Book Review: The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 out of 5 stars)

I recommend The Game of Love and Death for readers age 14 and up, though there’s nothing particularly terrifying or overtly sexual, so strong younger readers could give it at try, as should grown-ups who enjoyed YA novels like The Book Thief and Code Name Verity.

The Game that Death and Love play against one another is bigger and older than humans can really understand. It’s manipulative, tragic, and cruel. The players they choose – more like pawns – may change with the decades, but Love and Death stay determined to prove how wrong the other one is. If two players choose each other in the end, they live, and Love gets to flaunt the results of his machinations. If they do not, if fate or mishap or the knowledge that someday even their love will die prevents the choice, Death can claim her player. Yes, the Game is slightly stacked in Death’s favor, because she’ll get everyone in the end.

Between Henry and Flora, though, it seems like Love might have a shot at victory. The two young people come from very different backgrounds in late 1930s Seattle. Henry is Love’s player. He grows up with his best friend Ethan Thorne’s wealthy family, playing baseball at school; working hard for a scholarship; and playing the stand-up base in any free moment. Henry helps Ethan (who is probably dyslexic) with writing and reading, especially when they’re out on assignment for Mr. Thorne’s big newspaper.

It’s on such an assignment that Henry meets Flora, the girl chosen by Death. Flora is a pilot who works at the airfield and is determined to win a big aviation race someday. To support herself in the meantime, she sings at the jazz nightclub owned by her uncle and herself. Like Henry, she’s an orphan with more than her fair share of bad luck. Unlike Henry, she’s Black. Flora has known that someday everything she’s worked for, everyone she loves, will crumble and die. She’s known this ever since Death whispered it into her ear while she slept as a baby.

Love and Death can take on alluring guises to interfere in the lives of their players. Love tries to clear their path to each other from any obstacles. Death makes herself a glamorous distraction that’s hard to ignore. The two entities – are they gods? forces of nature? meddlesome angels? – can sew seeds of trust and doubt in humans’ minds. They can turn accidents to their advantages and twist other peoples’ natures to affect Henry and Flora’s lives. But in the end, the two young heroes have to make the choice themselves: when their dreams and futures hang in the balance, will they choose the risk of each other over the security of staying apart?

Much of this book was completely spot on; I read most of it in a solid afternoon and worried about Henry and Flora while I cooked dinner, so I can assuredly declare it an enthralling novel. The time period and setting were enough to get me hooked. The 1930s contain the best of modern and old fashioned adventures: fast cars and Hoovervilles. Prep school woes and the “golden age of aviation.” Ethan Thorne’s father, in particular, expends a lot of concern over all the splashy publicity the Eastern states are getting with their high-speed charge into exciting times, and indeed that’s where most stories I know take place. Reading about the North West’s atmosphere at the time was a fun change.

Of course, certain social issues are magnified by the time period as well. Racism, homophobia, and poverty play a big role in Henry and Flora’s experiences. While Henry’s instant attraction to Flora brings about sneers and remonstrations, Flora’s involvement with a white boy puts her at a greater risk. Violence against Black citizens, vandalism against businesses like her club The Domino, and enforced segregation are everyday problems for Flora. When Henry says, “I’ll go anywhere with you,” she points out that he can go anywhere, while she’s constrained by the prejudices of society and barred from so many situations that he takes for granted.

“Exactly… That’s part of the problem.  You’ll go anywhere.  The world is yours.” (p 236)

Love and Death are equally amoral opposing forces.  Death’s methods may come off as distinctly crueler, but that’s just because she’s had ages to perfect the art of taking lives.  Love’s manipulations can be just as devastating, though his talents lie more in seduction than extermination.  The two entities really do become characters throughout the course of The Game, rather than mere physical embodiments of what we already imagine. Death behaves abominably when she disguises herself as a member of the Thorne household, but we catch glimpses of her gentle loneliness when she collects souls with a touch of sympathy instead of her usual hunger. Love uses his powers to deceive people, but he also truly tries to nurture honesty and self-acceptance in someone who needs understanding.  They keep each other relevant – the need each other to retain their individual meaning – so the interactions between them, though occasionally heavy-handed, illustrate how Love and Death can be inevitable, immortal, and yet keenly personal all the while.  The Game they play only sounds heartless when seen through a mortal lens. Alas that their two chosen mortals are so endearing!  I could have watched the competition like a cool spectator if the players hadn’t stolen my heart.

