Feed on

Jon McGregor–RESERVOIR 13

Note: Jon McGregor was WINNER of the IMPAC Dublin Award for EVEN THE DOGS (2012), at age thirty-six. He is also WINNER also of both the Somerset Maugham Prize and Betty Trask Awards.

“The missing girl’s name was Rebecca Shaw. When last seen she’d been wearing a white hooded top. A mist hung low across the moor and the ground was frozen hard. [Searchers] were given instructions and then they moved off, their boots crunching on the stiffened ground and their tracks fading behind them as the heather sprang back into shape. She was five feet tall, with dark blond hair. She had been missing for hours.”

cover reservoir On a New Year’s Eve in rural England, one would expect the cold to keep most people inside doing their celebrating, but Becky Shaw, a thirteen-year-old whose family has come to town for the holiday, has decided to go out. Leaving one of the “barn conversions” in the village, where she is staying, she suddenly vanishes. At dusk, her family comes running into town, shouting for help, and by the time the New Year is ushered in, a helicopter has been out searching for hours. The mountain-rescue teams, the cave teams, much of the village, and the police have found nothing, and a “thick band of rain [i]s coming in.” No one stands outside to watch the fireworks going up from nearby towns, and on the moor “there are flags [already] marking where the parents said they’d walked.” Divers are already searching the nearby reservoirs, and journalists and television crews have arrived. Within a week “the first snowdrops emerged along the verges past the cricket ground, though it seemed winter yet had a way to go.” No trace of Becky Shaw has been found.


Jon McGregor celebrates his IMPAC Dublin Award for EVEN THE DOGS in 2012.

With this dramatic opening, British/Bermudian author Jon McGregor paves the way for his primary story – the more internal, domestic activity which accompanies the search for Becky Shaw. The whole town is involved in trying to find her, but as time passes without any clues, her disappearance gradually becomes a backstory to the life which continues within the community, a story which features many characters each of whom is trying to make a living and find happiness, despite sometimes ominous odds. The vicar asks the police to keep the media away from the special service that she plans to hold for Becky and the community, reminding parishioners that there is really no comfort for anyone directly affected by the disappearance, that the goal of the service is instead to allow them to be uplifted by faith and enabled to help Becky’s family. The longer Becky is missing, the more involved the community becomes in their own lives. The local school children, Becky’s age, react as thirteen-year-olds might be expected to act, thinking first about their own needs and regarding Becky’s disappearance as a sad “story,” not quite real.

A buzzard builds a nest and draws the attention of the narrator. Note how different it is from an American buzzard.

A buzzard builds a nest and draws the attention of the narrator. Note how different it is from an American buzzard.

Month by month, the investigation proceeds, including reconstructions with actors, a search for a red LDV Pilot van, and continued general searches, to no avail. Gradually, the townspeople return to their own problems. The owner of the van, once discovered, has a shady background, leading some to fear that he might be connected with big crime, and that any statements they make regarding the van’s owner might leave them subject to serious reprisals. Several people see Becky in dreams. Her father is constantly searching for her, and her mother is out walking the moors regularly, until the father decides to return to London, while the mother remains in the village. Some of the teenagers themselves decide one night to do their own search inside a mine, only to get lost on the way out and arrive home very late, to the fury of their frightened parents.

The pretty little fieldfare appears regularly in the imagery of the moors and woods here.

The pretty little fieldfare appears regularly in the imagery of the moors and woods here.

Nature and the life of a farm community become the major focus of the novel, as the lambing season gets underway and the cattle is taken out to pasture. Everyday life has its demands and responsibilities, and everyday observations are included in paragraphs which casually juxtapose ominous notes about characters against the ordinary: “Dawn was a way off yet, and wet when it arrived. Jackson had a stroke and was taken to the hospital and for weeks it was assumed he wouldn’t be coming home.” Strokes, of course, are also part of life, not even deserving a separate paragraph here. Still, each year on New Year’s Eve, Becky’s plight surges back into the community’s consciousness, as everyone speculates about what she would look like, where she may have been, whether or not she is still alive, and even whether anyone in town might be holding secrets.

A badger in his sett, an animal which lives a communal life, featured here in several scenes.

A badger in his sett, an animal which lives a communal life, is featured here in several scenes.

