The Price of Salt

Image of The Price of Salt: OR Carol
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“The Price of Salt is a moving, beautifully conceived and written book. It is a mesmerizing read.”

The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (author of The Talented Mr. Ripley and other well-known novels) first published under the pseudonym of Claire Morgan in 1952 is an American classic. A huge bestseller when first published, currently it enjoys a well-deserved revival with the release of the movie Carol on which it is based. Carol has received rave critical reviews internationally and many awards.

The Price of Salt is the classic American love story of boy meets girl, their attraction immediate, the slow dance of courtship, and the headlong fall into a tempestuous affair. However in this instance (and it is a significant “however”) the protagonists are not boy and girl but girl and older woman.

These two people—the girl (Therese aged 19) and the older woman (Carol in her early 30s)—meet in a department store during the Christmas season. Therese works temporarily as an assistant in the toy department, and Carol is looking for a doll for her young daughter:

“Their eyes met at the same instant. Her eyes were gray, colorless, yet dominant as light or fire, and caught by them, Therese could not look away. Her mouth was as wise as her eyes, Therese thought, and her voice was like her coat, rich and supple and somehow full of secrets.”

The novel is written entirely from Therese’s perspective, a single voice narrative style presently in vogue. We see Carol through Therese’s eyes, we share Therese’s introspection but not Carol’s, and yet Carol emerges as a fully developed character, complex and nuanced. Not only the lens of Therese’s perspective but also the dialog used as a literary device allows us to more fully grasp the coloring of Carol’s personality. Both what she says and how she acts carry layers of implicit meaning.

At first Therese grapples with trying to understand why falling in love with a woman is classified as distinct from falling in love with a man. (In 1952 such love was a taboo subject.) Each woman knows what she desires and while they dance around one another, neither knows the steps to manifest what she wishes.

One of the strengths of the novel lies in our being privy to Therese’s musings and struggles to find the mores and etiquette of her emotional response to a woman. Highsmith’s writing in creating this dynamic is revelatory. Initially, Therese experiences a romantic obsession. On an early visit to Carol’s house, she plays the piano at Carol’s behest:

“It was suddenly too much, her hands on the keyboard Carol played, Carol watching her with eyes half closed, Carol’s whole house around her, and the music that made her abandon herself, made her defenseless.”

All through the book (in less than a year) Therese grows into a woman as the house visits become a long road trip on which obsession becomes mutual love: “She saw Carol’s pale hair across her eyes, and now Carol’s head was close against hers. And she did not have to ask if this were right, no one had to tell her, because this could not have been more right or perfect.”

Slowly the disapprobation of the morally prejudiced world shatters their idyll. Carol is undergoing a divorce and is in a legal battle for joint custody of her daughter. Gradually Therese comes to understand the societal costs of her and Carol’s choices. There is heartbreak for both. Therese and Carol are forced to separate by legal circumstance forged by the divorce proceedings.

Carol stands to lose her daughter on “moral grounds,” but during the process of hearings she refuses to accede to the demands of her ex-husband and his family that she undergo correctional behavior therapy and give up forming liaisons with women. Courageously, Carol, accepting the reality of her identity, refuses to deny her sexuality although it means she cannot see her daughter. Yet love triumphs and the novel ends with a true beginning of the possibilities of a life together.

It is not difficult perhaps to see the novel as tinged with the darkness of the human condition that becomes Highsmith’s landscape in her later novels. Carol, always under control, suave and sophisticated can appear as a spider spinning a web to trap Therese. At first maternal, but with an implicit edge of secret intimacy, she surprises herself by falling so deeply in love—desire becomes need. Having undergone her own journey and by relinquishing her daughter, she gambles on winning back Therese.

In the early part of the book it is easy to see Therese as an unwitting, innocent but willing quarry, but at the conclusion—grown up now—she becomes both predator and prey. Only a naturally talented and consummate storyteller could create the realistic and slowly evolving portrayal of Therese’s character.

In this her second novel, written at age 27, Highsmith writes not by probing the minds of psychopaths but with her heart, the material so close to her doppelgänger, Therese, that only in her last years could she bear to have her name attached to the novel. A private, reclusive personality, Highsmith regarded the work as too exposing of her own sexual orientation and inner life.

