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Note: This novel by Irish author Sebastian Barry was WINNER of the Costa Award for Best Novel of 2016 in the UK and Ireland.

“Don’t tell me a Irish is an example of civilized humanity. He may be an angel in the clothes of a devil or a devil in the clothes of an angel but either way you’re talking to two when you talk to one Irishman….I seen killer Irishmen and gentle souls but they’re both the same, they both have an awful fire burning inside them, like they were just the carapace of a furnace.” – Thomas McNulty, a 17-year-old Irishman in the U. S. Army, 1850s.

cover days without endEscaping the Great Famine in Ireland, Thomas McNulty, a boy in his mid-teens and the only survivor of his family, hopes for a new start in a new world. Sneaking onto a boat for Canada with other starving Irish, many of whom die on board, he discovers, upon his arrival, that “Canada was a-feared of us…We were only rats of people. Hunger takes away what you are.” Seeing no future there, he travels, eventually, to the US, working his way to Missouri, where he then meets John Cole, another orphan boy of his own age, whose great-grandmother was an Indian. They connect instantly, and “for the first time I felt like a human person….John Cole was my love, all my love.” Realizing that they have a better chance of surviving together than they would have separately, they figure out a way to keep working until they are old enough to enlist in the U.S. Army. Once in the Army, they end up in northern California, where recent settlers have been having trouble with the Yurok Indians, native to those lands. The boys’ first battle is so savage and the outcome so devastating that Thomas describes it as “a complete vision of world’s end and death, in those moments I could think no more, my head bloodless, empty, racketing, astonished…We were dislocated, now we were ghosts.” Later they spend more years and more battles in Wyoming and eventually in Tennessee, where they fight for an Irish regiment against “the Rebs” in the Civil War.

barry costa prizeSebastian Barry, a writer with almost unparalleled ability to control his characters, his story line, his style, and the peaks and valleys of the changing moods of his novel, succeeds brilliantly in this novel, already the winner of the Costa Award in the UK, and likely to be winner of several more major prizes, as well. Thomas McNulty, Barry’s main character, is shown in all his youth and vulnerability, but Barry never resorts to easy sentimentality in order to draw sympathy for him, no matter how horrific the circumstances in which Thomas finds himself. Life’s harsh conditions and Thomas’s lack of family have become his accepted “normal,” and the reader quickly identifies with him as he slowly recreates a “family” of sorts during the course of this often violent and bloody novel. John Cole, the first member to join his “family,” becomes his “rock,” and their  relationship keeps both of them grounded during battle action and its attendant trauma which are the undoing of some older, less hopeful men.


This small painting (16″ x 11″) by Henry Farny (1847 -1916) from 1894 shows a Southern Warrior in his formal dress. This painting set a record at Bonham’s when it was sold in 2012. See photo credits.

Much of the novel is told through flashbacks, and Thomas admits that he sometimes may have minor details wrong. He jumps around as he remembers events, and he makes no distinction between the barbarity of the Indian wars as opposed to the American Civil War. There is no difference, the author is saying – one war blends into the next, regardless of whether the participants are of different cultures. Despite all, however, Thomas continues to hope and dream. His “family” gets larger when John becomes an adoptive father. Later, when Thomas and John are away fighting the Civil War, the child’s caretaker  becomes the equivalent of a grandfather for the child and a father figure for Thomas and John. The child gives new meaning to life for all of them while also learning the nature of responsibility and honor. On a larger scale, Major Neale, leader of the regiment to which Thomas and John belong, suffers great personal losses and arouses sympathy in Thomas. Caught-His-Horse-First, an Indian chief, also suffers similar losses, creating a sense of sad universality as these individual losses affect their individual judgment and their actions.

Battle scene by Don Troiani shows the harp and shamrock insignia of the Irish Brigade during the Civil War.

Battle scene by Don Troiani shows the harp and shamrock insignia of the Irish Brigade during the Civil War.  Click and scroll to enlarge.

Irony adds to the thematic message. Thomas, like most of the other soldiers in his regiment, is Irish, and during the Civil War, their regimental flag bears the shamrock and harp. In their first big battle, they discover that “the Rebs” they are fighting are also carrying the same flag, though they fight each other, making both sides wonder why. At another point during the war, a captain in Thomas’s regiment takes issue with the murderous intent of the major’s orders and the graphically depicted barbarity which results, proving that both sides are acting like animals. In time, Thomas himself is forced to take action against one of his own men, but unlike them, he takes no joy at taking a life to save that of another. Depictions of the collecting of trophies from the enemy will make every reader question the innate nature of humanity. The themes of love and war become fully developed as additional scenes show the interconnections between power and weakness, honor and cowardice, empathy and cold-blooded aggression, selflessness and sacrifice.