Love stories blossom: Sally Fletcher, married to Brian Fletcher, finds herself drawn to National Park Ranger Graham Thorpe after a “butterfly safari” on which she is the only participant. A couple, long barren, suddenly find themselves pregnant with twins, their care eventually creating personal problems regarding the mother’s work at the BBC. A local man, long absent from the community, returns to spend some time with his mother and wants to reconnect with his girlfriend from high school, now a widow. One couple separates, moves, then reconnects. Another woman returns to live with her brother, hiding from the world, for unknown reasons. A new resident arrives with mysteries accompanying her, vague about where she is from and why she is moving in during the winter. One boy confesses to his parents that he knew Becky Shaw much better than anyone suspected. In the midst of events like these, a white top with hood, identical to what Becky was wearing when she disappeared, is found “in a clough on the top of the moor.”

A syrup made from rosehips is supposed to keep people from getting colds during the winter.

One character makes this elixir from rosehips to protect her family.  Because of its huge proportion of Vitamin C, it is supposed to keep people from getting colds during the winter.

Glorious descriptions of nature provide both irony and context for the lives of the characters here, as McGregor refuses to elevate humans and their lives above animals and their instincts. All animal life, he shows, is subject to unpredictable forces of nature, and no real symbolism is seen in his choice of animal imagery. American readers of this review will note that the buzzards mentioned several times here are quite different from those death-seekers with which we are familiar, resembling the red-tailed hawk more than the vulture-like creatures of the American west, and McGregor does not single them out as symbols any more than he does the pretty, little fieldfare, a bird resembling a more colorful sparrow. The badger has its own community, its sett, which may not be very different on the surface from any other small community including the town in which this action takes place. We are all connected, McGregor asserts. Some of us are just luckier than others. Sensitive and filled with the magnificence of nature, Reservoir 13 puts humans in their place within the animal kingdom while also showing how love can make our lives more bearable.

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo is from https://alchetron.com/

A pair of nesting buzzards is an image of renewal during one spring.  http://www.davidchapman.org.uk/

The little fieldfare plays its own role in the imagery here.  http://www.discoverwildlife.com

The badger in its sett lives a communal life and is featured in several scenes here.  http://www.davidchapman.org.uk/

An elixir made from rosehips is supposed to protect from colds during the winter due to its richness in Vitamin C. http://www.whatdadcooked.com

REVIEW. Bermuda, England, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Jon McGregor
Published by: Catapult
Date Published: 10/03/2017
ISBN: 978-1936787708
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“It was very hot that summer, and we were sure no one would find us there. In the afternoons we would walk along the embankment to the most crowded part of the beach. Then we would walk down the sand looking for a tiny place free where we could lie on our beach towels….We were like everyone else, there was nothing to set us apart from the others, those Sundays in August.”

cover sundays augustMost of Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano’s novels echo with memories of his own early life and his efforts to come to terms with his parents’ abandonment of him before he was even in his teens. This novel is different, however, unique, a stand-alone. Main character Jean is sensitive, observant, and emotionally free to love, as the main characters appear to be in most of Modiano’s other novels, but in this novel, the main character does not feel like a substitute for the author. Instead, Jean is a young, rather naïve young man, caught in circumstances that he regards as more of a mystery than the serious crime that readers may conclude it to be, a conundrum which he does not fully grasp. Jean is almost certainly a pawn in the hands of clever criminals, rather than the victim of childhood traumas which typify Modiano’s main characters in his other novels. The mystery here, which may even include murder, begins after the novel’s action has concluded offstage, as the opening lines of the novel set the scene seven years after the action has taken place. Flashbacks, reminiscences, and overlaps between the events from the past and events in the present take place as Jean and the reader are forced to consider what really happened, especially when some of the earlier characters suddenly reappear in the present.

Patrick Modiano at his Nobel Prize ceremony.

Patrick Modiano at his Nobel Prize ceremony.

As the novel opens, Jean is alone on the Riviera in Nice, a different environment from Paris, which becomes almost a character in most of Modiano’s other novels. Living in a furnished single room in a residential complex which was once the beautiful Hotel Majestic in Nice, Jean, a photographer, leads a relatively simple life, far different from the Riviera’s glitzy, often superficial activities designed to suit every desire and offer quick solutions for every impulse. The largely transient population creates an oddly shifting morality which makes absolute rules irrelevant in the party scene. Although seven years have passed, Jean remains haunted by events from his past, unable to reconcile his conflicting feelings about them. Then, suddenly, Jean sees a former acquaintance from seven years ago, Frederic Villecourt, on the street, selling elegant leather jackets and fur coats from the back of a van at “American [bargain] prices.” Within a few moments of connecting with Villecourt, Jean and the reader learn that a woman named Sylvia and Villecourt “weren’t actually married. My mother opposed the marriage….She would have cut me off if I had married Sylvia.” Though the background related to this declaration is not clear, at this point, the reader quickly learns that Jean had lived with and shared what he believed to be true love with Sylvia for many months after her time with Villecourt. He cannot understand why she lied to him about her marriage, even continuing to wear her “wedding” ring, insisting that she and Villecourt were married, nor can he believe Villecourt’s insistence that he himself was the only man that Sylvia ever really loved.

