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Note: Gaute Heivoll was WINNER of Norway’s Brage Prize for Best Novel of the Year in 2013 for Before I Burn.

“In the fall of 1994, while clearing out the house and emptying the writing desk in the living room, I discovered the contract Papa had signed that evening in February, 1945….The contract…stated that Mama and Papa agreed to provide care for five mentally disabled children, for which they would receive eighty kroner a month per child. Perhaps they got the same amount for Josef, Matiasson, and Christian Jensen. I don’t know. Perhaps it was more. After all, they weren’t children.”

cover across the china seaSet in the aftermath of World War II in the southwestern countryside outside of Oslo, Gaute Heivoll’s emotionally engrossing novel involves big themes, a sense of involvement by the reader, and some lingering questions at the end. The novel draws its action from life in an extended family, where both the mother and father, parents of the unnamed young narrator, had worked as nurses and caregivers at a psychiatric hospital in Dikemark for eleven years. Devoutly religious, they cared for their patients with a “Christlike spirit of love.”  When the father’s old family home in the country burned to the ground during their time in Dikemark, just before the war, the parents looked on the bright side and decided they would rebuild on the site, creating “their own little asylum in the midst of the parish where Papa was born and grew up, a place Mama had not yet seen.” Carefully designing their new home so that they could care for the “mentally disabled,” they eventually created an upstairs floor which had a large kitchen, spacious and light-filled rooms, special staircases with lower steps, and doors with large handles which could be locked only from the outside – a place where people in need of special care could feel safe, “their own little Dikemark.”

Gaute HeivollA few weeks after they have moved into their new house, their first three tenants arrive. One, Josef, is Mama’s uncle, a man who had fallen from a cart and had hit his head so hard that he suffered permanent brain damage. The two others, Matiassen and Christian Jensen, had also been “normal” at birth. Matiassen had been a railroad worker until he got trapped for three days inside a tunnel in the mountains after an explosion caused the tunnel to collapse. Jensen had been gifted, and had lived with his mother until graduation, when some relatives in Ohio suggested that Jensen come to see them so that he could attend “a school named the College of Wooster.” Jensen traveled across the ocean to Wooster but never wrote a single letter home, suffering, as the college later reported, from “St. Vitus Dance,” a neurological disorder that prevented him from holding a pen steady. He never attended a single class before he was sent home. For years after that, he has continued to read the magazines from the college alumni office, but his tremors prevent him from much physical activity. These three adults become the first residents of the private asylum.

Founded in 1924 as a psychiatric hospital, Dikemark, where both parents of the speaker worked for eleven years, is now closed.

Founded in 1924 as a psychiatric hospital, Dikemark, outside of Oslo, where both parents of the speaker worked for eleven years, is now closed.

Four years later, in 1945, with the Germans leaving Norway and returning home, Mama and Papa, who, by now, have two children, a son who is the narrator of the novel, and a young daughter, Tone, agree to a contract in which they will care for the Olsen family of five siblings from Stavanger, children who have suffered terrible deprivations, unhealthy conditions, and permanent emotional and intellectual damage. The novel which follows shows the daily life of the family of four who are housing eight “mentally disabled” people, three adults and five children. The family’s own relationships with each other, with the people in their care, and with their schools and church, soon become tied also to their individual goals as human beings. Mama is cooking for twelve people, eight of whom have special needs, and doing whatever else is necessary to make them comfortable, and she has precious little time to spend singing, which she once enjoyed. The speaker and his sister do not have close friends and sometimes must fend off remarks about the mysterious children who live with them but do not attend school.

Christian Jensen, an adult at the home asylum, had hoped to study at the College of Wooster but became ill and never really recovered.

Christian Jensen, an adult at the home asylum, had hoped to study at the College of Wooster but became ill and never really recovered.

The living arrangements, assumed to have been made in a “Christlike spirit of love,” will startle readers. The five Olsen children range in age from Lilly, age seventeen, to Sverre, age four, and all live together in one spacious upstairs room.  Their food is brought to them on large trays, and Lilly serves them at a dining table in their room, then brings the dishes back downstairs so that they can be washed. They sleep in individual beds lined up along the wall, and the family “bathroom” is outside, lit by a lantern which Matiassen has brought with him. For much of the time, the “disabled” children stay together in their non-threatening environment. As for the “disabled” adults, Josef reads books from the small library in a church office, starting over and reading them all in order again when he finishes the collection. Matiassen takes a stool and goes outside to sit under the ash tree all day long. Jensen often studies Bible pictures of people in terror and despair, “They were surrounded by devils no bigger than dogs, and floating in the air were dirty angels with huge, tattered swanlike wings fluttering in the wind.” He prays intensely – in English learned in Ohio.

