This Is How It Always Is – Laurie Frankel

Laurie Frankel tackles some compelling and timely questions in her widely-praised novel This is How It Always Is. It’s one of those “issues” novels that makes it, as the Globe and Mail suggests, “a must for your next book club discussion.”

Penn and Rosie live a somewhat charmed life in rural Wisconsin. Rosie is an ER doctor; this is how Penn is a writer-cum-stay-at-home- dad. They have five sons: Roo, Ben, the unfortunately named twins, Rigel and Orion, and finally, Claude. In almost every way the Walsh-Adamses seem to have life figured out.

As almost everyone with children knows, parenting is hard. Harder still when life throws you a curve ball and the curve ball for this family comes when, at three, Claude announces that along with being

a chef, a cat, a vet, a dinosaur, a train, a farmer, a record player, a scientist, an ice-cream cone, a first baseman, or maybe the inventor of a new kind of food that tasted like chocolate ice cream but nourished like something his mother would say yes to for breakfast. When he grew up, he said, he wanted to be a girl.

Rosie tries to put Claude’s proclamation into context. He is, after all, only three; precocious, sure, but still only three. As time goes on, though,  Rosie and Penn discover that his playing ‘dress-up’ is not a passing phase. Claude tells his parents “I’m not usually.”

Like any good parents, Rosie and Penn want their son to be happy and it turns out that what would make Claude happy is not to be Claude, but to be Poppy. Eventually that necessitates a move (to Seattle), some secret-keeping and the first real bump in the matrimonial road for the couple.

I had a few little issues with this book. Not with Claude/Poppy’s story, really. And not with the writing, which was excellent, (although I did find that the book was over-written and often bogged the story down).

I really wished that Frankel had spent a little bit more time demonstrating how Poppy’s reality impacted her brothers. Clearly, Roo struggled a little, but somehow it seemed as though we were expected to believe that all his issues were resolved…by magic? good parenting? I dunno.

I also took issue with the end of the book. Rosie runs away with Poppy to a place where ladymen are no big deal, and somehow this experience rights everyone’s ship. By the time they return to the States, people who had been mean to Poppy have seen the error of their ways in a manner far beyond what might be expected of ten-year-olds.

It’s all a little too happily-ever-after for me.

All of this aside, though, I think This Is How It Always Is  is a big-hearted book about a topic that is both timely and important. It’s worth a look.

 

 

Foe – Iain Reid

foeFoe is my second novel by Canadian writer Iain Reid. I read  I’m Thinking of Ending Things  a couple of summers ago. I found that book deeply unsettling. And clever. Foe is well… deeply unsettling and clever.

Junior and his wife, Henrietta, Hen for short, live a sort of isolated existence out in the country. It’s just the two of them, so the arrival of a man, Terrance, is strange because as Junior remarks: “We don’t get visitors. Never have. Not out here.”

Terrance has come to tell Junior that he’s made OuterMore’s long list.

We’re an organization formed more than six decades ago. We started in the driverless automobile sector. Our fleet of self-driving cars was the most efficient and safest in the world. Our mandate changed over the years, and today it is very specific. We’ve moved out of the auto sector and into aerospace, exploration, and development. We’re working toward the next phase of transition.

Junior has been selected to go to space as part of The Installation, “the first wave of temporary resettlement.” Junior isn’t all that chuffed, but Terrance is pretty excited on his behalf. It’s not a done deal yet, of course, and Terrance will have to make several visits over the coming months because if he is chosen, Hen will be provided with a companion – someone who looks and talks and acts just like Junior; someone who is 3D printed just for her – to stay with her while her husband is gone.

When Terrance actually moves into their house to collect data (although even that is vague enough to cause Junior unease), Junior starts to feel his marriage unraveling. Hen is distant and secretive. The structure of their very ordered lives starts to crumble. Junior becomes more paranoid. It won’t be long before you, too, will be wondering just what in the heck is going on.