The former Majestic Hotel, converted to apartments and rooms, where Jean is living as the novel opens.

The former Majestic Hotel, converted to apartments and rooms, where Jean is living as the novel opens.

Soon another flashback describes the arrival of Sylvia by train in Nice, where Jean has finally found a quiet place for the two of them to live in a small pension. Her arrival is discreet – though discreet, perhaps, only by Riviera standards. Around her neck she is wearing the Southern Cross, a large and magnificent diamond with a storied past. First mentioned in histories as having been stolen from the countess du Barry in 1791, the Southern Cross was later sold in 1795, stolen again in 1917, again in 1943, and once more in 1944. Its owners had been guillotined, murdered, shot, and two had disappeared. The reader soon knows more about the history of this mysterious diamond, in fact, than about the main characters. It is this lack of specific knowledge and the emotional distance among these characters which dramatically increase the suspense, keeping the reader unclear about references and wanting to know more. How did Sylvia get the diamond, where did it come from, who is behind the financing, and what role will Jean play in its potential sale, are among many questions which are never answered directly. Gradually, as the flashbacks delve deeper and deeper into the events which have led to these mysteries, the reader begins to draw his/her own conclusions about characters and their possible motives.

To avoid crowds, Jean and Sylvia often spent time at the Jardin d'Alsace-Lorraine watching the children play at the playground.

To avoid crowds, Jean and Sylvia often spent time at the playground of the Jardin d’Alsace-Lorraine, watching the children play.

Halfway through the novel, as Jean and Sylvia are exploring their lives together in Nice, following a separation from the rest of the group, Jean declares that “I feel at ease [now] in this city of ghosts where time has stopped,” though he admits “that I have lost a certain resilience…I float like the other inhabitants of Nice.” Looking back at this time from seven years forward, he also sees that “we lurched this way and that to try to fight off the torpor overwhelming us. The only solid, consistent thing in our lives, the sole inalterable point of reference, was the diamond. Had it brought us bad luck?” Slowly, the outside world becomes more persistent in invading the lives that Jean and Sylvia have been guarding, and the need to sell the Southern Cross, becomes more immediate. A potential buyer has been located.

The iconic Negresco Hotel, where Jean meets some characters at the bar, looms over the Promenade des Anglais.

The iconic Negresco Hotel, where Jean meets some characters at the bar, looms over the Promenade des Anglais.

Though the reader knows from the opening of the book, seven years after the events, that Jean is not a winner, nor is Villecourt, who is selling jackets and coats, mysteries still remain, even at the end of the novel, and it is up to the reader to draw conclusions. The atmosphere throughout is “blurry,” as one critic described it, filled with a sense of loss and big questions about life and the immediate past, present, and future. As the novel swirls, incorporating a broad sense of time, rather than a clear beginning, middle, and end, its “conclusion” feels tentative, reflecting the mysteries not only of the novel’s action but of Jean himself and his relationships. Anxiety rules here, and as Jean says, near the end, “our anxiety didn’t come from our contact with that cold stone with glints of blue – it came from life itself,” a conclusion fitting for a novel in which the mysteries outweigh conclusions and life has no easy answers, if any answers at all. One of Modiano’s most unusual novels, Sundays in August is darkly fun to read without being “light,” and thoughtful without being “heavy,” always intriguing in its views of a young main character trying to figure out his confusing world.  Sensitively translated by Damion Searles.


NOTE:    Readers new to Modiano who are looking for a book which will provide the greatest information about his background and a good introduction to his style may want to begin with SUSPENDED SENTENCES.

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo at his Nobel Prize ceremony appears on https://www.nobelprize.org/

The postcard from the Hotel Majestic, now converted into apartments and rooms, where Jean lives at the time the novel opens, is from http://cartepostale-ancienne.fr

The children’s park at the Jardin d’Alsace-Lorraine may be found at https://www.bienici.com

The iconic Hotel Negresco, where Jean meets some characters at the bar, is shown on https://www.pinterest.com/

REVIEW. France, Literary, Mystery, Noir
Written by: Patrick Modiano
Published by: Yale University Press
Date Published: 08/29/2017
Edition: Margellos Collection
ISBN: 978-0300223330
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Note:  Howard Norman is a WINNER of the Lannan Award for his “significant contributions to English-language literature,” and has twice been NOMINATED for the National Book Award.

