Recent novels explore the controversial murder case of Amanda Knox

Cartwheel paperback

Cartwheel

by Jennifer duBois

Random House

Hardcover published on Sept. 24, 2013; 384 pages, $26.00

Paperback published on May 20, 2014; 416 pages, $15.00

Review originally posted on July 20, 2013

Wealthy American college girl goes to Italy as a Study Abroad student, ends up in a romantic triangle with her roommate and an Italian student, and the roommate is found murdered. College girl and Italian boyfriend are tried and convicted. Sounds like the plot of a thriller but, of course, truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and it’s the Amanda Knox “story.”

In Cartwheel, Jennifer duBois, author of A Partial History of Lost Causes, tracks the Knox case closely as she explores the characters of Lily Hayes, her roommate Katy Kellers, and the object of their affection, Sebastian LeCompte, the wealthy young man who lives next door to their host family. Moving the story from Italy to Buenos Aires, Argentina, duBois perfectly captures the surreal nature of being caught up in another country’s legal system, particularly when one has been charged with a shocking murder. Lily is an intriguing, if not particularly likable, young woman and protagonist. Despite her generally good intentions, Lily experiences personal difficulties with her host parents, the Carrizos, who are unusually private; with Katy, of whom she is suspicious because of her all-American good looks and positive attitude; with her employer at Fuego restaurant and bar; and with her divorced parents, pretentious intellectuals whom she addresses as Andrew and Maureen.

The problem is that Lily is brilliant (2280 on the SAT) but self-absorbed and naïve. She is the classic “fish out of water” in a foreign country. She speaks Spanish but still has trouble communicating effectively with many people. She and Katy present what appear to be opposite personas: everything is a struggle for Lily, while everything seems to go smoothly for Katy, and Lily cannot figure out why. Most of her conversations with the other characters are cases of two people talking past each other. Lily doesn’t understand what motivates others and she doesn’t communicate her own needs and attitudes effectively. She is the type of person about whom it has become common to say, “It seems like she has Asperger’s Syndrome. She’s a high-functioning autistic.”

duBois wisely starts in media res, throwing us directly into the action, as Lily’s parents arrive in Buenos Aires following her arrest. The novel then moves back and forth through time to let us see Lily adapting to life in Argentina, developing a relationship with the reclusive eccentric, Sebastien, and struggling to fit in and thrive during her year studying abroad. She has a very casual attitude about her college classes, concentrating instead on learning to live like a local and enjoying herself. We watch as Lily’s circumstances slowly devolve, knowing what is coming but not quite understanding how it could have happened. As with any “tragedy,” the reader notes the many ways in which it could have been prevented had one thing been different: an action not taken, words not said. And yet, like a Greek tragedy, the outcome seems inevitable, even pre-ordained.

Cartwheel is enriched by duBois’ analysis of the motivations of the Argentine prosecutor, Eduardo Campos, and his own personal difficulties; the hunger of the media in Argentina, the U.S., and around the world for the sordid details of the alleged love triangle and murder; and the workings of the justice system.

In the midst of this compelling nightmare of a story duBois has inserted some subtle commentary on the uninformed, inane, and occasionally unethical actions of the media and legal system that will seem very familiar to American readers, who have recently experienced the media circus surrounding the trials of Casey Anthony, Jodi Arias, and George Zimmerman.  Cartwheel works well as both a suspenseful character study and a timely analysis of the law and media in a world with a 24/7 news cycle that must be fed constantly.

While the many ethical dilemmas and the complex plot make Cartwheel an intense, immersive reading experience, it is not without its drawbacks. The characters are not especially likable. Lily remains somewhat sympathetic despite being her own worst enemy; in the high school where I teach she would be viewed as a smart and eccentric but clueless “drama queen.” Katy Kellers is pleasant but remains something of a cipher throughout the novel, both to Lily and to readers; her main role is simply to be the murder victim.

But it is Sebastien LeCompte, the wealthy young neighbor, who is a completely mystifying character. He is a dandified young man who speaks in a ridiculously arch manner right out of The Portrait of Dorian Gray.  Why he appeals to Lily, and possibly to Katy, is a mystery. Perhaps it is because he has spent time attending American schools and speaks English or that his parents have recently died in a small plane crash. He is annoying and even infuriating and has the effect of making aspects of the story seem implausible.

duBois’ writing style presents another stumbling block to the complete success of the novel. It is clear that she is a prodigiously talented young writer. Her first novel was honored by the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 program and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction. duBois’ writing is a bit like that of a genius who finds it difficult not to display her virtuosic technique and fierce intelligence, even if it does not necessarily serve her purposes. At times, the prose in Cartwheel is wordy and unnecessarily showy. Her fondness for parenthetical comments leads to needlessly dense syntax that interferes with the spell she is otherwise successfully casting early in the novel.

When Cartwheel is good, it is very good. But when it loses its footing, it is awkward and frustrating. There is a great novel, one that truly captures our times, within the pages of this book. Perhaps it will appear in the published version due in late September. Either way, Jennifer duBois is a young writer to be reckoned with, and I look forward to her next book.