The Price of Salt is a moving, beautifully conceived and written book. It is a mesmerizing read.

– See more at: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/price-salt#sthash.xBC2JBz4.dpuf

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The Wolf Border: A Novel

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This is a superb novel: luminous and illuminating. You’ll gallop through every page and then read it again. British author Sarah Hall is a writer’s writer . . . as well as a reader’s best friend. She gets it all right. Page turning plot development, command of the protagonist’s third person point of view, gripping story lines, flawed characters (human like you and me), beautiful, shimmering descriptions of her beloved Cumbrian landscape (the Lake District), where she was born and raised.

“In the days that follow, the heat of summer lifts, and the sun becomes less concentrated. September. The trees fluoresce, as if in a final bid to stay green. There is already a tint of autumn, leaves beginning to gather and flutter along the verges . . . In the sky, a more complicated portfolio of colours: lilacs, yellows, like a warning—bad weather brewing in the Atlantic.”

Hall is famous for her precise depictions of landscape, and this book does not disappoint. And that’s just the surface of the novel. There are layers of metaphor and meaning surrounding our deepest associations with abstract concepts of “wolf” and “border.” Cleverly entwined strands of the real and surreal, and conscious and subconscious mind states.

Hall challenges us to plunge deeply into our psyches to uncover, with Rachel Caine, the novel’s protagonist as our guide, understandings of what these words represent. This metaphysical jousting proves a welcome challenge to readers; an unusual phenomenon today, among the vast majority of books published in our one-byte, popular culture.

Rachel Caine is a brilliant loner; she has spent a decade as an expert wolf zoologist on a remote reservation in Idaho attending to a pack of wolves re-introduced into their natural habitat. A surprise invitation from the Earl of Annerdale in Cumbria draws her back home to England. Lord Pennington, the Earl, and owner of this vast estate near the Scottish border, proposes a “rewilding” scheme of his own. After 500 years he wants to reintroduce the northern gray wolf to the estate.

In conservation circles “rewilding,” a term created by conservation activist, David Foreman, describes a relatively new phenomenon. The aim of rewilding is conservation on a significant scale to restore ecological resources, including connectivity between protected areas, and reintroduce apex predators. The hope is to restore natural balance to unbalanced landscapes. According to biologists this conservation method is based on “cores, corridors, and carnivores.”

Near Lord Pennington’s estate resides Rachel’s “difficult” family, from whom she feels she successfully escaped across a physical border to the United States. Ensconced in Cumbria are her selfish, manipulative mother and a dysfunctional brother. Additionally, to her annoyance, Rachel finds she must deal with an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy after an ill-judged one night stand with a fellow ranger during the winter festive season on the reservation.

By moving to Cumbria, Rachel must somehow navigate the shoals of family relationships whose under-currents threaten the boundaries of independence and selfhood—mother, brother, baby, burgeoning love interest, and her enigmatic boss. As complicated as these tracks and trails through the thickets of ties that bind her within family and other borders, her interactions with these (and other) characters are not Rachel’s primary territory; this terrains is inhabited by her relationship with wolves.

Early in the novel we find a clue to her innermost psyche; Rachel presents herself for sex, as would a female wolf. After the push-pull tease in sleazy bars on the outer border of the reservation she finds a succession of males, the hunters, “close-shaven, militaristic, or long-haired with greasy, white marks from sunglasses along their temples.”

Subtle eye signals announce she is ready for sex. She plays the game of shared rounds of drinks then lures them to her truck, where they follow her in their vehicles to the darkness of a reservation forest cleaning. Once in their vehicles she moves “to the metal truck bed . . . damp, smells of oil and blood from occasional deer carcass.”

After initial contact, and making sure a condom is in place, to the appreciation of the men, she presents herself “on all fours, not for his benefit, but the presentation is not lost on him . . . this is different, sudden, abandoned.”

On some profound associative level in these encounters Rachel emanates herself as a female wolf. In another almost hidden abstraction to this mating game, she (the conservationist) dominates the despised hunters (with their guns and swagger) by playing the role of the pack’s alpha female.

Wolves are the iconic emblems of this novel, and borders are multifaceted and complex.