‘Death on a Leipzig Balcony,’ by Robert Capa, was the first item [up for sale]. The auctioneer had just said, … ‘taken on April 18, 1945,’ when my mother Nora Ives – married name, Nora Ives Rigolet – walked almost casually up the center aisle and flung an open jar of black ink at the photograph. I heard, ‘No, it can’t be you!’ But it was my own voice, already trying to refute the incident.”

cover detective

Jacob Rigolet, the speaker, is attending a 1977 auction of photographs on behalf of his employer, Mrs. Esther Hamelin, a well-known collector of vintage photographs – literally doing her bidding at auction around the world. Suddenly, he is horrified to see his estranged mother, Nora Rigolet, walk up the aisle of the auction hall. Without warning, she throws a pot of black ink at a photograph taken by photographer Robert Capa during a World War II battle, “Death on a Leipzig balcony.” Jacob’s mother, the former Head Librarian of the Halifax Free Library in Nova Scotia, had been “safely tucked away” at the Nova Scotia Rest Hospital, following a breakdown three years previously, and Jacob has not seen her for over a year. He himself has been busy working part-time at the Free Library and, for the past two years, living most of the time in a cottage behind Mrs. Hamelin’s Victorian home. In one of the novel’s many ironies, it is Jacob’s fiancée, Martha Crauchet, a detective with the Halifax Regional Police, who is in charge of Nora Rigolet’s interrogation at the police station. With no sense of fear, Nora answers their questions but provides little insight into why she destroyed this photograph.

Author Howard Norman

Author Howard Norman

The novel which develops from this opening scene, described on the book jacket as “a nod to classic noir,” is noir primarily in its ironies, rather than its overall style. An air of fun and good humor prevails for most of the novel, even as universal themes of right and wrong, and good and evil, begin to appear throughout. One of the two policemen who interrogates Nora, for example, is concerned about her “willful destruction of private property,” wanting to leave the more serious questions of her sanity “up to the shrinks.” “That behavior’s been around since the Old Testament,” he announces. The other officer is not so sure that’s the right approach to the crime, however, responding with, “Considering Halifax isn’t mentioned in the Old Testament…what you said doesn’t fall into our purview.” Their offbeat banter about crime continues, as they set themselves up as somehow “different” from people like librarians who call the police when “some dangerous criminal [has] moved the A volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica…[and then] referred to it as a ‘booknapping,” concluding that “librarians are control freaks.” Only Martha, Jake’s fiancée/detective, is initially concerned with why Nora destroyed this particular photograph, a question which goes unanswered (and remains unanswered for most of the book). Without making ponderous statements or calling attention to Big Meanings, author Howard Norman quietly introduces interpretations of right and wrong and the compromises they inspire while also noting the tendency of people to notice differences more often than similarities when forming judgments.

The Lord Nelson Hotel, which features significantly in the action here.

The Lord Nelson Hotel, which features significantly in the action here.

By page fifteen, Jacob’s life becomes even more complex, and he learns new truths in a chapter entitled, “So You’re Telling Me I Was Born in the Halifax Free Library and the Man I thought Was My Father Was Not Really My Father.” His whole past, he learns, has been a lie. Bernard Rigolet, to whom his mother was married, had gone off to war in Germany, and Nora had become pregnant by someone else while he was gone. This new lover, a former member of the Halifax Police, is reportedly still alive but “Wanted,” with a criminal record. His crime has been a hate crime, and as years have passed, post-war, others with similar attitudes have also attracted attention in Halifax. Jacob spends little time pondering the moral issues and themes, however. He and Martha are in love and planning to be married, and that is what matters to him. Lies and truth, attitudes toward differences, and how one copes all impact him directly, however, and they continue to loom within his life and that of his mother.

This photograph, "Death on a Leipzig Balcony" is The Robert Capa and Cornell Capa Archive, Gift of Cornell and Edith Capa, 1992

This photograph, “Death on a Leipzig Balcony” is in The Robert Capa and Cornell Capa Archive, Gift of Cornell and Edith Capa, 1992. Click to get to the link and then click again to see the enlargement.