You’ll be swept along by Reid’s unfussy prose and metaphysical questions. Junior tries to remember his life before Hen, but his life “was unremarkable, unmemorable.”

We only get so much mental space in which to store our memories, and there’s no reason for me to waste it on what came before.

Reid builds on these questions of identity and memory, while also creating an ominous atmosphere. I love unreliable narrators, and Reid is especially good at writing them. Reid is definitely an author to keep your eye on.

My Absolute Darling – Gabriel Tallent

Gabriel Tallent’s debut (DEBUT!) novel, My Absolute Darling, is going to be difficult tomyabsolutedarling write about – not only because the subject matter is contentious, but because I don’t have an adequate vocabulary to express just how truly astounding this novel is. (I guess he gets the extra ‘l’ in his last name because when they were handing out talent, he got more than his share. Seriously.)

Julia (though everyone calls her Turtle) Alveston is fourteen. She lives with her father, Martin, in Northern California. Her mother is dead. Although her father sometimes works as a carpenter, the two of them are isolated and live pretty much off-the-grid. The only other adult in her life is her grandfather, Martin’s dad, who lives in a trailer on their property. Turtle goes to school, but she is friendless; she is more comfortable roaming the woods and shooting guns, than she is talking to kids her own age.

Turtle’s relationship with Martin is complicated. Martin is an imposing figure, both physically and intellectually. But he is also a seriously damaged man and it won’t take long for readers to see that the relationship between father and daughter is, among other things, abusive. But then, even that doesn’t adequately explain things.

After a meeting at school, where Turtle’s teacher expresses concern with her progress, Martin says “Is this the sum of your ambition? To be an illiterate little slit?”

His meaning comes to her all at once like something lodged up in a can glopping free. She leaves parts of herself unnamed and unexamined, and then he will name them, and she will see herself clearly in his words and hate herself.

There is always simmering violence in Turtle’s home, a house tellingly “overgrown with climbing roses and poison oak.” There are guns and knives inside, both of which Turtle knows how to use with startling proficiency.  Martin is a survivalist who fervently believes that “Humanity is killing itself – slowly, ruinously, collectively shitting in its bathwater….”

Turtle has learned to read her father, to anticipate what’s coming. It’s hard – very hard – to watch her negotiate with herself, or justify Martin’s abuse, particularly the sexual abuse. Tallent wisely chooses a limited third person point of view to tell Turtle’s story; I don’t know how readers could bear it otherwise.

She thinks, do it, I want you to do it. She lies expecting it at any moment, looking out the window at the small, green, new-forming alder cones and thinking this is me, her thoughts gelled and bloody marrow within the piping of her hollow thighbones and the coupled, gently curving bones of her forearms. He crouches over her and in husky tones of awe, he says, “Goddamn, kibble, goddamn.”

When Turtle meets Jacob and Brett, her world starts to crack open a little bit, but it’s not until Martin arrives home, after a protracted absence, with ten-year-old Cayenne in tow, that Turtle starts to reconsider her life. She knows she has to “really goddamn look at it without lying….”

Tallent said in a 2017 interview for Mashable that ” “…good books ask us to be courageous readers.” I think he’s right, of course, but I don’t think everyone will be able to stomach the violence in My Absolute Darling. That said,  this book is worth the effort.

First of all, Tallent’s a gifted writer. His descriptions of the natural world – almost a character in and of itself – are masterful. This is Turtle’s domain and it’s important. She can survive in the wild, and those survival instincts serve her well. Secondly, Turtle is a character you will not soon – if ever –  forget. She is tough because she has to be, but there is a tenderness about her, too. Her friendship with Jacob is unexpected and impossible, but also essential because it gives Turtle a glimpse into a normal world that has been denied to her. Finally, Martin is not a one-note villain. Although my feelings about him didn’t really waver, I still found some sympathy in my heart for him. That’s a tribute to Tallent because, mostly, Martin is a narcissistic monster. I believe Martin loves Turtle, but in a twisted, possessive, controlling way.