And it’s the mortal details which make the book so fun to read, even amongst big and little tragedies.  Drives in the darkness, rain on a baseball field, the hidden stitches in a grandmother’s quilt: Martha Brockenbrough writes as though she has personally walked alongside her characters and seen every nook and cranny of their lives.  The way Flora loves her jazz club comes through in a description of how it seems full of people at night, compared to the peeling paint and theatrical facades that are exposed in the light of day.  I could feel Henry’s misery at the newspaper’s print room, Ethan’s nerves and excitement when visiting the ramshackle shanty town in secret, even the rain in the air when Flora and Henry had to huddle together under one umbrella.  As much as Love and Death try to direct the characters’ lives, the setting and time period give them an ideal stage.  The writing style here isn’t ornate or even particularly beautiful, but it captures the scenes exactly and lets each human character come to life.

My one gripe is that the climax and resolution of The Game veer away from these wonderful concrete details and soar off too high without ballast.  For the majority of the story, Love and Death are able to enact the metaphysical aspects of their competition within realistic limitations.  Flora and Henry aren’t told that they’re pawns, just as so many other lovers over the centuries thought they were acting of their own accord.  When, in the book’s final quarter, the parameters of the Game start to blur for each player, I felt myself slipping away from total immersion and pausing to think critically about a sudden onslaught of emotionally charged reactions.  What had been, to me, an excellent historical YA novel with some elements of fantasy and romance, took a steep turn when the magical interference appeared more obviously from behind the scenes.  It’s certainly compelling to watch feelings of love and the fear of death clash, but I wish that the eventual showdown could have been described in such visionary precision as the first 3/4 of the novel.

That one dip in the story’s trajectory aside, I really liked The Game of Love and Death.  The playing of The Game itself isn’t nearly so important as the honest and complicated tangles in Flora’s and Henry’s lives, and the strength they each show in trying to help each other through every calamity.  There are times when I couldn’t blame one or the other for thinking that they might be best apart, but that didn’t stop me from insisting (quite vocally) that they try to struggle on side-by-side despite the odds.  This was not one of those love stories in which one person completes the other: they are very much secure in their own identities, thank goodness.  Instead, it’s a bittersweet illustration of how death, and love, and fate, and chance are a part of everyone’s lives. No matter what steps we may take to try and out-run them, it might not hurt to let someone stick with you along the way.

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Brilliant settings, rather upsetting: Welcome To Braggsville and The Gamal

March is funny (and not only because it bloody snowed this week, upon the first day of spring, hardy har har what a laugh.)  I spent the entire first week of the month getting through a single book, Welcome To Braggsville, which I liked immensely but couldn’t rush.  Then I devoured five books in the following two weeks, reviewing exactly none of them. After reading The Gamal on St Patrick’s Day, I noticed a trend: both Braggsville and The Gamal were absorbing, transporting, and upsetting as hell.

My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Why am I gravitating towards stories that make me nervous and miserable for the major characters?  Why all these books in which life and justice behave unfairly towards our modern heroes?  Truly, there was very little heroism to be found in either book; just people doing what they think is best, only to find out that it’s not enough.

The appeal lies in these novels’ settings – how vividly both T. Geronimo Johnson and Ciarán Collins evoked environments they knew, made fictional settings real for those of us who have never seen the likes.

