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Cynan Jones–COVE

Note:  Cove was WINNER of the Wales Book of the Year Fiction Prize, and a short story drawn from it, published in the New Yorker as ‘The Edge of the Shoal’, was WINNER the BBC National Short Story Award, 2017.

“The bay lay just a little way north. It was a short paddle from the flat beach inland of him, with the vacation trailers on the low fields above, but it felt private.

“His father long ago had told him that they were the only ones that knew about the bay, and that was a good thing between them to believe.”—narrator of the novella.

cover coveCove, a novella by Welsh author Cynan Jones, so perfectly captures the mind and heart of its main character that many readers will read it in one sitting and then go back and reread all or most of it. An experimental novel in which the narrator’s individual thoughts are set off in separate paragraphs on wide-margined pages, the narrative hovers between a sharp, detailed, almost journalistic depiction of a speaker who goes out to sea in his kayak to scatter his father’s ashes, and some equally sharp, detailed pictures of what may be his hallucinations. All observations are the same for the speaker after a sudden storm and a lightning strike at sea leave him seriously injured, hungry, thirsty, and sometimes incoherent. Though he is well trained in the safety procedures which he recognizes may make the difference between his life and death at sea, he has gone out alone in his kayak, without informing the woman he loves, who is pregnant: He had hoped to spend this one last day with his father, in private.

author photo

Welsh author Cynan Jones.

A preface begins the book, as a search crew, claiming to be looking for a missing child, approaches a pregnant woman on the beach. Half a page of white space later, someone finds what at first s/he thinks is a pigeon, with a wing torn off at the shoulder, only to decide, after seeing rings around its legs, that it is a peregrine falcon. The person retrieves the rings, which may be the peregrine’s ID numbers, from the bird’s legs. Shortly thereafter (represented by another half page of white space), a speaker sees “something you think is a wetsuit shoe, and the world tips, until you realize it’s a sneaker, colorful, like a tiny shelduck.” The rescue worker returns to his boat and uses the boat hook to pull something from the water, only to throw it back again. The crew heads back out to sea, leaving the speaker to realize that “they’ve missed something, there, at the edge of the tide….When you get to it, it is a doll.”


The peregrine falcon described here is said to have one red ring and one blue one on his legs, similar to these here, used for identification and history.

Reading this preface raises many questions, as the author uses first, second, and third person points of view here (and throughout the action), as if he is sending up flares regarding the drama to come. We do not know how much of the action in the Preface is real, though it feels so realistic and detailed that most readers will assume that all of it is real, nor to we know who is/are the speaker(s). Careful readers who like their novels tightly organized and chronological should not be discouraged by the uncertainties in this section, however. “Going with the flow,” trusting the author, allows him to share the confusion of the main character with his reader, while also creating a new and powerfully visceral experience as the actions of this main character proceed in chronological fashion. Some of the images in the preface repeat in the narrative which follows, suggesting that the preface is tied directly to that action and may be the follow-up to what happens later in the book, a flashforward perhaps. As the main action begins, the preface hides in the background as the reader becomes totally involved in the main character’s fight against nature after he has been hit by lightning.


While at sea, the narrator also sees a razorbill.

The action of a single day begins in Part I with a devastating lightning strike on the narrator. “There is a basal roll. The sound of a great weight landing. A slow tearing in the sky….One repeated word now. No, no, no. When it hits him there is a bright white light.” Immediately, and without transition, the narrator looks toward the inland cliffs, hoping “the peregrine” might be there, followed by a seemingly irrelevant image in which he is paring away its feathers on the boat. He also catches a fish, and once again, the reader wonders about the character’s thinking and how seriously he may have been injured. He sees a razorbill. Only after all this does “he wake floating on his back, caught on a cleat by the elastic toggle of his wetsuit shoe. Around him hailstones melt and sink.” He now recognizes that he is “shell-shocked, trying to understand a layer of ash on the surface of the water…Dead fish lie around him.” Still, he manages, one-handed, to get back inside the kayak.