Rachel agrees, albeit dubiously, to head the operation to reintroduce a pair of wolves to the Earl’s estate. They arrive, adapt to their new environment, mate and produce four cubs; while Rachel who has not told the father of her child she is pregnant, gives birth alone. But she has her own family pack, primarily her brother, and the estate vet who becomes her lover. Yet always the wolves are the compass needles within her psyche’s threshold.

“Spring gives way early to summer, the foliage thickening, the light over the western mountains shedding its dullness. Six wolves are silhouetted against the Cumbrian fells. They are no longer aliens: they never were. She is nameless to them. They have everything they need.”

On the first pages of the novel, while on the Idaho reservation, Rachel has a dream of a childhood encounter with a caged wolf contained by a fence in part of a forest near where she lived. Freed by her mother’s permission to do so, preschool Rachel reaches the fence and starts to climb over when she notices a wolf emerge from shadows and “in her dream, the wolf stands looking at her.”

This is her “first communion” with a wolf.  A reservation mystic asks her what the encounter felt like. “How does it feel? Pre-erotic fear. The heart beneath her chest jumps, feels bloody. The wolf’s head lowers: eyes level, keen as gold, sorrowless. ” She climbs down and walks along the fence, while the wolf lopes alongside her but separated from her by the fence border.

“In her brain an evolutionary signal fires. What a mouth like that means . . .  She stops walking, and it stops. She turns slowly and walks the other way. It crosses paws, turns and follows. An echo, or a mirror. She stops, ‘What are you doing?’” She races along the side of the fence but the wolf runs with her, faithfully mimicking her movements. “To the very corner of the cage, where she stops, breathing hard, and it stands looking at her. What are you doing? she says.” As Rachel emerges from her dream, Hall writes the answer, “She knows.”

Rachel’s totemic wolf is forever cornered in her brain and she must liberate its evolutionary physical form from the confines of fences and humankind’s ancient, archetypal lupine fear: to be free across all borders.

Eventually the wolf family breaks out of the estate’s fortified fences and manages to progress across northern England to roam the truly wild, unfenced places of Scotland. The Earl’s rewilding scheme succeeds and he has indeed created a “corridor” for the apex predator (as outlined above.)

Now no longer working for the Earl (who heartbreakingly disillusions her with his double-dealing and political scheming) but as a consultant to the Scottish government on the “rewilding” of wolves, Rachel, too, breaks out of certain of her psychological restraints and ultimately revisits the Idaho reservation to introduce their son to his father.

In the novel, Scotland (a physical boundary, as well as one of Rachel’s metaphysical borders) votes for independence and becomes autonomous: and as envisaged by Hall, a utopian place of freedom and governmental functionality.

Throughout the novel we read of Rachel’s (and Hall’s) disenchanted, dystopian social judgments on the entrenched oligarchic structure of English politics and classist society. These observations echo strands of Sarah Hall’s previous fiction where dystopian sentiment flourishes.

Sarah Hall is young, in her early forties, and this is her fifth novel. She is an honored, prize-winning, and renowned writer. The Wolf Border was published to positive critical acclaim in Great Britain in March 2015 and sold in many European countries as well.

 

Janet Levine is a journalist and author of four books including the novel Leela’s Gift

– See more at: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/wolf#sthash.l0O49liH.dpuf

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Searching for Wallenberg

Image of Searching for Wallenberg: A Novel
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Publisher/Imprint:
Mandel Vilar Press
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In Searching for Wallenberg author Alan Lelchuk chooses to work in the well-worn structure of a novel within a novel. He succeeds in breathing more life into Dartmouth College’s Manny Gellerman, history professor cum sleuth, than into the secrets of Swedish diplomat and savior of thousands of Budapest’s Jews toward the end World War Two, Raoul Wallenberg.

As we follow Gellerman on his picaresque journey he writes his own novel on Wallenberg. If this sounds confusing, at times it is, but ultimately the novel is a satisfying read.

The outline events of Raoul Wallenberg’s life are well known, but his two-year incarceration and death in a Russian prison, Lybianka, in 1947, remain a mystery. Gellerman, following leads uncovered by a graduate student he mentors through her post-graduate thesis process, provide the impetus for his search for Wallenberg.