I could feel the nerves and excitement D’aron experienced when first moving to UCal Berkeley after growing up in a small-orbit Southern town, even though I’ve never been to San Francisco or Georgia.  Each time I picked up Welcome To Braggsville, it would take all of four seconds for me to feel the warm California sun or sticky Southern heat again.  I now have such a clear picture of “Bezerkeley’s” wacky ambiance; it’s dorm rooms; the oddities of campus life, it’s like I was in D’Aron’s freshman classes.  And I know I wouldn’t do well in those classes at all. Braggsville – D’Aron’s hometown – also felt realer than real.  Despite Johnson’s gift for exaggeration, the made-up place lived and breathed and shot and swore.  I don’t understand the South, though I’ve read literature that loves it; mocks it; romanticizes it; despises it.  I do understand a community’s weird love for re-enactments – being from Old North Bridge Land – but like D’Aron’s classmates I’m a little scandalized by the notion of an entire town re-creating Civil War times as good old days.

The town and the folk that Johnson conjures half-feel like something down the rabbit hole, half like my own tiny hometown. (Maybe anyone’s home if there’s not enough privacy and a little too much pride.) Identifying with various characters’ perspectives of the place was easy. While most of the messed-up proceedings are told from D’Arons point of view – exposing his frayed nerves as he stumbles while juggling loyalty and righteous indignation – his three friends’ perspective of Braggsville are more akin to what I would surely experience.  Through Louis’s eyes I saw how funny the place could be; through Candice’s, how inhumanely human; and, perhaps most importantly, through Charlie’s eyes I caught a glimpse of how difficult it must be to navigate an environment that sometimes glorifies a heritage of hatred. People expected Charlie to be patient and good-natured about the conspicuous racism inherent in the white parts of Braggsville, and his perspective on the place was often the most telling, though he was more economical with words than his friends.  Four ways of seeing D’Aron’s part of the South, all contributing to the picture of it in my head.

When I finished Welcome To Braggsville – and it took a while because reading it stressed me out – I almost wanted to go back there and fix things for the characters myself. Lou Davis’s Cash-n-Carry Bait Shop and Copy Center, the Gully, the coroner’s office all felt like places that would go on existing after the book was closed. I wish and doubt that things around Braggsville would change a little after D’Aron and his remaining friends left.

And don’t even get me started on the town of Ballyronan in The Gamal. I spent all of Thursday and Friday feeling as though I had just stepped off the plane from Ireland. It wasn’t necessarily a fun mental trip, though there’s a bit of laughter sprinkled throughout Charlie’s tale. Most of the mirth is of the laughing-at variety, rather than laughing-with. Trying to emerge from The Gamal was a challenge, and I still feel rain-soaked, with Charlie’s cut-to-the-bone manner of speech rambling through my head at odd times.

Where the narrative voices in Welcome To Braggsville shift from time to time, The Gamal is told entirely in the first person. Even the court transcripts are peppered throughout with opinions and corrections from our narrator’s uncanny memory. Charlie is begrudgingly writing a book at the bequest of his psychologist, who thinks it will help the young man to come to terms with some upsetting events in his past. On the very first page, he writes: “Don’t be expecting any big flowery longwinded poetic picturesque horseshit passages in this book explaining the look of something…. This is for people like myself who hate reading.” That being said, the town quickly grows into something so real I could probably map it.

“The Gamal” is sort of the village fool, the weirdo kid, though in reality Charlie’s more perspective than the people around him suspect. When James and Siobhan – also outsiders in their own ways – make friends with Charlie in school, their passions for music and dreamy approach to life transform his surroundings into a place where love and hope can flourish. As the two of them fall in love with each other, Charlie sort of falls in love with the bond between them all (and with Siobhan a little, too, because everyone falls in love with her. I’m in love, and you will be too when you read the book). When they cut through the woods or walk down the street; when they write songs in James’s library; when they hang around the football pitch and ignore shouts of abuse, I walked with them. I watched James trounce the other boys, and winced at his father’s unbridled joy, because in Ballyronan you don’t celebrate your son amongst the other fathers. When they stay long after the pub closed, playing the old piano until they fall asleep, my heart hurt because I knew how these perfect scenes would eventually be ruined by jealousy.

