THE LONG HALF-LIVES OF LOVE AND TRAUMA a timely memoir of abuse and psychotherapy

  

The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma: A Memoir 

By Helen Epstein

Plunkett Lake Press, Jan. 2018

250 pages, $16.95

If timing is everything, then the publication of the third volume in Helen Epstein’s multi-decade examination of the impact of the Holocaust on children of survivors is fortunate indeed. The past year has raised the specter of anti-Semitism and directed a bright light on sexual harassment and abuse, both of which are central to Epstein’s latest book.

Following up on Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors (Putnam, 1979) and the more personal Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother’s History (Little, Brown, 1997), her latest work, The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma, digs even more deeply into her own unusual upbringing and its lifelong effect on her. This time, rather than telling the stories of survivors and their families generally, or of her mother’s incredible life, Epstein has written a memoir of her own life, from her complex and unusual childhood in Manhattan to her career as a journalist. Through it all, the profound effects of her parents’ experiences hide in the crevices of her psyche like a latent disease waiting for the most opportune time to wreak havoc.

The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma is a combination of deeply researched investigative journalism (Epstein’s specialty), a classic tale of European immigrants embracing the American Dream, and a memoir of a post-WWII New York City childhood and a life haunted by phantoms that cannot be identified. Despite her professional success, Epstein experiences a formless anxiety that weakens the foundations of her life. In 1999, she begins work on a memoir about her sheltered adolescence, her unusual first love (her charismatic music tutor, Robbie), and the challenges of growing up as the child of Holocaust survivors. She reconnects with Robbie, with whom she has maintained a lifelong but intermittent friendship, hoping he can help her remember events from their shared past. But before long, she begins to hear the ticking of a psycho-emotional bomb. When she is unable to locate it or determine how it came to be there, she decides to resume psychotherapy with the same therapist she worked with until 1980, Dr. M.

Her interactions with Robbie, who clearly has his own mental health issues, and her therapy sessions slowly help her to make sense of a suspicion that she was the victim of sexual abuse. The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma delves deeply into Epstein’s home life, the trauma suffered by her parents and their efforts to overcome their past and build a new life, and their unusual parenting style. Her parents, Franci and Kurt, were sophisticated and accomplished young people from Czechoslovakia broken by the Holocaust. They have their hands full trying to adapt to life in America and keeping the wolves of their memory at bay, and young Helen is raised as much by her nanny, an older survivor named Milena, and her husband, Ivan, who became close friends of her parents and seemed like grandparents to Helen.

Epstein’s investigation into her past in an effort to confirm or disprove her suspicions makes for a riveting read. Is her memory reliable? Or is it just her own trauma creating a false memory? It’s a mystery that we want her to solve as much as she does. Who could have abused her? And why? Epstein’s parents are fascinating characters who could not have been easy to live with. She vividly depicts post-war life among the immigrant community in the rough neighborhoods of the Upper West Side (long before it was a fashionable area). And the sections on her adolescence and college years in the 1960s and early 1970s capture well the challenges of coming of age at the time of social and political upheaval. She is very frank about her intimate friendship with the brilliant but difficult Robbie and the impact it had on her sexual and romantic identities. But to me the most compelling aspect of the book is its fly-on-the-wall look at a long-term psychotherapeutic relationship that she believes eventually saved her from madness borne of depression, anxiety, and the ghosts of her past.

The result is a gripping book that is equal parts memoir, cultural history, coming of age story, and exploration of her years of psychotherapy. Epstein weaves the multiple strands of her story into a spellbinding gut punch of a book. It reads more like a fictional page-turner than a serious memoir and journalistic investigation into Holocaust survivors, sexual abuse, and psychotherapy. This is a timely book that deserves a wide readership.

