The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

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Tartt’s first novel begins with a quiet bang. I am no fan of prologues, but this one shows how powerful they can be. By mentioning a murder in the first sentence, this first section of the Introduction raises a huge story question and creates suspense that carries through the first half of the book. Tartt doesn’t stop there, but infuses each page with what Donald Maass, literary agent and writing guru, calls micro-tension. Sometimes it is out and out conflict and other times a vague sense of unease, but it is always there.

The prologue also immerses us in the voice of our narrator, Richard Papen, a young man from a working class family in southern California, who transfers to the fictional Hampden College in Hampden, Vermont.

Wanting to continue his Greek studies, Richard makes a huge effort to join the only Greek class. The professor, Julian Morrow, accepts students according to his own whim and then requires them to take all of their classes with him. One of Tartt’s strengths is her descriptions of people and places. With just a few phrases she conjures her characters.

It was a small, wise face, as alert and poised as a question, and though certain features of it were suggestive of youth—the elfin upsweep of the eyebrows, the depth lines of nose and jaw and mouth—it was by no means a young face, and the hair was snow white . . . He put his head to the other side and blinked again, bright-eyed, amiable as a sparrow.

Julian’s appeal for Richard is not only the entrée to an exclusive club, but also the image of Richard himself that Julian makes him believe in. Julian treats all of his students as serious scholars who care, not only about the language, but Greek culture itself, including its love of beauty and its attempt to balance Apollonian rationality with Dionysian ecstasy.

In this class, Richard joins the select few: Henry, brilliant and wealthy, the quiet leader of the group; Francis, also wealthy, prone to melodrama and attracted to men; the beautiful twins, Charles and Camilla, whose relationship is a clique within the clique; and Bunny, a narcissist from a destitute Brahmin family, who believes it is his right to take whatever he wants. Aristocrats all, they include Richard in their secret society, though he never feels entirely confident that he is one of them.

In this story of a middle-class youth fascinated by the beauty and nonchalant grace of his new aristocratic friends, I was immediately reminded of one of my favorite books: Brideshead Revisited. This novel has some of the charm of Brideshead, but lacks its serious underpinnings. Stretching over several decades, the Brideshead story embodies the massive cultural changes in Britain, asking what remains when so much has been stripped away. The Secret History, though, has the much smaller scope of a single school year and only addresses the coldness and carelessness of privileged youth.

While the prose was often entrancing, I felt that the book did not need to be so long. For example, the Christmas vacation section is one that could have been cut down. Richard’s situation, living in an unheated attic with a hole in the roof, and what followed taxed my credulity and threw me out of the story. The narrative function of that section, to bring Henry home and endear him to Richard, could have easily been achieved with a more believable way of giving Richard pneumonia.

The novel reminded me of Diana Gabaldon’s books which seem less like compelling stories and more like an opportunity to sink into another world. Luckily I was listening to it as an audio book, so my “reading” stretched out over a couple of long car trips and many walks. If I’d been trying to read it as a book, I would probably have grown tired of it by the middle, where we finally get to the murder.

That felt like a logical stopping place, but as it turns out, the rest of the book, which is about the aftermath, is interesting in a different way. We may have the answer to the question of how and why the murder happens, but now we wonder what its effect will be on these characters.

Richard, like similar narrators of other lives (Charles Ryder and Nick Carraway, for instance), speaks in a careful and thoughtful, almost detached, tone of voice, as though answering an oral exam question. He is looking back on these events from the advanced age of 28, hence the detachment. While it might seem that such a tone might be boring, I actually found it engaging and more effective than an emotional tone might have been. Repressed emotion, if done as well as it is here, gives the story more power.

Since the book was narrated by the author, I was disoriented by the sound of this southern California boy’s voice being so high and having an accent redolent of the deep South. The other characters being New Englanders were equally jarring. However, I eventually got used to Tartt’s voice and even found it soothing. It was so soothing, in fact, that I began putting on the sleep timer and listening to it as I fell asleep, which was always within a few minutes.

