Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. Review copies of some of the books mentioned below were provided for free by publishers in the hopes that I would mention them on my blog.The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam
Published by Flatiron Books on September 6, 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 208 (Hardcover)
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Two and a half decades into a devastating civil war, Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority is pushed inexorably towards the coast by the advancing army. Amongst the evacuees is Dinesh, whose world has contracted to a makeshift camp where time is measured by the shells that fall around him like clockwork. Alienated from family, home, language, and body, he exists in a state of mute acceptance, numb to the violence around him, till he is approached one morning by an old man who makes an unexpected proposal: that Dinesh marry his daughter, Ganga. Marriage, in this world, is an attempt at safety, like the beached fishing boat under which Dinesh huddles during the bombings. As a couple, they would be less likely to be conscripted to fight for the rebels, and less likely to be abused in the case of an army victory. Thrust into this situation of strange intimacy and dependence, Dinesh and Ganga try to come to terms with everything that has happened, hesitantly attempting to awaken to themselves and to one another before the war closes over them once more.
First Sentence: “Most children have two whole legs and two whole arms but this little six-year-old that Dinesh was carrying had already lost one leg, the right one from the lower thigh down, and was now about to lose his right arm.”
Positives: This book is beautifully written. The author is interested in the minute and mundane moments that make up a life–eating, going to the bathroom, being close to another person–and explores them in surreal passages that make it unnervingly easy to identify with the traumatized protagonist. The thread of common humanity that runs through most literary fiction is especially strong in this book.
From the hemisphere of his mind devoted to the past and the hemisphere devoted to the future great swathes had been shaved off, and enclosing the sensitive little core that belonged to the present there remained only the thin layer of the recent past and near future, leaving him without that recourse to the distant past or future by which in times of difficulty ordinary people were able to ignore or endure or at least justify the present moment.
Negatives: This story is not meant to make the reader comfortable. It is meant to make the reader feel hemmed in by the same inability to escape the horror of the present moment that the protagonist feels, and it does this effectively. But there is something about it that rubbed me the wrong way. I don’t need a happy ending. In fact, a happy ending would be utterly preposterous in a book like this. What I do want is a hopeful ending, and I think there is a distinct difference. I think that realism, even the reality of abject despair, is not incompatible with a broader cosmic hope. This book is so zoomed into the present moment that if there is a backdrop of hope, the reader can’t see it.
There were events after which, no matter how long or intimately one has tried to be by their side, no matter how earnestly or with how much self-reproach one desires to understand their situation, how meticulously one tries to imagine and infer it from one’s own experiences, one has no choice but to watch blindly from the outside.
Conclusion: Did I like this book? No. Was this book trying to be likable? I don’t think so. Do I recommend it? That depends. You have to be in the right mood to read this book, and even then, it’s going to leave you feeling emotionally bludgeoned. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it wasn’t the right book for me at this particular time in my life.
The Guineveres by Sarah Domet
Published by Flatiron Books on October 4, 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
Pages: 352 (Hardcover)
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To four girls who have nothing, their friendship is everything: they are each other’s confidants, teachers, and family. The girls are all named Guinevere―Vere, Gwen, Ginny, and Win―and it is the surprise of finding another Guinevere in their midst that first brings them together. They come to The Sisters of the Supreme Adoration convent by different paths, delivered by their families, each with her own complicated, heartbreaking story that she safeguards. Gwen is all Hollywood glamour and swagger; Ginny is a budding artiste with a sentiment to match; Win’s tough bravado isn’t even skin deep; and Vere is the only one who seems to be a believer, trying to hold onto her faith that her mother will one day return for her. However, the girls are more than the sum of their parts and together they form the all powerful and confident The Guineveres, bound by the extraordinary coincidence of their names and girded against the indignities of their plain, sequestered lives.
The nuns who raise them teach the Guineveres that faith is about waiting: waiting for the mail, for weekly wash day, for a miracle, or for the day they turn eighteen and are allowed to leave the convent. But the Guineveres grow tired of waiting. And so when four comatose soldiers from the War looming outside arrive at the convent, the girls realize that these men may hold their ticket out.
First Sentence: “We were known as The Guineveres to the other girls at the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration because our parents all named us Guinevere at birth, a coincidence that bound us together from the moment we met.”
Positives: This book explores the nature of female friendship, love under the direst of circumstances, and how our parents choices affect our future. It paints a vivid picture of life behind the unyielding stone walls of a convent and the neuroses that inevitably come with a constant emphasis on purity, sin, and utility. Let’s just say, it makes me really glad I didn’t go to Catholic school.
