“The Essex Serpent ” by Sarah Perry

“Skippers marked the time and tide, and set their oxblood sails against the north-east wind; a freight of iron was bound for Whitechapel foundry, where bells tolled fifty against the anvil as if time were running out. Time was being served behind the walls of Newgate jail, and wasted by philosophers in cafes on the Strand; it was lost by those who wished the past were present, and loathed by those who wished the present past. …Time was money in the Royal Exchange, where men passed the afternoon diminishing their hope of threading camels through a needle’s eye, and in the offices of Holborn Bars the long-toothed cog of a master clock caused an electric charge to set its dozen slave clocks chiming. All the clerks looked up from their ledgers, sighed, and looked down once more. On Charing Cross Road time exchanged its chariot for buses and cabs in urgent fleets, and in the wards of Barts and of the Royal Borough pain made hours of minutes. In Wesley’s chapel they sang The sands of time are sinking and wished they might sink faster, and yards away the ice was melting on the graves in Bunhill Fields. In Lincoln’s Inn and Middle Temple lawyers eyed their calendars and saw statutes of limitation expire; in rooms in Camden and Woolwich time was cruel to lovers wondering how it got so late so soon, and in due course was kind to their ordinary wounds. Across the city in terraces and tenements, in high society and low company and in the middle classes, time was spent and squandered, eked out and wished away; and all the time it rained an icy rain.” 

7679118-3x4-700x933

“The Essex Serpent” twists and turns with details breathtakingly intricate, with moments which burst and contrast like the colors on its cover.

Sarah Perry writes the story of Cora Seaborne, a young-ish woman widowed in 1893 London, freeing her from a torturous marriage to a vile man.

“The past few weeks had not always been so happy. At times she remembered her grief, and for long stretches in which it was necessary to teach herself again how to draw breath she would feel a cavity open behind her ribs. It was a kind of draining sensation, as if a vital organ had been shared with the man who’d died and was atrophying slowly from misuse. In those cold minutes she would recall not the years of unease, in which she’d never once successfully judged his mood or circumnavigated the methods of his wounding, but their first few months, which were the last of her youth.” 

Cora is delightfully odd, endearingly enigmatic. Her inquisitive nature and her strong individualism draw in her wake a small but devoted group – Martha, her one-time nanny and steadfast friend; Francis, her seemingly autistic son; Luke Garrett, an impish suitor and brilliant but flawed surgeon; and William Ransome, a country vicar. After her husband’s death, Cora flees, with Martha and Francis in tow, to Essex in search of quietude and nature. Dreaming of following in Mary Anning’s paleontologic footprints, Cora first scours the seaside for fossils and signs of life far beyond her experience. Shortly after her arrival in Essex, however, she hears tell of the Essex Serpent, a legendary beast feared by many locals and believed to be a Jurassic-era creature still haunting the sea. Cora is hooked.

Cora’s devotee Martha is a firebrand, a woman who comes from little in a time and place where poverty and womanhood often mean voicelessness.

“When Martha walked from Limehouse to Covent Garden she saw not high windows and Doric columns, but the labourers toiling behind them. It seemed to her that the city’s bricks were red with the blood of its citizens, its mortar pale with the dust of their bones; that deep in its foundations women and children lay head-to-toe in buried ranks, bearing up the city on their backs.”

Martha brilliantly uses the connections she makes through her employer and best friend to chip away at society’s ills, eventually winning over a wealthy Londoner, whose eyes open to societal ills that persist today.

“He discovers Parliament’s habit of making policies benevolently enough, then covering its eyes and shaking hands with industry. Sometimes the greed and malice of what he sees appalls him so much he thinks he must’ve misunderstood; he looks again, and it’s worse than he thought. The local authorities tear down slums, and compensate landlords according to lost rents. Since nothing makes a tenement more profitable than vice and overcrowding, landlords facilitate both as diligently as any pimp on the street, and government rewards them handsomely.”

Sarah Perry masters historical fiction. She writes a novel set 125 years ago that is alive and resonant today. What follows is a tale beautifully knotted like a centuries-old tree. Perry’s twists and turns manage to carry a multiplicity of timeless themes. Her story is about being true to one’s self, about the essential drive to find one’s place in this world. It is also about the power of myth, the enduring nature of love, and the eternal battle between the haves and the have-nots.

