A Reliable Wife

Lamentably, I’ve fallen a bit behind here (it was bound to happen — again — eventually). Fortunately, I had a mostly-complete draft waiting to help me get back on track quickly. Let’s pretend this entry appeared in late August, 2010 rather than January or 2011, shall we?

Having just returned [ed. note: ‘Just’. Ha!] from my annual escape to most-relaxing Muskoka – and my corresponding annual week-long book-binge – I thought that perhaps the next few entries might be grouped together as “Cottage Reads”. However, the choices I made in selecting said cottage reads has afforded me an unintentional yet more coherent theme: “Beautiful Books That Quite Thoroughly Broke My Heart”.

A Reliable Wife by Robert GoolrickThe first such book was the biggest surprise. As is so often the case with me, I picked up Robert Goolrick’s A Reliable Wife because the cover caught my eye (note for design aficionados: the cover of the edition I picked up was silk finish overall with spot gloss on the title decal – on the way out of the book store we discovered an all-gloss version on a ‘recommended’ display, to which I said: No thank you! Matte with spot gloss all the way).

A Reliable Wife isn’t revolutionary: it’s a fairly standard gothic tale, set against a bleak, wintery midwestern American landscape. One of the reasons it was such an enjoyable read is that between the sinister and damaged characters, the isolated, haunting setting and stories of domestic crime and insanity stories that pepper the novel (an obsession of Ralph’s as well as a rather grim, recurring local phenomenon) coalesce to form that classically-gothic atmosphere of doom and excitement that I loved in books like Louisa May Alcott’s Long Fatal Love Chase and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

The plot itself is also quite simple: a wealthy man (Ralph) posts ads in newspapers across the country looking for a wife, but the woman he selects (Catherine) is not the plain, simple woman she presents herself to be. She’s a beautiful woman with a past, and from the very start her plan is to marry Ralph, poison him, and inherit all his wealth.

Beginning with Catherine’s arrival by train, the narrative unfolds through a slow peeling-back of the onion-like layers of the story’s complex and deeply-flawed characters. There is some interesting nuance in the progression of the plot, which moves in two directions – forward through the lives of the characters in the story’s present,  as well as sporadically through their pasts – not in order of chronology but rather spiralling inward, from the artifice each presents to the world, down to that which is most protected and secret for each character.

We are first introduced to the most superficial layer of each character: the mask that they show to the world; the lies that they tell themselves and each other. As the story progresses, we gain increasingly deep glimpses into not only each character’s past and motivations, but what remains of their old innocence.

Perhaps most notable about this book was that the surprises came not from the thrill of gothic cruelty the characters easily showed each other — indeed, their capacity for deception, betrayal and murderous intent feels entirely commonplace and quite inevitable. The surprises lie instead in their simulataneous ability to feel great compassion towards each other — to compliment huge acts of violence and betrayal with startling moments of kindness, and perhaps even more unexpectedly, forgiveness. The surprising love story that unfolds is strange, dark and alarming. Yet somehow, it is also achingly moving. The heartbreaking beauty lies in the small kindness and genuine love they somehow manage to show each other even as they run headlong towards tragedy.

It was how deeply I empathized with the characters, in spite of the many seemingly unforgiveable acts they commit throughout the narrative, that I consider a true testament to Goolrick’s excellent writing and characterization. Compared to Wuthering Heights, I loved (this) Catherine and Ralph; both tragic and flawed and often horrible, but in ways that are ultimately heartbreaking rather than alienating.

By way of a side note, this book also gave a really fascinating overview of the symptoms of arsenic poisoning — most notably, the pleasant, almost erotic early symptoms that I had never heard of before, but which seem obvious in context of the poison’s historical use — in very small doses — as a recreational drug.

The Last Crossing

Before I discuss Guy Vanderhaeghe’s award-winning, best-selling novel The Last Crossing, this review needs to be prefaced with an apology. An apology to… the book.