I read One Hundred Years of Solitude earlier this year and my first thought when I read the synopsis of The Guiniveres was, “Oh great, another book with multiple characters with the same name. I WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO KEEP TRACK.” Luckily, that was not the case. The author crafts four unique characters with different nicknames that are, in fact, exceedingly easy to tell apart. Phew.
I love how Domet organizes the book. The story is narrated by Vere, the most devout of the Guiniveres. Interspersed throughout the primary narrative are sidebar chapters on the lives on various female saints. There are also four chapters scattered throughout the novel that reveal the backstory of how each of the Guiniveres came to live at the convent. These chapters are told from the perspective of each Guinivere in turn.
Intentional or not, each of the Guiniveres represents a female archetype–Vere, the faithful, Win, the tough girl, Gwen, the tragic beauty, and Ginny, the artist. (Actually, when you think about it, they almost perfectly correspond to Keirsey’s temperaments–Vere, the Guardian, Win, the Rational, Gwen, the Artisan, and Ginny, the Idealist.) This diversity of feminine temperament means that most women will find something in at least one of the Guiniveres that they identify with on some level.
That’s the power of prayer, the risk of it, too: You never know how God will answer.
Negatives: I have no specific complaints about The Guiniveres, except, perhaps, that the pacing was a teensy bit slow in places. It’s not the best book I’ve read this year, but I was able to really sink my teeth into it.
The heart is funny that way: When it keeps on loving, and loving what isn’t there, it becomes attached to the notion that love is the wait itself, the emptiness of it.
Conclusion: If the synopsis piques your interest, I think you’ll probably like this book. It’s thoughtful, well-written, and quietly compelling. I definitely recommend it.
Mischling by Affinity Konar
on September 6, 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 352 (Hardcover)
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Pearl is in charge of: the sad, the good, the past.
Stasha must care for: the funny, the future, the bad.
It's 1944 when the twin sisters arrive at Auschwitz with their mother and grandfather. In their benighted new world, Pearl and Stasha Zagorski take refuge in their identical natures, comforting themselves with the private language and shared games of their childhood.
As part of the experimental population of twins known as Mengele's Zoo, the girls experience privileges and horrors unknown to others, and they find themselves changed, stripped of the personalities they once shared, their identities altered by the burdens of guilt and pain.
That winter, at a concert orchestrated by Mengele, Pearl disappears. Stasha grieves for her twin, but clings to the possibility that Pearl remains alive. When the camp is liberated by the Red Army, she and her companion Feliks--a boy bent on vengeance for his own lost twin--travel through Poland's devastation. Undeterred by injury, starvation, or the chaos around them, motivated by equal parts danger and hope, they encounter hostile villagers, Jewish resistance fighters, and fellow refugees, their quest enabled by the notion that Mengele may be captured and brought to justice within the ruins of the Warsaw Zoo. As the young survivors discover what has become of the world, they must try to imagine a future within it.
First Sentence: “We were made, once.”
Positives: Mischling explores a topic of deep interest to me: how people remain psychologically cogent in profoundly traumatic circumstances. It explores the inner life of twin girls in Mengele’s Zoo: Pearl, the saintlier of the two, and Stasha, the firebrand who dreams of revenge. They are two halves of a whole–the heart and the head, the passive and the active–both relying on each other to survive the unutterable horrors of Auschwitz.
Konar has a unique writing style that I really like. She’s writing from the perspective of two children while trying to communicate adult ideas. That’s not an easy tightrope to walk, but she succeeds. The voices are believable.
Pearl was numbered too, and I hated her numbers even more than mine, because they pointed out that we were separate people, and when you are separate people, you might be parted.
Negatives: The narrative sometimes takes on a dreamlike quality that reminds me a little bit of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. It’s not expressed the same way, but it’s like a little dusting of magical realism over a story that doesn’t fit in that genre. Some people probably love this, but it isn’t for me.
All I owned was breath, really, and a single thought: that the numbers on my arm represented how many times I would have to prove myself useful in the world in order to remain in it. But even I knew that this was untrue; it was the logic of my cage and my keeper, and I had to overcome it.
Conclusion: The first adjective that comes to mind when I think of this book is “odd,” which is not a word I thought I would ever use to describe a book about the Holocaust. It was very much a worthwhile read for me, but I think whether or not it’s a real winner for you will depend on your feeling about the fuzzy, dreamlike lens thought which the story is told.
Have you read any of these books? What did you think?