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[804] The Visitors – Sally Beauman

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“The most powerful spells known to his priests were recorded on the tomb walls—and there was a reason for that. These tombs are not about death, Lucy: never make that mistake—they’re about conquering death. Everything in them is designed to ensure safe passage through the underworld and an afterlife that would never end.” (Ch.14, 123)

Set predominantly in 1922 but spans almost a decade, The Visitors is about the story of 20th century’s greatest archaeological find in Valley of the Kings in Egypt. The story is told by the fictional Lucy Payne, daughter of a Cambridge don, who has been sent to Egypt with her American governess to recover from typhoid, which killed her mother.

In the Valley, Lucy meets the real life Frances Winlock, daughter of Herbert Winlock, American archaeologist and field curator of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s excavation site near Luxor. Beauman creates a firm friendship between Lucy and Frances—together they shadow the band of real life archaeologists (Beauman thoughtfully provides a list of names in chronological order and divided by geography) in sharing the mounting excitement and anticipation for the new tomb’s discovery.

The Egypt part makes up a bulk of the novel. It is the complex web of relationships and acquaintances in Egypt that will partially contribute to Lucy’s subsequent life. One of the key issues is the proposition that Howard Carter (discoverer of King Tutankhamun’s tomb) and Lord Carnarvon entered the newly discovered tomb secretly before the official opening with the relevant government officials and removed certain artifacts. This allegedly illegal act tarnishes the reputation of both men, who had achieved celebrity status at the time of the discovery. Lucy reveals the extremes to which people are driven by desire and greed. She witnesses deception and questions by what rights does Carnarvon deny the Egyptians the right to enter the tomb.

Following Lucy’s departure from Egypt, the story moves on to events to her career in writing, her reacquaintance with his father, who married her ex-homeschooling teacher Nicola, her rackety marriage to a closet homosexual, her encounter with a TV producer who asks about her experience in Egypt some 60 years ago.

Beauman has written a book with superb detail, blending real life events, fictional and factual characters really well. Although at times the events that unravel after Lucy’s departure from Egypt can be tedious and not as palpable, Beauman has a wealth of material in which to explore personal relations. Lucy makes frequent references to that past that has entrapped her but also has sustained her to an old age as she has outlived almost everyone.

Beauman’s sophisticated writing style is endearing. The style is comparable to university discourse but the prose flows seamlessly. She makes sharp observations about the behaviors and morals of the British upper class and the American wealthy elites. She really nails that sense of entitlement at the time when imperialism and colonial were at their peak. This is evident as Egyptians are scarcely present in the story, though the new and pressing Egyptian nationalism features in the background.

529 pp. Harper Collins. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[802]A Sudden Light – Garth Stein

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The narrator, Trevor Riddell, is the 14-year old scion who visits the crumbling, supposedly haunted Riddell House with his father in a quest to try to convince his senile grandfather to sell the family’s property. Living with Grandpa Samuel is the overbearing, kooky Aunt Serena, who has her own secret agenda. Trevor is trying to repair his parents’ unraveling marriage but it’s obvious that money will not resolve all his father’s issues. Jones Riddell is trying to come to terms with his mother’s death from years ago, which sent his father berserk.

The house is founded on a huge piece of land. The patriarch Samuel thinks he has a moral duty to fulfill the intentions of his ancestors and let the family estate return to the forest as an expiation of the sins of the fathers, who had been money-grubbing timber barons that exploited workers and dissipated the forests. Grandpa Samuel doesn’t want to let go of the property because he thinks his wife’s ghost is there with him.

There are just way too much going on that if the book would have concentrated on one or two things Stein dabbles in, the potential of the story would have been achieved. What irritates me the most is the overuse of easy information dumping: it’s obvious a 14- year old teenager cannot have had the vantage point to describe the whole situation, regardless his being precocious. To get around this problem, Stein supplements Trevor’s knowledge with “timely discovered” letters, diaries, and ghostly speeches when explication is needed.

