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Asja Bakić–MARS

“Death loves other people.  It’s not concerned solely with itself.  It collects names, faces, human destinies, and gladly reads them.  Fine, I thought, I will write about myself.  And throw in a little about them; let everything be saccharine and romanticized, in the pastel shades of their underwear.  But when I got down to writing, it became clear that I didn’t know how to write sappy stories.  I wrote how I thought, and my thoughts were explosive.”  From “Day Trip to Durmitor.”

cover marsThough the thoughts in this quotation belong to the main character of “Day Trip to Durmitor,” a writer, they could just as easily be those of the author, Asja Bakić, whose thoughts, as shown in this debut collection of stories, are, indeed, “explosive.”  In what is the most excitingly creative and unusual group of stories I have read in many years, Bosnian author Asja Bakić not only captured my attention totally, but kept it through several readings of her ten stories – so much so that I could sit down and reread the entire collection right now and still find new ideas and new sparkle to enliven my day and my reading life.  Translator Jennifer Zoble obviously plays a strong role, too, in making these stories feel bright, lively, often humorous, always ironic, and bursting with life, however different Bakić’s characters may be from anything a reader has encountered before.  Zoble’s contribution is so smooth and feels so comfortable that it is as if she is channeling the author in a direct line to the reader.  It is no surprise to discover that Zoble, the translator, is also an author, and Bakić, the author, is also a translator.  Together they provide a perfect match for these unique stories.

Bosnian author Asja Bakic, who now lives in Croatia, in her debut novel.

Bosnian author Asja Bakić, who now lives in Croatia.  This is her debut work.

In Bakić’s first story, “Day Trip to Durmitor,” for example, a young woman is greeted by identical twin secretaries, Tristesa and Zubrowska, immediately after her own death, and she is astonished that the afterlife is completely different from what she expected.  There is no “pervasive melancholy” shown by the two secretaries “who could only be distinguished by the color of their underwear.  When the speaker wants to know where God is, she is rebuked, told that she “can’t champion atheism and then play cards with the Lord when you die.”  In other words, “God slipped in the tub.”  Soon the speaker finds that her head is growing.  Before long, it resembles an expensive egg from the era of Czar Nicholas II.  The twins want her to use her increased brain size to write a book of stories, and if they like them, they will then guide her on to “Phase II.” 

When the author in the first story goes to Osren on a school overnight at the age of six, she terrifies her classmates with her night-time stories of witches and monsters.

When the author in the first story goes to Ozren on a school overnight at the age of six, she terrifies her classmates with her night-time stories of witches and monsters.

Writing about herself and the writing life, the speaker gets to work on her assignment, remembering how her creative life started with an overnight school trip to Ozren, a mountain in northern Bosnia, when she was six.  She loved making the other girls scream when they were on the verge of sleep by telling stories about witches and monsters.  The speaker now recognizes that “literature is the primary link between life and death,” and that the twins are collecting the best writing of all time about death, hoping to use the manuscripts for a big ceremonial fire that will “allow the dead to walk among the living.”  When the speaker is magically sucked out of the celestial place where she has been writing, she lands on earth at Devil’s Lake Durmitor in Montenegro and sees her own reflection – as a non-human. The sudden ending, like the endings of other stories in the collection, leave the reader wanting more, anxious to keep reading to see if some of the answers to the obvious questions will be revealed. 

Devil's Lake Durmitor, in Montenegro is where the main character lands when she finishes her stories for the "secretaries" of the afterworld.

Devil’s Lake Durmitor, in Montenegro is where the main character lands when she finishes her stories for the “secretaries” of the afterworld.

Bakić, with so much content within her writing, avoids the easy labeling so common to other stories that involve the supernatural, fantasy worlds, and science fiction.  She does not belong to any of those genre, despite the superficialities her work may share with them.  Bakić keeps her intellectual focus on the philosophical aspects, but she also allows her seemingly limitless energy and spirit free rein, her abundant humor and sense of irony adding a sense of fun to what might otherwise feel like very “serious” reading.  Where else might one be reading a story about the afterlife in which the main character and a male friend argue about ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus just before the speaker is whisked from the room and lands on earth as a whole new life form?

