The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

I first read Ian Serraillier’s novel The Silver Sword when I was 12. All these years later I had vague memories of what the story was about, but  very vivid memories of having loved it. We read it in school and so it wasn’t a book that I’d actually come across elsewhere. One day, while perusing the selection at Book Closeouts I came across the book and decided to order it. I wondered, after all these years, if it would stand up. Some childhood books do and some don’t.

The Silver Sword is the story of Polish siblings Ruth, Edek and Bronia. When the Nazis invade Warsaw in 1940 their father, Joseph, and mother, Margrit, are taken away leaving the children, then aged 13, 11 and 3, to fend for themselves. We hear a little bit about the father who manages to escape a couple years later and make his way back to Warsaw. There he encounters a young ruffian named Jan. It’s part luck and part contrivance that the children should meet up with Jan and together they set off for Switzerland in search of their parents.

I am sad to say that The Silver Sword wasn’t a magical experience the second time around. The story is simplistic, the characters are one-dimensional and the happy-ending is unrealistic. That said, it in no way diminishes my memories of what I loved about the book 30-odd years ago. Then the trials of these children: their hunt for safe places to sleep, finding food, trying to stay out of the way of the Nazis, searching for their parents, was both thrilling and heart-wrenching. I can only attribute my disappointment to the fact that I am older and jaded.

I think my children will love it as much as I did then.

The Moment You Were Gone by Nicci Gerrard

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Nicci Gerrard writes terrific psychological suspense thrillers with her husband Sean French. As Nicci French they have written a few books I have enjoyed immensely, particularly Killing Me Softly. On her own, Gerrard is a thoughtful and talented writer, generally concerned with the minutia of  daily life and the relationships which both trouble and sustain us.

So I’m going to blame the fact that I didn’t love Nicci Gerrard’s third novel The Moment You Were Gone on the fact that August was a bit of a bust for me reading-wise. Perhaps it was the spectacular weather, but this was the third novel I’ve started in the last couple of weeks (and the only one I finished).

The Moment You Were Gone is the story of Nancy and Gaby, childhood friends. We see them as children, as young adults and then we meet Gaby  again as she’s dropping her only son, Ethan, off at university.  At this point in the story, she and Nancy have been estranged for almost 20 years, although Gaby has an inkling of where her old friend is.  Instead of going home after leaving Ethan, Gaby decides to revisit her past and hops a train to Cornwall where she tracks Nancy down. It is this reconnection which sets off a chain of events which you can see coming a mile off. What you might not see coming, however, is the way these  revelations change and shape the people involved.

This is a novel about friendship, certainly, but is also a novel about love:  the love between siblings and families, between husbands and wives and between friends. As Gaby’s life begins to unravel, Ethan’s life begins to flourish. We watch him navigate those first few weeks away from home and we watch him fall in love with his best mate’s girl.

Despite the secret that is central to this novel, there are no bad guys here. Everyone makes the choices they think are the best for the right reasons. Watching Gaby deal with the fall out from her discovery is more like watching a fender bender than a train wreck, but I think I actually mean that as a compliment. Although I didn’t necessarily warm to Gaby, I did admire the way she moved forward despite the fact that her world had been tipped over.

The last third of this book is a thoughtful meditation on what happens when you reach a certain point in your life.  From this vantage point you can look back.

She asked herself  what point there was in the frantic emotions of the past few weeks if in the end she was just a pinprick on a dot in a galaxy that was itself negligible. All the scrabbling around, the desperate search for happiness, meaning and union – while around us the millions of stars shine on, implacably distant and remote…. How strange, to care so passionately and yet to mean so little and to die alone and go where no one can follow. (362)

It would be impossible not to relate to some aspect of this book and I can’t fault either the story or the writer for the fact that I didn’t love it. Just reader’s fatigue, I guess.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Several months ago Muriel Barbery’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog was chosen as the book for the bookstore reading group I lead. We have a sort of willy nilly way of choosing our books and this novel ended up on the top of the heap. When we came together to discuss it a month later, other than the woman who had thrown it into the pile, no one else had finished the book- including me. I got about halfway through…and I just really didn’t like the book at all. So imagine my dismay when the novel was chosen by my longstanding book club as our first novel for our new reading year! I had no choice but to finish the book.

So, I started again. And strangely, this time around, I didn’t find the book so grating. That’s not to say that I found it all that plausible, either. Still, I did manage to get through it.

Barbery’s novel tells the story of Renee, a concierge at an elegant apartment building in Paris.

I am short, ugly and plump, I have bunions on my feet and, if I am to credit early mornings of self-inflicted disgust, the breath of a mammoth. I did not go to college, I have always been poor, discreet and insignificant. (19)

Renee has, despite what she considers her considerable flaws, a deep and abiding love for literature, art and music. Seriously, the novel opens with a rumination on Marx – which is perhaps the reason why I didn’t groove to the novel straight away the first time around: I know nothing about Marx.

Paloma lives in the building with her parents and older sister. At twelve, Paloma is already sick of the world and everyone in it.

My parents are rich, my family is rich and my sister and I are, therefore rich….Despite all that, despite all this good fortune and all this wealth, I have known for a long time that the final destination is the goldfish bowl. How do I know? Well, the fact is that I am very intelligent. Exceptionally intelligent. (23)

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is about appearances. Renee is forever fearful about giving away her love of the finer things; after all, she’s just a concierge. Paloma,  is keeping a journal of profound thoughts and plotting her own death. And then into their lives comes a Japanese gentleman named Kakuro Ozu. He sees straight through these women, into their very heart of hearts and changes them in ways they might have never imagined.

This novel was a sensation in France. As with any translation, it’s important to remember that you are not reading it in its original form; something is bound to be lost in the translation no matter how good it is.