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THE CHILD FINDER: a page-turning mystery and thought-provoking exploration of suffering and redemption

  

The Child Finder

By Rene Denfeld

HarperCollins Publishers

288 pages, $25.99

Rene Denfeld is a magician. Her debut novel, The Enchanted, was a spellbinding examination of life and redemption on Death Row, written with such poetry and grace that the somber subject matter not only did not weigh down the reading experience but instead actually lifted readers into spiritual territory.

The Child Finder confirms that her first book was no fluke. A snowbound calm pervades this story of Naomi, a private investigator who specializes in locating missing children. Three years earlier, five-year-old Madison Culver disappeared on a trip to choose a Christmas tree in the snowy forests of Oregon. When the official investigation fails to find Madison, her desperate parents turn to Naomi.

While this may sound like the plot of a genre mystery novel, Denfeld’s gifts turn it into something much more. Naomi’s involving search for Madison is also an exploration of her own past, which has one unanswered question: What happened to her in the time before her memories begin with running across a field at night, to be rescued by migrant workers and adopted by an older, single woman?

We know from the start that Madison is alive, the prisoner of a strange, silent mountain man who lives in the most isolated reaches of the Skookum National Forest. Who is he, how has he managed to live there for so many years without being discovered, what explains his kidnapping and imprisoning of Madison (after three years in his ramshackle cabin, it’s clear he does not intend to kill her)? None of the answers are predictable.

The Child Finder is told in dual narratives. One follows Naomi’s search (and its profound effect on her own inchoate memories) and the other depicts Madison’s unusual strategy for coping with her dire situation. Denfeld weaves the two strands tighter and tighter in a manner that put me in mind of both The Lovely Bones and The Silence of the Lambs.

The central question in The Child Finder concerns whether those who are lost can be found, and if so, how. Madison is lost to her parents and the outside world. And the lost child of Naomi’s past remains shrouded in dreamlike memory and self-protective denial. While Naomi seeks “the snow child” Madison, two men – one from her adoptive upbringing and the other from her investigation – attempt to “find” her. But so long as she is lost to herself, she can’t be found by others.

Rene Denfeld has avoided the sophomore slump with a novel that is both a page-turning mystery and a thought-provoking, literary exploration of long suffering and eventual redemption.

My Favorite Books of 2017

A visual “list” of my favorite books, in no particular order (other than to make a nice-looking stack of books). Some were published prior to 2017 (Half in Love, Etta and Otto and Russell and James, The Pathless Sky), but I didn’t read them until this year, so it’s not a “best books of 2017” list.

And, while all the fiction (except The Book of Dust) is by women, two of the memoirs, two poetry collections, and the one book of nonfiction were written by men.

So you don’t go blind trying to read the tiny print, the two small books of poetry are Box by Robert Wrigley and The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded by Molly McCully Brown. Wrigley is my favorite poet, whom I recommend to you without reservation. McCully Brown is a young debut author whose collection is masterful and haunting. Buy it.

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National Book Foundation honors “5 Under 35” — and they’re all women

  

The National Book Foundation, which sponsors the National Book Awards, has announced the winners of its “5 Under 35” award for exceptionally promising young writers who debuted in the past year, and all are women.

According to the NBF, each recipient “promises to leave an indelible mark on the literary landscape.” The writers are selected by previous recipients of the award. The honorees receive $1,000 and will be honored at a reception on November 13.

“At a moment in which we are having the necessary conversations surrounding the under-representation of female voices, it’s a thrill to see this list of tremendous women chosen organically by our selectors,” said Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation. “These writers and their work represent an incredibly bright future for the world of literary fiction.”

  

The honorees are:

 Lesley Nneka Arimah, What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky (selected by Chris Bachelder, 2016 National Book Award finalist for Fiction for The Throwback Special)

Halle Butler, Jillian (selected by Lydia Millet, 2016 National Book Award Longlist for Fiction for Sweet Lamb of Heaven)

Zinzi Clemmons, What We Lose (selected by Angela Flournoy, 2015 National Book Award finalist for Fiction for The Turner House)

Leopoldine Core, When Watched (selected by Karan Mahajan, 2016 National Book Award finalist for Fiction for The Association of Small Bombs)

Weike Wang, Chemistry (selected by Sherman Alexie, 2007 National Book Award winner for Young People’s Literature for  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian)

Learn more about the honorees and their books here.