“It is hallucinatory, cartoonish, like a sea lion’s side-on in the water, a disk the size of a table.” –Ocean sunfish

The action continues. He sees a fin belonging to a huge sunfish, then finds a wren feather, a symbol of protection, inside his cell phone case with his dead phone. Gradually, the heat and the need for food and water begin to dominate his thoughts as he tries to avoid panic. At sundown, it becomes cold. Late at night, he hears a child’s cry, but he is so cold and overwhelmed that he begins to think, “I can go now. I’ve done my best.”   Part II begins the next day, as he redoubles his efforts to return to land and “find a cove.” He thinks to himself that “If you disappear, you will grow into a myth for them. If you get back, you will exist as a legend.” His father’s voice offers advice as the narrator makes herculean new efforts to get back to land, using everything he can think of to help him.

Portrait of a baby Atlantic bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus). Curacao, Netherlands Antilles.

The cry of a baby dolphin is mistaken by the narrator for a crying child, and he thinks of his own future child.

Jones ends the narrative at the perfect time. He has created a powerfully vivid story of a man trying to survive the elements, describing not only what he is thinking, but also what he remembers, what he is dreaming, and what he is hallucinating, making no distinctions among these processes: They are all part of his mental state – all part of his reality – and the narrator’s inability to distinguish among them matches similar difficulties the reader may have in determining what is real and what is imaginary. The narrator’s physical state and his deterioration, however, are shown chronologically and realistically here during his battle against the sea, and when the repeating images and symbols of the peregrine, feathers, the doll, and the wren appear, the reader cannot help but use them as a guide to interpreting the narrator’s mental health at that moment. Cynan Jones imbues a life or death struggle with a tension rare for such a short work. Though the style is experimental and takes some chances which may take a bit of getting used to, Jones is as aware of his reader as the narrator seems to be, providing clues throughout. Rereading the opening, or better yet, the whole novella, may tie together some aspects of the book missed the first time around, making this a memorable, not-to-be missed reading experience – high on my favorites list for the year.

Photos. The author’s photo appears on https://www.ft.com/

The peregrine falcon described here is said to have one red ring and one blue one on his legs, similar to these here, used for identification and history.  A speaker removed both of them from the dead animal so that they would not be lost: http://chesapeakeconservancy.org/   Photo by Peter Turcik.

The narrator also sees a razorbill, a bird that spends its entire life on the water and takes only one partner.  https://www.allaboutbirds.org

The ocean sunfish which batters the side of the narrator’s boat for several hours averages 500 – 2000 pounds.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/

The crying of a baby dolphin frightens the narrator, since he thinks it is the crying of a human baby. http://www.coralreefphotos.com/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Experimental, Literary, Psychological study, Wales
Written by: Cynan Jones
Published by: Catapult
Date Published: 04/10/2018
ISBN: 978-1936787845
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“Dawn breaks over the horizon. It moves across the sea, soaring over the empty beach….It reaches the top of the hill and lingers there, gray and hazy for a moment, before suddenly plunging down the far side. It sweeps over houses, streets, trees, and flowers asleep on balconies. Down in the valleys it seems to dance, lightly, discreetly. It seeps into the forest and spills across the lake where no one ventures now since Adele drowned there four years, five months, and thirteen days ago.”—from the opening paragraph.

cover appanahNathachaThe dawn continues on its way, finding Anita in her kitchen, wearing a gray pullover that belongs to her husband Adam. She has had a sleepless night, thinking about the old days, her forgotten dreams, about things left undone, and about Adele. The dawn enters the bedroom belonging to Laura, daughter of Anita and Adam, as she dreams that she is swimming in the lake – except she has forgotten that for the past four years, five months, and thirteen days she has been unable either to run or to perform swan dives, or to swim. As the dawn moves on, it “bathes the house and the forest in a dove gray color and makes its way across the fields and the mountain villages. When it reaches the front of the prison complex surrounded by barbed wire, Adam is on his feet, his face pressed against the little window, gripping the bars with both hands…waiting for the dawn, as he has been waiting for his release for four years, five months and thirteen days.” He thinks about the old days, the promises not kept, and about Adele. Standing there barefoot, he is, at last, “looking the dawn in the eye.”

