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“In this crazy time just after the war, an odd democracy seems to be emerging.  For the first time, it seems possible to meet and speak to anyone, no matter who you are or where you’re from.  The war has mixed things up, made them topsy-turvy so that anything seems possible.  And here we are, the two of us, walking arm-in-arm.  It’s summer and we’re in Paris, with the trees in leaf and dense with blossom.”  – Robert Capa, upon first meeting Ingrid Bergman, 1945.

Four years before there was a Roberto Rossellini in her life, Ingrid Bergman experienced a period of unexpected and intense happiness with Hungarian photographer Robert Capa.  Their affair was conducted in Europe, where Bergman managed to keep it quiet from the press, her studio, and her husband, and it is only now gaining wide notice with the publication of this biographical novel. Robert Capa had achieved fame for his uncompromising and heroic photographs of the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, the Chinese resistance to the Japanese invasion in the early 1940s, and the Magnificent Eleven photographs he made of the D-Day landings in 1944.  Addicted to danger and exhilarated by the high drama of battle, Capa would seem, on the surface, to have little in common with the coolly elegant Ingrid Bergman, the Swedish Academy Award-winner famous for the subtlety of her acting performances and her quiet, lady-like demeanor.  Nevertheless, these two people found solace with each other in the aftermath of the war, as each was alone and dealing with private demons.  Capa, out of work at the war’s end, was wandering Europe, drinking too much and gambling, while Bergman was traveling and entertaining the troops remaining in Europe.  Long dominated and controlled by her husband of eight years, Petter Lindstrom, who managed her career and every aspect of her life, Bergman was able, on this trip, to feel complete liberation for the first time, since Lindstrom remained at home in Hollywood caring for their daughter Pia.

British author Chris Greenhalgh, creates a lively and unsentimental novel from what is known about the Bergman-Capa affair and the atmosphere which produced it, creating and then conveying details which make these two characters “real,” as he explores their thinking and behavior over the course of their year-long affair – six months in Europe and six months in Hollywood.  It would be hard not to empathize with Capa and Bergman, both of whom were trapped in their lives, with little they could do to change them.  Capa photographed the war from the trenches and put himself into situations that few others would be able to handle, but he is bored by quiet times and peace, finding, after the war, a kind of refuge in one-night stands, alcohol, and wild gambling.  He readily admits that “I’m not used to thinking beyond tomorrow,” and that he cannot imagine the rest of his life, a condition that Greenhalgh suggests may be related to Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

Robert Capa with his Contax camera, which accompanied him on many war-time assignments

Ingrid Bergman, always appearing to be controlled and confident, brings her own baggage to the relationship.  An orphan by the time she was thirteen, she bounced around Sweden, living among a succession of aunts and uncles until she began acting classes at seventeen.  At twenty-two, she married Dr. Petter Lindstrom, eight years older and already established, someone who knew how the world worked (as he saw it) but who also controlled her life, more like a strict father than a lover.  After winning acting roles in Sweden, she eventually drew interest from Hollywood.  Petter Lindstrom stayed in Sweden with their baby daughter at first, while she went to the US for four or five months at a time to make films, though he managed her career from afar while also keeping up with his own, first as a dentist, then as a neurosurgeon.   By the time of the affair, Lindstrom had moved to Hollywood, and, the author suggests, Bergman was probably long overdue for some excitement.  At one point in Paris, she “longs to do something spontaneous, to break free.  Seeing so many young men on the streets using crutches, with just stumps left where there should be limbs…reminds her of her duty to live the best life she can.”

The Ritz Hotel in Paris, where Capa first invited Ingrid Bergman for dinner.

By alternating the points of view between the first person accounts of Capa, and the third person point of view of Bergman, which keeps her at a more discreet distance, Greenhalgh creates sympathetic characters who pursue their love.  Their relationship becomes increasingly intense:  “It’s only now that she discovers desire…Capa has stirred the sensual depths in her so that she feels almost deranged.”  She does, however, worry constantly about having people find out about their affair and subsequently losing her career because she has stepped over the line which her public will accept.  She fears what her husband will do if he finds out and what will happen to her daughter.   Capa’s sleep is often interrupted by nightmares of the war and his feeling that he is responsible for his previous lover’s death.  His friend Irwin Shaw tells Ingrid that “The only time [Capa] feels alive is when he is photographing corpses.”