 

“Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital” by Sheri Fink

9780307718969_custom-c5e860538756bdf498808fb3144c77d4a46dce7f-s6-c30Prompted by its appearance in a “Radiolab” episode called “Playing God”, I sought out Sheri Fink’s work, “Five Days at Memorial”, about one hospital’s horrifying experience during and after Hurricane Katrina.

“For certain New Orleanians, Memorial Medical Center was the place you went to ride out each hurricane that the loop current of the Gulf of Mexico launched like a pinball at the city.”

What began as a place of safety and security soon began to resemble Dante’s inferno. Lost power, miscommunication, and unpredictable evacuation attempts led eventually to chaos, confusion, and, in a tragic number of instances, untimely death.

“The sun rose and with it the temperature. The hospital was stifling, its walls sweating. Water had stopped flowing from taps, toilets were backed up, and the stench of sewage mixed with the odor of hundreds of unwashed bodies. Interior corridors were enveloped in darkness penetrated only by dancing flashlight beams. Without working phones, televisions, computers, and overhead pagers, information was scarce. Critical messages passed voice to voice up and down the staircases.”

Sheri Fink comes from a background as a journalist covering health and medicine, and her style is markedly journalistic. Fink’s book is full of details and quotes, but their distribution is uneven and often unsettling. Sometimes a preponderance of facts is followed by a jarring jump in time, cutting short any ability for the tension and the mood to build. While some passages attempt to set the scene and engage the reader, many more are cold and impersonal. The organization, or lack thereof, throughout the narrative was also surprising and disappointing. One expects all storytellers, and particularly those coming from the world of journalism, to build a foundation and develop a timeline that carries and even enhances the story.

With all of these hurdles, I found myself struggling to continue, engaged in the story but not in her story. Ultimately, my attachment and applause were reserved for the history, the extraordinary and unimaginable terrors so many people faced and the unfathomable decisions they felt forced to make. Unfortunately, Fink does not get the credit for those. Torn between wanting to praise a story that needs to be told and demanding of myself an honest assessment of this particular telling, I abandoned the book 250 pages in. Frankly, the outtake developed (and clearly heavily produced) by Radiolab was a more memorable and poignant story (listen here).

“Tropical Fish” by Doreen Baingana

51yk4gt0lalChristine Mugisha is a young girl coming of age in Uganda under the specter of Idi Amin’s terror-filled reign and the emerging horror of the AIDS epidemic. Christine and her sisters are fortunate; though they live with want, they are well-off and well-educated.

“We were at Makerere University; we were the cream of the crop. We had dodged the bullets of Amin, Obote, all the coups, the economic war, exile and return, and here we were on the road to success. We were the lucky ones, the chosen few. No one said this out loud, of course, we just knew we were different, protected; our fate was privilege. We didn’t consciously think it, but the knowledge sat at the back of our minds like a fat cat. We were intelligent, read books for fun, had worn shoes and socks to school while villagers went barefoot; we spoke proper English; listened to Top of the Pops rather than Congolese music; ate with forks, not our fingers. And, of course, we would one day leave this place to work in southern Africa, or go to Europe or America for further studies. Escape, but not by dying.”

For Christine, her family status certainly gives her advantages, but the path to success is anything but clear. Facing the universal struggles of coming of age – discovering your own voice and deciphering the rules of the adult world – is only part of Christine’s battle. She must also cope with an unstable government, threats to her health in the midst of sexual revolution, racism and sexism, and the expectations of a nation.

“So, in Higher, as it’s called, we have this extra duty in school and as privileged young women in Uganda, a third world country, don’t you forget, because we are getting this excellent, government-subsidized (white) education. We must represent all the impoverished throngs who are not as lucky as we are, especially the women. We must be graceful, hardworking, and upright; disciplined enough to withstand the hordes of lusty men at university, in offices, or on the street who will try to ‘spoil’ us – unless, of course, they want to marry us. Then, as educated, faithful wives, we will work alongside our Christian husbands in our modern civilized homes (bedsheets folded to make perfect hospital corners), while serving our country in a lauded profession.”

The simple beauty and stark contrast of the cover image perfectly capture this book’s nature. Baingana’s words are quiet and measured, peppered with lilting phrases and vivid imagery that fill the mind’s eye.