The confederate bowie knife (with its 13" blade) was a killer instrument during the Civil War, often responsible for more deaths than rifles.

The Confederate Bowie knife (with its 13″ blade) was a killer instrument during the Civil War, often responsible for more deaths than rifles.

Throughout the novel, Barry seems to do the impossible, combining his naturally lyrical style with subject matter which is often tough, sometimes brutal, and never lovely. Yet he makes it work. One battle takes place amidst great noise, but Thomas notes that “There’s all these little humpy hills and stands of scrubby trees, and then the full dark river pouring south on our left. Friendly, protecting river.” When he sees the Rebs, he comments, “how thin these boys are, how strange, like ghosts and ghouls. Their eyes like twenty thousand dirty stones. River stones.” After the battle, a particularly large man, has “run his big form so heavy he’s fallen over like a killed man. I can hear him muttering into the earth, his mouth and face plastered in mud. The day is as dry as a furnace but his sweat makes mud enough to throw a pot.” And after the battle, “the whole body of men seems to be sleeping. No force will ever rouse us again. Our eyes are closed and we are asking for our strength returned. If we got Gods we’re praying to them. Then it seeps back. No thankful speech of any captain could be so deep as the relief of it.” Barry makes it all real in a novel which Kazuo Ishiguro describes as “the most fascinating line-by-line first-person narration I’ve come across in years,” and which Donal Ryan calls “a beautiful, savage, tender, searing work of art. Sentence after perfect sentence, it grips and does not let go.” #1 on my Favorites List for 2017.



This landscape by Alfred Bierstadt (1830 – 1902), “View from Wind River Mountains,” is used as the cover for the US edition of this book. Most of the detail is from the left side of the painting.

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo is from http://en.mogaznews.com/

The photo of the “Southern Plains  Indian Warrior,” appears on https://www.pinterest.com    Bonham’s, an auction house in England, says: “On one of our appraisal events, we consigned a painting that was originally bought from a garage sale for $15,” Sanchez said. “We estimated the painting at $100,000 to $150,000 and it ended up selling for $361,500 including buyer’s premium. That painting was “Southern Plains Indian warrior,” by Henry Farny, part of a featured lot in Bonhams’ California and Western paintings and sculpture auction in May 2012. 

The battle scene by Don Troiani, showing the flag of the Irish Brigade, appears on http://civilwartalk.com

The Confederate Bowie knife, with its wooden grips and 13″ blade, was responsible for almost as many deaths as the rifle.  http://www.civilwar.si.edu

“View from Wind River Mountains” by Albert Bierstadt is shown on http://www.ebay.com

REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, Coming-of-age, Historical, Ireland and Northern Ireland, Literary, Native American, Social and Political Issues, United States, US Regional
Written by: Sebastian Barry
Published by: Viking
Date Published: 01/24/2017
ISBN: 978-0525427360
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“Hortensia hoped the women [at the Community Association meeting] were there for the same reason she was, even if secretly…for the promise of something non-threatening and happily boring with which to pass the time, get nearer to death, get closer to being done with it all. After so many years of living – too many – Hortensia wanted to die. She had no intention of taking her life, but at least there were the Katterijn committee meetings, slowly ticking the hours off her sheet.”

cover woman next doorBorn in Barbados, brought up in Nigeria, and now living in South Africa, author Yewande Omotoso may soon have to give up her profession. Trained as an architect and still working in that field, she has recently won the South African Literary Award for First Time Author and has been nominated for three other major South African prizes in the past four years. Her first novel, Bom Boy, was a popular, as well as literary, success, and this new novel looks as if it will appeal to the same kind of audience, readers looking for an escape from some of the doom and gloom of contemporary life but not an escape into mindlessness, a story with some realistic grit. In The Woman Next Door, her second novel, Omotoso’s vivid characters and devotion to telling a good story provide charm and the kind of humor which reveals her characters’ attitudes and states of mind, drawing in the reader and making the novel’s conflicts feel more like those that many of us face in our own lives. Setting the novel in Cape Town, South Africa, Omotoso depicts Katterijn, an upscale enclave which has not yet escaped the country’s past history of apartheid, however much the professionally successful neighbors might want to pretend that it no longer exists, but she is not a “message novelist.” For her, the story and its characters come first, her themes being revealed through their conflicts and the empathy she creates among her readers.