Zola's THE BELLY OF PARIS is a book that starving people do not want burned. Its descriptions of food are so vibrant that they have kept the hungry alive with their imagery.

Zola’s THE BELLY OF PARIS is a book that the starving people on earth do not want burned. Its descriptions of food are so vibrant that they have kept the hungry alive with their imagery.

A long list of other topics and plot twists keep the reader engrossed and fascinated by the author’s approach to life and writing.  Hidden treasure, the sexual preoccupations of children, a grandfather’s collection of pornography, a well-digger who is a forest monster, a body covered in lichen, and a speaker who is also a murderer all appear in this collection.  A robot who comes to life, a character with the same name as the author, who has been cloned four times, and people who live with a green spirit add further interest.  Literary references add depth to some stories.  A writer who regards herself as Medea appears, and a starving, impoverished family who plans to “go West” – to Senegal – is forced to burn their books to stay alive, though the children particularly fear the burning of Zola’s book The Belly of Paris, because the description of foods in that book has helped them through some of their hungriest times.

life on Mars

Writers on earth who continue to write and support a free press are exiled to Mars and their work is destroyed.

The final story involves a person who is in exile on Mars but who returns to her home on earth secretly for a few days to reconnect.  Those on Mars are writers who are being erased from earth’s historical record, and books themselves are illegal.  Authors can be saved from exile only if they promise never to write another word. All of the earth’s literature, regarded as “refuse,” has been shipped to the Red Planet, and writing has been proclaimed the greatest evil to have befallen humankind.”  Worst of all, the most rabid anti-literature zealots on earth are the same people who were once the world’s most passionate readers.  Occasionally, the new residents of Mars are able to persuade smugglers from earth to bring in some special requests, paying them in books.  Then the speaker finds a book called Mars, which tells what happens to earth in the future, involving a magic “curved” substance and an anti-literary spirit there.  Life on Mars, lacking the Moon and its phases, which the speaker regards as responsible for “the entire weight of my humanity, my volatility, and mutable nature,” not to mention her literary creativity, means that Mars, with its two tiny moons, is not a substitute for earth.  The author leaves all resolution hanging here, a suitable ending for a collection which is a never-ending source of inspiration, excitement, and thoughtful commentary about today’s world, both real and literary – a collection which truly deserves the label of “unique.” 

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on http://www.media.ba/bs/

The picture of Ozren, where the main character goes on a school trip and terrifies her schoolmates with the stories of witches and monsters, is from https://mapcarta.com/

The Devil’s Lake Durmitor in Montenegro may be found on https://www.pinterest.com

The artwork for Emile Zola’s The Belly of Paris appears on the Oxford University Classics edition of Zola’s book, available on Amazon and other book sites

Life on Mars, as shown in this novel, is depicted here:  https://fsmedia.imgix.net/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Imagined Time, Literary, Social and Political Issues, Speculative Fiction
Written by: Asja Bakić
Published by: Feminist Press at CUNY
Date Published: 03/12/2019
ISBN: 978-1936932481
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“My father was killed on a spring night four years ago, while I sat in the corner booth of a new bistro in Oakland.  Whenever I think about that moment, these two contradictory images come to me: my father struggling for breath on the cracked asphalt, and me drinking champagne with my roommate, Margo.  We were celebrating because Margo had received a grant from the Jerome Foundation…her second big commission that year.” – Nora Guerraoui, primary speaker.

cover laila lalami other americansWith an opening as dramatic as this one by author Laila Lalami, any reader could be excused for thinking that this novel might be a well-described, classic whodunit.  While the novel does contain a search for the culprit in what appears to be an intentional, hit-and-run killing of an immigrant who has just closed up his cafe and walked across the parking lot to his car, it would do this intense, character-based novel a disservice to reduce it to such a cliched summary.  The reader soon learns that at the moment when Driss Guerraoui is killed by a car, his daughter Nora is at a bistro in Oakland drinking champagne to celebrate her roommate’s success as a composer. Nora herself is hoping for similar success.  When the phone call from home interrupts their celebration, she cannot believe the news, but somehow “a bag is packed,” and she drives from Oakland home to the Mojave, dreaming up alternative explanations for the news – maybe the body was misidentified, maybe the hospital mixed up some records.  When she arrives at home, it is difficult for her to believe that her father is not there in the house.  He still feels present “in the half-empty packet of Marlboros on the windowsill, the frayed slippers under the coffee table, the tooth marks on the pencil that stuck out from the book of crossword puzzles.”   The armchair where he usually sits “still bore the imprint of his body.”  She is puzzled by the questions being asked by the detective who arrives, and she has no interest in whether her father used drugs, had money troubles, gambled, or had any enemies.  She wants to know who was driving, how they hit him, why they fled.

