Sunday, 16 April 2017

GREAT READS FOR APRIL 2017

Carry Me, by Peter Behrens

  
          Hermann ‘Billy’ Lange narrates this beautiful story, the story of his life as he lived it, and the secrets he must reveal as it reaches its end. 
            As lives go, his started off well:  his German father Heinrich ‘Buck’ Lange and his Irish wife EilÍn reside at ‘Sanssouci’ on the Isle of Wight;  Buck is the Protestant yachting captain for Hermann von Weinbrenner, a rich German Jewish businessman who is proud of his membership of the Cowes yacht club (the second Jew to be admitted;  the first was Lord Rothschild) and proud of the victories of his yachts piloted by Buck.  He is equally proud of his friendship with Buck, regarding him as part of his family, and offers him permanent accommodation at ‘Sanssouci’, his summer home, as part of his contract.
            Life couldn’t be better for Buck and EilÍn, for their beloved son is born there in 1909 and Baron von Weinbrenner and his wife stand as godparents.  The baby has been named Hermann after his godfather, but Billy is the name that sticks, along with his earliest memories of his father using his binoculars to watch rival yachts sailing on the English channel;  there is very little that Buck does not know about winds, tides, and the various craft he compares to his employer’s. 
            And his knowledge proves to be his downfall:  the First World War starts in 1914:  the Lange’s idyll at Sanssouci is over, the Baron and his family return to Germany and Buck’s employment is not only terminated, but he is arrested by the local authorities as a spy ‘because he was constantly watching the English channel through binoculars’.  He is imprisoned for the duration of the war, and then deported back to Germany – good riddance!
            In the meantime, EilÍn and Billy endure a hell of their own:  the Irish aren’t regarded much higher than Germans (it is common knowledge that the Irish favour the Hun and will stop at nothing to hurt and kill Our Boys, particularly after the Easter Uprising!) but despite increasing poverty they try to stay in London so that they may visit Buck whenever they are allowed, until they are finally forced to return to Ireland and the charity of the family that EilÍn had hoped never to see again.
            For Billy this is a definite improvement - anything would be an improvement on the taunting and bullying he endured at school in London – ‘Herm the Germ’, ‘the nasty basty Hun’.  And that was on a good day!  For Billy at least, Ireland is a blessed, peaceful haven, a time to rebuild his spirits until the end of the war, when his father is released and sent back to Germany – to the employ once again at the estate of the Baron von Weinbrenner, his true friend.
            Tumultuous times reign in Germany with the defeat of the Volk;  people are starving and crippling reparations must be paid;  inflation is rampant and the wildly disparate political factions are perfect spawning grounds for the rise of Nazism and Herr Hitler.  Jews, the traditional scapegoats of the ages, are beginning to worry.
            Billy completes his education, sustained by a friendship with Karin, the Baron’s daughter, who introduces him to the children’s books of classic German author Karl May, and the seemingly mythical place of ‘El Llano Estacado’, the Staked Plain’ of May’s Apache hero Winnitou:  ‘that’s where we should go, Billy, riding forever!’.  El Llano Estacado becomes their metaphor for freedom – of choice, of will, of place.
   As they grow older, Billy’s friendship for Karin turns to love;  he will do anything to save her from the fate that is inevitable for her if she stays in Hitler’s Germany;  sadly, Karin sees leaving as the coward’s way out.
            It has been too long since I have read prose so lucid, so direct and compelling.  Canadian author Mr Behrens writes with grace and candour of terrible world events that even now most of us would rather forget, and Billy’s struggle to find courage to speak up when he would rather hide ‘until things return to normal’ is a lesson in cowardice for us all.  SIX STARS!!