author photoIn what may be a unique twist, main characters Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are both over eighty years old – neighbors, with a hedge separating their properties. Both women are independent and often aggressive, and they have learned from experience to hold fast to what they believe and to be willing to say anything in their own defense. From their first meeting they have hated each other. Hortensia, a black woman, age eighty-five, is a former fabric designer and entrepreneur with a successful career, owning and operating boutiques which sell unique fabrics from all over Africa. Having met and married her white husband Peter in 1950s London, she then moved to Nigeria before moving to Cape Town, where she is the only black owner of property in Katterijn where they live. Her husband Peter is now dying, and she is his sometimes resentful caretaker, their relationship having suffered from his bad behavior in the past.

pierneef 1945

Marion wants to protect a Pierneef painting from seizure in bankruptcy proceedings. Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef, regarded as one of the best of the Old South Africa masters, “reduced and simplified the landscape to geometric structures, using flat planes, lines and colour to present the harmony and order in nature.” See Wiki.  Click to enlarge.

Marion, a white widow, was the architect of the forty-home development of Katterijn, where she and Hortensia live, and part of the tension between Hortensia and Marion has resulted from the fact that Hortensia is now living in the first house that Marion ever designed on her own, her favorite project, the one she herself would like to own. Marion’s own house is built on the land occupied by the slave quarters of the former estate on which Hortensia’s house is built, an irony which does not escape her. To complicate things even more on an emotional level, Marion has just discovered that her husband spent their entire savings before his recent death, and she has no idea how she will live when the bank begins to take action. She owns only one treasure, which she is determined to save from any seizure by the bank – a painting by landscape artist Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef, still regarded as one of the masters of landscape painting in South Africa.

The Leukodendron argenteum tree, an endangered species limited now to the Cape Town area, is where a family wants to bury one of its grandparents among her children who died.

A Cape Town family wants to bury one of its grandmothers under a “silver tree” with her deceased children.  The Leucodenrum argenteum, an endangered species, is limited now to the Cape Town area Photo by Andrew Massyn.

In the meantime, Marion stays busy, having appointed herself to be in charge of the community association and its business, the most pressing issue of which is a recent land claim against the development. With apartheid abolished legally in 1991, a Land Claims Commission was set up in the Nineties “to restore land to the disenfranchised,” and though the time for application for redress has passed, a recent new claim has emerged. A large, extended black family now claims land owned and operated by a wealthy white family which bought it at auction and operates a vineyard on it. Of less import, financially, is the request by another person whose grandparents were slaves living in the slave quarters of the estate that originally existed on the site of the development. This woman is asking permission to bury the ashes of her grandmother where several of her children were buried, at a “silver tree” on the development’s property. This tree has writing on it listing the names of those black slaves buried beneath it, and it belongs to Hortensia.

From 1906 - 1909, Pablo Picasso's '"African Period," the artist was influenced by artworks brought back from Sub-Saharan Africa following the expansion of French influence there.

From 1906 – 1909, Pablo Picasso’s ‘”African Period,” the artist was influenced by artworks brought back from sub-Saharan Africa following the expansion of French influence there.

Within this general sketch of the circumstances under which the all the action takes place, Omotoso develops the conflicts, the complications, and the conclusions to many issues, large and small. The point of view rotates among the characters and their pasts, creating many individualized scenes, and at times I could not help thinking of this story as the basis for a film comparing and contrasting the marriages, issues with children, career decisions, and dealings with their husbands’ infidelities faced by both Hortensia and Marion.  Their skirmishes, insults, and hissy fits will keep smiles on the faces of readers for much of the novel, but circumstances arise in which both women must co-operate, despite their hatred for each other. As Hortensia declares, “Hating is a drier form of drowning.”

Adire textiles by the Yoruba in Nigeria were popular in boutiques owned by Hortensia when she lived there, and afterward when she was in S. Africa. Photo from video, see photo credits for video.

