January 25, 2015
In January 2010, a massive earthquake hit Haiti about16 miles west of Port-au-Prince, and the immediate carnage killed thousands of people and leveled buildings for miles. In the days that followed, dozens of aftershocks claimed more lives. Accurate accounts of the death toll remain hard to come by, but estimates range from 100,000 to more than 300,000. Even now, the scale of the tragedy is difficult to contemplate, much less to comprehend.
First-time novelist Dimitry Elias Léger seems uniquely qualified to sift through the real and psychological rubble. He was born in Port-au-Prince and studied at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. His writing career has led him to jobs at the Miami Herald and Fortune magazine. He has also served as an adviser to the United Nations during the disaster recovery operations, so he has some unique and valuable insights.
God Loves Haiti is set before, during and after the tragedy. The story moves back and forth in time, speaking to the horror of the situation and to the characters’ confusion. For them, nothing is stable any longer, not even the earth beneath their feet. Time itself has become unreliable.
The story itself is fairly conventional, though it boasts some lovely flights of surrealist fancy. The moral center of the novel resides with Alain Destiné, a suave and educated businessman. He has been having an affair with Natasha Roberts, an artist who has decided to leave Haiti and move to France with her husband, the President of Haiti. They are about to board their flight out of the country when the unthinkable happens.
“Natasha was about to blaspheme. She resisted the impulse. Barely. She sensed, on a primitive level, the scale of the rupture in history that had taken place. It frightened her. Her arms and legs and feet were caked with dust, so were her lips, face, and false eyelashes. With no warning, something had transformed her into a Caribbean version of a lava-caked citizen of Pompeii. And she was not alone. The moans of the wounded men and women both inside and outside the airport, which had been faint and distant, grew closer and louder. Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! they said.”
By switching between several narrators, Léger provides a Rashomon-like range of vision about the event. On her way to the airport, Natasha had taken the precaution of locking Alain in a closet and throwing away the key.
“It was an earthquake! Had to be,” Alain realizes. The event gives him the opportunity to reflect — albeit profanely — on Haitian culture: “But there’s no history of earthquakes in Haiti. None whatsoever. His parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents never mentioned it. And picking apart the nation’s colorful, sorrowful, and thrilling history is all Haitians do. It’s a sport, the … national pastime. History is all we have to take pride in, since our greatest achievement occurred in 1804, and we hadn’t contributed … to humanity in the intervening two centuries.”
Alain sounds especially negative about Haitian history, but he’s the one character determined to stay in the country and make things better. But with the president and his wife now overseeing an international recovery effort, the love triangle Léger has constructed begins to bend and twist.
The episode that best distinguishes God Loves Haiti from your run-of-the-mill disaster story, however, comes fairly early in a chapter titled “God Is On Line One.” The President, prone on the tarmac, has a vision in which all of Haiti’s previous leaders line up to speak to St. Peter and plead for eternal salvation. First in line in Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who after participating in the Haitian Revolution named himself Emperor JacquesI.
“To a man, they told Saint Peter to send them to hell. They could have been better men, they said. Then, one step ahead of the President came the turn of the so-called devil himself, President Dr. Francois Duvalier.” It’s a fascinating and powerful scene, one that could easily be counted among the most memorable passages written about that nation.
In God Loves Haiti, history, religion, politics and love — of each other and of our own sorry selves — come crashing together in remarkable and memorable ways. Léger’s rich knowledge of his homeland informs the lives of otherwise unremarkable people like us while they experience the sort of hardships we spend our entire lives praying to avoid. It’s a heartbreaking and lovely novel about what it means to survive the cataclysmic and about what’s lost — and perhaps even what’s gained — in the process.
My review of this wonderful novel ran on 12/14/14.
The order in which you read How to Be Both is entirely up to you. That’s of course true of all books. You’re always free to read the final chapter first if you’re so inclined. But in this instance, the Scottish-born Ali Smith has something special in store.
Her time-traveling, Booker-shortlisted novel features two distinct stories. Which one appears first depends on the copy you’ve purchased. In keeping with the title, the book has been printed both ways.
