Forced Emigration

Without a Country     Ayşe Kulin     (2016)

Translated from the Turkish by Kenneth Dakan     (2018)

In the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, German universities, funded by the government there, were highly esteemed. American students trekked off to Germany to pursue graduate degrees in both the humanities and the sciences. German research publications influenced scholars around the world. However, when Nazi oppression of Jews stepped up in the 1930s, many of the faculty in German universities and medical schools—Jews and those critical of the Nazi regime—were forced to emigrate. Although I knew these historical facts, until I read Without a Country, I had no idea that dozens of German scholars took positions in Turkey, which was building up its educational system in the years just prior to World War II.

In Without a Country, Ayşe Kulin tells the story of one German Jewish scholar and his family who leave everything behind in Frankfurt so that he can take a position in Istanbul in 1933. According to an author’s note, an actual German pathologist inspired the fictional character of Gerhard Schliemann, who lands a job in Turkey and negotiates with the Turkish government to find job placements in Istanbul and Ankara for many other German academics and physicians. Schliemann’s descendants grow up in Turkey and navigate the paths of nationality and religion in varied ways. The Schliemann family and their friends evolve not only as German/Turkish/American but also as Jewish/Muslim/Christian, some practicing, most not.

That’s the basic premise of this intriguing family saga that provides, in three sections, scenes from the 1930s/1940s, the 1960s, and then the present day. Most of the action is set against the magnificent scenery of Turkey, especially the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul, city of ancient churches, mosques, and palaces. Political movements and political unrest play out in the background; I fact-checked a few of the historical references and found them to be accurate. In a sense, novelist Kulin is telling the story of modern Turkey through her fiction.

In the first section of the book readers get brief scenes depicting significant incidents in the lives of the Schliemann family. The details of their escape from Nazi Germany to a welcoming Turkey are absorbing, and the individual characters come to life. Even in the second section, Gerhard and his wife, Elsa, remain in the story as their children and grandchildren take center stage. I was disappointed, however, in the final section of the book, which shifts from third-person narration to first-person, with the narrator being Esra, the great-granddaughter of Gerhard and Elsa. The multi-generational family chronicle is diluted as readers hear little or nothing of the fates of beloved characters from previous decades. The novel would have been much stronger if the contemporary section had been expanded considerably.

Still, I recommend Without a Country for its depiction of people in a multicultural society in an area of the world that has seen much discord. As Gerhard was “without a country” when he left Germany in the 1930s, so his great-granddaughter Esra will be “without a country” if she leaves Turkey in the present day. Kulin has a keen awareness of the sacrifices, compromises, and heroism of families caught in the tumult of history.

A Mystery in Cornwall

The Lake House     Kate Morton     (2015)

Morton.jpg

Really, nothing’s new in the fiction game. A few basic plots (the journey, the quest, the betrayal, the discovery) pretty much cover it, plus characters, settings, and episodes from one century or another. A writer of fiction assembles these pieces, using language as the glue and the paint. The artistry lies in wise choices of plot and characters and settings and episodes and language. Chaucer knew this in the 14th century when he reworked old stories and stock types into the magic of The Canterbury Tales, giving life to his pilgrim characters with a most sophisticated form of English. I’m not talking about plagiarism here but rather careful selection and artful re-crafting.

In The Lake House, Kate Morton selects

  • a little of the actual Lindbergh kidnapping case of 1932
  • a smidgen of the character of author Agatha Christie
  • pointers from 1930s Golden Age British mysteries
  • a bit of the fictional 1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the 1950s Chronicles of Narnia
  • a distillation of several contemporary fictional female British detectives.

Morton sets all these pieces in the fabulous landscapes of Cornwall and populates her family-saga-cum-mystery with deftly drawn individuals. The passages that describe the natural world in Cornwall and that build the personalities of the protagonists are particularly strong. The novel toggles back and forth between 1933 and 2003, with occasional forays into World War II and the years just before World War I. The time switching can become dizzying, but it allows for plenty of family backstory and for the integration of two distinct plots.

The book is long—at 492 pages, perhaps overly long—and complex. In 1933, during an elaborate lawn party on Midsummer Eve at an estate called Loeanneth in Cornwall, the infant son of wealthy Anthony and Eleanor Edevane, Theo, disappears from his nursery in the night. The boy is never found, either alive or dead, and the grieving family moves to London, abandoning the estate. Skipping ahead to London in 2003, police detective Sadie Sparrow is put on an enforced leave for leaking information about an unrelated case of a mother apparently deserting her young daughter. Sadie decamps to her grandfather’s retirement cottage in (wait for it) Cornwall, where she becomes intrigued by the 70-year-old cold case of Theo Edevane. A key witness from that night in 1933 is Alice Edevane, older sister of Theo, who, at age 86, is the doyenne of the police procedural novel in 2003 London.