 

Abroad

Abroad

By Katie Crouch

Sarah Crichton Books/FSG: June 17, 2014

282 pages, $26.00

Review originally posted on Nov. 4, 2014

It has long been a tradition for wealthy or academically outstanding students from the U.S. and the U.K. to study abroad for a year while in college. For British students from the mid-1600s through the mid-1800s, the “Grand Tour” of France and Italy was an intellectual coming of age, providing firsthand exposure to the “legacy of classical antiquity and the Renaissance.” Both countries offer excellent universities, world-class cities, unparalleled history, and boundless cultural opportunities.

Into this tradition steps contemporary Irish college student Tabitha (Taz) Deacon, who transfers from England’s Nottingham University to a university in the old city of Grifonia, Italy (think Perugia in the Umbria region). Taz has chosen Grifonia instead of one of the larger cities because of its rich Etruscan history, with which she is fascinated. Soon after settling into a cozy rental just off the city center hosted by two local girls, Taz meets her roommate from America. Claire is a free spirit, eccentric and unpredictable, perhaps even unstable, but with a striking beauty and undeniable charisma that win over most people.

Taz is something of an introvert, but she longs to be part of something larger than herself, in both her academic and social lives. She wanders around town observing both the Grifonians and her fellow “study abroad” students and is intrigued by a trio of sophisticated rich girls from the U.K., one of whom, Jenny Cole, is a fellow student at Nottingham University.

Abroad follows Taz’s experiences as she is admitted into this seductive triumvirate, develops a fragile relationship with Claire, attempts to pass her classes, and seeks out romantic experiences with Italian boys, who are mystifying yet irresistible. She is determined to crawl out of her Irish schoolgirl shell and live passionately while in Grifonia, and Jenny Cole offers her a chance to do just that.

The four girls, calling themselves the “B4,” command a great deal of attention and admiration; they sidestep long lines to get into the most popular bars and restaurants and are given good tables once inside. Everyone seems to know them. They are supremely confident, wear designer clothes, and drink as if they have hollow legs. They are everything Taz wants to be, at least while she is independent in Italy. She seeks transformation, and, in a sense, achieves it.

Taz later explains how central the desire to experiment and change was in the actions of many. “But soon blood would flow, and the others would, knowingly or not, change the truth. Their lies were out of fear, I suppose. Though it could have been something else. Didn’t I, who had in the past weeks transformed myself from the mouse I’d been, know the power of changing reality?”

Not surprisingly, Taz gets both more and less than she bargained for when she befriends Jenny, Anna, and Luka. And that is the core of Abroad’s steadily intensifying story. It’s based loosely on the Amanda Knox case of 2007, in which Knox and her Italian boyfriend were convicted of murdering her British roommate, Meredith Kercher, in what was presented by the press and prosecutors as a lurid love triangle gone wrong. Another Italian man with a long criminal record was convicted of the same crime in another trial

Abroad finds Katie Crouch navigating much darker emotional and psychological territory than in her previous books (Girls in TrucksMen and Dogs). Rather than write about the controversial investigation and prosecution of Knox, using multiple flashbacks (as novelist Jennifer du Bois did in 2013’s Cartwheel), Crouch presents a plausible version of events and motivations for the eventual murder. We get to know Taz intimately, while Claire remains a complex presence viewed through the eyes of Taz, but not a main character. In the Knox-Kercher case, the media’s reporting was so sensationalized that a fair trial was impossible. As Knox and her supporters have long maintained, she was and still is largely misunderstood and mischaracterized by the public.

On this point, Taz explains, “You see, that was the thing about Claire. I knew her. She and I wanted the same thing. Later, she was painted a hundred different ways: insane, sexy, volatile, brilliant, stupid, insatiable. But the Claire I knew was just a girl with the same simple desire I had – to be loved by as many people as possible.”

“The next day – and years – was filled with clues that made themselves known, rearranged themselves, and faded in time with whomever was being accused at the moment. Almost as if we had all been playing a game in order to lead the police and the world down an endless array of paths. The answers were, in fact, there in the initial police report. Though the story was infinitely complicated. The police wanted a snapshot, whereas the truth, as it often is, was more of a shadowy, ever-changing tableau.”

Crouch has done an admirable job of depicting the complicated and unpredictable thoughts, emotions, and actions of a young woman, exacerbated by loneliness, cultural confusion, and a range of conflicting desires. She captures well the timeless essence of growing up far from home and having to rely on instincts and judgment that can easily lead one astray.

While Abroad has been promoted as similar to Donna Tartt’s spellbinding 1992 classic The Secret History, it doesn’t quite reach that level of intellectual and emotional power. Admittedly, it is only half the length of Tartt’s book, so who knows what Crouch could have accomplished if she’d decided that was her intent. But Abroad stands on its own merits as a fast and often fascinating exploration of the ways deeply flawed but very human people can make a mess of their lives.