Author Nathacha Appanah , from Mauritius

Author Nathacha Appanah , from Mauritius

In approximately six hundred words in the first two pages of this novel, author Nathacha Appanah provides the entire conclusion of the novel, taking the chance that the reader will become more interested in the circumstances which caused these disasters for her characters than in the ultimate results. It is a big chance. It does, however, give the author the opportunity to develop the characters – and interest in them – in what might otherwise appear to be a melodrama. Using flashbacks throughout, she then begins her narrative twenty years in the past, as Adam and Anita, both meet in Paris. Adam is from the rural suburbs, where he is a “woodcutter, cabinetmaker, painter/surfer,” someone who often “cannot find words to express” his feelings, and he has been in Paris at a school of architecture. He feels out of place at the New Year’s Eve party a friend has persuaded him to attend. Anita, attending the same party, has come to Paris from her native Mauritius ten years ago. A poet, she also feels left out – even homesick. Together, they make an odd couple as they discover and help each other, eventually marrying and becoming parents of a daughter, Laura. As time passes, however, Adam’s desire to become a painter, a new style of painter, and Anita’s desire to write a novel, which both have had to sacrifice in order to keep on top of things, financially, begin to wear on them, and they begin to quarrel.

Adam and Anita live in a small house behind the Gare du Nord.

Adam and Anita live in a small house behind the Gare du Nord.

Having set up the basis for a conflict, author Nathacha Appanah develops her story. When Adam is with his paints, “he is without fear, without guilt, without a path to follow, no meals to prepare, no laundry to hang, no shopping to do, no child to amuse…no sunlight coming in to interrupt is train of thought. He is creation itself.” Anita has been working hard to become noticed as a stringer for a newspaper, a job in which she is conscientious and hard-working, but she is regarded as an outsider at the newspaper, and sometimes comes across as a foreigner when she interviews subjects in this pre-women’s-lib era. A music concert by a group of maloya singers from Reunion, an island near her native Mauritius, finally gives her the opportunity to shine as a reporter, and she can hardly wait to write the story. “She feels as if her joy were trailing a great glittering train behind her and that this could carry the whole town with it…”

kayamba instrument

This woman plays the kayamba, a percussion instrument used in maloya performances.

Part II introduces Adele, a woman from Mauritius who, for six years, has been working twelve-hour days taking care of the three children and the vast household of a wealthy family, then works three nights a week as a barmaid. Because she has come to France illegally, she wants to remain invisible, if possible, living on her own in a tiny room just nine feet by twelve. She avoids thinking about the reasons she has felt compelled to leave Mauritius. When a group of maloya singers from Reunion is hired to perform at the bar where she works, she is able to see the concert and enjoy its familiarity. Needless to say, she meets Anita, who soon becomes her first friend.

At this point, one-third of the way through the novel, the author has established her three adult characters and their backgrounds and has brought them together.

Laura loves spending time with Adam, making a dream-catcher from feathers and small pinecones.

Laura loves spending time with Adam, making a dream-catcher from feathers and small pinecones.

Additional information about all of them, fully described in lively, often lyrical prose, along with all the complications which come with that information, continues to be developed throughout the remainder of the novel. Gradually she involves the reader in the lives of her characters, especially in the lives of Anita and Adele. A section on the life of young Laura, child of Anita and Adam, involves the whole family in the story as both Anita and Adam make progress with their creative goals, Adam with his painting, and Anita with her writing. Eventually, the author leads the reader into the grand climax described in the opening paragraphs, revealing how the tragedies with which the novel opens have evolved. The drama is powerful and moving in its effects, as the reader cannot help but revisit the action to see if, or how, the details of the conclusion could have been avoided. Nathacha Appanah writes with passion and concern for her characters, and she develops that same concern in the reader as the characters meet their fates. As in real life, questions may remain for the reader. Sensitive, emotional, stimulating.


Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

PHOTOS.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.lecteurs.com/

The Gare du Nord is from https://commons.wikimedia.org Photo by Claus Seyfried.