Some of the reviews on Goodreads indicated that the book was most popular among high school students, one even saying that fifteen was the best age to appreciate it. I can see that older teens and college students, being of an age with the protagonist, would take a special interest in it, but the deluge of praise and awards seem proof that it is equally popular among older adults.

However, I found it ultimately shallow. I was certainly as charmed as Richard by this coterie of people, their old-fashioned formal dress, their erudite conversation, and literary references. But none, except perhaps Henry, seemed to have gone beyond these superficial attributes.

Thus, unexpectedly, my reaction to this book reminds me again of Brideshead, where Anthony Blanche says that Sebastian, while undeniably charming, reminds him of “‘that in some ways nauseating picture of Bubbles. . . when dear Sebastian speaks it is like a little sphere of soapsud drifting off the end of an old clay pipe, anywhere, full of rainbow light for a second and then—phut! vanished, with nothing left at all, nothing.’”

What books have worked well for you as audio books? Do you have a favorite narrator?

The Association of Small Bombs, by Karan Mahajan

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The winner of several awards and places on best books of the year lists, this second novel from Mahajan examines the results of a bombing. Not some large, well-publicised terrorist attack, the event that starts the novel is a small bomb set off in a marketplace in New Delhi, killing—among others—two brothers and seriously injuring their friend.

The story examines the repercussions of this event on the parents of the two boys, the friend, and the terrorists themselves, including one who is drawn into their orbit later. By adopting this structure, Mahajan sets himself a serious challenge.

In my opinion and despite the fervent praise heaped on this book, he fails to meet this challenge. Confining the different stories to separate and clearly defined sections keeps the reader from getting confused. However, the lack of a single protagonist leaves the book empty at its core. As soon as we start to get interested in a character, the father for example or the bomb maker, his story is dropped entirely. It may be picked up again a hundred pages later or it may not.

As a result, the novel is interesting and informative, but not engaging. Contrary to the frenzied reviews, the book is neither thrilling nor urgent. Most of the people in one of my new book groups found it boring and had to force themselves to read on. Contributing to their malaise was the trajectory of the characters: they start off miserable and go downhill from there.

Of course, it is possible that the author intended for the book to be empty at its core, as though the center had exploded and destroyed everything, including our notions of narrative.

There are also some continuity problems that an editor should have picked up, a few inconsistencies that are jarring. And the ending is disappointing. Like too many books these days, it felt as though the author got tired of writing but didn’t know how to end it, so we get a series of brief this-is-what-happened capsules for the major characters.

It’s a shame because the novel brings to light an important subject. While we hear in the news about shocking terrorist attacks, I for one had no idea that so many of these small events were happening. Since 1970 there have been nearly 10,000 in India alone. In the single month of May, 2016, there were 207 terrorist incidents around the world, in countries in the news such as Turkey, Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in places like Yemen, Egypt, Burundi, Tanzania, and the Philippines.

Mahajan does a great service by bringing these to light and demonstrating that, despite their smaller scale, their impact is no less tragic. My book group wondered what purpose could be achieved with this barrage of terror. Of the three terrorists in this book, one was said to be motivated by nationalist concerns (Kashmiri independence), one by religious discrimination, and one by rage at a politician.

Yet, as we have seen, such actions do not convert anyone to their cause and are too small to be remarked upon in the media or remembered by those not immediately affected. Some wondered if a deeper cause might lie in the mix of rage and fear and powerlessness that in the U.S. leads single white men and boys to pick up a gun and shoot up a restaurant or concert or school. There is no logical plan to achieve anything. Rather it is an explosive desire to be seen and heard. One person compared it to a toddler’s tantrum.

I urge people to read this book because it is important subject that most of us know little about. Don’t look for what you might normally expect in a novel, though the settings are beautifully described, both the places and the communities. Look instead for new insights into one of our greatest challenges: how to live together in peace.

Did you know about the number of terrorist incidents occurring every day around the world?

