Feed on

“Many times he has entered prison. Many times he has smelled that scent of stale, confined humanity; has felt the air, thick with the heat of hundreds of bodies…Every time, panic threatens to rise within him. Every time, he shudders…Reminds himself that unlike these others, he gets to walk out. But not this time. The guard behind him chuckles. ‘You’re not going to find many friends in here, Maasai. You’d better learn to sleep with your eyes open.”

cover hell's gateIn this quotation of just eighty words from the first page of Hell’s Gate, author Richard Crompton establishes the Kenyan prison setting, its sights, sounds and smells, its fraught atmosphere, the state of mind of the prisoner, his cultural background, the antagonistic attitude of the guard, and the guard’s triumphant, even delighted, threatening of his prisoner. It is not because the prisoner is a Maasai that he is likely to be tormented, however. In this case, the prisoner is also known as Detective Mollel of the Nairobi police. Mollel had been a Maasai moran twenty years ago until he left his roots in “Maasai-land” in southern Kenya to begin work as a policeman in Nairobi, hoping to bring justice to Kenya’s hard-working poor within an atmosphere in which corruption is a way of life. For even the most dedicated police officers, however, creating a sense of peace is often more important than bringing pure justice, and Mollel has been a constant trial to many of his superiors and to the judicial system. Constantly challenging and questioning them, he is also cursed with a hair-trigger temper and willingness to do violence to bring about “justice.” This has resulted in his being moved around among police departments throughout the country. Now he is imprisoned for an unspecified crime, and he must somehow survive among a number of former policemen he helped send to jail.

Photo: Gregory Warner

Photo of the author by Gregory Warner

As Mollel takes a hard look at his new mates, he wonders which and how many are involved in the endemic extortion and payoffs which curse not only the local police department but many other investigatory agencies throughout Kenya.  Poor victims are often ignored.  On flower farms adjacent to Lake Naivasha, young women work in the greenhouses  in order to live, but many are raped, only to have their claims regarded as frivolous, the evidence lost. Here one of these desperate women is later arrested for illegally selling some of the roses from the flower farm, and shortly after that, she is found dead, drowned near the lake and its intake pipe, and Mollel wonders if she has killed herself. It is this seemingly simple plot which develops into a complex story of poaching, smuggling, corruption, and vigilante justice.

The Maasai begin stretching the ear lobes of their future warriors when they are children. Not the length of the one on the left side, and the right one, folded up and around on the right.

The Maasai begin stretching the ear lobes of their future warriors when they are children. Note the length of the one on the left side, and the one on the right, folded and curled around the ear.

Author Crompton, who resides in Nairobi with his family, carefully reconstructs Kenya’s recent past, filled with local color and all the tensions and rivalries among the Maasai, Kikuyo, Luo, and Kalinjin ethnic groups, which have competed and warred since the beginning of time.   At the same time, he develops a plot involving officers from the Kenya Wildlife Service, the police from the small station to which Mollel has been assigned near Hell’s Gate National Park, and investigators from the International Criminal Court who are in charge of trying and punishing (or releasing) those who are corrupt on an international scale.  Poaching and the trade in rhino horn, bribery of government officials, fake money transfers and payoffs, smuggling, a plot by Chinese businessmen who want someone to be assassinated, the aftermath of the bombing of the American Embassy in Nairobi in 1998, and the heightened ethnic tensions resulting from the recent burning of a church and the deaths of five hundred people in the aftermath of Kenya’s “stolen” election of 2007, all play a part in this plot, depicting the complexities of life in Kenya, even for “ordinary” people trying to mind their own business and take care of themselves and their families.

The entrance to the Devil's Bedroom at Hell's Gate, near Lake Naivasha, which features in the novel.

The entrance to the Devil’s Bedroom at Hell’s Gate, near Lake Naivasha, a site which features in the novel. Note the huge boulder balanced over the entrance.

Of particular interest to Crompton is the culture of the Maasai, which Mollel both represents and rejects. Their semi-nomadic culture and their ability to live off the land (even making their houses from animal dung and native grasses) combine with their beliefs in a nature god and the devil, which they honor in shamanistic ceremonies, to make them confident in their own lives, believing that nature will reward and punish. Mollel has moved away from his past because he promised his wife that he would bring up their son, now twelve, with opportunities in the city not available in Maasai life on the plains.  His work in the aftermath of the bombing of the American Embassy made Mollel a public hero when he saved over fifty people, and it is for this reason that authorities have not fired him for his insubordination, instead transferring him to departments all over Kenya.