Ingrid Bergman gives Capa a Hohner harmonica with its name in italics, something he uses when he is stressed.

When Ingrid must finally return to Hollywood for the filming of Notorious, Capa is also involved, and Ingrid confides the truth about their relationship to only one person, Alfred Hitchcock himself.  (The author suggests that Hitchcock later uses this affair as the basis for Rear Window.) The intensity of the unreal world of Hollywood and the very real presence of Petter Lindstrom take their toll on both lovers, and Capa, often drunk, begins to be indiscreet.  Symbols arise as their relationship is tested.  When Bergman is offered a script of Arch of Triumph and Capa asks what it is about, her ominous response is “Passion vs. duty.”  And when Capa finally finishes his reading of War and Peace, it is an “extraordinary moment.  Reading it makes me want to cry,” he says, “for Pierre, for Natasha, for Ingrid, for me, for everyone – and for all the time that is lost between people who love each other and find themselves apart.”  The harmonica which Ingrid has given him often comforts him when he is frantic with frustration and terrible memories.

On the set of Notorious, Ingrid Bergman confides in Alfred Hitchcock about her relationship with Robert Capa.

History reveals the outcome of this relationship before the novel even starts, but this affair in 1945, Bergman’s first, may have been most responsible for her emotional growth. Passionate and desperate in their need to escape the present, for a few months, at least, Ingrid Bergman and Robert Capa cannot help but recognize the inevitable outcome long before the curtain falls.  The strength and the sense of finality with which the two lovers face the inevitable will stir even the most hard-hearted reader.

Note: The paperback version of this hardback book will be released by Picador on Feb. 3.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://www.chris-greenhalgh.com

The photo of Robert Capa with his Contax camera appears on http://weelittlechief.blogspot.com

The Ritz facade is featured on http://www.tripadvisor.com/

The Hohner harmonica may be found on http://orgs.usd.edu/

The photo of Alfred Hitchcock and Ingrid Bergman is from http://brightwalldarkroom.tumblr.com/ Hitchcock is the only person to whom Bergman confided the nature of her relationship with Robert Capa.  He later used this as the basis of his film Rear Window.

ARC: Picador

Note: This novel is WINNER of the Brazilian PEN Prize for Best Novel of 2011.

“In twenty or thirty years, no one in Brazil will talk about this [violent period] anymore.  By the early twenty-first century not even historians will be interested…Bookstores will shelve works on the subject in the history section.  In alphabetical order. Depending on author’s name, an account of torture in Brazil in the 1970s might be located between a volume about gold mining…and one on African influences in Brazilian folklore.”— The speaker, discussing the military dictatorship in Brazil, 1964-85.

Beginning his novel in Brazil during the military coup of 1964, and extending the story through to the twenty-first century, prize-winning Brazilian author Edgard Telles Ribeiro sets his novel, not in the streets, but in the country’s foreign service offices, a setting he knows well from his own experience.  Telles Ribeiro was a journalist when the military coup of 1964 took place, and in 1967, he became a member of the Foreign Service, where he was able to observe the behavior he illustrates in this novel.  Apparently modeling his main character on a real person, he tells his story through a first-person narrator, a story that he says has been so daunting that it has taken him forty years to come to grips with it.  The need to write eventually overwhelmed him, he says, “not so much in order to reveal what we always knew within our group: namely, that the devil was in our midst…but out of my own need, as a witness to the adverse effects the period had on people I cared for.”