HAPPY ARE THE HAPPY probes lives, loves, lapses of Parisians with warmth and wit

Happy Are the Happy US cover  YASMINA REZA (2010)

Happy Are the Happy

By Yasmina Reza

Translated by John Cullen

Other Press: Jan. 27, 2015

$20.00, 148 pages

People are often heard to say, “I’d like to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation.” It’s human nature to wonder exactly what was said and done in the course of a dramatic or consequential encounter. But there’s an additional layer of meaning in the use of the fly as the eavesdropper: flies have compound eyes that allow them to see virtually everything around them.

Based on Happy Are the Happy, a series of 21 interconnected stories about the lives and loves of a group of Parisians, Yasmina Reza is a human “fly on the wall” with few equals. The acuity of vision displayed in these snapshots of intimate relationships is stunning; Reza has laser-beam insight into both the mundane and the profound aspects of her characters’ flawed humanity. The result has the cumulative effect of a long and moving novel.

Reza is best known as an accomplished French playwright, whose plays includes Art (1994) and The God of Carnage (2007), both of which won the Laurence Olivier Award (UK) for Best Comedy and the Tony Award for Best Play. But she has also written six books, and Happy Are the Happy makes a convincing case that she is equally adept at fiction.

Like the proverbial fly on the wall, Reza flits among eighteen characters, whose lives intersect in unexpected ways. She fully inhabits each of these people in their first-person narratives, a feat of impersonation that would make a chameleon turn green. Reza reveals the tragicomedy beneath the surface of polite society, as disillusioned and deluded romantics of all stripes struggle against their own shortcomings and the interference of others to find momentary happiness. Perhaps it is all just a fool’s errand.

Happy Are the Happy begins with the troubled marriage of Robert and Odile Toscano, a journalist and lawyer respectively. We meet them in media res, as they argue during a trip to the market. What has set them off? Nothing, really. Yet everything. As in most long marriages, arguments may appear to be about trivial matters, yet the true catalysts of these heated verbal exchanges are important issues and sometimes long-dormant resentments that are just too difficult or complicated to talk about. There is a power struggle going on here and neither intends to lose.

Marguerite Blot has had an affair with a fellow professor but is worried about ending up a spinster. We soon learn that she is Odile Toscano’s aunt and good friend.

When we return to Odile’s life in the third story, we are given a longer look at her life with Robert. Odile contends that, “Everything gets on his nerves. Opinions, things, people. Everything. We can’t go out anymore without the evening ending badly. I find myself persuading him to go out, yet on the whole I almost always regret it. We exchange idiotic jokes with our hosts, we laugh on the landing, and once we’re in the elevator, the cold front moves in. Someday someone should make a study of the silence that falls inside a car when you’re returning home after having flaunted your well-being, partly to edify the company, partly to deceive yourself. It’s a silence that tolerates no sound, not even the radio, for who in that mute war of opposition would dare to turn it on?” Reza appears to have been in the back seat of everyone’s car on such evenings.

But we also see another aspect of Robert: the doting father. Odile drily notes that, while she undresses, Robert “is dawdling in the children’s room. I know what he’s doing. He’s checking their breathing. He bends over them and takes the time to verify unequivocally that they aren’t dead.”

The pot reaches the boiling point when Robert wants to go to sleep, but Odile wants to read in bed. After a few terse exchanges of verbal gunfire, Robert loses patience and says he will go sleep in a hotel. But their spat is interrupted by their nine-year-old son, Antoine, who wakes up and can’t find his favorite stuffed animal, Doudine. After they find the animal and put Antoine back to bed, contentedly cuddling Doudine, Robert and Odile return to bed, mirroring Antoine and Doudine.

Soon we meet the Toscanos’ friends, Lionel and Pascaline Hutner, whose teenage son Jacob believes he is Celine Dion. Robert’s best friend, Luc Condamine, is having an affair with Paola Suares, who realizes Luc will never leave his wife, despite their problems. She has been trying to breathe new life into her affair with Luc, but he remains uninspired. “It didn’t even occur to Luc to take me to a hotel. He was so used to coming to my apartment that he couldn’t conceive an alternate idea. Men are totally immobile creatures. We women are the ones who create movement. We wear ourselves out invigorating love. I’ve been going to a great deal of trouble ever since I met Luc Condamine.”

In another early story, Vincent Zawada accompanies his elderly mother to see her oncologist, Dr. Chemla, where she chats amiably and a bit too loudly with an older gentleman named Jean Ehrenfried about cancer treatments, Israel (they are French Jews), and life in general.

Eventually we will get to know Virginie Deruelle, Dr. Chemla’s medical secretary, who, it turns out, is interested in Vincent, in part because he is kind to his mother. Luc Condamine, thinking Robert Toscano was depressed, had previously introduced him to Virginie in an attempt to raise his flagging spirits (and other things).