The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue

  
        English nurse Elizabeth (Lib) Wright has just returned from the horrors of the Crimean War, trained at Scutari by the redoubtable Florence Nightingale herself.  The year is 1859 and after her baptism of fire nursing wounded and dying soldiers she feels that she has now seen everything:  human behaviour and all its extremes holds no further secrets for her.  She is shockproof.
            Until she is sent to a tiny hamlet in Ireland at the request of a committee of eminent gentlemen who wish to investigate reports of a miracle, a holy child who  seemingly has not eaten for months, but in every way appears hale and hearty:  Lib’s duty over the course of a fortnight is to observe for twelve hours every day that The Wonder is either a fraud with a secret supply of food hidden somewhere, or a true child of God, worthy of beatification at the very least.  Lib’s companion nurse for the other twelve hours that Lib must eat and sleep is a Catholic nun, Sister Michael, a lady who hides behind her wimple and offers little unless she must;  they are both overseen by Doctor Mc Brearty, the local physician – bluff, cheerful, and as time goes on, spectacularly short of interest in the wellbeing of the Miracle Child, Anna O’Donnell.
            Upon meeting Anna, Lib is astonished at the poverty that she and her family endure;  father Malachy digs peat out of the bogs for fuel to use and to sell but the family barely subsists, as appears to be the norm for most of the locals;  the potato crop hasn’t ‘come in’ yet.  It is ‘the hungry season.’  Despite this, Anna’s mother briskly accepts donations from sundry travellers who visit them in the hope of seeing The Wonder – perhaps she could even rub a hand over the old lady’s sore knee?  Or say a blessing?
            Lib is appalled and stops all the visitations, even though Anna’s mother turns every penny of the donations over to the local priest – they may be poor but they’ll not profit from money meant for God!  And Lib’s Anglican upbringing has not prepared her for the fatalistic, fervid Hellfire and Damnation style of Irish Catholicism, especially the many stops during the day for various prayers – and the incantations recited so that ‘the Little Folk’ (the fairies) be kept happy is almost too much for her to swallow:  this is another world, a world completely alien to a rational, level-headed and efficient woman who believes in what she sees, not in prayers and superstition.
            Still, Lib must do her duty and her job and as the days pass, Anna and her sweet, resigned disposition grows on Lib, particularly as she sees a marked deterioration in Anna’s physical state:  incongruously, the only confidante to whom she can unburden herself is a young journalist from the Irish Times, sent to cover the story of the ‘fasting girl’.  Drastic action must be taken to stop this poor child dying, but what?  How?  Anna’s parents are no help;  they are overcome with religious fervour – even though their child will die, they will have given birth to a saint, which will open the doors to heaven for themselves in time to come.  How can this young life be saved, and is Lib battle-hardened enough to do it?
            Ms Donoghue is an accomplished novelist;  I loved her 2010 best-seller ‘Room’ (see review below) which has enjoyed equal success as a movie, and once again she presents the reader with a story that grips the imagination while remaining always grounded in irrefutable fact.  FIVE STARS

Room, by Emma Donoghue

     Jack lives in room with Ma.  He sleeps in Wardrobe, plays with Paper Snake and eats food off Table.  He has to be very quiet at night when the beeps sound at Door;  it means that Old Nick will come to Ma.  Jack is supposed to be asleep and not meant to listen to any conversation between Old Nick and Ma but he knows that this man is someone to be afraid of, and that he once hurt Ma’s wrist so badly that it doesn’t work properly anymore.  But!  It is Jack’s 5th birthday today, and Ma has made him a cake, his very first one, just like ‘in the TV’;  yesterday he was only four, but today he is five, and anything can happen.  And does.  So begins Emma Donoghue’s gripping story of a young student kidnapped and held hostage for seven years, the birth of a son to her captor, and their eventual escape from him, all told in Jack’s words.  What a singular feat of great writing, to describe the thoughts of a young child whose only reality is a 12x12ft room;  who has never experienced rain, or hot sun;  who has never heard the sound of a car engine, except ‘in the TV’, who has never spoken to anyone else but his beloved Ma, let alone played with another child.
        Ms Donoghue’s portrayal of Jack’s isolation is profound and very moving – and brilliant, especially as he struggles to understand and make sense of his new-found freedom – as does Ma:  her attempts to reintegrate herself into society and family bring catastrophic results.  This story will stay with me for a long time.  I found (as the blurb on the cover suggested) that I HAD to read it until it was finished, and anything else I read hereafter has a lot of measuring up to do!  This novel has just been selected as one of  the New York Times’  10 best books of the year, and shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize:  rightly so.   FIVE STARS.

