Monday, 15 July 2013


The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout
Since devouring ‘Olive Kitteridge’ by Ms Strout I have been dancing on coals waiting for her latest offering, for Olive was a superb creation; she was all things to all people and Ms Strout was a worthy winner of the Pulitzer prize for that great book.
As before she reels the reader effortlessly, lovingly, and inexorably into this story of small town people trying to live big city lives –here we meet the Burgess boys, who left their Maine birthplace of Shirley Falls for better things in New York:  Jim, handsome, shrewd and bursting with charisma, on the way up the legal ladder with astonishing speed and blessed with a loving, rich wife and beautiful children who haven’t given either of them a moment’s worry.  (Truly!)  Yes, he is blessed and has plans eventually to run for political office;  all his friends are in the right places and he cannot fail.
Bob his younger brother, is not so lucky:  he too has a legal career but, unable to bear the cut and thrust of the courtroom he has engaged himself in appellate work where he doesn’t have to be in the public eye.  His marriage sadly failed because he could not give his beloved Pam children (low sperm count);  she left eventually to marry someone who could, and he now lives by himself in Brooklyn a few blocks from his glitteringly successful brother.  Bob drinks too much, sleeps too little and depends more than he should on Jim and his wife for that sense of identity and belonging that we all need.
But Jim is a bully:  he exacts a high price from Bob for a little family feeling, belittling him relentlessly whenever the mood takes him – which is often.  Bob tolerates the bad behaviour because he loves his brother, admires him and is content to lurk on his periphery – Jim has always behaved like that, so what’s new?
What’s new is that their sister Susan, Bob’s twin calls from Shirley Falls to say that her teenage son has thrown a pig’s head into the local Somali mosque.  She has been raising him since her husband left her to live in Sweden 7 years before – she doesn’t know what to do:  please help, oh (Jim), PLEASE help!
And Jim does, (Bob’s well-meaning attempts to be of help are scorned) but the assistance that Jim provides is less than ideal, and as time passes Ms Strout reveals in masterly fashion old, gnawing family secrets, tragedies unfairly shouldered, and the eventual exposure of Jim’s feet of clay.
Ms Strout writes superbly about ordinary life;  life as we all know it;  its disappointments, joys, triumphs and pain.  She is never less than convincing in her plotting and her prose is as refreshing and lovely as a cool drink on a hot day.  Highly recommended and a true pleasure to read.
And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini

This is Khaled Hosseini’s third novel.  He needs no introduction;  his first book, ‘The Kite Runner’ was a world-wide bestseller, beloved by millions for its wonderful characters and the lessons they learnt in familial love and loyalty.  Most of all, it was a story of Afghanistan, Mr Hosseini’s homeland, that wild, beautiful and lawless country that became for all his readers astonishingly real and immediate thanks to his superb gifts as a storyteller.
Now he enthrals us again with another tale of an Afghani family:  the same principles of family unity are espoused, but what happens when the ties that bind are threatened by poverty and death?
It is 1952.  Abdullah is ten years old and lives in the tiny village of Shadbagh with his father Saboor and father’s new wife Parmana.  Abdullah’s mother died giving birth to Pari three years ago and Saboor remarried as soon as he could to provide a new mother for his children.  Ironically, Abdullah has turned out to be the surrogate parent for his little sister;  they adore each other and are inseparable – until lack of work and the death of Parmana’s first baby from the winter cold forces Saboor to consider selling Pari in a deal arranged by his brother-in-law Nabi to Nabi’s employer in Kabul.  ‘The finger must be cut off to save the hand.’
Nabi is young, handsome and madly in love with his employer’s wife Nila Wahdati;  she is imperious, headstrong and exciting beyond belief – he would do anything to please her:  anything.  Including driving her to Shadbagh to meet his horrified family, their poverty on abject display, so that she can see Pari and decide if she wants to continue with the transaction.
She does, and a chain of events is set in motion that will reverberate for three generations, crossing continents, irrevocably shaping and altering lives:  little Pari eventually forgets she had another family;  she was only three when she was sold to the rich lady.  It is not hard to believe after a time that Nila is truly her mother.
Abdullah, devastated by his father’s betrayal, swears he will leave his hated family as soon as he can, and he does, eventually travelling to Pakistan where he meets his future wife, then on to San Francisco, where they raise a daughter – called Pari.  He never forgets his cherished little sister;  she is in his heart always, the heart that was broken when he was ten. 
As in the best stories, brother and sister do meet again, thanks to good detective work from the younger Pari and beautifully realised, convincing minor characters, but there is a gentle and sad irony to their reunion – best left for readers to find out:  I’m no spoiler!  Suffice it to say that as always, Mr Hosseini weaves his magic with consummate ease:  the reader is willingly ensnared in his beautiful imagery, the strength of the players that people his literary stage, and the truths they utter that we should all know.  Highly recommended.      

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