The Last Crossing by Guy VanderhaegheBook, I’m sorry. I know I joke a lot about how I judge books by their covers, but generally what I mean is that if a book cover is particularly striking or unusual, I will pick it up and perhaps even buy it, even if I have no other driving reason to do so. What I never really considered is the ugly flip side of this practice: the scenario in which I’m so underwhelmed by a book cover that I don’t give the book a fair shot. And you, book? You were just such a case. I hope with this review, I can begin to make amends.

That said; please take a moment to look at the cover of the edition of this book that I have just finished reading. Can we all at least agree that it’s pretty lacklustre? The palette ranges from soft grey to… soft tan. The type treatment is wholly unremarkable, and yet also oddly unbalanced. And the photograph… well, it’s grim, isn’t it? That’s a lot of empty, dusty space, and even the suggestion of speed coming from dust-clouds behind those covered wagons isn’t enough to imply to me that the story contained within is a rousing adventure that stretches across the inhabited and fantastic prairies, west and wilderness of Canada and the US the late 1800s. If the covered wagons wouldn’t be anachronistic, I’d be more likely to assume it was set in the 1930s dustbowl era. Whither the fields, the rivers, the Indian villages, the forts, the buffalo?

The Last Crossing by Guy VanderhaeghePerhaps also notable is that when I went online to look for a graphic of the cover, I had a lot of trouble finding it. Instead, I found several other versions, including the two pictured below. Even the one that uses the exact same image as my edition has a stronger, bolder feel to it. Frankly, I feel a bit vindicated. Google images, and perhaps the internet at large agrees with me: my book had the weakest iteration of the cover.

But enough about packaging. Especially packaging that led me astray.

As a result of my lamentable prejudice, I did two things wrong while reading this book. The first was that I decided that it was going to be a slog before I even started reading it. Because of this, I was only half-paying attention to the narrative for the first few chapters. The second thing I did wrong was to let it drag out over 2-3 weeks of reading in short bursts, rather than making significant time for it. This isn’t entirely unprecedented: the concentration of time I devote to a book is often based in part on how busy I am at that period in time, and also how quickly and thoroughly the book grabs me.

The Last Crossing by Guy VanderhaegheUnfortunately, in this case I didn’t give the book a chance to grab me, and I happened to pick it up during a particularly busy month. The net result being, I missed out on a lot of the genius of the book as it unfolded.

Is genius too strong a word? Perhaps. But I want to (finally) give credit where it is due. This book is almost deceptively well-crafted. I first pegged The Last Crossing as a standard western/family epic: a simple adventure/love story, with a touch of mystery, wrapped in an admittedly interesting history lesson, and featuring an entertaining if perhaps occasionally cliché canvas of characters. But what Vanderhaeghe delivers is also an incredibly well-paced, thought-provoking pastiche comprised of beautifully interwoven stories. The nuances of both character and plot development are revealed in a patient, organic rhythm that was somewhat lost on me given my sporadic reading of the text. But when it all started to tie together so beautifully around the 340-page mark (total page count: 391), I realized that my lack of attention had lessoned the impact of some of the developments that had unfolded along the way. Fortunately, the ending was strong enough that even I felt a satisfying sense of payoff with regards to both the resolution of the characters’ stories and the small mysteries within the narrative. I actually went back and reread the first few chapters: something I suspect other readers of this book will do as well, as the book begins and ends at roughly the same point in time and most of the story takes place in the relative past. The net result is that I found myself absolutely loving this book… but realizing it a little too late. This is definitely one to set aside and reread a few years down the road, once the details have sufficiently faded from memory. Next time, I’ll be sure to give it the undivided and concentrated attention it most certainly deserves.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers

The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo GiordanoI was handed a copy of Paolo Giordano’s award-winning debut novel The Solitude of Prime Numbers by a friend with whom I tend to share literary tastes (and consequently, books). She had already raved about it in an unusually vague blog entry, and I was suitably intrigued. Even the book jacket gave away more than she was willing to disclose. “If I say any more, I’d be doing a disservice to the book,” she said. “Go and read it. Like, right now.”

Then she loaned it to her co-worker. So I waited. Patiently, of course.