The novel starts off with an enticing atmosphere: a house deep in the forest with huge carpeted room full of books. The many rooms and secret passages. The supernatural qualities of the house are taken for granted. The overall execution of the plot is a flop. Almost the entire book is devoted to the question whether the house should be sold or not. All the back stories told by ghost and the timely discovery of diaries and letters that shed light on the death of a gay greatuncle’s death are really stretching credulity. Ironically after all the contrived twists and turns the ending is straight as an arrow.

396 pp. Simon & Schuster. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[793] A Spool of Blue Thread – Anne Tyler

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“But it has occurred to me, on occasion, that our memories of our loved one might not be the point. Maybe the point is their memories—all that they take away with them. What if heaven is just a vast consciousness that the dead return to? And their assignment is to report on the experiences they collected during their time on earth.” (Ch.7, 248)

The book revolves around a Baltimore family and their house over four generations. Tyler has woven defining moments of each generation with flashbacks, giving us a story of a family that could be any of ours. The novel opens in the present, with Abbey and Red Whitshank. It’s Abby, a retired social worker; Red, who inherited his father’s construction and their grown-up children reader gets to know best as the family slowly disintegrates. Abby by far captures one’s attention and she is the glue of the family. She is this self-denigrating, self-aggrandizing embarrassment of a mother one hopes will never show up at the school function. She breathes down on her children’s necks.

The book begins and ends with the miscreant, Denny, the prodigal son, who calls home to inform his parents he’s gay. (He’s not.) He’s a college dropout, irregularly employed, and single parent. No one in the family can cope with his existence. His sister, Amanda, nails it, in a moment of exasperation, that she shall not be forgiven for “consuming every last little drop of our parents’ attention and leaving nothing for the rest of us.” Denny complains his parents never paid him any attention, but Abby has always cared for him the most. Even Tyler has a soft spot for him, and she renders him more lovable than he is forgivable.

When Red has a heart attack and Abbey becomes dithery, the family converges to take over, but that ironically reveals fractures within the family and reignites old jealousies. The dutiful son Stem, who is not even a Whitshank by birth, moves in to care for the aging parents with his judicious wife Nora and children in tow. Denny’s sudden arrival arouses new tension and leads to brew of guilt and resentment. Abby and Red’s family is the bread and butter of the novel as this drama plays out, but Tyler digs deeper in the history.

The origin of the Whitshank house is how Tyler plays against the American dream, the dark side of which is the falsehood and its heart. The house was initially commissioned by a rich businessman, but Junior, Red’s father, who is hired to build it, set his heart on the place the minute he sees the blueprints, crafts it to his own preference and eventually acquires it by some mild chicanery. He was also entrapped by a teenage girl who bides her time and eventually becomes his wife. Junior’s daughter Merrick rises above her station and breaks into the high society—and a loveless, worn-out marriage. It was Abby, in her unflinching way, even at a young age, who confronts Junior that he resents his snooty neighbors but apes their ways.

This is the kind of novel that chronicles minor calamities and daily happenings that shape a family, any family. It deals with what makes a family at root: parental love and a sense of belonging. The parts on Abby and Red’s family are more tightly written and capturing than the others. But overall it is an absorbing read.

465 pp. Vintage UK. Pocket paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[792] All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

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“For portions of every day, she manages to lose herself in realms of memory; the faint impressions of the visual world before she was six, when Paris was like a vast kitchen, pyramids of cabbages and carrots everywhere . . . ” (325)

The story, told in flashbacks, is set in Germany and France before and during the German occupation of France. Marie-Laure becomes blind when she is six; she lives with her father, a locksmith and keeper of the keys at the National Museum of Natural History, in Paris when the novel begins in 1934. There, hidden, in its vaults for the past two hundred years, is an accursed gem, a greyish-blue sea diamond with a red hue at its center, that will bring misfortune to its possessor.

Marie-Laure’s father is also the creator of ingenious puzzles and miniatures—of the streets and houses of Paris. He makes wooden model of the neighborhood so Marie can memorize it by touch and navigate her way. He hones her sense of touch by placing unexpected objects in her hands. The intriguing miniatures teach her, using fingers as eyes, how to navigate her way around the city. She develops a love for reading; ultimately she survives the destruction and desolation of the Occupation through the books she can read in braille up in the attic of her reclusive great-uncle’s house in Saint Malo.