Alarm bells sound when Gellerman, in questionable academic practice, uses the student’s research to further his own academic ends. There is leeway here, of course, for initially he suggested she research Raoul Wallenberg’s demise. His impetus to follow this trail himself arises when she surprises him by uncovering (on a sojourn in Budapest) possible evidence of Wallenberg’s mistress (possibly even wife) and granddaughter (still living) in Hungary.

Despite this worm in the Edenic apple, Lelchuk clearly evokes the pastoral idyll that is Ivy League, Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire (bordering on Vermont). The author himself teaches at the college and his clear-eyed exposition on the self-satisfied smugness of tenured professors who never challenge themselves rings true.

But Gellerman, divorced and fit (he walks a good deal around campus and plays tennis), in his mid-sixties, shakes up his own fretful complacency by spending the summer months in Budapest and parts of Russia searching for Wallenberg. In Budapest he meets Zsuzanna Wallenberg possibly Wallenberg’s granddaughter, and an intriguing relationship ensues.

One of the author’s strengths is the creation of many interesting characters, among the most engaging his young teenage son, Josh, a cello playing prodigy, whom he calls “the boy,” and Wallenberg’s KGB interrogator, Daniel Pagliansky.

A downside for this reader is the clumsy means the writer uses for separating the strands of the novel. A solid, black line on the page between Gellerman’s writing and Lelchuk’s narrative of Gellerman is all we have. The author makes no attempt to fuse the two.

Disconcerting as well is Gellerman’s propensity to criticize and question if his fictional choices suit his academic purpose in scene after scene that he creates on his computer narrating the story of Raoul Wallenberg’s demise. Gellerman continually questions whether he is preserving Wallenberg’s legacy and furthering the historical record or adding more confusion to the mystery?

Perhaps this is the author’s (rather unsubtle) intention to keep reminding his readers of Gellerman’s premise that all history is fiction and all fiction history (a current lively debate in academia’s Humanities departments). Gellerman teaches a seminar on History through Literature and as he reflects on this course “each book presented a different problem about how history had entered fiction and, conversely, how fiction had shaped history.”

As the students discuss, “Sure, here in a novel he can interpret as much as he wants. . . . But if he were writing ‘real’ history?” Another says, “What do you mean ‘real history’? Don’t historians make their own interpretations as well?” A third posits, “Maybe we should read some of the histories as fiction then? And some of fiction as history?”

Does the appeal of this novel lie in this very ambiguity, so that the novel becomes part philosophical inquiry, part historiographical research and reading of the record, part fiction and part nonfiction.

To read this book is to take a thinking person’s journey to uncover the “truth” of a valiant but ultimately enigmatic historical figure.

 

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Solstice Greetings December 21, 2014

When thinking what to blog about at this juncture of the year,  the word “books” keeps coming to mind. Books, in many ways remain an anchor in my life. So, I am going to share my great pleasure in books by selecting several highlights from my reading this year.  I’ll start with my most recent “fav”.

Seems as if this past year is the season for excellent historical novels and I so enjoyed and highly recommend The Paying Guests by acclaimed British author, Sarah Waters. In 1920s London, begrimed both physically and metaphorically by the ravages of WW1, Frances Wray and Lilian Barber form a friendship that leads to unanticipated and spellbinding consequences. Shot through with undertones of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s inimitable Crime and Punishment, this exquisitely written novel hits all the high notes available to a consummate artist at the height of her powers.

The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami, a fictional memoir written by formerly wealthy Moroccan merchant-cum-Spanish slave, Estebanico, who in 1527 accompanied his grandee master–along with 600 other Spanish conquistadors and journeymen–on the fictional recreation of a historic expedition from Hispaniola to the Gulf Coast of Florida to explore and claim La Florida territory for the Spanish crown. Only four members survived. Estebanico’s account counters the whitewash “official” version. This novel has everything: history, adventure, relationships, survival, courage, cruelty and important questions of morality, religiosity, and cultural anthropology. It is both anachronistic and perfectly attuned to contemporary issues.

The classic book on the Florida Everglades, The Everglades: River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, first published almost seventy years ago, remains a gripping and fascinating account of the pre-history and history of this amazing eco-system. It is a must read for anyone who loves or who is interested in this landscape. I love the Everglades and this biota is one of the main motivations for my move to southwest Florida. I’ll be forever grateful for Stoneman’s book, it is already my constant companion.