author laila lalamiAs the main character here, Nora will spend several weeks trying to find out the answers to these questions, getting to know everyone with whom her father had contact and his history of problems with one of the neighbors of his cafe.  Nora’s own friendships from her school days, newly ignited, and her difficulties with some members of her own family are also explored.  As the novel gets underway, over a dozen characters from varied backgrounds regularly share their points of view, speaking directly to the reader about their lives, about the Mohave Desert community where they live, and about their relationships with each other.  The victim and his family, who provide the primary points of view, are Muslims from Morocco – the victim, Driss, commenting on his marriage and his business, and, incidentally, his atheism; his wife Maryam, a traditional Muslim woman whose idea it was to escape Casablanca as soon as the riots and threats of revolution began there in 1981;  his free-thinking daughter Nora, a musician and composer studying in Oakland, California, hoping to earn a live performance in a music festival; and his daughter Salma, a dentist who adheres to a traditional Muslim point of view and lifestyle.

At the Rose Hills Cemetery where Driss was buried, the lawn sloped into a valley, all of it a deep shade of green, in spite of the drought.

At the Rose Hills Cemetery where Driss was buried, the lawn sloped into a valley, all of it a deep shade of green, in spite of the drought.

The first non-family character to provide a primary point of view is Jeremy Gorecki, a Marine veteran of the Iraq War and former high school admirer of Nora, a detective who is investigating this case.  Another early character is Efrain, an immigrant from Mexico who was riding his bike home from work and became an unwilling witness to the crash.  Efrain, who works as a carpet cleaner by day and laundry washer for a motel at night, is an illegal alien who has two children born in the US.  He tells the reader that “Everything I did was for them.  Or didn’t do, you might say.”  He convinces himself that he didn’t see what he saw and does not know if the car was white or silver, its make, or model.  “All I saw was a man falling to the ground.”  Racial and cultural prejudice is part of life here, and it does show itself, often accidentally.  Lalami, however, does not use her novel to castigate the community and, by extension, her silent readers.  She simply presents the facts and leaves it up to the reader to draw conclusions – and when Lalami presents the facts, they are so vividly presented that no reader can fail to be moved by them.

When Jeremy and Nora were high school students they went on a field trip with their class. Nora loved the Frank Gehry-designed Disney Hall; Jeremy thought it a "monstrosity."

When Jeremy Gorecki and Nora were high school students they went on a field trip with their class. Nora loved the Frank Gehry-designed Disney Hall; Jeremy thought it a “monstrosity.”

Over a dozen characters give additional insights into their own lives and backgrounds while also revealing ordinary life in the Mojave community.  A large number of characters is often a warning sign that a reader might have difficulty keeping track of them all, but that is not the case here.  Moroccan author Laila Lalami creates memorable, often unique, characters whose lives vibrantly reflect not only their personalities and cultures but also the times in which they are living.  Soon after the novel begins, many readers will become so engrossed by the unfolding personalities and the special insights they shed on each other that they feel as if they are coming to know these characters personally as the characters make unforgettable, individual marks on the action.  While Marine veteran Jeremy Gorecki is doing well, despite the horrors of war, his fellow Marine and friend Fierro has found that his civilian life is an unpredictable series of disasters.  Detective Erica Coleman, an African-American mother who is working this case, must deal with hidden racism in the community; and a local person who eventually admits to having accidentally struck and killed the victim, is convincingly portrayed as someone who did not recognize the horror of that night.

The setting is in the Mohave, with references to Joshua Tree Park throughout.

The setting is in the Mohave, with references to Joshua Tree Park throughout.

