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“I crawled out of the bush away from the window and I began to run.  My only safety lay in flight.  If I had stopped I’d howl.  I knew I must not stop.  The thing was in my gut.  In my parched, in my constricted throat.  Humped raw cringing wounded to death.  I’d howl into the night.  Affrighting these houses.  These well kept lawns.  These softly polished pianos.” – Asher

cover end of meIn this opening sentence from the approximately three hundred words of the first episode of this 1968 classic, author Alfred Hayes, reveals his immense talents in creating characters and dramatic scenes in as few words as possible.  A successful screenwriter, TV writer, novelist, and poet throughout the mid-twentieth century, Hayes establishes the current life circumstances of the as-yet-unnamed main character, going straight to the point regarding the state of the man’s marriage, his refusal to recognize that reality, his feelings of failure at work, and his fears of getting old, upon which he blames all his problems. Spying on his wife through the window of their house outside of Hollywood late at night, the man realizes, “I was finished.”  The next day, when his wife is gone, he goes to the house, packs up everything he thinks he will need in New York, and leaves, his parting shot to his wife being that he turns on every light inside and outside the house. “The house blazed.  It was utterly illuminated.”  And when the taxi arrives to take him to the airport, he is waiting “in the blazing house [which] I left glaring there among all the dark or the quietly lit houses in the neighborhood….I was alone.  I had abandoned everything,” though the fully lighted house certainly made a statement to the neighbors.

tom moody burial

“The Burial of Tom Moody,” an engraving by Christian Rosenberg, 1831. To see full picture, click on photo.

That night, in the suite he has secured at a hotel near Central Park, he notes an English hunting print on the wall, and it is here that the author shows some of his own film experience, recreating a brief but vivid portrait of Tom Moody, the “Whipper-In” of a hunt club who has just died, a scene of burial stimulated by a print by Christian Rosenberg in 1831, which is hanging on the wall of the narrator’s hotel room.  Here the speaker/narrator illustrates unmistakable parallels between himself and the characters in the print as Tom, the hunter, is buried.  The narrator, whom we later learn is named Asher, describes the print in detail, noting that six “earthstoppers” dressed in green are the pallbearers, that the man’s white horse features the tail of the last fox Tom Moody hunted, displayed above its head, and that Tom Moody’s whip, cap and boots are bound to his horse in display.  One of his dogs straggles behind the horse, and a woman weeps.  He wonders if Tom Moody had ever “Fled?  Hidden?” Or felt “finished,” and if he had ever crouched at a window and seen a lover unhook the “silvan brassiere?” of the woman he once loved.  Slowly taking heart at being in New York, the narrator observes that he has given this city thirty-five years of his life and “Surely, what was broken in me, the crippled sense of myself, would be restored. I’d heal among these brutal angles….“I’d convalesce in her indifferent arms.”

A darbuka, used at the performance by bellydancers, is played by a seated performer.

A darbouka, used at the performance by bellydancers, is played from the lap of a seated performer when Asher, Michael, and Aurora go to dinner.

The remainder of the novel takes place in New York, as he walks around his old neighborhood, notes all the changes that have taken place – the buildings razed, the excavation going on – and he thinks about the number of people he knew there who have died.  Then he visits his Aunt Dora, and the real narrative begins.  The speaker, eventually identified as “Asher,” is a screenwriter who no longer finds work in Hollywood, but Aunt Dora does not know that, still regarding him as “their famous man,” with his picture on display.  He does not disabuse her of that as she brings him up to date on the family, and he quickly learns that Dora’s daughter, who is fifty -one, like him, is not around much now.  Her son Michael Bey, now twenty-six, is very much present, and he wants to be a writer.  Aunt Dora encourages Asher to offer Michael some help.

This oud, may be the "fretless lute" to which Asher refers at the bellydance.

The “blind lute,” a fretless stringed instrument used at the bellydancing, may have referred to an oud.

When Asher and Michael visit, however, the meeting is a disaster, with Asher deciding that Michael is defiant and showily ambitious, with “flat jeering looks,” and Michael treating Asher with contempt.  A second visit, in which Asher feels more comfortable, begins with Michael bringing a girl, Aurora D’Amore, with him, a girl who lives on the “old East Side, the old smelly East Side.” Beginning with dinner at a Japanese restaurant, they later go, at Aurora’s suggestion, to see belly-dancers in a dilapidated building, a clip joint, in which even the potted palms are fakes. Soraya of Istanbul, the star, lures Asher into giving her a kiss on her jeweled belly, and he recognizes that she is making a fool of him but does not back off.