Chemla, a brilliant young oncologist, reveals that he has been permanently twisted sexually and morally by several years of abuse by a family member. His medical practice is his only sanctuary.

Odile Toscano has a lover of her own, of course. Remi Grobe has the stereotypical French male’s attitude about extramarital relationships: enjoy the adventure, avoid getting sentimental, move on quickly if either party develops feelings. But on an overnight trip to Douai in northern France, where Odile is representing asbestos victims in a class action suit, he finds himself in a muddle of feelings for the charismatic and beautiful attorney, whose professional performance has impressed him immensely.

“I started to have a feeling, I mean a real feeling, at that moment,” he tells us. “As we were getting out of the car, in Wandermines, in the rain. The influence of place on our emotions doesn’t get its just due. Without warning, certain nostalgias rise to the surface. People change their natures, as in old tales….I felt the catastrophe of sentiment. There had never been any question of that sort of foolishness before. I know her husband, she knows the women who pass in and out of my life. There’s never been anything at stake between us except sexual distraction. I said to myself, you’re having a fade-out moment, my boy, it will pass.”

One character, Darius Ardashir summarizes the male view of marriage and the role of wives and mistresses. While he has had several lovers, he becomes unmoored when his wife Anita leaves him for the gardener.

“Women don’t take lovers,” he tells his friend, Jean Ehrenfried, whom he is visiting in the hospital. “They get infatuated, they make it into a big drama, they go completely crazy. A man needs a safe place to go to so he can face the world. You can’t deploy if you don’t have a fixed point, a base camp. Anita’s the house. She’s the family. If you want a breath of fresh air, it doesn’t mean you don’t want to go home. I don’t get attached to women. The only one that counts is the next one. But that stupid bitch goes to bed with the gardener and wants to run off with him. What sense does that make?”

Reza’s background as a playwright is felt throughout the novel. These monologues of six-to-eight pages could easily be translated to the stage. In fact, the inspiration for Happy Are the Happy is Arthur Schnitzler’s famous play, La Ronde (1897), which examines the interactions of several pairs of characters whose lives are connected. Reza has more than matched her inspiration in Happy Are the Happy. The dialogue is rapier sharp, the conflicts familiar yet still absorbing, the characters recognizable and mostly sympathetic in spite of — or perhaps because of — their foibles. They are us.

Diana Wagman: Saved by a curandero to write again (or, maybe clowns are kind of creepy)

Diana Wagman  Life #6

The Mexican faith healer, or curandero, had his shop in a rundown Los Angeles strip mall between a nail salon and a Baskin-Robbins.  The hand-lettered sign in the window read “Limpia.”

“Cleansing,” my friend translated.

I don’t speak Spanish and I’m usually a skeptic, but I was desperate.  I definitely needed cleansing.  Or something.  Incense wafted through the open door.  Inside the store was crowded with statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Jesus, the devil, and Day of the Dead skeletons.  There were crystals and rosaries and candles and crucifixes and a tapestry of the Last Supper, plus a few taxidermy animals.  A bobcat.  A dusty owl.  The black crow with the yellow eyes on the counter was the most disturbing.  It must have been freshly stuffed because it still smelled dead.

What was I doing there?  I had three published novels.  My first sold without an agent; my second won an award.  My third book got good reviews—if lousy sales.  So what was wrong with me?  Why did I feel hopeless?

Writing had always been my joy and my solace.  Even as a kid, when I was upset or sad I made up a story, put words on paper and wrote the happy ending I wanted.  Now I felt done.  Stalled.  Stuck.  Every sentence I tried was awkward, wrong, stilted. I was second guessing, third and fourth guessing myself.

I’d spent three years writing a 468-page new novel about a birthday party clown.  I was happy with it.  I thought it was funny.  Charming, even.  I’d been to Las Vegas to the Clown Convention.  I had interviewed clowns and done a “ride along” to a birthday party.  I love clowns.  I thought everybody did.  There was romance—with a magician—and intrigue with a jealous clown.  I was sure it was a blockbuster.  But when I sent the draft to my agent it took her three months to get back to me.  When I finally called her, she said she hated it so much she didn’t even finish it.

“Clowns?” she said.  “Nobody likes clowns.  You need a breakthrough book.”  And then, like a knife in my heart, she asked, “Why do you have to be so weird?”

Yes, I’d written a book about a woman who covers herself in a blue bag to talk to a man about beauty; another about sisters and spontaneous human combustion; the last about a cop who collects suicide notes.  To me, clowns seemed downright commercial.

To make a not very long story even shorter, she dumped me.  She said this book was not going to help my career.  In fact, she was sure I’d never get it published.

I hung up the phone, cried, and put the book in a bottom drawer.  A few days later, I tried starting something new and that’s when I froze—completely.  I couldn’t get her voice out of my head telling me I was weird.  And that I needed a bestseller or my career was over.  I couldn’t make my hands move on the keys.  And the writing that had been such a comfort to me now made me feel as if I was wearing a suit made of industrial grade sandpaper—on the inside.