The Brazilian foreign ministry in the 1960s and 1970s provided a most unusual, perhaps unique, atmosphere in which to work.  Though the military ruled the country’s daily life and ran the security service, they themselves regarded the foreign ministry as “an elite group…[and] the generals tended to regard leftist leanings that might exist within it as more intellectual than radical in nature.”  By the speaker’s own admission, this political contrast sometimes led to “bizarre situations: In a right-wing country, we were increasingly allowed to formulate a left-leaning foreign policy.” Eventually Brazil became the first country to recognize Angola’s socialist government and eventual independence, and to reestablish relations with Communist China, even as people within Brazil itself were disappearing and being executed by the military.  If someone in the foreign service could keep his mouth shut about the disappearances, the torture, and the killing within the country, however, he could survive.

The Itamaraty Palace, where the Foreign Service has its offices, was designed by Oscar Niemeyer and built in Brasilia in 1967

The speaker’s former friend and colleague, Marcilio Andrade Xavier, known as Max, was a born survivor, the speaker tells us.  Max was “one of the most pitiful symbols of our country at that time,” a confounding and wholly self-serving young man who managed to keep all options open and play all sides and interests for his own benefit, while carving out a place for himself in the maelstrom of Brazil.  Max’s swift rise to high positions in the Foreign Service when he was still in his twenties, fascinated the speaker, in a cynical way, as he “readily adapted to the ever-changing conditions…swiftly scaling the ranks of our hierarchy over the twenty years of military rule, and then going on to achieve further triumphs after the return to political normalcy,” a complete about-face that Max,without any real ideology, made smoothly.  Civil liberties might have been abolished, but Max knew how to play the game flawlessly.

The Sorocabana in Montevideo, Uruguay, where Max enjoyed meeting contacts, is reputed to be to that city what Rick’s Cafe was to Casablanca.

After a long introduction about the period and about Max’s history, the speaker buckles down and gets into the real details of Max’s life.  Already divorced when the action starts, Max soon marries an appropriate woman of wealth and social status and is sent from Brazil to Montevideo, Uruguay.  There, the Brazilian ambassador is creating a network which will enable the Uruguayan military to consolidate their power as leaders of the country.  The ambassador wants Max to help him quietly in Uruguay, and soon Max is ensconced as First Secretary in the office in Montevideo, making contact with the CIA and MI6.  He watches as Uruguay becomes “the domino piece that, after Brazil and Argentina, would complete the shadow the military cast over the region, the one that would herald the next coup, this time in Chile.”  When the inevitable coup begins, Max is sent to Santiago to work behind the scenes.  Through all the coups and their later countercoups in nations throughout South America over the next twenty years, Max plays all sides and stays afloat, though it takes a toll on his personal relationships.

In 1973, the Chilean army attacked La Moneda Palace in a coup. President Salvador Allende died.

The narrator spends long years apart from Max, working around the world, from Vienna and Peru to Los Angeles, leading a different kind of life and providing a contrast to Max.  By the time twenty years have passed, and the governments of these countries have changed, the speaker finally learns from his own international connections, just how Max managed to survive.  The contrasts between the two illustrate the complexity of their foreign service assignments and the manner in which each person’s own personality colors and sometimes controls not only his own actions but those which have been taken on behalf their countries.

The Presidential Palace in Brasilia, also designd by Oscar Niemeyer, was built in 1957-58.

Though many other writers have written novels about various coups in South America, this story is unusual, perhaps unique, in that its focus is squarely on the foreign service and the role of its representatives.  Not a single scene here reflects the tortures, the murders, or the disappearances which are so traumatizing, and none of the major military leaders responsible for these actions are featured here.  This approach works well for people in Brazil, Uruguay, Chile (and eventually Argentina), who are well familiar with the events which have often dramatically affected their own lives, though much of the action in this book will be new to many American readers.  The movement back and forth in time over the eventual course of over forty years and several countries is sometimes challenging, and the mysterious Max, a lone wolf, is not someone with whom the reader will identify.  The narrator’s own reports contain more thoughtful analysis than direct action.  Still, the author ultimately raises important philosophical questions:   “In the space of a generation, thousands of people…had been imprisoned, tortured, and killed in the name of priorities long since forgotten.  Who would answer…[who] would face a camera to publicly lament what had happened, as Robert McNamara had with respect to the horrors caused by the Vietnam War?  What had occurred four decades earlier…remained suspended in time…on a planet deprived of memory.”  The author hopes to correct that.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://www.librosdelasteroide.com