The woman playing the kayamba is seen on this video:  https://www.emp3a.com/download/63-r5t5vGKU/kayamba-african-instrument.html

The dream-catcher made with feathers and small pine cones appears on https://www.pinterest.com/

The map showing Mauritius, Reunion, Madagascar, and Mozambique  may be found here:  https://www.pinterest.com/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, France, Literary, Mauritius, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Nathacha Appanah
Published by: Graywolf Press
Date Published: 04/03/2018
ISBN: 978-155598037
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“What I see as I make it out, is that you’ve achieved something almost unprecedented in the way of getting used to danger. Living with it so long and so closely you’ve lost your sense of it; you know it’s there, but you’re indifferent, and you cease even, as of old, to have to whistle in the dark. Considering what the danger is…I’m bound to say I don’t think your attitude could well be surpassed.”—May Bartram to John Marcher

coverAfter I remarked to some book friends that one of the joys of having finished my schooling and my teaching career was that I would never again have to read a novel by Henry James, both of these friends responded that I really should read The Beast in the Jungle (1903), which they found to be quite different from many of his other works. Though I admit to having loved some of the films of James’s novels, I did not love reading any of the six novels I had had to read for classes, and I have always found James’s prose style to be so contorted, by today’s standards, and so artificial, that I have often had reread and “translate” it into less formal English in order to come close to understanding what James is saying. My friends persuaded me by their enthusiasm, however, and I decided to try reading Henry James again after so many years of avoiding him. Voluntarily returning to his company, it turned out, was a mixed blessing. I admired much of the book and, for the first time, I really began to feel as if I were beginning to know who Henry James really was as a man, not just as a writer. The Beast in the Jungle parallels what we know of his life very closely, and it feels so autobiographical that the reader cannot help but believe that it is based on a very real inner turmoil in his life and may also explain some the mysteries which have always surrounded him.

Henry James (1843 - 1916)

Henry James (1843 – 1916)

The novel opens at a luncheon given at a grand manor house, Weatherend. John Marcher is attending with friends, all of whom are interested in seeing Weatherend’s “intrinsic features,” its pictures, heirlooms, and treasures of all the arts. In the course of the afternoon Marcher meets May Bartram, a woman who stirs his memory, someone he believes he may have met before, many years ago. She is staying at the manor, and he is satisfied that she “might have ranked in the house as a poor relation; satisfied also that she was not there on a brief visit but was more or less a part of the establishment – almost a working, remunerated part.” When they begin to chat, he is convinced that he met her years ago in Rome, a fact she corrects, suggesting that it was when they were in Pompeii, ten years ago. They had run together into an excavation to escape a sudden thunderstorm. As they compare notes on whom they know and what they might have done together ten years ago, Marcher realizes that she would have been a pleasant friend to have, and he is sorry that they missed the chance back then.

The street in Pompeii was being excavated at the time that James was writing this novella and may have inspired the idea of their trip as the novel developed.

This street in Pompeii was being excavated in 1903, when James was writing this novella.

At this point, May Bartram asks him if he remembers what he said to her on the way back from Pompeii, “as we sat under the awning of the boat enjoying the cool. Have you forgotten?” He cannot remember that event, though she has never forgotten it, and she is reluctant to tell him now what he said then, ten years ago. “If you’ve lived away from it,” she suggests, “so much the better.” He knows that he “was of course an ass…but I would rather know from you just the sort of ass I was than – from the moment you have something in your mind – not know anything.” He will not let this go, and she becomes even more reluctant to repeat what he told her: “If I had only thought you foolish,” she replies, “the thing I speak of wouldn’t so have remained with me. It was about yourself….Has it ever happened?…[Has] the thing you then spoke of ever come to pass?” Marcher himself is astounded by her statement and immediately recognizes that he has shared very private information with her, specific information he has never told anyone else.

"The Muleteer ," a cast made from the outlines found in the lava shows the position of one victim of the eruption.

“The Muleteer ,” a cast made from the outlines of the body found in the lava shows the position of one victim of the eruption in Pompeii.