Hard Truth, by Nevada Barr

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I’ve enjoyed the Anna Pigeon mysteries by Nevada Barr ever since they first came out. Anna is a park ranger, and each book takes place in a different national park. Barr herself worked in national parks during the summer, so she brings experience to her stories.

I know she also does extensive research for each book. One of her books, Blind Descent, is based on an actual incident in Lechuguilla, one in which my brother was involved. He was shocked by how accurate her details were, not just of the cave itself, but caving technology, and the kinds of people who would be on such expeditions (though there were no murderers on his descent!).

I heard her speak once, and loved her description of how she learned to write mysteries. Her first book was surprisingly accomplished. It deservedly won both the Agatha and Anthony awards for best first mystery. Barr said she learned by taking a few favorite mysteries and taking them apart. She studied them for months trying to understand what worked and what didn’t. I think this is a great way to learn how to write! After all, it wasn’t that long ago that there weren’t MFAs in creative writing.

Hard Truth is the 13th book in the series and finds Anna working in as District Ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park. When she arrives, she finds a team that has been traumatized by a six-week search for three missing girls. They come camping with a group of young people under the guidance of their pastor. The girls have never been found, and the active search called off.

Oddly, the parents did not participate in the search. Instead, they prayed. Part of what I would call a cult, their home is a compound run by a large bully of a man whom everyone is afraid of. Anna hears that the sect has broken off from the Mormons, finding them too worldly and liberal.

A parallel story gives us a young woman, Heath Jarrod, who has come camping with her aunt. They are staying in the “handicamp” because Heath is confined to a wheelchair since a climbing accident, leaving her bitter and angry.

Barr mixes up these characters in events so suspenseful that a long car ride passed in a flash. I like Barr’s writing, her detail about the life of a park ranger, and her descriptions of the parks. This book, sadly, had less about the park and more about the evil on the loose.

One of my friends told me she stopped reading Barr’s books because she finds them too violent. I’ve thought about her comment while I’m working my way through them again; I find it interesting to read a series consecutively sometimes. I have to say, this book is particularly gruesome. In fact, the last few have been quite violent near the end, but this one verges on being a horror story. I’m almost afraid to read the next. My friend might be right.

What mystery series have you enjoyed?

This is Us, by Dan Fogelman, et al.

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The object of this blog is to look as stories to see what I and other writers might learn from them. While nearly all of my posts are about books, this week I want to take a look at a television series.

A writing teacher I revere recommended This Is Us, specifically the episode titled “Memphis” as an example of excellent writing. That was enough to get me started. The series, now in its second season, has been nominated for and won many awards, including a Writers Guild of America Award for Episodic Drama for Vera Herbert for Episode 9 of Season 1.

It’s a family drama about three siblings and their parents. The show’s concept is that the father and the three children share a birthday. The pilot episode is their 36th birthday, so we move between the past of Jack’s birthday and the present of the siblings’. We meet Jack and Rebecca as they are enacting their traditional celebration of his birthday, hampered by Rebecca being massively pregnant with triplets. The bond between them, the openness, humor and compassion, are quickly established.

Our introduction to the three children as adults uses key details of setting to establish their conflicts. An overweight Kate opens a refrigerator to see everything marked with her own sticky notes telling her not to eat them. Randall, sitting in his corner office engrossed in his the multiple stock-tracking windows open on his monitor, is disturbingly low-spirited when his employees come in with a surprise birthday cake. Before we see Kevin, we see a sculpture of the comedy and drama masks, a poster for Richard III with the famous quote “Now is the winter of our discontent”, and a poster for a sitcom called The Manny showing a naked Kevin holding a baby. No surprise, then, that Kevin is collapsed on a bed, ignoring two women—hookers or groupies—and feeling sorry for himself.

Continuing to jump back and forth between the present and the past, the show anchors us by staying within that day, Jack’s 36th birthday when the children are born and their own 36th birthdays. Since we’ve already seen that Randall is not the same race as the others, I’m not giving anything away by explaining that after one of the triplets is stillborn, Jack and Rebecca adopt Randall who had been left at a fire station, thus setting up additional potential conflict.