Maasai Village, with houses made of dung and grass, with thatched roofs. The village is surrounded by torn bushes to deter lions.

A Maasai Village, with houses made of dung and grass, and with thatched roofs. The village is surrounded by thorn bushes to deter lions.

Mollel is no saint, however. Like the Maasai on the range, he dislikes their traditional enemy, the Kikuyu, and it is this that makes him resent Shadrack, a young Kikuyu member of the “Rhino Force” of the police, with whom he works in Hell’s Gate, near Lake Naivasha. He is moved, however, when Shadrack talks about the tent cities, set up after the violence which followed the “stolen” election of 2007. Incumbent President Mwai Kibaki had been declared winner, though international observers confirmed that the votes had been manipulated. Violence broke out, resulting, as Wikipedia confirms, with “the murder of over fifty unarmed Kikuyu women and children, some as young as a month old, by locking them in a church and burning them alive near Eldoret, on New Year’s Day.” Shadrack’s information regarding the IDP camp (for Internally Displaced Persons) is heart-rending: “three families to a tent, twenty people or more in a space the size of your room. No running water. Latrines? Forget about it…They didn’t have time to bring anything useful, so they turned up in Naivasha with what? TVs. There must have been a hundred TVs piled up near the gate of that IDP camp. All useless. No electricity to run them.”

A man grieves at the site of the church burned after the elections of 2008, with over fifty Kikuyu women and children burned to death inside.

A man grieves at the site of a church in Eldoret, burned after the elections of 2008, with over fifty Kikuyu women and children burned to death inside.

The irony of the useless TVs parallels other ironies in this novel about a developing country filled with competing interests. The deaths of some of the characters, killed in bizarre ways no one in the US would ever dream of, combine with scenes of touching honesty to create a novel filled with surprises and new visions of contemporary life in Kenya. And though there are enough plot lines here to fill two or three books, the author keeps his style so simple and the novel so filled with fascinating new information that few will begrudge the author his expansive plot.


A Puff Adder, which features in the conclusion. Note fangs.

A Puff Adder, which features in the conclusion. Note fangs.

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo by Gregory Warner, NPR, appears on http://freshfiction.com/

The Maasai moran is shown on http://www.wanderlust.co.uk

Hell’s Gate leads to the Devil’s Bedroom, shown here, near Lake Naivasha.  This was part of a climactic scene near the end of the book. http://andrewhy.de/

The Maasai village is from https://commons.wikimedia.org

The Reuters photo of the burned church at Eldoret, where fifty women and children were burned to death following the rigged election of the President Mwai Kibaki in 2008 appears on http://content.time.com/

The puff adder is determined to have been “responsible”  for the murder of Mollel’s “uncle.”  Note the fangs:  http://www.allposters.se/

REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Kenya, Mystery, Thriller, Noir, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Richard Crompton
Published by: Sara Crichton Books; Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Date Published: 06/02/2016
ISBN: 978-1374280581
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover


James Sallis–WILLNOT

“People in Willnot tend to dwell at the thin edge of maps, more than a few of them staring tygers in the eye. Something in their nature that draws them here, keeps them here? Or that seeps in over time from contact? Stand them up against a straight line, and they’ll lean. There are no churches in Willnot. A string of them outside the town limits but none within, by ordinance.”

cover willnot For long-time readers of this website, it will be no secret that I regard James Sallis as far more than the “noir mystery writer” that he is often labeled. A specialist in spare, minimalist writing that is compressed, incisive, and often metaphorical, he is a writer who takes literary chances and whose recent work has been as experimental as it has been insightful. One of the best literary writers in the United States, in my opinion, Sallis has always been concerned with questions of innocence and guilt, strength and weakness, and the past and its effects on the present and future. He creates often sad, damaged characters doing the best they can in a noir atmosphere in which they must fight their own demons in order to have any chance of success. His earliest novels, a series of mysteries set in the southern United States, are dark and gothic without the sentimentality so common to that genre, and his later books, set in the west, are more psychological, stories of people living on the edge whose lives could go in any direction depending on chance and circumstance. His main characters make mistakes, sometimes big ones, but at heart they have an intrinsic sense of honor despite their closeness to violence.