Morton throws in innumerable flashbacks, including Sadie’s teenage rebellions, Anthony’s experiences in World War I, Eleanor’s upbringing, the genesis of Alice’s writing career, and even the background of Peter, personal assistant to the aged Alice. Although there are no explicit sex scenes, several romances are included, as well as many, many secrets. The tendency of the Edevanes to keep secrets allows for multiple red herrings in the mystery plotting. I’ve read an awful lot of mysteries, so I guessed about 75% of the secrets. Still, the last fifty pages of The Lake House surprised me, in a good way. I especially relished the final chapter, which takes the surviving characters ahead to the year 2004, giving a brief picture of how they all have adapted to the revelations of the year 2003.

Kate Morton is an Australian writing phenomenon and internationally bestselling novelist, now living in London. I’ve just discovered her work, and I plan to check out more of it.

The English Country Estate

Peculiar Ground     Lucy Hughes-Hallett     (2018)   

Walls: perimeter walls, border walls, the Berlin Wall, walls between persons, walls between peoples, the wall around the Garden of Eden, walls of inclusion, walls of exclusion, the walls of Jericho that came tumbling down. Walls both solid and figurative are found everywhere in Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s fascinating foray out of biographical writing into fiction. 

Hughes-Hallett.jpg

The “peculiar ground” of this novel’s title is a fictional Oxfordshire estate, Wychwood, a country house and huge expanse of land surrounded by a high rock wall. Readers drop in on the construction of this wall in 1663, with a first-person narrative by John Norris, the landscaper who is rearranging the terrain all around the estate, creating a British version of Eden in conjunction with the building of the wall. We get fully settled in at Wychwood, meeting the owners, the many people who tend to the owners and their property, and the mysterious and possibly magic-making groups who glide through the surrounding forests.

Then Hughes-Hallett whisks us away to 1961, the year when a barbed-wire fence is suddenly erected one summer’s night in Berlin, and armed guards are posted to keep East Berliners from heading to the West. The British reactions to this actual Cold War gambit are the backdrop to an extensive update on the Wychwood estate and its twentieth-century inhabitants. The wall around the pastoral paradise of Wychwood still stands, in glaring contrast to that threatening one in Berlin. Or is it so different?  Various assemblages of outsiders visit, invade, or otherwise challenge the enclosure of Wychwood as the narrative moves to 1973 and then to 1989. We meet direct descendants of characters from the 1663 segment of the story as well as new blood. But tragedy can visit in the twentieth century just as in the seventeenth.

Perhaps I was especially taken with Peculiar Ground because of its embrace of the seventeenth-century tradition of poems in praise of country homes. Ben Jonson initiated this subgenre in 1616 with “To Penshurst,” written to curry the favor of a wealthy patron of the arts. I found many echoes of this tradition in Peculiar Ground, with Hughes-Hallett’s sumptuous and specific descriptions of the verdant British landscape. Horticultural references slide right on over into other descriptions. A lord of the manor tells his lady, “I will cover you with Brussels lace, as the roadside is covered with a froth of flowers this Maytide.” (423) In the twentieth-century section, a dress is made of “bias-cut Liberty lawn covered with convolvulus, silvery-green pleats like the chitons of Athenian caryatids.” (102) When a young female character visits her aunts, she loves “to feel the slithery fineness of face powder in a gilded round cardboard box . . . to sense the odd peacefulness of their house, where no one had to be decisive or busy, or do anything other than exchange fragmentary quotations from the works of unfashionable poets, and wonder aloud when it would be time, finally to throw out the dusty arrangements of dried flowers.” (123) Such sentences made me stop and revel.

Peculiar Ground has so many layers—walls, gardens, magic—that it demands the close attention of the reader. I put bookmarks at the pages with the map of the estate and with the dramatis personae so that I could turn back frequently. But the reward is a richly detailed portrait of a particular and peculiar place on Earth. There are also morals to be found, especially for the current international political situation, in which refugees and other migrants face walls both literal and metaphorical. Check out John Norris’s comment during the plague of 1665, when the gates to Wychwood are locked: “Here, those suspected of being diseased are kept without the wall. In London they are kept walled in.” (386) As the plague threat retreats, the lord of Wychwood speaks condescendingly to his underlings, inadvertently summing up, “It is not upon heaps of stone that our safety depends, but upon the loyalty of our friends.” (429). 

If you like Peculiar Ground, you might want to read Edward Rutherfurd’s The Forest (2000), another British saga about magical woodlands. And on this side of the Atlantic, see my review of Annie Proulx’s Barkskins (2016), set in the forests of Canada and the northern United States. For different fictional approaches to Berlin and the Berlin Wall, see my reviews of Here in Berlin by Cristina García (2017) and Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (2015/2017).