Adire textiles by the Yoruba in Nigeria were popular in boutiques owned by Hortensia when she lived there, and afterward when she was in S. Africa. Photo from video, see photo credits for video link. Click to enlarge.

At times, the novel does get bogged down somewhat in domestic issues with sudden coincidences used to resolve some of the issues between Hortensia and Marion. Occasionally, Omotoso also becomes sentimental, using imagery designed to pull at the reader’s heart strings. The author’s ability to deal with her thematic message regarding racism without becoming preachy or trite is remarkable, however, and her occasional artistic references, such as Picasso’s response to African art and its influence on his French paintings, expand the imagery of cultural inclusion and connection beyond the borders of this novel. A novel that has something to say on a universal scale, The Woman Next Door is also a fast-paced tale of two women in their eighties who give new meaning to the term “nasty women.”

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo appears on http://www.bbc.co.uk/

Landscape by (Jacobus Hendrik) Pierneef (1886 – 1957).  Pierneef, considered one of the greatest of the South African masters of landscape, produced paintings which “reduced and simplified the landscape to geometric structures, using flat planes, lines and colour to present the harmony and order in nature.”  See https://en.wikipedia.org/

The Silver Tree from South Africa, an endangered species,  and where a family wants to bury the grandmother of her dead children, is located on the border between the houses of Hortensia and Marion. Photo by Andrew Massyn:  https://commons.wikimedia.org

Picasso was influenced by artwork from sub-Saharan Africa from 1906 – 1909, his African Period, following the expansion of French influence there. Hortensia went to Abeokuta, a place said to have influenced Picasso’s work, when she had her boutiques.  This portrait is from that period:  https://www.tripadvisor.com.sg/

Hortensia was particularly interested in the Yoruba adire fabric which she sold in her boutiques.  This photo is from a video on the making of this fabric:  http://artthreads.blogspot.com/2012/03/friday-inspiration-indigo.html

REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, Historical, South Africa, Nigeria, Social and Political Issues, Apartheid|
Written by: Yewande Omotoso
Published by: Picador
Date Published: 02/07/2017
ISBN: 978-1250124579
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover


Note: In 2016 Han Kang was WINNER of the Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian, her previous novel.

“Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? Is the dignity that we cling to nothing but self-delusion, masking from ourselves this single truth: that each one of us is capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravening beast, a lump of meat? To be degraded, damaged, slaughtered – is this the essential fate of humankind, one that history has confirmed as inevitable?” – The Prisoner, 1990.

coverHaving grown up in Gwangju, South Korea, where her brother still lives, author Han Kang writes of that city’s civil uprising of May, 1980, when she was ten years old, and the military’s reaction with all its attendant horrors. In that perennially restive southern city, many young people, most of them unarmed, were slaughtered at the hands of aggressive government soldiers, and when the battles ended, there were no clear victors. Just six months prior, President Park Chung-hee, a harsh dictator, was assassinated by the nation’s security services. He had ruled the country for eighteen years and was succeeded as President by Major General Chun Doo-Hwan, in April, 1980. The following month, Chun feared the possibility of a popular rebellion in Gwangju and quickly deployed the army there. By closing the university, he thereby freed many earnest, but untrained, young people who took to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with the new military government. Many were murdered.

authorUsing both research and interviews conducted with many survivors, Han Kang recreates those fraught times, developing a circular narrative of six overlapping chapters, with each chapter depicting vibrant, realistic characters who participate in the rebellion in Gwangju. As they overlap and reappear in each other’s narratives, the characters reveal different points of view of the action they have observed. Han’s prodigious descriptive skills are more than equal to the task of describing the one-sided warfare between naïve young men and their heavily armed opponents, but she also sees this action in broad thematic terms. In her previous novel, The Vegetarian, Han asked basic questions about who we are as humans, who we are in relation to the outside world, and how much control we have over our lives. In Human Acts, she takes these same themes to another level, delving deeply into the questions raised in the opening quotation on whether human beings are fundamentally cruel and whether cruelty, with its damage and degradation, is the only thing we share with each other as a species. Is cruelty, in fact, the “essential fate” of mankind and is it inevitable, she asks.

Taegukgi, the flag of South Korea

The Taegukgi, the flag of South Korea, used to decorate the coffins of the dead rebels in Gwangju.

