Review: Fault Lines, by Nancy Huston

This multi-generational family saga explores the impact of World War II and Nazi Germany, from some very unusual angles.  It’s told through the eyes of four 6-year-olds, each from a different generation.  The reader meets each generation through Sol, a precocious boy living in California in 2004.  His father Randall works as a computer programmer, and circumstances have recently forced him to take a job with higher pay but a much longer commute.  Randall has a distant relationship with his mother, Sadie, and is closer to his grandmother, Erra, a professional singer known as Kristina in her youth.  Sol’s section of the novel ends as the entire family arrives in Germany to visit Erra’s dying sister.

From there, author Nancy Huston takes us back to 1945 one generation at a time, from Randall to Sadie to Kristina (all age 6).  She peels the onion of family relationships and secrets to show how they came to North America, and the physical and emotional toll wrought by the Nazi regime.  I can’t say much without spoilers, but their story was not at all what I expected.  Judaism and Nazi atrocities played a part, but in unusual ways.  And both the family tree and the inter-generational relationships were much more intricate than they first appeared.

I found Erra/Kristina the most interesting character, perhaps because she appeared in each generation’s story.  She arrived on the scene first as a staunchly independent elderly woman who dearly loves her great-grandson, and is appalled at some of his parents’ philosophies.  She despairs over their plans to surgically remove a birthmark.  Her fears seem irrational, but by the time Kristina appeared as a child, I understood the birthmark’s significance and her modern-day reaction was completely understandable.  Fault Lines was filled with revelations like this, that really drove home the importance of understanding the societal and familial forces that shape each generation.  This was a well-written, enjoyable, and thought-provoking novel.

Review: When we Were Bad, by Charlotte Mendelson

I love it when I have an unexpectedly delightful reading experience like When we Were Bad.  This unobtrusive little novel about a family of English Jews took me completely by surprise.  Things start with a bang when the Rubins’ eldest son Leo runs away with another woman just one minute before his wedding.  Our first impression of Leo’s family, then, is seen through their reactions to this scandalous event.

Leo’s mother Claudia is a well-known rabbi, one of the first women in her field and highly respected by everyone.  She’s worked hard all her life, but she’s good at what she does, and knows it.  Claudia is also intensely committed to maintaining the Rubins’ image as the family that has it all.  This is all the more important since her book is about to be published.  When Leo runs off, her greatest concern is not for him or his relationship, but on keeping up appearances as a family.

Claudia’s husband Norman has supported her career all these years, keeping his own ambitions largely to himself.  Daughter Frances is married with an infant and two older stepchildren.  Two younger adult children, Simeon and Emily, are still trying to establish their independence.  All are intensely loyal to one another, and especially to Claudia.  She’s formidable, and such a strong force in their lives that not one of them will make a move without considering the impact on her.  But this also causes a lot of sneaking around.  Norman, for example, is working on a book of his own but can’t find the right time to tell Claudia.  Frances feels trapped by marriage and parenthood, but feels completely alone and unable to ask her family for support.  And even Claudia, so cool and collected on the outside, has her own secret problems to deal with.

So much family drama makes When we Were Bad sound like an intense read, but it’s served with a generous helping of humor.  Just as I was getting all teary over developments in one character’s life, something else would happen to make me laugh.  Each of the characters are tremendously flawed, and yet completely likeable.  On the one hand, I felt I should despise Claudia for controlling everything around her and stifling others.  But I loved her for what she had achieved, and for her fierce devotion to her family.  As each character’s story line moved towards its conclusion, I felt both happy and sad about this family that I’d come to know so well.  We went through a lot together over 321 pages, and I won’t soon forget it.

Review: The Story of Forgetting, by Stefan Block

When 15-year-old Seth Waller’s mother shows undeniable signs of early onset Alzheimer’s disease, he realizes how little he knows of his family history.  His mother never talked about her childhood, not even her maiden name or the town she lived in.  Seth never knew his grandparents, and never met any other relatives.  He begins researching the disease, manages to get his hands on information identifying other patients near his Texas hometown, and tries to discover genetic links between these patients and his mother.