Kids in 1930s Australia

The Strays     Emily Bitto     (2014/2017)

Bitto.jpg

This mesmerizing novel from Emily Bitto, first published in Australia in 2014, is now available in the United States. Set in Melbourne, The Strays is the first-person narrative of Lily, who finds a fast friend in Eva when they meet as children in third grade. It’s 1930, and the worldwide Great Depression has led to downward economic mobility for Lily’s family. She’s a friendless only child of conventional parents, so she jumps at the chance to become one of “the strays” taken in by Eva’s parents, Evan and Helena Trentham.

Lily’s parents don’t have a clue what they are exposing their daughter to when they allow Lily to spend increasing amounts of time with Eva and her two sisters. The Trentham household is unusual, to put it mildly. Evan Trentham is a modernist painter in a society that prizes more traditional art. He breaks with convention in other ways, too, for example by walking around the house nude and by squatting to defecate on the patio in full view of his family and Lily. Helena is a frustrated artist whose inherited wealth keeps the Trenthams afloat. Evan and Helena are terrible parents, by any standards, seldom attending to the basic needs of their three daughters. The young girls have to scrounge in the kitchen to find minimal food to eat, but they have ready access to alcohol and marijuana.

Yet Lily is entranced by the Trenthams, their huge old house, and their overgrown gardens. She’s especially besotted with Eva, in what she calls “that first chaste trial marriage between girls.” (55) Novelist Bitto’s descriptions of the girls’ closeness are striking: “I felt giddy as we walked arm in arm to the train station, playing our usual game, involving one of us attempting to walk in time with the other, while the other tried to avoid being walked in time with. This led to such a strange, hopping, arrhythmic gait that we always ended up laughing hysterically, pulling on each other for support and lurching all over the pavement. Some of the other girls in our class aimed disdaining glances at us as they passed on their way to the station, but this pleased us.” (81)

Alas, the situation gets out of hand when Evan and Helena invite several young modernist artists to move in with them, creating a kind of commune. The sexual liaisons of the artists are not described in detail, because we’re hearing the story from Lily, who is a young innocent. “There was a darkness that fluttered at the edges of my feeling, a tiny trace of rot on the jasmine-scented air, aroused by these rumors of sex that wafted toward us on our chaste couch-back; but I swatted them away.” (102) Several shocking crises ensue, and Lily leaves the Trentham household permanently at the age of fifteen.

The Strays is set up in four sections, with the first and last sections set in 1985 and the middle two sections set in the 1930s, as Lily’s memoir, after a fashion. The language in these two middle sections is particularly rich in imagery: “The light in the foggy kitchen window was a deep blue. The jagged leaves of geranium pressed against the glass were coral, and we were staring out into deep water from some sunken domestic bathysphere.” (155)

I have a couple of very minor complaints about this novel. The ages of the characters don’t quite square with the timeframes (1930s and 1985). And the transitions in the last section of the book are somewhat ragged, as Lily goes back and forth in time, filling us in on the years between her childhood and her late middle age. But this piercingly moving story about loneliness and friendship and the choices we make is a winner.

For other historical novels set in Australia, try The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman and The Golden Age by Joan London.

 

Prolix But Successful

The Nix     Nathan Hill     (2016)

Nathan Hill has written an excellent book. Remember this as you read my petty complaints, which I’m going to get out of the way first:

Hill.jpg

1—There are at least four separate novels crammed into The Nix, centered on (a) Samuel Andresen-Anderson, a college professor and failed writer who was abandoned by his mother, Faye, in 1988; (b) Faye Andresen-Anderson, a sweet Iowa girl who got involved with anti-war activists in 1968 Chicago; (c) Pwnage, a video-game addict who plays online with Samuel in 2011; and (d) Laura Pottsdam, a “college sophomore and habitual, perpetual cheater” in 2011. Plus there are several sub-plots. All that said, Hill pulls these disparate pieces together well.

2—About 100 pages could have been cut out of the 620 pages of The Nix. For example, in sections about video games, Hill goes out too far on the verbosity limb. The wordiness does tend to amplify Pwnage’s obsessions, but my head was swimming for many pages.

3—The Nix fudges the dates of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Yes, yes, I know about authorial privilege in creating a fictional universe, but it really messes up readers’ engagement with the story when the novelist plays loose with significant historic events in a novel that’s firmly entrenched in a particular period. (I’m fine with fudging obscure events.)

4—The title of The Nix refers to a Norwegian house spirit that appears at pivotal points in life. I like this conceit a lot, but I found Hill’s invocation of the nix sometimes strained.

