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“We try to protect the people we love from certain truths…but I’m not sure that’s always right, or fair.  If we don’t talk about the monsters in this world, we won’t be ready for them when they jump out from under the bed.” – John Keddie.

cover wife widowWhen Kate Keddie and her daughter Mia go to the Melbourne International Airport to surprise her husband John, a physician who is returning from London where he was at a conference, she is shocked when he does not show up.  When she calls the medical facility where he works to see if he might have changed planes, she learns for the first time that he has not worked there for three months.  Nor has he been in London for the past two weeks.  Though she has talked with him on Skype several times during the two weeks he has been away, he is now, according to all indication, a “missing person.”   It is not until the Melbourne Police ask Kate, during their initial questioning, if she and John have a holiday house, that she mentions that they do have one on tiny Belport Island, off the Bellarine Peninsula, south of Melbourne, a family place given to them by John’s parents as a wedding present.  John, however, has never liked the island, and Kate is sure that he would never go there by choice.  More important is the fact that John, according to his employer, had been in “spiritual distress” for several months before he left his job, and this was exacerbated by the death of an elderly patient with whom he had developed a close relationship.

Common-ringtail-possum

Ringtail Possum, which has several references here.

In a completely separate narrative, which alternates chapters with this one, Abby Gilpin, wife of Ray – and the “Wife” of the title – begins her narrative where she lives – on Belport Island.  Abby works during the winter at a grocery store, and does taxidermy as a hobby when she finds time, and she is anxious to get started preserving the ring-tailed possum currently residing in her refrigerator.  Her husband does maintenance and runs a care-taking business for summer residents during the off-season, and their son Eddie, at fifteen, “is passing awkwardly through the Ichabod Crane phase of puberty.”  Not much happens on Belport, but Ray is alarmed that his sixteen-year-old daughter has overheard him weeping that morning, an event so upsetting that she has mentioned it to her mother. Later when Abby goes to the waterfront, she finds five police cars in the car park.  These officials demand that she leave, refusing to give her any information as the ferry from the mainland pulls up to the dock.

A resident docking his 1990 Riva Aquarama boat discovers the submerged car holding the body of John Keddie.

A resident docking his 1990 Riva Aquarama boat discovers the submerged car holding the body of John Keddie.

Australian author Christian White uses these two separate narratives to create a murder mystery which goes way beyond the usual thin characters forced to deal with bizarre and unexpected  experiences.  Here he focuses instead on creating real people who find themselves suddenly dealing with events for which they have never prepared, many of which are now crises which have suddenly evolved from experiences buried deep in their past. The two narratives appear in alternating chapters but have few connections until late in the novel,  as “The Wife” and “The Widow” share their lives with the reader but do not know each other and have virtually no contact.  It is not until the ferry arrives with Kate Keddie and her father-in-law, Fisher Keddie, about a third of the way into the novel, that the mystery takes off.  Arriving at the Belport Island summer house, they discover that there is food in the microwave, a shopping bag on the counter, and a note to himself written by John Keddie.  Fresh sheets on a bed, items in the bar fridge, and a room service menu prove to Kate and Fisher that John has, in fact, been at the island during his “missing” weeks.  Unfortunately, however, a body is soon found inside a car that has been located in deep water off the harbor docks, and, not surprisingly, the body inside is John’s.  He has been murdered.

MelbournesBaysV

Belport Island is described as off the coast of the Bellarine Peninsula, center-left. Melbourne is to the north.

Still maintaining the separate narratives, White very effectively raises the suspense, adding numerous threads which dramatically increase the complications – and the involvement of the reader as sleuth.  The private adult life of John Keddie – and his early life as a child on the island – become significant, as does his recent medical connection to a former resident of the island.  Flashbacks to a murder on the island twenty-three years ago, add complications from the time John and the other adults were children and explain some of the Belport relationships in new ways as they pertain to that early murder.  Flash-forwards give updates on the effects of some apparent decisions and resolutions made in the present, just as flashbacks reflect similar decisions in the past.  The opening quotation indicates that the two murders – one in the past and one in the present- share elements in common, especially in the inherent desire of adults to protect people they love by hiding “certain truths.”