King Olav ruled from 1957 - 1991. The residents of the private home where "mentally disabled" adults and children resided used to listed to his speech on the radio on New Year's Day each year.

King Olav ruled from 1957 – 1991. The residents of the private home where “mentally disabled” adults and children resided used to listen to his speech on the radio on New Year’s Day each year.

The writing is remarkably simple in style and often lacks elaboration. As the reader fills in the blanks, his/her involvement with the novel becomes even stronger. The book has little real plot, other than the daily lives of these people and the surprises life always holds, yet I could hardly put it down, wanting to know what happens and whether the characters will find happiness, despite some of the complications and tragedies in their lives. Ultimately, the reader cannot help but be drawn in by the force of the writing and the emotions the author creates on the subject of what it means to be human. The treatment of some of these characters as if they were animals offends the caregivers, yet it becomes clear as the novel evolves, that they, too, bear some responsibility for this attitude. All of the Olsen children, starting with Lilly and Nils, and continuing with the younger children when they reach an “appropriate age,” are taken away for a few days and then returned – sterilized, “fixed” – and this is accepted as “normal” for people like “them.”

Secret stories emerge and crises occur, but the reader continues to hope, trusting that the good intentions of the host family will win out and that some of the feared disasters will not occur. Still, the unexpected does occur, and disasters do strike, and people are left to deal with issues that they are often ill-equipped to understand. Powerful in its understatement and in the main characters’ strange acceptance of “mentally disabled” people as having few hopes, dreams, or abilities, the novel arouses in the reader the mixed feelings of love for a family which has sacrificed so much of its own life for the “disabled” people who live with them and sadness for the limitations that even these well-meaning people impose.

dikemark hospital hall

Hallway of the Dikemark Hospital, now closed, where the parents of the speaker lived and worked for eleven years.

Photos:  The author’s photo appears on https://www.nrk.no/

Founded in 1924 as a psychiatric hospital, Dikemark, outside of Oslo, where both parents of the speaker worked for eleven years, is now closed.   http://www.abguiden.no/

The College of Wooster, in Wooster, Ohio, is where Christian Jensen, an adult at the home asylum, had hoped to study.  He traveled all the way to Ohio but became ill and never recovered. https://www.wooster.edu/about/facts/

King Olav ruled from 1957 – 1991.  The patients at the home asylum gathered each hear to listen to him speak on the radio on New Year’s Day.  http://www.abguiden.no

A hallway at Dikemark Psychiatric Hospital, now closed:  https://i.pinimg.com/

REVIEW. Book Club suggestion, Historical, Literary, Norway, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Gaute Heivoll
Published by: Graywolf Press
Date Published: 09/05/2017
ISBN: 978-1555977849
Available in: Ebook Paperback


Note:  Patrick Modiano was WINNER of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014

“The Valvert School for Boys occupied the former property of a certain Valvert, who had been an intimate of the comte D’Artois and had accompanied him into exile during the Revolution. Later, as an officer in the Russian army, he fell at the Battle of Austerlitz fighting against his own countrymen in the uniform of the Izmailovsky Regiment. All that remained of him was his name and a pink marble colonnade, now half ruined, at the back of the park. My schoolmates and I were raised under that man’s morose tutelage and perhaps some of us, without realizing it, still bear the traces.”

coverThe image of Valvert, described above, sets the tone and establishes many of the themes for this often dream-like collection of interconnected stories, filled with mysteries and riddles. Valvert, the former owner of  the property on which the Valvert School was later built, accompanied the Comte D’Artois when he abandoned France during the French Revolution, and later fought his former countrymen in France as part of a Russian regiment. At the Battle of Austerlitz, described as “the greatest victory ever achieved by Napoleon,” in 1805, he lost his life fighting for a foreign army. Clearly, revolutionary democracy was not a goal or even a consideration for Valvert. An elite friend of French royalty, he lived an elegant and privileged life, fleeing France when his life was in danger and he could no longer live there in the style he enjoyed. The building which became the school on Valvert’s property, built by a later owner at the end of the nineteenth century, was, ironically, a copy of Malmaison, the castle where Napoleon and Josephine lived during Napoleon’s  war with the rest of Europe and Britain. With a history like this, it is no surprise that the Valvert School, with its Castle and its past history might appeal to parents interested in preserving the appearance, atmosphere, and values of the elite.

