This week: Knausgaard's latest, plus the novel that won the Irish Book Award’s Crime Novel of the Year.
Adebayo explores the toll the intense pressure to have children exacts on one Nigerian couple across two decades. Akin’s large family disrupts his and Yejide’s happy but childless marriage by forcing him into a polygamous marriage without his wife’s knowledge. This betrayal and a last-ditch visit to a holy man convince Yejide that she is pregnant and she begins a year-long psychosomatic pregnancy. Just when she finally accepts that there will be no child, Akin’s brother Dotun seduces and impregnates her. The child is eagerly welcomed as Akin’s own, especially by his imposing mother. The happiness ends abruptly with the seemingly accidental death of Akin’s second wife. As subsequent traumas multiply between the couple, Adebayo slowly reveals their unspoken shame by having both narrate chapters covering the same events. Yejide’s strong ache to be a mother and her frustration with traditional Yoruba culture make her a complex character. Adebayo shows great promise in her debut novel. Her methodical exposure of her characters’ secrets forces the reader into continual reevaluations and culminates in a tender, satisfying conclusion
In this well-written account of dealing with war trauma, a still-taboo subject for many in the military, Brennan and O’Reilly, a retired Marine Corps sergeant and a battle-hardened photojournalist, respectively, confront the manner in which they were consumed by the hell of warfare and saved by the power of words and pictures. In Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, Brennan methodically goes about his work killing Taliban insurgents and, while serving in Iraq, children who get in the way. O’Reilly was driven in his own way in covering African wars and civil strife in Congo, Libya, and elsewhere. While embedded in Brennan’s squad in Afghanistan, O’Reilly photographs the wounds the sergeant suffers after an explosion. Their lives now linked, when the shooting stops and the blasts end for them, neither man can survive his respective trauma without treatment. O’Reilly seeks help and receives it without much ado. But Brennan must navigate the Corps’s byzantine bureaucracy and the perverse machismo of fellow soldiers and commanders who disparage post-traumatic stress disorder as a weakness. Brennan and O’Reilly strip away any misplaced notions of glamour, bravery, and stoicism to craft an affecting memoir of a deep friendship—one that nourishes their will to survive the memories of horrors that most noncombatants will never fully understand.
At the center of Gilvarry’s excellent second novel (after From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant) is Alan Eastman, a fading author on a mission to reestablish his literary and personal reputations. It’s 1973 when antihero Eastman is introduced. He’s in his 50s and in the middle of a crisis, having learned that his second wife, Penny, has left him, possibly for another man. Not quite a model, loyal husband, Eastman wastes no time before letting his suspicions and insecurities get the best of him. As part of a plan to win his wife back and keep his family intact, Eastman—though apprehensive—accepts an assignment to cover the tail end of the Vietnam war as a correspondent for the International Herald. The latter half of the book transports Eastman from his home in New York to Saigon, where he takes interest in Anne Channing, an ambitious reporter in her 30s who’s researching for a book project that will collect the personal narratives of local subjects. It’s in this relationship that the book’s greatest sources of tension reside; Channing attracts Eastman while challenging his ego, and one begins to root for her despite Eastman’s acts of condescension and professional sabotage. Gilvarry is skilled at highlighting the humor of hypocrisy, jealousy, exaggeration, and foolishness through scenes that crackle with amusing dialogue. The supporting characters come alive and animate every page, and play well off of Eastman, who, though volatile, petulant, and infuriating, still somehow comes across as endearing. Gilvarry succeeds in drawing Eastman as a convincing and recognizable composite of the breed of male figureheads who dominated American letters in the middle of the 20th century, only to realize the tides were slowly but surely beginning to turn against them.
Novelist Knausgaard (My Struggle) eloquently expresses the delights, rewards, and insights of looking closely in this, the first of a projected quartet of autobiographical volumes based on the four seasons. Writing to his unborn daughter—the author and his wife, Linda, already have three other children—Knausgaard revels in everyday items such as tin cans and rubber boots; his perfect deconstruction of an old-fashioned landline telephone is a joy. His thoughts take to the heavens as well, whether contemplating the sun overhead, the arrival of twilight, or the migration of birds each year. He is not shy about exposing the scatological or the cruel in life; there is both softness and hardness in his musings, reverence and irreverence. Most of all, his writing encourages the reader to see the connections between quotidian things and the bigger picture and to appreciate both continuity and change. Autumn hums in the background as apple trees flourish and days get darker, and one looks forward to what associations he will uncover in the remaining seasons of the year.