What is most striking about Sallis’s work is that it is never static. His career of sixteen novels and numerous story collections, from the southern gothic novels to Drive, made into a successful noir film, continues to develop as he experiments with style and structure. An author who refuses to become comfortable or predictable in his writing, he reveals his most experimental and his most compressed style in this latest novel, Willnot. Shifting his points of view and using flashbacks and flashforwards, the idea of time itself becomes flexible, and as the action develops, the reader becomes as uncomfortable as the main character, not really sure what is real and what may be imagined. Ultimately, in the conclusion, Sallis leaves it up to the reader to fill in the blanks of this complex story in order to find resolution to the problems and disasters which have marked the lives of his characters.

A recent novel by Sallis is DRIVE, which was made into a hit film in 2011, starring Ryan Gosling.

A recent novel by Sallis is DRIVE, which was made into a hit film in 2011, starring Ryan Gosling.

Willnot, a rural town in an unnamed state, has, as the quotation at the opening of this review notes, attracted people who “dwell on the thin edge of maps,” resourceful people who, though damaged by the horrors that life has often thrown in their paths, still rely on their own inner resources and try to find answers without the aid of churches or outside agencies. Main character Lamar Hale, a physician who has lived in Willnot for many years, is one of over thirty characters introduced in the first thirty-two pages, illustrating the fact that there are no strangers in Willnot – Hale knows everyone. As Sallis individualizes these characters, Hale’s feelings about them become clear, and the reader comes to know the town well. Many have secrets, including Lamar Hale who treasures his memories of his father, a science fiction writer who knew the greats of that genre, but who has recently begun to wonder about the nature of his father’s writing and whether it might have been political, and even dangerous.

THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, a novel by Robert A. Heinlein, a friend of Hale's father is one Hale wanted to discuss with the author. It is concerned with the development of a future human society on earth and the moon.

THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, a sci-fi novel by Robert A. Heinlein, a friend of Hale’s father, is one Hale wanted to discuss with the author. It is concerned with the development of a future human society on earth and the moon.

The novel opens at a crime scene, as one of Hale’s neighbors and his hunting dog have uncovered what appears to be the site of a mass burial. Called to the scene, Lamar Hale is there to assist the sheriff, and as he chats with Andrew, who runs the ambulance service, he is reminded about his work with Andrew when Andrew was a teenager dealing with ADD and the drugs that were once prescribed for it. Returning to the hospital after the bodies have been unearthed, Hale is transcribing his notes when he is startled by the arrival of Brandon Roemer Lowndes, someone he has not seen in fourteen years. Years ago, Brandon had ended up at the “wrong end of a prank gone horribly south,” when he took the high school band’s bus to a football game and came back in an ambulance, in coma. Hale treated him for the year it took for him to regain consciousness. Lowndes eventually left Willnot, but has now come back following his time in the Marines, where he served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now known as Bobby, he says he has just come back to say hello. His additional surprise visits to other places in town are as mysterious as his sudden appearance at Hale’s office.

The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoevsky, fascinated Hale for its depictions of the abyss

The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoevsky, fascinated Hale for its depictions of the abyss of loneliness and degradation and the equal abyss of lofty ideals, two competing ideas with the same results.

Focusing on the local residents and their thinking, the reader also learns about Hale’s partner, Richard, who is a teacher, and about other people whose lives have been difficult, including a young woman who was abandoned by her parents and brought up by foster parents, and a young man whose parents and sister died in a hit-and-run car crash which has left him obsessed with finding the driver, to the exclusion of everything else in his life. Even Lamar Hale has some sad memories, always feeling he was a disappointment to his author father. Gradually, the lives and memories of various characters begin to overlap, and since the author sometimes changes the point of view without warning – and between paragraphs – it is easy to become confused about which person is remembering or thinking about which events. The overlaps between the lives of Brandon Lowndes (Bobby) and Lamar Hale raise questions about how and why each of them has become who he is, the question at the heart of the novel. References to literature, including the Brothers Karamazov, with its religious imagery – the abyss of lowliness and degradation, and its parallel, the abyss of lofty ideals in a community which has no churches – add to the mysteries.


The writing throughout is superb, and most readers will be fascinated by the characters, their thinking, and their ways of dealing with reality. I have now read the book twice and have read some sections three times, always trying to identify the points of view in relation to the characters so that I can put the whole novel into the wider perspective it deserves. I am still working at it. This is by far the most complicated of Sallis’s novels in terms of his themes and his insights into character, and I have been totally engrossed by it. Though I hate the very word “closure,” I’m hoping I soon achieve it for this novel by this very special author.