“As my parents’ voices receded toward their bedroom, an argument inevitably began. Taata grunted a word or two, low commas to Maama’s continuous sentence of complaint, a wail, a plaintive song. Her voice choked with tears. She seemed to be forcing them back while letting streams of anger pour out.”

At times, I felt Baingana relied too heavily on the reader to conjure up emotion; her characters were stoic and her words were often flat, even in highly emotional situations. Though her work contained beautiful outtakes of delicate phrase, they were often buried in lengthy, dispassionate  passages. I appreciated her skill and, even more, her story, but a greater balance with more pops of color and passion would have made this novel leave stronger mark.

 

“Do Not Say We Have Nothing” by Madeleine Thien

“A story is a shifting creature, an eternal mirror that catches our lives at unexpected angles.”

9781783782666

Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” is  an epic saga in content if not truly in length. Weighing in at just over 450 pages, this elegantly crafted work details the struggles and loves of three generations of a family in revolutionary China. Using gentle, artistic strokes which evoke the Chinese calligraphy she so often invokes, Thien gives shape and substance to life under Mao, through the cultural revolution, and after the atrocities in Tiananmen Square.

“‘The so-called ‘enemies of the People’ are the ones whose luck has run out, nothing more. … If they want to come for you, they will come, and it doesn’t matter what you read or what you failed to read. The books on your shelves, the music you cherish, the past lives you’ve lived, all these details are just an excuse. In the old days, spite and jealousy drove the eunuchs in all their power struggles. Perhaps we live in a new age, but people don’t change overnight.'”

Jiang Li-Ling, a young girl growing up Canadian, first loses her father, Jiang Kai, when he takes his own life suddenly in 1989, only to “find” him through the stories of a family friend and the samizdat “Book of Records”. Slowly Li-Ling learns who her father was and where he came from. As she delves deeper into his history, she learns at a deeper level about her “home country” of China and about how those who came before have made her who she is.

“‘The things you experience … are written on your cells as memories and patterns, which are reprinted again on the next generation. And even if you never lift a shovel or plant a cabbage, every day of your life something is written upon you. And when you die, the entirety of that written record returns to the earth. All we have on this earth, all we are, is a record. Maybe the only things that persist are not the evildoers and demons (though, admittedly, they do have a certain longevity) but copies of things. The original has long since passed away from this universe, but on and on we copy. I have devoted my minuscule life to the act of copying.'”

Thien’s work is eye-opening and touching. She has breathed life into a troubled and often glossed over history, making real the struggles of so many Chinese people – particularly the intellectual and educated masses – whose lives were violently circumscribed and often ended by the communist regime. This story isn’t a big-bad-communism story. It is, instead, a humanistic exploration by an outsider-insider – a girl of Chinese descent who is Western in her upbringing and sense of self. Thien’s beautiful, carefully chosen words weave a complicated plait, bringing together characters from multiple generations whose secrets, loves, and ambitions shape who they are and who they become.

“Sometimes, I think, you can look at a person and know they are full of words. Maybe the words are withheld due to pain or privacy, or maybe subterfuge. Maybe there are knife-edged words waiting to draw blood.”

Thien’s words are razor-sharp; sometimes they carve a delicate sculpture, other times they cause deep wounds. 

Thank you to Granta for providing a complimentary copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.

“Dancing with the Tiger” by Lili Wright

“For years, I thought wearing a mask was a way to start over, become someone new. Now I know better. A mask doesn’t change who you are; it lets you be the person you’ve always been, the person you paper over out of habit or timidity or fear. Some people – people like me – have to try on a lot of faces before they find one that fits.”

tigercover

Oaxaca, Mexico – the heart, we are told, of buried Aztec treasure and the folk art of carving masks. Here a meth-head with a gift for unearthing relics finds an ancient mask, one he suspects is valuable but which he, in his addled state, fails to recognize for its true worth. So begins a heart-pounding thriller of a story in which various interested parties – thieves, collectors, art lovers, and drug lords – stop at nothing to obtain the mask they believe is the burial mask of Montezuma.

Lili Wright’s debut novel is about Mexico and folk art, sure. But it is also inescapably about human ambition, about clashes of culture, about the fine line between the drive to protect and the drive to control.