THE OTHER SIDE: a powerful portrait of rape and recovery

I am re-posting my August 2014 review of Lacy Johnson’s THE OTHER SIDE in response to her moving Facebook posts about her experiences coping with Hurricane Harvey this week. Johnson lives in West Houston and teaches at the University of Houston, and her daily open letters have provided a detailed, eloquent, and very empathetic view of Houstonians’ struggles during and after one of the worst natural disasters ever to strike the U.S. I encourage you to read her posts and then to buy and read her remarkable memoir.

lacy-johnson   the-other-side

The Other Side: a memoir

By Lacy M. Johnson

Tin House; July 15, 2014

$15.95, 219 pages

In a time when the issue of violence against women has once again become part of the common conversation, with Republican politicians and pundits expressing dismaying lack of knowledge and sensitivity about rape and women’s sexuality, Lacy Johnson’s new memoir, The Other Side, is a blast of reality therapy, a potent dose of The Truth.

On July 5, 2000, when Lacy Johnson was a 21-year-old college student, she was kidnapped and raped by the man she had recently broken up with. The Suspect, as she calls him, had planned his revenge carefully, renting a basement apartment and soundproofing a bedroom in order to torture the young woman who had grown tired of his physical abuse and dared to leave him. Although The Suspect had chained her with U-bolts to a primitive, handmade chair  in the room with blue Styrofoam walls, Johnson managed to escape when he left briefly and drove herself to the police station.

While The Other Side starts with her escape and the beginning of the police investigation, the bulk of the book concerns the events leading up to that summer day 14 years ago and her attempt to recover and rebuild her shattered psyche.

How did she come to fall in love with, and eventually live with, a sociopath? Perhaps because he was her Spanish teacher at the local university, a graduate student and TA who was “twice the age of his students, at least.” Later, a professor in the Spanish department will describe him as “erratic and disorganized as a scholar, but affable, a gifted, erratic dilettante.” Such a man could well be appealing to a certain type of  young woman. Johnson makes clear that, like many otherwise intelligent young people, she made many poor decisions.

Johnson discusses her sexual and romantic past and her erratic lifestyle without sugar coating events or offering any apologies. She does not claim to be an innocent, inexperienced young woman. But the point, of course, is that none of this is at all relevant to the crimes committed against her. Johnson was not “asking for it.” As we observe The Suspect and learn more about him, we see clearly that his abuse of Johnson both during and after their relationship is about wielding power ruthlessly.

While the story she tells is, sadly, hardly unique, it is the manner of her telling that makes The Other Side one of the most riveting reads you are likely to experience this year. Johnson assumes the coolly removed voice of a detective or journalist in telling much of her story. She refers to those involved as The Female Officer, The Detective, My Good Friend, My Handsome Friend (the man she was dating at the time of her abduction), and My Older Sister. After she breaks up with The Spanish Teacher, he becomes The Man I Used to Live With and, later, The Suspect. She alternates between an objective, almost hard-boiled retelling of the case involving The Suspect and The Victim, and a brutally honest personal narrative that will have you spellbound, holding your breath for pages at a time. This is a book best devoured in a single sitting, if you can handle the intensity.

What follows the kidnapping and rape are a frustrating series of events. The Suspect returns to the apartment before the police arrive and finds Johnson gone, withdraws a large amount of cash from an ATM, and flees to Mexico. This is just the start of his journey to avoid arrest. As the local police captain says six days after the crime, when the case has expanded to involve an international pursuit, “He’s a very intelligent individual who is scaring me.”

Johnson writes beautifully and with a philosophical bent about the aftermath of that July day. She is confronted by a range of emotional and physical responses, some of which make sense and some of which perplex even her educated, introspective mind, but she copes as best she can. The story of her attempts to overcome the experience and transform herself into someone not defined by it is difficult to read yet gripping nonetheless.