Patrick Modiano when he was about the age he was when he wrote this novel.

Patrick Modiano was thirty-seven when he published this novel in France.

Nobel Prize-winner Patrick Modiano attended a boarding school that he has described as being much like this, and he saw almost nothing of either of his parents from the time he was a child until he was in his early twenties.  His father, a smuggler of food and weapons from Africa and South America to the French Gestapo during the Nazi occupation, had made a fortune, and his mother, an actress often out of the country, had no time for her two sons, abandoning them to surrogates who themselves had no sense of home.  For several years the boys were in the care of a group of circus performers who lived near a falling-down chateau – until the acrobats were all arrested for criminal activities. Modiano has spent his adult life since then recreating his childhood and teen years in his novels and asking questions. Had it not been for author Raymond Queneau, who taught him geometry when he was in secondary school, and then became his only real mentor, he might never have become the writer he is. Queneau introduced him to the literary world, where he felt at home for the first time, and Modiano responded by winning prizes for his first three novels, starting at age twenty-three. Since then he has written over thirty more novels and has won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Built on property that had belonged to Valvert, the Castle had been built by a later owner as a copy of Malmaison, where Napoleon and Josephine once lived.

Built on property that once belonged to Valvert, the Castle was built by a later owner as a copy of Malmaison, where Napoleon and Josephine lived in the early 19th century.

This book, published originally in France in 1982 and translated into English by Mark Polizzotti for Yale’s Margellos Collection this year, will answer many questions for fans of Modiano in the English-speaking world. Most of his previous novels have focused on various aspects of his early life, but this is the first book I have read which deals with those crucial teenage years and immediately after, leading eventually to his first novel. Here in fourteen interrelated chapters, told by more than one narrator, including one named “Patrick,” he tells the stories of ten fellow students during boarding school or in later life, illustrating that as a group, the students’ lack of a loving home, combined with the absence of real nurturing by their teachers, have left them with conflicted memories and no true sense of identity. Their lack of deeply held values often leaves them unable to make thoughtful decisions, and most of these former students do not recognize that other people may see life through a completely different lens. As the narrators tell their stories, it becomes clear that each narrator, too, has difficulty understanding these characters and their reactions to the circumstances in which they find themselves – that the narrators, too, may be ill-equipped to understand how and why these characters have become who they are. No one here is always who he seems to be, and at several points in the book, a narrator suddenly develops a different name and may or may not be a different person.

Labyrinth at the Castle, where the faculty enjoyed the relaxed seating area but where students were prohibited.

The labyrinth at the Castle, off limits to students, was a quiet place where the faculty could escape.

The narrator of Chapter II introduces Edmond Claude, who is an actor. Both the narrator and Claude are former students who have recently seen Lafaure, their former chemistry teacher. As Edmond tells about Lafaure coming to see him in his tiny role at a small theatre, years after he has graduated, Edmond also keeps his make-up on, showing himself to be someone whose identity cannot be taken at “face” value. Another student, Daniel Desoto, who was expelled, comes back to the school later in a red sports car and lets people know that his father recently bought him a sailboat. Later Desoto marries and becomes as indebted, emotionally, to his wife and her “doctor” as he is to his father, whose extravagant gifts have taken the place of true love and support. Robert McFowles, a former athlete at the school, has inherited all his grandmother’s shares in a large cosmetics company, but he obsesses about how much he misses the sea, even doing pretend dives into his lawn. The narrator describes him as a “sensitive, guileless boy who was looking for stability…and [like others from Valvert] prone to inexplicable bouts of melancholy [and] waves of sadness,” helpless in the real world.

Modiano wrote a whole novel about Little Jewel . It was published in English by Yale's Margellos Collection in 2001.

Modiano wrote a novel about Little Jewel in 2001.  It was translated and published in English by Yale University Press in 2016.

