Another wonderful aspect of the series is the exotic locale of each, astutely described: just enough to give you the flavor without overwhelming you.

In Hong Kong Mrs. Pollifax is taken aback by her reception at Feng Imports, where the agent she is looking for should be working undercover. Complications ensue, with danger around every dark corner. Suspense builds to a nail-biting climax.

If I can ever hold off being gripped by the story, maybe someday I can work out how Gilman manages to balance humor with these dark and dangerous adventures. Mrs. Pollifax herself is one way: the surprise of a suburban grandmother who enjoys gardening and espionage, who has tea with her neighbors and takes karate lessons.

I think it is this clear-eyed view of how complex an average woman can be that appealed to both my mother and me. We loved Mrs. Pollifax’s normality, her practical and no-nonsense understanding of right and wrong. We liked these tales of an ordinary woman thrust into extraordinary situations, bringing to them the same courage and common sense that women everywhere display when faced with concocting a dinner out of what’s in the frig or dividing a pie among a horde of hungry children.

My mother has been gone for 13 years now, but I still buy cherries for her when they first appear at the grocer’s in June. And I still get the urge to pick up the phone and ask her if she’s read the latest adventure of Mrs. Pollifax.

Do you and your parents or children share books with each other? What are some that appeal to both of you?

Passing, by Nella Larsen

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There is much to be unpacked in this brief novel, first published in 1929. As it opens, Irene is reading a letter from Clare, someone she knew as a child, asking to see her. For some reason this letter angers Irene.

It turns out that while visiting her father in Chicago two years earlier, Irene had run into Clare by accident at a Whites-only hotel. Irene had been feeling faint and the kind taxi driver who’d taken her there hadn’t realised that the light-skinned Irene was Black. Needing to rest, Irene was confident she could pass at the hotel restaurant.

Unlike Irene who lives in Harlem and is married to a dark-skinned man, Clare has been living as a White person ever since she’d left Chicago after her father died, when the two lost touch, and is married to a wealthy White man who does not know she is Black. Clare presses Irene to visit her, seeming desperate to reignite the friendship, but the visit doesn’t go well, as Clare’s husband appears and, taking Irene to be White, launches into racial invective.

Now, two years later, Clare has turned up at Irene’s home in Harlem and, when Irene pretended to be out, sent this letter begging to see her, saying that she needs a break from her husband’s racism. Irene agrees but continues to be wary of the beautiful and charismatic Clare, who rapidly inserts herself into Irene’s private and social lives, winning over Irene’s husband and sons, attending parties and dances whether she’s invited or not.

Irene is afraid of what might happen if, seeing her at Harlem events, Clare’s husband were to learn she was Black. Irene is also afraid for her own marriage, as her husband spends more and more time with Clare when Irene is absent. Although unspoken, there seems to be a fear as well for herself. Irene’s awareness of Clare’s sensuous beauty and her own inability to say no to the woman signal a deeper attraction.

The story revolves around this issue of pretending to be someone you are not. We see Clare’s frustration and weariness at the pretense she must maintain and her yearning to explore the Black life she might have lived. We see Irene’s attempts to maintain her façade of perfect wife, mother, hostess and civic volunteer, knowing she must do more than any White woman if she is to live up to these ideals.

I was reminded of Du Bois’ idea of the double consciousness Black people must maintain, always seeing yourself not just as you but also as Whites see you, and modulating your behavior accordingly. A White friend pointed out that we all do this to some extent, for example, behaving differently at work than at home. This particular example was brought home to me some years ago when I had to take the Myers-Briggs personality assessment twice, once at work and once at home for a class. My results were diametrically opposite. As a result, I began consciously bringing the two closer together.

However, these mild experiences don’t begin to compare to the soul-crushing constancy of the watchfulness Black people must maintain in navigating a world designed for and controlled by White people. The stakes are higher; the potential consequences more dangerous: handcuffs, a gunshot, a noose.