Gradually, the reader becomes part of the lives of these and other characters, and when Nora, who is recovering from a failed relationship with a married man at the university in California, becomes interested in one of the characters here, the growing love story adds interest and emotion to the novel.  Raw racism, which also appears here, is presented in a way which causes the reader to feel sad and disappointed, rather than outraged, a result of the fact that author Lalami has presented the characters as people, not as symbols to be rejected automatically.  As the action continues into the months following the death of Driss, all the major characters learn and come to new and sometimes unexpected, conclusions, a rare event in many other contemporary novels.  The final outcomes for many of them will please and reward the thoughtful reader of this well developed and thought-provoking novel.  High on my Favorites list for 2019.

Photos.  The author’s photo is from http://www.lyceumagency.com

The Rose Hills Cemetery photo appears on http://bayercemeterybrokers.com

Disney Hall, designed by architect Frank Gehry, was the site of a field trip for Jeremy Gorecki and Nora Guerraoui when they were in high school.  She loved its design.  He thought it a “monstrosity.”  https://www.latimes.com

Set in the Mohave, the novel makes many references to Joshua Tree Park.  https://allhdwallpapers.com/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Literary, Morocco, Social and Political Issues, United States, Mohave, Morocco
Written by: Laila Lalami
Published by: Pantheon Books
Date Published: 03/26/2019
ISBN: 978-1524747152
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“Every [Sunday], the morning of my one day off plays out the same way. ‘There’s milk, sliced bread, whatever you want, just help yourself,’ I tell her, not opening my eyes.  The lull that follows allows me to drop trustingly off again until my daughter breaks into more tears.  I spilled the milk.  I wet my pants.  The glass broke…Reluctantly I sit up. [It is almost noon.]…There is a pool of milk, glints of broken glass, a scattering of toys on the floor.  Her finger is bleeding….”

cover territory of lightIn her first novel to be translated into English, Yuko Tsushima (1947 – 2016), an author who has won every prize imaginable in her native Japan, shows the spirit which has made her work so honored in her own country.  A divorced, single mother whose own father, a writer, died when she was a year old, author Tsushima grew up with her mother, was educated, married, had a child, divorced, and then learned, first-hand, what it was like to be the sole bread-winner in a society which rewarded men far more often than women.  Independent and determined, Tsushima challenged the social norms and achieved great renown for her writing, often using her own experiences as starting points for her stories and novels.  This novel, published originally in 1978 – 1979, focuses on a married mother seeking a divorce.  The unnamed main character and her daughter, only two years old as the novel opens, face very real problems with day-to-day life, in addition to agonizing emotional problems which the woman ignorantly creates for herself and her child.  Focused on her own emotional needs, she has shared so little one-on-one time with her child that she does not recognize that the child, who, at age two, is not much older than a baby, has very real and important needs, too.  Seeming to believe that if she herself gets what she wants and finds some happiness that her attitude will also spill over and make her two-year-old happy, she is, throughout the novel, closed off from her child, whose whole life is spent with her grandmother (the speaker’s mother), in daycare, or with her own mother on Sundays, her mother’s one day of “time off” from her full-time job.

Author Yuko Tsushima

Author Yuko Tsushima

The novel begins when the mother and child have found an “ideal” place to live, the fourth floor of a commercial building with shops and offices on the first two floors, an empty third floor, and their apartment on the top floor, which also has access to the roof.  Big windows supply the place with plenty of light, a feature which the mother sees as symbolic of her new life, and which explains the novel’s title.  Living close to the edge financially and personally, the mother simply closes herself off when anything unpleasant threatens to interfere with her life, and when a tenant from a downstairs office complains about the sound of running water which may be leaking from her apartment, she makes a cursory check, sees no water in her own place, and ignores it – until the next day when her floor is wet, the roof has a huge puddle, and the tenant below has a disaster.  Her daughter, however, loves their new “rooftop sea,” and her mother soon joins her there in one of the few experiences which they share with each other – for fun.

Japanese zelkova tree, a variety of elm.

Japanese zelkova tree, a variety of elm, which transfixes the mother at a local park.