Meanwhile, Abel Haggard lives a quiet, solitary life on a farm he has gradually sold off for new real estate development.  Now in his 70s, Abel has lost everyone dear to him, including his twin brother and his brother’s wife.  Abel’s family has also been touched by early onset Alzheimer’s.  Both Seth and Abel bring the reader into their world, to share the pain of living and dealing with Alzheimer’s.  Through Seth, you helplessly watch a parent’s condition deteriorate, and you share Seth’s fear of inheriting the condition.  Abel knows he was spared, but like Seth he loved someone who left him far too young.

The link between Seth and Abel is revealed to the reader before the characters discover it themselves. This adds an element of suspense or anticipation to the story, and an extra layer of depth and complexity.  Stefan Block developed rich, memorable characters and showed particular sensitivity in his portrayal of older people and Alzheimer’s sufferers, making for an impressive debut novel.

Review: Annabel, by Kathleen Winter

In 1968, a baby was born to Jacinta and Treadway Blake, in a small Labrador trapping village.  The birth was attended by a few village women, all close friends.  One woman, Thomasina, noticed something unusual right away:  the baby had both male and female genitalia.  She was the only one outside the family who knew, and supported Jacinta as she struggled to accept what this would mean to them, and to the baby. Treadway decided the baby would be raised as a boy, and while Jacinta felt otherwise, she would not go against her husband.  From that moment on the baby was known as Wayne, although Thomasina often called him “Annabel” in private.

Jacinta wished she could raise Wayne as both son and daughter, and only vaguely understood the challenges this could pose for Wayne as he grew up.  Treadway desperately wanted a traditional, masculine son, and despaired at Wayne’s more feminine interests.  As a boy, Wayne was ignorant of the medical details, and knew only that he has to take special vitamins.  He felt vaguely different from the other boys he knew, and his closest friend was a girl.  While Wayne’s medical treatment was costly, the more devastating impact was emotional.  Jacinta and Treadway are unable to share their feelings with each other, and gradually this takes a toll.  Wayne found it increasingly difficult to relate to either of them, and life only became more difficult as he matured and struggled to find his true self.

Kathleen Winter drew me into this story gradually, and skillfully.  It wasn’t a page-turner, but I was surprised to find myself emotionally caught up in this book.  I despaired at Jacinta and Treadway’s broken relationship, and each response to the family tension.  My heart wrenched over the conflict between Treadway and Wayne, especially when Treadway’s fears led him to destroy something very dear to Wayne.  I also felt very sad for Wayne, who had a secret no one could understand, and coped with so much emotional trauma.  As he approached adulthood, Wayne began to understand and accept himself, and I closed the book knowing his life would never be easy, but there were glimmers of hope for his future.

Review: The Bird Sisters, by Rebecca Rasmussen

Now in their 70s, Milly and Twiss live in their family home, on a gravel road near the small town of Spring Green, Wisconsin.  They are known for miles around as the “bird sisters,” for their ability to treat and rehabilitate injured birds, but fewer and fewer people visit them these days.  Their days are filled with light chores, walks through the meadow, and sometimes, for Milly, a bit of baking.  Mostly they reflect back on lives well lived, but  touched by significant events when Milly was 16 and Twiss, 14.

Their parents’ relationship was already strained when their father had a car accident that prevented him from returning to his job as the local golf pro.  Robbed of the one thing that gave him pride and a sense of identity, he isolated himself in the barn, eating meals left for him by one of the girls.  Their mother came from a wealthy family, but left those comforts behind when she married.  Filled with bitterness, she was unable to comfort her husband.  Enter 18-year-old cousin Bett, who comes to stay for the summer, allegedly to improve her health.  Her visit leaves an indelible mark on the family and even touches the surrounding community.

