Dalia Sofer’s The Septembers of Shiraz follows the Amin family as they navigate their lives post Iranian revolution. Isaac, the father, is arrested and imprisoned, accused of being a spy. His innocence is clear to everyone involved and equally irrelevant. More interesting than the scenes of torture, solitude, desperation and panic (and these are interesting) is the moment when he negotiates for his life with his captor. In this moment we learn that his captor, too, has been wrongly imprisoned and tortured, that he, too, has feared for his life. That the lines of ‘good’ and ‘wicked’ are arbitrary, shifting and dependent on self-survival. Whatever you can do for yourself and your family you will do, the novel suggests, and history, heritage, ‘common humanity’ are elusive ideals held only by those safe and privileged enough to exercise them.
What allows Isaac and his family escape from Iran is wealth. I initially wrote ‘What saves Isaac and his family is wealth’ but they aren’t saved by that at all. ‘Saved’ with all its connotations of safety, purpose, comfort are not what they find at the novel’s conclusion. And saved from what? The novel does well to expose the ways those taking power are doing so out of long felt experiences of powerlessness, that these are not fixed states, but arbitrary divisions easily reversed. The son, studying in America, is not ‘saved’ by wealth, nor the daughter, lonely, isolated and incredibly afraid. Farnaz, the wife-mother, too, believes wealth a bulwark against any danger, discovers that while money can buy an exit it does not buy love or home.
It’s a profoundly sad novel in its consideration of the privilege so many occupy, and the abuses of this privileged power so routinely and callously delivered. Perhaps hopeful for the exploration of what genuinely offers meaning and value in life (family, poetry, community, love). Perhaps.
It took me two times to read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. On my first effort I made it about a hundred pages in and decided it wasn’t for me. I was distracted when reading, I guess, or missed what was certainly in front of me: a tremendously good novel of (historical) fiction.
Set in the 19th century we follow Cora on her escapes from a slave plantation in Georgia. If you know anything about this book you know that it features a literal underground railroad: think boxcars and steam engines moving along metal tracks. And Cora does take that physical railroad with many stops along the way. The function of the railroad as a mode of transportation is one also to transport us to different scenes of racial inequality, white supremacy, brutality and horror – demonstrating the ways racism manifests in physical chains and in refusals of opportunity. That is the novel unravels what is ‘structural’ about racism, even while making structured the metaphorical railroad of history.
The novel explores these scenes and the complicated ways white characters live, exercise and wield their privilege with nuance. The efforts of sympathetic abolitionists are complicated by their own fears for their lives or standing in the community; the abhorrent beliefs of slave catchers are revealed as explanatory by the circulating ideas and belief structures of their time. Individuals are culpable, though their actions are positioned in relation to, or explained through, the wider structures that surround them in ways that offer if not empathy or absolution, than a profound recognition of the ways in which the readers’ present beliefs and actions must similarly be filtered through imperfect and unjust structures that are both bigger than and constituted by individuals.
Cora herself is great because she comes in to the narrative as a woman relying on no one, willing and able to exert power in the limited ways she has available to her, and sensitive to the dependencies and needs of those around her without being defined by them.
So yes, if you haven’t read this one yet (you probably have!), go! make haste! And if the first 100 pages don’t grip you… keep on.
Folks. Do not read The Witch Elm. Tana French is great and writes wonderful mystery novels that are giant and delightful, but this is not one of them. Though most review sites disagree with me, so I’m probably wrong or just irritable.
Toby, our protagonist, is super obnoxious. He’s entirely self-absorbed, petulant and unaware of how spoiled his is by everyone around him. He uses his girlfriend, Melissa, in ways that the novel doesn’t seem to be aware of, making her self-sacrifice some kind of example of how women are meant to be when their partners are down trodden. Melissa is cast against Toby’s cousin, Susanna, who is some Gorgon-like revenge-monster, making the alternative vision of femininity one of calculated destruction. Even while Susanna is a maternal figure, ending up with her husband because she couldn’t figure out another option, and mostly seeming bored by her children (a common trope when trying to be edgy and counter the helicopter parent).
I suppose the book is supposed to be about understanding who we are and what we are capable of when pressed by circumstance or when the culture around us doesn’t take our concerns and experiences seriously. There’s probably something meritorious in the exploration of that theme, but honest to god, the book PLODS through these questions, ever so slowly reeling out the circumstances of the murder, the connections among characters and their pasts, supposedly building suspense and adding character complexity, but really just irritating me as I didn’t see the point to long digressions about how much wine there was to be had. Which isn’t to say I want all books to be pot boilers. Honestly, I appreciated that Toby’s uncle was a genealogist, a cute way of getting the reader to think about how our inheritance, too, shapes who we think we are and what we think we should be like as people. There were other clever approaches to the thematic question, but they all kept getting blocked for me by how utterly boring the whole thing was. This question of are we born lucky. Do we control our fate. How are we constrained by gender and sexuality. What do we owe friendship and experience. How does memory contribute to our sense of self and identity. Such great questions. Just so… dull in execution.
I did a lot of reading this summer. The bulk of that reading was Louise Penny novels, and so rather than write one post after the other about Inspector Gamache and descriptions of Quebecois cheese, I’m writing this one post, and it’s fine, because the novels are all the same: a pleasant romp through a picturesque Quebec countryside with characters that make you hope for a better world, even while murder abounds and threats of Darkness loom. I also read a lot of recipe books – many featuring the Instant Pot – of which I will not bore you.
I read The Murder Stone, A Great Reckoning and Glass Houses. My mum rightly pointed out that I’ve done myself a disservice in reading out of order, but let’s be clear that I’m not likely to ever go back and read the others, so finding out that one of the detectives has a drug problem after he’s been to NA and gotten married to Gamache’s daughter hardly ruins the thread for future reading.
So right. If you’ve not encountered Louise Penny here’s the thrust: her novels win heaps of awards. People love them. There are organized bus tours to the town where Penny lives so that people can visit the cafe featured in the novel. They’re incredibly enjoyable while you’re reading them, something entirely comforting like so many wool sweaters and mugs of tea. Inspector Gamache has cult followings who want to know where he ‘actually’ lives (my beliefs about Gilbert Blythe notwithstanding, fictional characters only live in the mind).
So what’s the deal? My guess is that people (and me while I’m reading them) like the security of a man who is kind and who exemplifies the tropes of a gentlemen-masculinity that are all laughable in reality. We want to believe that men can be kind, brave and stand up for principles and values amid a world of corruption, greed, lust and those other sins. Despite All the Evidence to the contrary, and more importantly, despite the reality that no one ever needed men to be the bastions of honour in the first place, Gamache is an irresistible character because of these qualities. We swoon at the idea of a kind and noble man who occupies a place of power because there are so few examples in reality.
I’m not advancing a novel argument here. I’m sure anyone reading the books would come to the same conclusion. That it’s as much the attraction to Gamache and his pastoral perfect life as it is the mystery around the murder that keeps us reading. We want to be close to a life of comfortable chairs, exquisite food (though the descriptions of food are something distracting – like I have to get up and make bread and cheese before I can keep reading) and totalizing romance because such a place and such people are all but impossible to find in the world we occupy. Utter wish fulfillment.
So it’s something of a rude awakening to come back to 2019 and recall the moment we are in. The responsibilities of being flawed after spending so many hours with the flawless is taxing. It almost makes me want to read non-fiction. Almost.