One game played by Michael and Aurora involves putting together an anatomical model of a woman.

One game played by Michael and Aurora involves putting together an anatomical model of a woman.

The next day Asher meets with Michael and hires Michael to take him on a walking tour of his youthful past in New York, hoping, perhaps, to make some real connection to Michael, and, as the style shifts into stream of consciousness and free verse, Asher remembers some of his female conquests from the past.  Michael shifts the balance of the relationship when he gives Asher a packet of his own poems to read. Asher is far from impressed by the erotic content, which “seemed to be the one elementary good in [Michael’s] uncontrollable world,” and when, in response to Michael’s question the next day on how he liked the poems, his response is that he found them “interesting.” The scene is effectively set for what follows, a close-up study of Asher, Aurora, and Michael, what they stand for, how they behave, the games that they play (real and psychological), and what the future bodes for each.

Author Alfred Hayes (1911-1985)

Author Alfred Hayes (1911-1985)

A closer look at Asher’s marriage and breakup with his wife evolves in the later part of the novel, and the reader and Michael and Aurora begin to become more familiar with him.  Always, however, the reader’s perception of others comes from Asher himself.  He has had little experience dealing with devious people; screenwriting and filming follow predictable protocols.  Real life with two ambitious young people providing your “entertainment” is something else.  Neither of them is who Asher thinks s/he is.  Each quarrels with Asher at times and each plays games – both real and psychological.  Ultimately, as Asher describes for the reader the exact nature of his breakup with his wife, the reader sees him still trying desperately to connect with Michael and Aurora. Ultimately, Asher belatedly reaches conclusions about himself – as does the reader of this dark and dramatic novel of a very late coming-of-age.

ALSO by Alfred Hayes:  THE GIRL ON THE VIA FLAMINIA (1949),     IN LOVE (1953),      MY FACE FOR THE WORLD TO SEE (1958)

Photos.  The “Burial of Tom Moody,” engraved by Christian Rosenberg, fascinated the speaker when he saw it in his NY hotel room shortly after leaving Hollywood.  To enlarge for detail, click here:  https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1939-0714-14

The darbouka played at the belly dance the speaker attends with Michael and Aurora may have resembled this one.  https://www.dreamstime.com

The “blind lute,” a fretless stringed instrument, may have referred to an oud:  https://www.muzikkon.com

“The Visible Woman,” a 1960s anatomical game played by Michael and Aurora, is from https://www.etsy.com

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

THE END OF ME
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Classic Novel, Literary, Psychological Study, Social Issues, United States.
Written by: Alfred Hayes
Published by: NYRB Classics
Date Published: 06/09/2020
ISBN: 978-1681374338
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“When I was a girl, I was told that if I misbehaved, the man with the sack would come for me.  All disobedient children disappeared into that wicked old man’s bottomless dark sack.  But rather than frighten me, the story piqued my curiosity.  I secretly wanted to meet the man, open his sack climb into it, see the disappeared children, and get to the heart of the terrible mystery.”

The nacover twilight zonerrator of The Twilight Zone, Nona Fernández’s latest novel, admits to having been transfixed as a child by a man who was a soldier, torturer, murderer, and willing supporter of a military regime that repressed all dissent. She had seen his picture on the cover of the magazine Cauce on August 27, 1984, when she was thirteen, a magazine that “belonged to everybody, passed from hand to hand among my classmates.”  The testimonies of victims and their families were accompanied by diagrams and drawings that “looked like something out of a book from the Middle Ages,” and the speaker admits that she often dreamed about this soldier-murderer, haunted and perplexed by his story of making people disappear.  An intelligence agent for the Chilean military during the presidency of Augusto Pinochet (1974 – 1990), the soldier finally reached his breaking point, unable to withstand the horrors of his job any longer.  Presenting himself to a reporter for Cauce, he told his story in “pages and pages of details about what he had done, including names, descriptions of torture methods, and accounts of his many missions.”  To the thirteen-year-old narrator, “He didn’t seem like a monster or an evil giant, or some psychopath…The man who tortured people could have been anybody.  Even our teacher.”

Augusto Pinochet, ruler of Chile from 1974 - 1990.

Augusto Pinochet, ruler of Chile from 1974 – 1990.