The central conflict in this debut novel was easy to predict, and there were some plot elements which seemed superfluous, especially the story of a local priest.  The book moves fluidly between present and past, which can be confusing at times.  The novel succeeds because of Milly and Twiss, richly-developed characters who are always front and center.  Milly was considered a beauty in her youth, and gained local recognition for her creative cakes.  Twiss was a rebel, fiercely devoted to Milly and her father, but not at all to her mother.  Their father, mother, and Bett stand just slightly in the background, very influential but somewhat less tangible.  I would have liked to know more about these characters:  what were the father and mother like in their early years?  How did the father get started with golf, and how did it come to be his life force?  And what about Bett’s health issues?  I also hoped to read more about Twiss and Milly’s bird rescue efforts.  I realize my interest is greater from having been a bird rescue volunteer, but the title implies this will be given more emphasis than it was.

Despite the novel’s flaws, I really enjoyed this book.  I found myself caught up in the domestic drama, and moved by the relationship between the aging sisters.  Rebecca Rasmussen made effective use of foreshadowing, and even so there were some particularly fine “aha moments.”  The final chapters tugged at my heartstrings, and I was sad to say good-bye to Milly and Twiss.

Review: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, by Barbara Comyns

This is a very quirky novel, at times comic and at others, incredibly dark. The story opens with a disturbing description of a flood sweeping through a village:

Swans were there, their long necks excavating under the dark, muddy water. All around there was  a wheezy creaking noise as the water soaked into unaccustomed places, and in the distance a roar and above it the shouts of men trying to rescue animals from the low-lying fields. A passing pig squealing, its short legs madly beating the water and tearing at its throat, which was red and bleeding, and a large flat-bottomed boat followed with men inside. The boat whirled round and round in the fierce current’ but eventually the pig was saved, and squealed even louder.  (p. 1)

The details continue for two more pages, and then we meet Ebin Willoweed and his family, who are a pretty unique group.  His crotchety, outspoken mother is constantly complaining and belittling everyone around her.  He has two daughters, Emma and Hattie, the latter of mixed race.  Ebin also has a young son, Dennis, who he repeatedly refers to as a “cissy.” This is definitely not “Leave it to Beaver.”

And the flood is only the beginning of the hardship that will befall this small village.  People start dying left and right, and no one knows why. Ebin’s already dysfunctional family becomes even more so, drifting from one funeral to the next while still trying to work through a host of family dramas.  How can Ebin become financially and emotionally independent from his controlling mother? Will oldest daughter Emma ever escape?  Can Dennis redeem himself in his father’s eyes?

Barbara Comyns’ very direct writing style takes some getting used to.  Her words are spare, yet the characters and setting are still well drawn.  Once I became accustomed to the writing I turned the pages eagerly, wanting to see what would happen next.  The story was quite surreal.  I hated Ebin’s mother; she made me cringe on more than one occasion.  The novel moved quickly from one event to the next.  A great deal happens in 146 pages, but to me it felt rushed.  I wanted more plot development.  I wanted to be more emotionally invested:  feeling sadder about the tragedies, and laughing harder at the novel’s many humorous moments.  This book is a favorite of Comyns fans, but I enjoyed Our Spoons Came from Woolworths more.

For my review of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, click here.

Review: William, by E. H. Young

It had been different when they were all young and at school. She had felt then that they were her own, but perhaps she had been mistaken, perhaps she had not known their secret selves, and she remembered, for the first time for years, how she had once found Lydia crying in the nursery and had not been able to find out what her trouble was. It seemed to her that what she had missed then might be evading her still. She had given birth to five bodies and she would always be a stranger to their souls. This was a terrible thought and it would have been more terrible still if she had known that it was William’s too.

William and Kate Nesbitt raised five children; all but the youngest, Janet, have left home to start families of their own. William has a successful career in shipping, and they live comfortably. The extended family often gathers at their home, for Sunday lunch and special occasions like Kate’s birthday. William and Kate should be content, happy with the success of their children and ready to resume life as a couple.

But Kate, in particular, struggles with letting go. She’s not completely happy with some of the choices her children have made, choices ranging from partners to articles of clothing. She frets constantly, where William is more pragmatic. He understands that children grow up, separate, and forge their own paths. But both William and Kate are sorely tested when their second-youngest daughter Lydia leaves her husband to live with another man.  In the early twentieth century, this was simply was. not. done.