Marcher persudes May to reveal what he has told her: “It was very simple. You said you had had from your earliest time, as the deepest thing within you, the sense of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible, that was sooner or later to happen to you, that you had in your bones the foreboding and the conviction of, and that would perhaps overwhelm you.” He realizes now that he has confessed to telling her something he must continue to wait for, something he will eventually “have to meet, to face, to see suddenly break out in [his] life; possibly destroying all further consciousness…striking at the root of all my world and leaving me to the consequences, however they shape themselves.” May’s belief is that Marcher has been concerned with “the expectation – or at any rate the sense of danger, familiar to so many people – of falling in love.” He admits that now, even ten years later, he has never experienced “such a cataclysm.” An earlier affair had been “agreeable, delightful, miserable,” but he knows that love has never been a part of his life, and when the thing that he has been waiting for finally arrives, he says, “I [can] only think of it as natural and as of course above all unmistakeable…The thing will of itself appear natural.” Admitting that he does not really know if he is truly afraid of this, he asks May three times if she will “watch” with him over the coming weeks and months to see if his obsession over the past ten years will be a catastrophe.

The Lamb House, Henry James's house in Rye, which has extensive grounds and many rooms not seen from this angle.

Lamb House, Henry James’s house in Rye, has extensive grounds and many rooms not seen from this angle.

All this appears in Chapter One, the first ten pages of The Beast of the Jungle, and those who have studied James and are familiar with his biography will recognize, as the novella continues to develop, that his agonizing about love probably parallels much of what he endured throughout his life. Though he lived to age seventy-three (1843 – 1916), he was never known to have had a serious relationship with anyone, female or male, and early biographies suggest that he was celibate. Recent scholarship and the discovery of more personal papers by James and some friends, however, have turned up erotic letters written to younger men, and many scholars are convinced that he was a gay man living in a world in which being closeted was essential. Certainly this novella, written in 1903, when James was sixty years old, shows a main character who is still agonizing over what love means and whether he will ever find it. As author Colm Toibin suggests, regarding James as a gay man caught in his turn of the century culture does make his emotional difficulties more believable and more sympathetic. Ultimately, I found this book revealing and involving. The problems I had with it are inherent in James’s elaborate prose style, which I still find contorted, artificial, and frustrating.

The gardens at Lamb House where James often relaxed.

The gardens at Lamb House where James often relaxed.  Click to enlarge.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.famousauthors.org/henry-james

The street in Pompeii pictured here was excavated during the time that this novella was being written, and was a source of great curiosity in England at the time.  http://www.pompeiiinpictures.com

The Muleteer, like other “statues” of the bodies in Pompeii, was made by archeologists who filled the outlines left in the lava when the lava hardened and the bodies decomposed.  https://www.pinterest.com

Lamb House, Henry James’s house in Rye, has extensive grounds and many rooms not seen from the street angle.  https://commons.wikimedia.org

The gardens of Lamb House are shown on https://commons.wikimedia.org

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Classic, England, Literary, Psychological, Social Issues.
Written by: Henry James
Published by: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Date Published: 03/31/2018
ISBN: 978-1986776530
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover



“All the things that happened to you – there is no proof that they really did happen. Even memory does not always last. You turn your face up to the sky, inhale and exhale, close your eyes, and some little thing comes back to you for a quick second. But do not believe that moment will truly return. Everything you do in life happens for the first time and the last time. There is nothing afterward, and there won’t be anything left. If you understand that, you will be able to genuinely enjoy the things you do.” –Aunt Gracia to Menashe.

Cover diamong setterUnusual and perhaps even unique for an American audience, Moshe Sakal’s The Diamond Setter follows three generations of several interconnected families as they move though Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and eventually Israel, following their dreams and their hopes for their families over the course of a century. Narrated in the present by Tom, much of the novel is a metafictional account of his life and his involvement in events surrounding a magnificent blue diamond which has been in the possession of members of his extended family for several generations. The diamond, despite its intriguing story, is not the primary focus here, however. Rather, it is the belief of the diamond’s possessors that the diamond has a mind of its own – and that it can affect their lives in unexpected ways.  Over the generations, many have believed that the diamond is, in fact, cursed, and so they often hide it for the time that it is in their possession and live their own lives as well as they can without recourse to its “magic.”