The people of Ballyronan aren’t so bad, most of them, but (as I’d already been reminded by the folks of Braggsville) a sleepy town gets comfortable with the way things have always been. Tradition; boundaries; the same faces telling the same jokes at the pub every night, that’s how some people know they’re at home. So a whole community can turn against the sorts of young people who might want to wake the surroundings a bit, through art or protest, which are basically the same thing. The strange and shining light cast by James and Siobhan illuminates every description, turning grey drizzle and bleak schoolyards into scenes that deserve “poetic picturesque horseshit passages” explaining how they look. Charlie can see this, when he’s not “acting the Gamal.” I loved seeing that corner of County Cork through Charlie’s memories, which just made it harder to read about the aftermath of two tragedies that change everything.

Just as I fell automatically into the jumbled patter of Charlie’s voice, the gravity in Ballyronan seemed stronger than that which glued me to my cafe chair. The sprinklings of Irish language and easy attention to dialect made the American accents around me disorienting while I read – it took a whole day to get my bearings in this part of the world again. That’s what I mean by transporting.

But don’t forget: upsetting as hell. The relative youth of these characters – D’Aron, Louis, Candice, Charlie, [Irish] Charlie, Siobhan, James – didn’t protect them from the horrors of unfairness. Their shining ideas, clever hypotheticals, and best efforts weren’t enough to make their dreams come true. I think I got so upset, so wrapped up and nervous, for these characters because I am one of them. I’m a confused twenty-something who would right wrongs or write songs or try to change things if I knew how, but like them all, I’m stumbling half-blindly through the big world. I’ve yet to learn the extent to which people will cling to tradition over sympathy or reason, or how easily betrayals can form in a friend’s mind. It hurt to see misfortune inflicted upon characters I would befriend in another life, and the utter lack of justice those characters faced didn’t exactly inspire faith in how things are run in the world. But these books do inspire sympathy, and small hope, and the unhappy questions that need to be asked.

In Braggsvile and Ballyronan, things fictionally continue much as they always have. The news crews get bored soon enough across from D’Aron’s house and around the pub where Siobhan worked. The big tragedies which shake the narrators to their cores might stir up some dust in daily life for as long as news and novelty last, but the landscape remains unruffled.   The people who grew up and took root in those towns cling to the biases that make them feel like part of the safe crowd, the exclusions that won’t let anyone change what has worked for so long. T. Geronimo Johnson and Ciarán Collins write about places built upon foundations of love and distrust; real-feeling stages for events I wish weren’t so believable. I was transported thoroughly while reading Welcome To Braggsville and The Gamal this month, but I couldn’t live in those books forever. My heart would give out from either the stress or the despair.

Book Review: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

This memoir-in-verse is an absolute gem.  The whole time I read it, I wished I were a middle school English teacher so that I could assign it and then talk about it for a month.  But, since I haven’t the patience to be a teacher (nor even the time to write a really long review), here’s a few thoughts instead.

Star Ratings for Nonfiction

Writing: *****  (5 stars)

Narrative: **** (4 stars)

Interesting Subject: ***** (5 stars)

Objectivity and research: **** (4 stars.  This is a memoir.)

Overall: **** 1/2 (4 1/2 stars)

Age Range Recommendation: 10 and up

The general subject of Brown Girl Dreaming is a simple one.  Jacqueline Woodson (award-winning author of Feathers and many other good books) remembers her earliest childhood days, growing up in both the North and South in the ’60s and ’70s.  Starting with her birth to the Woodsons in Ohio, she chronicles the separation of her parents, a big move down to her mother’s old home in South Carolina, summers with her grandparents, and then the beginnings of a life in New York City.  Five parts of the book categorize these phases in Woodson’s memory, and the pieces of her childhood are remembered through easy-flowing poems, each only a page or two long.  

Aunts, uncles, neighbors, and family friends filter in and out of the cast of characters, while Jacqueline writes about her mother, grandparents, and siblings in evocative detail.  Sometimes when you read a great work of fiction, you start to feel like the imaginary characters were once real people.  In Brown Girl Dreaming, these very real people have such memorable personalities I had to remind myself that they weren’t just made up to suit the story.  