Another alumnus visits the school once each month when the school shows films, since it always repeats a film about “Little Jewel.”  The narrator of this story has attended a course in “show business” where a wealthy woman claiming to be twenty-three years old has won all the prizes. Her daughter Martine (Little Jewel) is ignored until this woman hires one of the young actors to be Jewel’s devoted babysitter, finally providing her with a sense that someone cares.  Later, without warning, the mother decides to make little Jewel into an actress – it is easier for her than accepting responsibility. Though determining who is the narrator is difficult in this chapter, Little Jewel eventually becomes the subject of an entire book by Modiano in 2001. Additional Valvert alumni feature in other stories, and in one, a narrator named Patrick looks to rent an apartment for a friend and learns that the owner, a woman he recognizes, was a circus acrobat.  The ending of the novel brings the fate of the school up to date. Its wealthy, but lost and naïve teenage students have become equally lost and purposeless adults, and their lack of home, family love, and someone to serve as a model for them makes it unlikely that any of them besides Patrick Modiano, perhaps, will ever experience a sense of peace or fulfillment.

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


The Gare du Nord is where Modiano's characters in this book frequently get together to escape Paris.

Several of Modiano’s characters make a number of trips to and from the Gard du Nord, regarding it as a symbol of escape.

Photos:  The author’s photo appears on http://www.lemonde.fr

Malmaison, home of Napoleon and Josephine in the early 1800’s was the model for the Castle building at Valvert School.  https://trudon.com/

Valvert had a labyrinth, off-limits to students, which was enjoyed by the faculty as a place to relax.  This particular labyrinth is in the VanDusen Botanical Gardens in Vancouver, British Columbia.  http://wikimapia.org/

Little Jewel was the subject of a book by the same name, published in France in 2001 and in English by the Margellos Collection of Yale University in 2016.  http://yalebooks.yale.edu/

The Gare du Nord appears on https://www.kyriad.com/

REVIEW. France, Literary, Psychological study, Nobel Prize
Written by: Patrick Modiano
Published by: Yale University Press, Margellos Collection
Date Published: 08/29/2017
ISBN: 978-0300223347
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“Your goal, like mine, is to send every refugee to a safer place. Sound about right? Sadly, that won’t happen. Not now. Probably not ever. There’s not room, politically speaking. Not in any country…tens of millions worldwide….No matter how sincere a story sounds, or what it makes you feel, remember that tears don’t qualify as evidence. We need proof of origin, proof of trauma, proof of flight. That means source documents. Identity cards, medical records, pay stubs, death threats, even envelopes in which death threats were sent.” – Liaison, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

coverDuring his Fulbright Program in Egypt, beginning in 2009, debut novelist Ian Basingthwaighte had personal, daily contact with the horrors of displaced families – not just Egyptians but throughout the Middle East – as they flooded Cairo seeking help from the legal aid organization in which he worked helping refugees. Each day, he saw their scars and heard their stories as they left their homes, and often their families, to flee for their lives and the lives of their children. Unfortunately, getting to Cairo, often by foot, the goal of most of these refugees, does not guarantee the solutions they seek, no matter how much they are willing to give up. As the Liaison for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees points out in the opening quotation of this review, the size of the crisis is just too great. Setting his book in 2011, just after the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the student revolt in Tahrir Square, which students hoped would change the nature of Egyptian government, Basingthwaighte creates a moving and absorbing novel of the human costs borne by innocent victims of the religious and political strife throughout the Middle East.

author bassingthwaighteHis characters represent several countries, all connected in some way with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Cairo. Hana, who opens the novel, has just started working for the UNHCR’s Refugee Affairs Department. She is an Iraqi-American whose father was blown up in Baghdad before she was born, and she is familiar with the issues of the refugees. Shortly after she arrives, she must act on the case of Dalia, a woman married to Omran, an Iraqi who helped the Americans build water mains in Baghdad until the tides of war changed and he had to escape. The Americans provided him with a visa because of his work for them, but Dalia did not qualify. After persuading her husband to leave, naively promising to follow him soon,  she has come to Cairo to get a visa to join her husband, who is now waiting impatiently in Boston. Helping Dalia is an American immigration lawyer named Charlie who has been working for a legal aid society since 2007, and he has become somewhat jaded by the hopeless issues he faces daily. It is his secret love for Dalia which keeps him going now. Aos, an Egyptian, his translator, tries to live by the rules, but he yields to his feelings at night to continue protesting in Tahrir Square.

Tahrir Square uprising, Jan. 25, 2011 - Feb. 11, 2011.

