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.

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Book Review: What Is Left The Daughter by Howard Norman

Another realistic, grown-up book set on the Atlantic coast? I guess it was that kind of weekWhat Is Left The Daughter is the final book I read while on vacation.  It was a lovely, bittersweet conclusion to several days of reading and writing by the crashing waves.

Reading on the rocks at Schoodic Point.

Reading on the rocks at Schoodic Point.

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot **** (4 stars)

Writing **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 +

Both of Wyatt’s parents died on the same day, when he was seventeen years old.  His mother and his father jumped off of separate bridges in Halifax, unbeknownst to one another, because they were each having an affair with the same woman.  How’s that for the beginning of a fellow’s adult life?  Odder, still: Wyatt’s story only gets more tragic and tangled from there. His parents’ demise takes up barely one chapter, setting up for twenty one years of bittersweetness and unexpected calamity. He look back on it all so calmly, though – so open to irony and wry observances – that the book is nicely devoid of too much self-pity.  The writing is candid, not maudlin.  And whenever Wyatt’s remembered experiences reflect too much pent-up tension, a funny conversation or absurd circumstance reminds us not to take things too seriously.  

This novel is framed as a long letter to his daughter, looking back through the decades to when the action began.  After his parents die, Wyatt moves to live with his Aunt and Uncle in a smaller Nova Scotia town called Middle Economy.  With no particular plans for the future, he agrees to become an apprentice to his Uncle Donald’s trade making sleds and toboggans.  Donald and Constance are raising an adopted daughter, Tilda, who quickly captivates Wyatt’s attention with her “ravishing” beauty and lively charms.  Tilda a strange, likable girl: she wants to be a professional mourner and reads all the obituaries, but she’s also fashionable and charming.  In scenes when other characters stumble through awkward social situations, Tilda shines with conscious good humor.  

Life in 1940s Middle Economy has a gentle rhythm into which Wyatt falls easily enough.  He keeps his love for Tilda secret (she sees him as a cousin despite the lack of shared blood).  He tries hard to please his kind aunt and impress his uncle.  But World War II rages on, bringing a reality of violence to Canadian shores in the form of U-boats, deaths overseas, and a constant threat of spies.  Uncle Donald and others start to fixate on the dangers of German weapons sinking their boats and endangering their waters.

So when a German philology student comes to town and gets close with Tilda, the rhythm of Middle Economy is thrown out of balance. Hans Mohring is no Nazi – he and his family moved away when Germany started to spin out of control – but his accent and his attentions rile up some citizens of Middle Economy.  Uncle Donald shatters all his own beloved Beethoven records in a moment of suspicious anger, to make a point. (Music and trust run in the same metaphors throughout What Is Left The Daughter, illuminating certain characters’ deeper conflicts.)  Some army boys rough up the friendly owner of a Halifax music shop because Hans was teaching him a little German language.  Tilda and Hans eventually move above the local bakery – owned by a delightful local lady who takes no nonsense from any townsfolk – and plan a hurried wedding.  Throughout all this, Wyatt hovers somewhere between friendship and an aching jealousy which bursts out at unfortunate moments.  What was once a peaceful seaside town soon fills with pockets of unease.

And then a boat is sunk.  And then a murder.  And then a split-second decision which will change everything for Wyatt, his family, and the town.  There’s an image which I saw so clearly, I felt like I was standing in the house myself: Tilda sitting at the kitchen table while the song playing skips on the gramophone.  The needle keeps jumping over a bullet hole.  The gun in Tilda’s hand, pointed at her head, is at contrast with her measured voice.  It’s a moment of still clarity in the midst of panic.  It’s the calm before a slow storm of tragedy.  