The Itamaraty Palace, built in Brasilia for the Foreign Service in 1967, was designed by Oscar Niemeyer.   http://www.architravel.com/

The Sorocabana in Montevideo, Uruguay, where Max enjoyed meeting contacts,  is reputed to be to that city what Rick’s Cafe was to Casablanca.  http://cafe-sorocabana.blogspot.com/

The Chilean army attacked La Moneda, the Presidential Palace in Chile, in 1973.  President Salvador Allende died in the attack, reportedly by his own hand.  http://www.theguardian.com/

The Presidential Palace in Brasilia, also designed by Oscar Niemeyer, was built in 1957-58.  http://www.thewhig.com/


“People say that wine is grapes in a glass, but I have a different view.  The grapes are gone.  They are no more.  What’s left are the juices, the souls of the grapes, the ghosts of the grapes.  These souls, these ghosts, these are what we drink; their spirit infuses our own.”—Pierre de Benoist, nephew of Aubert de Villaine.

The language with which vintners, connoisseurs, and critics talk about their favorite subject often resembles religious ecstasies, making the use of sacred wine for Christian communion services seem not only appropriate but completely right.  Fortunately for readers of this book, which is “the true story of the plot to poison the world’s greatest wine,” author Maximillian Potter, a journalist, takes a more secular approach to this subject, as he investigates the very real 2010 plot to poison the vines at the Domaine Romanee-Conti on the Cote d’Or, which has been in the same family for almost three hundred years.  With its Pinot Noir regarded as the world’s greatest wine, and its availability extremely limited because the vineyard itself is small, the interest of sophisticated criminals in this wine is not surprising.  “Bottle for bottle, vintage for vintage, Romanee-Conti is the most coveted, rarest, and thereby the most expensive wine on the planet.  At auction, a single bottle of Romanee-Conti from 1945 was then fetching as much as $124,000.”

The 2010 crime within the French vineyard itself is daring, potentially devastating to the vineyard, and both complex and time-consuming to pull off, as an unknown person or persons sets out to extort a million euros from M. Aubert de Villaine, the seventy-one-year-old “Grand Monsieur” who runs the Domaine with his cousin Henri-Frederic Roch.  Delivering threatening notes and a map to the Domaine, and leaving no fingerprints behind, the extortionist indicates his plan to poison the precious vines with Phylloxera vastatrix, an aphid-like insect which burrows underground and eats the plant’s roots, then creates egg-filled galls on the vine’s leaves, which eventually spread the problem as the galls break and the leaves fall.  There is no cure for this infestation.  When Aubert de Villaine does not act, the extortionist gives one last warning, providing more specific information and indicating that he has already drilled the bases of seven hundred vines and has already begun injecting them.  He will continue to do this if his terms are not met.

M. Aubert de Villaine, outside the Domaine Romanee-Conti on the Cote d'Or.

Author Potter’s broad approach to this subject resembles a compilation of stories about the vineyard, its owners, and its history, jumping back to the time of Louis XV and Madame Pompadour, and then jumping forward to the present, then toggling back and forth.  The author even discusses the Romans’ use of wines and the discoveries of the monks regarding viticulture during the medieval period.  While some might argue that such an approach slows down the narrative about the crime itself by inserting information which is unnecessary, others will treasure the insights gained into the whole subject of wine-growing both in France in the 21st century and in Napa Valley in the 1960s.  At that time, Aubert de Villaine, then in his early twenties and unsure of what he wanted to do with his life, spent time in California learning from the Paul Masson, Almaden, and Robert Mondavi vineyards, comparing his experience there with his childhood life in the vineyards at the Domaine, under the tutelage of his grandfather Edmond.

Tending the vines the traditional way - using horses instead of machines to avoid compacting the soil.