I highly recommend this book, although I understand that it won’t be palatable for many readers. It was on my short list as a potential selection for my book club, but I knew – even before I read it – that most of the women in my group would have a very difficult time with its subject matter. After reading it, I can say with certainty that I was right: they would have hated it. But I would argue that it’s compelling, intelligent and  worthy of the copious praise it has received.

Highly recommended.

 

Rooms – Lauren Oliver

Lauren Oliver is well-known in the YA fiction world, but Rooms is her first novel for roomsadults…although the distinction hardly matters, really. Rooms is the story of the Walker family, alcoholic mother Charlotte; twenty-something Minna, her single-mother daughter, and Amy, her granddaughter; and Trenton, her awkward teenage son. They’ve returned to the house they once called home to pack things up. Richard, Charlotte’s ex and the children’s father, has died and now it’s been left to them to pick up the pieces. They aren’t alone. The house is inhabited by two ghosts: Sandra and Alice.

All of these characters have stories to tell. Mostly they are stories of loss and dysfunction. Sandra and Alice, in particular, are trapped by their memories, which Sandra claims are “thick as mud.” These two women watch the Walker family stumble around with varying degrees of affection and distaste. Alice has tender feelings towards Trenton, who she remembers as a young child claiming that “For years, I’ve longed to see Trenton. He was the most beautiful child….” She can’t quite believe that the “absurdly tall, skinny adolescent, with the sullen look and dingy-dark hair”  who stumbles into the house all these years later is the same boy.

The Walker children don’t seem to have happy post-divorce memories of their father. Minna is caustic towards Trenton and indifferent toward her daughter. Trenton has clearly had a difficult time, too. He is virtually friendless and has recently been in an accident (the details of which are revealed slowly), which has left him physically damaged. He longs for someone in his family to tell the truth.

Everyone in his family lacked integrity. They were corrupt (antonym).  His mom, Caroline, was the worst. She had lied to everyone for so long, Trenton wasn’t even sure she knew the difference anymore.

Rooms doesn’t follow a linear narrative. There’s more than one story to be told here, and the ghosts want their fair share of the limelight. While Richard was still alive, Sandra and Alice took bets about where he would die. Alice wins, remarking “Richard Walker does not die at home. Thank God. I’ve shared the house with him for long enough.”

The house itself is a character. “It’s corners are elbows, its stairways our skeleton pieces, splinters of bone and spine.” Trenton takes a different view.

…they were just rooms, many of them empty and thus unfamiliar, like the rooms of a stranger’s house. It didn’t matter much. The past would come along with you, whether you asked for it or not.

Rooms is a family drama and a ghost story. It is a story about secrets, regrets and finding a way to forgive – yourself and others. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Diablerie – Walter Mosley

5BFAE846-1C5C-4C6F-88E7-2D73D1804D5C
Yeah, so Diablerie was a weird one for me. I haven’t read anything else by acclaimed writer Walter Mosley and I am not sure that I will be rushing out to purchase any more of his work, but all that said, he can definitely write. This book, though, is just odd.

Ben Dibbuk is a successful computer programmer with a beautiful wife and a college-age daughter. He’s 47 and, on the surface at least, has it all together. What he doesn’t get from his wife, Mona, he gets from Svetlana, his 21-year-old Russian grad student girlfriend.

Then at the launch of a new magazine, Diablerie, his wife will be working on, Ben meets a woman, Star, who claims to have known him back in the day. When Ben claims he can’t remember who she is, she replies “Come on, Ben. You can’t forget me, us, that day…not something like that.”

Whatever this something is, it drives Ben batshit crazy trying to remember.  Star tells him that they “spent almost twenty-four hours living on whiskey and sex.”  As Ben tries to recall this former life, his current life starts to unravel.

Readers will have to decide for themselves whether you care about any of it. I didn’t, but I kept reading anyway.

The Daughter – Jane Shemilt

732E19BC-CA2D-4623-B4E1-EA31B053BDE9It’s probably every parent’s worst nightmare: your child just doesn’t come home one day. That’s the premise of Jane Shemilt’s debut The Daughter.