Author Christian White.

Author Christian White.

Filled with drama and excitement, author Christian White creates a mystery that is, nevertheless, unpretentious, written as if these are real events involving real people with real problems trying to deal with them the best way they know how.  His prose is clear and precise, and his use of detail is totally controlled, with information released as needed, rather than all at once in a grand presentation or, eventually, a grand finale.  The moral and psychological issues pertaining to the murders and their long-term effects make the reader imagine what s/he might have done under similar circumstances, raising questions about whether there are any circumstances at all under which terrible crimes might ever be excused in order to give the guilty person a chance at a real life.  Are some people’s lives worth more than others?  Ultimately, White’s novel illustrates a series of conundrums about whether the actions taken by the main characters here were justified – a way of trying to control the “monsters of the world,” even though these monsters will all, eventually, “jump out from under the bed.”

The tiny Flame Robin was visible from Abby's kitchen, a bird that is verging on being endangered.

Tiny Flame Robins were visible from Abby’s kitchen, a bird that is verging on being endangered.

Photos.  The Ringtail Possum appears on https://www.australiangeographic.com.au

The Riva Aquarama speedboat (1990) is from https://au.boats.com

The map of the Bellarine Peninsula, south of Melbourne may be found on https://www.bcl.com.au

The author’s photo is on https://www.geelongadvertiser.com.au

The tiny Flame Robin, visible from Abby’s kitchen, is a bird verging on being endangered.  https://ebird.org

THE WIFE AND THE WIDOW
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Australia, Mystery, Thriller, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Christian White
Published by: Minotaur Books
Date Published: 01/21/2020
ISBN: 978-1250194374
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover
 

“If I don’t write, I have nowhere to put my memories, and that’s dangerous.  I have a problem.  I don’t forget anything.  My forgetting mechanism is completely screwed up.  All the partings, the deaths, the unexploited opportunities.  They are all trapped in my body, and writing is the only way to release them….If I don’t occasionally unburden myself …I won’t be able to breathe.”

cover I’m not sure I have ever come across a book which so completely demolished my expectations – in a good way – while creating a unique vision of a writer’s life.  Initially, The Last Interview feels like an attempt by a frustrated writer to produce a book which is primarily a series of off-the-cuff answers to common interview questions, an easy way of free-writing to fill pages while explaining to the reader what being a writer feels like.  Author Eshkol Nevo is a highly skilled and very popular Israeli author, however, someone who has no need to resort to literary trickery, and as this book emerges from the familiar questions and answers (“What motivates you to write?” “What is your earliest memory?” “Do you have a recurring dream?”), his true purpose and his underlying themes, especially regarding a writer’s connections with friends, family, and his own memories soon emerge.  Answering the interview questions unexpectedly raises more questions for the author himself, however. Determined to be completely honest, while also creating “fiction,” Nevo obviously feels the inherent conflict between those two approaches to describing life, and as he slowly edges into some serious self-examination, his skills as a writer get a real workout. Ultimately, his scenes from a writer’s life, including, almost certainly, episodes from his own life, challenge him to maintain the true honesty he has promised himself and the reader, while also recognizing the hurt that such honesty can sometimes bring to those he loves and admires.