Parallel to Marie-Laure’s story is that of Werner Pfennig, who and his sisters are orphans living in the German mining town. He has gift for science, and the intracacies of radios in particular. His talent wins him a spot in the brutal academy of Hitler Youth, which trains him to become an elite cadre for the Third Reich. His schooling is evidence of both ambition and brutality of the Nazi national psyche.

The story ziplines back and forth, until Marie-Laure and Werner are converging in saint Malo, on the coast of Brittany, as Werner is probing for a radio signal emitting from her house. Her father has been entrusted with the gem and is arrested. Werner is given the task to locate radio transmission, which brings him to the island, where Marie’s great-uncle Etienne uses his radio-transmitter on behalf of the Resistance.

All the Light We Cannot See is a literary feat: mixing fable,, nature, and mechanical inventions. Doerr’s prose style is lyrical, operatic and relentless, with an attentiveness to details. It is an emotionally plangent tale of morality. As the children’s paths converge, Doerr has created nearly unbearable suspense. Every piece of the back story reveals information that changes the merging narrative with significance. There is this kill-or-be-killed theme, the morality of doing what is right and not what power is bestowed upon one to do.

530 pp. Scribner. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[784] The Starboard Sea – Amber Dermont

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“For so long, I’d feared that I was hanging on to Aidan, on to all my thoughts and memories of her because of how our night together changed the meaning of all my nights with Cal. But I understood now that it didn’t change anything. I loved them both. I’d opened my life up to each of them.” (Ch.15, 297)

Jason Prosper grows up in the exclusive world of Manhattan penthouses, old-boy boarding schools, and summer estates. He’s pruned to be the alpha-male, continuing his father’s work in banking. But the talented sailor maintains a healthy disdain for the trappings of affluence and prefers to sail with his beat friend Cal, who later committed suicide. Devastated by the loss and wrought with grief, Jason transfer to Bellingham Academy for his senior year. Through the course of a single harrowing school year, the novel follows Jason and his inner emotions and secrets, as he tries to make sense of his friend’s death.

What made me like her? Her pain. Her mystery. I was drawn to her because she reminded me of Cal. I was drawn to her because she reminded me of myself. (Ch.5, 86)

Coincidence and serendipity bring Aidan and Jason together. Though off to a wrong footing at the first place, the two cultivate a deep friendship as they confide in each other not-so-innocent secrets, trying to heal their wounded hearts. They absorb the hideous weight of each other’s confession, and come to self-forgiveness. Jason is a likable, appealing first-person narrator that reminds me of Nick Carraway (The Great Gatsby), observing from a distance the terrible things privileged teenagers do to each other knowing wealth can buy silence. Hazing. Bullying. Debauchery. The steady, restrained unmasking of Jason’s history, in particular his powerful guilt over the death of Cal, which haunts him continuously, keeps the pages turning. As if the loss of a best friend is not intense enough to make one grows up, the destruction of a winter storm brings yet another upheaval in Jason’s life, which forces him to make sense of a secret buried by the boys he considers his friends.

Dermont compares adolescence to sailing a boat into the wind. She adeptly charts the fine calibrations of teenage love, shame, belonging, and the agony of coming of age. The book is an in-depth examination of abused class privilege, in which hazing rituals, which require secrecy and compliance, are as dangerous as the ruthless machinations of the truly powerful and wealthy parents. Despite falling in with a gang of rich indulgent kids who practice delinquency almost like a religion, Jason comes out unscathed and a better person. The book is a well-written debut that explores the balance of riches and ethics, in particular how privilege supersedes societal structures and the inner voice of one’s conscience.

308 pp. St. Martin Press. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[778] The Paradise – Émile Zola

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“She had been obliged to assist to the bitter end at this invincible work of life which requires death as its continual seed. She no longer struggled, she accepted this law of combat . . . she herself had been caught in the wheel-work of the machine.” (Ch. XIII, 393)

Zola’s 1883 novel that chronicles the life and extravagant growth of a fictional department store feels very modern, bearing a striking relevance to our consumerism today. Although it’s a love story, the book is quite a treasure trove for feminists and cultural critics, as it captures the social psyche of French people, women in particular, in their reception to the ambitious capitalistic endeavor of a department store, which drag the women out of their home into the public space.