 It’s obvious that Jacqueline had a keen observant eye even before she could read.  Re-told conversations and scenes between grown-ups give the reader an idea of what it was like to grow up during a big push in the civil rights movement, even when most of the action happened on the periphery of the Woodson siblings’ younger lives.  Little moments in the South, where passive-aggressive hostilities still ran rampant even after segregation was technically supposed to be over, made me grit my teeth in frustration, while the hopeful forward-movement inspired by Jacqueline’s mother and her friends buoyed my spirits.  There’s a great image of Jacqueline and her friend walking around NYC with their fists in the air like Angela Davis, and also a wonderfully moving poem which compares the revolution to a carousel: history always being made somewhere, while different people have a part in it. 

But, this being a memoir about her own experiences, the political atmosphere is enveloped by a narrative about growing up.  Jacqueline grows to find her voice, to discover a love of words, and to see how her family’s every-day lives can be the stuff of wonderful stories.  She’s not just a Brown Girl Dreaming, she’s a brown girl learning, speaking, changing, and – most importantly – writing.  And all that scribbling in notebooks has definitely payed off; the simplicity of these poems doesn’t diminish the strength of their message.  In fact, each word seems carefully chosen to reflect the temperament of her thoughts at the time.  It’s rare to read a memoir in which the grown-up writer can conjure up visions of her childhood without a tint of romanticism or regret.  I feel like I got a chance to meet the real child Jacqueline Woodson once was, and to hear her voice as though she was speaking just to me.  For this reason, even though there wasn’t a hugely dramatic plot, I found the entire story enchanting.

While the time-period was tumultuous, and the Woodson siblings had to keep picking up their lives as they moved, this is not a melodramatic story.  The poems are written with an earnest, child-like simplicity that captures the tone of happy summer evenings and anxious walks to school.  There are funny memories, and profound moments, and a general warmth of spirit throughout the whole book.  I loved little Jackie. I loved her family, because it was impossible not to feel how much she loved them, too.  Memory is a tricky thing, and that’s a big theme throughout Brown Girl Dreaming: the logical conclusions we draw as children don’t always hold up against reality.  I can only imagine how much digging Woodson must have had to do –through her own recollections, as well as the history of her families and the places where she once lived – in order to distill this sincere memoir from her past.  I’m very grateful that she gave it so much thought, because the resulting book was an absolute pleasure to read.

I will be recommending Brown Girl Dreaming to pretty much every child/parent/teacher who enters my store.  It’s thoughtful, it’s funny, and it’s easy to relate to Jacqueline even though she grew up in a much different time than this one.  Anyone who has ever called more than one place home; who has worried about their parents; competed with their siblings; and tried to figure out how they fit into their world, will see something of themselves in these poems.  I have too many favorite poems to list, all dog-eared in my book. (I try never to wrinkle the pages but too bad!  These pages need to be remembered.)  Once the book officially hits shelves on August 28, I’ll probably be reading certain pieces at unsuspecting customers.  And as long as my terrible elocution doesn’t drive them away, I think this book will be a hit.  There’s lots to talk about in it, and even more to enjoy.

Book Review: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

source: goodreads

I often wonder if I’m in danger of becoming a fairy-tale villain. I don’t like little children. I’m greedy, I’m selfish, and I occasionally think about cursing people into small amphibians or enchanted sleeps. Like Boy, the main character in Helen Oyeyemi’s new novel, I spend an awful lot of my time looking in mirrors. It was fascinating to watch Boy’s progression from abused daughter to possibly evil stepmother, especially since it’s easy to see how we might follow the same path if we were in her place.