Twenty-five years later, when the former student is working as a scriptwriter for a television series, she “re-enter[s] that dark zone.”  The people with whom she is working on a documentary have managed to secure an interview with “the man who tortured people” after he secretly reentered the country to appear in court and present evidence against himself and the rule of Augusto Pinochet, years earlier.  This move shocked the French ministers who had been guaranteeing his safety overseas during the intervening years, but he came anyway.  The speaker, now an adult, wants to know more about the torturer’s story, one that began over thirty years ago, and she is still wondering whose screams she hears in her head even now, where the images come from, and if there is a “fine line that separates collective dreams?”  Finally she imagines writing to him, announcing that she is a woman who wants to “look into the sack” and find out more about his life during Pinochet’s rule, learn how much of that life was forced upon him, and what, if anything, he did because he let himself be persuaded to do so.  Confused about whether she would have run away from all the killing if she had been in his place, she imagines him, gives him a face, and decides that he could actually have been her father, uncle, the corner grocer, the mechanic next door, or even her science teacher.   

Photo of Andrée Antonio Valenzuela Morales, which appeared on the cover of Cauce, magazine, August 27, 1984

Photo of Andrés Antonio Valenzuela Morales, which appeared on the cover of Cauce, magazine, August 27, 1984

From this point, the novel takes off, circling through time, revisiting long-buried events, recreating the people who lost their lives, and imagining the long-term effects of the crimes.  The author herself lived through these times, and it is clear from the feelings she reveals here that she herself knew people who were “disappeared” for their “crimes.”  She is also a consummate author, however, always conveying her response to the events from the point of view of the child – and later, teenager – she was at the time when the horrors were part of her daily life.  Now, a generation later, she is the mother of a young son, and she still hugs him tight when he leaves for school, “secretly panicked that I might never see him again.”  Through this point of view, she reconstructs the Weibel Barahona household of 1976.  José Weibel Barahona, a member of the Communist Party, knows he is being watched, and he and his wife are planning to escape from their house and move somewhere else.  On the day when they move, they are distracted and don’t see “the man who tortured people.”  That man, the soldier Andrés Antonio Valenzuela Morales, is sitting on a bus with them, with a hidden radio transmitter, communicating with vehicles following the bus.  When the bus stops, José disappears, one of the approximately three thousand citizens who suddenly vanish forever during this fraught time.

Twilight Zone Col. Adam Cook: Rod Serling’s “Probe 7, Over and Out” introduces us to Colonel Adam Cook, whose spacecraft has crashed into an unknown planet.

Twilight Zone Col. Adam Cook: Rod Serling’s “Probe 7, Over and Out” introduces us to Colonel Adam Cook, whose spacecraft has crashed into an unknown planet.

One way Fernández brings the young people and the times to plausible life is by including the television programs so popular with the narrator during the times of the horrors.  Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” is a particular favorite when the speaker is a child, and in her mind, the action on that TV program is as “normal” as the action in her everyday life. The Twilight Zone story of Colonel Cook, a space traveler, is a favorite.  Cook “has to make an emergency landing on an unknown planet a million miles from his point of departure.”  He has broken bones and cuts, and his spaceship is destroyed.  Messages sent home begging for rescue are useless.  No one can come save him, and he is alone, now facing the loneliness that makes the “twilight zone” a fearsome fate.  In another Twilight Zone episode, a man can change his face whenever he needs to.  For those in Chile in the 1970s, he might have been a municipal employee, a peasant, a policeman or a “savage agent,” willing to “torture or turn in his loved ones” – yet another parallel to the realities of life in those times.  Even the innocent Smurfs have their day within this highly charged atmosphere of torture and killing.

author Fernandez,_Nona_-FILSA_20181106_fRF11With the numbers of political horrors building slowly throughout, Nona Fernández creates an unforgettable story of characters who become real for the reader, at the same time that they exist within the context of the speaker’s own youthful life and its aftermath.  Much of this novel feels clearly autobiographical, the details of the speaker’s life often emphasizing the ironies in what is happening in the wider world, be it the TV shows from Twilight Zone and Brain Games, or music like the theme song from Ghostbusters, and the Billy Joel song, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”  All but one of the major sections in the novel end with a poetic soliloquy by “the man who tortured people,” Andrés Valenzuela.  The last section, however, includes a dark, elegiac letter from the speaker to that man, a dramatic conclusion which suggests that perhaps the narrator, who often appears to be the author herself, is putting her own memories to rest, at last. Or not.