So why do I still think that The Nix is an excellent novel? Hill’s vocabulary range is astounding, and his sentence structure is mesmerizing, recalling for me the work of much more seasoned writers, such as Michael Chabon. Hill can make the most mundane description remarkable, as in this riff on traffic in Chicago: “The closer he gets to the city, the more the highway feels malicious and warlike—wild zigzagging drivers cutting people off, tailgating, honking horns, flashing their lights, all their private traumas now publicly enlarged. Samuel travels with the crush of traffic in a slow sluggish mass of hate. He feels that low-level constant anxiety about not being able to get over into the turn lane when his exit is near. There’s that thing where drivers next to him speed up when they see his turn signal, to eliminate the space he intended to occupy. There is no place less communal in America—no place less cooperative and brotherly, no place with fewer feelings of shared sacrifice—than a rush-hour freeway in Chicago.”

Hill can even pontificate in a way that isn’t offensive. He examines the motivations of his character Faye at length. Here is a brief excerpt: “She knew that way down deep she was a phony, just your average normal girl. If it seemed like she had abilities that no one else did, it was only because she worked harder, she thought, and all it would take for the rest of the world to see the real Faye, the true Faye, was one failure. So she never failed. And the distance between the real Faye and the fake Faye, in her mind, kept widening, like a ship leaving the dock and slowly losing sight of home. This was not without cost. The flip side of being a person who never fails at anything is that you never do anything you could fail at. You never do anything risky. There’s a certain essential lack of courage among people who seem to be good at everything.”

Hill captures the mood and texture of historical periods exceptionally well, even though he’s too young to have had direct experience of those periods. His home economics classroom in 1968 Iowa, for instance, is priceless and spot-on. Even minor characters in The Nix come alive. Readers can, for example, deduce quite a bit about Faye’s college friend Alice from this description of Alice as an older woman: “She’d decided that about eighty percent of what you believe about yourself when you’re twenty turns out to be wrong. The problem is you don’t know what your small true part is until much later. . . She grew up and bought a house and found a lover and got some dogs and stewarded her land and tried to fill her home with love and life and she realized her earlier error: That these things did not make you small. In fact, these things seemed to enlarge her. That by choosing a few very private concerns and pouring herself into them, she had never felt so expanded. That, paradoxically, narrowing her concerns had made her more capable of love and generosity and empathy and, yes, even peace and justice.”

This sprawling, ambitious novel about small choices that have enormous consequences is definitely worth your time, and Nathan Hill is a novelist to watch.

Procreational Shenanigans

The Heirs     Susan Rieger     (2017)

Five sons are the beneficiaries of the estate of Rupert Falkes, who dies in the first chapter of The Heirs. Or maybe there are seven sons, since it comes to light after Rupert’s death that he may have had a mistress and family on the side. But then again, maybe he didn’t.

This witty novel has a large cast of characters who populate its complex plot, which lurches back and forth in time. Novelist Susan Rieger fleshes out the personalities of the five sons quite well, but it’s the mother, Eleanor, widow of Rupert Falkes, whom readers come to know best.  “Rupert married Eleanor because she was the girl of the year in 1960, because all the other men he knew wanted her, because she knew the difference between sarcasm and irony, because she was a knockout, because she’d read George Orwell, because she was sexually electrifying, because he could talk to her.” (13) Later in the novel we learn that “she was a MILF before there was a word for it.” (205) Okay, then, you should get the drift: sexual adventuring is a theme in The Heirs.

The family doesn’t need the money that Rupert leaves. They’re all filthy rich in their own right. It’s the inheritance of uncertainty about Rupert’s past that dominates their discussions and Rieger’s analyses of their discussions. Rupert was a self-made man, an orphan who was left as an infant on a church doorstep in England in 1934 and rose to be a prominent New York lawyer. His family thought they knew him. Eleanor was from well-established American bloodlines and brought wealth to the marriage. She’s more inscrutable, but she’s fully adept at social graces, like knowing not to wear white shoes after Labor Day.

Rupert’s sideline in sons isn’t the only procreational plot in The Heirs. For instance, Rupert’s gay son, Sam, longs desperately for a child of his own. And the wife of an early boyfriend of Eleanor’s wonders if her husband might be the father of at least some of Eleanor’s kids. The liaisons get mighty tangled.

Like her characters, Rieger is acerbic and sophisticated, willing to insert barbs no matter how sharp and providing a glimpse into the lives of the elitist ultra-wealthy. Despite, or perhaps because of, the furious pace and the elements of retroactive continuity, The Heirs is deliciously entertaining. And if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’m a sucker for novels set in New York. Check out other reviews in the New York Novels category from the Archive of Book Reviews in the right column.