The Witches" Market in La Paz, Bolivia

The Witches” Market in La Paz, Bolivia

The novel opens after the speaker, now in his forties, has just returned from a book tour in South America.  While there, he had a brief but passionate affair, something he confesses to his wife Dikla when he returns to Israel in the middle of the night. Though they have been having a few problems recently with their almost twenty-year marriage, she understandably regards this admission as the “last straw” and banishes him.  He bikes to his studio, where a messenger soon delivers divorce papers.  He then visits his closest friend, Ari, who is in hospital with a terminal illness.  There he chats with Ari’s mother about Ari’s family history, fleeing as immigrants to Israel from Argentina to escape the junta.  He reminisces to himself about his various loves, about his time in the army and his travel, including time in Bolivia when Ari took him to the Witches’ Market in La Paz to have a curse removed.   He comments about issues regarding the Palestinians while he was serving in the Israeli army, about behavior he has been ashamed of, about the harassment of women and gays, and eventually about his young daughter’s alienation from him.

The Azrieli Tower in Tel Aviv, which the speaker sees from a rooftop.

The Azrieli Tower in Tel Aviv, which the speaker sees from a rooftop.

The novel does not adhere to any particular chronological or thematic pattern, and readers learn to accept the memories belonging to the speaker and store them away for the future, as the speaker has done.  A visit to Jerusalem with “Mustafa-Mordecai” highlights another section of the novel, in which one of his books is used in a class.  A student tells him that her “favorite parts of the book are the white parts,” a comment he does not understand until he sees the student’s copy of book – white spaces wherever he had included the voice of a Palestinian.  Other episodes involving sensitive Arab-Israeli relationships appear throughout, though the author includes them within other episodes to show that these conflicts are an integral part of everyday life. Later in the novel, the speaker agrees to speak on the “other side of the Green Line,” the border between Palestine and Israel, an area still dangerous enough to suggest using a bulletproof car for transportation. While there, he visits with Iris, his hostess, who takes him to the roof to see from a distance the Tel Aviv Azrieli Tower and talk about her enduring love for her dead husband and the Arab community in which she now lives.  The speaker’s highly secret trip to Syria to talk with a reading group in Damascus provides additional insights.

Eretz Israel Museum Complex

Eretz Israel Museum Complex

The last third of the book is more intimate and more focused on the speaker’s personal life with his family – a son and two daughters – from whom he is now separated. It is here that he finally learns why Shira, his sixteen-year-old daughter, has been alienated.  He had “disguised” something from his daughter’s private life and included it in one of his books. “When the book came out,” she says, “no one really noticed that he stole from his daughter’s soul. Except for his daughter, who read a passage from the book on the Internet.”  In another thread here, Dikla, a huge fan of David Bowie, is devastated by his death, and she and the speaker attend the lecture on him at the Eretz Israel Museum, after Bowie’s death.  They walk out together, arms around each other, “feeling as if we were inside a bubble.”  More relaxed and far more insightful than the earlier parts of the novel, this section of the book makes the writer-speaker, his wife, and family feel much more “knowable” and understandable.  Some sections of the book, are almost certainly personal, though the only specific identification of the speaker is that his grandfather was Levi Eshkol, former Prime Minister of Israel, for whom the author was named.

Zorba the Greek, from the film starring Anthony Quinn

Zorba the Greek, from the film starring Anthony Quinn

With many references to entertainers throughout the novel, it is no surprise that Zorba the Greek becomes almost an icon later in the novel. After finding the book in his grandfather’s collection, the speaker read it with delight long ago, especially for Zorba’s philosophy: “To be alive is to look for trouble!” Zorba says.  “There is a devil inside me and he’s shouting.  And I do what he says,” a way of life that the speaker is not yet ready for when he first reads it.  Later, he comes to new conclusions – epitomized in this book – deciding not to edit, rewrite, rethink, or embellish anything in it.  Filled with insights into life in Israel, life within his family, and life within himself, the author has created a unique look at the writing life and what it means to at least one author, what he has given up for it, and what he hopes to regain from taking it back.  Truly unique.