Other issues emerge in new scenes and plot threads. Throughout the novel, Martha and, eventually, Jake, are obsessed with listening to all the episodes of an old radio program entitled “Detective Levy Detects,” in which Levy and his love, Leah Diamond, participate in time travel, moving back to the forties to participate in noir plots in which they often accept help from criminals as they solve their cases – “You don’t even have to tell nobody we’re the ones upped your crime-fighting IQ. That way we get to help eliminate some of the competition – see, a life of crime is very competitive – and you get all the credit.” Scenes from this show offer some comic relief and a change of pace while also echoing the ideas of crime, right and wrong, and whether there are absolute standards of judgment. Jacob himself has had a problem with this in that past, and he once took the easy route regarding a man who outbid him at an auction, causing him to lose his job – not failing to win the desired photograph, but for being dishonest, in her opinion.


The Halifax Free Library, through 1948, existed as a small section of the second floor of the Halifax City Hall. This building, known as the Rathaus, would have been where Nora Rigolet worked.

The novel, a delight to read, with its intriguing plots and subplots, its very human characters, and its light touch with moral issues, comes to a surprising grand finale which earns the label “noir,” a conclusion which is presaged by one of the radio programs in the “Detective Levy Detects” series, “I Couldn’t Bear It If Something Terrible Befell Leah Diamond,” a story in which Leah is being stalked and Levy takes questionable action resulting in a police action with serious casualties. What enlivens the conclusion on an emotional level, however, is a series of four letters written by Bernard Rigolet to his wife Nora from Germany as he sees concentration camps, participates in battle, and sees death up close. In his tragically beautiful final letter to Nora, he feels and speaks more directly to her than ever before. Her own tormented history becomes clearer, and she begins to face some of her demons. In a loving and lovely commentary, she discusses her fears and failings and what she thinks she needs to do to earn a full life, if such a life is even possible for her. In a book which deals with characters who do not do much thinking, at first, the book concludes with many new insights and a new relationship between the characters and the reader.

halifax central library

In 2014 the Halifax Free Library was incorporated into this dramatic and well-equipped new library, known as the Halifax Central Library.

Photos:  The author’s photo appears on http://www.kcrw.com/

The auction which opens the action of this novel takes place at the Lord Nelson Hotel, which appears in other scenes in this novel.  www.tripadvisor.ca

“Death on a Leipzig Balcony” by Robert Capa is the photograph which Nora, for her own reasons, decided to cover with black ink, horrifying her son and everyone else at the auction.  https://www.icp.org

According to Wikipedia: In 1948, Halifax had “a single over-crowded, under-equipped room at the end of a corridor” located in the City Hall building, known as the Rathaus.  Even smaller towns nearby provided more extensive library services than Halifax at this time.   Nora worked here when she first started working at the library during World War II, and Jake may have been working here even as late as 1977 when he, too, worked at the library.  Wikipedia indicates that “several decades” passed before any new library was built.  https://commons.wikimedia

In 2014, Halifax opened this new library, known as the Halifax Central Library which greatly expands services and provides a gathering place for the community.  https://commons.wikimedia.org

REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, Canada, Historical, Literary, Nova Scotia, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Howard Norman
Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Date Published: 03/28/2017
ISBN: 978-0544236103
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“[Seven-thirty p.m.] was the most dangerous time at Flodberga Prison. [That] was when the daily freight train thundered past; the walls shook and keys rattled and the place smelled of sweat and perfume. All the worst abuses took place then, masked by the racket from the railway…just before the cell doors were shut. Salander always let her gaze wander back and forth….Someone was slapping Faria Kazi…The abuse had been going on for a long time and had broken her will to resist.”

cover girl eye for eyeLisbeth Salander is back in this continuation of the Millenium series started by Swedish author Steig Larsson and continued, following Larsson’s death in 2004, by David Lagercrantz. The raw energy and the violence of the three Larsson thrillers are more muted in the work of Lagercrantz, who was hired by Larsson’s heirs to continue the series, writing The Girl in the Spider’s Web and now The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye.  Lagercrantz’s reliance on Salander, a damaged and reclusive computer hacker, and Mikael Blomquvist, a famed investigator and the founder of Millenium Magazine, to control the action is less obvious here than in Larsson’s novels, and he carefully includes identifying information for many of the earlier characters who repeat within this series, even including a helpful character list at the beginning. The complexity of the plot of this novel is clear early on if one looks at the character groupings within that character list: Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomqvist, listed separately, are followed by those in Lisbeth’s violent and sadistic family; those who have had an effect on Lisbeth’s adult life, for better or, more often, for worse; the organizations with which Lisbeth sometimes has contact – a thuggish motorcycle gang, an elite group of hackers, and a secret police faction with its own agenda; and the legitimate police who have investigated her. In the course of this novel, over two dozen new characters also make their appearances, as Lisbeth and Blomqvist, while still involved in the plot, take more limited roles and share the action with many others.