Kate is crushed because Lydia confided in William instead of her.  She is outraged by Lydia’s decision, and cuts off communication.  She tries to prevent siblings from contacting Lydia as well. But instead of feeling satisfied, her self-righteousness leaves her feeling miserable. William is equally unhappy, but his feelings are directed more at Kate than Lydia. Who is this woman? Why has she built a wall between herself and her daughter? He is intensely irritated by Kate’s petty behavior and her hardened exterior. Meanwhile, Janet is threatening to fly the nest in her own, quiet way. As she asserts her independence both William and Kate try to influence the outcome.  Sadly, Kate’s efforts seem controlling and shrewish.  William remains a confidante, inherently good. Both Lydia and Janet’s situations are resolved in the course of the novel, but not without much emotion and pain for William and Kate.

I found this book quite emotional, perhaps because I will soon experience my eldest flying the nest. Like William and Kate, my husband and I often reflect on who our children have become and hope that we continue to be involved in their lives to an appropriate degree.  And I could empathize with Kate, whose efforts to forge adult relationships with her children often fell flat.  E. H. Yong has a keen eye for mannerisms and foibles, as well as the dynamics of human relationships.  In William, she created a very realistic family portrait that remains valid today, even though social norms have changed.

Review: The White Family, by Maggie Gee

Alfred White has had a long career as a London park keeper.  His days are spent patrolling the park, monitoring its condition and making sure visitors adhere to park rules.  Alfred is close to retirement, and has seen a lot of change over the years. He longs for the Britain of his youth, during and after World War II. He is especially upset by the influx of foreigners, changing the ethnic mix of his London neighborhood and, consequently, the park visitors.

One day Alfred collapses on the job and is hospitalized.  His sudden weakness shocks his wife and adult children, who have grown accustomed to Alfred’s firm, controlling hand.  His adult children have all gone their separate ways, but are brought back into contact at Alfred’s bedside.  Darren is an established journalist living in the US, and is on his third marriage.  Shirley is in a relationship with a black man, which caused a rift with her father.  Dirk has been unable to establish an independent adult life, and lives at home while working in a corner shop.  He has developed disturbing extremist political and racial views.

May, the wife and mother, held this crew together over the years.  Like many women of her generation, her husband made all the decisions.  When Alfred went into hospital, May found she couldn’t even withdraw money from the bank on her own.  But May is also strong inside, in her own way, and she has a suppressed intellect that remains an important part of her life:

She always liked to have a book in her bag. In case she got stuck. In case she got lost. Or did she feel lost without her books? There wasn’t any point, but she liked to have one with her, a gentle weight nudging her shoulder, keeping her company through the wind, making her more solid, more substantial, less likely to be blown away, less alone. More — a person. (p. 19)

Through short chapters narrated by different family members, Maggie Gee develops the White family’s history and the nature of the parent-child and sibling relationships.  Each of the children bear scars from their father’s discipline and temper.  Darren appears successful on the outside, but is deeply wounded inside.  Shirley has been unable to have children, and struggles with issues of faith.  Dirk is a ticking time bomb, prone to alcohol-infused bouts of temper as he acts out his resentment towards anyone better off than himself.  Alfred and May, for all their flaws, have shared a long and loving marriage, and are likeable in their own ways.

This book is not for the faint of heart.  There’s a lot of sadness, as the entire family copes with Alfred’s medical condition.  May considers, for the first time, that Alfred may not always be there for her.  Alfred struggles with weakness & infirmity.  Each of the children relive their childhood and their relationship with Alfred, and rather than bond together each of them struggles individually.  There are also many disturbing moments, particularly Gee’s portrayal of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment.  This would have been a 4.5-star book were it not for a too-tidy denouement about Shirley which struck me as both unrealistic  and unnecessary.  Still, this is a well-crafted story, with a strong emotional pull and an intense and startling climax.