Shortly afterwards, on a Sunday, she and her daughter go to a local park, and the mother becomes totally obsessed by the zelkova trees, while her child, who has been virtually alone and untended all morning, is impatient for a new activity and anxious to explore.  Insensitive, the mother cannot pull herself away from the trees, and the daughter finally gets beyond frustrated.  A tantrum ensues, and the mother, frustrated that her daughter seems to think everything is all her mother’s fault, resorts to violence, inspiring the child to take off on her own, and leaving the mother to wonder, “Why were children the only ones who ever got to melt down?”  She dillydallies before seriously looking for her child, wondering, instead, about why she cannot make herself get up before noon on Sundays, about a woman at the park whose son attends the same nursery school and is having problems, all while she could be looking for her child. When she finally finds the child, some time later, they return home, the mother seeming to take the experience of her lost child as just another day.

Nyasa lovebirds appear in a dream to the young mother, who is being harrassed by her husband.

Nyasa lovebirds appear in a dream to the young mother, who is being harassed by her husband.

A series of dreams adds additional insights into the mother’s psyche and high drama to the action.  The mother has no problem leaving her sleeping child alone at home at night while she goes out, not an unusual event.  She gets drunk and becomes the victim of physical abuse, all while her young daughter is asleep at home.  Soon she begins to notice that her daughter, who has just turned three, is throwing toys and possessions out the window of their apartment, colorfully decorating the roof below and creating both a personal and, eventually, a neighborhood crisis.  Other disasters also occur. The mother has frightening dreams about her child, her husband unexpectedly takes the child from daycare one afternoon, and one of the children at daycare dies at home.  Two people die in a fire, and her three-year-old reportedly threatens an infant at daycare with scissors.  The action is non-stop domestic activity, including potential disasters complicating the life of the little girl, now three years old.  The mother sees changes in the child but believes that it is because the child has finally become “keenly alive.”

The mother and child enjoy the idesea tree, with its red berries and its leaves not long after the train hits a suicide.

The mother and child enjoy the idesia tree, with its red berries and its leaves, not long after a suicide takes place on the train route.

The novel consists of twelve chapters, published in Japan in monthly installments between April, 1978, and March, 1979, and the reader is able to see changes in both the mother and child over the course of the year.  One issue which a contemporary female reader may have with this book, despite its sensitive writing and thoughtful psychological study of a mother who is not part of the Japanese mainstream, is the question of the mother’s treatment of the young three-year-old and the stated behavior of this child, which often feels more characteristic of a child closer to seven or eight years old than two or three years old.  In addition, a reader cannot help but wonder how much of the behavior of this mother and child is characteristic of Japanese society in general in the late 1970s and how much is aberrant.  The life of the mother as a child herself is a mystery here, so her lack of identification with her child is never really explained, leaving the reasons for her emotional coldness a mystery.  Beautifully translated by Geraldine Harcourt, with some stunning passages related to nature – the one subject about which the mother seems to feel strongly –  the novel is filled with thoughtful symbolism which does not intrude, and intense, emotional scenes which will wring the hearts of the many mothers and fathers who read it.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on http://www.desfemmes.fr/

The Japanese zelkova tree, a variety of elm, completely obsesses the mother when she first arrives at the park she will share with her daughter.  https://www.alamy.com

Nyasa lovebirds appear in a dream to the young mother, who is being harrassed by her husband.  https://www.hbw.com/

The mother and child enjoy the idesia tree, with its red berries and its leaves, not long after a train hits a suicide. http://auckland-west.co.nz

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, Japan, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Yuko Tsushima
Published by: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Date Published: 02/12/2019
ISBN: 978-0374273217
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

“Francis broke into their circle with his plate of food.  They were talking about the Tampa [a container ship which has picked up 433 refugees].  Suddenly everyone is an expert on boat people.  Everyone.  Pass the plate.  Of course we came by boats, too.  Can I have one of those toothpicks? But it was a different kind of boat.  A serviette?…We shouldn’t let any more in….  Can you go get me a beer, son?” – Bob, from across the road, in 2001.