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

The poster from the film DRIVE, based on Sallis’s novel of the same name, is from http://jamiegerrisha2.blogspot.com

The science fiction novel THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS by Robert A. Heinlein is one of particular interest to Hale when he was a boy.  Heinlein was someone known to Hale’s father, also a writer of science fiction, and Hale had hoped to discuss this book, about a society for humans on both the earth and the moon, with the author.  https://en.wikipedia.org

Hale was always intrigued by the image in THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV by Dostoevsky of the abyss of loneliness and degradation and the equal abyss of lofty ideals, two competing ideas with the same result. www.amazon.com/

Hale’s constant work in the local hospital where he worked as a surgeon, primary care physician, and psychiatrist, kept him in touch with the lives of the town and their efforts to stay emotionally healthy in spite of the disasters they all faced.  http://news.wabe.org/

ARC:  Bloomsbury

REVIEW. Experimental, Literary, Mystery, Thriller, Noir, Psychological study, United States
Written by: James Sallis
Published by: Bloomsbury
Date Published: 06/21/2016
ISBN: 7816328645299
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Note:  Max Porter is WINNER of the Dylan Thomas Award for 2016.  He was also SHORTLISTED for both the Guardian First Novel Award and for the Goldsmith’s Prize, 2015.

“[The Boys] played at birds, they played at lions.  They went through phases: dinosaurs, trucks, Thundercats, kung fu, lying, sport. There was very little division between their imaginary and real worlds, and people talked of coping mechanisms and normal childhood and time. Many people said ‘You need time,’ when what we needed was washing powder, nit shampoo, football stickers, batteries, bows, arrows, bows, arrows.”—Dad, early in the grieving process after the loss of his wife.

cover max porter grief thing feathersIn an electrifying novel that uses simple images and straightforward, often abbreviated, thoughts to create deep emotions and subtle themes, debut novelist Max Porter revitalizes the whole concept of the novel, creating a work that includes elements of many different literary styles which offer constant surprises as the  novel shifts and turns in its focus.  Despite these constantly changing structural elements, the voices of Dad and his Boys remain direct, unpretentious, and realistic as they tell of their reactions to the sudden death of their wife and mother from an accident which has left them overwhelmed by events and not sure how to react or acknowledge what they feel. In a consummate irony, Dad, an academic writer, has been working on a book, overdue at the publisher, called Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis, which examines the poems of Ted Hughes following the death of his wife, Sylvia Plath.

Debut author Max Porter

Debut author Max Porter

The book opens with a dialogue in which one of the Boys remarks “There’s a feather on my pillow.” An unnamed voice comments, “Pillows are made of feathers, go to sleep.”

“It’s a big, black feather.”

“Come and sleep in my bed.”

“There’s a feather on your pillow too.”

“Let’s leave the feathers where they are and sleep on the floor.”

It’s been five days since the death, and Dad and the boys are alone now. All the family and visitors have left, the boys are finally asleep, and “Grief felt fourth-dimensional, abstract, faintly familiar.” Suddenly the doorbell rings, and when Dad opens it, “there was a crack and a whoosh and [he] was smacked back, winded, onto the doorstep…There was a rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast.” As he is lifted above the tiled floor, he finds feathers between his fingers, in his eyes, and in his mouth. Crow has arrived, promising he will stay there until he is no longer needed. He is, he says, a “friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre.” Dad recognizes that Crow is almost certainly his own creation, just as he was Ted Hughes’s creation after the death of his wife, and he “wishes [he] hadn’t been obsessing about this thing [Hughes’s poem Crow] just when the greatest tragedy of [his] life occurred.”

Ted Hughes, widower of Sylvia Plath, and author of CROW ON THE COUCH: A Wild Analysis

Ted Hughes, widower of Sylvia Plath, and author of CROW ON THE COUCH: A Wild Analysis

With Crow incorporating wild and unexpected elements, including humor, into this book about grief, the novel explores death and its aftermath in new ways. Crow sees himself as a “template…a myth to slip up into,” something he knows Dad also recognizes. Crow usually finds humans dull, except in grief, but “Motherless children are pure crow. For a sentimental bird it is ripe, rich, and delicious to raid such a nest.” He empathizes with the Boys, who do not understand why life has suddenly become so quiet – not what they would have expected from an event as big as death: “Where are the fire engines? Where is the noise and clamour of an event like this…There should be men in helmets speaking a new and dramatic language of crisis. There should be horrible levels of noise….”  Crow quickly solves that problem.