In my copy, the first story features a Renaissance artist who goes by the name Francescho. He’s a prodigiously talented illustrator who barters some of his drawings for the services of a nearby pleasure house and eventually gets work on an important fresco, among other projects. Even the unconventional syntax grants a fascinating kind of access to his mind:
But art and love are a matter of mouths open in cinnabar, of blackness and redness turned to velvet by assiduous grinding, of understanding the colours that benefit from being rubbed softly one into the other: the least of the practice will make you skillful: beyond which there’s originality itself.
For all his successes, Francescho’s life remains characterized by his inability to reconcile his sour relationship with his father. Similarly, in the other story, a young girl named Georgie is forced to cope with the devastating loss of her mother. Set in more or less contemporary Cambridge, her tale completes a kind of narrative yin and yang. Memories of a visit to Italy are particularly moving:
That night in their hotel room before they go to bed her mother is brushing her teeth in the bathroom. This hotel used to be someone’s house in the years when people made frescoes. It is called the Prisciani Suite and was the actual house of someone who had something to do with the making of frescoes at the palace where they went to see the pictures earlier.
Many of this novel’s great joys derive from Smith’s ability to tie together the two seemingly disparate stories in wonderful and unexpected ways. It’s a meditative book, steeped in the voices of these characters, and it insists on the precise kind of quiet attention so hard to come by these worldwide-wired days. In lesser hands, the flip-flopping order might have felt gimmicky, but Ali Smith is a master storyteller, and How to Be Both is a charming and erudite novel that can quite literally make us rethink the way we read.
September 26, 2014
Genre is usually the least interesting way to describe a book. The novels we consider timeless – and I’m talking Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter and Beloved here, people – always defy our rigid categories in exciting and unexpected ways. The volumes that make up Jeff VanderMeer’s thrilling Southern Reach trilogy employ elements of different genres, such as science fiction and the espionage thriller and even horror. In VanderMeer’s hands, those ingredients combine to form some inventive and remarkable fiction.
The first volume, Annihilation, appeared in February, and its sequel, Authority, turned up in the spring. Now, with the publication of the final volume, Acceptance, we have the conclusion of an incredible series. A secretive government program known as the Southern Reach has assumed responsibility for exploring and researching a mysterious geographical – or is that temporal? – zone known as Area X.:
Area X, before the ill-defined Event that locked it behind the border thirty years ago and made it subject to so many inexplicable occurrences, had been part of a wilderness that lay adjacent to a military base.
The scientists know very little about this place, and we readers know even less. VanderMeer does a masterful job of allowing us to figure things out on our own. The region has fallen prey to some alternation by an unknown force, perhaps a natural disaster or alien occupation. The official, public story is that some sort of accident at the nearby military base has rendered the land unlivable:
The government’s version of events emphasized a localized environmental catastrophe stemming from experimental military research. This story leaked into the public sphere over a period of several months so that, like the proverbial frog in a hot pot, people found the news entering their consciousness gradually as part of the general daily noise of media oversaturation about ongoing ecological devastation.
Whatever caused the change, the laws of nature seem to work differently inside Area X. Teams have been sent in to study the area, but those that manage to return are transformed in strange mental, emotional, and perhaps physical ways. Our story begins with what is thought to be the 12th expedition into the once-normal coastal region.
Annihilation features a team of scientists known only by their roles, such as anthropologist or psychologist. Our narrator is the biologist, whose personal connection with a member of the previous, doomed expedition complicates matters even further:
We were scientists, trained to observe natural phenomena and the results of human activity. We had not been trained to encounter what appeared to be the uncanny. In unusual situations there can be a comfort in the presence of even someone you think might be your enemy. Now we had come close to the edges of something unprecedented, and less than a week into our mission we had lost not just the linguist at the border but our anthropologist and our psychologist.