A visual medium enables us to tell whether we are in the past or the present just by looking at the characters. As writers, though, we have to find ways to subtly establish when we are jumping into a flashback and when we return.

What I like most about the show is seeing how Jack and Rebecca rise to the task of parenting the three children, and how Randall, Kevin and Kate then carry those skills forward. There’s a lot of humor and conflict and love without, in my opinion, crossing the line into sentimentality. I love the way they talk to the children and Jack’s hilarious ways of distracting them. Jack and Rebecca find a balance between caring for the children and giving them space, something I see too rarely.

As a parent, I’m dismayed that with these excellent parents the three children should turn out to have so many problems as adults. However, conflict is the engine that drives stories, so as a writer I approve.

Another driver is suspense. There are many story questions raised in this opening episode. Some, like how Randall ended up in the family, are answered by the end of the episode. Others, like Randall’s relationship with his biological father, are resolved by the end of the season.

However, there is one major question which is still being milked even though we are well into the second season. In the present of the series, it has been made clear that Jack is dead, but how and when is a big mystery. There were a lot of teasers last season that the final episode would reveal the answers. When it didn’t, I wasn’t the only one disgusted. My friends who watch the show felt betrayed, and at least one quit completely.

Similarly, I’ve heard readers complain about novels that leave too many questions unanswered at the end in a clumsy attempt to set up a sequel. Deciding the right moment to reveal information and answers is one of the hardest tasks for a writer. If you put it off too long, you will lose the reader’s interest; too soon, and the suspense fades. One good suggestion is that every time you reveal the answer to one question, you ask another.

Be aware, too, that if you are going to make something into a big mystery and keep teasing and holding off on answering it, you are building up expectations. When you finally do reveal the answer, it had better be spectacular. And if it’s a TV series you’d better—right away—set up another big question or your viewers will wander off.

We’ll see.

Is there a TV series you recommend for its writing?

The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara

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A newly-graduated doctor sent in 1950 on an anthropological expedition to an island in the South Pacific to find a lost tribe: sounds like it might be an adventure story. However, by making the bulk of this novel Dr. Norton Perina’s memoir, Yanagihara turns it into an intense psychological portrait of a thoroughly unpleasant man.

In the memoir, which is introduced and edited by his obsequious assistant Dr. Ronald Kubodera, Perina describes his childhood, isolated on a farm with his fraternal twin. The two spend their time torturing insects and small animals as well as their mother; Perina despises both his parents for their uselessness and lack of ambition.

After medical school his brilliance is finally rewarded by his inclusion on the expedition. Ivu’ivu is thought to be uninhabited and cursed, but Paul Tallent, leader of the expedition, has reason to believe it harbors a lost tribe who live to an advanced age. The description, through Perina’s eyes, of his first encounter with the jungles and people of Ivu’ivu is brilliant, vividly evoking the sounds and smells of this new world and Perina’s wonder and anxiety.

Perina’s discovery on the island and his amoral behaviour around it lead to fame and fortune and the Nobel Prize. However, we learn from the first pages that he is in prison for sexually abusing one of the 43 children he adopted from the island.

When I finished the book, I felt strongly that the pedophilia plot detracted from the story. It was nowhere near as intensely written as Perina’s trips to the island and seemed to be included purely for gratuitous shock value and to provide a climax at the end.

Perina’s story of his discovery and the consequences for Ivu’ivu and its people raise questions of power, colonialism and abuse of both nature and people. It also raises questions of how to evaluate a genius who is also a sociopath—a question much in the news of late as gifted and famous men are forced out amid revelations of abuse. That important and nuanced story did not need to be wrapped in a simple soap opera about pedophilia.

However, I later learned that, while the island and its tribe are fictional, Perina’s trajectory is based on the true story of a Dr. Carleton Gajdusek who won a Nobel Prize for his work among the Fore tribe in Papua New Guinea on kuru, a fatal disease. Gajdusek later went to prison for the same reason his fictional counterpart did. It may not always be the right thing to include every aspect of the story that inspired you.