Throughout the book, Potter keeps the personalities of his subjects front and center, even within the early historical sections, giving life to a subject which might otherwise feel static.   King Louis XV, Madame Pompadour, and their dislike of the Prince de Conti, an ancestor of the vineyard’s owner and cousin of Louis XV;  Prince de Conti’s machinations against the king and his active support of revolution; and Prince de Conti’s purchase of a major vineyard and his withdrawal of all its wines from market, share space with a close-up view of the present extortionist as he is living in a tiny eighty square-foot cabin, half-underground, on the de Villaine property.  He has disguised his hut so well that someone standing only a few feet away cannot see it, nor can helicopters or small planes.  The reader soon learns that the extortionist has used a gun in crimes in the past and that he is listening to Mozart as he is drilling the vines.

The aphid-like Phylloxera vastatrix insects eat the roots of the vines, then create galls of eggs which infect the leaves and spread when they break in the wind.

The problems of Phylloxera vastatrix in vineyards in the past, from the 1850s to the 1940s, share space with the infighting in the present within the Domaine de Romanee-Conti with opinions differing between the de Villaines and the Leroys, co-owners, about the direction the vineyard should take in the twenty-first century – ultimately, quality vs. quantity.  The de Villaines, as a group, prefer to stick with the tried and true old methods, while the Leroys prefer modernization. At one point, some of the Domaine’s precious wines are adulterated and sold, and a member of the Leroy family is sued because of suspicion regarding involvement in the scheme. In the vine poisoning case, the police become frustrated with their investigation after two false leads, though they are not defeated.  Readers, acquainted with Inspector Laeticia Prignot and her fellow inspector Manu Pageault from the author’s character sketches of them, will empathize, while also empathizing with the sad, but beautifully elucidated family of the extortionist, a man who is also presented in detail –  but without that sympathy.

Lalou Bize-Leroy, one of the partners of the Domaine from the other controlling family, argued for more modernization in the methods of growing and harvesting the grapes.

The last pages of the book tie up details and describe two unveilings of the 2010 vintage of Romanee-Conti, the year of the attack on the vines, one unveiling in New York City and one in San Francisco. Questions are raised regarding who will be the best person to succeed M. Aubert de Villaine and how soon.  The author talks about his own background, his reasons for writing the book, and his opinions about wine critics with their elaborately romantic musings about wine, then describes own his first taste of Pinot Noir in the cellars of Domaine Romanee-Conti with M. Aubert.   In a dramatically different style from that of the wine critics, he informs  le Grand Monsieur: “This may sound crazy to you, but when I was a kid there was a candy called Pop Rocks.  It was like candied sand and when you put it in your mouth, it sort of bounced around and filled your mouth.  This wine is like that but it is like from heaven.  It like divine, liquefied Pop Rocks that make me feel lightheaded – the kind of happiness that I felt after I first kissed my wife.”

An assortment of the various wines of the Domain Romanee-Conti.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://www.thestar.com

“Le Grand Monsieur” Aubert de Villaine, outside the Domaine Romanee-Conti on the Cote d’Or. http://www.vanityfair.com/

The vines are tended the old-fashioned way (after a brief trial of the use of machinery), since the use of horses prevents the soil from becoming compacted, better for the vines. https://www.cellarit.com.au/

The Phylloxera vastatrix insects are shown here on the lower stem or vine roots.  Once infected, the only “cure” is to plant new roots, impervious to these insects, and to graft new branches of the preferred vine stock to that root system. http://www.pesticide.ro/

Lalou Bize-Leroy, one of the partners of the Domaine from the other controlling family, argued for more modernization of the Domaine, something the M. Aubert opposed. http://dulwichonview.org.uk

A shelf of the various aged wines produced by Domaine Romanee-Conti: http://loudmeyell.com

“Each family is fed by its secrets.  Like a strangely bulimic climbing vine, the unrevealed secrets embrace the family’s flesh a little tighter each day, until in the end they become one with it.  You can’t tell the vine from the flesh. A couple joined for all time, and if you try to pry it apart, you destroy it.”