A Dystopian America

The Mandibles:  A Family, 2029-2047     Lionel Shriver     (2016)

Hang onto your hat. The year is 2029, and Russia and China now rule the world. The economy of the United States has crashed spectacularly, because of the national debt run up by the Latinos who control the federal government. All savings and investments are worthless, inflation is uncontrolled, jobs have disappeared, and ordinary citizens have become scavengers and thieves to stay alive. Guns, though forbidden, are essential. Despite the dire situation, elderly Americans continue to be cosseted, through programs such as Social Security and Medicare, because they are reliable voters. (Somehow, voting isn’t disrupted.)

Caught in this maelstrom are four generations of the Mandible family, New Yorkers who used to be upper middle class. Over the course of the eighteen years that this novel covers, most members of the Mandible clan survive and eventually escape to a locale (I won’t reveal where) that has created an isolationist libertarian paradise, basing its economy on the gold standard, with a flat tax and no social services. In other words, Lionel Shriver’s book is not just an echo of Ayn Rand but a loud, clanging reverberation.

A “mandible” is a jawbone, and in this novel the Mandibles exercise their jawbones frequently to expound on political and financial issues. I grew weary of the ultra-right-wing screeds against the Federal Reserve and against non-white people. There were even snide references to Chelsea Clinton and someone named (ha-ha-ha) Krugman. Almost all the characters whom Shriver presents as reasonable and civilized humans espouse views that are economically untenable and, to me, morally reprehensible.

Yet I kept reading through to page 402 in order to follow the threads of daily life in Shriver’s dystopian scenario. As housing becomes scarce in the years after 2029, more and more of the Mandibles crowd into one home, inevitably creating scenes of interpersonal conflict. What do you do when there is no more toilet paper and very limited water supply? How do you stretch a cup of rice to feed a crowd? These conundrums of human existence in a sadly debased America are sometimes solved in clever ways. And some of the future language that Shriver injects into the dialogue is amusing, if flippant. For example, since the very aged Baby Boomers are pariahs, the word that replaces “crap” is “boomerpoop.”

A couple of the characters in The Mandibles are intrepid in the face of disaster. The hero of the Mandible family turns out to be Willing, who is thirteen years old in 2029 and comes of age as he teaches himself advanced survival skills. He’s the one who leads the way to the promised land of libertarianism. Another Mandible, Avery, who is middle-aged at the start of the novel, blossoms: “Things seemed to matter again. It seemed to matter how she spent her time and what she told her children. Why, it was tempting to wonder whether, while the likes of the Stackhouses were musing idly over whether to cover the footstool in taupe or mauve, folks on the margins were living real lives, and making real decisions, and conducting real relationships, full of friction and shouting and moment—whether all this time the poor people had been having all the fun.” (188)

But mostly The Mandibles is a book about ugliness. Kindly people die. Hard-nosed scammers prosper. The only African American character has advanced dementia and is kept tied up.  As Carter Mandible, an unemployed economist, pronounces, “It’s the decent people who always get fucked.” (125)

The Mandibles did prod me to consider the place of the Unites States in history. Shriver puts these same considerations into the mind of my favorite character, Florence, early in the book: “She didn’t think about being American often, though that may have been typically American in itself. She didn’t regard being American as especially formative of her character, and that may have been typically American, too. . .  For years now it had ceased to be controversial to suppose that the era of the ‘American Empire’ was fading, and the notion that her country may already have had its day in the sun she didn’t find upsetting. Plenty of other countries had flourished and subsided, and were reputed to be pleasant places to live. She didn’t see why being a citizen of a nation in decline should diminish her own life or make her feel personally discouraged.” (74)

A Southeast Asian Story

Miss Burma     Charmaine Craig     (2017)

Craig.jpg

The dust jacket for Miss Burma tells us that novelist Charmaine Craig is a “descendant of significant figures in Burma’s modern history.” And Craig’s dedication for the book is to the memory of her mother, Louisa, and of her grandparents Ben and Khin. These three are major characters in Miss Burma, so right from the start, I was wondering how much of the story is factual—how much Louisa, as a participant in historic events, told Charmaine directly. Obviously, the novelist had to invent many lines of dialogue in order to create 355 pages.