Author David Lagercrantz

Author David Lagercrantz

As the novel begins, Lisbeth is in Flodberga Prison, serving two months for violent actions she committed in the previous novel when she rescued a severely autistic child and hid him for his own safety. Though Blomqvist and his sister Annika Giannini, Lisbeth’s lawyer, were frustrated by Lizbeth’s failure to defend herself in court, she did not care. Prison, she thought, would offer her more time to be on her own, working without interference or threats from the outside world. Within twenty-five pages, however, Lisbeth is involved in trying to right new injustices within the prison. A young woman, Faria Kazi, from Bangladesh, someone so emotionally frail that Lizbeth regards her as a “human wreck,” is being abused by a female gang leader, “Benito” Andersson. The power mad “Benito” rules the unit, despite the presence of guards and the awareness of the prison warden and prison governor. Using her own skills, both physical and intuitive, Lisbeth manages to defuse some of these issues while also ensuring her own privilege of using a prison computer for an extended period of time one evening. She has been investigating some files from the past which she believes may explain aspects of her own early life and background.

prison photoAnother plot line involves Blomqvist, who visits the imprisoned Lisbeth regularly each week. He has been investigating a hacker attack on financial markets in Brussels, especially as they impact a particular investment company, Alfred Ogren Securities. Blomqvist has noticed something strange on a recent video, involving an Alfred Ogren officer whose own life soon comes under scrutiny. Lisbeth’s former guardian and great friend, Holger Palmgren, also appears here. Palmgren has some issues regarding Lisbeth’s past, and though he is dying and in great pain, he has managed to visit her once. He has more papers related to her past – papers that she is desperate to study. At this point, the many coincidences and accompanying flashbacks begin, each flashback going back to eighteen months earlier than the current action. The flashbacks add information to what the author has already presented through the action, prolonging the suspense and sometimes connecting the various subplots.

Blomqvist plans to hear a talk at the Fotografiska Museet by someone he suspects of being an innocent participant in the Genetic Study conducted 25 years ago.

Blomqvist plans to hear a talk at the Fotografiska Museet by someone he suspects of being an innocent participant in the Genetic Study conducted 25 years ago.

Eventually, the files from the “Registry for the Study of Genetics and Social Environment,” being perused separately by Lisbeth and Blomqvist, introduce new characters whose connections to existing characters come as little surprise, while their danger to the “scientists” involved in secret genetic studies becomes obvious. By this point, over twenty-five years have passed since research began on a select group of children, and all that remains is to keep track of the test subjects, several of whom, including Lisbeth, are involved in the action and flashbacks here. The implications of this study could bring down high officials in business and in government. Lisbeth, “the girl who takes an eye for an eye,” is particularly vengeful. The conclusion, which has plenty of action, also involves some violence, though it is less grotesque, less “juicy,” than what appears in the Larsson novels. Some parts of the conclusion even suggest that there are alternatives to the “eye for an eye” mentality which permeates the series.

Click to enlarge. St. George and the Dragon by Sten Sture in 1489 is something that especially impresses Lisbeth, even inspiring her to think in new directions. Note the woman on the far left. Photo by Nairon.

Click to enlarge. St. George and the Dragon by Sten Sture in 1489 is something that especially impresses Lisbeth, even inspiring her to think in new directions. Note the woman in the bottom left. Photo by Nairon.

Dedicated readers of the series to date may find that this novel feels a bit “old.” Lisbeth is a difficult character to like, though it is easy to feel sorry for her, and her need for real emotional help is obvious. Whether Lagercrantz has future plans to help her remains to be seen. In the meantime, much credit is due to him for keeping the large cast of characters, many from previous novels, on track in this one. I was disappointed, however, in the amount of coincidence used here to make convenient connections among the subplots. The flashbacks, the first of which begins one-third of the way through the book, become increasingly prevalent – and annoying – with nine or ten of them in the last half of the book alone. While these artificial devices can be used to prolong suspense and add bits of information slowly, they also prevent the kind of identification a reader usually gains from “sharing” the characters’ lives as they actually happen. In one powerful and memorable incident, however, Lisbeth shares her feelings for the first time ever, commenting on Sten Sture’s sculpture of St. George and the Dragon, which includes a female observing the killing of a fire-breathing dragon. “I had never seen [this statue] as a monument to a heroic deed,” Lisbeth says, “but rather as a representation of a terrible assault….[But] the same fire that can turn us into ashes and waste…can become something totally different; a force which allows us to fight back,” she believes, a new idea for Lisbeth and perhaps the future.