51E0ahdzwrL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_Australian author Felicity Castagna focuses here on general immigration issues facing Australia, much like immigration issues here in the US.  Without taking sides, the author depicts two successive generations of the Martone family which itself came to Australia from “outside” – in their case, from Calabria in the toe of Italy.  In the Preface, the author sets the time in 1967, and the Australian Prime Minister has recently disappeared while swimming.  No trace of him has ever been found, the author implying later that the many rescued refugees on the Tampa in 2001 would have met that same fate if they had not been rescued from their sinking ship.  In this somewhat awkward introduction to the novel,  Antonio Martone, a recent immigrant, is further described as standing in his new home in 1967, outside of Sydney, thinking about how his future has materialized.  Looking from 1967 into Antonio’s future in 2001, the author then informs the reader, that Antonio “is not yet the Antonio Martone who becomes so famous for a brief moment in [future] history when his own existential crisis coincides with that of a nation that can not decide whether to admit a Norwegian container ship named the MV Tampa and its cargo of four hundred thirty-three refugees who had escaped a sinking ship.”

The MV Tampa, a container ship, rescued 433 refugees from their sinking ship. Photo by Remi Jouan

The MV Tampa, a container ship, rescued 433 refugees from their sinking ship. Photo by Remi Jouan

In another brief flash forward, the author also reminds the reader of the September 11, 2001, crash of two planes into the Twin Towers in New York City, a terrorist event seemingly unconnected to the immigration problem here, and tells us that Australian photos of Antonio holding a gun and staring blankly from Australian newscasts occurred between the Tampa event on August 26, 2001, and the Twin Towers event on September 11, 2001. By this time Martone is an old man, in the news for the first time.  After this confusing introduction set in two time periods, the real “action,” begins in Chapter 1 on August 31, 2001, in Sydney, about a week after the Tampa crisis began.  Francis, Antonio’s bricklayer son, is fending off questions from everyone about his father’s bizarre behavior at a very recent but undescribed event.

Refugees sit on deck of the Tampa,surrounded by shipping containers.

Refugees sit on deck of the Tampa, surrounded by shipping containers.

Antonio is, at this time, about sixty and unemployed, the result of a construction accident which has left him on crutches, with one leg and one arm almost useless.  His close friend Nico died in the accident, an event which has dominated Antonio’s life because Nico’s death involved two immigrants who may not have done their jobs properly at the construction site. Rose, Antonio’s wife, is keeping an eye on Antonio, who seems to be losing his grip on reality.  Antonio, however, has no clue that Rose is a real, thinking person with her own ideas, despite the fact that she has lived apart from him for two years.  Son Francis and his pals, Jesus and Charbel, all in their early twenties, are, as usual, out on the town getting drunk, trying to escape their daily lives, which gradually unfold, and Claire, Antonio and Rose’s daughter, is working in a bookshop while pretending to be teaching.  The Tampa connection is frail to non-existent, thematically, in the early parts of the novel as author Castagna establishes the identities of the key characters.

Nissen huts where the first generation of refugees lived in the 1960s.

Nissen huts where the first generation of Australian refugees, like Antonio, lived in the 1960s.

As the reader learns the background and history of all the main characters over the past thirty years, s/he sees how they have become the people they are.  Most of the older generation here in 2001 are immigrants who have adapted to their new lives in Australia through hard work, while the second generation has known no other home and has grown up with much more freedom of choice.  When the cultural differences between the generations are added to the usual mix of problems between parents and children, the divide between the generations becomes exceptionally large.  Antonio does not understand either of his children, nor does he realize that their lives are governed by the society in which they now live, different from his own background and culture.  He explains, “You grieve for your children from the moment they are born. Not so much because you have lost them but because they are always changing and you can’t get back all those different versions of what they once were.”  In addition, his old friends, are still working, while he can no longer work, and he does not see them very often.  He feel alone, rejected.

Protests for and against the admission of the 433 Tampa refugees into Australia occurred in many cities.

Protests for and against the admission of the 433 Tampa refugees into Australia occurred in many cities.

A man who obviously reacts to events emotionally, rather than one who thinks out his choices, his decision to act publicly in response to what he sees as the current immigration crisis is not surprising, nor is the reaction from his family.  Rose is aware that “he was beginning to crack some time ago, but now he was splitting wide open.”  He believes he has lost his two children, in addition to  friend Nico, his coterie of other friends, and his wife, and he becomes obsessed with the news he sees on television about the Tampa refugees wanting to land, an eventuality with which he can no longer cope.  A failed attempt to reconnect with his son adds to Antonio’s misery, just as Rose’s inability to reconnect with daughter Clare adds a sad note.

Author Felicity Castagna was a finalist for the Miles Franklin Award, Australia's most prestigious, for NO MORE BOATS.