A week later, she presented me with her copy. I started reading it the next day, while sitting on a patio in the middle of an intense Toronto heat wave. I had taken refuge to rehydrate and cool down during a fairly ill-advised walk across town during the middle of the day. A quick pint and a glass of water turned into two pints and, even as I was ready to move on, I had a hard time putting down the book. I devoured the first half in about an hour.

I understand my friend’s trepidation about speaking too much about the content of the book in her recommendation. It’s one of those sublime, quiet stories that is light on plot while remaining completely absorbing and enthralling. In brief summary, The Solitude of Prime Numbers is about two people, Alice and Mattia, who bear the scars of individual childhood tragedies. They meet as teenagers and seem to instinctively recognize this lonely, damaged quality in each other. Their resulting relationship also defies definition.

The book has a beautiful flow and cadence, perfectly peppered with artfully recurring motifs such as scars, twins, and mathematical concepts. But of greatest in import and impact is the concept of absences, and of space. After essentially depicting the climactic moment of each character’s life in the opening chapters of the book, the narrative proceeds to primarily occupy the empty spaces between the characters major life events; conversely, most of the lives of the characters occur in implied spaces between each section of the narrative.

Similarly, the physical and metaphorical space between Alice and Mattia, whether their standing side-by-side or separated by thousands of miles, seems to embody the core question of the story. Does this space connect them, or is it this space that keeps them ultimately separated?

When they first meet, they transform the space around them, and the answer would appear to be that they are almost immediately, inexorably connected. Almost unconsciously holding hands, the pair elicit a visceral emotional reaction from everyone else in the room with their seemingly perfect, effortless link:

The marked contrast between Alice’s light-coloured hair, which framed the excessively pale skin of her face, and Mattia’s dark hair, tousled forward to hide his black eyes, was erased by the slender arc that linked them. There was a shared space between their bodies, the confines of which were not well delineated, from which nothing seemed to be missing and in which air seemed motionless, undisturbed.

But their immediate bond is only half of the equation. Balancing out the pull that draws them together, Alice and Mattia are also subject to an opposite force that seems to keep them from fully connecting. In his study of mathematics, Mattia uncovers a concept which seems to mimic this tension:

… among prime numbers, there are some that are even more special. Mathematicians call them twin primes: pairs of prime numbers that are close to each other, almost neighbors, but between them there is always an even number that prevents them from truly touching. Numbers like 11 and 13, like 17 and 19, 41 and 43.

This quiet push-and-pull drives this equally subtle story to its inevitable conclusion; very much the conclusion of an emotional journey rather than a neatly-wrapped plot. Neither entirely satisfying nor in any way a disappointment, the end of The Solitude of Prime Numbers left me with a lingering sense of the absence of these now-familiar characters, a fading echo of the absences that so haunted and defined the book.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

Somewhat ironically, this is my first “real-time” (rather than “from the archives”) book review on Lost in a Book. By real-time, I mean that I finished reading the book now, in July of 2010, and am writing and sharing my thoughts on it for the first time ever.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty SmithWhy is this (somewhat) ironic? Because the first book I’m writing about in 2010 has been around since 1943. The book in question is Betty Smith’s much-lauded, semi-autobiographical bildungsroman A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

And it’s not just by way of a catchy intro that I point this out. It’s also extremely relevant to one of my major observations about this fantastic book, which has more than earned its place as an American classic: it is probably the most “timeless” book I have ever read.

Of course, there are significant elements of the story that are very time-and-place specific. It’s not simply set but also very much about living in a very distinctive neighbourhood (Brooklyn, New York) during a time of rapid change and major historical developments (roughly 1900-1920). Yet it reads very much like a contemporary novel. Part of this the style, tone and use of language. But perhaps more remarkable are the progressive sensibilities of both the protagonist and, one can extrapolate, the author. A surprisingly post-modern and empathetic perspective is reflected in both the depiction of and protagonist’s thoughts, on subjects as diverse as unwed teenage mothers, her father’s alcoholism, poverty and the attitude of the wealthier and more educated classes towards the poor, the working classes, and immigrants.

