Prayers for Rain, by Dennis Lehane

This 1999 private eye novel, featuring Patrikck Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, is the last mystery Lehane wrote before he produced Mystic River, a novel which announced his graduation into more literary work. And this novel shows he was ready to do just that.

From the opening pages, one senses an author in full control of his characters, as they roam from the streets of Boston to the South Shore, plus encounter the unexpected developments that introduce hidden deceit and moral complexity.

Meanwhile, complementing the action is colorful badinage between Kenzie and Gennaro that emphasizes their renewed relationship, as well as Kenzie’s frequent insights. Such as the “slightly confused, slightly guilty” look of dogs.” Or: “I could see her in a nursing home 40 years form now, alone, spending her days lost in the bitter smoke of her memories.” Or: she “uncrossed her legs and tucked them to the side in that effortless way that all women can and no man is remotely capable of.” All of which evokes a literary sensibility hovering just beyond the action-filled plot.

The story begins when an innocent girl, Karen Nichols, asks for protection against a would-be rapist. Kenzie scares the villain off, then learns a few months later—after Karen tries to get in touch with him and he ignores her—that she has committed suicide. It makes no sense to him that such a girl would do so, and a sense of guilt drives him to learn about the wealthy family she belonged to. It is headed by Christopher and Carrie Dawe, who raised a son Wesley and daughters Karen and Naomi. It is a patrician family, a mixed up family, a family filled with resentment. And a family vulnerable to blackmail and violence.

Soon, Kenzie figures out the cruelty and corruption the family hides, as well as its history of destroyed innocence. He also uncovers the confusing relationships between these family members and scheming interlopers who seek the Dawe forturne. Which leads to Kenzie finding himself in a can-and-mouse game with an unknown villain. This turns out to be Scott Pearse, whose evil strategy is to manipulate his victims’ minds until they do whatever he suggests, even commit suicide. The suspense builds when the sadistic Pearse tries this strategy on Kenzie himself, and appears to be continually one step ahead of the private detective’s efforts to protect both the Dawe’s fortune and its members from further bloodshed.

Fortunately, Kenzie has the help of Gennaro, his side-kick and girl friend, as well as that of Bubba Rogowski, an ex-soldier who exudes brawn over brain and is a typical muscleman for private eyes like Kenzie. Bubba leads their final escapade in the cranberry bogs of Plymouth, resulting in a bloody finale in which life is cheap but the good guys come out on top.

However, I found one fault with this mystery, which occurs when Lehane goes for broke in his ending. He tries to top his initial solution to this family mystery with a second solution that turns the first solution upside down. And this becomes too much for me. Such surprises in other Lehane novels do work, but this time he tries too hard. He doesn’t need the extra twist that suggests that final justice is still to be wrought.

Note also that the meaning of the title I do find to be elusive. Rain is water, which is a symbol of rebirth. Which the Dawes seek in their own way. Heavy rain can also call for courage and peace of mind in order to survive. Which is what Kenzie seeks when faced with the manipulative villain. And so I wonder if Lehane does not intend the title to refer to the villainous Pease and his desire to control others, a control that leads to family disintegration. For there exists a song of disintegration by the band, The Cure, which concludes:

“You fracture me, your hands on me, a touch
So plain so stale it kills
You strangle me, entangle me
In hopelessness and prayers for rain
Prayers for rain
Prayers for rain
Prayers for rain.”

Finally, I read this novel to catch up on Lehane’s complete work. And it was worth the effort, particularly when, despite extended violence, it suggests the literary novelist to come. (June, 2019)

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Some Rise by Sin, by Philip Caputo

This 2017 novel, set in the small Mexican town of San Patricio, uses three stories to capture the town’s economic vulnerability amid the violence of a drug war. First is the story of Father Tim Riordan, an American priest who has chosen a kind of exile in the town and is a revered figure there. It continues with the story of Lisette Moreno, an American doctor who has fallen in love with the town and its people; but she is also a lesbian, which she must hide from the locals. And, finally, there is the story of the Brotherhood, a violent movement of narcos who have browbeaten the town and seek to control the entire area. Both the army and the national police strive to destroy this gang, but must deal with similar efforts by a local militia led by a parishioner, Cesar Diaz.