Three months later—three months of not writing—here I was, standing next to that stuffed crow, waiting to see the curandero.  He came out from a backroom through a beaded curtain.  He was young, handsome, more Ricky Ricardo than Dumbledore, with white straight teeth.  He wore a gray silk shirt unbuttoned to his chest, nice slacks, expensive shoes.  The witch doctor business was obviously working out for him.

He led me to a card table equipped with Tarot cards, some candles, a few bunches of herbs. He had me shuffle the cards, pick nine, lay them out in a specific order.  He told me I have two children and that they are good kids.  He was right.  He probably took one look at my jeans and sneakers and knew I was a mom; my Volvo wagon was parked right out front.

He said a few interesting things about my past, my fractured childhood, my unhappy mother.  Okay, that was good.  I was impressed.  But it wasn’t what I was there for.  At the same time, I didn’t want to ask my friend to translate my desperation.  I was embarrassed that I had so much—healthy kids and a strong marriage, a working husband—and wanted something as trivial as a career writing stories.  Who was I to ask for more?

I didn’t have to.  The curandero handed me a rock of pink quartz to hold.  He lit a candle and burned some sage and waved the smoke in my direction.  He said I was troubled at work.  Yes, I nodded.  “Si,” practically my only Spanish word. “Si, si, si.” He shook his head.  He turned to my friend and they spoke for a moment in Spanish.  My friend shrugged.

“Don’t worry,” he said to me.  “He’s got this.”

The doctor took my other hand.  His was warm and smooth.  “One thing,” he said in heavily accented English.  “You do one thing.”

“Okay,” I replied.

“No more fear.”

I waited.  I didn’t understand.  My friend translated the rest. “He says you have to give up the fear.  It’s the only thing wrong with your work.  Not talent.  Not ideas.  Fear is the only thing holding you back.”

The curandero gave me the pink quartz to keep on my desk.  He told me to write my name on a candle and light it on my birthday and let it go until it burned itself out.  He also said I should never turn on the electric light in the bathroom, but shower and use the toilet in the dark.  I never really understood that last one, but I did it—still do it most of the time.  Because what he said changed my life.

Give up the fear.

I knew he was right.  I had to get rid of my ex-agent’s voice and the worry that I would never find another agent, that I would never write, much less sell another book, and the biggest terror of all—that I would never be the writer I wanted to be.

I had to give up the fear.

In the movie version of my life, I would’ve gone home, taken out the old clown book and found an agent who loved it.  I would’ve sold it for a lot and it would have been a huge success, my masterpiece.  My ex-agent would have called and apologized.  And of course in that version, I would never be afraid again.

But that’s not what happened.  I did write another book, but it wasn’t exactly the clown book and it took four more years.  First I re-read the clown book from start to finish.  I decided the only part I really liked—without any reservations—was the last 30 pages.

So I did the bravest thing I’ve ever done writing—I threw away 438 pages and began a new book with the part I liked best.  It wasn’t easy to write, but I kept moving forward.  I still had those anxious, dreadful voices in my head, but most days I was able to push them away and keep writing—even if I thought it was lousy.  Occasionally I had to hold on to that pink quartz rock.  I wrote, “give up the fear” on a post-it note and stuck it to the wall next to my computer.  Some days I had to look at it a lot.

Eventually I had a new draft I liked.  It took a while, but I finally found a great and understanding new agent.  I did a rewrite for her—more time passed—she sold the book, The Care & Feeding of Exotic Pets, to a small press and I was happier than I’d ever been about my work.  And damn if it didn’t get better reviews than any of my earlier novels.

Yes, it’s also a weird book.  A divorced single mother, ex-wife of a game show host, is kidnapped by a young man with a 7-foot iguana.  I’m happy to say there is one clown who makes a brief appearance.  My little homage.

Now Life #6, my fifth novel, is about to come out. It’s about a woman lost at sea both literally and figuratively, a marriage on the rocks, a hurricane of yearning and desire.  Is this my “breakthrough” book?  The bestseller that will save my career?  I still worry about that.  In the middle of the night my doubts all come rolling back.  But the tattered post-it note has become a talisman.  I have finally learned to give up the fear—or at least ignore it.  Most of the time.

Diana Wagman is the author of five novels and numerous short stories, essays and reviews. Her last novel, The Care & Feeding of Exotic Pets (2012), was a Barnes & Noble Discover New Authors selection. Her second novel, Spontaneous, won the 2001 USA PEN West Award for Fiction. She wrote the original screenplay for Delivering Milo, directed by Nick Castle and starring Bridget Fonda and Albert Finney. Her new novel, Life #6, from Ig Publishing, will be available on May 15.

 

THE HEROES’ WELCOME examines post-war life in 1919 England

The Heroes' Welcome  tlc tour host

The Heroes’ Welcome

By Louisa Young

Harper Perennial: March 10, 2015

$14.99, 272 pages

One of my particular interests in recent books, oft explored in this blog, is fiction by women about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially the nature of PTSD and soldiers’ attempts to reenter civilian society. While this subject has been revived by the latest war(s), it is as old as war itself. One can find classic novels about the post-war experience following the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea, and, of course, Vietnam.