Greek author Fotini Tsalikoglou, in her first novel to be translated into English, introduces a man we come to know as Jonathan, along with the first of his family’s many mysteries.  Jonathan has just boarded a plane from New York City to Athens, and while sitting next to an empty seat in the plane, he speaks to it as if it were “Amalia,” his sister.  He is remembering an unnamed woman who dragged him, as a small child, to museums all over New York to see Greek statues and pediments, but who never had any interest in going to Greece herself.  He is puzzled because, despite this behavior toward Greek art, she was clearly “revolted by her country.” Her name was Lale Andersen, a name she chose when she changed it from the original, and she was Jonathan’s “mutant mother.”

What follows is a complex conversation in which two people, Jonathan and Amalia, through changing times and places, discuss with each other their shared childhoods and differing memories. At one point, they also address a woman who served their grandparents, and at another point their grandmother herself provides her long personal story which details the family’s secrets. The author’s use of italics to set off one speaker from the other is helpful, as Jonathan remembers his Grandpa Menelaos and Grandma Erasmia, their emigration from Greece to New York, and his own life as a boy without a father.  The novel jumps around without warning, as he comments to himself about the plane trip and his decision to travel to Greece, interspersing observations in the present with memories from his past, including the sometimes bizarre events which have made a lasting impression upon him from his childhood, including one in which he believes he has met his lost father.

Holy Rock of the Acropolis, with its "amber columns" at twilight.

Jonathan’s present goal is to reach the Holy Rock of the Acropolis, which Freud described in 1903, after putting on a clean white shirt for the occasion: “the amber color of the columns at twilight…[is] the most beautiful thing in the world.” Amalia insists that Jonathan, too, will one day put on his own clean white shirt, and that he might even hear the sound of the waves at the Acropolis, if the wind is right, a comment with symbolic connotations.  Eventually, Jonathan dreams of Greece: “You, lost motherland of mine, so far away/ You’ll become a caress and a wound/ When Day breaks in another land…”  He dreams, too, of happiness, believing that “Now I’m flying to life’s celebration/ Now I’m flying to the feast of my joy.”

The attack and fires by Turks on Smyrna in 1922 led to the death or emigration of up to 400,000 people.

The lives of Jonathan’s family unfurl during his reminiscences, and include the story his grandmother tells him about life in Cappadocia (in Turkey) and how she and her sister, ages seven and five, escaped the Ottoman army’s attack on nearby Smyrna in 1922.  Jonathan’s grandmother and her sister, despite their young ages, eventually made their way to Greece, and as World War II broke out, years later, they married and came to New York, where Jonathan’s mother was born and later brought up two children alone – their father is never revealed.  Ultimately, the novel becomes Jonathan’s story, and this past haunts every aspect of it.

Erasmia and her sister Frosso often played as children in the Fairy Caves of Cappadocia, Turkey.

The narrative, which is not really a narrative but a series of brief reminiscences by Jonathan, Amalia, and their grandmother, requires the reader to pay careful attention to the text as it explores the complex meanings of identity and the importance of the past in determining one’s future. Because it is so short (only 116 pages), and so limited in its exploration of the background of the several characters, the reader must depend on the author (and translator, Mary Kitroeff) for the context clues which explain Jonathan’s journey, reveal his state of mind as he begins it, and justify his need for Amalia as a “companion” on the journey.  For some readers the information provided here may not be enough to make the main character’s decision to go to Greece feel like the natural, inevitable outgrowth of his experience, or make the ultimate fates of two other characters feel inevitable. For others, the sense of continuity with the past will be rewarding.

Jonathan, his mother, and sister lived at this address on the Upper West Side, overlooking the Hudson River.