Her psychological state in the weeks and months following her rape is well captured in this description of her visit to a psychiatrist. “The Psychiatrist tells me to take the blue pill for depression and anxiety and the white pill for lack of appetite. The yellow pill is for forgetting: it puts me to sleep so long without dreaming I forget to wake up. I forget what my name is. I forget where I live.

“I know it’s the blue pill that makes all the feeling go away because I start taking it first. And by feeling, I mean feel-like: I do not feel like getting out of bed. Or like getting dressed, or drinking water, or eating food. I can’t keep food down anyway. I do not feel like puking my guts out so I do not eat. I do not feel like going to work. Or like walking alone from my car, across the parking lot, now or ever again. The editor at the literary magazine where I am an intern calls and wants to know where the banner ad is and I say I’m sorry; I’m a little behind on that. I’ve had some personal issues lately. The editor says, Your issues are not my issues. Get it done today. Maybe he thinks I am faking it. Am I faking it? I do not feel like asking this question. Or like being awake. I do not feel like watching television or reading a book. I do not feel like watching the sun come through the blinds. I would rather feel nothing all day.”

She also discusses the self-conscious existence of the female. “That image, of the self, does not belong equally to everyone. As a woman, I must keep myself under constant surveillance: how do I look as I rise from the bed, and while I walk through the store buying groceries, and while I run with a dog in the park? From childhood I was taught to survey and police and maintain my image continually, and in this role – as both surveyor and the image that is surveyed – I learned to see myself as others see me: as an object to be viewed and evaluated, a sight.”

Johnson reclaims herself, in part, by telling her story – to herself and to others. She reminds us of the many facets of a story. Is there a story at all, just one story? “There’s the story I have, and the story he has, and there is a story the police have in Evidence. There’s the story the journalist wrote for the paper. There’s the story The Female Officer filed in her report; her story is not my story. There’s the story he must have told his mother when he called her on the phone; there’s the story she must have told herself. There’s the story you’ll have after you put down this book. It’s an endless network of stories. This story tells me who I am. It gives me meaning. And I want to mean something so badly.”

Later, “in graduate school I begin trying, in earnest, to write. I write about anything but The Man I Used to Live With…but it always comes back to him, to all that happened…. It’s the only thing that pulls me out of bed: these poems that lie and misdirect, that circle and circle all the things I can’t say out loud. Each day I begin writing, I think, This is it. Today is the day. As if typing anything other than that unthinkable thing were a kind of breaking free. Each day, as I’m sitting at my computer, watching the words accumulate on the page, I feel elated, euphoric. Look at how far I’ve come, I think. How far these words can carry me.”

Near the end of The Other Side, Johnson writes, “I’m afraid the story isn’t finished happening. Sometimes I think there is no entirely true story I could tell. Because there are some things I just don’t know, and other things I just can’t say. Which is not a failure of memory but of language.”

The Other Side is anything but a failure. The fact of Lacy Johnson’s telling and the manner of her telling it constitute a triumph over others’ attempts to control her life and the stories she tells herself and us. The Other Side is a viscerally powerful, gorgeously written memoir about rape and recovery that readers will not soon forget – in part because they are likely to read about it being nominated for, and winning, much-deserved literary awards in the coming year.

TO LAY TO REST OUR GHOSTS explores haunted family relationships with empathy and grace

To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts: Stories

By Caitlin Hamilton Summie

Fomite Press: Aug. 8, 2017

201 pages, $15.00


I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. We are in the Golden Age of Short Stories. More story collections are being published now than ever, and the quality is unsurpassed. In general, major publishers don’t love story collections because they don’t sell as well as novels. They’ll use them to introduce a new writer they’ve signed, because he/she will come to them with a backlog of stories which can be released while the writer works on their debut novel (which is what the publisher really wants). It’s a good way to get new talent under contract while they develop (like signing a young baseball player and assigning him to the minor leagues for a year or two). On the occasions when a new writer comes to a publisher with a novel that is worthy of publication, the publisher will use a short story collection as a gap filler to buy time for the writer to work on their second novel.