Charmaine Craig’s grandmother Khin was from the minority ethnic group in Burma called the Karen (kah-REN). Her grandfather Ben (or Benny) was born into a Jewish family in Burma but raised partly in India when he was orphaned. When Benny marries Khin, he decides to identify with the Karen people. The novel follows Khin and Benny’s family through a tumultuous period in Burma’s history, as the country becomes a battleground between the British and the Japanese in World War II and then as civil war among ethnic factions causes further devastation in the following decades. Benny becomes a leading member of the Karen resistance to the majority Burmese. A key event in the narrative is the beauty contest in 1956 in which Khin and Benny’s mixed-race daughter Louisa is crowned Miss Burma. We get Benny’s thoughts at this event: “From the looks of it, these people were prepared to adore whichever girl, of whichever origins, became their queen. Perhaps beauty alone had the power to transfigure people so. And yet, Benny reminded himself with a shudder, there was something insidious about beautifying the country’s image by means of a girl, whatever her background, for somewhere in the darkness beyond the delta, innocent people continued to be shot and killed.” (226)

Louisa herself is sometimes ambivalent about the struggle of the Karen people. We learn that she had “this feeling that it was wrong for anyone to claim exclusive rights to a corner of the earth—wrong for no other reason than that everyone was passing. . . . She was suddenly sure that Burma’s most beautiful feature was its multiplicity of peoples.” (318)

A little Burmese history is helpful if you decide to read this novel. Burma won its independence from Great Britain in 1948. After years of civil war, the current military regime took power and changed the name of the country to Myanmar, though it’s still known as Burma in some political circles. Probably the best known figure in Myanmar is Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now State Counsellor. Her father, Aung San, is portrayed as a character in Miss Burma. Like many other nations, Burma has long been struggling with how to bring diverse ethnic and tribal peoples together. How do you decide on proper representation? Do you set up a separate territory for every minority group? What if territory is disputed? How do you address differences of language and religion? How do you end state-sanctioned genocide and community-based thuggery?

As Charmaine Craig lays out the case for better treatment of the minority groups in Burma, she can get somewhat preachy, and the segments in which she graphically describes brutal guerilla warfare are grim. I preferred the chapters in which she explores the personal relationships of the characters and their ethnic identities, against a backdrop of national chaos, in the lush landscape of Burma. Miss Burma is for readers who like delving into history that’s less well known in the US, especially those who are intrigued by southeast Asia.

Koreans in Japan

Pachinko     Min Jin Lee     (2017)

“Pachinko” is a popular Japanese slot-machine game. You may wonder, until well past the halfway point of this novel’s 485 pages, what pachinko has to do with a saga about four generations of a Korean family in the twentieth century. Have patience.

First you have to be well steeped in the story of Sunja, a poor teenager who is seduced by Hansu, an older Korean gangster, in her village in what is now South Korea. By chance, Isak, a Korean Christian minister, passes through the village. He rescues Sunja from the ignominy of an unwed pregnancy by marrying her and taking her to Japan, where he will work as a missionary. The year is 1933.

Historical events of the turbulent twentieth century constantly buffet Sunja, Isak, and their extended family and friends in Japan, where the bulk of the story plays out. Japan’s expansionist wars of the 1930s and 1940s fuel nativist sentiments in the Japanese  populace. Korean immigrants, who are “zainichi” (foreign residents), are relegated to the most menial jobs and are paid less than Japanese for the same work. Korean children born in Japan do not become citizens—they’re essentially countryless. As one character pronounces: “’This country [Japan] isn’t going to change. Koreans like me can’t leave. Where we gonna go? But the Koreans back home aren’t changing, either. In Seoul, people like me get called Japanese bastards, and in Japan, I’m just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make or how nice I am.’“ (383)

Once Korea is partitioned into North and South in 1948, the situation gets even murkier: “After the [Korean] peninsula was divided, the Koreans in Japan ended up choosing sides, often more than once, affecting their residency status. It was still hard for a Korean to become a Japanese citizen, and there were many who considered such a thing shameful—for a Korean to try to become a citizen of its former oppressor.” (441)

A few ethnic Koreans living in Japan figure out that they can become entrepreneurs in the pachinko business, and a well-run pachinko parlor can turn a nice profit. Proceeds from pachinko parlors, plus help from that gangster Hansu, pave the bumpy road out of poverty for some characters in the novel. Other characters hide their Korean ethnicity, dressing like the Japanese, learning to speak Japanese without an accent, taking a Japanese spouse. This subterfuge is possible because the physical characteristics of Japanese people and Korean people are often very similar.

The straightforward, direct sentence style in Pachinko suits the themes of the novel, and the Korean and Japanese words in the text give the flavor of the setting without weighing down the narrative. I caught the simple ones, like “kimchi” (the Korean dish of fermented cabbage and radish) and “hanko” (a hand stamp of one’s name, used throughout East Asia). The meanings of other words were obvious from their context, but I had to look up a few as I read.