I have a feeling that when we discuss this novel tomorrow night, most everyone will have loved it. I didn’t love it (in fact I didn’t like the ending at all!), but I did see the novel’s charms- even though I often found the novel pretentious (all these mini-lessons on art and literature) and perhaps just a tad contrived.

Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore

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The events of Helen Dunmore’s beautifully written novel Talking to the Dead take place during a blazing summer on the Cornwall coast. Nina has come to spend time with her sister, Isabelle, who has just given birth to Antony. It is a difficult labour and delivery and Isabelle is having a slow recovery.

You don’t look very alike, Susan said yesterday. I wouldn’t have guessed you were sisters. (29)

Susan has been hired to care for Antony while Isabelle recovers from the complications of Antony’s birth. Although the sisters are, as Susan notes,  unalike physically, they share the bond of family: an emotionally distant mother who worked as a potter, a drunkard father and the crib-death of their little brother, Colin.

They also share knowledge, perhaps suppressed, about the death of their little brother. It is during the hot days that follow that a family secret is revealed and Nina begins an illicit affair that sends shrapnel through the house Isabelle and her husband, Richard, have leased for the summer.

I’m a Dunmore fan. She’s a beautiful writer and much of the prose in this slim volume is breathtaking. So I am going to attribute the fact that I didn’t tear through this  novel (only 214 pages!) to the fact that I’ve had a serious case of book lethargy over the last few weeks. After all, like all of the Dunmore novels I’ve read – as literary as they are – this one has an element of psychological suspense. The pace isn’t fast though; information is revealed slowly, like veils pulled back one at a time. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be a problem for me…like I say, I was in a bit of a slump.

If you haven’t yet read Dunmore, you really should.  She’s quite remarkable.

Dismantled by Jennifer McMahon

I was so excited to be given this book which had arrived at the bookstore where I used to work. The manager there knew I was a huge fan of McMahon’s novel Promise Not to Tell, and so she passed this along. Dismantled is the story of the Compassionate Dismantlers, four art students: Tess, Henry, Winnie and the charismatic Suz. The Compassionate Dismantlers believe that “to understand the nature of a thing you have to take it apart.” What they really believe, it seems, is that you can ruin someone’s career and set fires and manipulate lives for your own personal gain. At the end of their post-graduation summer in a cabin by the lake, Suz is dead and the remaining Dismantlers go their separate ways. Flash forward ten years. Henry and Tess are unhappily married and have a 10 year old daughter, Emma. Winnie has had her own struggles with mental illness. A simple act by Emma sets off a chain of events with far reaching consequences.

Dismantled was a big disappointment for me and it truly pains me to say that because I loved Promise Not To Tell and encouraged everyone I know to read it. For me, there was just too much going on. Was Dismantled a novel about a failing marriage, infidelity, the nature of art, childhood fears, imaginary friends, ghosts – real and imagined? Was it a mystery? Was it a ghost story? Was it a novel about revenge?

Honestly, I really struggled to finish Dismantled and only kept going because I thought maybe the end would justify the rest.  I didn’t like any of the characters and worse, I didn’t care about any of them.

Read Promise Not to Tell instead.

Testimony by Anita Shreve

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Explosive… Shreve flawlessly weaves a tale that is mesmerizing, hypnotic and compulsive. No one walks away unscathed, and that includes the reader. Highly recommended. – Betty-Lee Fox, Library Journal

Pretty much everyone has raved about Shreve’s latest novel, Testimony. I’ve been a Shreve fan since Eden Close, so I was looking forward to reading this book. The novel opens when Mike Bordwin, headmaster of Avery Academy, a private New England boarding school, views a tape depicting three of the school’s top basketball players having sex with  a female student who is clearly underage. While the story opens with Mike’s point of view, the novel flips back and forth allowing us to see how this event and its aftermath affects everyone concerned: the so-called victim, the three boys, their families and even members of the press called upon to report the event once the story is leaked from the school’s hallowed halls.

Shreve is  a talented writer and she manages to make individual characters come alive in this novel by employing third, first and even second person points of view. When the young girl speaks, she seems every bit like a fourteen year old, both naive and culpable. One  boy’s mother speaks in the 2nd person – perhaps to distance herself from the news that her son has done something reprehensible, inexplicable.

It may seem odd that the story’s inciting action is revealed in the novel’s opening pages, but as it turns out, the story unravels to reveal another event which contributes to at least one of the boy’s bad decisions. Silas’s story is heartbreaking and, for me at least, he  carried much of the story’s emotional weight on his shoulders.

We had an excellent discussion about this novel at Indigo’s book club. The ripple effect this event sends through the school and community- upsetting lives and relationships- was immensely powerful. In less confident hands, the novel might have slipped into tabloid sensationalism. Not for Shreve; she’s far too good a writer and Testimony is far too good a book.

The Woods by Harlan Coben

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So, I know there are loads of Harlan Coben fans out there. I get why people like him. He’s a straight-up writer, lots of dialogue and characters and plot threads to keep you busy. Coben’s the sort of writer you read when you’re looking for something fast-paced and, dare I say it, fluffy.

The Woods has a convoluted plot that concerns Paul Copeland, County Prosecutor. Twenty years ago his sister, Camille, went missing (presumed dead) along with three of her friends while they were all at a camp for teens. When one of the presumed dead turns up dead (again) twenty years later, it cracks open a door to a past that Paul knows nothing about.

I liked Paul’s character. He’s a smart-mouthed lawyer who isn’t afraid to look the bad guy in the eye. His chief investigator, Muse, is the female equivalent of Paul and they make a fine team.

For me, though, The Woods was just too busy and, at the end of the day, the secrets buried in the woods just weren’t enough to hang 400 pages on.