ALSO by Nevo, reviewed here:  THREE FLOORS UP

Author Eshkol Nevo

Author Eshkol Nevo

Photos. The Witches’s Market in La Paz, Bolivia, appears on https://www.pinterest.ch

The Azrieli Tower, the tallest building in Tel Aviv, was a sight observed by the speaker from a rooftop “behind the Green Line.”  https://www.dezeen.com

The speaker and his wife Dikla attend a lecture about an idol, David Bowie, at the Eretz Israel Museum Complex. https://www.touristisrael.com

Zorba the Greek, portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, became a model for the speaker’s wished-for behavior, with several references throughout the latter part of the novel.  https://kochiread.blogspot.com

The author’s photo is from https://mesbelleslectures.com

THE LAST INTERVIEW
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Experimental, Historical, Israel, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Eshkol Nevo
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 10/13/2020
ISBN: 978-1635429879
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Note:  German author Siegfried Lenz (1926 – 2014) has been WINNER of the Goethe Prize and WINNER of the German Booksellers’ Peace Prize.

“Anyone who makes war his profession is a criminal.  The top brass ruling over us from on high, for example.  While we’re sitting here in the marsh.  We should knock them off, ‘cause then we’d have some peace.  Then we could all go home.  But the Gang that rules us – they’re very hard to get to.  They’re dug in, entrenched. Behind their sentries.”

cover turncoatSet during the last summer of World War II in Europe, The Turncoat, Siegfried Lenz’s second novel, humanizes war and its soldiers in new ways.  Concentrating on a group of young German soldiers who obey orders, even at the cost of their own lives and sanity, Lenz shows their vulnerability as they begin to reject the myths and propaganda they have been fed for years and do the best they can simply to survive.  Focusing primarily on Walter Proska, a young man in his late twenties who has been at the front for three years, the author allows the reader to know him and his fellow soldiers as people, young men who once had dreams and who now have mostly memories – many of them horrific.  They go where they are marched or transported, and do what they are told to do, often with a secret eye to escape.  Lenz succeeds in showing these soldiers as they really are, without demeaning them, sentimentalizing their emotional conflicts, or excusing their crimes.  He makes no judgments, depicting the war as it was for this group of young German soldiers and illustrating a point of view very different from what Americans may expect.

german+trains+railway+snow+winter+nazi+reichsbahnThe novel begins six years after most of the novel’s action has taken place, and main character Walter Proska, now thirty-five, is at his home in the former East Prussia where he grew up.  He has just written a fifteen-page letter to his sister Maria, whom he has not seen in the six years since the war ended.  Maria and her husband had been working as farmers, essential to the community, instead of fighting the war, and Walter now, belatedly, wants to reconnect. When he realizes that he does not have the necessary stamp to mail the letter to his sister, he goes to the door of an elderly local druggist who lives across the street to ask for one. He is stunned, however, when he looks through the window of the druggist’s house and observes the secret behavior of the druggist, a profoundly deaf, elderly man who survived World War I.  When the druggist invites him inside, he accepts, and as the two men try to converse across the generations, they highlight how their personal war memories still play in their lives, years afterward – including the disturbing scene Walter saw through the druggist’s window. The novel’s main action begins when Walter’s memory of a train whistle is triggered while talking with the druggist, instantly bringing his own memories of the war back with a roar.

Lyck, East Prussia, 1942

Lyck, East Prussia, 1942, home of Walter Proska and, in real life, childhood home of the author

This seemingly mundane introduction, which I have deliberately underplayed to prevent spoilers, is so powerful in its imagery and attention to the details of human psychology and behavior, that I suspect most lovers of literary fiction will react as I did, immediately rushing forward into the story of Walter’s years fighting for Germany.  In his first memories, he tells of heading to Kiev by train after leaving his home in Lyck, in East Prussia, six years ago.  A young woman, Wanda, needs a ride on the train in order to carry a jug with her brother’s ashes back home to her brother’s wife in Prowursk, and he helps her get on.  He flirts and they chat, with Wanda bringing him up to date on the number of explosions that have taken place on the railway recently, primarily from mines.  When the military police arrive to check the passengers, Wanda jumps off the train to avoid them, in such a hurry she leaves her brother’s ashes behind.  When she does not return before the train takes off again, Walter discovers he has been duped.  Later he discovers exactly how seriously he has been duped.  Fortunately, a friendly group of local soldiers, tasked with guarding the railroad, responds to his needs, and he ends up joining them.

