Book Reviews: What I’ve Read Recently
Don’t Breathe a Word, Jennifer McMahon
I am always picking up books like this–mysteries with intriguing premises like vanished-without-a-trace disappearances–and when I read them I am disappointed by the inevitable practical conclusion. I think only Agatha Christie has sufficiently dazzled me with the inventiveness of her resolutions (like Sparkling Cyanide, although I haven’t read that since I was a teen, and maybe it’s not as clever as I remember). Don’t Breathe a Word sets up a supernatural-tinged disappearance (a little girl who says she’s going to live with the fairy king) and manages, more or less, to stick the landing, so I was hugely pleased.
The main character is Phoebe, a sensitive drifter, who is dating Sam, a guy whose sister may have been abducted when they were children. Or she may have crossed over into the land of fairies, as she often professed to want to do. The mystery is reopened and immediately complicated by anonymous phone calls, imposters, criminal set-ups, a magical pregnancy. I started keeping a list about halfway through of all the mysterious elements to which I expected answers. McMahon came in at about 95% there. The only mystery that was not solved–and which may have simply been a continuity error–is this: did Evie have her own bike or not?
Ultimately, the mystery comes to a satisfying conclusion, and even though there are practical resolutions, as is necessary, the supernatural elements are not forgotten. The closing moments of the book are chilling. A great read.
In the Woods, Tana French
A well-formed, suspenseful mystery, part of a current trend of Irish crime novels. The narrator, Adam “Rob” Ryan, is hard-boiled and intense–borders on cliched, but his backstory is fresh, all his own. As a preteen, he played with his friends in the woods. One day, he was the only one who came back, his shoes soaked with blood and a big, gaping hole in his memory. As a grown-up, he works as a detective, partnered with Cassie Maddox. She’s spunky and competent but not annoying, a major achievement for author French. They have a Mulder & Scully-esque platonic codependence. They sleep on each other’s couches, they are inseparable. Cassie is the only person who knows about Ryan’s past.
The crime they’re investigating—for this is a procedural, and there must be a too-close-to-home crime—is the murder of a little girl who had a bright future as a dancer. Her body is found right outside the same woods where Ryan lost his friends years earlier. Her dad is strangely familiar to Ryan. And so this modern crime invokes memories of Ryan’s past. It all sounds incredibly rote, I know, but it works. It’s got excellent pacing and the characters are compelling. The detectives are actually intelligent; they actually pore over paperwork and evidence and make logical connections, instead of solving everything due to contrivance. Also, French makes an elegant connection between the general idea of a loss of innocence (crucial to both mysteries) and the ominous unexplored territory of the woods.
Spoilers follow: click ahead at your own risk!
French’s decision not to resolve the woods mystery is a bold one. I can’t be alone in feeling that it was the stronger of the two mysteries, the one whose answer I was more invested in. And although I was frustrated (I want to know, dammit!) I respect the choice. It fits the character of Ryan to suppress his memories, and then to avoid delving into them.
Also, she’s written two sequels and now I really want to read them, look for hints, wait for a reveal. So, just in terms of marketing, it was a smart thing to do.
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, Heidi Durrow
A beautiful modern novel, full of all the most irresistible types of heartbreak. I love a gorgeously-written downer, myself.
Main character Rachel opens the story having just moved in with her grandmother, beginning a new life in Seattle (Portland? one of those) and leaving something in Chicago behind. The mystery of Chicago is filled in piece by piece, and the tragedy is shocking when it comes into full view. Or it would be shocking for those who hadn’t read Beloved.
Rachel has more immediate concerns: the already fraught period of adolescence is difficult for her because she’s biracial. She lives with her father’s mother, who is black and who lives in a determinedly black society, but Rachel spent most of her childhood being raised by her white European mother. Learning how to be black is a major part of her coming-of-age, as is getting along with her tempestuous grandmother, figuring out where she belongs and what she’s been put on this planet, in this body, to do.
A secondary storyline plays out alongside Rachel’s, following a boy whose name is Jamie, but who calls himself Brick because he needs the rhetorical armor. He is back in Chicago, he is somehow involved in the tragedy that befell Rachel’s family, and he has a journey of his own to take. Both Rachel and Jamie/Brick are sweet, engaging, wonderful characters to follow. All the characters are well-drawn, really, from Rachel’s feisty grandmother and her glamorous aunt Loretta, to Loretta’s boyfriend Drew and his confident daughter. I forget her name, but she was a firecracker. The kind of girl who has no doubts whatsoever about herself, a great foil for Rachel.