Smith is, of course, reflecting on the early 1900s. From the early 1940s. Was this type of thoughtfulness and enlightenment de rigeur in 1940? Perhaps to some degree, but so many of her conclusions and observations feel ahead of her time. Consider, for example, Frank McCourt’s experiences as documented in Angela’s Ashes. McCourt was born in 1930, and according to his own text they experienced very little understanding or empathy with regards to either his father’s alcoholism or his family’s poverty while growing up in the 1930s and 40s. In the case of Betty Smith, we are talking about a woman who was born in 1896, almost 34 years before McCourt (or, as a personal comparison, 23 years before my 91-year-old grandmother was born).

Further to the sensitive handling of social issues long before such sensitivity was common, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is also refreshingly honest about life in general. Perhaps I think this was more rare than it actually was by this point in literary history… but it was almost definitely a deliberate and, indeed, most like a passionate choice on the part of the author, to write with frankness, empathy and dignity about everything from love and sex to poverty and addiction. It seems likely that Smith’s dedication to writing honestly about her own reality was cemented some time around the age of fourteen and a half, which is the age of her protagonist, Francie Nolan, when she has the following exchange with her English teacher:

“What’s happened to your writing, Francie?” asked Miss Gardner.

“I don’t know.”

“You were one of my best pupils. You wrote so prettily. I enjoyed your compositions. But these last ones…” she flicked at them contemptuously.

“I looked up the spelling and took pains with my penmanship and…”

“I’m referring to your subject matter.”

“You said we should choose our own subjects.”

“But poverty, starvation and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose. We all admit these things exist. But one doesn’t write about them.”

“What does one write about?” Unconsciously, Francie picked up the teacher’s phraseology.

“One delves into the imagination and finds beauty there. The writer, like the artist, must strive for beauty always.”

“What is beauty?” asked the child.

“I can think of no better definition than Keats’: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.'”

Francie took her courage into her two hands and said, “Those stories are the truth!”

“Nonsense!” exploded Miss Gardner. Then, softening her tone, she continued: “By truth, we mean things like the stars always being there and the sun always rising and the true nobility of man and mother-love and love for one’s country,” she ended anti-climactically.

It would seem that Francie (and most likely Smith herself) learned a very important lesson from a primary school English instructor — though clearly not the lesson intended. I’m very glad that young Lizzie Wehner understood what her “Miss Gardner” apparently did not. In recent decades, the wisdom that writers should “writing what [they] know” is so pervasive as to be idiomatic. But Betty Smith grew up before this concept was widely embraced. It was her faith in the importance and even beauty of actual truth that allowed and perhaps even inspired her to write one of the most enduring and classic works of American fiction.

The Girl Who Played Go

The Girl Who Played Go by Shan SaI might feel bad about judging so many books by their covers, except that it always seems to work out so damn well. My most recent foray* into buying books I’ve never heard a thing about solely on the merits of cover design, The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa, is another such case.

First off, it’s worth mentioning that this cover is even more beautiful in person than this graphic could possibly convey. For starters, the red is actually that rich/vivid. And although the book is printed on clean, white stock, the design gives it the effect of a rich, handmade paper. But what’s most exciting is that someone (the designer, one would assume) somehow managed to talk the publishing house into investing a bit of money in a spot gloss, so while the red and tan portions of the cover are an uncoated matte paper, the set of circles (which both metaphorically reveal fragments of a photo of a girl and evoke the shape and sheen of Go pieces) are glossy. For a better look, click on the image to see a larger version.

It’s really gorgeous.

And although I didn’t really deserve it, the book was fantastic, too. An almost shamefully easy read: each chapter is about 2-5 pages long and the first-person narrative voice alternates between the book’s two protagonists. The book is set during the 1930’s Japanese invasion of Manchuria, and is somewhat-aptly described as one reviewer as a Romeo and Julietesque love story between a Chinese schoolgirl and a disguised Japanese soldier. It’s got just enough dark little twists and glipses of authentic character and culture to make it utterly enthralling, and yet despite the high stakes and the overwhelming tragedy that drive the plot, the text remains surprisingly light and nebulous, even as it reaches its inevitable conclusion.