Tahrir Square uprising, Jan. 25, 2011 – Feb. 11, 2011.

Hana, Charlie, Dalia, and Aos represent different aspects of the same refugee crisis – lively characters whose motivations become increasingly complex as they interact and as the points of view of each chapter rotate among them. Shortly after Hana starts work and has an orientation by Margret, her boss, Hana must decide on the case of Dalia. Margret has already decided that since the paper work proving Dalia’s marriage to Omran does not exist and because there is no proof, either, of the abuse Dalia has faced in her attempts to get to Cairo to apply for refugee status, that she cannot legally approve Dalia’s application. Charlie, Dalia’s lawyer, is horrified, and he is desperate to help Dalia. Though Hana has originally agreed with Margret, she later realizes that Dalia has been so seriously abused on her way to Cairo that she simply cannot bear to speak about those issues, which might, in fact, make her eligible for the visa she so desperately desires. Eventually, Charlie comes up with an illegal plan that might help Dalia, and he draws in Hana to be part of this plan. It will take a great deal of money if Dalia is to acquire the papers she needs, and though no one has that money, Charlie is not giving up. Helping Dalia has become the only thing in his life that has meaning.

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al-Aswany, reviewed here:

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al-Aswany, reviewed HERE:

Within this framework, the novel develops with excitement, at the same time that it is also sensitive to the very real, human issues involving the characters (and by extension, other refugees like Dalia). The characters’ anxieties and their stresses slowly build as Bassingthwaighte provides rich visual and atmospheric details which make Cairo come alive and their crises become even more affecting. He also broadens the scope by including many cultural references which often add irony to the narrative.  Aos, Charlie’s translator, is frustrated with the fact that though Mubarak has been deposed, “Only the image of the regime has changed.”  He took a chance by demonstrating at Tahrir Square, at one point, but he was captured and tortured in the basement of the Egyptian Museum, an irony which made him decide that “Next time he’d sacrifice himself.”  He reconnects with a man from his school days at Cairo University, where together they had studied Alaa Al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, a book of present day culture that has sold more copies than any other contemporary novel in Egypt, and he continues to stay in touch with him during a later crisis.  Hana, by contrast, simply walks to the busy market at Khan el-Khalili when she needs a break, then sits and gazes at al-Fishawi, the historic cafe where Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz often spent his days writing in the Mirror Room, “beneath a giant Spanish mirror with lotus blossoms carved into the frame.”

El Fishawi cafe, at el-Khalili, where Naguib Mahfouz often wrote from his table in the Mirror Room.

El Fishawi cafe, at el-Khalili, where Naguib Mahfouz often wrote from his table in the Mirror Room. Review of Naguib Mahfouz books HERE.

Seemingly casual cultural references like these – to the Egyptian Museum, to Alaa Al-Aswany, and to Naguib Mahfouz (who wrote fifty novels) – broaden the focus of the novel beyond the short-term issue of Dalia’s visa and the refugee crisis, and links it to Egypt’s long cultural history.  Other descriptive details expand the reader’s involvement, allowing him/her to picture every aspect of the action.  When the climax occurs, it is worthy of the book – both heart-rending and cathartic. Dramatic and life-changing for all, it inspires resolution among the characters. A short Part IV takes place six months later, concluding the novel, and though it is a bit awkward structurally, it is necessary to resolve issues for the reader. Bassingthwaighte has created a big novel with important themes and information about a world crisis, within an intimate novel, which feels “live from Cairo” – a book in which real human beings do the best they can and with the best of intentions. Exciting, enlightening, important, and very human.

Naguib Mahfouz, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988.

Naguib Mahfouz, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988.

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

The student uprising in Tahrir Square, from Jan. 25, 2011, – Feb. 11, 2011, culminating in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak:  http://arabspring-us-geopoliticalcodes.weebly.com/

The  Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al-Aswany is reviewed on this site:  http://marywhipplereviews.com

El-Fishawi cafe, where Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz often spent time writing in the Mirror Room:  http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/

Portrait of Naguib Mahfouz:  https://www.nobelprize.org/

REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, Egypt, Literary, Social and Political Issues, refugee crisis
Written by: Ian Bassingthwaighte
Published by: Scribner's
Date Published: 07/11/2017
ISBN: 978-1501146879
Available in: Hardcover