Things can never go back to the way they were, and the next twenty one years bring Wyatt through changes of circumstance which, eventually, guide him back to his childhood home, where he writes to his daughter.  The second half of the book isn’t quite so vivid and moving as the chapters in Middle Economy, but they’re realistic and still an interesting picture of one man’s altered life in such a charged time period.  Characters resign themselves to unhappiness for a while, then have to look for comfort when it gets too hard.  There are so many heavy hearts in this book and they all need someone to bear the weight now and then, even when injured pride and the messy past would recommend solitude instead.  The war ends, time passes, but Wyatt still has to live with the consequences of his actions.  His letter to Marlais reveals the circumstances of her birth and the nature of her parents’ relationship.  It shows that sometimes fairness means someone has to suffer.

I loved the setting of What Is Left The Daughter, because Nova Scotia is one of my favorite places in the world.  (My last reviewed book, Lobster Kings, also takes place near there.)  I have to admit that I’ve never learned or thought much about Canada during World War II, but the setting and time period were easy to picture and a great stage for this character-driven story.  Little details really made daily life in Middle Economy seem real: the bakery’s cranberry scones, or a crow trapped in the library.  Even Wyatt’s job as a gaffer after he leaves town, years later, inspired little anecdotes which made me interested in a job which had never demanded my interest before.  I definitely preferred the first 2/3 of this novel to the final section, because the pacing was a little better and the characters more captivating, but by the end I thought the story felt nicely rounded out.  

I would recommend What Is Left The Daughter to readers of historical fiction who don’t need everything to be a history lesson, people who like Evelyn Waugh’s more serious novels.  Fans of stories about sad families in small towns, seen through a lens of beauty rather than grit – books like The Strange And Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender – will like the writing in this book.  The plot’s wayward journey will eventually fade like a childhood memory, but little moments between the characters, a line here or a false impression there, will make a lasting impression.

 

Book Review: The Lobster Kings by Alexi Zentner

Star Ratings:

Characters: *****  (5 stars)

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

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 16+ (language, violence including sexual violence)

I’m mostly on vacation right now, but I couldn’t wait to review this book. (I say “mostly” because I drove back from Acadia National Park to work at the bookshop for two days, but I’m headed right back to the crashing waves and pine forests tonight.)  I actually bought The Lobster Kings at Sherman’ bookshop, intending to read it on some windswept rock.  That would have been terribly atmospheric and very fitting to the novel’s remote island setting.  But Zentner’s writing was just too good, and the setting was too wonderful, so I failed to put the book on hold when I came home.  I read The Lobster Kings in two days, mentally transported to Loosewood Island the entire time.  Even if I’d been reading on a crowded subway car, I would have felt the salt spray and heard thunderstorms somewhere in the distance.

The Lobster Kings is set somewhere between Maine and Nova Scotia, on an island which falls through the cracks of jurisdiction and remains very much its own world.  Cordelia Kings is a lobster boat captain, like her daddy, and all the Kings back to Brumfitt Kings.  Brumfitt was a painter who turned the island into a home way back in the 18th century, and the inspiration behind his mythical works can be seen near every nook and cranny of Loosewood Island.  His stories and images haunt Cordelia’s family, too.  The Kings’ pasts and futures seem bound up in the legends he created: they are blessed with the sea’s bounty, but that blessing comes with a curse as well.  Or so Cordelia’s Daddy says.  Given her family’s history on the island — their immense successes and devastating tragedies — it’s not hard to see why she might believe the stories herself, sometimes.

You might be able to tell from the narrator’s first name that The Lobster Kings is inspired by Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear. (Sort of in a similar way to Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, but I liked The Lobster Kings a whole lot more.)  It’s not a complete re-telling of the play, but the parallels are obvious, giving the story some sense of inevitability and poetic justice; even irony when some twists take an unexpected course.  At one point Cordelia does read the play in high school, and she realizes that her namesake doesn’t have a very happy ending.  Aside from the big themes: three very different sisters; the powerful father; the contested borders; and the howling storms, little allusions to the play create a nice treasure-hunt for Shakespeare fans.  (The meth-dealing jerk Eddie Gloucester, for example, isn’t nearly so eloquent as his wicked Elizabethan counterpart.  There’s also a line about eyes and jelly which winked at the reader…no ocular pun intended.)  