Author Moshe Sakal

Author Moshe Sakal

The novel opens in 2011, as Tom, the narrator, talks about his recent return to Israel from five years of study in New York.  Though he has no experience in jewelry making, he accepts a job as an apprentice to  his uncle Menashe Salomon, who owns a jewelry shop in Tel Aviv.   Menashe’s favorite topic of discussion is the famous blue diamond which had originally been inset as the third eye of a statue of Shiva in India. Stolen from the statue hundreds of years ago, it became known as the “Tavernier Blue,” appearing and disappearing from India, Europe, Istanbul, then known as Constantinople, and eventually  the Middle East. In 1908 or 1909, it was purchased by a sultan, who had a ten-carat piece cut off for the woman he loved in Damascus. Known as Sabakh, the smaller stone had been “taking revenge on anyone who tried to keep it.” Menashe’s father believed, however, that it was “blessed, not cursed,” that it had protected the family from disasters, first in Damascus, Syria, then in Beirut, Lebanon, and eventually in Tel Aviv, as long as they took care of it. The diamond itself, he believed, would decide when it was time for a new owner. A few weeks before the Gulf War in 1990, a family member brought the Sabakh jewel to Menashe for safe-keeping, but when the war started, it mysteriously disappeared, stolen.

The March of the Million, Sept. 3, 2011, where Fareed comes to new understanding about the Arabs and Israelis.

The March of the Million, Sept. 3, 2011, where Fareed comes to new understanding about the Arabs and Israelis.

Almost immediately after this introduction, the reader meets Fareed, a young man who has managed to sneak out of Damascus, Syria, on a bus to Yafa (Jaffa), a section of Tel Aviv which has traditionally had a strong Arab population. He is carrying the blue diamond in his pocket and is looking for a friend he has met on-line. His walk through the city reminds him of the city’s past and of the traditional Arab-Israeli conflicts there, some of which continue to the present, even under the “unification” of Yafa (Jaffa) and Tel Aviv. When he meets Ramadan, “Rami,” a gay Palestinian he met on Grindr, he feels at home. That evening a rally called the March of the Million is scheduled. “It’s not a political demonstration,” Rami tells him.  When Fareed goes to the rally, he is astonished. “No one paid any attention to a group of Arabs from Yafa calling out slogans, and no one stopped to read the Arabic on their shirts.” Eventually, “Fareed started to feel it – a love that depends on nothing, a love that does not seek fulfillment but simply exists, breezy and light….He was carried along on the waves of sound that thundered across the square…people who trod so lightly, who were not really protesting or breaking anything, but simply pouring into this space, colossal and numerous, demanding to be acknowledged, to be recognized… to flow into this urban center in rivers and streams to hug the police and to just be.”

Fareed is anxious to see the Dizengoff Center, built on what was once a slum neighborhood, not an upscale shopping center.

Fareed is anxious to see the Dizengoff Center, built on what was once a slum neighborhood, now an upscale shopping center.

From this straightforward beginning, the novel becomes increasingly complex as it traces families, the jewel, and the transition of Palestine to Israel through wars and upheavals over a several decades.  Information is often introduced but not fully explained, the backstory filling itself in later as more information is revealed in this experimental novel. Characters and their families – a huge number over several generations and in several different countries – dominate the action.  While small incidents involving all these characters may be understandable, the big picture of who everyone is and how they are all related is held at bay until later, a sometimes frustrating experience. Fortunately, Sakal is a relatively leisurely writer who allows the reader time to contemplate and evaluate the action, the characters, and the themes, imagining futures and pasts, and not feeling pressed by a sense of urgency.   Tel Aviv becomes a universal city dealing with universal issues, not one in which partisan politics invades daily life as much as the TV news would suggest. Gays are accepted without major problems in the city, and people from different cultures get along fairly well, as the March of the Million illustrates, as long the leaders of the country avoid “pinkwashing,” the practice of promoting the country as culturally friendly while ignoring the negative behavior on a larger scale. As Khaled points out, his own acceptance “goes out the window the second [I] turn up at the airport and try to get on a flight – that’s when they forget that I have an Israeli passport…and they go through my luggage like I’m a terrorist or an illegal alien.”

The beach and promenade in Tel Aviv, a pleasant place for the characters to walk.

The beach and promenade in Tel Aviv, a pleasant place for the characters to walk.