ALSO by Fernandez:  SPACE INVADERS

A red Chevy Chevette with a past history takes the speaker and some friends to school one day.

A red Chevy Chevette with a past history takes the speaker and some friends to school one day.

Photos: The photo of Augusto Pinochet, leader of Chile from 1974 – 1990, appears on https://ticotimes.net

Andrés Antonio Valenzuela Morales, “the man who tortured people,” gave his story of regrets to a reporter for Cauce magazine and appeared on the cover:  http://www.nerudanobel.info

A particularly memorable episode of Twilight Zone featured Col. Adam Cook:   Colonel Adam Cook, whose spacecraft has crashed into an unknown planet, leaving him stranded in space.  Rod Serling’s “Probe 7, Over and Out.”    http://mylifeintheshadowofthetwilightzone.blogspot.com

The author’s photo is from https://en.wikipedia.org

A red Chevy Chevette features briefly in Space Invaders and again in this novel, as the speaker finds herself riding to school in it with friends after it has been used to transport several people to their deaths. https://www.vwvortex.com

THE TWILIGHT ZONE
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Autobiography/Memoir, Historical, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Nona Fernandez
Published by: Graywolf Press
Date Published: 03/16/2021
ISBN: 978-1644450475
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Beatriz Bracher–ANTONIO

Note:  Beatriz Bracher has been WINNER of both the Sao Paulo Prize for Literature and the Rio Prize for Literature.

“This isn’t a beautifully intricate novel in which your mother is the hero and I’m the character who picks up the pieces of her broken love.  No, Benjamim, the story of our lives still isn’t finished, and it never will be.  Creating this space for your mother, this narrative for your father and your grandfather, as though nothing had transpired between one Benjamin and the next, or as though it had only been an echo, a gap, a void between lost love and its reencounter—that’s rather poor….We’re not literature, my dear.”—Raul, who refers to himself as a “professional plagiarist and ghostwriter.”

31Gqo-wyToL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_In this complex and compressed experimental novel, Brazilian author Beatriz Bracher conveys the secrets and innermost connections of the Kremz family as they live their lives over the course of four generations.  Benjamim, addressed in the opening quotation, is the second member of his immediate family to have borne that name – the previous Benjamim, his uncle, having died under circumstances traumatic for the family.  Benjamim has never learned all the details of his uncle’s death.  All he knows is that it affected those he loved in major ways.  Since many of these family members have now passed away, Benjamim has decided to ask family friends who were close to the events and to the people involved to tell him the story of the other Benjamin, to help him understand how his own life might have been different if the lives of those closest to him had been different.  Helping him learn about the past and its effects on later events are Isabel, his grandmother, who is still active and important in much of this story; Haroldo, a lawyer, who was the best friend of his grandfather, Xavier; and Raul, a writer who was a classmate and friend of Teodoro, Benjamim’s father.  Each has a different slant on the events, the nature of the men who have dominated the action, and the questions in the younger Benjamim’s life.

This Butanta house may have been similar to the Xavier inherited from his parents.

This Butanta house may have been similar to the one Xavier inherited from his parents.

The chapters alternate among the three narrators, with the time periods and the locations also changing as Benjamim seeks answers.  As the novel opens, Raul, his father Teo’s friend and one of the narrators, is describing a common statement of Teo, who, whenever asked how many siblings he has, always says, “There are five of us, but one died,” brushing off any further questions on the grounds that “the child died as a baby.”  Teo and Raul have been close during their childhood years and have had great fun playing in Teo’s family house in Butantã, a western area of São Paulo which had developed many modernist buildings during the era of his grandfather, a doctor,  from whom the family inherited the house.  Finances are something of a problem in Teo’s family, however.  Xavier, Teo’s father, is a journalist, and, over time, he seems to have exhausted his inheritance;  Isabel, Teo’s mother, works as a teacher to help out.  Still the house is deteriorating and is “sort of like a bunker.”  Life with Xavier, however, has been exciting, according to his wife:  “He could turn anything into a gag or a joke, including his own failures,” but eventually, he became “serious,” something that scared the children.  It is a confession of Xavier to his son Teo during one of those serious times that becomes a flash point, seeming to dominate much of Teo’s life, just as it did much of Xavier’s life.

As a teen, Teo chose to become a farm worker and move to the counryside.