As the novel continues chronologically, Dad and the boys deal with their new, unwelcome lives, yet Crow’s surprising actions and stories often help to keep the grief in perspective, preventing it from overwhelming the narrative. Crow sits on Dad’s shoulder as he tries to work on his book, and he babysits for the Boys, at one point assigning them the task of making a model of their mother, “just as you remember her,” promising to bring the winning model to life. Unfortunately, Crow has failed to crowrealize how seriously the Boys will take this task, and even he ends up crying at the end of this sordid game. The boys grow further in their understanding when their Gran is dying. She tells them to smoke cigarettes like hers, “and one day you too will wheeze like me. The daisies on my grave will puff and wheeze, you mark my words,” a sardonic remark which keeps the episode from becoming maudlin. Dad relives aspects of his life, his courtship, early marriage, and the birth of his children, the genre of each section changing with the subject.

Poetry, letters, simple lists, a short tale followed by comprehension questions, a geometry problem, simple memories (the boys getting into trouble for flecking the mirror with toothpaste), more complex dreams for the future (Dad wanting to build his wife a monument in Hyde Park with his bare hands), and Crow describing bad dreams and fighting a demon to the death when it challenges the family are all part of the narrative. In Part III, Dad, the Boys, and Crow begin to come to terms with their lives, and by the end of the novel, Crow – and Dad – are ready to part company, leading to a finale worthy of this extraordinary and original book.

Dad wants to build his wife a memorial a hundred feet high in Hyde Park, much like this one of Queen Victoria. Photo by Chris Brown.

Dad wants to build his wife a memorial a hundred feet high in Hyde Park, much like this one of Queen Victoria. Photo by Chris Brown.

When asked in an interview in The Guardian (by Sarah Crown, September 12, 2015), the author explains that this story of death originated from his memories of his own father’s death when the author was six, and though his own family was larger and more complicated than the family in this novel, he did use some of his own observations as a six-year-old in the Boys’ tale of grief. Now married and the father of three, Porter’s feelings for his own children obviously affect his point of view in Dad’s sections, and like Dad, Porter has also been a huge fan of poet Ted Hughes for many years.  His admiration for Emily Dickinson, too, is revealed in his title, which is a twist on Dickinson’s poem “Hope is the thing with feathers.” Another Dickinson poem, “That love is all there is,” becomes, with some editing, the introductory epigraph of this book, a humorous twist which sets the tone of the novel. Unique in its structure, imagery, and the character of wild Crow, the book is simple and uncomplicated in its appeal to the reader’s own understandings of life, death, grief, dreams, and reconciliation, while offering new ways to think about these universal themes as the book comes to a perfect conclusion – “Unfinished. Beautiful, Everything.”

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

The Ted Hughes photo is from  http://ghpoetryplace.blogspot.com

The crow may be found on https://www.pinterest.com

The statue of Queen Victoria by Chris Brown appears on https://commons.wikimedia.org

ARC:  Graywolf

REVIEW. England, Experimental, Literary, Psychological study
Written by: Max Porter
Published by: Graywolf
Date Published: 06/07/2016
ISBN: 978-1555977412
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“I have been wandering through mining country, a man in exile, a castaway, a snake wriggling out of its skin….I walk the landscape, I sit by the mine, in the cemetery, in the open fields covered with soot, unaware of the time, guiding myself only by the movement of the sun. I carry stacks of paper and occasionally sketch on my knees…Often, after I have done so, I tear up the paper and let the wind carry the strips away.”—Vincent Van Gogh, letter to Theo, Prologue, 1879.

coverArtist Vincent Van Gogh’s earnest attempts to live a productive life while also burdened by crushing sadness and isolation come to life through author Nellie Hermann’s insightful depiction of his life as a missionary in a coal mining village.  Depicting Van Gogh (1853  – 1890) before he became an artist, she focuses on the period of 1879 – 1880, when Van Gogh was living in the remote Borinage mining area of southwest Belgium, near the French border. The young son of a Dutch Reformed preacher, the twenty-seven-year-old Van Gogh had worked for several years in the Goupil & Cie gallery and its showrooms in the Hague, London, and Paris, before studying theology to become a minister and missionary, like his father. His long, descriptive letters to his younger brother Theo, used as resources by the author, provide intimate glimpses of his life in the Borinage, including the misery he shared with the miners and their families, which his own depression may have exacerbated. Though he loved art, he did not exhibit the kind of talent in his own work which would have made him successful, at that time, and he had failed both his theology exam and his course at a Protestant missionary school before heading to the Borinage on his own religious mission. His father, a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, considered him an “idler.”