german soldiers 2This group of soldiers forms strong friendships, aided, in part, by the fact that the corporal in charge of them is almost inhuman in his behavior toward others and toward them.  The soldiers find themselves pressed between the need to obey and the belief that much of what they see and are required to do is wrong.  “I sometimes think they keep us alive just to torment us,”  one comments, then expands on that idea:  “It’s this so-called duty…They’ve shot us up with the stuff, like dope.  They use it to make us crazy and dependent.  They give us a refined injection of duty serum to get us good and loaded.  When someone around us plays a few notes on the fatherland flute, a hundred listeners get red, thirsty throats, all at the same time, and they cry out for some national consciousness schnapps!”  Eventually, after many personal losses and no change in the behavior of the company’s brutish corporal, one of Walter’s best friends defects, alone, and soon afterward, Walter does, too, joining the Soviets (though they are barely identified) for the rest of the war.  The novel is so personal, rather than political, that who is fighting whom for the rest of the novel does not really matter much to the narrative – until the novel’s highly satisfying conclusion, which resolves all thematic and personal issues for both Walter and the reader.

Schriftsteller Siegrfried Lenz Und Schauspieler Jan Fedder Bei Der Verleihung Der "Goldenen Feder" In Den Hamburger Deichtorhallen Am 100507 . (Photo by Franziska Krug/Getty Images)

Siegfried Lenz: Photo by Franziska Krug/Getty Images

Author Siegfried Lenz’s use of  a “turncoat” who abandons his country to fight for an “enemy,” may be unique among German novels.  It was problematic enough at the time it was written that though Lenz’s debut novel had been a huge success in 1951, his publisher decided that they could not publish The Turncoat as his second novel, even with revisions.  The book was stored away by the author, and it was not until Lenz’s death in 2014 that it was rediscovered.  Published in Germany and Europe soon afterward, and now here in English for the first time, it offers insights and observations from the long-distant past which still have much relevance for today’s complex, media-driven world.  High on my Favorites list for the year.

Photos.  The World War II locomotive appears on https://www.hgwdavie.com

A postcard from Lyck, East Prussia, may be found on http://www.castlesofpoland.com

The photo of German soldiers is from https://www.ebay.com

Siegfried Lenz  (1926 – 2014) was born in Lyck, East Prussia (now Ełk, Poland), the son of a customs officer. Photo by https://www.gettyimages.ie/

THE TURNCOAT
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Germany, Historical, Literary, Psychological study, Russia/Soviet Union, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Siegfried Lenz
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 10/06/2020
ISBN: 978-1590510537
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“Under the warp of advertising banners interlaced with each other above the path – which the surreptitious hands of the homeless dismantled at night because they made such good blankets – Managua showed off its own precarious decoration.  Walls covered with layers of slogans, shacks thrown together in disorderly clusters, alleys twisting and turning here and there, loose rubble everywhere….”

cover sky weeps for meIn his second novel published in English by McPherson & Company, Sergio Ramirez, former Vice President of Nicaragua (1985 – 1990) under Daniel Ortega, creates a complex slice of life in that equally complex country.  His earlier novel in English, Divine Punishment, focused on the turmoil in the mid-thirties, leading to the eventual dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Garcia in 1936.  This novel, The Sky Weeps for Me, a true noir, originally published in 2008, is set in the mid-1990s, an equally difficult time.  Political parties have come and changed and gone; a new generation with new ideas and policies has grown up and become active; and former military officers are often working now in municipal or police roles.  Friends from the revolution are sometimes working toward different goals, and a strong central government backed by a large number of citizens from all social groups has not yet emerged.  As a result, the economy is in tatters, the poor are on their own, and violence is a common theme.