Author Felicity Castagna was a finalist for the Miles Franklin Award, Australia’s most prestigious, for NO MORE BOATS.

Those looking for a detailed story about immigration and/or the Norwegian container ship, the MV Tampa, with its four hundred thirty-three refugees will find little information about that in this novel.  No More Boats focuses firmly on the views and lives of those refugees and their families already in Australia as Australia deals with the social emergency caused by this ship’s recent arrival in Australian waters.  The long saga of the Tampa (see link)  is so complicated and involves so many other governments and territories that it is easy to see why the author has avoided delving into it to any degree, while the references to 9/11 and the Twin Towers disaster feel gratuitous.  The novel has much to recommend it, in terms of its sensitivity to successive generations of immigrants and the changes which make their lives so different from the lives of their parents.  The characterizations feel real and honest.  If  the thematic emphasis, time line, and publicity had focused more on the idea of change within the immigrant community as they consider the issues of the Tampa refugees, omitting references to the 9/11 horrors, the novel would have felt more coherent, thematically.

PHOTOS.  The MV Tampa, a container ship, rescued 433 refugees from their sinking ship. Photo by Remi Jouan.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/

The refugees on the Tampa spent most of their time sitting on the deck of the container ship, awaiting admission to a new country. https://newsroom.unsw.edu.au/

Nissen huts provided housing for the first generation of Australian refugees, like Antonio, in the 1960s.  http://www.abc.net.au/

Antonio gets caught up in the emotionalism of the controversy surrounding the possible admission of the 433 refugees on the Tampa.  https://www.greenleft.org.au/

Author Felicity Castagna was a finalist for the Miles Franklin Award, Australia’s most prestigious, for No More Boatshttp://bellingenwritersfestival.com.au/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Australia, Historical, Social and Political Issues, Tampa
Written by: Felicity Campagna
Published by: Europa
Date Published: 02/26/2019
ISBN: 978-1609455095
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Tanguy Viel–ARTICLE 353

“Nobody wants to fall overboard fully clothed into the ocean anywhere in the world, even close to shore – it’s such a surprise for the body to find itself in this new element.  One moment, the man is on a bench in a boat, chatting at the stern rail while rigging his lines and the next he’s in another world, with gallons of salt water, numbing cold, and the weight of wet clothes making it hard to swim.”

cover article 353With this opening paragraph, author Tanguy Viel is off and running with a propulsive story which never lets down and never quits until the last possible moment, when its ending comes as a relief or an irony to the involved reader.  Set in Finistere, a depressed waterfront community in Brittany in the late 1990s, a man stands before a judge, trying to explain how and why he has killed another man aboard that man’s own Merry Fisher boat, and then returned home to await the inevitable arrival of the local police a few hours later.  When he sees them arriving, he cannot help but admit that he “wouldn’t have done anything different…I would have done the same thing, heaved Antoine Lazenec overboard the same way and brought the boat back in the same way, following the channel to the yacht harbor while respecting the green and red buoys like railroad signals…”  The killer, Martial Kermeur, is anxious to set the record straight, and he is impressed that this judge is “thirty, at most” and really seems to want to hear him out.  In descriptive and involving prose, Kermeur describes his thoughts – “no they weren’t thoughts, images maybe…still whirling around…as if I were a cormorant aloft on a shifting breeze, scanning the sea for a tiny shadow or glint that would justify my diving to catch something, anything, so long as it was a place to begin….” And then suddenly, he sees the whole picture and begins:  “It’s about a run-of-the-mill swindle, Your Honor, that’s all.”

Author Tanguy Viel.

Author Tanguy Viel.

Establishing the background of his isolated community for the reader (since the judge would, of course, already know it), Martial Kermeur states his belief that if the town had been bigger and more connected to the real world, that they would have recognized the victim, Antoine Lazenec, for what he truly was, a swindler.  Lazenec’s arrival in his cream-colored Porsche 911 was “like a hand reaching out to pull us from the waves,” and his big plans to buy the local chateau and the land around it and develop it are an exciting possibility for the five thousand “somewhat tired” people living on the peninsula where “heaven’s been hard on us for a long time.”  More than eighty percent of the workers at the large Arsenal shipyard have, in fact, been laid off in the past three years, and no new businesses have taken its place.  With good layoff bonuses for the former workers, many “guys who look too young to be retired” have become fishermen with their own boats.  Kermeur has become a caretaker for the estate of the chateau, living there in his own cottage, but he dreams of having his own Merry Fisher boat some day.  Lazenec’s arrival with his big plans comes at a time when some of the former shipyard workers still have layoff bonuses to spend, perhaps participating in the action of the new “seaside resort.”