This first novel shows some of the author’s strengths that made her second, A Little Life, a huge bestseller. She doles out information in such a way that for every question answered, new questions emerge, thus keeping the reader from getting too frustrated while maintaining the suspense. Her male characters—and all the primary characters are male—are deeply characterised, by which I mean that we have full confidence that she thoroughly understands all their formative experiences, their demons and angels, their subtlest shadings.

The weaknesses are here as well. The single female character is presented as an unpleasant stereotype, though this is only to be expected since we learn about her through Perina’s eyes. Perina is born into wealth and becomes much richer through his famous discovery. The fact that all four protagonists in A Little Life also became fabulously rich and famous was one of the factors that left me bored and unmoved by the story.

Worse, though, is that both narrators here are thoroughly unpleasant. I felt that way about the protagonists in her second book as well, though not everyone agrees with me.

Aside from their obvious pathologies, both Perina and his assistant are unreliable narrators. For example, Perina at one point claims that he went to Ivu’ivu solely for the adventure when it is obvious that he was desperate to be the center of attention. Equally he claims that his childhood torturing of insects, animals and even his mother is only what every small boy does.

What I did like about this book that I didn’t find in the second book is the attempt to grapple with serious problems. Because we are limited by Perina’s self-serving point of view, and notes by his loyal assistant, the issues of power, colonialism and abuse are sketched in broad strokes. In retrospect Perina is sorry for the changes he brought to the area, but unrepentant, saying any scientist would do the same, and he himself, knowing the result, would certainly do it all again.

The changes are so horrific, as are Perina’s crimes against the children, that we have no choice about what to conclude, both about these issues and the question of how to evaluate a genius who is also a sociopath. Still, obvious as our conclusions must be, it is good to be reminded of these horrors that continue to occur today.

We discussed the title in my new book group without coming to any conclusion. The tribe is not in the trees but in their village. Perhaps it is meant to remind us of the song Strange Fruit, though I think the comparison is strained; both peoples suffered tragically but differently.

We were also reminded of Euphoria, of course, the novelisation of a portion of Margaret Mead’s life. Though I disliked that book for its tampering with the facts of Mead’s life, it does approach the issues of colonialism and tampering with more depth and subtlety.

Still, this book is a good read if you can bear to spend so many pages with someone so awful. The writing keeps you turning page after page, and the psychological portrait of a narcissistic sociopath is brilliant.

Have you read a novel based on a real person? Did it change your view of the person?

Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse

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Another Middle Grade coming-of-age story told in verse—pure coincidence that this was next up on my TBR (to be read) pile when I stopped to read Brown Girl Dreaming. Hesse’s story is also a Newbery winner but is fiction rather than memoir. Thirteen-year-old Billie Jo loves playing the piano when she isn’t busy helping her father and pregnant mother try to keep body and soul together in Dust Bowl Oklahoma.

She is good enough to be asked to play in shows, often with handsome Mad Dog. If she gets well enough known with her music, she can leave the failing farm and the ubiquitous dust behind and go to California. Then a terrible accident throws all her plans into disarray.

Spanning a two-year period from January 1934 to December 1935, these poems paint a vivid picture of what life was like during that terrible time. She describes having to turn the glasses and plates upside down on the table until the last second before serving the meal, and still the food is saturated with dust. There is the heartbreak of a field of wheat, already decimated by drought and wind, be flattened by hail or devoured by grasshoppers.

In some aspects, Billie Jo’s life is similar to many teens: wanting more independence than her mother is willing to give her, feeling as though she’s stuck in the middle of nowhere. When her teacher is in a production of Madame Butterfly, and Mad Dog says that “most everyone’s” heard of that opera, Billie Jo is miffed.

How does that
singing plowboy know something I don’t?
And how much more is out there
most everyone else has heard of
except me?