It’s not necessary to have read or seen King Lear, though, and when a parallel is extremely important the characters are good enough to discuss it plainly.  The tragedy and exhilaration in this book springs from more personal wells than royal legacy and misspent loyalty, though both of those subjects come up again and again.  This book focuses on family pride, on one woman’s intense desire to prove herself worthy of a name that has kept a whole community thriving for centuries.  Cordelia is an excellent lobsterman and a strong main character.  She loves her father and her sisters, and wants to do right by them as the eldest Kings child.  If that means pushing herself on dangerous waters, or stating the hard truths no one else wants to acknowledge, then she’s prepared to do the work. 

I liked reading the story from Cordelia’s point of view, and thought that Alexi Zentner did a marvelous job of getting into a 30-something woman’s head and heart. She’s got a forceful will, but isn’t nearly so hardened a captain as she’d like Loosewood’s tight-knit community to believe.  Between persistent romantic feelings for her married sternman Kenny, a strained sense of competition with her sisters, and the added tensions when hostile boats start encroaching on their territory from James Harbor on the mainland, Cordelia’s having trouble weathering all the storms inside of her.  She’s an unapologetic narrator but has moments of uncertainty, especially when it comes to her father.  He’s a loving parent and an inspiring figure on the island, but won’t back down or shed his pride, even against his daughters’ caution.  He’s a Kings. He’s the father of Kings, and even the darkly ominous fates Brumfitt painted — fates which can seem like a warning to later generations — won’t keep him from giving every ounce of energy to Loosewood Island and and to his family.  The family tension and the dramas within Loosewood’s community all affect Cordelia and keep her mind churning, until her own struggles start to resemble the tumultuous sea where she feels so at home.

While I don’t know too much about the lobstering life, Zentner’s descriptions of it were so detailed, and functioned so effortlessly, that I’m sure he captured the essence of that livelihood pretty well.  Each boat and crew had such a distinct personality that I felt as though I’d been hanging around those docks my whole life.  The anger whenever men from James Harbor would cut a Loosewood Island buoy became my anger.  The warm camaraderie between Cordelia’s fisherman friends made me see how such a hard life could be full of rewards.  And then the bouts of misery on board — the freezing mornings, fatal accidents, and grisly injuries — reminded me that I’m not nearly brave or devoted enough for such a line of work, no matter how much I like salt air on my face and the sight of weather on the horizon.  I would have been one of the tourists who come to Loosewood Island every year to see the scenes that Brumfitt painted, but I would want to be made of sterner stuff like Cordelia and her friends. (Oh drat. Sterner stuff. Forgive the unintentional fisherman puns.)

The Lobster Kings is a unique new novel with a wonderful descriptive voice.  The Kings family, at the heart of the tale, seems truly real despite the Shakespearean bent to their lives and relationships.  Loosewood Island could be a character in its own right, especially when we see it through the artistic viewpoint of Brumfitt Kings’ fictional legacy.  I don’t know much about art or fishing, but Zentner writes with such vivid detail that I fell completely in love with each subject by the end. 

The mythical properties of the unforgiving sea, which makes up a huge part of the Kings family history, was mesmerizing to me.  It may, however, get old too soon for readers who aren’t so keen on selkie stories and elemental curses.  I don’t think those moments of unearthly imagery ever overshadowed the very human pulse which kept this story alive, though. The sense of place never faltered, shining through the atmosphere and characters of The Lobster Kings on every page. 

Read it if you’re ever homesick for the sea, if you like stories about art and hard work, or if you love novels about close towns and complicated families.  Don’t wait until it comes out in paperback, either. (And please buy from an independent store if you can!!)  This book is too good to miss, and it’s hard to leave Loosewood Island once the story ends.