It’s 1953 and Boy Novak has run away from her abusive father, the rat catcher, in New York City.  She chooses to make her home in a Massachusetts town peopled by skilled craftsmen despite her lack of any artistic occupation. The magazine quizzes tell Boy that she might be frigid, and there are times when mirrors seem to enchant her while she sees truer reflections of herself walking across the street, invisible to everyone else. It takes Boy a little while to get her bearings, though she’d never admit this to the characters who try to befriend her, but eventually she puts a past love behind her and marries a teacher-turned-jeweler; a widower with a stunning little daughter whom Boy can never quite figure out. “[Snow] was poised and sympathetic, like a girl who’d just come from the future but didn’t want to brag about it.” (p 71) Just as Boy starts to grow comfortable in Flax Hill with Arturo’s family the Whitmans (that’s right: Snow Whitman and her stepmother…) she gives birth to a little girl of her own. Snow is the one to suggest the name Bird, and Bird grows into an inquisitive and lively young teenager who does the name justice. Bird also comes out brown skinned, which exposes the Whitmans as having Black ancestry in the not so distant genetic past. They might live in a fairly accepting Northern town, but this is still 1950s America, so everyone is pretty shocked when Boy chooses to send Snow away to stay with Arturo’s estranged sister and her more obviously  Black husband instead of Bird. Thus begins Boy’s transformation into something of an evil stepmother, something of a protective mother despite the cultural obstacles, and something of a confused fairy tale heroine in her own right. As family secrets get tangled into legend or pulled out into the open, a realistic portrayal of self preservation versus difficult truths mixes with the stuff of bedtime stories to create a touching and clever novel which enthralled me completely.

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of re-told fairy tales. I like stories which are fairly obvious in their parallels and I also like mostly-original novels which follow an understated pattern of fairy tale logic and contain hidden references along the way. Oyeyemi has borrowed the fairest-of-them-all conflict, the child-sent-away plot catalyst, and the magical qualities of names for her novel. She has sprinkled her tale of new beginnings and re-shaped families with references to “Snow White,” most obviously, but also a whole library of other myths and legends.

That being said, Boy, Snow, Bird is not really a fantasy novel. I mean, there are no dwarves and no magic apples, but there’s also no concrete suggestion that all this talk about curses or fate might be truly serious. Maybe the fact that all three title characters don’t show up in mirrors, sometimes, should be read as pure metaphor. Maybe Boy Novak runs away from her vicious father with the grim profession to a secluded town just because the time is right, and not because she’s following the well-trodden path of all those girls who struck out, cursed, for unknown lands in the storied traditions before her. Maybe Bird can’t really talk to spiders. Maybe the mystical powers girls like Snow and Sidonie hold over boys – regardless of race in such a racially aware time – comes from something within them that isn’t so much magical as genetic or psychological. Who knows? All I know is that Helen Oyeyemi did a marvelous job integrating some of my favorite themes and traditions into her writing. Every few pages, I have passages underlined in pencil or sticky notes pointing out of my copy of the book, marking my favorite references both obvious and minute. I bet there are plenty I’ve missed, too. There were connections with the German and English tales we’re all quite used to, but also some references to the Black American legends of John the Conqueror and the more Romantic poem Goblin Market; mixed allusions are hidden all over the place and I wanted to high-five Oyeyemi from afar every time I noticed one of my favorite obscure little legends.

Aside from the layer of magical motifs which embellished Boy, Snow, Bird, there were several other aspects which rather enchanted me. Yes, the characters were memorable – though I thought that the male characters were distinctly less developed than the vivid female ones – and the setting made a nice stage for the volatile time period in which the story takes place. (It was pretty odd to read about a fictional New England town which was meant to be less than an hour away from mine. Every time the characters went to Worcester I couldn’t help but picture the streets and restaurants I’ve personally encountered.) But it was the way that certain characters interacted with each other and learned to distrust their first, second, third impressions which really caught my attention. When Bird gets work as a coat check girl on a party cruise simply because she’s got blonde hair – the 1950s were absurd – and strikes up a friendship with Mia, who masquerades as a blonde to write an article about the whole shindig, there’s a bit of foreshadowing there for the bigger disguises which will reveal themselves in time.  All clever plotting aside, it was entertaining to watch their friendship develop, and to see how Mia’s doggedly inquisitive personality rubbed against Boy’s challenging one. The bookshop owner who later employs Boy is an ornery old English lady who turns out to be full of little surprises, not the least of which being her patience and understanding to the three precocious young black children who spend their afternoons reading at the shop instead of going to school.  Since Boy, Snow, Bird is a novel which focuses on race, I was glad to see these kids through the eyes of a lady who has absolutely no time for racist nonsense. Think Aunt Eleanor from Inkheart, dispensing thoughtful advice about theoretical curses rather than facing down real magical villains. The supporting cast of ladies, including those who had ugly pieces of their souls hidden away, were as carefully characterized as they were diverse. I didn’t really mind the fact that Boy’s husband and the other menfolk weren’t so interesting. They just seemed more realistic, less complex, a little drab; and maybe that’s part of what made the book seem to follow Anderson’s and the Grimms’ formulas. The honest woodcutters (or jeweler, in this case) and the kingly fathers rarely have any clue what’s going on under their noble, hardworking noses. It’s the women and children who notice the threats in nature and in their own reflections.