Each story is beautifully told, especially that of the priest. The novel introduces him at length, and one expects this work to be a portrait of a lonely, introspective priest far from home who has earned the trust of his parishioners. That is, Caputo gets truly inside him, probing his thoughts on his vocation, his dedication to his work, and his theological doubts. The novel’s overarching story begins when, in a military mishap, two civilian anti-war demonstrators are killed, and Riordan is requested by Diaz, chief of the town’s local militia, to ask the military leaders for an apology

But finding the perpetrators gradually recedes, as the other stories prevail. And while the three stories work in parallel, they remain on separate tracks. The priest’s doubts revolve around the seal of confession, and his efforts to protect his parishioners. Meanwhile, Lisette, the doctor who has brought modern medicine to a primitive village, is entrapped into treating Julien, the wounded leader of the narco gang. And finally, the Mexican army, under Captain Valencia, and national police, under Gregorio Bonham, also known as the Professor, join their forces to destroy this ambitious and violent narco movement.

The problem, as indicated, is that the three stories never come together. Father Tim is involved in each one, but his involvement in one aspect never ties in with his connection to another. His main issue as a priest concerns the seal of the confession. Should he break it, does he break it, when doing so warns of and perhaps even prevents the violence that has penetrated this village. It is a heartfelt search of his conscience that brings the priest alive early in this novel. For some, this novel might recall Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, with its tale of the whiskey priest in a small Mexican village, but the priest here, a responsible man, is far different.

Nor does Lisette connect the three stories. Her own concern is her lesbian affair with a friend, the painter, Pamela Childress, also an American. Their issue is whether their relationship can survive in a distant Mexican village. Lisette is linked to the story of the Mexican drug wars, as I said, when she is forced to operate on the wounded leader of the narcos. But that dramatic scene does not relate to further developments in this novel.

Finally, there is the story of those narcos, The Brotherhood, as they call themselves. Defeating them prompts both cooperation and competition between the army and the national police, who are jealous of each other’s efforts, plus disdainful of the local militia. Their rivalry is personified by the army’s brutal Captain Valencia and the more refined leader of the national police, the Professor. The latter has been a corrupt official in the region’s drug wars, but, unlike Valencia, relates to the educated priest.

The problem is the ending, when the experiences of the five main characters—the priest, the doctor, the captain, the Professor, and the narco leader Julian—never come together. Instead, each story is resolved separately. That of the priest, as he confronts Captain Valencia, is especially disappointing, for its abruptness. And also because the conscientious father abdicates from his responsibility as a priest, after so much of the novel probes deeply his commitment to his vocation and to his conscience.

At least, it becomes an ending, as does his entire life, that only a writer with a Catholic background could impart meaning to. Which is illustrated by these thoughts that arise in the closing paragraph: “It was he who bore the sins—his own sins and Cesar Diaz’s and every sin he’d heard confessed in his lifetime as a priest. He would atone for them all.”

The title, Some Rise by Sin, comes from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. A valid theme for this exploration of evil, it means that some can justify their lives, can rise, by committing sinful deeds. Or, in more direct language, that the end justifies the means, long a source of debate in Catholic circles. It applies here most forcibly to the actions of the priest. Can the breaking of the seal of confession be justified if it can prevent violence and save lives? That issue is fully examined here from a Catholic perspective, and is again evoked on the final page.

But Lisette might also be said to be furthering evil when she operates to save the arm and the life of the wounded leader of the Brotherhood. Which, in turn, despite all its violence, preaches that it is fighting the corruption of the Mexican state in behalf of its citizens. Even Valencia and the Professor, by the contrast in their actions, emphasize that there are good and bad methods to achieving a desirable end.