“You were closest to the door when the crash was heard. Time slowed, you’d heard how that happened, it really did, time slowed, and you were given the accident in installments. A car horn first and then, underneath, the sound of rubber being dragged at great speed across tarmac. And then the sound you’d imagine a wet, heavy overcoat would make if you dropped it on a hard floor.   Mick, Joe, and you all froze like the characters in a cartoon, looked to the sound, to one another, and back to the sound.”

cover Montpelier paradeIn one of the best debut novels I have ever read, Irish author Karl Geary creates fully developed characters, a variety of moods, an atmosphere of intense caring, and the sad and often avoidable events that all people face as they make the sometimes naïve decisions that ultimately allow them to grow into adulthood.  Using a second person point of view (one I do not usually like), Geary manages to make this unusual viewpoint work well here. His main character, Sonny Knolls, a Dublin boy in his mid-teens, comes from a large family, with a father addicted to gambling, a mother who has so many sons and so little money that she does not know how to deal with it all, and five older brothers who sometimes feel that they can celebrate their own sense of independence by exercising control over Sonny’s life. Sonny, working part-time as a butcher’s apprentice and part-time doing house repairs with his father, would like the opportunity to become a painter – a painter of pictures, not the house painter that his insensitive school teacher has assumed – if only he had a choice. He is tireless, and as his obligations multiply, his own mind must sometimes feel like an echo of that second person point of view giving commands – you do this and you do that. At the same time, the author creates the feeling that he is also addressing the reader with that point of view, inviting him/her into the action itself and becoming part of Sonny’s life.

author photoWith an eye for detail so practiced that it feels like that of a much older, more experienced writer, Geary creates unforgettable scenes and exceptionally realistic characters. In the scene quoted at the beginning, Sonny is, with his butcher friends, first on the scene of a neighborhood accident, and as he looks at the motionless body of the victim, he finds himself, involuntarily, “standing over [the] body, bending [his] knees as [he] dipped closer…A packet of sweet Aftons poked from [the victim’s] shirt pocket, still sealed in plastic.” With the gardai looking on, Sonny “stood quickly, but not before [his] fingers surrounded the cigarettes and silently pulled them from the man’s pocket,” slipping them into his own. These would provide him with some “currency” to use, should he wish to get together later with some friends, especially lady friends – and, after all, the victim had no use for cigarettes anymore. When he eventually returns home, there is no supper – his father had stopped to gamble, and “the bookies got it all.” The sympathetic reader understands why Sonny has a special hiding place for his treasures – behind a tile in the bathroom – and that is where his new pack of cigarettes is hidden.

montpelier parade monkstown dublin

Vera Hatton lived in a Georgian house on Montpelier Parade in Monkstown, Dublin, perhaps similar to this one.

Set in the 1980s, during one of Ireland’s bleakest periods, with high unemployment and mass emigration, Sonny and his poor family depend on part-time work, whenever and wherever they can find it. The day after witnessing the accident, Sonny is scheduled to work with his father on a Georgian estate on Montpelier Parade, and it is there that he meets the middle-aged owner, when, exhausted from shoveling soil, he goes inside to ask for some tea and to use the bathroom. The owner, Vera Hatton, comments that he has a beautiful face, a comment which instantly makes him flee to his father outside. Later, after work, he decides to use the money he has just earned to buy some wine, though he is underage. When he inadvertently asks Vera, a passerby whom he did not recognize at first, to buy the wine for him, she is amused by his naivete and co-operates with him. Later he meets with Sharon Burke, a wild teenager, a year older than he, once a childhood friend. Now more mature, she wears heavy makeup and has many “boyfriends” with “cars and gold rings on their pinkie fingers.” They drink and smoke together before Sonny goes off on his own.


After he first spent time alone in Vera’s house, Sonny went on a walk along the strand at Seapoint, thinking about his parents. “You never understood how that was with people, that they could tell you all kinds of things without saying anything.”