In the first of the six episodes, “The Boy, 1980,” a young boy of fifteen, the smallest in his third year class of middle school, is viewing the bodies of twenty-eight rebels who have been killed in action in Gwangju. The bodies have been laid out in the gym of the university, and the young boy is anxious about the fate of a friend. As the families arrive to identify their loved ones, the national anthem is playing and the Taegukgi, the national flag, is spread over each coffin, leading the boy to wonder “why you would sing the national anthem for people who’d been killed by soldiers” and “why cover the coffin with the Taegukgi? As though it wasn’t the nation itself that had murdered them.” As his mother comes to drag him back home, Dong-ho begins to wonder about the souls of the dead, “How long do souls linger by the side of their bodies? Do they really flutter away like some kind of bird? Is that what trembles the edges of the candle flame?” – questions which continue throughout the novel.


Unarmed boy beaten by army officer.

In the next section, the “Boy’s Friend, 1980,” the lingering soul of an otherwise unidentified boy is commenting on what has happened to him and to the man lying across him as “the helmets” and the Red Cross arrive to put them on a military truck. He is frustrated because he cannot separate his soul from his dead body to check on a friend, and he is worried about his sister. “My sister’s soul, like mine, [may] still be lingering somewhere, but where?…Without bodies how would we know each other?” Memories come to him, and as new bodies are brought in, the souls cluster around. When the pyre of bodies starts burning, the boy wonders where his soul should go, sorry because he feels he has failed.

Deoksugung Palace in Seoul, where an abused editor gets off the bus. The contrast between the beauty of the ancient palace and the horrors of the present is unmistakable. Photo by Ivan Herman.

Deoksugung Palace in Seoul, where an abused editor gets off the bus. The contrast between the beauty of the ancient palace and the horrors of the editor’s present is unmistakable. Photo by Ivan Herman.

Subsequent sections continue the story of the rebellion with “The Editor, 1985,” as a young woman gets off the bus in front of the Deoksu Palace on her way home from work. She wears a scarf hiding her face, showing only her eyes. She has just been “struck so hard, over and over in the exact same spot, that the capillaries laced over her right cheekbone burst, the blood trickling out through her torn skin.” She had been working with the translator of a new work with political overtones, a person living in hiding whose own family does not know how to reach him. Times for the editor are tense, and a mysterious person has now assaulted her for this work. Flyers saying “Down with the Butcher, Chun Doo-Hwan” emphasize that not much has changed in the five years since the rebellion, and she has clearly paid the price.

Monami Biro pen, used as a torture device, another ironic detail, since "mon ami" is French for "friend."

The simple Monami Biro pen was used as a torture device, another ironic detail, since “mon ami” is French for “friend.”

“The Prisoner, 1990,” ten years after the rebellion, details a man’s long imprisonment in a cell with ninety others and his on-going torture there – every interrogation begins with an assault and continues as a Monami Biro is jammed between a prisoner’s twisted fingers, where it remains for weeks or months. Released years later, the prisoner cannot forget the horrors and his agonized questions about his soul, likening it to fragile glass. “Factory Girl, 2002” provides more information about censorship, unionization, strike-breakers, and the personal costs, even as late as 2002, while “The Boy’s Mother” takes place in the present, thirty years after the rebellion. In this especially moving section, the mother reveals that she has never been able to forget her own actions toward her son during the uprising and its costs, reliving those events from 1980 every day. Han’s work takes an emotional toll, but every detail works, and no detail is gratuitous. Ultimately, she recreates the turmoil and human cost of more than two decades of Korean history, and she does it in a mere two hundred pages.

Note: To avoid spoilers, I have not included the names of the characters within the separate sections.  Though the number of characters is small, some names are similar, and readers might want to keep a brief character list which will show how these overlap.


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

The South Korean flag, the Taegukgi, is shown on http://koreanliteraturenow.com/

The unarmed boy being beaten in the Gwangju uprising is from https://inconseoulable.wordpress.com

Built in the 14th century, the Deoksugung Palace was a residence of the royal family until early in the twentieth century.  Photo by Ivan Herman. The contrast between the beauty of the ancient palace and the horrors of the present is unmistakable in the image of “the Editor” getting off the bus after being abused in the present. Photo by Ivan Herman. https://www.ivan-herman.net/

The simple Monami Biro pen, used as a torture device, is another ironic detail, since “mon ami” is French for “friend.”  https://www.amazon.com/

REVIEW. Historical, Korea, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: HAN KANG
Published by: Hogarth
Date Published: 01/17/2017
ISBN: 978-1101906729
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover


Note: WINNER of innumerable prizes and often mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature, Israeli author Amos Oz was the recent WINNER of Germany’s International Literature Prize for this novel.