As a teen, Teo chose to become a farm worker and move to the counryside.

Teo had once shared with Raul an important admission his father had made – that he, Xavier, “would always be – before all else – the father of this dead boy, his son Benjamim dos Santos Kremz,” the predecessor of Teo’s son, Benjamin.  Friend Raul, who became a writer, then learns that the first Benjamim was the baby of Xavier and Elenir, a fifteen-year-old, not Teo’s grandmother Isabel, and that the birth and death of the infant Benjamim was actually “the story of [his father’s] rebirth, the birth of Xavier the adult, the real Xavier, a delivery in which Xavier the boy had to die.”  For Teo, the youngest son of the father’s later family, “It  was like we’d taken [baby] Benjamim’s place, without anybody ever saying his name in our home.  But in my father’s heart he loomed larger than us all…dead, but alive whenever my father looks at any of us, or at anyone else.”

2

Ipê tree, where Teo had a special moment as a child.

Many other family surprises are in store for Benjamim, Teo, and the family as the novel progresses in its seemingly random order by time, and their relationships become clearer.  Xavier and Teo both have psychological problems, emphasized by their hospitalizations, even against their will, and some powerful episodes follow, including deaths of major characters.  Other well-developed episodes include Teo’s abandonment of his parents for a non-academic life as an agricultural worker in Cipó; his grandmother Isabel’s decision to go to college when her children by Xavier are still young; the beginning of the dictatorship in Brazil;  the story of the birth of the second Benjamim; and Teo’s relationship with Benjamim’s mother.  These fill the narrative and, in most cases, illustrate that  “the past [is] once more denied, erased.”  In a revelatory scene Teo sits under an ipê tree and remembers a scene from when he was a six-year-old school child, waiting for his mother come pick him up at school.  He is alone except for a a woman sweeping, when he makes the “stupendous” discovery that “It’s not only a difference of perception….things remain the same without our presence.”

Author Beatriz Bracher

Author Beatriz Bracher

In a great, but understandable, irony, author Beatriz Bracher entitles this novel Antonio, honoring the unborn child expected by Benjamim, and marking the beginning of a new generation.  Antonio is the only member of the family who has no past, a clean slate on which his father Benjamim will have an effect. Mentioned casually by Isabel at the not-quite halfway point of the novel, Antonio remains undeveloped.  Isabel has learned the hard way that one can never predict how an individual will behave over his lifetime, given that every individual is always subject to his/her past, and the past is always different for each of the participants, even when they share the same events.  Author Beatrtiz Bracher has written a complex narrative of relationships, not just on the personal level, but also on the level of family, generations, class, and history.

Photos.  Paolo Mendes da Rocha, one of Brazil”s great architects of the 1950 – 1970 era and onward built this Butanta house in 1964, and it may have resembled that of the Kremz family when Teo and Raul were children.  https://www.pinterest.com

Teo disappeared into the rural fields of Cipó when he was a late teenager, working as a farm worker:  https://www.alamy.com

Teo has a revelatory moment as a child sitting under an ipê tree outside his school. http://tropical.theferns.info

The author’s photo appears on https://filmow.com/beatriz-bracher

ANTONIO
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Literary, Experimental, Psychological Study, Social and Political Issues.
Written by: Beatriz Bracher
Published by: New Directions
Date Published: 03/02/2021
ISBN: 978-0811227384
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“She took her place on the ledge, spreading her arms a little way to steady herself, and it was only then – sensing its intimate scatter against her knuckles – that she remembered the snow.  It was everywhere, when she lifted her face, falling now with soft insistence.  It felt tender almost, like a final kindness, and when the moment came it was not like falling at all.”  – Esther Tull

51Goxy5mEIL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_In a novel which defies genre, written in a style which feels like a cross between Wilkie Collins and Bram Stoker, Irish author Paraic O’Donnell creates a complex mystery set in London in the late nineteenth century.  Fun to read, often humorous, just as often mysterious or violent, and filled with vibrant description of all kinds, The House on Vesper Sands stands out for its uniqueness among all recently released novels for the year. Providing gothic thrills at the same time that it also creates an intense picture of Victorian spiritualism, ghostly manifestations, and changing church practices, it is structured as a formal religious Requiem from 1893, consisting of six parts, including the Requiem Aeternam (a Mass for the Dead), Kyrie (a prayer asking “Lord, Have Mercy”), and Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) through the Lux Perpetua (Eternal Light), the title of the short last section and epilogue.  The narrative itself quietly parallels the deep feelings suggested by a Requiem, but at the same time it features ironies and elements of humor which will provide some hearty laughs.  And always, always, the author remembers that his primary goal with this novel is to entertain.