Hermann author photo

The Prologue of this novel, set in September, 1879, shows clearly the conflicts the young Van Gogh feels as he writes a letter to his brother Theo, though the reader does not yet know the nature of all these conflicts. The quotation which opens this review then expands as Van Gogh further explains that he is not “idling.” He has been trying to “be patient, to be calm, to make no sudden moves. I am trying to do things right this time,” he says, “to listen, to hear, to see. Great forces are shifting in me; I must let them take their time….I feel I can see the road ahead.” If he has changed, he believes, it is because of what he has already been through in the Borinage, and he is desperate to share his experiences with Theo, who has recently visited him after a long period of silence.

Van Gogh at age ninteen, when he was working at Goupil and Cie Art Gallery in the Hague.

Vincent Van Gogh, at age nineteen, when he was working at Goupil and Cie Art Gallery in the Hague.

Though Van Gogh unburdens himself here in the opening scenes, the reader does not get the immediate satisfaction of an answer from Theo, however. Instead, the author toggles the time frame between 1879 and 1880, employing two points of view which create a broader picture of Van Gogh’s life. In the 1879 sections, Van Gogh reveals his intense feelings. In the 1880 sections, which alternate with the 1879 sections, the author uses a third-person point of view to give a wider, more objective perspective and, sometimes, to follow up on some events while maintaining suspense about the developing action and other events. These objective sections confirm many of Van Gogh’s observations, allowing the reader to connect the outcomes with Van Gogh’s earlier feelings or to see how life has moved on. Since the reader approaches Van Gogh’s letters to Theo from a distance of almost one hundred thirty years and, presumably, already knows the inevitable end of Van Gogh’s story, the author’s technique is particularly effective, since the letters give immediacy and intensity to Van Gogh’s inner struggle without allowing the book to become overtly sentimental or feel exaggerated.

Anonymous drawing of the Goupil and Cie gallery, where Vincent Van Gogh and later his brother Theo worked.

Anonymous drawing of the crowded Goupil and Cie gallery, where Vincent Van Gogh and later his brother Theo worked.

Having introduced Van Gogh’s mental state in the Prologue, the author opens the story a year later – in May, 1880 – as Van Gogh is walking the 150 miles from the Borinage to Paris in heavy rain to see Theo. Cold, hungry, and exhausted, he collapses and wakes up inside a bale of hay in a barn, covered by a blanket, rescued by a local farmer. He remembers an explosion in a mine, and some people he knew in the village. Then, in an apparent fugue state, he remembers his life with his family, where he was the second son to have been named Vincent Van Gogh after the death of the first Vincent.  Since the family went to the cemetery to  visit the grave of “Vincent” every Sunday, he has always wondered which of the two Vincents is the “real” one.   He feels like a “ghost in human skin.”

Young boy scavenges in slag heap for enough coal to keep his family warm for a few days.

A young boy scavenges in a slag heap for enough coal to keep his family warm for a few days. He appears to be barefoot.

A flashback to the 1879 mining life reveals details that are almost as shocking to read as they must have been for Van Gogh to observe. The author gives life to Vincent’s local acquaintances – the sad men, women, and children who work in a terrifying and poorly ventilated mine.  Each day they emerge covered with soot, a problem which affects their breathing almost immediately, with children as young as fourteen often having lung disease. Women and young girls also perform laborious tasks deep in the mine – their need to have money for food being the same as that of the men.  All the workers look older than their years, many are scarred from accidents, and all are half starved. Van Gogh’s sense of horror is so obvious that a long-time miner cautions him, “If you are going to live here, you need to know the truth….The people here are treated not as men but as animals, and you are to bring us some peace.” He tries, and he goes on to start a school for children, conduct sermons, and run a Bible school one day a week. He cannot help wondering why it is that God wills such vulnerable people to suffer, and, further, why it is that his religious father is not angry about the injustice.

"Crows in Wheatfield, one of Van Gogh's last paintings, was inspired by some of his memories of his time in the Borinage.