Celebration for Our Lady of Fatima

Celebration for Our Lady of Fatima

The opening chapter, packed with descriptive information, immediately establishes the three main characters and the settings of their lives.  Inspector Dolores Morales of the Drug Investigation Administration has his office on the third floor of the National Police Building, an office where he leaves the window open because the air conditioner expired long ago:  “He didn’t bother to close it when it rained, so its heavy cretonne curtain, gathered tightly at one end, had become a damp, matted, dusty lump.”  Below his window the statue of Our Lady of Fatima is on its pilgrimage around the whole of Nicaragua and a festive march is being played.  In the hallway Morales meets Doña Sofia, who works for the police as an orderly, primarily as a cleaning person.  She is, however, extremely intelligent, and often does her own investigating, not hesitating to make suggestions to her higher-ups.  Bert Dixon, nicknamed “Lord” for his fine manners, is in charge of Drug Investigations for Bluefields, on the Caribbean coast, and he has called Morales early that morning to tell him about the Regina Maris, an abandoned yacht found in Laguna de Perlas, in the forested lowlands north of Bluefields.

One of the casinos in Managua, a larger one than the one where Dona Sofia works.

Pharaoh’s, one of the popular casinos in Managua.

Dixon is reserved, and Morales thrives on drink and women, but the two men have been close friends since the revolution.  Dixon immediately tells Morales that he has sent photos and samples of some presumed bloodstains from the abandoned yacht to him for study.  He also has a witness whom he is holding for further information.  The “witness” is refusing to talk unless the police release his brother from jail for bringing in contraband from Honduras, demanding also that he be allowed to keep the contraband they seized.  A book containing a calling card with the name of a casino is found on the yacht, and the woman thought to have been reading that book is believed to be missing, inspiring Doña Sofia to apply for a job at the advertised casino in hopes of finding out more information. Prospective suspects are discussed by the primary characters, and questions arise as to whether some of these suspects might also be associated with the Cali drug cartel.  The deaths of two additional people take place as the key investigators are still dealing with the mysteries of the abandoned yacht and the nagging question of why someone would abandon a fifty-foot yacht.  A new character, nicknamed “Chuck Norris,” a DEA liaison, provides information about the yacht’s travels in Colombia while also expanding on the character of the missing woman, and the child she left behind.

Author Sergio Ramirez

Author Sergio Ramirez

During all these discussions and the action moving forward, approximately twenty additional officials – their names, nicknames, and positions – are introduced and become part of the investigation.  Fortunately for the reader, these are listed in the Dramatis Personae at the beginning of the novel, since these minor characters are difficult to keep track of without help.  Throughout, many of the narrative’s mysteries are revealed in conversations between characters, keeping the reader at a distance, instead of unfolding before the reader’s eyes.  The author, obviously aware of some of the difficulties that readers may have in keeping track of activities they have been “told about,” instead of  having “lived,” helpfully includes numerous summaries throughout the novel to keep the story lines clear and up to date.  Many characters have odd habits which also make them more memorable:  Morales has two female lovers who discover the existence of each other and become friends, and Doña Sofia proves to be just about the smartest investigator of the whole group.  Her teasing of her bosses is classic humor. “The Nun,” the second-in-command of the National Police, uncompromising and brilliant, stays out of the fray, and runs a tight ship, and these three women serve as shining lights among the dark males surrounding them.

Morales's "Celestial Blue" Lada, featured throughout.

Morales’s “Celestial Blue” Lada, featured throughout.

The final chapters are the most dramatic, descriptive, and ultimately most effective chapters in the book, and few readers will forget the events which take place during a major rainstorm in which “the sky weeps.”  Morales and Dixon take Morales’s famous “celestial blue Lada” car into the countryside where another body has been discovered and identified, and some additional violence takes place. The complex future for the country and the fates of some main characters are left undeveloped, suggesting a possible sequel being planned for the future.  Originally written in 2008 and published in Spanish, this edition, well translated by Leland H. Chambers and publisher Bruce R. McPherson, offers much to think about in the aftermath of a country’s civil war and the participants’ need, somehow, to “hold onto the last shreds of its ideals.”

