"When I was a boy, my mother used to say that hell was the painless place where everything has been forgotten." ..."Why?""Because there's no love. That's why there is no pain." ..."Then what's heaven?""An inferno where you burn, remembering all that should be remembered."from page 182
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
The Sixth Lamentation is William Brodrick's debut novel and the first in a series starring Father Anselm, a monk who resides at Larkwood Priory in England. Brodrick himself is a former Augustinian friar who now lives in Europe with his wife and kids. His debut novel is an engrossing, page turning, twisty mystery.
In the wake of the German occupation of France during the second world war, a group of students calling themselves The Round Table smuggled Jewish children out of Paris to a French monastery in the countryside. Here the children were hidden in the monastery's sister house's orphanage until identity documents for the children could be fabricated on the monastery's press. Then the children were safely smuggled into Switzerland. The Round Table was able save a small number of children before a Nazi named Schwermann and a French collaborator named Brionne broke The Round Table, arresting every member and shipping them off like cattle to the concentration camps where all but one perished. After the war ended Schwermann and Brionne fled Paris for the same monastery that hid the children The Round Table saved. Inexplicably both men receive sanctuary there until they too are smuggled out of the country and into England under false identities.
Half a century later Schwermann's true identity has been revealed and exposed to the world by a young French reporter, who is also the grandnephew of the man who once led The Round Table. The reporter, working with other organizations to collect evidence to bring Schwermann to trial, is determined to see that the old Nazi answers for his crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, the key witness, Brionne, has disappeared and cannot be traced under his new identity. In the wake of his crimes being brought to light, Schwermann seeks and receives reluctant sanctuary from Larkwood Priory where Father Anselm, a former London attorney, lives. Immediately a firestorm erupts in the media while the police, the monastery, the Church in Rome and the French reporter scramble to collect their evidence. Father Anselm, in turn, is tasked by the Church in Rome to discover just why the French monastery aided in the escape of two war criminals. Father Anselm then embarks upon a journey to resolve this elusive mystery in which most participants have long since died and taken their secrets to the grave.
Meanwhile, Agnes, the lone survivor of The Round Table, glimpses Schwermann on TV when his identity is brought to light. The revelation takes her back to that long ago, dangerous and traumatic time that forever changed the course of her life and that of her children and grandchildren. Recently diagnosed with a terminal illness, Agnes determines to set down her history, from birth to her teenage years and her activities during the war years, in notebooks for her granddaughter, Lucy. The notebooks reveal to Lucy why her grandmother is the way she is and ensure that the members of The Round Table, Agnes' beloved friends, will not be forgotten when she dies. At the heart of The Round Table is young love and a family secret that ends in the betrayal that led to unspeakable tragedy.
At its heart, this is a historical mystery in which nothing and no one is what they appear to be once its serpentine twists and turns have been followed to a heart breaking conclusion. This first time novelist can turn a phrase, although at times it seems the language is opaquely ambiguous and puzzling especially when it comes to the lack of explanation of elements related to the church, specifically monastic life. Brodrick is shocking and brutal when it comes to plot and character twists. The story moves quickly while it alternates between Father Anselm's perspective and the perspective of Lucy and Agnes. In the end when the truth of what actually happened is exposed, the resolution is far more complicated and sad because of the nature of the stunning betrayal at the root of the dismantling of The Round Table. It is a betrayal that has had far reaching consequences and that has twisted entire lives and generations of two families that are shattered again when it is finally revealed.
Mystery lovers as well as historical fiction lovers will devour this book. It is coming soon to the shelves here at the library.
--Reviewed by Ms. Angie
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon is apparently the latest novel on a theme that I seem to be reading for some reason. It's almost like the death and grief theme all over again except the book I'm reading now doesn't appear to be a part of the theme. Her Fearful Symmetry turned out to be an odd story with a rather complicated family secret revealed in its resolution; one of the themes in Symmetry was identity. The Chaon book follows on the theme of complicated resolution. You cannot fully appreciate the complicated unless you read the book all the way through. Now about half way through the book my wheels started turning about how the main characters were connected as teased in the blurb on the inside of the book jacket. In the end my theory was close to what was revealed at the end of the novel.
Three strands of narrative run throughout the book and mysteries are at the center of all three. It turns the chronology of these narratives is not parallel. My assumption throughout the book that these storylines are simultaneously occurring was not correct and the correct chronology of these stories can be a little complicated to get straight (this is the part that reminded me of Symmetry).
Lucy, a recent high school graduate and a recent orphan, is restless and ready to cut loose from her Ohio hometown--to go anywhere, live anywhere, and be anything as long as it's not in Pompey, Ohio. One night she steals away with her lover who is also her high school history teacher, George Orson. Eventually the lovebirds land in his Nebraska hometown at the motel property he says he's inherited from his mother. But is Orson who he says he is or appears to be? Shortly after their arrival, Orson withdraws, begins acting strangely, and remains elusive about just what he plans for their future. In recollections of how these two met, it appears Orson targets and manipulates Lucy's insecurities; her isolation at school and at home makes her a naive and easy target. However, Lucy cares about having money and being able to live well and has no problem using Orson as her means to a better life.
Miles has finally settled down again in Cleveland, Ohio, after years spent on the road trailing just one step behind his twin brother, Hayden. Hayden is a paranoid, delusional schizophrenic who has been institutionalized off and on throughout his childhood before going on the run in the U.S. and Canada, working different jobs in different cities under different names. The last time Miles nearly caught up with Hayden was in South Dakota where Hayden was using Miles' own name. When Miles finally returned home from this trip there was a cruel taunt in the form of a package and an email waiting for him from his brother. Miles decides he is done chasing Hayden and that it is time to move with his life and try to build something more out of his life. But two years later Miles receives another mysterious, delusional, and troubling letter from his brother and again Miles is sucked back into the chase. This time he tracks Hayden to a remote Canadian village in the Arctic Circle.