Perhaps the best writing about soldiers’ post-war lives are the novels set during and just after WWI by British writers Pat Barker (the Regeneration trilogy), Sebastian Faulks (Birdsong), and Elizabeth Jane Howard (The Cazalet Chronicles). The Great War, with its trench warfare and first use of poison gas and aeroplanes, produced a level of carnage not seen before.  Many of those who survived returned home with head injuries, missing limbs, lung damage, and/or shell shock, only to find that they were faced with fighting another war on the home front, one for acceptance and normality.

Louisa Young’s The Heroes’ Welcome is the second book in a planned trilogy that began during the war with My Dear I Wanted to Tell You. And while it is probably best to have read the first book, one can still read the second book without feeling she is missing too much. On the other hand, the consensus among those who have read both novels is that My Dear is the better of the two books; so if the subject and premise interest you, it is probably worth starting at the beginning.

Heroes picks up in 1919, six months after Armistice Day, as 23-year-old Captain Riley Purefoy returns to London with a mouth and jaw that have been reconstructed through surgeries that were groundbreaking at the time. His appearance is unsettling to others, he has immense difficulty eating, and he cannot speak clearly. He would appear to be on the path to a life of isolation. But his fiancee, Nadine Waveney, awaits him, and they quickly marry and attempt to build what they know is a life that bears little resemblance to the one they’d planned. The stereotypical British reticence to talk things out only complicates the fraught circumstances, as does the disapproval of Nadine’s parents.

The other central characters are Riley’s commanding office, Peter Locke, and his wife, Julia. While Peter is physically whole, he is emotionally shattered by certain events in the war, and takes solace in alcohol, with predictable results on the condition of his mind and his marriage.

Young’s book explores the heroism displayed at home by returning soldiers like Purefoy and Locke. For despite their very human flaws and failings, they want desperately to regain their footing and make their way with their wives, work, and the world.

The narrative involving Riley and Nadine is more involving and satisfying, as they are more sympathetic characters and they behave as rationally as one could expect. The story of Peter and Julia (and their young son, Tom) is more melodramatic, even Gothic at times (Julia’s affair). This strand is just not executed as well, or perhaps it is just not as plausible, which seems crucial in a setting that demands realism.

The two aspects of The Heroes’ Welcome that stand out are Young’s handling of inner monologues and her fluid prose, which provides an elegance that suits the Downtown Abbey-like setting. Occasional overwriting doesn’t get in the way of these characters and their heartbreaking conflicts.

While The Heroes’ Welcome is not quite in the same class with the work of Barker, Faulks, or Howard, this is a respectable addition to the literature of WWI, a historical drama that combines literary fiction and elements of melodrama to create an involving and at times powerful novel.

An advance copy of The Heroes’ Welcome was provided to me by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest opinion. You can read reviews by other participating bloggers from March 10-March 30 here

Margaret Dilloway on Disobedient and Difficult Female Characters

Margaret Dilloway

After I sold my first book, How to Be an American Housewife, an assistant at my literary agency expressed hope that the publisher wouldn’t change me too much.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Your characters are kind of gritty,” he said. “Not like typical women’s fiction.”

Gritty? This came as a surprise. But then again, it was also a surprise that anything I wrote was “women’s fiction.” When I wrote my book, I did not think of it as being in any category. I simply wrote the story I wanted to write, which happened to have female characters—because it was a mother-daughter story.

But then I found out that my novels are categorized as women’s fiction, generally understood to have a heroine who has some kind of emotional journey where she saves herself from a high-stakes problem, with possibly a bit of romance thrown in for interest. In addition, my books tend to focus on family drama and themes about cultural identity—not terribly different than novels categorized as “fiction” except that the main characters are female.

I don’t mind wearing the women’s fiction badge. Though some writers view the term “women’s fiction” as a pejorative or a way to make women’s writing lesser than a man’s (the equivalent of a man in a tweed jacket smoking a pipe and patting you on the head and saying, “Good for you. Keep on amusing yourself with your cute little women’s fiction.”)

I’ve also found out that all these categories are useful and necessary for bookstores and librarians, so people who want this specific kind of book will know where to find it. After all, my dear father-in-law, who loves thrillers where there’s lot of action and little thinking, wouldn’t want to stumble into a women’s fiction novel by accident. Nor would I want to read most of his favorites.

So I’ve embraced the category. Yet though I’m “women’s fiction,” my fingers seem to be physically incapable of typing out descriptions of non-difficult women. And I’d like to think I’m getting better at it. I make my characters to start out in a low place of struggle, so they have room to soar by the end. I like a nice dose of redemption in my writing.  Kirkus Reviews praised my most recent novel, Sisters of Heart and Snow, for this very reason. “In this enjoyable novel, imperfect and at times unlikable women become lovable,” it says. https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/margaret-dilloway/sisters-of-heart-and-snow/

However, this whole concept of “difficult” women still puzzles me. Sometimes, the word “difficult”  is a code word for “bitchy.” Someone you don’t want to deal with.