This would have been a five-star read for me except for one thing. I’ve read (and loved) a lot of Toni Morrison. And so has Heidi Durrow, apparently. There is a major strain of Beloved in here, as I mentioned above, as well as The Bluest Eye. A little bit of Sula, too, mostly within Loretta. If Durrow is going to borrow from modern literature, she really couldn’t be choosing better, but still.
Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, Assia Djebar
My attempts to be more worldly with my reading sometimes lead to great discoveries, and sometimes they lead me here. Not that Assia Djebar is not a fine writer; her prose is lovely, if a bit joyless. I did not care for this book, however.
One thing I would have appreciated would have been Djebar establishing a stronger narrative through-line. There are many first-person narrators in this book, from all eras, and I couldn’t keep them all clear. Is the one who played with her cousins in the opening chapter the same one who later got married in Paris? Whose brother died in the siege? Was it hers or someone else’s, or maybe even someone’s grandmother’s?
Maybe the point Djebar intended to make her was that the land–Algeria–is the real star here. I definitely got a feel for the constant turmoil of the area, from the French invasion in 1830 up until their war for independence in the 1950s and 60s. Djebar weaves a nice correspondence between this land teeming with contradictory traditions and the Muslim women, full of conflicting emotions about their lives, their bodies, and their relationships with men.
But when the book moves back into the battlefield–oh, so boring. And the battlefield occupies at least 50% of the narrative. So, ultimately, not a win for me.
How Did You Get This Number?, Sloane Crosley
I like Sloane Crosley’s books because I appreciate her point of view, and because we are exactly the same age, so her references to her childhood are sources of nostalgia for me. In her last book, it was Caboodles makeup carriers; in this book it was the Girl Talk board game with the zit stickers. Comparing Crosley to more successful essayists is a fool’s errand. She’s no David Sedaris. Her work is less insightful, and not as tightly narrated. But it is witty and diverting, and sometimes that’s good enough.
The best essays in this book are the ones where Crosley travels: the first essay is about a spur-of-the-moment trip to Portugal, another describes a trip to visit a friend in Paris, and another details a trip to a friend’s wedding in Alaska. Crosley’s wit is strongest when she’s a fish-out-of-water, and Alaska as well as most of Europe seems to flummox her entertainingly. Alaska especially seems like a bewildering wonderland of trees, lakes, wildlife, and big puffy jackets.
Unfortunately, Crosley ends the book on the worst of her essays–or more specifically, a fine essay that highlights Crosley’s most objectionable qualities. “Off the Back of a Truck” tells the dual stories of Crosley’s adventures furnishing her apartment with stolen merchandise and a disastrous relationship with a dishonest guy. The narrative is very yuppified New York, and makes Sloane the protagonist look callous where she seems to want to present herself as conflicted. The wailing about the man who betrayed her is a bit insufferable. There’s insight to be had from a broken relationship but I don’t think she finds it. (Also, I don’t generally criticize the life choices of memoirists–that’s not what literary criticism is, and most authors aren’t writing for general approval–but there are some elements in Sloane’s relationship with that guy that are fishy. She describes how she gets set up with him because they have literally dozens of friends in common. But then she is shocked after a year of dating him to find that he has a live-in girlfriend. How did not a single one of those common friends tell her this right away?)
The Enchanted April, Elizabeth von Arnim
Four women, each leading unsatisfying lives in rainy England, decide to throw in together on a guest house in Italy for a month. They mean to just recharge their batteries, but they all find themselves blossoming in the fresh air and floridity of Italy. Good bones for a sweet tale of women-growing-into-independence, one of my favorite tropes. But these four women each accomplish this so tediously!
I was surprised how tiresome I found this book. Maybe because I mentally associated it with E.M. Forster–and I love A Room with a View even after repeated readings–maybe just because I was deceived by the word “enchanted” in the title–I couldn’t believe how dour this story turned out to be.
The book is not particularly well-written. There are witty parts–well, two witty parts–but the rest of the narrative is repetitive and meandering. Also, the characters don’t do anything to improve their own situations. They all sort of sit passively and let Italy’s restorative qualities seep into their bodies, and then sit up, “All better!” I wish even one of the women had exhibited through her actions that she felt better about herself. Ventured out into the town to show that she wasn’t fearful of new experiences, for example. Found some inspiration in reading or gardening or birdwatching or bathing or eating or something.
Some of the women find love and/or rekindle their passions for love. None of the male-female relationships presented were free from qualities I found discomforting and thus, unromantic. Does it matter if a man is dishonest with his wife, if she has determined that their lives together will be happy from now on? Yes. Yes it does.