But, in most cases today, a short story collection is likely to be published by a small, independent publisher or university press. As a result, they fly below the radar and rely on reviews and word of mouth to reach potential readers. That is where blogs and social media can play a key role in helping writers and readers connect.

The latest example of a stellar short story collection from a small press is Caitlin Hamilton Summie’s To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, a ten-story, 200-page book that deserves your attention. As the title suggests, Summie’s characters are at crossroads of various kinds; they are struggling for emotional independence, attempting to resolve long-standing conflicts (usually familial), and trying to make sense of a complex and confusing world. These are quiet, intimate stories driven by character more than plot, yet they are compelling in both their dramatic tension and often unsettling (but not unsettled) resolution.

Set mostly in rural and urban Minnesota, with detours to and New York City, these stories are probing examinations of the seemingly small, mundane moments that reverberate through our lives. Life-changing decisions or events do not always arrive in the form of violent confrontations or shocking accidents. Sometimes it’s as simple as looking at old family photo albums (as in “Patchwork”) or failing to show up at your grandfather’s deathbed because you just can’t bear it (as in “Geographies of the Heart”).

The opening story, “Tags,” takes place in WWII-era Kansas City, where young Dolores bides her time playing marbles with her friend Jimmy and fighting with her teenage brother Larry while she waits for her father to return home from the war. Jimmy learns that his father has been killed in the war but at least he has his father’s dog tags. The situation will be more complicated for Dolores. Summie sensitively depicts what it was like growing up during the war, when the world was nearly incomprehensible to a young girl.

“Growing Up Cold” finds John returning home to Minnesota from Japan following the death of his sister, Lonnie. The renewal of a long-simmering conflict between John and his older brother James adds to the tension in a family that is now down to three men, his mother having died several years earlier. John has lost his mother, his sister, and, in a sense, his brother. But he has his own way of grieving, which his father and brother find mystifying. The story’s potent ending creates a sort of peace, or at least a truce.

“Brothers” treads similarly fraught sibling territory. A car accident has left 28-year-old George in a wheelchair. He has abandoned graduate school and his girlfriend in Minneapolis and moved to the family cabin in the woods of Wisconsin, thinking a quiet life of furniture making will suit him best now. But his younger brother Ephraim wants him to return to the Twin Cities, to be near him and his parents and close to top-notch medical care. Ephraim’s visit to the cabin brings matters to a head.

“Patchwork,” “Geographies of the Heart,” and “Taking Root” feature the same characters. In “Patchwork,” recently unemployed Sarah MacMillan decides to write the family history, but she encounters resistance from her grandmother, Catherine, who insists that her sister Cecily be left out of the story. That only spurs Sarah on to investigate what Cecily had done to be the subject of such longstanding scorn. Her determination to write about Cecily, while maintaining her relationship with Catherine — and what she learns about not just Cecily, but the whole family — forges a hard-earned respect between the two women.

In “Geographies of the Heart,” Sarah’s grandfather is dying; she is his constant companion, while her sister Glennie, an OB-GYN, is physically and emotionally absent, to Sarah’s constant frustration and disappointment. Eventually, the sisters struggle to reach each other across the resulting chasm.

In “Taking Root,” which concludes the MacMillan trilogy and closes the collection, we catch up with Sarah, who is now married to Al, a religion professor, and the mother of Amelia. They’ve recently suffered a miscarriage, which has left them grieving in different ways. Sarah and Amelia decide to take a road trip, and Al is soon caught up in the labor and delivery of his neighbors, Howard and Norda, which stirs up the recently settled sediment of his emotions. The cavalry arrives in the form of Glennie, now one of the best OB-GYNs in Minneapolis. And Al manages to keep his head above water, where he can see the sunlight.