Not long afterward, Sonny begins working part-time for Vera, doing odd jobs. At her house, he enjoys being in a place which has books, which he borrows when Vera is not at home, and he is soon sneaking into her house from over the back fence to exchange them for new ones. It is during one of these episodes that Vera shows her own vulnerability at the same time that Sonny begins to question whether having a relationship with his friend Sharon makes sense. Both of these women seem to need him on some level, and his life becomes more complicated when Vera is hospitalized, leaving him on his own with secret access to her house whenever he wants to go there. The victim of bullying at school, Sonny does not feel as if he belongs anywhere, including his own house. Vulnerable because he likes learning but hates school, he tries to learn on his own, but his innocence and his lack of certainty about who he is and what he can do, leave him powerless on many counts. Sharon keeps him grounded in the neighborhood in which he lives, even though that is not enough for him; and Vera, who makes him feel wanted by trying to connect with him, even as a mother figure, has needs which he may not be able to fulfill.

St. Vincent's Hospital, where Vera was treated for her illness while Sonny took care of her house.

St. Vincent’s Hospital, where Vera is treated for her illness while Sonny often occupies her house.

The climax is moving and sensitively depicted, a time in which everything in Sonny’s life is going wrong, and a time in which he has no idea how to fix his problems. It is with this section that author Geary highlights his immense talents, creating scenes filled with genuine emotion and without the saccharine sentimentality so common to books about young love and coming of age. The author treats his teenage main character as a human, as a real person whose problems are real, not problems regarded as “lesser” because Sonny is a still just “a kid.” As Sonny tries to move forward by solving his multitude of issues, the reader becomes absorbed in wanting to help him. With a sense of caring for those who are important in his life, Sonny sees himself as “swept along by…noise and movement, as if thrown by the final force of a great river before you were deposited out to sea.” How he learns to manage his actions and control his feelings becomes the focus of the final scenes, so beautifully crafted that I suspect many other readers will feel as I do, that this book is special, one that goes way beyond the ordinary and into the realm of the truly memorable.

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

A Georgian house on Montpelier Parade, similar to this one, is where Vera Hatton lived, and where Sonny learned about a different kind of life.  https://www.pinterest.com/

After entering Vera’s house alone for the first time, he later went for a walk on the strand near Seapoint.  https://tcdglobal.wordpress.com

When Vera became ill, she stayed at St. Vincent’s Hospital, leaving Sonny to care for her house.  http://www.stvincents.ie/

REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, Ireland and Northern Ireland, Literary, Psychological study.
Written by: Karl Geary
Published by: Catapult
Date Published: 08/22/2017
ISBN: 978-1936787555
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“My body craved a past with Emma and Father: I wanted to be small again. I wanted to swim, then fish, have Emma and me dry ourselves under the sun until our skin cooked. ‘Let’s be bears!’ I’d tell her, and we’d grow brown and giant, our bear paws swiping each other’s black noses. Emma would draw blood and I’d dig into her fur-covered ribs, touch her heart with my claws…Father would say, ‘Emma, be kind to Lizzie,’ and we’d embrace each other.” – Lizzie Borden

cover see what i have doneOn the morning of August 4, 1892, Abby Gray Borden and her husband, Andrew Jackson Borden were found dead in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, both brutally butchered with an axe or hatchet. Borden was a highly successful merchant, maker of caskets, and owner and developer of commercial property, a wealthy man who nevertheless lived a frugal life and kept his daughters and his wife totally dependent on him. His body was found reclining on the living room sofa by his younger daughter Lizzie, aged thirty-two, and the body of his wife Abby was found shortly afterward. She, too, was hacked to death and was found lying beside her bed upstairs. The only people in the house at the time were Lizzie and Bridget, the maid, who was up in her room resting after having been assigned the task of washing the outside of the downstairs windows in the August heat, though she was still recuperating from a violent stomach upset. Lizzie’s uncle John Morse, brother of Andrew Borden’s first wife, had slept in the house the preceding night and had met with Lizzie’s father early in the morning before leaving to visit another relative, and Lizzie’s sister Emma was out of town visiting friends. Lizzie claimed that someone must have broken into the house to kill her father.

authorAs Australian author Sarah Schmidt recreates this famous murder and its aftermath, she delves into all the psychological complications surrounding the individual characters, gradually providing other intriguing possibilities regarding the murder. Structuring the book around the commentaries of four speakers – Lizzie, Emma, Bridget, and a mysterious hired killer named Benjamin, who had close contact with John Morse, Lizzie’s uncle – she shows all their interactions both before and after the murders. About half the action takes place in chapters labeled “August 4, 1892,” the day of the murder, and the rest takes place earlier, with the same characters offering their points of view on all manner of issues and providing background information in the chapters labeled “August 3, 1892.” A clumsy police investigation provided many opportunities for the killer to get rid of any evidence, even to the point that Lizzie and Emma, who had returned home upon hearing the news of the murders, were allowed to be alone in the house with one of Emma’s friends the night of the crimes so that they could clean the blood from the murder site and prepare the house for funeral guests. It is therefore forever impossible to know for certain who the real killer was and how, exactly, it really happened.

newspaper headline

The Fall River Post from August 4, 1892.