It would have been easy for novelist Lee to paint the Japanese as always the bad guys and the Koreans as always the good guys, but she does not adopt this dichotomy. Although she lays out the Japanese discrimination against Koreans clearly, her long list of characters includes both Koreans and Japanese who are deceitful and honest, talented and mediocre, wise and foolish, lazy and hardworking, compassionate and heartless, selfish and generous, prejudiced and open-minded. She pulls into her story subplots that touch on issues such as the status of minority Christians in Japan and the evolving attitude toward the place of women in the family and in the workplace over the course of the twentieth century. 

Above all, though, this is a universal story about the immigrant experience—about taking a job that’s far beneath your skill level because you don’t know the language, about being segregated into a slum area, about being subject to complicated rules that you don’t understand, about living constantly with fear. Immigrants enter a game of chance, stacked against them, much like pachinko players.

In her Acknowledgements, Lee tells us that it took her nearly thirty years to write this impressive novel. It was well worth the time.

A Chinese Tea Tale

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane     Lisa See     (2017)

“’No coincidence, no story.’” With this quote from her mother, the first-person narrator of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, Li-Yan, begins. Remember that line as you read Lisa See’s moving tale of the collision of a traditional culture with the modern world.

In the mountainous Yunnan province in the far southwest of China live the Akha people, one of China’s tiny ethnic minorities. The Akha speak a distinctive language and practice a kind of animistic religion, involving many taboos and ritual sacrifices, guided by patriarchal village shamans. When this novel opens, in 1988, the province was even more isolated than it is today, and because of its inaccessibility the Akha people were not touched very much by such Chinese political movements as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. They were also exempt from China’s One Child policy because of their minority status.

Li-Yan is the daughter of a tea-growing Akha family, but she yearns for an education and an escape from her isolated village. When she has a baby out of wedlock, she refuses to allow the baby to be killed, as is the Akha tradition. Instead she makes a grueling journey on foot to an orphanage in the closest town to relinquish her daughter, who is wrapped up with a tea cake (a block of compressed tea leaves). Without revealing spoilers, I can tell you that Li-Yan’s adventures over the next twenty years bring her considerable success, mostly because her mountain’s rare tea leaves, called Pu’er, become international best sellers. But Li-Yan constantly misses the daughter she gave up and wishes she could find her.

Interspersed with the story that Li-Yan narrates are varied documents, such as letters and transcripts, relating to this daughter of Li-Yan, who is adopted as an infant by a Caucasian American couple from California and named Haley. Haley has a privileged upbringing, but she never feels fully part of American culture and longs to find her Chinese birth mother. Coincidence comes in here, as Li-Yan and Haley almost meet more than once.

Some reviewers of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane found the lengthy disquisitions on the cultivation of tea trees and the processing of tea leaves onerous to read. I liked these sections, which build the background for the role of tea trading in the novel. Besides, I’m a great fan of tea. And tea is, as you might guess, part of the final coincidence that ties this novel up.

Some reviewers also criticized the author’s extensive descriptions of Akha culture. I liked these sections, too, especially the accounts of religious rituals and of the distinctive clothing of the Akha, which is rich with indigo-dyed fabrics, embroidery, and elaborate women’s headdresses. Late in the book, a character describes the Akha: “’In the West, you think the individual is supreme, but the Akha see themselves as one link in the long chain of life, adjacent to all the other links and cultures.’” (352) The contrast of the tribal Akha ways with the lifestyles in large Chinese cities and in California, where some of the action takes place, appealed to me, as did watching Li-Yan’s adaptation to totally different cultural norms. Here is Li-Yan in a large Chinese city: “I take a deep breath to fortify myself, mortar into place another brick to hide my secrets, and settle my face into what I hope is a pleasant expression.” (222)

Lisa See is a talented writer with nine published novels about Chinese and Chinese American characters. If you like The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, try her 2009 novel, Shanghai Girls, next.

Family Sagas: Three Reviews

Review #1

Commonwealth     Ann Patchett (2016)

I can accord all the usual accolades to Patchett, who deftly spins a saga covering fifty years of a family that she admits is somewhat like her own—it doesn’t matter exactly how much. Commonwealth is a set of interconnected novelettes about the affairs, divorces, and remarriages of the older generation and the resultant dysfunctions visited upon them and their children in California and Virginia. The characters are wonderfully crafted, the scene-setting is vivid, and the pacing is energetic. But there’s a serious flaw in this book that I simply cannot get past (spoiler coming). One character, who has a clearly known allergy, dies from anaphylaxis. Patchett repeatedly presents Benedryl tablets as the antidote that the character should have ingested, possibly because these tablets have other roles in her story. In fact, the death could have been prevented only if epinephrine (in an EpiPen) had been administered quickly. This is not a footnote in the novel but rather a defining event. Is Commonwealth still worth reading? Yup. But I’ve warned you.