The writing is compressed, psychological, and filled with the mysteries of life both in the present and in the past, and how much influence these mysteries may have on the main characters is suggested, rather than stated.  Some readers may diverge from the author’s suggestions that we cannot escape the past – that we become who we are by the accidents of fate.  Others may feel that we have more control over the present than what we see in the lives of Jonathan and Amalia.  Many tantalizing questions remain as the novella comes to a close.  Readers looking for a change of pace and an analysis of how much we may all be connected to and controlled by family secrets will find this novella a treasure trove of suggestions, though readers will have to draw their own conclusions.  Ultimately, when Amalia talks in the conclusion about Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis writing a song for the original Lale Andersen, “The North Wind Came, the South Wind Came,” the reader will look carefully at the lyrics as a way to understand more fully the ideas of this novella, ideas that Jonathan develops in the conclusion as he gets off the plane in Athens:  “What existed doesn’t exist anymore.  But you only die when you cease to remember the ones you love.  You die when your homeland shifts places on the map. It’s a good land that waits for me there,”  a statement which opens as many questions about identity as it answers.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://groessenwahn-verlag.de

The Holy Rock of the Acropolis at twilight, when Freud said the pillars looked like amber, may be found here:  http://www.discovergreece.com/

The escape by many residents of Cappadocia and Smyrna, Turkey, during the Turkish attack and fire in 1922, is found on http://www.helleniccomserve.com

As children, Erasmia and Frosso often played in the Fairy Caves of Cappadocia, Turkey:  http://www.wildjunket.com

Lale Andersen, Jonathan, and Amalia lived on the Upper West Side, near the Hudson River, at this address.  http://www.elliman.com/

ARC: Europa Editions


Note: Colm Tobin was WINNER of the IMPAC Dublin Award, the biggest award in literature in 2006, for THE MASTER, and he was WINNER of the Costa Award for BROOKLYN in 2009.  He was SHORTLISTED for the 1999 Booker Prize and for the 2001 IMPAC Dublin Award for BLACKWATER LIGHTSHIP. He is NOMINATED for the 2014 Costa Award for Fiction for this book.

“It was done.  In her all-embracing glance around the room, Mrs. Darcy [Nora’s neighbor] had made it all seem real.  Nora would leave this [summer cottage] and never come back.  She would never walk these lanes again and she would let herself feel no regret.  It was over.  She took up the few things she had collected and put them in the boot of her car.”

Nora Webster, recently widowed in her mid-forties, has decided to sell the now-deteriorating country cottage on the Irish coast in Cush, where her family has spent summers for many years.  Her drive to the Irish seaside to clean out the property is one she makes alone, leaving her two young sons in the care of others while she works.  Reminiscing about the past, her beloved husband Maurice, and the family vacations there over the course of twenty years, she realizes that her daughter Fiona, now in college, will be especially saddened by the loss of the cottage, and that her own two little boys, Donal and Conor, will miss their friends there. With her whole life at loose ends, she has not yet told her older daughter Aine, who is living in Dublin, about the need to sell the cottage for financial reasons, and she regrets her lack of connection and her behavior toward her children during the months in which Maurice was dying.  She feels guilty because she has not been able to comfort Fiona with some personal remarks wishing her well in school and actually showing her that she loves her. As for her two young sons, who were being cared for by her Aunt Josie for two months, she cannot help noticing that their attitude toward her has changed significantly during Maurice’s illness and eventual death, and “she felt she would never be sure of them again.”

Throughout much of this intense character study by Colm Toibin, which takes place in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Nora Webster observes the niceties – common, traditional actions which give her a way to deal with reality without thinking too much – and since she is reluctant to share her feelings directly with anyone, it is up to the reader to figure out her inner needs and moods by observing her behavior.  The author “takes the reader to school” here in terms of his ability to develop Nora’s character without resorting to overt explanations of her thoughts and moods, and he controls our perceptions of Nora without using emotionally charged adjectives like “frenzied” or “cold,” or adverbs like “regretfully,” or “angrily” to describe her behavior for the reader.  He is confident that the reader will be able to understand Nora simply by observing her in her life.  If Nora’s story itself were not so compelling on the face of it, one might almost describe its style as journalistic – factual and observant, with no agenda, despite the many domestic scenes as Nora and her family live their lives.  Through vibrant, often touching, scenes in which the characters speak and interact, seemingly on their own, Toibin draws in the reader so subtly that one never feels manipulated, the quiet development appropriate for the character of Nora herself – reserved, unassertive, and uncertain about the future.  She is a person who has, in her shy unwillingness to take charge, unwittingly hurt and perhaps damaged some of those she loves most, largely through her misperception that being stubborn is the same as being strong.