The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

    
        Before Mr Nguyen won the 2016 Pulitzer prize for fiction with his brilliant novel ‘The Sympathizer’ (see review below) he wrote short stories over a period of twenty years which have now been published in a single volume called ‘The Refugees’.
            Eight vastly different tales are offered for the reader to savour like courses of the finest gourmet cuisine, but they are all linked irrevocably to the refugee experience, the terror accompanying flight, the limbo of refugee half-way camps, and the upheaval and confusing integration into an alien society.  Not everyone is successful, as in the first story, ‘Black-Eyed Women’, where the exodus from Vietnam was so horrific for one family that the events of that nightmare journey must never be spoken of again – until the ghost of the son who gave his life for his sister turns up at the window of the family apartment.  He is very wet, he informs them, because he ‘had to swim all the way’.
            ‘I’d Love You to Want Me’ deals with an illness we all fear, Dementia:  Professor Khanh, a respected Oceanographer in their old life in Vietnam has recently been diagnosed.  Since their resettlement in the U.S.A., he has been teaching Vietnamese at a local community college, but won’t be able to continue.  His wife Mrs Khanh is much younger than he;  she works part-time in the local library and enjoys the social contact, and resents her eldest son’s suggestion that she should give up her job to take care of her increasingly vague husband.  Matters are made worse when the Professor starts calling her by the wrong name – not once, but increasingly often, and as his mind deteriorates, it is clear that she never has been the main object of his affection and desire.  For theirs was an arranged marriage, and he was so much older than she, so much more life lived.  What to do, what to do?
            ‘If it weren’t for his daughter and his wife, James Carver would never have ventured into Vietnam, a country about which he knew nothing except what it looked like from forty thousand feet’.  For Carver flew B 52’s during the Vietnam war;  the closest he got to it (until now) was Okinawa on leave where he met his Japanese wife Michiko.  ‘The Americans’ packs a huge punch for the reader, as well as James Carver when he learns that his daughter has decided to stay in Vietnam to teach peasant kids how to read, instead of coming back to the States to live the American Dream that he tried so hard to create for her.  She feels more at home in Vietnam, she tells him, provoking utter disbelief from her parents – until she informs them that in America she ALWAYS felt out of place, the child of a Japanese woman – and a black man.  Doesn’t her father know how that feels?  And he does, but would die before admitting how hard it was for him to realise his dreams of becoming a pilot because of his origins and, unlike his daughter, he has never found a place where he feels truly ‘at home’.
            Mr Nguyen has beguiled us yet again with imagery so clean and clear that we are with the protagonists of each story for better or ill;  we all know people like them, for their problems and hopes are universal:  to be content, and to live in peace.  The lifelong dream.  FIVE STARS.

The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

  
          The fall of Saigon:  Ho Chi Minh’s victorious Northern troops are battering the city and the defeated Southern army and their hangers-on are using everything at their disposal to bribe their way to safety with their American allies.  Instrumental in the successful escape of a powerful Southern Vietnamese General and his family is his Aide, a Captain trained by the CIA as an interrogation officer, formidably intelligent and utterly trustworthy, American educated and indispensable in the execution of everything, including those who have earned the General’s displeasure.
            The Captain is young, personable and idealistic:  he is also a spy for the Other Side, feeding the General’s secrets back to his childhood friend Man.  He believes in the Revolution and wants it to succeed;  it’s time Vietnam people lived in freedom and independence, freed from the yolk of French Colonialism and the spurious and self-serving ‘friendship’ of the United States, the biggest Colonialist and Capitalist State of them all.  Man has ordered the Captain to escape with the General, so that the new government of a united Vietnam will have its own intelligence on what the despised refugees in America are up to, and the Captain’s indispensable servility is the perfect cover.
            Mr Nguyen has the Captain narrate his tale and it soon becomes clear that he is writing a confession for shadowy captors;  nevertheless his confession is as suspenseful as a thriller, containing equal parts of tragedy and comedy throughout its length. Characters leap off the page to threaten and beguile the reader, especially the Captain’s other childhood friend Bon:  Man, Bon and the Captain made a pact when they were young boys, swearing eternal friendship and loyalty to each other and sealing the oath with a bloody, scarring handshake. The lengths to which Bon will go to protect and defend his friends are indeed death-defying, not least because he considers his life over anyway.  His wife and little son were shot to death in the escape from Saigon.  He is now just going through the motions.  If he died tomorrow, who cares?  Certainly not him, so with suicidal bonhomie, he volunteers to return to Vietnam to mount a counter-revolution organised by the Captain’s boss. 
            The Captain is horrified.  He cannot let his true friend go back to certain death on the General’s half-crazed orders (and against the express instructions of Man).  He tells the General that he will go too, so that he may rescue his friend from his own death wish, fully expecting the General to excuse them both because of the Captain’s indispensability;  unfortunately, the General has decided otherwise.  The Captain has committed the unpardonable sin of courting Lana, the General’s daughter – ‘if it had been anyone else that would have been fine’, but the Captain’s ancestry is flung in his face:  you are Eurasian, a bastard.  I cannot have my daughter associate with ‘someone of your kind’. The Captain is crushed, once again, by the terrible fact that his beloved mother was seduced as a young girl by a French Catholic priest.  It has mattered little how many academic or military honours he has achieved throughout his life:  his origins will always be shameful.  Returning to Vietnam and almost certain death now seems the only option, made harder by the bitter realisation that the side for whom he spied so zealously regards him as a traitor, and treats him as such.
            Mr Nguyen has been awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for this masterly work, plus a host of other glittering prizes.  It is hard to believe that this is his first novel, for he displays a complete mastery of sentence and imagery that much more established writers would die for.  He makes the reader think again about that terrible, failed Asian war, and its effects still being felt more than forty years later.  SIX STARS!             


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