More than most novels, The Diamond Setter focuses on the past, with the long past of Sabakh, the blue diamond, becoming a symbol for the passage of time. Unlike its owners and the cultures in which they have lived, the diamond does not change, and the “curse” associated with it may ultimately reflect the growing pains of the society. As Fareed searches for the true owner of the diamond, he comes to fuller knowledge of himself, as does Tom, the writer of this metafiction. An Afterword updates Tom’s thinking regarding the book and his purpose in writing it. An unusual novel with a casual, deceptively relaxed attitude toward major issues, The Diamond Setter is, ultimately, a complex and challenging study of the past regarding the places all of us regard as home, especially complex when others, very different from ourselves, feel just as passionately about the same places, which are their homes, too.

map israel syria

Click to enlarge.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://nyblueprint.com/

On Sept. 3, 2011, “Over 450,000 protesters attended rallies across the country…calling for social justice in what was the largest demonstration in Israeli history.”  https://www.haaretz.com/1.5164105   Photo by Moti Milrod

Fareed was anxious to see the Dizengoff Center, which he had read about in a book.  It had been built on the site of a former slum and was now an upscale shopping area.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dizengoff_Center.    Photo by Talmoryair. 

Fareed and friends walk along the beach in Tel Aviv and see the city:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Map of the area: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/344032859005512969/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Experimental, Exploration, Historical, Literary, Palestine, Social and Political Issues, Palestine, Syria, Israel
Written by: Moshe Sakal
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 03/20/2018
ISBN: 978-1590518915
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Fiete plucked something from the carpet on the altar steps. “And that, ladies and gentlemen, concludes our segment on ‘How to have a Happy War’.” His somber voice made him sound like a cinema advertisement: “Rope too tight for you? Bullets too fast? Then why not try lovely sepsis! Three weeks of convulsions in a sickbed, nice and warm in your own shit, and at last you’ll hear angels singing. Free to party members, and for regular people it’s available for the low, low price of one human life.”—Fiete, Walter’s cynical friend.

cover to die in spring A caveat. I almost did not read this book. Our current political situation and all the anger generated daily in the news and on TV had me longing for something fun and funny to read, something to break the monotony of our nasty political reality. This book focuses on the horrors of World War II from the point of view of two rural German teenagers who get drafted, and that was not what I had in mind for a relaxing read. I started it, however, and as I became involved with the very real – and very naïve – main characters as they faced the terrifying, life-changing situations of war, I found myself emerging from the stupor of TV reality into a much bigger, more comprehensive world view. The subject matter is harrowing, but this sensitively written book generates an enormous amount of empathy for its very human main characters as they come to terms with who they are, where they are, and how they must cope with a war they know is already lost.  Ultimately, I was able to escape the pettiness of the latest news cycle.  I could appreciate the confidence with which the author develops big ideas for a world audience, and I felt the much-needed thrill of having read something that was sadly enlightening but presented on a level more elevated than anything I could have imagined if I had looked for something “fun.”

Author Ralf Rothmann

Author Ralf Rothmann

As the novel opens, an unnamed young man is remembering the life of his father, a man haunted by the past, someone who “lived his whole life in silence.” The boy describes how handsome his father was, how helpful to his neighbors, and even what he wore, but he had never been able to get inside his father, Walter Urban, who spent his life virtually alone. “His was the seriousness of someone who had seen something more potent than the others, who knew more about life than he could say and who sensed that even if he had the language to express what he had seen, there would be no redemption for him.” When Walter Urban retired, his son gave him a notebook and asked him to sketch out his life, writing down the major events from the years before his son was born, but Walter wrote only a few words, feeling that there was no point to it. A dairyman who had worked on a farm resembling Edouard Manet’s “Country House in Rueil,” Walter became a miner later in life, and became deaf from his work. He eventually suffered a stroke, and he was left virtually mute, a condition which led his son believe that “he wasn’t unhappy in his unquestioning silence.”

The manor house on the farm where Walter was a dairyman, which the narrator describes as resembling Manet's "Landhous in Rueil."

The manor house on the farm where Walter was a dairyman is described as resembling Manet’s “Landhaus in Rueil.”