ALSO reviewed here:  DIVINE PUNISHMENT

The real Chuck Norris, mdel for one of the characters here.

The real Chuck Norris, model for one of the characters here.

Photos.  The poster for the Our Lady of Fatima Celebration appears on https://twitter.com

Pharoah’s Casino in Managua is shown here:  https://www.casinosavenue.com

The author’s photo may be found here:  https://www.nuso.org

The blue Lada car from the 1980s is from https://www.alamy.com

The Chuck Norris photo appears on https://www.wikicelebs.com

THE SKY WEEPS FOR ME
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, Literary, Social and Political Issues, Nicaragua
Written by: Sergio Ramirez
Published by: McPherson and Company
Date Published: 10/02/2020
Edition: 1st Edition
ISBN: 978-1620540206
Available in: Paperback

Graham Swift–HERE WE ARE

Note:  Author Graham Swift has been WINNER of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and WINNER of the Booker Prize for his novel Last Orders.

“Down here at the back of the auditorium, [Jack] was part of the audience and he wasn’t.  He was Jack Robinson and he wasn’t…In the darkness, neither in nor out of the audience, he would sometimes feel the thinness, the fakery of the plush rapt edifice around him.  Plush?  Turn up the lights and you’d soon see, he knew, how tatty, how shabby, how sham it all was.”

cover, here we areIn entitling his latest thought-provoking book Here We Are, Graham Swift announces to the reader in advance that all the clues to understanding the people whose lives are the subject of this story are here, already present within this narrative.  In the opening quotation, for example, Jack Robbins, known on stage as Jack Robinson, the “compere” of a variety show on the Brighton Pier, enjoys spending time sitting in the audience at the back of the theatre during some of the acts each night.  He is especially intrigued by the magic act – seeing and appreciating all the illusions and the role-playing that are going on but understanding that those magical illusions are artificially created – all part of a giant  “sham” controlled by the magician.  Jack even goes so far as to remind himself that the theatre itself, the “plush edifice” around him, is also a tatty, shabby, sham. Jack and his co-workers, Ronnie and Evie, the magician and his assistant, who are the other main characters here, lead lives which have obviously made them who they are, though all lack the kind of insight which allows them to connect and resolve their present lives with their past.  As a result, all the characters simply exist in the moment, instead of truly living. “Here we are,” they seem to say to the reader – working from day to day without much depth of thought.

Brighton Palace Pier

The theatre where Jack, Ronnie, and Evie performed was at the end of Brighton Pier.

In August, 1959, Jack, the twenty-eight-year-old host of the variety show in the Brighton Palace Pier Theatre,  already has twelve years of experience at the job, yet he is still feeling panic and vertigo before he goes on stage to assume his role.  “It posed the paralyzing question of who he was in the first place, and the answer was simple.  He was nobody…And where was he? He was nowhere…on a flimsy structure built over swirling water.”  Jack thinks of his mother, giving him the necessary “brutal shove” he needed to get out on stage, and his absent father, a man who simply disappeared.  As he gets ready to go on stage, Jack thinks of Ronnie Dean, now the show’s magician, who had been in the army with him, and Evie White, Ronnie’s fiancée and assistant with his act, and then flashes forward and thinks of the end of summer when all the shows are over, only existing in the memories of those who saw them.  Ronnie and Evie, having had an extremely successful summer and a whole career ahead of them, we learn, “never appeared on stage again,”  while Ronnie himself, “never appeared again at all.”

Bethnal_Green_stn_southwest_entrance

The tube station at Bethnal Green, to which people rushed to escape bombings during the war, was the site of a major loss of life, memorialized in THE REPORT, by Jessica Francis Kane. See photo credits at end of review for more information.