Mayfair in the snow.

Mayfair in the snow.

Divided into three subplots, all of which eventually connect, the novel begins in elegant Mayfair with the dramatic scene quoted at the opening of this review.  Esther Tull, a seamstress in extreme pain from having cut her torso and embroidered important information on it, believes that suicide is her only way out, and by cutting a message on her body she hopes to be at peace upon her death.  Every day she has worked many hours sewing in Lord Strythe’s Mayfair residence under the supervision of his staff, all of whom have information about her past that has kept her toiling with almost no pay or time off.  The second plot features Gideon Bliss, a young man and orphan whose guardian uncle, a “reverend doctor,” is paying for him to attend Cambridge University, though the two have had almost no contact and barely know each other.  Gideon has no money and no real home, and when classes are not in session, he sometimes has to sleep in churches and go without food.  On one evening, when he goes into St. Anne’s Church to get out of the cold, he finds an unmoving woman, Angela Tatton, prostrate in front of the altar, obviously very ill.  Angela believes “They’ll be here soon…It’s too late for me,” but he does not understand her whispers.  He does recognize that she works for his uncle, and he thinks he may see “brightness” around her, but suddenly all that changes – he finds everything going dark around him.  When he awakens, she is gone.

Tessie Reynolds, a late Victorian cycling athlete on whom Octavia may have been modeled.

Tessie Reynolds, a late Victorian cycling athlete on whom Octavia may have been modeled.  From www.sheilahanlon.com

The third plot, one that provides a good deal of amusement, stars Octavia Hillingdon, a writer who rides a bicycle all over London in pursuit of her stories which focus largely on women.  Bold and confident, she is on her way to an all-male social club to contact someone who might publish some of her writing.  On her way, she notes the headlines of the latest newspaper:  “Spiriters feared abroad once more.” Suddenly, her own eyesight dims and she fears she is passing out as she reads that another young girl has disappeared.  Later, at a party at Ashenden House, she meets Charles Elphinstone, the Marquess of Hartington, who serves in the House of Commons and from whom she learns that Lord Strythe is also missing.

St. Anne's Church, where Gideon finds Angela Tatton. This church was destroyed by bombs during World War II.

St. Anne’s Church, where Gideon finds Angela Tatton. This church was destroyed by bombs during World War II.

As can be seen here in this brief summary of the first few pages, author O’Donnell presents separate plot lines, but he is careful to create clear connections among them throughout the novel, even in these opening sections.  The missing Lord Strythe in the “Octavia plot,” the third plot, is the person for whom the first woman, Esther Tull, is working when she jumps to her death from the top floor of his Mayfair house.  Angela Tatton, almost unconscious at St. Anne’s Church when Gideon Bliss discovers her, is an orphan whom Gideon’s uncle, Reverend Doctor Herbert Neuilly, has been particularly interested in saving from a terrible life, a woman Gideon knew and liked in the time before his uncle’s circumstances “changed.”  The visions that bicycle-riding Octavia sometimes sees, are not unlike those of orphan Angela, though their lives are very different.  In a case of extreme coincidence, a policeman, Detective Inspector Cutter, who answers the door of the address where Gideon’s uncle, Rev. Neuilly, is supposed to be living, thinks Gideon is an underling sent to help him with his police work, even when Gideon refers to his studies at Cambridge.  Since Gideon needs work and food, he goes along with the pretense that he is working for the police, doing this work conscientiously, and eventually becoming the anchor of the novel.

Author Paraic O'Donnell

Author Paraic O’Donnell

The action throughout the novel is nonstop, and some characters who seem to be normal, or nearly so, at the beginning, become more and more absurd as time goes on.  Additional young women disappear, and ghostly apparitions appear.   Some people who are thought dead prove to be very much alive, and no one is guaranteed to be who the reader thinks s/he is.   At various times, people appear to be drugged or intoxicated, some visit mediums for relief, some attend spiritualist gatherings, and some speak in other voices.  Most alarmingly, still others appear to become translucent before they begin to disappear – piece by piece.  The climax occurs when several of the more “reliable” characters go to Vesper Sands, the place which Lord Strythe has considered “home,” and the action – every piece of it – is resolved.  The “spiritualist” aspects never overwhelm the sense that the characters are “real,” and the occult scenes are especially fun to read, primarily because they are so often witty and drily humorous. For all the seeming wildness and lack of control, author O’Donnell has planned every detail, making this book a unique and welcome relief in a time in which real life is crazy enough.