Despite this limitation, author Schmidt provides insights and information which most readers will find compelling. Lizzie herself is impossible to know, a person who is anti-social to an extreme. Her mother died when she was two, and her father remarried when she was not even five. She and her stepmother were never close, though they shared the same house for thirty years, and at one point, the adult Lizzie even stole her jewelry and refused to admit it. Emma, ten years older than she, was the one assigned to be in charge of Lizzie for most of her life, and readers will find Lizzie’s attitudes and behavior so naïve that they may have as hard a time as I did believing that she was thirty years old, not sixteen, when she took a tour of the great cities of Europe, and thirty two when her father and stepmother died. At the time of the killings, Lizzie gave conflicting information about where she was in the house and what she was doing, and though she appears to have no memory of committing the murders, if in fact she did commit them, her lack of “affect” is so obvious that it is easy to believe one suggestion that she committed the murder while in a “fugue state.”


Lizzie Borden at age twenty-nine.

Emma is the character who evokes the most sympathy. Ten years older than Lizzie, she has friends whom she enjoys visiting, and at one point even had a relationship with someone named Samuel.  Lizzie often gleefully manipulates her for her own amusement and benefit, and Emma, wanting to keep her father from becoming physically abusive during his tantrums, often gives in to avoid being slapped hard in the face. Bridget, who came from County Cork, is desperate to return there, and she has saved her money religiously so that she can afford a ticket back to Ireland to visit family, only to find it missing one day. Faithful and honest, she must testify at the trial which occurs after Lizzie is charged with murder, only to find her testimony demeaned by Lizzie’s lawyer and much of the court. John Morse, a character whose motives and plans are suspect when he suddenly visits the family for an overnight stay, appears to have shady dealings on his mind. His relationship with the mysterious and dangerous Benjamin, included here either as a red herring regarding the murder or to suggest that John Morse, too, might also have murder on his mind, makes the reader wonder why and how John Morse would have found Benjamin and what his plans were for him.

The Borden house in Fall River. Note barn in the background, where Lizzie spent half an hour after discovering her father's death.

The Borden house in Fall River. Note barn in the background, where Lizzie spent half an hour after discovering her father’s death.  The house is now a B&B.

The climax here is the funeral of Abby and Andrew Borden, the interchanges between Lizzie and Emma in the days preceding it , and the memories Lizzie has of her father and a conversation they might have had the morning he died. The reader will come to know Lizzie even better than before and may even draw conclusions about Lizzie’s guilt or innocence. To answer any questions a reader may have about the trial and what really happened in the days leading up to it and immediately following it, the author also includes a helpful “Fall River Timeline,” which provides the names, dates, and special events from the birth of Andrew Jackson Borden in 1822, through his marriages and the births of his children, the ten months in which Lizzie was in jail before the trial, and the follow-up after the trial for Lizzie and Emma. The novel, sometimes exciting and often insightful, is described by the author as fiction, but her research and the care she has taken with the facts, while also relaying what she believes might have been going on inside the hearts of Lizzie and Emma, make this novel feel real. Though Lizzie remains as much of a mystery at the end of the book as at the beginning, the direction of the author’s research is clear.

The NYTimes obituary for Lizzie, who lived for 35 years after her trial.

The NYTimes obituary for Lizzie, who lived for 35 years after her trial. She died on June 1, 1927.

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

The front page from the Fall River Post was found on https://www.pinterest.com

Lizzie’s portrait from 1889 is in  http://www.crimearchives.net/

The Borden house, now a B&B, was found on http://www.findadeath.com/

The New York Times carried an obituary for Lizzie Borden after her death in 1927.  She lived for 35 years after her trial for murder.  https://lizziebordenwarpsandwefts.com

REVIEW. 2017 Reviews, Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Mystery, Noir, Fictionalized Biography Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, US Regional
Written by: Sarah Schmidt
Published by: Atlantic Monthly Press
Date Published: 08/01/2017
ISBN: 978-0802126597
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

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