The af Chapman Youth Hostel, located in an old sailing ship, is where a character stayed when he returned to Sweden from overseas. It is still in operation: Photo by Brorsson

The af Chapman Youth Hostel, located in an old sailing ship, is where a character stayed when he returned to Sweden from overseas. It still operates as a hostel. Photo by Brorsson


By David Lagercrantz:  THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB

Photos:  The author’s photo is from http://www.dailymail.co.uk

The photo of the woman in jail appears on https://www.hrw.org/

The Fotografika Museet, where Blomqvist planned to hear a character speak, is here:  https://www.pinterest.com

Sten Shure’s 1489 statue of St. George and the Dragon made an enormous impressing on Lisbeth Salander when she noticed the woman in the bottom left.  Click to enlarge.  https://en.wikipedia.org/

The af Chapman Youth Hostel, where one character stays upon his return to Sweden after a trip overseas, is located on a retired sailing ship and is still being used.  https://en.wikipedia.org/

REVIEW. Mystery, Thriller, Noir, Nordic Noir, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, Sweden-Millenium
Written by: David Lagercrantz
Published by: Alfred A. Knopf
Date Published: 09/12/2017
ISBN: 978-0451494320
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Note:  This novel by Alice McDermott has been named a FINALIST for the Kirkus Prize for 2017.  She was WINNER of the National Book award in 1999 for Charming Billy. 

“The madness with which suffering was dispersed in the world defied logic. There was nothing else like it for unevenness. Bad luck, bad health, bad timing. Innocent children were afflicted as often as bad men. Young mothers were struck down even as old ones fretfully lingered. Good lives ended in confusion or despair or howling devastation. The fortunate went blissfully about their business until that moment when fortune vanished – a knock on the door, a cough, a knife flash, a brief bit of inattention…There was no accounting for how general it was, how arbitrary.” – Sister Jeanne

title 9th hour

Life is busy and all too short, and when choosing books, it is often tempting to choose books in which the action provides new insights into life as we already know it. Alice McDermott, well-known as a “Catholic” author, presents characters whose lives and decisions here are far different from my own, yet I found her novel stunning – enlightening, humane, and thoughtful.  Considering her themes from the highest levels of universality, not specific to Catholic doctrine, McDermott raises questions about life and death; innocence and guilt;  the rewards, if any, which come from leading a “good” life; the penances one self-imposes for actions which feel like crimes; the voluntary performance of good works, even at a time filled with personal obligations; and the decisions one sometimes makes with the most honorable of intentions, even when they violate the boundaries most of us consider sacred.  Most remarkably, McDermott does all this within a relatively simple plot, peopled with characters we come to like and even admire at a time in our history which is quite different from the present day.

author photo

Following three generations of a single family, the novel begins with a thirty-two-year-old man named Jim, a handsome, married man who has “refused to give up life for the duties of a job.” Now living in a “railroad flat” along tracks which have no “right” side, Jim has just lost the job he had with the railroad because of his “unreliability.” Sending his wife out to buy food, he seals up the flat, turns on the gas, and kills himself in a fiery explosion. Annie, his pregnant wife, returns home to find her husband dead and the apartment ablaze. Devastated, alone, and pregnant, she is helped by nuns who arrive after the fire and the death, but even with their help, she must learn to accept the fact that Jim cannot be buried in sacred ground because suicide is a cardinal sin against God and the church.

The Convent of the Sisters of Mercy, one of over two dozen convents active in Brooklyn in the 1950s. This one closed in 2009.

The Convent of the Sisters of Mercy is just one of over two dozen convents active in Brooklyn in the 1950s.

The nuns who are so helpful to Annie belong to the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, one of over two dozen religious communities active in Brooklyn in the middle of the twentieth century.  Annie is given a job in the laundry of this convent, and, after her daughter Sally is born, she is able to bring her to the basement with her each day. Her job allows her to stay alive physically, emotionally, and spiritually, while also providing some of the nuns with the chance to satisfy their own maternal yearnings.  Gradually, the characters surrounding Annie and Sally, including the nuns, develop real personalities, as the sisters do not blindly accept the dictates of the church, often molding church teachings to fit the odd circumstances in which the people dependent upon them sometimes find themselves. They feel free to interpret what they believe the Bible and the church regard as right.