My favorite interaction to witness was probably the correspondence between the nearly grown up Snow and her half-sister Bird in the middle section of the book, which was told from Bird’s perspective. We get such a romanticized picture of Snow from Boy’s chapters – not always in a good way – that it’s hard to see her as a real person for the first half of the narrative. But she finally gets to have a bit of her own voice in the letters she exchanges with Bird, who doesn’t have any set opinion of this beautiful but incomprehensible girl just yet. “I don’t think Mother Nature likes us much,” Snow writes to her sister once they finally make contact. “If she did, she wouldn’t make the things that are deadliest so beautiful.” (p 230) It’s observations like that one which turn Snow into more than just a beautiful concept against which other characters can hurl their dreams and prejudices and insecurities. For all that Boy finds herself at internal odds with her stepdaughter once her own daughter is born, this is an observation which sounds like it could have come straight out of Boy’s head.

The conflicted stepmother and the fairest of them all aren’t so different, and in the end I read every one of their own encounters with my breath held a little, waiting to see if there would be violence, or tears, or retribution, or forgiveness. This book isn’t a fairy tale, it just shows us a picture of diverse life half a century ago through the window of the folklore we recognize, so no one falls asleep after eating a poisoned apple. The forgiveness and acceptance we seek while reading Boy, Snow, Bird does come to pass in the end, up to a point. But it’s a fraught road to get there, and you can’t be quite certain that things won’t soon tumble back into the deceptive, treacherous world of hidden identities and quiet manipulations. I’m choosing to hope that there might be a happy ending for Boy, Snow, and Bird, though, because I grew attached to all three of them. Even if true happiness isn’t an option, I closed the book wishing that they might survive whatever harrowing journey through the woods they three had embarked upon together.

Star Ratings

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing : ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars)

Book Review: The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates

 

 

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: *** 1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

 

This is the sort of big, clever, historical, dry book I really like. But, as a fairly obvious warning: it’s big, clever, historical, and dry. It won’t be the sort of book everyone likes. I feel compelled to admit that it took me nearly a week to finish The Accursed, and that’s a long time for me. The writing was complicated, the plot took enormous detours, and the “historian” narrator sometimes talked himself in circles. As it’s the depths of winter, and I have a comfortable reading chair, I can totally get into sprawling stories with an endless parade of characters. The setting and drama – and there’s drama a’plenty – captured my attention even if the novel’s pace was sometimes a slog. I happily kept reading through the superfluous chapters about socialism and the transcribed Christian sermons because I was determined to see what befell the characters. I’m also not bothered by academic prose. Many people ain’t got time for that shit. And that’s ok, but this will not be the best choice for those readers.  I’m giving the book 3 1/2 stars rather than 4 because I don’t know tons of folks to whom I would recommend this book, no matter how much I enjoyed it.

The Accursed is the history of mystifying, diabolical events plaguing the well-to-do families of Princeton in the early 1900s. Real figures like Woodrow Wilson, Upton Sinclair, and Jack London play major roles in the affluent setting, though the fictional Slade family is at the curse’s center. The book contains extensive footnotes; chapters told in letters; diary entries; and an ever-changing cycle of points of view. We read about the story’s strange events, horrors which are inexplicable to so many people, through an ever-changing kaleidoscope of perspectives. I assumed that I knew who the main character would be in the first chapter, and got attached to the fellow, only to change my mind completely in the next chapter. And again, and again, the focus shifted. In situations like this, it gets hard to decide who is right, who is wrong, who is hallucinating, and who sees the truth. When unexplainable phenomena – and is it really phenomena, at that? – strikes a group of people set staunchly in their respective ways, everyone sees his or herself as a hero and a saint. The devil wanders in and out of The Accursed in several guises, and eventually it becomes hard to tell whether evil forces or human nature are to blame for so much humiliation, ignorance, passion, and misery.