“Crows in Wheatfield,” painted by Van Gogh the month he died, may have been inspired by some of his walks during his time in the Borinage.

Throughout the novel Vincent’s own life develops in great detail, and readers interested in his biography will have plenty to keep them involved and intrigued here. His references to well known paintings of the day which epitomize what he is seeing, and to scenes which he himself eventually brings to life in his own paintings will please art historians.  Author Nellie Herman shows him putting his whole heart into his work in the village, giving up everything he can from his own life, including food, so that the miners can benefit.  Overwhelmed, he becomes physically and emotionally ill and spiritually at loose ends, requiring intervention from his father and family. His occasional drawings which provide him with some sense of accomplishment, however crude they may be technically, eventually lead him to make significant decisions. The world has been grateful for those decisions ever since. A dramatic and insightful novel of a man whose sensitivity exceeded what his heart and mind could bear.

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

Vincent Van Gogh, at age nineteen, when he began working for Goupil and Cie Gallery. http://flashbak.com/

The crowded Goupil and Cie Gallery, drawing by an unknown artist.  https://en.wikipedia.org

Young boy scavenges in slag heap for enough coal to keep his family warm for a few days.  He appears to be barefoot. http://www.aditnow.co.uk/

“Crows in Wheatfield,” one of Van Gogh’s last paintings, was inspired earlier by some of the scenery he most enjoyed in the Borinage.  http://www.allposters.com

ARC:  Farrar, Straus & Giroux

REVIEW. Belgium, Biography, Book Club Suggestions, France, Historical, Literary, Non-fiction, Psychological study |
Written by: Nellie Hermann
Published by: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Date Published: 01/05/2015
ISBN: 978-0374255473
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

NOTE:  WINNER of many European Prizes over the years, Patrick Modiano was WINNER of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014.

“Every time I went to the movies, I took care to arrive after the newsreel. No, it was best to avoid knowing anything about the fate of the world. Best not to aggravate that fear, that feeling of imminent disaster. Concentrate on trivialities: fashion, literature, cinema, variety shows. Stretch out on the long deck chairs, close your eyes, and relax…Forget. Right?” – Victor Chmara, Villa Triste

cover villa tristeFrench author and Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano has always claimed that his stories are not autobiographical, but his novels, themes, places, and details about life often repeat and attest to the ways in which his own dysfunctional childhood has had long-lasting effects on his life. Permanently alienated from his neglectful and uncaring parents, who essentially abandoned him when he was only ten, he grew up with no close family ties, no strong adult role models, and no sense of home or permanence, conditions he writes about with great sensitivity in Suspended Sentences (1988) and other novels. By the age of eighteen, having completed school, Modiano was on his own, but he succeeded in finding a mentor for his writing, novelist Raymond Queneau, and at age twenty-three, with Queneau’s help, he published his first novel. Two other successful novellas followed in 1968 and 1972, the three novellas now known collectively as “The Occupation Trilogy.”  Villa Triste (1975), is the first novel written by Modiano after the success of these novellas.

author photo

Only thirty years old when Villa Triste hit the Parisian literary scene, Modiano reveals his continuing belief in “writing about what you know.” Here his main character betrays a palpable sense of loss, a lack of understanding about who he is and who he might become. A man alone, he yearns for deep, long-time relationships. Calling himself Victor Chmara, a name he tells us is invented, the main character in Villa Triste is eighteen as the novel opens in 1960, and Modiano’s development of the intimate details of his thinking and his emotional states attest to the powerful influence his own past must have had in the creation of this realistic character. Victor does not connect effectively with the rest of the world, and his uncertainty about how to deal with issues of life, love, and the ghosts of his past lead to his pervasive loneliness and sense of isolation. As he reveals in the quotation which begins this review, he avoids the big issues, keeping himself moving, living in the moment, and losing himself in films, books, and romantic attachments – anything to avoid thinking about the uncertainties of French life, which add to his own tensions.

The War for Algerian Independence from France lasted from 1954 - 1962.

The War for Algerian Independence from France lasted from 1954 – 1962.