There is so much in this seemingly simple story of two women: the questions around identity, the effects of secrets and lies, the tradeoff between freedom and safety, the absurdity of racial categorisation and the appeal of racial belonging. Larsen offers no easy answers, instead leaving room for the reader to ponder these ideas, indeed to be haunted by them for a long time after closing the book.

Have you read a book by a Harlem Renaissance author that provides insight into today’s issues?

In the Wake, by Per Petterson

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It’s curious how the somewhat random choice of what to read next can bring two books into conversation with each other. This 2000 novel by Petterson, author of the marvelous Out Stealing Horses, has been lurking in my to-be-read pile for a while. I pulled it out primarily because of its stunning blue cover and the comfort of knowing I could count on this author for a thoughtful read.

Imagine my surprise on discovering that it begins with the same situation as the last novel I reviewed: with the protagonist struggling to come to terms with a traumatic disaster. Yet the two books could not be more different.

It has been six years since the ferry accident that took the lives of 43-year-old Arvid’s parents and younger brothers. He is still consumed by grief, unpacking memories of his father and mother, wrestling with both the past and the terrible present, questioning everything. He starts a new file on his computer and thinks “I am writing myself into a possible future.”

Since the accident, his marriage has fallen apart and his work as a writer has dried up, his novel-in-progress abandoned. He drinks too much—we first meet him surfacing from a blackout—and has almost no human contact. There’s his Kurdish neighbor from upstairs who has one word of English: “thanks”. And a woman in the opposite apartment block whom he sometimes sees in her window.

He’s had little to do with his remaining brother, three years older and a successful architect who lives with his wife in a gorgeous home he designed himself. That is, until his brother calls him at two in the morning, drunk or getting there, to say that he too is getting divorced, a conversation that quickly devolves into sibling sparring.

Here we are deep in Arvid’s consciousness, carried by his voice—so calm and forthright, so candid, so obviously containing oceans of emotion. The contrast is irresistible. You might think this novel is more narration than dramatic scenes, but the narration is so vivid and in the moment—present or past—that it creates scenes we experience with Arvid. They accumulate, relentless as the waves, pulling us in.

Petterson also uses very specific descriptions to ground all this ruminating. Here’s a wonderful example; Arvid has shown up at his twelve-year-old daughter’s school and, instead of getting on the bus, she’s gone with him to a cafe.

After a little while the man comes back with our order on a big tray he carries high above his head as if the place was crammed with people, but we are still the only ones there, and he lowers the tray in a sweeping circle and with a flourish sets white cups and plates of waffles on the table and a bowl with a silver spoon and jam. He pours the cocoa from a big white jug and when the cups are full he puts the jug down on the white cloth. He does not spill a drop. We just sit quietly watching. Everything is so white and sumptuous that half would be sufficient, and the waffles are lightly toasted and make the jam glow in the light from the window . . .

“Kidnappings not half bad when you get waffles,” says my daughter . . .

There are a number of cool things about this excerpt: the humor, the sentence variety, the specificity. One of the brilliant aspects of it is the way Petterson bypasses the emotions one would expect from these two—the guilt, the resentment, the sadness—and goes for the unexpected: a luxurious, sensual joy. As Donald Maass (literary agent, writer, and writing teacher extraordinaire) points out: we readers can fill in the commonplace emotions while the surprise grabs us.

This is an intense book, made bearable by moments such as this and by the steadfast voice, recounting ordinary events, dreams, memories, moments of violence and betrayal, joy and communion all with the same calm and with no self-pity. It feels genuine, more so than usual. No wonder, perhaps, since Petterson himself lost family members in the 1990 Scandinavian Star disaster, like Arvid. His description of the video Arvid watches to identify bodies in the ferry is particularly chilling.

Yet the story does not seem self-indulgent. It is a deep dive into the question of how we find or create meaning in our life, how we bear tragedy, how we begin to find the faint threads of connection.

Have you read one of Per Petterson’s books? What did you think of it?