It would take me ages to try and formulate a concise summary of the 688 page saga’s plot. A lot of stuff happens in Oates’s book. A stranger comes to town. Young women behave in ways their families could never have imagined. Political and social unrest presses in on Princeton, in the form of lynchings nearby and the rise of the working man around the country. The rich are fearful, the rich are scandalized, the rich write in their diaries about who won’t be invited to tea again anytime soon. There’s a nightmarish bog-kingdom where a supernatural villain imprisons his transfixed wives. There’s a big to-do about campus politics. A girl’s school is attacked by invisible snakes. Sometimes 1906 Princeton seems just as exotic as Bermuda and Antarctica, where certain characters escape from the claustrophobic social scene even though they cannot escape the curse’s reach. Mark Twain annoys the heck out of Woodrow Wilson in Bermuda, and that made me very happy. (Team Twain!) Men murder their wives, women think about poisoning their friends, Jack London is a jerk when he’s drunk, people travel in their dreams. The pages are many and the plot goes all over the place.

It gets harder to figure out where Hell has a hand in the novel’s events as the novel progresses, and, interestingly, the narrator himself isn’t too sure. The child of some minor characters in The Accursed, our narrator has set out to chronicle the events with an eye for including all the facts. All. The. Facts. Some readers will get really annoyed about this, because there are many details which could have been overlooked without altering the plot one bit. While constructing an in-depth study of a certain time and place – and the social complexities therein – Joyce Carol Oates may have been a little self-indulgent with the editing process. But I honestly had fun with this book. I liked the witty banter just as much as I liked the horrifying visions. I learned new things: before reading The Accursed I couldn’t have constructed two sentences about Upton Sinclair or Woodrow Wilson. Now I want to go find out what sort of people they really were. I also appreciated how the inherent racism and sexism of the time period was brought to light, without pardoning the characters for their ignorance. Some younger characters learn to be more thoughtful about their fellow man as their world changes around them, and some otherwise likable men and women tout hideous opinions which should make any reader today cringe. Oates neither excuses nor condemns the accepted judgements of the early 20th century. She just subtly reminds us how dangerous it is to think that certain races, genders, and classes deserve their misfortune. Because misfortune happens to everyone in this story, and it’s impossible to say if anyone deserves the fates they suffer.

I have recommended The Accursed to a friend who loved Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, because the style and subject are similar. Both books are heavy with historical details and vivid characters. They each take a fascinating time period and introduce supernatural elements to the scene, thus exposing the ridiculous qualities of real life, which may as well be fantasy for all the sense it makes. I liked Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell quite a bit more than I liked The Accursed, because I thought the supernatural elements were more cohesive and the plot was much cleaner. (You can read an old review of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell here, which I wrote with my best book-friend.) That being said, fans of American history and literature might well prefer The Accursed. There were themes and structures of folklore in each book, each rooted firmly in the country of its origin. The nightmare world in The Accursed followed some grisly fairy-tale patterns which reminded me of Clarke’s haunting fairy lands. I can’t really compare The Accursed to other examples of Joyce Carol Oates’s writing, because it is so different from the few books I’ve read (like the YA novel I read over the summer). The writing here is so invested in the historical and biographical tone I almost forgot that such a curse never really existed. I’ll take that as a very good thing indeed, because if I’m drawn into a world so deeply I lose myself in it, then the book must be doing something right. Not all of you will like The Accursed, and it may not always be the right time to delve into such a behemoth, but if you’ve got time to kill and a mind for some complex drama, give it a try. At the end, you’ll be able to return to the real world more easily than some of the doomed characters you meet along the way.