Ronnie’s story, with and without his live presence, becomes the focus of most of the book. Growing up in “the humblest of houses” in Bethnal Green, Ronnie, the son of a charwoman and a merchant seaman, saw very little of his father.  On one of his brief stops at home, however, his father brought Ronnie a green parrot named Pablo, a present which excited Ronnie, in part because it could say its own name.  As soon as the father leaves town, however, the bird vanishes, and Ronnie misses it, “as one might miss something that might not have been there in the first place.”  Soon after, Ronnie, at age eight, is taken to the railroad station and put on a train for Oxfordshire, to a house called “Evergrene,” where he will live with Eric and Penny Lawrence during five years of World War II. Ronnie and the Lawrences become especially close, as the Lawrences have no children, and when Ronnie learns that Eric Lawrence has a private career as a magician – and that he is willing to teach Ronnie some of the secrets of the trade – he is an enthusiastic learner, an experience that Jack Robbins later refers to as his “sorcerer’s apprenticeship.”  When he is fourteen, Ronnie is returned to his mother, though he secretly visits the Lawrences on weekends, enjoying their company and continuously improving his magic.

green parrot

Ronnie’s dad gave him a green parrot named Pablo, a gift he memorialized in his stage name.

Evie White, the third character, straddles two worlds.  Her first role is as Ronnie’s assistant and later in the summer, she is his fiancée.  At the end of the summer, when Ronnie suddenly disappears, however, Evie has to make a new life. The fates of all three characters are further developed in a flash forward which takes place in 2009, fifty years after Evie’s marriage to Jack.  With all the temporary changes that dramatically affect Jack, Ronnie, and Evie in their childhoods and early adulthood, the crux of the novel and its resolutions are saved for the conclusion.  Secrets, magic, and illusions combine in the lives of all three characters, and as the characters deal with how fantasy and illusion affect their behavior going forward in time, the reader’s understanding of the author’s themes of how one’s reality, responsibility, and ultimately identity are affected by the imagination expands in surprising ways.

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Author Graham Swift

Evie achieves some resolution some years after Ronnie’s disappearance when she visits Evergrene, the house where Ronnie spent the war, but she has no one to share her discoveries with.  Ronnie, before his disappearance, had seen himself  “moving from magic to wizardry…and Ronnie recognized in himself the ability to cross [the line].”  His disappearance makes it impossible for the reader to know if he succeeded in crossing the line to new understandings about life, or if the disappearance itself is the answer.  White doves, rainbows, and a parrot in Ronnie’s grand finale at the theater in 1959, contrast with secret discoveries about Ronnie and his upbringing that Evie pursues late in life and help set the stage for Evie’s own sense of resolution at the conclusion.  “Life is unfair, you do or you don’t have your moment,” she says.  “And if the show must come to an end, then there’s always the sound theatrical argument:  Save the best till last.”   In what may be his most compressed, thematically dense, and intriguing novel in recent years, Graham Swift, too, may have saved the best till last.

Also reviewed here:      MOTHERING SUNDAY    and   WISH YOU WERE HERE

Photos.  The theatre where Jack, Ronnie, and Evie performed was at the end of Brighton Pierhttps://www.123rf.com

The tube station at Bethnal Green (see https://commons.wikimedia.org) to which people rushed to escape bombings during World War II, was the site of a major loss of life, memorialized in THE REPORT, a beautifully written piece of non-fiction by Jessica Francis Kane:  http://marywhipplereviews.com/jessica-francis-kane-the-report-england/

Ronnie’s dad gave him a green parrot named Pablo, a gift he memorialized in his stage name. https://www.123rf.com

Author Graham Swift has been WINNER of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and WINNER of the Booker Prize for his 1996 novel Last Orders.  Author photo:  https://alchetron.com

 

HERE WE ARE
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, England, Literary, Psychological study
Written by: Graham Swift
Published by: Knopf
Date Published: 09/22/2020
ISBN: 978-0525658054
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

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