The next volume, Acceptance, doesn’t follow the linear trajectory of the plot but picks up the story of a man known as Control back at the Southern Reach. Acceptance takes another unexpected peripatetic turn, and it works wonderfully. Any further plot summary risks trespassing into the realm of spoilers. Suffice it to say there are plenty of surprises waiting and some positively baffling moments. I mean that in the very best way.
The trilogy works a little bit like a mystery. We move rapidly through its pages with the expectation of some great revelation at the end. The most impressive thing about this series, however, is the manner in which VanderMeer presents – and withholds – information we seek. We get answers to our questions, but those answers only make things more complicated. The more we learn, the more there is to know. By the time the final page flips over, much too soon, we might actually know less than when we started.
When “the mind expects a certain range of possibilities,” the biologist tells us in Annihilation, “any explanation that falls outside of that expectation can surprise.” VanderMeer’s series works the same way. It expands the range of narrative possibilities. In splicing the DNA of other genres into a literary novel of ideas, Annihilation and Authority and Acceptance join some of our most indelible books in asking us to rethink what we consider “literary” fiction. The Southern Reach trilogy is derived from an intensely febrile – and, I dare say, genius – imagination. It also happens to be great fun to read.
September 23, 2014
My review of this wonderful novel ran online on 9/23/14.
In The Bone Clocks, English novelist David Mitchell once again transports readers across time and space. The six novella-length sections are set from 1984 to 2043 and span the globe, setting us down in such far-flung locations as the Swiss Alps and Shanghai, remote Iceland, and the Australian Outback. One does not read a David Mitchell novel as much as climb aboard, grab on tightly, and get carried aloft on a magic carpet ride.
The international approach makes Mitchell one of our foremost novelists of this age of globalism, and it has served him extremely well in the past. Two of his novels – number9dream and Cloud Atlas – have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and it’s entirely safe to consider the later one of the true and rare masterpieces of recent literature. Further, his underappreciated The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, set at a Dutch trading post in 18th century Japan, is even more daring and, I think, even stronger in many ways.
At the center of The Bone Clocks is Holly Sykes, an Englishwoman who hears strange voices in her head, which she calls the Radio People. Her younger brother Jacko goes missing, and his absence creates a void that affects the goings-on in each of the subsequent overlapping storylines. The plot unfurls slowly and with a kind of literary precision one doesn’t encounter all that often.
Although this is a marvelously and painstakingly crafted book, it’s Mitchell’s all-too-human characters that keep the pages turning. These people – and its easy to forget that they’re characters and mere constructs on paper – are often awful to each other and to themselves.
Hugo Lamb is an economics and politics major at Cambridge whose early-1990s pursuit of profit takes a tragic toll on one of his so-called friends. Yet he remains sympathetic. The almost-washed-up novelist Crispin Hershey takes unimaginably brutal revenge on a critic who trashed his latest book. (Don’t get any ideas, Mr. Mitchell – I loved this novel.) A lot of deliciously bad decision-making goes on.
One of the most riveting characters is an English war correspondent, home from the Middle East for a wedding, who is forced to choose between his job and his family. “I don’t knock a peaceful and well-functioning society,” he tells us. “I enjoy it, for a few days, weeks, even. But I know that, after a couple of months, a well-ordered life tastes like a flat, non-alcoholic lager.” Mitchell makes us feel the weight of all of these tough choices. He has also sprinkled in a bit more humor this time around, which he uses to keep the growing tensions more or less in check until they finally explode.
The Bone Clocks is at heart a mystery: There are strange, seemingly out-of-body happenings neither the characters nor the reader fully understand. The elements of what we might consider fantasy or even science-fiction literature – which, again, Mitchell has previously used to tremendous effect – call to mind the transmigration of souls in Yukio Mishima’s landmark Sea of Fertility tetralogy more than, say, The Lord of the Rings or Dune. Even if those otherworldly strains feel a tiny bit shoehorned in at times, they make for some unexpected and enjoyable turns of the plot.
The Bone Clocks will feel comfortingly familiar in some ways to admirers of Mitchell’s previous time-traveling and genre-bending novels. It’s a joy to witness the workings of a singular creative voice at the peak of his powers.