Doesn’t Paris belong to the women, and don’t the women belong to us. (Ch. XI, 318)

The novel starts out conventionally enough, with a country girl’s arrival in Paris at the age of 20, with two younger brothers in tow. Denise Baudu’s parents are dead; she hopes her uncle, a draper, would provide work for her. But his business, as well as other small shops, have suffered tremendously from the opening of a large store across the street, the Ladies’ Paradise, which continues to expand and drive others out of business by cutting down prices. Denise accepts a probational, commission-only position as a saleswoman in the dress department, where for months other girls gang up to deprive her of sales, and ridicule her for her mild, submissive manner, and her lack of sophistication.

As one might have imagined, Denise’s career in Ladies’ Paradise is one from hell. It’s your Cinderella story set in retails. Life and trade, economic disaster and triumph teem about her. As small shops’ attempt to compete with the ever-expanding department store proves a dismal failure, Octave Mouret’s emporium has so captured the imagination of Parisian women that that take up the place by a storm, camping there as if they are in a conquered country. They even believe Mouret’s goods are more superior. To shop at Ladies’ Paradise has become the quo status. Amid all the commercial competition, the treachery and rivalry of saleswomen, the schemes of salesmen to oust their boss, Denise remains true to her values.

The Paradise is a rich tapestry of Parisian life in a period when the idea of a department store is a far-fetched idea that the banks are not willing to invest. There’s also the mandatory upstairs-downstairs struggle through the newcomer Denise, who against all odds manages to conquer the entire staff with her tenderness and modesty. In lavish detail and myopic vision Zola captures the greedy customers, the gossiping staff, and the vain obsession with image, fashion, and gratification.

438 pp. Penguin. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[774] In a Strange Room – Damon Galgut

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“He’s aware that he’s engaged again in that most squalid of activities, using up time, but the journey hasn’t ended where he wanted it to, it has frayed out instead into endless ambiguities and nuances, like a path that divides and divides endlessly, growing fainter all the time.” (The Lover, p.141-2)

In a Strange Room, flitting between third- and first-person narrative, is a work poised between memoir and fiction. The book is divided into three sections of about the same length and each tells an ill-fated journey undertaken by one Damon, who is presumably the author himself. The three parts are titled “The Follower”, “The Lover”, and “The Guardian”, which refer to how Damon fails the respective role in life. The book is lyrical but grim.

In the first part, Damon is in Greece when he encounters Reiner, a long-haired German who is assured of his beauty. They keep in touch and decide to go on a challenging trek together in Lesotho, a small, inhospitable country situated within the interior of South Africa. But they have a fallout due to Reiner’s bossiness. The homoerotic friendship inevitably disintegrates.

The second journey takes Damon to Zimbabwe where he meets a French and a pair of Swiss twins, who invited him to come along to Tanzania. Despite of the unforeseen complication and a lack of visa, Damon accepts the offer because he is smitten with Jerome, who has “a beauty that is almost shocking.” Yet Damon, only to his deep regret later, flees this relationship as eagerly as he runs into it. By the time the third section begins, reader gets the sense that he is a hopeless case in relationship.

The third section sees Damon as a middle-aged man who is still dissatisfied by his inability to engage meaningfully with others. The alienated traveler goes on wandering not because he is curious about new places but that he has to keep himself going to avoid meddling in his problems. The trip to take his suicidal friend along to India is a wrong decision from the beginning. She has an overdose in India. This wrenching journey repeats his previous experience, only with greater shock and emphasis of his impotence. There is a sense of timelessness in these isolated journeys, and the lone traveler is far from his time and history—pretty much out of touch from reality. He is far more adept at crossing geographical boundaries than emotional ones. The book is written in a way that reader is encourage to interact with Damon’s thoughts. Sometimes it’s engaging but it can be frustrating.

207 pp. Europa Editions. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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