And she has a best friend. But when Livie leaves for California with her family, Billie Jo says, “I couldn’t get the muscles in my throat relaxed enough / to tell her how much I’d miss her.”

Poetry works well as a form for this novel. The fractured narrative adds to the feeling that you are reading a diary. Also, the necessary compression distills each scene into its essence while retaining the emotional impact. Hesse makes effective use of symbols as well, such as the mother’s special cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving. Here is one complete poem, called “Broken Promise”:

It rained
a little
everywhere
but here.

Other poems are longer and tell a more complete narrative, such as “Blankets of Black” about going to Texhoma for Grandma Lucas’s funeral. Billie Jo’s detailed description of the ordeal is riveting.

While written for ages 11-14, Billie Jo’s story will certainly appeal to adults as well. For younger readers, it’s a good introduction to the terrible tragedy of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl during the Depression.

Have you read a Young Adult or Middle Grade novel that brought an historical period to life for you?

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson

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Woodson’s memoir in verse invites the reader into her childhood. Reading these poems felt as though Woodson and I were leafing through a photograph album while she told me about these people and places.

Her family’s story, like so many of ours, is a fractured one, with lots of moving around and relationships that fall apart due to death and divorce. Being people of color during the 1960s and 1970s adds further complications. Still, there is a strong current of love and security holding the family and their story together.

In “home” she writes of being taken as a newborn to meet her grandparents in South Carolina. She describes the porch, the azaleas, the red dust on her mother’s shoes. Then:

Welcome home, my grandparents say
    Their warm brown
arms around us. A white handkerchief,
    embroidered with blue
to wipe away my mother’s tears.
    And me,
the new baby, set deep
inside this love.

This book has won several awards, including the Newbery Honor, and was chosen as the 2017 book for Vermont Reads. While it falls in the children’s book category, it appeals to adults as well.

The title tells you all you need to know about the book to entice you into reading it. While being a perfectly straight-forward description of what the book is about, the title also gives you an idea of how the story will be told. The reversed syntax is intriguing, and the startling use of “brown” let’s you know that we are going to sidestep stereotypes about race and speak plainly .

Here’s the opening of “rivers”:

The Hocking River moves like a flowing arm away
from the Ohio River
runs through towns as though
it’s chasing its own freedom, the same way
the Ohio runs north from Virginia until
it’s safely away
from the South.

Most of all, the compression and music of these three words place you in the realm of poetry. It’s had to resist hearing the echo of the opening of Langston Hughes’s great poem “Dream Deferred”:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?

As I’ve mentioned before poetry works well for memoir because of its fragmentary nature. Gathering poems together in a collection such as this doesn’t create the same sort of linear narrative as a prose memoir.

For me, finding that narrative was the hardest part of writing my memoir. Life does follow a neat narrative arc. When we’re in the midst of it, our life seems chaotic and subject to chance; it’s only later that we try to impose some sort of coherent story out of it. Thus, capturing the past in individual poems And it actually reflects how memory works: it throws up a scene seemingly at random, and we are left to make sense of it.

Then the challenge for the poet is to find a way to make these fragments of memory, these separate scenes hang together without the usual transition tools. Woodson accomplishes this with deceptive ease. Arranged chronologically, the poems sometimes also reach back to tell stories of her parents and siblings and other family members.

This is a book that all ages will enjoy. One of the great benefits of reading is the opportunity to step into another person’s life and see the world through their eyes. I’m grateful to Woodson for her gift of her story, much of which reminded me of my own childhood and even more that helped me understand another kind of experience.

Does your state choose a book each year for everyone to read and discuss? If so, which book was chosen this year?

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, by Francine Prose

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Intrigued by a photograph of a lesbian couple in a nightclub by Hungarian-born French photographer Brassaï, Francine Prose investigated further and found a blockbuster story. She considered writing it as nonfiction, but chose instead to use it as the basis for a novel.