Review: The Land of Green Ginger, by Winifred Holtby

Joanna Burton was born in South Africa but raised in Yorkshire, and as a young woman had dreams of traveling around the world.  But then she fell in love with Teddy Leigh, and married in haste because of the war.  When Teddy returned, she realized how little she knew of him and came to understand the life that awaited her.  Teddy was in poor health, and unable to follow his early dream to become a minister.  The couple had a small farm but were not  successful farmers.  They could barely provide for themselves and their two daughters.

When a group of eastern European laborers establish a camp on the outskirts of their village, Joanna and Teddy befriend one of their leaders, Paul Szermai.  They offer him lodging in their home as a way to bring in extra income.  Paul’s presence is welcome at first, but then causes a rift between Joanna and Teddy.  Joanna tries to meet the needs of Teddy, her daughters, and Paul, as well as keep up with the farm and household chores, but it all proves a bit much.  She imagines correspondence with old school friends, who have long since stopped sending letters:

She used at first to write long letters to her friends, Agnes Darlington and Rachel Harris.  But as the chickens increased and the prosperity of the farm decreased, she had less and less time somehow to answer letters. Therefore the letters which she never answered dwindled and dwindled.  She seemed utterly removed from the world she had known before her marriage.  (p. 38)

Winifred Holtby paints a portrait of Yorkshire village life, with a rich cast of characters from all classes.  She shows the stark economic divide between the upper and lower classes, sometimes by describing them directly and sometimes through witty descriptions of a scene:

The passengers on the crowded tender living Tilbury dock buttoned their coats tightly against the keen October air. Third- and first-class passengers, huddled together, regarded each other with the suspicion that precedes the separation of sheep from goats by the unequivocal barrier of a steel railing. 

Holtby also depicts most of the villagers as small-minded and cruel.  Rumors about Joanna and Paul abound, especially after Teddy insists they attend a dance together when he is not well enough to go.  And even though there is a scene, Joanna still doesn’t quite grasp how she is perceived by others.  When Joanna is finally forced to face the reality of her situation she says to herself, “Bidgood had been right. It was not the truth but people’s idea of the truth which made it possible for one to live in society.”

Circumstances force Joanna into a dramatic decision, but one left me hopeful that she would one day realize the dreams of her youth.

Review: The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer

In 1937, Andras Lévi travels from his home in Budapest to Paris to study architecture at the École Spéciale.  He faces a variety of challenges adjusting to the new country and making ends meet, but manages to find a part-time job, make friends of fellow students, and most importantly, fall in love with Klara, an older woman with a secret past.  But their happiness is overshadowed by the growing threat of Nazi Germany, especially since Andras and Klara are both Jewish.  A series of events take Andras and Klara back to Hungary, where Andras is pressed into service not as a soldier, but as a member of a labor corps responsible for digging ditches, felling trees, loading boxcars, and so on.

The first half of The Invisible Bridge takes place primarily in Paris, and serves to develop a rich cast of characters in a setting that is idyllic compared to what they have in store.  Andras is established as a promising young architect; his brother Tibor, a physician.  The brothers meet their future wives, and forge strong bonds with a group of peers.  And then suddenly, new laws affecting Jewish immigrants change everything, and their close-knit group is scattered.  The second half of the book covers the war years in harrowing detail, and it was interesting to read about World War II from a Hungarian perspective.  Hungary was part of the Axis powers allied with Germany and Italy, but this was somewhat by force.  Many of the characters in this book secretly hoped for Germany’s downfall.  Life was one struggle after another:  labor servicemen were subjected to extremely poor conditions as well as physical and emotional abuse.  It wasn’t any easier for those left at home, as they faced food shortages and government corruption.  And communication channels were poor, so people often didn’t know how their loved ones were faring while they were apart.

The Invisible Bridge is a well-paced story of love and hardship, but it’s also a long book (nearly 600 pages), and I lost concentration in the last 100 pages.  Some aspects felt repetitive: Andras leaves for labor service, returns home, and is called up again.  And then he comes home.  And then he is called back.  And … well, you get the idea.  Each time there were new plot developments both in his life and in the war, but I still tired of it.  And yet, there was a lot of excitement in this story, as well as emotion, and I will not soon forget Andras, his family, and the hardships they had to overcome.