Gideon's guardian impresses him as young man when he "prepares a live specimen" for mounting, presenting him with a "puzzle he was not yet equipped to solve."

Peacock butterfly

Photos.  Mayfair in the snow is from https://www.alamy.com

Tessie Reynolds, a late Victorian cycling athlete on whom Octavia may have been modeled, appears on http://www.sheilahanlon.com

St. Anne’s Church in London, where Gideon finds Angela Tatton, was destroyed by bombs during World War II.  https://www.pinterest.com

The author’s photo is from https://www.independent.ie

Rev. Neuilly, Gideon’s guardian, impresses him as young man when he prepares a live peacock butterfly for mounting, presenting Gideon with a “puzzle he was not yet equipped to solve.”  https://en.wikipedia.org

THE HOUSE ON VESPER SANDS
REVIEW. PHOTOS. England, Experimental, Historical, Ireland and Northern Ireland, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Paraic O'Donnell
Published by: Tin House
Date Published: 01/12/2021
ISBN: 978-1951142247
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

Julia Alvarez–AFTERLIFE

Note:  AFTERLIFE was declared a Best Book of 2020 by Kirkus Reviews, the Washington Independent Review of Books, and many other review sites.

“Can you help me find him?/  a new life awaiting her / Can you help me find him? a mystery she cannot by any means solve / nevertheless, she keeps asking / Where are you? / as this is the only way she knows / Can you help me find him/ ? how to create an afterlife for him/

cover alvarez afterlifeIntroducing the event which begins all the physical and emotional action of Afterlife, author Julia Alvarez shows devoted wife Antonia waiting for her husband Sam, who has been dying alone of a heart attack in the minutes that she has been waiting to join him at a restaurant.  And when she finally receives word of his passing, her primary focus is on how to create an afterlife for him, something that will enable her to relive memories and past events with him.  She tries to keep to her routines in rural Vermont, where she lives, “walking the narrow path through the loss, not allowing her thoughts to stray,” but in the middle of the night, “she finds herself at the outer edge where, in the old maps, the world drops off, and beyond is terra incognita, sea serpents, and the Leviathan.”  Her nearest neighbor, Roger, offers to help her clear the gutters of her house, and soon she is visited by Mario, a young, undocumented worker from Mexico who works on Roger’s farm.  Since Antonia is a native of the Dominican Republic who immigrated as a child, she can speak with Mario easily, and when he finishes clearing the gutters, he asks for a favor – Will she please help him call his girlfriend who is now in the US but far away from him?

Ricardo Chub-Bo, 40, and his daughter Rosa Maria, 14, from Poptun in El Petun department, Guatemala, board the Greyhound bus they will take to Albuquerqe before their three-day journey through the United States to Philadelphia on January 3, 2019 in Dona Ana, New Mexico. - They spent eight days in migration detention and were released with a group of about 20 Central American migrants to the Basilica of San Albino in Mesilla, New Mexico, which provided them hospitality the night of their release. Ricardo relies on his daughter to help read letters and numbers, while she relies on him to communicate in Spanish, as she still isnt used to speaking it. The two speak to each other in their mother tongue of K'iche', a Maya language spoken in the central highlands of Guatemala. The church had provided them with a piece of paper that asks for help finding the connection in English and a phone number to call if they need help. For them, luckily, they ran into another group of Guatemalans going on the same bus, which they could team up with in case they had trouble. (Photo by Paul Ratje / AFP) (Photo credit should read PAUL RATJE/AFP via Getty Images)

The “coyote” hired to bring Estela to Vermont refuses to put her on the bus without more money. (Photo by PAUL RATJE/AFP via Getty Images)