Review #2

The Turner House     Angela Flournoy (2015)

For a comprehensive examination of the decline of the great city of Detroit, read the classic nonfiction text, The Origins of the Urban Crisis:  Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit by Thomas J. Sugrue. For an intimate portrayal of the effects of that crisis, read The Turner House by Angela Flournoy. I’m pretty familiar with Detroit. Flournoy has captured the city in its gritty bleakness of the early 2000s as well as, through flashbacks, in its manufacturing glory of the mid-twentieth century. Her angle in is the varying fortunes of the African American Turner family, with thirteen children who were born in the better days and are aging in the dying urban landscape. Although the cast of characters is huge, Flournoy keeps the plot manageable by developing primarily the stories of the oldest and youngest of this clan. The house that the Turners grew up in is depicted lovingly, as an organism in decline. The Turners are African Americans, but The Turner House is about working class Detroiters of any race or ethnicity who are trying to maintain family bonds through tough times.

Review #3

The House at the Edge of Night     Catherine Banner (2016)

Like Shakespeare’s island in The Tempest, Catherine Banner’s island of Castellamare is a tiny Mediterranean refuge for shipwrecked souls, a place of implausible coincidences and occasional magic. Banner follows a family on Castellamare throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, starting each section with a local legend that sets the tone for her archetypal, folkloric characters. The titular House at the Edge of Night is a bar and gathering place for the island community. Readers watch as the succeeding generations of Amadeo Esposito’s family take on the management of the bar, through periods of prosperity and depression, war in the surrounding world, and conflict in the village. Although the novel has a dreamlike, wistful quality, Banner treats serious issues such as clan loyalty, sibling discord, political clashes, and the rival demands of career and family. 

Proulx and the Forest

Barkskins     Annie Proulx     (2016)

In the year 1693, we meet the original “barkskins” of Annie Proulx’s gigantic novel.  René Sel and Charles Duquet are poor young Frenchmen who take their chances in agreeing to cross the Atlantic and serve for three years as loggers in return for a promise of land of their own. Arriving in the maritime regions of New France (now Canada), René and Charles are stunned by the brutal weather, the vicious mosquitoes, and the virgin forests of unimaginable magnitude.

Proulx.jpg

The two axe-wielders take divergent paths in the wilderness. René Sel sticks with his backbreaking job, reluctantly marries a native Mi’kmaq woman, and dooms his descendants to lives of hard labor in the forests to which they are constantly drawn. The Sel family gets stuck in a racial borderland between European and indigenous cultures and never thrives.

Charles Duquet, however, quickly abandons the tree felling and makes his fortune, first in furs and then in lumber, changing his name to Duke along the way. Charles is the consummate shark, founding a dynasty and a business empire.

Over the three hundred years that Proulx follows these two fictional families, both the Dukes and the Sels exploit the forests—the Dukes through land deals and the Sels by actually chopping down tree after tree after tree. The branches of their families occasionally brush against each other. (The characters are so numerous that I needed to flip frequently to the genealogical charts at the back of the book.) Sometimes Proulx pauses and develops a character in depth. At other times she tosses out names and moves on with her plot.

In the end, the main character of Barkskins is the forest—that vast forest that stretches across much of the North American continent at the beginning of the book. Although the species vary as the barkskins and lumber barons move westward, clearing the land, I think Proulx sees all the trees of North America as part of one mystical body. She’s at her most eloquent in describing this character.

When the surveyors in her story get to what will become the state of Michigan, they find sugar maple, beech, yellow birch, oak, hickory, pine, hemlock, spruce, and fir in forests so dense that the paths of the Native Americans are almost impossible to follow. The huge diameters of the trees are a challenge to the technology of the period. I pored over the descriptions of my home state’s trees, in awe of Proulx’s rich language.

She is, in effect, writing a eulogy for the North American forest, which has become a victim of human depredation, part of a global destruction of the environment. As Proulx takes us through the centuries, we see the respect that native hunter-gatherer societies had for the natural world give way to the Europeans’ demands for tillable land and space for cities. Feeding and housing hordes of immigrants increasingly take priority. The forest sighs, weeps, groans, and dies.

The human toll exacted by the felling of those hundreds of millions of trees is not ignored by Proulx. Gruesome deaths, either directly or indirectly related to the timber industry, abound. I found these deaths difficult to stomach; picture the possibilities with axes, lumber mill saws, huge jams of logs rolling through river rapids, and the menacing branches of toppling trees.

This is a glorious but tragic novel, a moral statement about the failure of humans to be stewards of our planet’s abundance. Yes, Proulx’s ending is weak, her narrative seeming to dwindle like the forest itself. In 1693 no one could imagine that the North American forest would ever end. The tragedy that Proulx documents is not one cataclysmic event that's easily recognized. Rather, it’s the loss of one tree after another, until the forest is gone.