To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts can sound depressing in the description, but Summie’s empathy for her characters’ humanity is so strong, and her prose so lovely, that a palpable warmth emanates from the stories despite their physically frigid settings. I look forward to the publication of her first novel; the trilogy in this collection suggests that she will be equally accomplished with the longer form.

Five great reads you may have missed (Part 2 in a series)

So many books are published each year that it’s impossible to keep up, even if you focus on only one type of book (e.g., literary fiction, short stories, crime novels, books by women). Add to that our busy lives and the many and constant distractions, and it’s easy to see how even passionate readers can miss a lot of good books. So, as my small contribution to solving this problem, over the next few weeks I’ve decided to publish a series of three posts in which I share some books that are worth your valuable reading time.


Pachinko

Pachinko

By Min Jin Lee

Grand Central Books 2017, 481 pages

If 2016-2017 is remembered for anything beyond the political nightmare we find ourselves in, it might be as the years Korean fiction – by both Koreans and Korean-Americans – reached critical mass and got a lot of attention. The Vegetarian by Han Kang won the 2016 Booker International Prize (though it was originally published in Korean in 2007, it wasn’t translated into English until 2015); Everything Belongs to Us by Yoojin Grace Wuertz, Shelter by Jung Yun, and How I Became a North Korean by Krys Lee have also received acclaim.

But the book that is likely to stand as the definitive “Korean” novel is Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, published last February. The story of one Korean family from 1910-1980, Pachinko harkens back to a more traditional storytelling than much of contemporary fiction, combining the melodramatic family saga and literary fiction. When Sunja, a young girl in a fishing village, finds herself pregnant and abandoned, she needs an escape to avoid shaming her family. A visiting minister offers her a chance to marry and move to Japan. Thus begins the story of ethnic Koreans living in Japan, where they are treated like second-class citizens (at best).

Pachinko is one of the most immersive reading experiences I’ve had in recent years and focuses on a theme that I always find compelling: the immigrant’s struggle to acculturate, with the attendant schizophrenia of the Old World and New World pulling you in different directions. This is particularly so when one’s appearance broadcasts that one is different. The cross-cultural tensions in Pachinko, combined with Lee’s smooth, controlled prose, held me in thrall. This was a time and place and experience I knew nothing about, and Lee was a riveting guide through the family’s lives in a rapidly-changing Japan (has any country changed more than Japan from the 1930s to the 1980s?). Pachinko is one of this year’s must-reads. And I suspect it will remain a must-read for many years to come.


The Pathless Sky

The Pathless Sky

By Chaitali Sen

Europa Editions 2015, 312 pages

Chaitali Sen has written a timeless novel of love and life in an authoritarian society. She has wisely chosen to leave the country and time unstated, making her story universal, and yet it feels so timely and specific that it can be said to accurately capture our zeitgeist. (In that sense, it is somewhat like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.)

While books that tread this territory can feel coolly unemotional, with characters often representing ideas, The Pathless Sky achieves an emotional intensity through its flesh-and-blood characters and the hypnotic quality of Sen’s prose. It is the story of John and Mariam, who meet while in college and spend the following years in and out of each other’s lives for reasons both personal and political (with an emphasis on the lower case “p”). John is studying geology, a powerful metaphorical contrast with the fickle nature of human efforts, particularly those of authoritarian governments.

The characters’ opposing natures and the random, inexplicable actions of the increasingly militaristic police state combine to test their relationship in a hundred different ways. We never stop rooting for their love to triumph because it can be all we have left in such circumstances, the human struggling against the machinations of tyranny. The Pathless Sky could well have been titled Love in a Time of Oppression (apologies to Garcia-Marquez).


Hour-of-Daydreams

The Hour of Daydreams

By Renee Macalino Rutledge

Forest Avenue Press 2017, 235 pages

One of the more promising developments in fiction over the last several years is the increased presence of Asian writers. These are voices telling us stories we need to know, both because it’s good fiction and because the fictional world should correspond to the actual world. After many years as a journalist and nonfiction book editor, Renee Macalino Rutledge has published her debut novel with the literary fiction independent press that recently brought us the powerful Landfall by Ellen Urbani.