Developing her themes of love and loss in life and death as they affect Antonia, Julia Alvarez, originally from the Dominican Republic, creates several subplots involving other characters, all reflecting powerful emotions without descending into sentimentality or maudlin self-analysis.  Mario, his girlfriend Estela, and José, his fellow worker on Roger’s farm, are one plot, dealing with the problems of illegal immigrants desperate to create new lives in the US.  The second plot line revolves around a get-together of Antonia and her three sisters at a BnB in Massachusetts to celebrate her birthday. The failure of sister Izzy to appear for the celebration, as promised, becomes the all-consuming issue for the other sisters for many days, and the need for Antonia to be present as they and the police all search for Izzy force her to be out of state at a time when some of the issues involving Mario and his undocumented girlfriend back in Vermont are becoming critical. Despite all the money Mario has sent to the “coyote” who was supposed to bring her to Vermont, Estela was left in the South, penniless and pregnant.  Abandonment, betrayal, the sadness of loss, anger, the recognition that there is a difference between acting from a sense of obligation and acting by choice, and the personal growth which enables characters to tell the difference further develop the original themes of love and loss and flesh out this dramatic and sensitive novel.

Trailer home of Mario and Jose on Roger's farm.

Trailer home of Mario and Jose on Roger’s farm.

Though loss by death is the loss felt most powerfully by Antonia at the beginning of the novel, other losses faced by other characters teach her much about dealing with the aftereffects as she works to become a whole person again.  Always, she is thinking about the Afterlife and what it means.  When Antonia returns home temporarily from the sisters’ “reunion,” with sister Izzy still missing, she is shocked to find that Estela, Mario’s now ex-girlfriend, is sleeping in her garage.  As Antonia tries to arrange for a place for Estela to stay, Roger, the farmer next door, is also facing difficulties.  Mario and José live in a trailer on his property, but no one wants Estela there.  Estella is only seventeen, and her situation (and homeowner Roger’s) will become even more complicated if the Immigration authorities discover her presence.  When a local policeman tips off Antonia regarding a possible raid about to happen in their town, Antonia is on high alert, particularly nervous when someone suggests that she act as an  “emergency guardian” to Estela.

The Open Door health clinic in rural Vermont, where Antonia finds help for Estela.

The Open Door Clinic in rural Vermont, where Antonia finds help for Estela.

With the on-going situation with her missing sister Izzy still a priority for Antonia, she slowly reaches a point at which she realizes that she cannot do it all.  With Estela’s baby due any minute, she seeks necessary help with that issue at a clinic run by a doctor friend of her husband Sam, gaining a bit of much needed breathing room.  Eventually, the situation with Izzy, too, reaches a conclusion, allowing Antonia some time to recover from Sam’s death and try to get her own life in order.  It is refreshing for the reader to discover that despite all the emergencies and trauma Antonia has faced, first, regarding her own life;  secondly, through the lives of Mario, Estela, and the baby; and, finally, through the complexities of her family life with Izzy and her other two sisters, that she is strong enough to power through on her own.  She recognizes what she can and cannot do, and she does not hesitate to say no now when it seems to her to be the best answer.  She is working toward helping those she knows but recognizes that it is her responsibility to take care of herself, too.

Kintsugi

Kintsugi

The resolution, after all the tensions and traumas that Antonia has faced, feels absolutely right – no wildly improbable decisions by Antonia, no sudden twists of fate, and no new elements added to the on-going stories.  When she makes her biggest decision, she asks herself, “What is the right thing to do? The certainty is not there.  What lies beyond the narrow path, the nibble, the sip, where the dragons be?”  The Epilogue, which takes place at the end of the summer, provides a fuller answer.  Antonia is taking a course in kintsugi, “A Japanese repair technique.”  Here her Zen teacher deliberately breaks a plate, sweeps up the pieces, and then reassembles the plate, repairing it with a combination of lacquer and gold powder, as the class meditates.  Antonia closes her eyes, and sees that “All the things she is breaking…are being reassembled, a painter’s brush correcting her errors, the lines of repair showing up as lines in poems and stories she has loved, evidence of the damage done.”  The damage has been “made visible,” and it is beautiful.

alvarez_news

Author Julia Alvarez

Photos:  The young girl trying to get on the bus is from https://www.mediaite.com  Photo credit: PAUL RATJE/AFP via Getty Images)

The trailer on Roger’s farm where Mario and Jose live in hiding may have resembled this one: https://www.shoppok.com

The Open Door Clinic:  https://vtdigger.org

Kintsugi art:  https://wam.umn.edu

Author photo:  http://www.middlebury.edu

AFTERLIFE
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Julia Alvarez
Published by: Algonquin Books
Date Published: 04/07/2020
ISBN: 978-1643750255
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

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