To me, to be “difficult” means to be human—imperfect, struggling with baggage from the past, responsibilities, aging, expectations, dreams.

In real life, every woman I know would be classified as “difficult” the way my characters are. The women I know are fierce and mercurial. Everyone’s got some kind of problem they’re trying to overcome. They complain and they struggle even while they love. And women mess up their lives just as forcefully and thoroughly as men ever have, thank you very much.

Male characters, on the other hand, are hardly ever tagged as “difficult.” Male characters have way more leeway when it comes to the sympathies of the reader. Take the wonderfully comic novel This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper. It concerns a man who struggles with the end of his marriage. The discovery of his wife having an affair effectively paralyzes him, until he must return home to face his three siblings after his father dies. Judd is a passive figure at the beginning, sometimes doing unlikable things. Sometimes repugnant things happen to him (spoiler) such as when his sister-in-law, in a desperate struggle to get pregnant, climbs on top of Judd while he’s in bed and, at least in part due to his passivity, takes advantage of him (that scene happened differently in the movie than it did in the book). Kirkus Reviews praised the author for his “poignant depictions of damaged men befuddled by the women they love.” If Judd had been a female character, she’d probably be called “imperfect and at times unlikable.”

Or maybe it’s all just me. Maybe I’m missing the writing gene that makes my characters automatically lovable even while they’re flawed. Maybe my true calling is really writing villains.

THE ENCHANTED casts a spell in spite of Death Row setting

The Enchanted  Rene Denfeld

The Enchanted

By Rene Denfeld

Harper Perennial, 2014

$14.99, 233 pages

There are some subjects one would not imagine being interested in reading a novel about. A story concerning the residents of a rundown prison’s Death Row and those who work with them — the warden, a female legal investigator hired for death penalty cases, and a fallen priest — might seem to be just such a novel.

But there are also some novels that are so special that they transcend their subject matter by creating a reading experience that leaves an indelible impression on one’s heart and mind.

Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted is just such a novel. It is one of those books for which a description or summary pales in comparison to the, well, enchantment experienced by reading it. The Enchanted is an absorbing and haunting meditation on finding beauty and peace amidst unrelenting violence and heartlessness, the nature of sin and salvation, and forms of love in the most unlikely of places.

In her first novel after three non-fiction works on widely varying subjects, Denfeld makes use of her background as an investigator hired by death penalty case attorneys in Oregon to research the lives of convicts in an effort to obtain a sentence of life in prison without parole. But The Enchanted is not a polemic about the death penalty or the criminal justice system. It is a story about people and the difficulty of their lives and the decisions they must make.

The Enchanted is narrated by an unnamed Death Row prisoner in the oldest prison in the state, a stone fortress in which the walls weep from the omnipresent Pacific Northwest moisture. Death Row is located in the dungeon-like basement, and the residents rarely see the sky, much less experience moments outside their windowless cells.

The prisoner, identified only in the last pages of the book, tells us, “The outside is too big and scary for me to think about anymore. The outside is one wild circus where people and ideas clash. I have been inside one locked room or another since I was nine. I am accustomed to it, buried inside rooms that are buried inside other rooms that are buried inside electric razor fences. The walls that might make others feel like they are suffocating have become my lungs.”

Yet he is well aware that his desire to remain on Death Row rather than among the general prison population separates him from the other residents of the Row. “No, the dream of the death row client is to escape execution for a life behind bars. They want to escape the dungeon into the rest of the prison. They want a visit from their mom that involves a touch. They want to stand in the sun, to play a game of ball, to eat at a table with other men, to see the sky and feel the wind. THose are their dreams, maybe small to others but huge to them. It is a modest dream, in a sense, and yet one that is amazingly hard to achieve for a man on death row.”

The investigator, known only as “the lady,” is working on the case of another prisoner named York, whose crimes are of such an inhuman nature that they are not even mentioned by the narrator — who admits that his own crimes are so heinous that they too should never again be spoken of.

“There are some things I can never discuss. One is the bad thing I did after I was released from the mental hospital when I was eighteen. I wouldn’t want the idea of this thing to be in the world. Ideas are powerful things; we should take more care with them….You can get a taste of an idea inside you, and the next thing you know, it won’t leave. Until you do something about it. As soulless as I am, I do not want others to do what I have done. Some ideas need to stay silent inside me, like the letters inside some words.”

The priest is a broken man who has violated his vows and has come to the prison as both a last stop and a chance at some form of salvation.

The warden is a good man doing a difficult job about which he has no qualms; some people’s crimes justify the punishment of death, but he takes no pleasure or satisfaction in seeing it carried out. He carries a personal burden that reminds him of the value of life and inescapable sadness of death.