The Hour of Daydreams is a “reimagined Filipino folktale” about a country doctor named Manolo whose marriage to Tala is disturbed by his belief that she has wings that allow her to fly up to the stars at night. Tala is indeed hiding a secret from Manolo and it’s creating a divide in their marriage and their conceptions of fact and fantasy. Macalino Rutledge weaves this magical tale through the voices of several characters, and the result is a hybrid of folktale and contemporary fiction, merging myth and modernity as it explores marriage, gender, and culture. I was not surprised to see that this book has been compared to the work of Isabel Allende; indeed, The Hour of Daydreams reminded me of The House of the Spirits, with its elegant prose-poetry, brooding sense of possibility, and Macalino Rutledge’s ability to cast a spell over the reader.


Heat and Light

Heat and Light

By Jennifer Haigh

Ecco 2016, 435 pages

Jennifer Haigh is one of our best writers, yet she’s not quite a household name. Her second novel, Baker Towers, introduced the town of Bakerton in northwest Pennsylvania, where coal is king, but in the years following WWII, an increasingly weakened and aging king. Through her subsequent novels, Haigh explored contemporary concerns with compassion and insight (the effect of a child’s rare disease on her family in 2009’s The Condition, clergy sexual abuse in 2011’s Faith). In 2013’s News from Heaven, she returned to Bakerton in a series of interconnected stories that brought readers up to date on the current lives of the locals.

With last year’s Heat and Light, Haigh has laid claim to this part of Pennsylvania in the same way William Faulkner did with the fictional Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi. This time, oil company reps have come to town to purchase the drilling rights beneath residents’ homes so the companies can search for natural gas through the latest method, fracking. Crews pour in from Texas, creating tension with the local folks. The impact of illegal immigration complicates matters further. Haigh explores the impact of this changing circumstance on a large cast of characters, including a prison guard, a nurse, a farmer, a pastor, and a visiting activist.

What makes Haigh stand out is her uncanny ability to inhabit so many characters so fully. They walk and talk like people we know or have encountered. And she makes us care about each and every one of them as they try to cope with a changing world that has turned everything upside down in Bakerton. In her review of Heat and Light in the New York Times, Janet Maslin compared Haigh’s concerns and style to those of Richard Ford, Richard Russo, and Richard Price. She certainly belongs in such esteemed company. If you read Heat and Light, be prepared to continue with Baker Towers and News from Heaven; before long, you’ll know as much about life in Bakerton as its residents do.


the-given-world-paperback

The Given World 

By Marian Palaia

Simon & Schuster 2015, 320 pages

The Given World takes us back to the height of the Vietnam War in 1968 to tell the story of Riley, a teenager whose older brother Mick is fighting in Vietnam. When he goes missing, Riley decides to go in search of him. Over the course of more than two decades, we follow Riley from her childhood in Montana to San Francisco, and ultimately to Vietnam.

Palaia tells the story out of chronological order, starting with Riley as a thirty-something woman in Saigon approximately 25 years ago. We are taken back and forth in time and in and out of characters’ lives, giving us a firsthand sense of Riley’s chaotic inner and outer life. The Given World is a powerful coming-of-age story, with a range of narrative voices that provide one gut punch after another, especially Riley’s tough-but-tender sections. This is a dark story, but enough bands of light cross it to give you hope that Riley will find her brother or at least herself. At the very least, she wants to know what happened to Mick. In a life of broken promises, abandonment, and addiction, she wants answers and closure for a change.

What really stands out in The Given World is Palaia’s ferocious writing. She dives deep into the characters’ psychic pain, and she conveys that in her vivid prose and well-chosen concrete details that capture Riley’s life in Montana and San Francisco. The Given World is a book of heartbreak and hope, a rough ride, and a satisfying read.