Jenny is a successful family doctor in Bristol. She’s married to Ted, also a physician. Together they parent twins, Ed and Theo, 17, and Naomi, 15.  Life is busy for the family, which means that sometimes things slip through the cracks. Pretty much every parent  can relate to that. Things are particularly hectic right now because Naomi is starring in her school’s production of  West Side Story, and she is always dashing off.

But on the night before the last performance, Naomi doesn’t come home. She doesn’t respond to her mother’s frantic phone calls. She’s not at the theatre or the place she’d told her mother she’d be. She’s not with her friends.

The Daughter is a page-turner, for sure, but it is also a meditation on modern marriage, parenting, and the fine balancing act of having a career and a family. Jenny is so convinced that she understands her daughter, her sons, her marriage, but it turns out there are cracks everywhere.  Jenny feels blindsided by her daughter’s disappearance and by the fissures which suddenly appear in her domestic life.

If I was asked, I would say she was happy, that Ted and I were as well. I would say we were all perfectly happy.

The novel’s narrative isn’t straight forward. We are given glimpses into Jenny’s life just before Naomi leaves, and then several months later when she has taken herself to Dorset, to the family’s cottage. In these passages, we see how Naomi’s disappearance has affected Jenny and those around her. It’s not that Jenny’s life has come to a complete standstill, but certain aspects of her life have been derailed. She has not given up all hope that Naomi will be found and her grief is palpable.

But it not only Jenny’s grief that drives the narrative. Her husband also suffers. “I look for her everywhere I go,” he tells Jenny months after Naomi’s disappearance. “Don’t give up,” he tells her. “Don’t ever give up. I still think we’ll find her.” Jenny’s sons also suffer under the horrible weight of this loss.

Shemilt handles all their grief and a plot that might have proved unwieldy with a great deal of finesse. I raced to the end, which was both heartbreaking and unexpected.

 

 

Girl in Snow – Danya Kukafka

5919CB39-1143-49E3-BCAE-98D1717F025EDanya Kukafka’s debut novel, Girl in Snow, earned copious praise from anybody who’s anybody in the book world and it’s easy to see why everyone was hyped up.

When they told him Lucinda Hayes was dead, Cameron thought of her shoulder blades and how they framed her naked spine, like a pair of static lungs.

Kukafka’s novel is a sort of mystery, but not in the traditional sense. Lucinda, a popular 15- year-old, is discovered  in the playground of the elementary school. She’s been murdered.  Lucinda’s death is certain in the incident that kicks the novel off, but it’s the three-person narrative that keeps its motor running.

First there’s Cameron, the boy who loved Lucinda from afar. Perhaps saying Cameron ‘loved’ her isn’t quite the right word. He watched her obsessively.  He drew her.  He feels like he knew her better than anyone, “The way her legs flew out when she ran…How her hair got frizzy at the front when she walked home from school in the heat….the way she squinted when she couldn’t see the board.”  When Lucinda’s body is found, Cameron is one of the first suspects because a classmate had once told a teacher that Cameron “was the sort of kid who would bring a gun to school.”

Then there’s Jade. When she hears the news of Lucinda’s death she says that “faking shock is easier than faking sadness.”  Jade lives with her mother and sister and I wouldn’t characterize her life as necessarily happy. She resented Lucinda, and so her classmate’s death inspires little more than antipathy.

Finally, there’s Russ, a local cop who used to be Cameron’s father’s partner before he did a runner, leaving his wife and son behind.  He feels protective towards Cameron and his feelings are further complicated by the feelings he had for Cameron’s father, Lee.  He is also suspicious of his wife, Ines’, ex-con brother, Ivan, who just happens to be the person who discovered Lucinda’s body.

It is through the lens of these characters that we see Lucinda. I wouldn’t say that Girl in Snow is a page-turner, but that’s because these are complicated people with complicated feelings and Kukafka cares about every word she writes. This is a book to be savoured and these are characters you won’t soon forget.