*From the archives, written March 27th, 2007.

Sharp Objects

Sharp Objects by Gillian FlynnI picked up and ultimately purchased my copy of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects on a whim. I was browsing in an airport bookstore when I happened on it, and was tickled by the idea of boarding an airplane holding a book with a razor blade foil-stamped on the cover. What a treat that the book ended up being a great read (though my original reason for picking it up has certainly left a lasting impression: I’ve subsequently loaned my copy to several friends when they’ve asked specifically for vacation-reading recommendations).

Not that this is necessarily everyone’s idea of beach reading. But this dark, twisted little novella of a book hit me in just the right place (which should probably worry me), not unlike last year’s runaway hit (with me): We Need To Talk About Kevin.

It’s positioned as a bit of a suspense/horror/thriller/mystery, but it’s not particularly mysterious, and any suspense is largely emotional.

What it is, is an intense little glimpse into the dark side of small town life (a la Twin Peaks) and in particular into the lives of an extremely dysfunctional family. If you’re a regular mystery reader I have no doubt you’ll piece it together all too soon, but the criminal investigation isn’t really what makes this book so gripping.

For me, the narrative worked best as a portrait of a slow-awakening — the protagonist sheds layer after layer of denial until what is fairly obvious to the reader finally penetrates. The use of language also drew me in — tight and punchy while still extremely sensual, dark and gritty and yet still somehow buoyant… the stylistic equivalent of the sharp little razor blade that sits provocatively on the book’s cover.

But don’t take my word for it. Stephen King’s review, as quoted on the back cover, was what sold me:

“To say this is a terrific debut novel is really too mild….Sharp Objects isn’t one of those scare-and-retreat books; its effect is cumulative. I found myself dreading the last thirty pages or so but was helpless to stop turning them. Then, after the lights were out, the story just stayed there in my head, coiled and hissing, like a snake in a cave. An admirably nasty piece of work, elevated by sharp writing and sharper insights.”

Sidenote: “…I found myself dreading the last thirty pages or so but was helpless to stop turning them…”  To continue the comparison, I would personally make the exact same statement about We Need To Talk About Kevin.

My only caveat in terms of a whole-hearted “go read this right now!” recommendation is if the cover image suggests like the book might trigger any behaviours you might be working to manage: it will. Don’t read it if you’re coming from that kind of vulnerable place.

From the archives, written February 20th, 2008.

Atonement

By complete coincidence, a large number of the books that I read in the summer of 2005 were stories about love in a time of war. Atonement by Ian McEwan, is the fourth and final in a series of book reviews on that theme (the first three were Antanas Sileika’s Woman in Bronze, Frances Itani’s Deafening and Beth Gutcheon’s Leeway Cottage). Atonement was also my favourite of the lot, and easily earned itself a place on my thus-far unwritten list of favourite books.

Atonement by Ian McEwanAtonement by Ian McEwan

This haunting story beings as a 13 year-old girl witnesses, from a great distance (both literal and metaphorical), a sexually-charged confrontation between her older sister and the son of her family’s gardener. Briony completely misunderstands both the context and the implications of this confrontation — a misunderstanding which sets into motion a chain of events that will ruin several lives, and leave Briony with a life-long need to atone — a need which she may never be able to fulfill.

Shortly after the incident that set this narrative into motion, England is drawn into the Second World War. And part of the fallout of Briony’s crime is that all three of the story’s protagonists become deeply embroiled in the war effort — one to earn back the right to live his life, one to fill an unnecessary and tragic void, and the third as part of her search for forgiveness. The story is told from all three perspectives, offering the reader a unique perspective but also, inevitably, betraying Briony’s fervent desire to rewrite the story from the beginning, and to undo the damage she has done.