“Here is a story from the winter days of the end of 1959 and the beginning of 1960. It is a story of error and desire, of unrequited love, and of a religious question that remains unresolved. Some of the buildings still bore the marks of the [Arab-Israeli] war that had divided [Jerusalem] a decade earlier. In the background you could hear the distant strains of an accordion or the plaintive sound of a harmonica from behind closed shutters.”

cover judasIn the opening paragraph of this remarkable novel, Israeli author Amos Oz prepares the reader for some broad themes and provides tantalizing suggestions regarding a plot, based on “error,” “desire,” and “unrequited love.” He then calls to mind the Arab-Israeli War, and then, almost casually, adds that this story will also include an unresolved religious question, one which the author lets “float” for the rest of the opening chapter as he describes his main character, Shmuel Ash. A student in his mid-twenties, Ash is frustrated with his college thesis on “Jewish Views of Jesus,” and about to drop out of school; his commitment to the Socialist Renewal Group has gone awry; and the sweet emotionalism and the teary empathy he shows even for characters in mediocre movie plots have left him open to romantic disappointment. His girlfriend, in fact, “liked his bouncy spirit, his helplessness, and the exuberance that made her think of a friendly, high-spirited dog, always nuzzling you, demanding to be petted, and drooling in your lap.” She has, however, decided to accept a marriage proposal from her former boyfriend, “a specialist in rainwater collection.” And so Shmuel, “generous and brimming with goodwill… as soft as a woolen glove,” but who “never knew where he had put his other sock,” finds himself jilted and then out of college, his thesis, abandoned.

amos ozOn the college bulletin board, he finds a notice advertising a job for a Humanities student willing to spend five hours each evening chatting with a seventy-year-old invalid who craves company. The notice indicates that the employer will provide housing for the person who accepts this job, but the new employee will have to agree to have no visitors and to keep confidential everything he learns about his employers. With nothing to lose, Shmuel accepts the job. As Oz develops the stories of these mysterious people and how they are connected, he also establishes deep-seated theological and historical conflicts which continue to plague the world, especially the Middle East, to the present day. What begins as a highly descriptive novel of the real world quickly blossoms into a grand exploration of the ideas and theological beliefs which are the bedrock of Christianity and Judaism, their history and cultures – a novel “writ large” in the best possible meaning of those words.

President John F. Kennedy meets with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in May, 1961. They meet at the Waldorf Astoria, not at the White House, due to the tensions between their countries.

President John F. Kennedy meets with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in May, 1961. They meet at the Waldorf Astoria, not at the White House, due to the tensions between their countries.

Gershom Wald, the old man, and Atalia Abravanel, the woman in her mid-forties with whom he lives, become the characters through whom the past is channeled to Shmuel, but there are two other characters, invisible, who are at least as important. It gives away nothing to say that one of them, Gershom Wald’s son Micha, who died in the Arab-Israeli War, is a constant presence in this house. The other is Atalia’s father, Shealtil Abravanel, a lawyer whose ideals came into direct conflict with those of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister after the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. Abravanel had hoped that the Jews and the Arabs might form a Great Land of Israel, in which both groups would be able to live together, where each group could have their own cultural areas, and where they would share Jerusalem. The Zionist militarism which led to the establishment of the State of Israel was a disappointment to him and many others who had hoped for co-operation and peace between the groups. Abravanel, too, once lived in this house, which becomes a microcosm of the past, present, and the future of Israel since its founding.

Sunrise walk to Mount Zion, a trip Shmuel takes with Atalia. Photo by

Sunrise walk to Mount Zion, a trip Shmuel takes with Atalia. Photo by Bonnie Wilks.

Now, ten years later, forty-five-year-old Atalia Abravanel works as an “investigator” but otherwise lives a solitary life. Shmuel finds himself becoming attracted to her, and she sometimes flirts with him, though Wald constantly warns him that “she lets men who are fascinated by her get closer to her, then she drives them away… Atalia is always right …but being permanently in the right is like being scorched earth, isn’t that so?” Other young men, like Shmuel, have had the job that Shmuel has now, and it is clear that Atalia will never take Shmuel seriously, though she will suggest going on walks, to the movies, and even going to bed with him. The reader does not know until later in the novel what has made Atalia so bitter, and so vengeful. Vengeance, by definition, reflects the desire to punish someone for a betrayal, and Atalia’s need to punish clearly has deep-seated roots.

jesus and judas

Marble statue of Jesus and Judas, beside the Scala Sancta in the Lateran Palace, one of the Pope’s homes in Rome.