“We need museums for the same reason we need zoos, but animals still need to live in the wild. Ancient people were buried with treasures. Should you dig up every grave when there is no money and no place to care for these things? We don’t have to see everything. We can imagine them. We can wonder. We can leave them for someone else.”

Wright explores the limits, and sometimes their lack, of what people can be driven to do – driven by love, greed, guilt, fear. Anna Ramsey, a young American who wants desperately to redeem her father’s reputation and to find a place in the world for herself, is constantly recalibrating her own moral code. Thomas Malone, an American ex-pat and renowned art collector, seems wholly without a moral code. Hugo, a gardener and part time drug-runner, is driven to madness by his infatuation with a young girl and his fear of a drug cartel. Reyes, the drug lord, is driven by greed, power, and an exquisite sadism:

“‘If that mask is not back to me by the end of Carnival, I will cut out your heart and hang it from a tree and watch the turkey vultures feast, and I will screw your little girlfriend and rape your ugly wife and kill your dog and cook your cat and burn down your house and blow up your car and throw your carcass in the Pacific, where the sharks will rip you apart and shit you out in pellets on the ocean floor. Have  I left anything out? Do you have a mother? Or did she die from shame at having raised an incompetent?'”

The Looter, or “Twigger”, is driven by addiction, yes, but also by a broader hedonism and a desire to flee past mistakes and virtually erase his transgressions.

“His shady life in Mexico was exterior stuff, surface, cover of the book, not the book. What mattered long-term was a man’s inside, his core, his heart, mind, soul, being. If his insides stayed true, the outside could indulge in sybaritic delights: women, crack, looting. In fact, it would be irresponsible not to. Because there was time. Time for hedonism and excess. Time later to settle down. Reform. Rise from the ashes for a second act. A third. Wisdom was the rare province offered to those who’d tried everything once.”

Lili Wright’s “Dancing with the Tiger” was unabashed fun. Her facts and historical accuracy have been called into question by some readers, as has the film she casts over this region of Mexico, an area she describes as violent and run-down. These are the kind of critiques which usually set me on edge and color my response to a book. But this time? I couldn’t resist the clever and complicated web Wright was weaving. I don’t know if these criticisms have merit, but this book was not presented as non-fiction. This book was pure fiction, and taken as such, the details Wright created were thrilling, the atmosphere she created was alluring. At times her characters were hyperbolic, the plot’s coincidences radical, but even these extremes worked, simply feeding the blazing engine that kept this story churning. Wright has a razor-witted, edgy style that makes her story pop and sizzle. I devoured this book, guiltily reading just one more chapter, just one more chapter, just one more chapter, until my eyes were bleary and the book was at an end.


“He waited as his country waited for prosperity, as children waited for Christmas, as women waited for husbands to return from the North, as husbands waited for mistresses to return to bed, as Mexicans waited for a president who did not steal, as they waited for a police chief who did not steal, as they waited for a priest who did not steal. They waited with the patience of a donkey tied at the side of the road.”


Thank you to G. P. Putnam’s Sons for providing a complimentary manuscript in exchange for a fair and honest review. 

 

“Suite Francaise” by Irene Nemirovsky

51yoiyjldlIrene Nemirovsky was an author of Ukrainian-Jewish descent who emigrated to Paris after the Russian Revolution. In Paris, Nemirovsky found great success and her voice as a writer. Though she converted to Catholicism, wrote in French, and was considered by many to be a French Nationalist, Nemirovsky remained an official outsider. Her petition for citizenship was denied, eventually her writing was no longer published, and in 1942, at the age of 39, Nemirovsky was captured and deported to Auschwitz, where she soon perished.

In the late 1990s family members discovered among Nemirovsky’s belongings manuscripts of an unfinished volume consisting of two novellas. These writings were eventually transcribed and published – first in French in 2004 and in English in 2006 – under the title “Suite Francaise” to world-wide acclaim.

With World War II as its frame (a subject touched by countless books with widely variant success), “Suite Francaise” sets itself apart. Here is sophisticated, well-developed fiction that is being written contemporaneously. Nemirovsky writes about the attitudes, happenings, and tragedies of 1940 and 1941 France with eerie remove and without the benefit of history or hindsight. Though her writings were ostensibly unfinished, the final product is fluid, polished, and poised in a way that belies the conditions in which it was written and, ultimately, abandoned.