I’m honored to highlight The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, published late fall 2013, an unforgettable read, a towering novel, that will remain the gold standard for dissecting the post-2001 apocalyptic world in which we find ourselves. In February 2014 it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Here are several paragraphs from the concluding pages. I hope they leave you wanting more.

“A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.

“It’s not about outward appearances but inward significance, a grandeur in the world, but not of the world, a grandeur that the world doesn’t understand. That first glimpse of pure otherness, in whose presence you bloom out and out and out.

“And as much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: is the space where all art exists, and all magic.

“And—I would argue as well—all love…the play between things, both love and not-love, there and not there.”

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Happy Solstice! As we (in the northern hemisphere) emerge from the dark light of December I send my love and wholehearted good wishes to my followers and readers for good health and happiness in the upcoming year, wherever you are.

 

 

 

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First Published in the New York Journal of Books October 21, 2014:

The Paying Guests by Sarah Water

waters cover

The Paying Guests by English author Sarah Waters is a brilliant novel. This book deserves the accolades and favorable reviews currently garlanding its release. Sarah Waters hits the high notes available to a consummate novelist at the height of her power—and happily her remarkable storytelling gifts make this book an excellent read. – See more at: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/paying-guests#sthash.7uLumxHv.dpuf

 

My first read through was at a gallop, as I could not bear to relinquish the characters to the covers and stop reading. Almost immediately I finished the 576th page, I returned to the beginning and read with appreciation the artistry evident on every page.

 

In the early 1920s, post-WW1 suburban London, in a “good” neighborhood, in a once stately home presently succumbing to the ravages of time and the general griminess of the post-war years, we find the owners, Frances Wray and her mother. The once well-to-do family lost two sons in the war and a father consumed by grief and facing financial ruin through his own poor business judgments.

 

Frances Wray, an intelligent and perceptive woman in her twenties—a suffragette, free thinker and vehement anti-war activist—surrenders her freedom and independence to live with her mother and undertake the household duties of the “serving class”—“except the laundry”—in a losing battle against ever-encroaching poverty. Mother and daughter make a fateful decision to take in lodgers or “paying guests” as they describe their tenants to nosy neighbors.

 

The “paying guests”, a young married couple, Lilian and Leonard Barber, also in their twenties, arrive one Saturday, early summer afternoon with a van load of belongings. They are of the “clerk class.” Leonard works at an insurance company in the City, and artistic but bored and housebound Lilian pours her creativity into designing and sewing clothes for herself and creating an eclectic almost bohemian décor in the upper floor of the staid house. The house seems to creak and groan as it accommodates to the upheaval of the domestic arrangement.

 

The first half of the book develops the slowly blossoming friendship of the two young women from such different backgrounds that slowly but inevitably blooms into a passion flower. The consequences of this relationship, the unexpected twists and turns of the second half of the book are spellbinding. No spoilers here.

 

As always (since Tipping the Velvet her first novel) Waters’ characters jump off the page into life, so real, we feel we know these people. Narrated in the third person through Frances’ point of view, a difficult perspective skillfully handled; we discern what Leonard, Lilian and the others think and feel—continually—every detail fits. I’ve read all of Waters’ novels and they are uniformly excellent, but this one shines. The research is thorough; you know the neighborhood as well as Frances’ does and resonate with the physical drudgery of her domestic chores. London in the 1920s comes alive in ways I had not previously contemplated. The streets and bridges over the Thames are characters too.

 

During my second reading I was struck by the implications of moral responsibility inherent to the novel and the almost gentle way Waters’ enters into this tortuous territory. Crime and Punishment, the great Dostoevskyean fictional treatise of this thorny ground pulverizes and perplexes like a Rembrandt painting. Certainly Frances Wray is no Raskalnikov nor Waters a Dostoevsky. Water ’work is more like that of a miniaturist, a Dutch master painter of domesticity such as Vermeer. Each author has their milieu and each renders weighty matters of morality and conscience with deft strokes.

 

British writing has for about ten years been experiencing a remarkable renaissance of literary fiction. Long may this movement flourish. Sarah Waters stands among the leaders. And this is one reader who cannot wait for her next book.