The 1990 Polestar 911 Porsche, the car which Lazenec used upon his arrival at Finistere.

The 1990 Polestar 911 Porsche, the car which Lazenec used upon his arrival at Finistere.

All this information is revealed in the first thirty pages of this novella, and it is from this point on that many readers will become so involved with the characters and the predicament of Kermeur and others in the community that they will read the entire book nonstop.  I have quoted more here than I usually do in reviews to give a sense of the author’s intensely involving use of detail, especially in making Kermeur feel real and likable despite his obvious crime.  Kermeur, of course, in addition to being caught up in some action beyond his control, is also a weak man, often convincing himself to give in when that seems to be the easiest choice.  When he is flattered by Lazenec, who builds him up when talking about the future of the building project “at maturity,” Kermeur admits “something in me was swelling with pride or, I don’t know, sovereignty,” as Lazenec continues to plant seeds in his brain about the future.  Ultimately, Kermeur admits, “It was as if the captain who was supposed to be living with me in my brain had abandoned the ship even before the wreck began.   Maybe he was on some distant rock, his eyes wild….”  Still, Kermeur remains a sympathetic character because he is so vulnerable, so hopeful, and so desperate for respect within his family and his community, a combination rife with potential disaster.

The Merry Fisher, the boat which all the former workers at the Arsenal Shipyard wanted to buy with their layoff bonuses.

The Merry Fisher, the boat which all the former workers at the Arsenal Shipyard wanted to buy with their layoff bonuses.

Kermeur’s late awareness of both Lazenec’s manipulations combined with his own feelings of powerlessness in the face of Lazenec’s effects on the community at large, stimulate empathy in the reader, despite the fact that the story line itself verges on sentimentality and sometimes feels over-written.  The fast pacing and the careful use of flashbacks to release background material, which effectively increase the drama as the novel progresses, keep the reader totally involved and focused on the progression of the inevitable disaster. The dramatic tension increases as the reader becomes aware of the book’s almost allegorical parallels with some current, well-known scams and scammers.  And as the fallout from Lazenec’s “business plan” affects more and more citizens, the situation begins to sound like contemporary TV news with all its headlines.  Viel cleverly keeps the story and its characters paramount, however, and leaves it to the reader to draw the obvious, wider conclusions, as individuals whom the readers comes to know become – naively – more and more entangled in the horrors which ultimately affect their lives.  As the killer, Kermeur, and the judge confront each other from different points of view, the reader cannot help but think of some of these parallels and “what-ifs” on a larger scale than the limited setting of this book.

The spectre of jail dominates much of the action and the lives of some of the characters here.

The specter of jail dominates much of the action and the lives of some of the characters here.

The conclusion will be celebrated by some readers and reviled by others.  Author Viel has created an absorbing and honest look at a situation with, perhaps, no “right” answer, at least not one which will satisfy all readers.  The best aspect of Viel’s writing is that he ends the book at exactly the right time, keeping it short and pertinent, and not expanding into all the what-ifs which some authors insist on.  His descriptive style and ability to create memorable images should make this one of the favorites of international fiction fans and a huge hit with book clubs throughout the country.

Photos.  The author photo appears on https://www.lairedu.fr

The 1990 Polestar 911 Porsche, the car which Lazenec used upon his arrival at Finistere, was a sign that Lazenec was not like all the people in Finistere which he was trying to impress.  https://www.automobilesreview.com/

Many of the laid off workers from the Arsenal worked to purchase a Merry Widow boat for use as a fishing boat as a way to support their families.  https://www.sea-ventures.co.uk/

The specter of jail dominates much of the action and the lives of some of the characters here.  http://clipart-library.com/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, France, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Tanguy Viel
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 03/12/2019
ISBN: 978-1590519332
Available in: Ebook Paperback

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