The previously untold story of Walter Urban’s younger life begins immediately after this and becomes the novel, with only a brief paragraph of introduction, related to an underlined passage in the family Bible, “When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength…A fugitive and vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.” Walter’s own feeling of being a “fugitive and vagabond” may or may not have evolved from the events described here, but his son’s need to explain how and why he thinks his father became so withdrawn, and his ability to see into his father’s psyche is so important to him that that readers will believe every word. Walter is seventeen as the story of his life opens, as recreated here by his son after his death, and what Walter has heard on “enemy stations” on the radio has convinced him that the war is nearly over. Working with him at the dairy farm is his close friend, Fiete Caroli, an eighteen-year-old who is his opposite. Fiete takes chances, drinks to excess, plays around with girls, and is dedicated to having as much fun as possible.

As he looks for his father's grave, he must use a damaged BMW R5 motorcycle, instead of a car.

As he looks for his father’s grave, Walter must use a damaged BMW R75 motorcycle, instead of a car.

At the community hall one evening, a heavily scarred, one-armed German SS officer stands up and makes a speech, bullying “everyone who loves his family and his native soil and who can hold a rifle…to join the victorious Waffen-SS. We owe that to our heroes at the front.” Now drunk on the beer supplied by the officer, Fiete decides to enlist, and he drags Walter with him, both of them believing that the war “will probably be over before we’ve finished training.” They have no training, and soon they are on their way to Budapest to fight. Fiete will be on the front lines, and Walter, who has a driver’s license, is assigned to a supply unit. Almost immediately, Walter and his unit arrive at a farm at which the owners and workers are tied up, ready to be hanged, supposedly for being partisans. Walter stands up for them on the grounds that these are the “nice people” who had provided a place for him and others to spend the night the previous night, but to no avail. He is “handled” by the officer who tells him to “Stop your opera singing! You’re inches away from crying…Partisans, Jews, who cares?” and the hangings begin. As the convoy continues toward Budapest, the sadism of the German officers becomes more pronounced as the futility of the German position becomes more obvious. When Walter has a chance to talk with an influential officer to ask for permission to look for the grave of his father, who has been killed in action in one of the many towns they are passing through, he is granted three days as a reward for a favor he has done.

As he searches for his father's grave on the way back to his rural home, Walter takes time to see a recent movie, ROMANCE IN A MINOR KEY, a film based on Guy de Maupassant's short story, "Les Bijoux."

As he searches for his father’s grave on the way back to his rural home, Walter takes time to see a recent movie, ROMANCE IN A MINOR KEY, a film based on Guy de Maupassant’s short story, “Les Bijoux.”

While exploring nearby towns looking for his father’s grave, he discovers that Fiete is in the basement of one building, under lock and key. He has deserted, and is awaiting punishment. From here on, everything happens at warp speed, and Walter returns to his unit.   Some information comes from home via letters which still manage to find him, and the terrain and the towns become more familiar as Walter and his unit get closer home. Along the way, they explore places they know, even escaping to a popular film, at one point. The action moves increasingly fast and becomes more abbreviated in description, the closer Walter gets to the dairy farm where he lived and worked. He expresses his inner thoughts less often, noticeably removing himself from activity, thereby preserving what is left of his sanity. An Epilogue from Walter’s son, the author of the “memoir,” brings the themes of life and death, innocence and guilt, responsibility and accountability, and power and futility to their climax. This powerful novel wastes no words, much like Walter himself.  Superb!

When Walter gets to Essen, near his home, he discovers that the Synagogue has hardly been touched by the war, "and one might have been tempted to think of something like mercy, a protecting power."

When Walter gets to Essen, near his home, he discovers that the Synagogue has hardly been touched by the war, “and one might have been tempted to think of something like mercy, a protecting power.”

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.gettyimages.co.uk/

Monet’s “Landhaus in Rueil,” described as similar to the manor house where Walter works as a dairyman is from  https://commons.wikimedia.org

A damaged BMW R75 motorcycle is the only vehicle that Walter has available to use as he searches for the burial place of his father, killed in the war in one of the towns through which he is traveling. http://i.imgur.com/

Walter and friends, still teenagers, see a recent German film as they travel back to their homes near the end of the war.  “Romance in a Minor Key” is described as Kautner’s best film of the period and is an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s short story, “Les Bijoux.”  https://letterboxd.com/film/romance-in-a-minor-key/

To Die in Spring
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Germany, Historical, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Ralf Rothmann
Published by: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Date Published: 08/29/2017
ISBN: 978-0374278144
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

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