For the past six years, the French have been fighting the Algerians, who are struggling for independence, and news reports suggest that the struggle is about to become a full-fledged war. At eighteen, Victor is terrified of being drafted, fearful of losing the life which he has never really had a chance to explore, and this may be the reason that he is using a false name, and eventually pretending to be a Russian count. He changes his place of residence frequently, having somehow acquired enough money to pay for his stays in small hotels and for his food and entertainment. As this novel opens, Victor is living in a French “spa resort” on the shore of a lake, a place he regards as a “refuge because it was [only] five kilometers from the Swiss border. At the first sign of danger,” he thinks, “all I [have] to do [is] cross the lake.” On his first night at his new residence, he takes a walk, stopping to enjoy the changing colors of a fountain outside the casino, where he’d “go off in a dream, taking mechanical sips of my drink.” As it is mid-June, the “season” has started, with parties, dinners, theatrical productions, ballets, boat trips, films, celebrity appearances, and trips to the casino. A night-time walk back to his residence one night is so sensuous that he begins to lose his fear, asking, “Who would have ever thought of coming to look for me among these distinguished summer vacationers?”

Martine Carroll (1920 - 1967), whom Yvonne resembled. Photo by Lucienne Chevert

Martine Carroll (1920 – 1967), whom Yvonne resembled. Photo by Lucienne Chevert

Before long Victor has met Yvonne, a gorgeous woman in her early twenties – “Auburn hair. Green shantung dress. And the stiletto-heeled shoes women wore.” She has already had a small part in a film and hopes to make connections that will improve her chances of making more. She introduces him to “Doctor” Rene Meinthe, a gay man in his forties with whom she seems to be traveling and who wants to help her with her career. Meinthe, who adds Chmara to his retinue of unusual friends, makes many mysterious side trips to other cities, which often leave him so agitated upon his return that he suffers from tics. No one know where he goes or why. Though Victor also meets other denizens of the Haute-Savoie during that “season,” it is Yvonne, the young actress who “resembles Martine Carroll,” who most fascinates him, and he quickly moves into the Hermitage with her.

The Dodge Kingsway convertible which Meinthe drove with Yvonne in the Cup

The Dodge Kingsway convertible which Meinthe drove with Yvonne in the Houligant Cup

If you are wondering when the action is going to start, you are looking in the wrong place. The “action” here is internal action, related from the point of view of Victor. Most of the outside action is superficial, deliberately so, a way for the wealthy and would-be wealthy to avoid thinking about their own problems and the problems of the country. One event which consumes Meinthe and Yvonne is the Houligant Cup which is the prize in a “sort of concours d’elegance,” or contest of elegance. You had to own a luxury automobile to participate in the parade, and the objective was to show from your appearance and behavior how “elegant” you were. Meinthe decides this would be a great career move for Yvonne, if they can win. Their biggest problem is whether his Dodge convertible is elegant enough for the parade.

Sitting outside a casino with a fountain of many colors inspires Chmara to put his fear aside: begins to lose his fear, asking, “Who would have ever thought of coming to look for me among these distinguished summer vacationers?”

Sitting outside a casino with a fountain of many colors inspires Chmara to put his fear aside, going “off into a dream” while sipping his drink.

With concerns like these, the reader must be patient with young Chmara as he sorts out his life. Some of his questions never do get answered, and others seem to open doors to new questions. Modiano broadens his perspective at the halfway point of the novel, jumping forward twelve years to rejoin some of the characters as they revisit this place where they escaped the world briefly, then jumping back to expand on life in 1960. In some cases, Chmara finds out much more about his friends, even visiting the places where they grew up – Villa Triste, in the case of Meinthe – and meeting family, in one case. In others, he never does find out what he wants to know. Emphasizing the ways people deal with life or try to escape it, and the ways they remember the events which are important to them at the time they live through them, Modiano presents a new way of examining the past and its importance. This light novel hides some big truths within its superficialities.


(Note:  Those who have never read Modiano would do well to begin with SUSPENDED SENTENCES, a book which sets the scene for many of his other books.) 

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo appears on http://www.europe1.fr/

Martin Evans’s book about the war between Algeria and France is available on Amazon.  http://www.amazon.com/

The photo of Martine Carroll (1920 – 1967), by Lucienne Chevert, is from http://filmstarpostcards.blogspot.co

The Dodge Kingsway Convertible which Meinthe and Yvonne used in the Houligant Cup may be found on http://details-of-cars.com

A fountain which changes colors, outside the casino, helps Chmara to lose his sense of fear.  http://honeymoons.about.com

REVIEW. Coming-of-age, France, Literary, Psychological study, Nobel Prize
Written by: Patrick Modiano
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 05/31/2016
ISBN: 978-1590517673
Available in: Ebook Paperback

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