The plot has several strands, all of which Denfeld has woven together seamlessly. We follow the lady’s investigation into York’s childhood, one of unimaginable abuse, which provides context for the monster he became. Denfeld reminds us that even monsters, whether Grendel or York, were once like us, that monsters are made, not born, and that others are also culpable for their eventual brutality. This is not to excuse their crimes, but only to explain and understand them — and perhaps prevent others from occurring.

We learn about the lady’s own past, which bears surprising similarities to that of York and explains the motivation behind her work. We explore the incident that led the priest to his current circumstances. And the narrator reveals his own heart-rending story in bits and pieces.

Part of the magic of The Enchanted is that, despite the difficult subject matter, it is filled with moments of beauty, insight, and compassion. The gift of this novel is that it finds inspiration and promise among the broken lives and hearts of those who live and work in the prison.

In particular, Denfeld’s writing glows with a spiritual impulse that often produces sentences and even paragraphs of sublime beauty. Although her background is in non-fiction, Denfeld writes with the power and persuasion of a poet on fire with the joys that can be found in both life and language.

At one point the prisoner/narrator reacts to the language of the guards. “I retreat from my bars, wondering why people who live outside choose such ugly words. Maybe that is what happens when you are outside, and the world clangs and barrels and shouts twenty-four hours a day, from your radio your television your wife your neighbor the lawn mower down the street and the scream of airplanes from the sky. Maybe then you use ugly words to tell life to shut up.”

It is an irony common to much of the greatest literature that one can write about inconceivably dark, painful subjects with one’s heart, soul, and mind open to the beauty and satisfaction that can sometimes be found in such circumstances. As tragedies from Shakespeare to Arthur Miller show, one can experience catharsis and be ennobled from reading about a flawed and deeply human character’s life and their experience of death.

Don’t allow the subject matter of The Enchanted to deter you from reading it. It will cast its spell on you and leave you both moved and deeply philosophical. You won’t soon forget the people you will encounter in these pages.

Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist announced

How-to-be-both-US-647x1024  StationElevenNorthAmericaHiRes    I Am China  The Country of Ice Cream Star  A Spool of Blue Thread  The Bees

The judges committee for one of the most-anticipated awards in the literary fiction world, the UK’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, has announced the longlist of 20 titles for the 2015 award.

According to The Guardian, Committee chair Shami Chakrabarti introduced this year’s nominees by saying, “I think we need to keep celebrating women’s fiction. We need to celebrate women generally and there’s nothing more powerful than stories.  We need to celebrate stories by women, for women, as just one more way to redress gender injustice.”

This year’s longlist includes well-known writers such as Ali Smith (for How to Be Both), Sarah Waters (for The Paying Guests), and Anne Tyler (for A Spool of Blue Thread), as well as debut novelists like Emma Healey (whose Elizabeth is Missing won the Costa Award), Laline Paull (for The Bees, a thrilling dystopian tale set in a beehive), and PP Wong (whose “The Life of a Banana” explores how it feels to be “yellow on the outside and white on the inside”).

Another nominees of note is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which was a National Book Awards finalist and bestseller. Coincidentally, Mandel was named  a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award today (along with Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for the Stolen).

The prize is open to novels written in English and published in the UK and was created to reward “excellence, originality and accessibility” in writing. The judges read 165 books, which they narrowed down to 20. The list of six finalists will be announced on April 13, and the award ceremony will be held in London on June 3.

Chakrabarti spoke extensively on the need for and value in the Women’s Prize, as well as about gender issues in publishing.

“We are still nowhere near where we should be,” she said. “I also don’t think women are getting their due in other literary prizes. I am still surprised at some of the lists and comments made by judges and chairs of judges elsewhere, so I don’t think it’s time to end a women’s prize.

“Literature ought to be further on than it is, given how long women have been writing brilliant stuff,” she continued. “It’s just hilarious to me that we should target a women’s book prize … at a time when women are much further back than they should be, not just in publishing but in politics, economics, health care. I think there is still work to do and there’s an ocean of talent to be discussed and shared and celebrated, and this is one way of doing it.”

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist

Outline by Rachel Cusk – British – 8th novel

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans – British – 4th novel

Aren’t We Sisters? by Patricia Ferguson – British – 8th novel

I Am China by Xiaolu Guo – Chinese/ British – 6th novel

Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey – British – 3rd novel

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey – British – 1st novel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – Canadian – 4th novel

The Offering by Grace McCleen – British – 3rd novel

The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman – British/American – 3rd novel

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill – Canadian – 2nd novel

The Bees by Laline Paull – British – 1st novel

The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips – British – 2nd Novel

The Walk Home by Rachel Seiffert – British – 3rd novel

A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie – Pakistani/British – 6th novel

How to be Both by Ali Smith — British – 6th novel

The Shore by Sara Taylor – American – 1st novel

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne  Tyler – American – 20th novel

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters – British – 6th novel

After Before by Jemma Wayne – British – 1st novel

The Life of a Banana by PP Wong – British – 1st novel