The second – and by far the biggest and most startling – philosophical issue in this book connects Shmuel to past theological views of betrayal. Very early in his own college research, Shmuel wonders why, in all the writings he has seen about Jesus and His gospel, there is no mention of Judas Iscariot, for “if it had not been for Judas, there might not have been a crucifixion, and had there been no crucifixion, there would have been no Christianity.” As Shmuel later discovers, Rabbi Judah Arieh de Modena, a seventeenth century scholar, regards Judas as “the most enthusiastic of all the apostles,” the “first man who believed with total faith in Jesus’s divinity.” According to the rabbi, Judas believed that if Jesus were to leave Galilee and go to Jerusalem where he might be crucified, that “he would [later] drag himself down from the cross and stand whole and healthy at the foot of the cross. And so the Kingdom of Heaven would begin.” Judas’s faith never waivered, and when Jesus died, Judas was so distraught at bringing about His death that he went away and hanged himself. (See pp. 146 – 153 for this unforgettable passage.)

Amos Oz spent ten years writing this book. I spent a week reading it. Though I finished it three days ago, I am still digesting the magnificence of the writing, the ideas, the scope, and the implications of all that Amos Oz offers here. Though it is dense, it is also enlivening, and for an American audience, it provides historical context for some of the issues between the US and Israel in the present. The religious subject matter, new to me, was stunning, and the relationships between desire and error, and betrayal and vengeance, seen throughout, have never seemed so close.

Note: Sensitive and vibrant translation by Nicholas de Lange.


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

President Kennedy meets with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion at the Waldorf Astoria, May, 1961.  Tensions were high between the US and Israel, so they did not meet at the White House.  https://elmicrolector.org

Sunrise on Mount Zion:  https://bonniewilks.com/

Marble statue of Jesus and Judas, beside the Scala Sancta in the Lateran Palace, one of the Pope’s residences in Rome:  http://hackingchristianity.net/

REVIEW. Historical, Israel, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Amos Oz
Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Date Published: 11/08/2016
ISBN: 978-0544464049
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

“Every time he saw the bomboys set off with a canoe full of slaves, he thought of his father standing on the shores of the Cape Coast Castle, ready to receive them. On this shore, watching the canoe push off, Quey brimmed with the same shame that accompanied each slave departure. What had his father felt on his shore [when they had arrived]?….Was it the same mix of fear and shame and loathing that Quey felt for his own flesh, his mutinous desire?” – thoughts of Quey, son of Effia Otcher and James Collins, British governor of the colony.

cover homegoingIn a novel which is both emotionally intimate and broad in its scope and thematic impact, this debut novel by twenty-six-year-old Ya’a Gyasi, formerly of Ghana, truly deserves its description as an “epic.” The young recipient of NPR’s Debut Novel of the Year last year for Homegoing, the much lauded Gyasi was today awarded the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize for Best Debut Novel of 2016, for this same novel. She had come to the U.S. from Ghana at a young age and grew up here, but she returned to Ghana for the first time during her sophomore year in college primarily to do research for a novel. Instead, she found the experience much more personal and affecting than she expected as she gained new insights into who she is and where she came from, insights which ultimately changed her life. As she was touring the Cape Coast Castle in which, long ago British governors and the local women they married lived comfortable lives, Gyasi confesses that she was stunned by the contrast between life in those “upstairs” rooms and in the rooms of the dungeon beneath the castle.  There twenty or more women per cell, about to be shipped out as slaves, spent their last painful days in Africa before going through the Door of No Return and entering the cargo holds of the ships taking them to America to be sold.