One of the most remarkable qualities of Atonement, the decision that the elevates it from the ranks of other moving stories and puts it in the realm of something quite spectacular, is the way that McEwan employs an unusual narrative structure — a narrative structure that becomes a vital component of the narrative itself. He embeds in his story an author-character whose role as a writer is absolutely crucial to the way that the story unfolds, as well as the framework through which it is told. The text’s seemingly ever-changing perspective becomes unified through the framework of Briony as the final authority — the final storyteller. Through Briony’s vision, the story maintains a dynamic, almost magical metatextual awareness of the relationship between storyteller and reader — a relationship that becomes uniquely interactive in the final, heartbreaking moments of the book.

From the archives, written August 6th, 2005.

Brief thoughts on the film adaptation of Atonement, written June 24th, 2010: In 2007, two years after this review was originally written, a film adaptation of Atonment was released. It was well received (earning both rave reviews and an impressive six Oscar nominations). I watched it on DVD shortly last year and found it to be quite a good adaptation of the story, and a lovely film in its own right. But ultimately, the book remains superior: what was so sublime about Atonement was hidden in the interplay between the author, protagonist and reader. The act of writing itself, and the process of reading what has been written, are inherent and intrinsic to what is most powerful about the story. Remove the act of reading and it becomes a strong, successful film about a writer… but it loses much of the genius that ultimately made me love this book so much.

Leeway Cottage

By complete coincidence, a large number of the books that I read in the summer of 2005 were stories about love in a time of war. This is the third in a series of four book reviews on that theme. The first two were Antanas Sileika’s Woman in Bronze and Frances Itani’s Deafening.

Leeway Cottage by Beth GutcheonBeth Gutcheon’s Leeway Cottage is a book which is enhanced by the use of a unique narrative structure. It is comprised of a layering and entwining of two fairly disparate stories*. One of these stories is among the greatest (and yet, not widely known) triumphs of World War II — the spontaneous formation of a grassroots underground in Denmark which managed to rescue nearly all of that country’s 7,000 Jewish citizens from the occupying German army.

The second story is a multigenerational American family epic, folding itself around the Second World War and rife with the complex web of oft-dysfunctional relationships characteristic to this genre.

The WWII story is the most intense and enthralling part of the book, both because of the high stakes involved but also because of the depth and emotional resonance of the characters depicted. It also functions as a history lesson, exploring the remarkable strength and bravery of a small country whose people are, generally speaking, too modest to broadcast the story of their triumph.
 
Not that there aren’t plenty of interesting things happening within the family saga. It’s just unfortunate that so many of those “interesting things” involve characters and actions that are alternately small, petty and infuriating (with a few notable cracks for the light to get in), and are made to seem even more so given that they are juxtaposed against acts of wartime heroism and tragedy. But then, that contrast is definitely key to several not-so-subtle points that Gutcheon is intentionally and rather successfully making.
 
By exploring the marriage of two extremely different characters — Laurus, a quiet, peace-loving Dane and sensitive citizen of the world, and Sydney, a rich, sheltered and narcissistic American with little perspective on the world beyond her own small circle — Gutcheon also looks, metaphorically, at the differences between two cultures, both during the second World War and in the years after. 

Gutcheon is also fascinated with probing a “certain type of 20th century American marriage, in which the husband and wife, as they have grown and as life has changed them, appear by mid-life to be so different as people that outsiders (or insiders — their own children) can’t understand how they chose each other in the first place.”

A great deal of the latter part story is framed around Laurus’ vision of heaven. He believes that when he dies, he will see a film of his life, only with all the missing pieces filled in, all the questions answered. But what is most revealing is just which questions are the most haunting to Laurus. The answer seems to be surprising to some readers, but I found it ingenious. The final question that haunts Laurus is truly the missing pieces of the puzzle, tying together all the pieces of Gutcheon’s meta-level commentary, and revealing both why Sydney was never able to truly understand her husband, and why he was able to love her fully in spite of that fact.

From the archives, written August 6th, 2005.

*A tangential side note, from June 22nd, 2010: I think Wally Lamb was attempting to create a similarly entwined past/present narrative in his most recent novel, The First Hour I Believed. Unfortunately, I did not find it nearly as successful. The net result was two individually compelling stories that I just didn’t feel were entwined enough. As I told a friend shortly after I read the book: “It just kind of felt like two or three stories loosely stitched together because they were the three stories the author wanted to tell, not because they necessarily all belong in the same narrative.”