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41SMbUz+gHL  First published in the New York Journal of Books: August 16 2014

 Before, During, After by Richard Bausch

Reviewer: Janet Levine

 

Richard Bausch, a much celebrated and prize-winning American author of 12 novels, in his latest work Before, During, After courageously tackles a difficult conundrum in fiction: how to fictionalize—that is how to make art—out of unspeakable evil taken from life.

In this instance it is the horrific and tragic events of September 11, 2001. Faced with this terror-filled event of such iconic proportions artists must ask if they can ever make art of it. Indeed, can art imitate any such moment in the flow of human history without diluting the enormity of the event and dishonoring the     victims?

Picasso succeeds in this endeavor with his masterwork painting “Guernica,” perhaps the greatest anti-war artistic statement yet created. The terrors from the sky visited on the Basque people by General Franco and Adolf Hitler are present in the painting but the true genius resides in the rendering of universal suffering   of  humans and animals in this nihilistic nightmare.

Nobel prize winning author, J. M. Coetzee succeeds in his post-apartheid novel Disgrace as he eviscerates the passive, white oppressors of the apartheid regime, as well as black South Africans coping with the after shocks of four hundred years of racial oppression.

The same can be said of Michael Schlink’s novel The Reader set in the early years of post-Nazi Germany as the protagonists struggle with the ramifications of the burden of guilt the Nazi regime left behind amid the ruins of their once great country.

Donna Tartt won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for her superb novel, The Goldfinch. Like Bausch she portrays a current, apocalyptic terror incident in Manhattan but her creation is pure fiction.

The protagonists in Before, During, After are Natasha, an orphaned, 30-something, would-be artist working as a PA in a senator’s office in Washington, DC. Raised by her grandmother, Iris, in Memphis (after her parents’ fatal car accident), and while recovering from the end of an affair with a married man, she meets Michael. Michael, the other protagonist, is a man 20 years her senior, divorced, who recently left ministry in a church in Memphis visits an elderly relative in DC.

In the “Before” part of the book their meeting and burgeoning love affair takes flight. The novel is skillfully crafted to move in alternating sections between these protagonists, and Bausch paces the narrative well. He uses the third person omniscient narrator’s voice for both characters, and adeptly portrays their character development. It is enjoyable wandering around DC and its environs with a tourist’s eye guided by Michael and Natasha; the first part of the novel engages the reader.

Almost too hastily, Michael and Natasha plan a wedding in Memphis. Natasha packs up her life and leaves DC for a long-planned break with an older female friend in Jamaica, before joining Michael for their wedding. Michael travels to Manhattan to attend a longstanding friend’s large church wedding on Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001 at a church near the World Trade Center twin towers. A large church wedding on a Tuesday morning: a plot device certain to raise some eyebrows.

Chaos and terror ensue in this, the “During” section.

Here the best writing—taut and restrained—in the novel conveys Michael’s disbelief and frantic attempts to reach Natasha in Jamaica. Michael’s journey from hell on one of the last trains to leave NYC, at least for the following days, reignites the overwhelming emotions that shocked us then and for days after and still shock; Bausch is a powerful evocator.

Cut to Jamaica, tropical paradise, until the staggering news appears on the beachfront hotel’s solitary TV set. Phone lines to the USA jammed, flights grounded, strangers with snorkeling gear talking to one another. The dreadful day winds on. Hotel guests begin drinking alcohol in large amounts and sharing stories.

Natasha can’t reach Michael and feels abandoned (shades of her orphan past?). Tipsily, she inadvertently flirts with another guest, a Cuban American man, Nicholas Duego, now living in Orlando. Both are drunk. After a protracted struggle and ignoring her protests, Duego rapes her. (This is where Bausch’s artistry begins to fall apart.)

Rape is not the subject in this review and can never be condoned, but to draw a parallel between Duego’s penetration of Natasha, and the penetration of two enormous jets into the Twin Towers is so contrived a device, so obvious, that I lost interest in the novel. This was regrettable because parts one and two fill less than one third of the book, so there was much more to read.