Charley Haughey, Irish Minister for Finance, and Neil Blaney, Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries, at their trial for sending arms to Irish partisans in Northern Ireland in 1970.

Nora’s boys have returned from their stay at Aunt Josie’s house during their father’s final two months with obvious problems and a sense of loss – Donal is stuttering, and Conor is wetting the bed – but Nora sees her primary duty to be that of finding a job to ease the family’s financial burdens after Maurice’s death, and when she does, it is a full-time job which leaves her precious little time to spend reconnecting with the boys, a problem she excuses as a necessity.  Her boss in her new job, a former schoolmate whom she and her friends always disliked, regards her position over Nora as sweet revenge, and she makes life for Nora as difficult as possible over the course of a year.  A crisis leads to Nora’s taking a stand for the first time, and the boys ultimately benefit from it as she gradually becomes stronger and more independent and realizes that she does not necessarily have to remain a victim.

Father Edward Daly, waving a blood-stained white handkerchief as he escorts a mortally-wounded protester to safety during the events of Bloody Sunday (1972) in Derry, Northern Ireland. Photo by John Bierman

Nora’s behavior parallels some of the social and political movements of Ireland in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time in which Ireland was roiling with deeply emotional issues – the establishment of unions, the second class status of women, the Irish Republican Army’s attacks in Northern Ireland, the widespread arrest of Catholics in Protestant Derry to the north, and the Arms Crisis involving the transportation of arms from Ireland to rebels in Northern Ireland by two Irish government ministers in 1970.  Despite these dramatic national events, however, the focus of the novel still remains clearly on Nora and her acts of personal disobedience, with the national events being primarily part of the atmosphere.  When Nora ultimately challenges a priest who changes Conor’s school classroom, she makes a major statement psychologically, and she is feeling strong and confident by the time Bloody Sunday occurs in Derry, where twenty-six unarmed Catholic civilians are killed during a demonstration.  The burning of the British Embassy in Dublin in 1972 takes place a few days later, in retaliation. Generational differences are highlighted by the activities of Nora’s daughter Aine, who is deeply involved in these political causes and seemingly has no fear.

A few days after Bloody Sunday in Derry, N. Ireland, the British Embassy is burned in Dublin. Double click to enlarge, then scroll.

Adding softness to the hard psychological truths which Nora must face before she becomes comfortable in her take-charge mode is her love of music and her decision to spend more time with it, a decision which leads her to grow emotionally as she studies voice, collects recordings, and spends hours listening to music on the phonograph, sometimes feeling as if she has merged completely with the music itself.  And when, near the end of the novel, she decides also to redecorate her house, she has a transformative experience which, because of her reticence throughout the novel, is both believable and poignant.  An author at the zenith of his writing career, Colm Toibin does it all with this novel, as he introduces a tentative and unassertive woman and develops her into a real, fully rounded character who retains her flaws and but learns to manage them as she eventually creates a real life for herself and her family.   This quiet novel will appeal to those who treasure precise and careful writing and admire an author’s ability to surmount the challenges of bringing a difficult character fully to life, however “ordinary” that life may be.  Toibin’s literary talents shine brilliantly here.

ALSO reviewed here:  Colm Toibin’s  THE MASTER

Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://www.thetimes.co.uk

The photo of Charlie Haughey, Minister of Finance, and Neil Blaney, Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries, during their trial for sending arms to rebels in Northern Ireland is seen on http://www.davidicke.com

During Bloody Sunday, Jan. 30, 1972, Fr. Edward Daly is seen waving a handkerchief in order to get a mortally wounded demonstrator to help. http://en.wikipedia.org/

The headlines regarding the burning of the British Embassy in Dublin on Feb. 2, 1972, just a few days after Bloody Sunday, are shown on http://www.indymedia.ie

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