Deafening

By complete coincidence, a large number of the books that I read in the summer of 2005 were stories of love in a time of war. This is the second in a series of four book reviews on that theme. The first, thoughts on Antanas Sileika’s Woman in Bronze, can be found here.

Deafening by Frances ItaniFrances Itani’s Deafening features two highly distinct narrative parts. It begins as the story of a young girl from a small town in Ontario who, after contracting Scarlet Fever, loses her hearing at five years of age. The majority of the first part of the book follows Grania’s struggle to learn language, to develop literacy (both literal and emotional) and, as a result, to learn how to form and maintain relationships after having lost her hearing at such a crucial stage in childhood development.

The latter part of the book focuses on the sustaining bond between Grania and her husband, a hearing man who becomes an ambulance driver in France during World War I — leaving his home and his wife a mere two weeks after the wedding to begin his long, brutal tour of duty. One of the greatest and most terrible strengths of this story is Itani’s ability to immerse the reader in a portrait of life on the horrific frontlines of the war. Like most boys who went to battle in the early days of “the war to end all wars,” Jim arrives in Europe woefully naïve and ill-prepared (as if once could prepare) for the nightmare that lies before him. And so the reader — perhaps feeling the omniscient dread of one in possession of knowledge the characters could not possible obtain — experiences the loss of innocence and life-altering effects of war alongside Jim.

From a strictly narrative perspective, the relationship between Grania and Jim seems to be a pretty minor part of the story, functioning almost a trope of wartime relationships rather than a depiction of a specific and defined relationship between two real people. This sense of generalization is enhanced by the fact that Itani has made the interesting choice of having most of the love story unfold almost entirely outside of the text itself. But the result of these decisions is clearly quite intentional Grania and Jim’s love functions as an anchor for both characters, connecting them across time and space and unimaginably divergent experiences. Grounding them — and the concept of love — as they lead seemingly separate lives. Lives that might, otherwise, seem nearly devoid of hope and warmth.

From the archives, written August 6th, 2005.

Woman in Bronze

By complete coincidence, a large number of the books that I read in the summer of 2005 (borrowed from my mother, who worked at a library at the time but is also a bit of a library unto herself) were stories of love in a time of war. This post, and the three to follow, look at four of those books.

Woman in Bronze by Antanas SileikaFirst up: Antanas Sileika’s Woman in Bronze.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Woman in Bronze is Sileika’s ability to craft vivid, substantial impressions of distinct times and places. Opening in the early days of World War I in Lithuania, Sileika treats his readers to a fascinating glimpse of a country on the verge of an incredible transition. Sileika shows us a society that had changed little since the middle ages, peopled by peasant farmers and ruled by folklore, mysticism and feudalism — dragged abruptly, alongside the rest of Europe, straight into the height of the Modern age.

Protagonist Tomas Strumbas is a god-maker — a wood carver who creates the holy icons treasured by his peasant countrymen. And after his love affair with a local girl comes to a tragic end, Tomas leaves home to immerse himself in his first and indeed most enduring love — sculpture. In fact, the second great strength of this story is Sileika’s precise understanding of a variety of complex art-making techniques and, more importantly, his ability to impart to the reader what it feels like to be an artist, and to have so much of your heart and soul caught up in the struggle to transform your vision, through talent and technique, into something tangible and, even more precious: something that matches that fleeting vision.

Tomas’ journey brings him to Paris in the 1920s, where he makes a place for himself in both the art and dancehall scenes — another snapshot of a fascinating time and place. Surrounded by sin, temptation and the chance to actually fulfill his potential, Tomas learns to stop undercutting himself. He is on the cusp of great things, until the ghosts of his past — and a disappointing betrayal — threaten to overwhelm him. Tomas can’t seem to catch a break, but with a denoument that manages to be simultaneously bleak and hopeful, the reader is left with the sense that this has still been a journey worth taking.

From the archives, written August 6th, 2005.