Ryan's plight opens the book--he's on his way to the hospital with his severed hand on ice beside him on the car seat. His story is told by moving backwards chronologically to slowly reveal how he comes to be in his current predicament. One day Ryan is contacted by his uncle Jay, who coldly reveals that he is Ryan's biological father. The revelation sends Ryan's life into a tailspin and the next day he sets out for Michigan, leaving behind his life and identity, vanishing without a trace and presumed dead, to meet up with Jay. But one can tell Jay has ulterior motives from the start--from the way he contacted Ryan out of the blue, to the advice to Ryan to keep his parental revelation from his adoptive parents, to the way Jay enlists him in his murky and dangerous scheme involving aliases, social security numbers, travel, and shifting money around. Jay doesn't reveal to Ryan that he is on the very bad side of some very ruthless, very dangerous people until it is too late.
This books takes the reader into a twisted warren of identity fraud made even more complicated by the chronology of a timeline that is not revealed until literally the last page. All is finally revealed, explained and/or implied and what a tangled web it is. I did not particularly feel sympathetic for any of these characters. Okay, maybe I felt a little sorry for Miles, but he was just a tad too passive and unmotivated in his life. In the end more than one of these characters is victim to the manipulations of the same man. This is a portrait of how a mentally ill, but brilliant man preys on those who share similar personality and background traits that makes them vulnerable. He knows the types that are easy prey to his manipulations.
The story was well written and executed, but in the end I felt a little disappointed and let down and I'm not sure why. I suppose I feel like what exactly is the point to this story. There isn't really a traditional resolution to the story and perhaps that's why I feel unsatisfied. We are never really told what exactly Hayden's motivations are since the storylines are more from the perspectives of Miles, Ryan and Lucy.
I may or may not recommend this book.
--reviewed by Ms. Angie
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
Her Fearful Symmetry is Audrey Niffenegger's follow up to her best selling, critically acclaimed (and now a major motion picture! that received mixed reviews), The Time Traveler's Wife. I haven't read the latter, but I recently finished the former. Symmetry received mixed reviews. I was not especially blown away by this book... In fact I spent the last half of it thinking about it and wondering why I felt the pervading sense that nothing really happens, even though clearly--very big, highly implausible--things happen. Indeed, a very big thing happens towards the end and then I thought, I don't really know what to make of this. In the days between finishing the book and posting this review, I've been thinking that the ending was a little bleak, a little cold and a little cruel. The thing is the book is not a supernatural, ghost story at its heart--at least it does not begin that--but it veers far, far into that realm by story's end. I suppose that's what makes it so implausible for me--for someone who regularly suspends her disbelief to watch supernatural, horror films or read supernatural, ghost mysteries.
At its heart, Symmetry is a novel of family and the secrets that both bind and estrange us from the ones we love. It is also about identity, individuality, of loving and letting go--of the ones you love, of life after you've died, of devastating family secrets and of the things that restrict and repress us. I think Niffenegger would have done better to focus on the human, familial aspects of the novel rather than bringing in the supernatural hocus pocus subplot that quickly steals the show.
Born and raised in England, Edie and Elspeth were twins whose identities and lives were so intertwined and entangled that they shared the same bed among other things. Years ago they split and have remained estranged for half a lifetime--until Elspeth's death makes the estrangement permanent. The secret at the heart of the twins' estrangement is not what is at first hinted at towards the beginning. Instead it is an even more twisted, tangled, complicated and confusing mess than one could ever imagine. And I'm still not sure I've got the whole thing straight in my head (which is saying something).
Julia and Valentina are twins--Edie's American born and raised daughters--and they are even closer and more intertwined than Edie and Elspeth were. Julia is the dominant twin; she makes all the decisions for them and Valentina, less strong willed than her sister, follows her lead. Julia holds on to Valentina and refuses to let her go to live her own life. It is Julia who makes the decision to accept the terms of their aunt's will to live in her London flat for a year. Ironically, this is the decision that sets the twins on the course that will finally, completely, and irrevocably estrange them and wrench them from each other forever. Because Julia cannot let Valentina go, Valentina, aided by the ghost of her dead aunt who has her own cruel and selfish agenda, hatches a twisted and desperate plan to leave her sister forever in order to lead her own life. It is the kind of plan that can only end badly for everyone involved.
In many ways Julia's and Valentina's progress toward estrangement mirrors their mother's from her sister. However, ultimately, it is far more devastating in its consequences for everyone involved who has ever loved Julia and Valentina.
Sometimes writing a review helps clarify how I feel about a particular book. This is not one of those times. Or maybe it is. In the end, this book is just messed up. The story and that which transpires in the story and the actions and motives of the characters is messed up, like seriously and severely messed up and in need of some serious psychological help and/or medication. Valentina's plan, for example, is some serious, twisted passive aggressiveness. I just kept hoping that the end would redeem everything--because sometimes an ending can save a book or a movie--but in the end nothing is redeemed and nothing is really resolved.
Okay. I need to just stop typing because it's not going to make it better, and it won't make me less confused or less conflicted about the whole book and how it ended. I just don't have the words to express how I feel about this book or at least not ones that are appropriate for this blog. And I cannot in good conscience recommend you read this book unless you enjoy messed up and twisted and implausible.
--Reviewed by Ms. Angie