Review: May we be Forgiven, by A.M. Homes

In the first 15 pages of May we be Forgiven, the Silver family falls completely apart.  George Silver, a television executive, is involved in a car accident with fatalities, which he may have caused.  His older brother Harold, a professor, sleeps with George’s wife and then witnesses a horrific act of violence.  Harry is a mess, and yet is the only one who can pick up the pieces in the wake of such trauma.  He is appointed guardian for George’s children, Nate and Ashley, but it’s a good thing they are at boarding school because Harry has some pretty serious issues to work through.  He engages in a variety of self-destructive behaviors, while trying to keep up appearances as a successful academic.  But as his personal life unravels, the children’s needs take on greater importance, and together the family begins their long healing process.

This book drew me in at the start with its high-action opening, and immediate sympathy for a family struck by tragedy.  And for a while, it was hard to put down.  But about halfway through, the family’s path to recovery became less believable.  Harry became involved with two different women, both under circumstances that would not normally result in healthy relationships.  The children sometimes behaved in ways that seemed more advanced than a typical 11- or 12-year-old.  And then Harry staged an elaborate trip for Nate’s Bar Mitzvah, which was crucial to their healing process, but really over the top. At this point my attention began to wane — I generally prefer more realistic plots.  But on the other hand, I think much of this story is metaphorical, and the fantastic situations are carefully crafted to illustrate a point.

A few days after finishing this book, I’m still thinking about the Silver family and the way Homes told this story.  And I guess that says something.

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Review: The Patrick Melrose Novels, by Edward St Aubyn

The Patrick Melrose Novels is a 680-page omnibus of four works by Edward St. Aubyn, originally published between 1992 and 2005: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk.  A fifth novel, At Last, was published in 2012.  Each book covers a period in Patrick’s life, often only a day or two, spread out over four decades.

In Never Mind, Patrick is five years old and living in France with his British father and American mother.  This tightly written novella tells you all you need to know about David and Eleanor Melrose, and it’s not pretty.  David is an overbearing, sadistic man; Eleanor and Patrick are victims of his cruelty.  Towards the end of the novella, something unthinkable happens, and you know Patrick will be scarred for life.  In the following books you can see Patrick trying, mostly in vain, to move beyond this childhood trauma.  In Bad News, 22-year-old Patrick has taken to drugs and is constantly in search of his next hit.  By age 30, in Some Hope, he has given up drugs (or has he?), and is making an effort to address long-term psychological issues.

Have you seen the amazing “Up” documentary series?  Bear with me, there’s a point to this digression.  In the documentaries, director Michael Apted visits the same group of British-born people every 7 years, beginning at age 7 (the latest installment, 56 Up, was released in 2012 and will soon arrive in US cinemas — see it if you can).  The Patrick Melrose Novels share a similar premise, taken from the Jesuit motto, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”  Like the documentaries, each novel gives us a glimpse into Patrick’s life at a point in time.  We know little about the intervening period.  But the events in Never Mind are like a thread woven through Patrick’s life, influencing everything he says and does, and the man he becomes.

By the time we get to Mother’s Milk, Patrick is 40, married, with children.  He’s a devoted father with stable employment.  You might think he’s living the dream, right?  Well, no.  Patrick’s aging mother has pretty much disinherited him by making increasingly irresponsible decisions about her estate.  Patrick’s well-being teeters on a precipice; not surprisingly, we see some backsliding into destructive behaviors.  The scars from Never Mind have never healed.

When I picked up this book my original intention was to read the first novella and return to the others later.  Instead I found myself drawn into Patrick’s story, despite the fact that nearly every character is unlikable in the extreme.  The writing is harsh and direct; St Aubyn doesn’t sugar coat the situation in any way.  It was all so unpleasant!  And yet something kept me coming back for the next installment, hoping to see Patrick in a better place with each passing decade.  I did have one quibble with the writing, however.  Mother’s Milk is told largely through the thoughts, words and deeds of Patrick’s very young sons.  Their voices didn’t ring true; I’ve never met a preschooler who could think or speak in such a sophisticated way.

Mother’s Milk was nominated for the 2006 Booker Prize, and because of that I nearly made the mistake of reading it as a standalone novel.  I don’t think you can appreciate it unless you’ve read the three previous books.  Perhaps the Booker judges were recognizing a body of work more than an individual novel?