In the early 1960s many convents decided to connect more directly with the parishioners by modifying their dress. In 1963, the Sisters of Mercy made this change, and soon afterward changed to regular street dress.

In the early 1960s many convents modified their dress. In 1963, the Sisters of Mercy made this change, and soon afterward changed again to regular street dress.

The novel moves back and forth in time and through generations. Years later, when Sally has grown up and finished school, she thinks of joining a convent and spends some time working with the Little Nursing Sisters of the Poor helping to care for a sick woman in Brooklyn. Soon Sally finds herself dealing with questions about church doctrine, how to interpret it, and how to deal with the guilt which arises from a decision made in earnest and with love, though perhaps contrary to strict definitions of “right.” Eventually, the novel flashes back two generations to a new speaker and the subject of Great Aunt Rose, who spent her life taking care of Red Whelan, the man who substituted for the speaker’s great grandfather in the Civil War, a time in which people with enough money could hire someone to take their place on the battle lines. In the case of Red Whelan, who lost both a leg and an arm, the visual reminders of his sacrifices constantly draw attention to the injustices at the time and the fact that hiring a substitute soldier from among the poor was not considered a sin then.

The Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor kept their traditional dress. Here two sisters enjoy the St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York in 2013.

The Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor have kept their traditional dress. Here two sisters enjoy the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 2013.

Throughout the novel, as the past and present are revealed, the action keeps the reader totally engaged, but it also keeps the reader thinking, pondering decisions and outcomes and the position of the church in evaluating right and wrong. Significantly, the main characters are all women, many of them religious, committed to doing what is “right” in the highest sense, regardless of whether their decisions meet all the usual church requirements for right and wrong. At one point, the “greatest good” for one character leads to an action which some might regard as murder – a decision reached by two people, each working independently. Importantly, it is the nuns and the women who act in the absence of uninvolved priests who make these decisions. Though one might question why the priests seem to remain oblivious to daily life in their parishes, it is easy to justify some of these decisions, including the possible murder, in terms that women would understand in a totally different way from men. Perhaps, the novel suggests, right and wrong do not have absolute interpretations.

Here the Teamsters participate in their annual ride to benefit the Little Sisters of the Sick Poor in 2015.

Here the Teamsters participate in their annual motorcycle ride to benefit the Little Sisters of the Sick Poor, Summer, 2015.  About eighty bikers participated.

Describing this unique novel raises unique challenges. It is obviously literary, with not a word out of place. The descriptions, both physical and emotional, are realistic and often moving, setting the scene and creating an atmosphere which engrosses the reader and leads to deeper understandings. The novel has its share of heart-rending sorrow, and while it cannot be considered “gothic” in the broad sense of the word, or “sentimental” in the Dickensian sense, it does operate on the edge of a grand stage with grand sentiments. Small actions often lead to big results with big consequences, as in an opera, and the tension is sometimes almost palpable. Epic in its themes, the book is intimate and personal in its effects on both the characters and the reader. Love guides the action for three generations, becoming even more poignant as one considers the fact that the convents and the religious who so contribute to this action are missing and almost non-existent in our present generation. As one sister says, “I gave up my place in heaven a long time ago, out of love for my friends.” How sad that she found it necessary to do this, and how sad, too, that there are fewer like her to follow now and as time goes on.

Photos:  The author’s photo appears on http://irishamerica.com

In the 1950s, Brooklyn had over two dozen convents, including this large building occupied by the Sisters of Mercy.  Most of them, including this one have now closed:  http://www.brooklynpaper.com/

In the 1960s many convents changed the dress for their nuns.  Here in 1963 is the adaptation to a shorter dress by the Sisters of Mercy.  Soon after this, the dress changed again to regular street clothes.  http://archives.commons.udmercy.edu

St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 2013 shows two of the Little Sisters of the Sick Poor enjoying the fun.  This order has not changed it habit to street dress.  http://www.littlesistersofthepoorbaltimore.org

In summer, 2015, the Teamsters participated in their annual motorcycle ride to benefit the Little Sisters of the Sick Poor.  About eighty bikers took part.  http://www.littlesistersofthepoorpittsburgh.org/

REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Literary, Social and Political Issues, US Regional
Written by: Alice McDermott
Published by: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Date Published: 09/19/2017
ISBN: 978-0374280147
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

Older Posts »