author photoOpening her novel in the mid-1700s, Gyasi recreates the tumult of what is now Ghana as the Fante tribes from the coastal area and the Asante (Ashanti) tribes from inland constantly battle each other for power, a task complicated by the fact that the British have occupied the coastal areas so that they can manage the lucrative shipping of slaves to America. Anyone captured by an enemy soldier, of either tribe, is destined to be sold to the British for export, and when the inland Asante also steal large amounts of guns and ammunition from the British and escape inland, the whole social fabric changes. The opening chapters, which establish this background, also introduce the first of eight generations reflected in the lives of two families: the descendants of the beautiful Effia, born in Fanteland, and the descendants of Esi, her half-sister, an Asante royal whom she does not know. While Effia strikes the fancy of James Collins, governor of the colony, who marries her and brings her to the beautiful Cape Coast Castle where he lives and works, Esi becomes just another anonymous voice that Effia hears emerging from the floors below her – in the dungeons. Esi is eventually shipped to America, living out the sad history of slavery and its aftermath, while Effia and her descendants remain in Ghana.

The Cape Coast Castle, on the southern coast of Ghana, is located just southwest of Saltpond.

The Cape Coast Castle, on the southern coast of Ghana, is located here just southwest of Saltpond. The Fante tribes lives along this coast.  Click to enlarge.

As the generations tell their stories, the full talent of this author becomes clear. Each section, named for the main character of the section, alternates with a later chapter from the same time period and a new character from the other, parallel family. Gyasi shows her talents for characterization by establishing qualities for these characters which allow the reader to understand and often identify with them. Quey, son of Effia and James Collins, is a man who could pass for white and who has been educated in England and then returned to Ghana where he no longer fits in. His other-family counterpart is Ness, daughter of Esi, who leads a hard life picking cotton in America and who eventually marries Sam and has a baby, for whom they sacrifice all. The images from this section permeate much of the overall action of the novel, and the dedication of the parents to their child cannot be overestimated. Gyasi makes them come alive, and though they are symbols of slavery and of the harsh world imposed by the powerful upon the weak, they feel more like real people than symbols, however powerful the symbolism may be.

Cape Coast Castle. Click to enlarge.

Cape Coast Castle. 

Characters’ goals change over the generations. One person, James, son of Quey, eventually decides to follow love and abandon the obligations imposed upon him as the son of Fante royalty to become a farmer in a new village. Kojo, Ness’s son in America, is a freeman living with a sympathetic family whose house is a stop on the Underground Railway. His son H, though also “free,” illustrates the problems of someone who has to sell himself to work in the mines for ten years in order to support a family, not much different from those who are owned by “masters.” The Civil War has not made much positive difference in their lives, at this point, and those who have to work the mines are vulnerable to severe health problems. The development of unions and the use of strikes as a weapon lead to a terrible form of undeclared civil war, with the mine owners using weapons to maintain their control.

The Door of No Return

The Door of No Return

When some of the characters end up in New York and Harlem in the twentieth century, trying to support themselves as housekeepers, singers in jazz clubs, or drug dealers, the events make direct connections with contemporary readers. Some characters begin to think of returning to Africa, their roots, not because they have any memories of Africa, but because they believe it must be more conducive to a “real” life than what they have found in the US. As the time period becomes more up to date, the last two generations merge, as each of the final characters represents one of the two families which have been traced for so many generations. Each must decide whether to revisit the past, mostly unknown, or stay put and face the future there.

Throughout, Gyasi incorporates elements common to great, majestic novels in this highly compressed epic of black lives and struggles. The continuing symbol of a black stone necklace belonging to the first generations of the novel and continuing to the present adds a kind of elegance and sense of continuity which grounds the novel for eight generations.   Folk stories, legends which evolve about some characters, the fears created by dreams and vague family memories, and the persistent drive to be successful while lacking a true understanding of themselves and their past make this novel “speak” to a modern audience, regardless of race or color.  A novel so broad, universal, and effective makes one wonder what Ya’a Gyasi can possibly do as an encore after this novel.

Note:  This CNN video features President Obama visiting the Cape Coast Castle with Anderson Cooper:

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo is from https://www.penguin.co.uk/

The map of Ghana, showing the Asante and Fante areas appears on http://www.africanworldheritagesites.org/

The wonderful photo of Cape Coast Castle is featured on https://nicoleinghana.wordpress.com/

The Door of No Return led to the waterfront and the British ships taking captives to America.  http://africancelebs.com/

The CNN video of Anderson Cooper and President Obama is on Youtube.

REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, Epic Novel, Historical, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Ya'a Gyasi
Published by: Alfred A. Knopf
Date Published: 06/07/2016
ISBN: 978-1101947135
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover


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