Review: The Vet’s Daughter, by Barbara Comyns

The Vet’s Daughter is Alice Rowland, the 17-year-old daughter of an abusive father and a very unhappy (and abused) mother.  Alice tells her own story in stark and simple prose, such as this scene at her mother’s deathbed:

As I climbed upstairs I could hear the breathing again, now that everything in the house was still. I went to Mother’s room and she was still asleep. Her face was flushed, and her breathing was certainly very loud. Although it seemed cruel, I shook her; but she still stayed asleep and the heavy breathing seemed to come louder. I didn’t know if it was a good thing, this heavy-breathing sleep, or if I should send for a doctor although it was so late at night. I even wished Father would come home and tell me what to do. Eventually I left her well propped up with pillows so that she would not suffocate and went to bed. (p. 36)

After her mother’s death, Alice lived in fear of her father and even suspected him of having done something to hasten her mother’s passing.  Her father quickly took up with another woman and ignored Alice.  Alice knew her life wasn’t “normal” or “happy,” but was powerless to change it.  Her only escape was an apparent supernatural power, the ability to levitate at will.  Was this real, or psychological dissociation?  Comyns lets the reader decide.

Barbara Comyns’ novels are oddly fascinating, and I never know what to make of them.  Her no-frills, unemotional writing style is about as exciting as reading a newspaper, and yet this is still an intense and tragic story.  This is my third Comyns novel, and I’d say they are very much an acquired taste.

Review: To Mervas, by Elisabeth Rynell

Marta has lived a life of hardship, abuse, and self-imposed solitude.  One day, seemingly out of nowhere, she receives a letter from Kosti, her one and only love.  She has neither seen nor heard from him in over twenty years, and his short letter tells very little except that he is now living in Mervas, in a remote part of Sweden.  This awakens long-suppressed feelings:

I knew that the letter I’d received wasn’t much of a letter, but still, the few words he’d written were alive inside me … They’d reminded me of my life and the fact that I was still living it, that I was supposed to live it.  I’d forgotten that.  (p. 6)

Marta quickly decides to go off in search of Kosti, but is almost immediately gripped by fear.  She is forced to examine and piece together events from her past, which include witnessing her father’s repeated abuse of her mother, and giving birth to a severely disabled child who later died.  She tries to come to terms with how these experiences sent her into a life of isolation:

And my thoughts have not been fluffy memories or daydreams of the boy. … It has even struck me that there are similarities between the writing I’ve begun and an archaeological excavation.  The carefulness. You have to be so incredibly careful with the things you find down there. They may for example be positioned in a specific order in relation to one another that mustn’t be changed.  Or they may be fragile and crumble at the slightest touch.  (p. 44)

When summer arrives, Marta is finally ready to make the journey to Mervas.  Her journey is slow and careful, and as she approaches her destination she is both attracted to and repelled by Mervas.  And as she makes her journey, the reader is slowly made aware of the full weight of Marta’s life experiences.  Elisabeth Rynell’s prose is spare and yet poetic, and the emotional reveal is a bit intense.  This is a very short book, but not an easy one to read.  The enjoyment comes not from the characters or plot, but from Rynell’s ability to convey a sense of loneliness and desperation and the promise of something better for Marta.

This book was also reviewed in Belletrista, Issue 5

Review: Room, by Emma Donoghue

Jack is a precocious 5-year-old who has spent his entire life with his mother in an 11×11-foot room.  He’s never felt the sun on his shoulders, or rain on his face.  He’s never worn a coat or shoes.  But to Jack, Outside is not real; it’s only something he sees on TV.  Room and Ma are his reality.  And so is Old Nick, who brings food, takes out the trash, and metes out “special” items — like new jeans for Jack — as “sundaytreat.”

Old Nick is a psychopath who kidnapped Ma seven years earlier, held her hostage, and subjected her to repeated acts of rape.  Ma is a survivor, largely because of her fierce devotion to Jack.  She is determined to give him the most normal life possible, carefully rationing his TV time and using the most ordinary events as educational opportunities.  And she never lets Jack know they are captive.  But one day, as the result of a minor slip-up, Jack catches on and begins to ask a lot of questions about Outside.  The way Ma explains the world, and her response to Jack’s growing knowledge, turn this story into an intense survival tale.

Emma Donoghue has been widely praised for Room, especially for her ability to create such an authentic narrator in Jack.  The reader sees Outside through his eyes, where everything is new — a completely different perspective from Ma, who lived Outside before.  Jack’s voice makes even more clear the stark contrast between confinement and freedom.

Room is a suspenseful novel, but also a story of the profound bond between mother and child.  A wonderful book.