The fifth novel from Booker finalist MacLaverty is a quietly powerful elegy that chides two finely-wrought characters for not being capable of defining what they value most in life. Gerry and Stella, in a possibly final stage of their married life—a life that included a near-tragic brush with the Troubles back in their native Northern Ireland—take a winter trip from their home in Scotland to Amsterdam, a journey that starts as a holiday but ends a crucible. In the cold and gloom, amid puzzling ennui that has gripped Stella, Gerry, an architect and alcoholic, is a keen, if cynical, observer of a world he finds bemusing but less larded with burdensome meaning than does Stella. With a kind of existential humor he teases his wife about her religious fervor. Stella, meanwhile, is dead serious about her Catholicism, and she has secretly planned the holiday as a first step toward leaving Gerry. She has heard of a group of lay nuns who reside in Amsterdam, and she steals away one morning to pay a visit, thinking she might ask to join them. Stella is the alpha partner in this eroded relationship, but it is Gerry’s thoughts, about everything, upon which we rely for wisdom. Because the reader knows what Stella intends before Gerry does, his every observation is shot through with melancholy; his simple declaration of devotion on this graceful novel’s final page is exquisite.
Pablo was a baby when the “winds of change” guided him to the island of Isla, an inflatable swimming pool as his raft and a protective, curiously colored bird by his side. As Pablo’s 10th birthday approaches, his frustration over his lost history flares while Birdy remains flightless and silent. Then the winds of change and their promise of “fortune lost or fortune gained” return to Isla, this time bringing a pastry-thieving dog and a reporter seeking a mythical seafaring parrot, as well as strange behavior from Birdy. McGhee’s (Firefly Hollow) tender tale of the search for home, belonging, and identity smoothly incorporates elements of magical realism and powerful allusions to the refugee experience; for various reasons, most of Isla’s residents have chosen to make new lives there, something Pablo questions in hopes of better understanding his own past. Playful humor, often involving the Committee—a group of chatty, free-roaming birds that judges the fashion choices of passersby and stirs up trouble—deftly counterbalances the emotional weight of this moving tale. Ages 8–12.
The unfathomable motive behind a seemingly unprovoked attack by children’s book author Oliver Ryan on his wife, Alice, drives Irish author Nugent’s outstanding first novel. To most people, the handsome, charismatic Oliver and the plain, shy Alice appeared to have had a decent marriage for more than 20 years. The relationship was enhanced by Alice being the illustrator for Oliver’s world-renowned kids novels. Despite Oliver’s frequent affairs, he was discreet and the couple enjoyed a comfortable life in Dublin. The narrative alternates between those who knew Oliver and Alice at different times. Family members, friends, and acquaintances seek some clue to what caused Oliver’s brutality as Alice languishes in a coma. Even Oliver seems amazed at his actions because he was “fond of her, in my way,” and appreciative that Alice made no demands on him. The tension subtly rises as Oliver’s past unravels, revealing a loveless childhood rooted in religious hypocrisy. Nugent presents a fresh look at a man hiding his violent personality in this intense character study, which won the Irish Book Award’s Crime Novel of the Year.
Bestseller Parker (The Famous and the Dead and five other Charlie Hood novels) provides a glimpse into the shadowy, disturbing, and morally indefensible world of outsourced interrogation in this excellent series launch. PI Roland Ford, a former cop, has what seems like a simple case: find Clay Hickman, a patient who escaped from Arcadia, a private mental hospital in San Diego County. Like Ford, Hickman is a veteran, but his wartime experiences—working in secret prisons and torture—have scarred him deeply. Hickman may or may not be insane, but he has a real mission: to “bring white fire to Deimos.” What this means becomes horrifyingly clear as the narrative unfolds. Ford picks up Hickman’s tracks quickly and pursues him from San Diego to Ukiah, in Northern California’s wine country. He also runs up against doctor Briggs Spencer, Arcadia’s founder, who coauthored a “torture book” for the CIA. Like many Parker heroes, Ford is a decent human being with more than a hint of sadness about him.
After María Luisa O’Neill-Morales—Malú for short—and her divorced mother move from Florida to Chicago, the 12-year-old struggles with having her music-loving father so far away and with living up to a mother she has nicknamed SuperMexican. “Admit it, Mom,” Malú says during one of their squabbles. “I’m just your weird, unladylike, sloppy-Spanish-speaking, half-Mexican kid.” Malú takes solace in punk music and in creating handmade zines, which appear throughout; she also begins to make friends, forming a band—the Co-Co’s—that blends punk and Mexican music. (It also reclaims the slur “coconut,” which one of Malú’s classmates calls her.) Pérez’s debut is as exuberant as its heroine, who discovers that there’s real overlap between her Mexican heritage and the punk ethos she so admires. The relationships between children and parents are handled especially well: Malú chafes at her mother’s traditionalism while idolizing her friend Joe’s mother, a cafe owner who represents a merging of Mexican and punk cultures in a way that impresses Malú. A rowdy reminder that people are at their best when they aren’t forced into neat, tidy boxes. Ages 9–12.