“‘It’s so sad,’ said the Viscountess and added, ‘We’re going through such hard times.’ She said ‘we’ out of that sense of propriety which makes us pretend we share other people’s misfortunes when we’re with them (although egotism invariably distorts our best intentions so that in all innocence we say to someone dying of tuberculosis, ‘I do feel for you, I do understand, I’ve had a cold I can’t shake off for three weeks now.’).” 

This passage is poignant on multiple levels. On the surface, it is a quiet truth-telling, a peeling back of a practice all-too-common. At a deeper level, Nemirovsky’s condemnatory statement is carried out in the tone of her piece. She, of all people, has earned the right to speak of ‘we’. But she refrains.

At the time “Suite Francaise” was originally penned, Nemirovsky was living through the chaos of war-torn Paris and the disenfranchisement of being considered inflammatory and dangerous by the government. Later she paid the ultimate price, dying in a concentration camp at the hands of brutal and inhuman forces. Yet Nemirovsky’s stories are told at a remove; their inhabitants are middle- and upper-class Christians struggling to adapt to occupation. Where most World War II stories, and particularly those written by sympathetic peoples, speak of austerity and atrocity, “Suite Francaise” deals more with common indignities, manageable hardships, and shifting ethics. Nemirovsky’s fiction is, quite frankly, the “mainstream” story so rarely told; her life and death, however, are the epitome of the tragedy we must never forget. I am left to wonder if her tone and subject were ironic, or if she so fully identified as a middle-class, Catholic, French woman that her oppression and murder for being Jewish was the darkest of ironies.


“She paused and nodded curtly to the teacher who had just come in: she was a woman who did not attend Mass and who had buried her husband in a civil ceremony; according to her pupils she hadn’t even been baptised, which seemed not so much scandalous as unbelievable, like saying someone had been born with the tail of a fish. As this person’s conduct was irreproachable, the Viscountess hated her all the more: ‘because,’ she explained to the Viscount, ‘if she drank or had lovers, you could understand her lack of religion, but just imagine, Amaury, the confusion that can be caused in people’s minds when they see virtue practised by people who are not religious.'”

 

 

“Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits” by Laila Lalami

“Fourteen kilometers. Murad has pondered that number hundreds of times in the last year, trying to decide whether the risk was worth it. Some days he told himself that the distance was nothing, a brief inconvenience, that the crossing would take as little as thirty minutes if the weather was good. He spent hours thinking about what he would do once he was on the other side, imagining the job, the car, the house. Other days he could think only about the coast guards, the ice-cold water, the money he’d have to borrow, and he wondered how fourteen kilometers could separate not just two countries but two universes.”

1250814Four Moroccans – Murad, Aziz, Halima, and Faten – are thrown together under the most extraordinary circumstances; they meet on a small, inflatable boat as they are attempting to emigrate to Spain. Laila Lalami’s delicate, precise prose creates a compelling and divergent backstory for each refugee and at least the beginnings of understanding as to why these people – and uncountable others – would risk their lives to leave their home country.  Lalami speaks of political oppression, religious fervor, domestic abuse, and the dream of opportunity. And just as each of these four emigres has a different reason to flee, so do they each have a dramatically different future ahead of them.

“Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits” is a diminutive book, weighing little and taking up minimal real estate. Its lightness, however, is deceptive. Lalami’s writing is quietly angry at times, joyfully sarcastic at others.

“Larbi was in shock. His only daughter, dressed like some ignorant peasant! But even peasants didn’t dress like that. She wasn’t talking about wearing some traditional country outfit. No, she wanted the accoutrements of the new breed of Muslim Brothers: headscarf tightly folded around her face, severe expression anchored in her eyes. His precious daughter. She would look like those rabble-rousers you see on live news channels, eyes darting, mouths agape, fists raised. But, he tried to tell himself, maybe this was just a fleeting interest, maybe it would all go away. After all, Noura had had other infatuations.”

While overtly political in its subject matter – and how could a book about immigration not be – “Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits” doesn’t impose any particular ideology. Lalami presents stories, humanizes a culture and country with which many westerners are unfamiliar. Her characters, like their country and their relationships, are flawed; their hopes and dreams, like many hopes and dreams, are imperfect. Laila Lalami has written a story not just about her home country, but about the vitality and essentialness of hope.