Like the tuxedo-clad Violette Morris in Brassaï’s photograph, Lou Villars is an Olympic-bound athlete and a race car driver in 1920s Paris. She’s also an habitué of the fictional Chameleon Club, a gaudy, anything-goes nightclub. As the next war looms, she is recruited to spy for Nazi Germany and goes on to become famous for rooting out and torturing members of the Resistance.

I felt immediately at home in the milieu of this book, which was a bit puzzling because I’ve never been to Paris, much less seen its streetlights gleaming on rainwet streets or enjoyed the burlesque shows—onstage and off—of its nightclubs. Then I realised my familiarity came from my obsessive reading forty-five years ago of Anais Nin’s diaries and novels, as well as books about Romaine Brooks, Natalie Barney, and their circle. I also spent some time a few years ago studying poet Hope Mirrlees, particularly her spectacular 1920 poem “Paris”.

Villars’s story is told by multiple narrators. There are letters to his parents from Gabor Tsenyi, a Hungarian photographer like Brassaï. We have memoirs from Tsenyi’s lover Suzanne, his wealthy patron Baroness Lily de Rossignol, and his best friend, the American writer Lionel Maine, seemly based on Henry Miller with his preoccupation with drinking and womanising. Finally, and providing much of the structure of the story, there are excerpts from a self-published biography of Villars by Nathalie Dunois, a relative of Tsenyi’s lover Suzanne.

Interestingly, we never hear directly from Lou herself, raising questions of identity and historicity. Given that we only learn about her through others, whose own reliability is dubious, we cannot help but consider the fallibility of memory and self-interested testimony. As readers, we are left to judge for ourselves how much to trust each of these sources.

I struggled with the first part of the book, as I tried to sort out the narrators, get a handle on the large cast of characters, and figure out where and in whom the story lay. I abandoned it for a while, but am glad I came back because it picked up about two-thirds of the way through. And I think the multiple narrators lift this book above the ordinary.

What fascinates me most in this story is the trajectory between good and evil. If we were only presented with Lou Villars in her later incarnation as traitor and torturer, we would think her a monster. But here we start with her as a child, devoted to her mentally ill brother. I don’t know who said it first, but a now-common piece of advice for writers is that even the villain thinks he is the hero of his story. What this means is that if we are to present them as fully realised characters, we must dig deep into our villain and try to understand why he or she thinks what they are doing is right.

In my recent review of Julian Barnes’s novel about Shostakovich’s life under Stalin, I said that these days I am absorbed by the question of how to live a good life, how to negotiate the inevitable choices and compromises we face. I think often of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead where the two courtiers wonder if there was a moment where they could have chosen differently and, if so, how could they have missed it? Is it ever too late to go back and choose differently?

Through her melange of voices, Prose helps us understand Villars’s choices and compromises. It is a story that never grows old for me. As the world seems more and more to be taken over by dishonest and greedy people who laugh at the harm they inflict on others, I look to stories such as this to help me understand how a good person turns to evil.

Have you read a novel with multiple narrators? What did you think of it?

Prayers for the Stolen, by Jennifer Clement

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This is a novel. We are reminded several times that it is fiction. But it tells the truth about what happens to women and girls in a Mexico ruled by drug cartels.

Ladydi Garcia Martínez is such a girl. She lives with her mother in the mountains of Guerrero, in a place where there are no men. They have all gone to the U.S. or nearby Acapulco to work or joined the narcos. The mothers pretend their girls are boys for as long as possible to protect them from being taken by the narcos.

Telling her story in an irresistible voice, Ladydi gives us the world as she sees it. Everything that happens is, of course, the most natural thing in the world to her, whether it’s her mother’s sorcery, her friend Maria confronting a snake or finding a poppy field hidden in the mountains. She’s smart yet credulous, caring yet cautious, loyal yet curious.

Her mother is a force of nature. Furious at her husband for deserting the family—like most of the men who have gone to the U.S. he no longer visits and has stopped sending money—she dreams up ever more elaborate revenges. Her maxims and predictions seem cockeyed at first but then make sense in their own way.