Let’s return to Coetzee’s Disgrace for a moment. His novel’s plot is complete unto itself. Satisfactory in every way. Only at the conclusion do we realize that David represents the moral blindness of many white South Africans as he undergoes a journey of redemption. His daughter Lucy adapts to the new realities, is impregnated, and carries a tiny shoot of possible life in the new South Africa. Petrus, the dog-man, who works for Lucy, and whose ancestors lived on the land, albeit latterly as peasant-serfs, emerges as the true possessor of the nascent “rainbow nation.” As Lucy’s notional husband, Petrus, now rooted fully in his ancestral home, personifies the face of South Africa. There is a rape here, too, a climatic scene, a horrible rape. But as Lucy, the victim, understands the incident, her rapists are young men symbolically claiming their land and planting their seed, and she is their new territory. Coetzee seamlessly weaves these strands.

Not so unfortunately with Bausch in Before, During, After, especially in the long “After” section. Sadly, in Bausch’s novel this section becomes almost another book sketchily drawn. Natasha’s inability to cope with the rape, her role in it, and the psychological damage and repercussions of it, damage her almost irretrievably. It will take years of therapy to ameliorate her guilt and anguish. The continuing post-traumatic stress on the United States after experiencing the destruction and witnessing thousands of innocent deaths on the eponymous September 11, fades from the novel, and the almost soap-opera–like treatment of Natasha’s concerns become all-consuming. This shift is contrived and unsatisfactory. Bausch rushes us to a conclusion that is neither convincing nor artistic. He lost his way.

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510cUjNQn-L._SL150_ First published in the New York Journal of Books, July 16 2014

  The Orpheus Descent by Tom Harper

Review by Janet Levine

 

“In The Orpheus Descent, Harper uses his novelist’s skills to plausibly recreate time and place—his settings in ancient Italy and Greece are strong—as are his characters, including some genuine historical figures . . .”

 

In The Orpheus Descent by Tom Harper two story lines bisect: historical fiction is feathered into a contemporary mystery/conspiracy in symmetrical alternating chapters. This can be disconcerting at first, but readers soon become accustomed to the pattern.

 

To make it easier for readers to follow, Harper employs two fictional voices: the historical storyline develops in the first person while the contemporary plot unfolds as a third-person narrative. Surprisingly this bifurcated approach works well because Harper is a skilled and competent writer.

 

In the tradition of Indiana Jones the contemporary conspiracy/thriller plot treads a more or less predictable path. An archaeologist, Lily, works on a dig in Italy where she discovers a gold micro-tablet with a message that supposedly holds secrets of the afterlife, the very pathway to hell itself.

 

She signs a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) along with two colleagues and the precious find is secured in a safe. But when Jonah, her musician husband, at the end of a music tour in Europe, hurries to join her at the site, although there are signs of her recent presence in their room, she disappears . . . and so does the tablet.

 

The remainder of this storyline is generic mystery/thriller plot: evil Greek billionaires with yachts, strange emails and phone message, red herrings interspersed with flashbacks to the pre-marriage romance of this 30-something couple.

 

Many of these romantic liaisons occur in caves, caves carved out by the ceaseless flow of millennia of ocean currents. The literary implication is obvious; Lily and Jonah frolic in the same water that Plato, and even perhaps Orpheus, knew. Knowledge defies time in continuous patterns; what we sought after then, we seek today. What better transitional device to establish the Platonic parallel story. Most 12th grade high school students and certainly university freshman, if they know only one “fact” about the philosopher Plato, it is that he wrote the allegory of the cave in his seminal Socratic dialogue The Republic.

 

But the strength of the novel is Harper’s recreation of the ancient Greek world that assimilates philosophy, more pertinently metaphysics, into the Orphic myth along with a retelling of Plato’s journey to Syracuse. Well-documented history substantiates that such a journey occurred and that something happened on that journey to change Plato’s worldview.

 

In The Orpheus Descent, Harper uses his novelist’s skills to plausibly recreate time and place—his settings in ancient Italy and Greece are strong—as are his characters, including some genuine historical figures: the tyrant Dionysus, ruler of Syracuse, and his relatives, Dion and Dionysus II.

 

The novel is well paced, and both male protagonists experience terrifying odysseys in caves although they live 2,000 years apart. Dreams, philosophical discourses, and strange synchronicities add to the complexities. Ultimately we are not made privy to secrets of the afterlife and hell, although Jonah in true Greek heroic fashion, literally snatches his wife from the jaws of hell, a gaping abyss that belches volcanic material from an erupting Mt. Etna.

 

A satisfying, thinking person’s read for a summer vacation.

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