Ever since I was a child my mother had told me to say a prayer for some thing. We always did. I had prayed for the clouds and pajamas. I had prayed for light bulbs and bees.

Don’t ever pray for love and health, Mother said. Or money. If God hears what you really want, He will not give it to you. Guaranteed.

When my father left my mother said, Get down on your knees and pray for spoons.

The novel has one of the most shocking and fascinating first lines I’ve ever come across. The scene that it introduces sets the stage for the story to come. There’s humor as well as horror, but most of all a vivid evocation of what life is really like.

Clement grew up in Mexico City and from 2009 to 2012 was president of PEN Mexico. She spent ten years researching this story and the quality of her listening comes through in every nuance of the voices in this story, every detail of their lives. It’s a fascinating read, one that will engage and enrage you. The human costs of Nixon’s War on Drugs spread far beyond the prisons and streets of the U.S.

Writers often struggle with how to compose stories about social justice, hoping to rouse compassion and a will to change. It’s easy for our outrage to burst out in rants and prescriptive demands that overwhelm the reader. Here Clement shows us how to do it: just tell the story. Don’t tell the reader how to feel; just create a narrator with an original voice whose hopeful heart will touch ours. Add a dose of humor and a lot of specific detail to immerse the reader in the story.

This book’s sadness is outweighed by the strong social ties: between the girls, between the girls and their mothers, between all the women who have been stolen and sold and imprisoned. Their voices are rich and full of life even as they tell of horrors. Yes, I’m outraged, but the warmth and love, the intense community of women: these are what I’ve carried away from Ladydi’s story.

What novel have you read where the voice of the narrator pulled you in and wouldn’t let you go?

The Nutting Girl, by Fred DeVecca

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Alvin Toffler famously predicted in 1970’s Future Shock that coming generations would have many jobs in their lifetimes. Frank Raven can testify to that. A former monk, policeman, and private eye, these days he walks his dog, records bird songs, and runs a low-key movie theater in Shelburne Falls, a small town in Massachusetts, near the Vermont border.

His peace is disturbed by the arrival of a Hollywood film director and his crew, scouting locations for a new film featuring the mega-star Juliana Norcross. When the reckless Juliana goes missing, the film’s director Nick Mooney hires Raven to find her, which he does rather quickly, and then to protect her—primarily from herself. Then Juliana really disappears.

This debut mystery has a lot to recommend it. DeVecca takes these seemingly stock characters—a disillusioned, middle-aged detective; an arrogant, young director; and a wild, self-destructive actress—and brings them to life as unique individuals. He does this by bringing out emotions and aspects of them, contradictory and compelling. For example, Juliana instantaneously bonds with the Sarah, the teen-aged daughter of Raven’s new friend. Their friendship and mutual trust develops throughout the story.

Raven himself, in addition to listening to the birdsongs he’s recorded, is a morris dancer. Morris is a traditional performance dance from England whose popularity took off in the U.S. in last quarter of the 20th century when the handful of morris teams swelled to over a hundred. For me it was love at first sight that summer afternoon in 1975. I was taken by the simple elegance of the dance, the strength and grace it required. I went on to dance and perform morris for almost 40 years before retiring. (Full disclosure: I am slightly acquainted with the author through the morris community and have walked the streets of Shelburne Falls).

Morris dancers are mostly enthusiastic amateurs, for whom dancing is but one part of their lives. DeVecca’s description of Raven’s team practicing and then dancing the sun up on May Day adds distinctive color to the life of the town, as do his descriptions of the town itself, its famous Bridge of Flowers, and the Deerfield River.

After Juliana disappears and is given up for dead, Raven and Sarah continue to search for her and try to understand what happened on her last day. There are clues for the reader to untangle and ever-higher stakes to drive the story. As an editor, I would have made a few recommendations designed to tighten it up, but this is a very good first entry in what I hope will be a series of books about Raven and Shelburne Falls.

Have you read a mystery set in a place familiar to you? Did that make it more interesting?