And speaking of ends and means, Caputo does not miss the irony that as two Americans, a priest and a doctor, try to alleviate the suffering endemic to this small Mexican village, other Americans are indirectly, if ignorantly, fomenting the town’s narco wars by importing illegal drugs from Mexico in the first place. It is another reason for Father Tim’s commitment to his Mexican parishioners. He is making amends, both personal and political.

Caputo enriches this novel by means of a Catholic framework. Without Riordan’s doubts and self-recriminations, this work would lose much of its texture as well as a philosophical depth. I would hope that more of Caputo novels are enhanced by exploring such a religious texture. It may not please some critics, such as the New York Times reviewer who says that “Breaches of Catholic doctrine are hazardous plot hinges,” and cites as evidence The Heart of the Matter. But that novel refers inward, to a personal sin, while Father Tim’s reaches outward, to his parishioners. (May, 2019)

Finders Keepers, by Stephen King

From 2015, this is a second mystery novel from Stephen King, one that not only builds on the events of his prior mystery, Mr. Mercedes, but also surpasses that novel in both its believable suspense and its literary context. This novel features two familiar characters from the prior book: Bill Hodges, a retired detective, and Holly Gibney, now his middle-aged and brainy assistant at the detective service that Bill calls Finders Keepers. But at the core of this novel is a new character, the teenager Pete Saubers, who makes a fascinating discovery in a field not far from home.

What Pete finds is notebooks written by John Rothstein, a famous author of teenage angst who has retired to a quiet haven in New Hampshire and no longer publishes his fiction. These notebooks contain two unpublished novels that extend Rothstein’s Jimmy Gold series of three published novels. Rothstein is obviously patterned after J. D. Salinger, the actual author who also retired to New Hampshire after writing about teenagers. In this novel, two Rothstein readers have identified with Jimmy Gold, not only Pete but also a young Morris Bellamy, who becomes the villain of this novel.

It is because Morris is an understandable, if violent, villain, and because this novel’s denouement is much more natural than is that of Mr. Mercedes that I found this to be the superior work. While on still another level, I was fascinated by the worship a literary author prompts in the lives of these two youths. As well as by the contrast in their response to the notebooks, and how differently both their lives are changed as a result.

On the opening pages, a young Bellamy, with two accomplices, kills Rothstein, accusing him of betraying his readers. How? By ending the third novel with Jimmy Gold appearing to sell out to the world of advertising. But an ironic fate now raises its head. Bellamy, fearing being caught after the murder, flees home, hides the notebooks in a trunk, and buries them in a field behind his house—not having had time to read the two unpublished novels and learn how Jimmy’s fate has changed. And then, before he can dig them out to read, he commits a rape and receives a life sentence. With the result that for the next 35 years, Bellamy yearns for freedom so he can recover those notebooks, read them, and learn what happened to Jimmy Gold.

King alternates Bellamy’s life story with that of Pete Saubers, the other Rothstein fan, and his family. And his father, mother, and sister do make a fascinating family. Pete’s father, for example, was injured in the prior book when the car of the title deliberately plowed into a crowd of people. As a result, family tension is high as it falls on hard times.

The stories of young Pete and the grizzled Bellamy begin to come together 35 years after the original murder, when Pete finds the trunk with the notebooks, and reads the rest of the Jimmy Gold story. Whereupon, King continues the suspense, as he did in Mr. Mercedes, by alternating still more between the two adversaries, his young hero and this hardhearted criminal.

Along with the notebooks, Pete discovers in the trunk more than $20,000, which he uses to secretly support his poverty-stricken family. But finally the money runs out, and, with the family finances still depleted, he explores selling the notebooks. For the sale will also enable his provocative and smart younger sister Tina to go to the rich high school of her dreams.

By now, Bellamy, paroled from prison, has arrived back in the small Midwestern town of Northfield, where Pete lives. And, as he seeks out the notebooks, he discovers the one coincidence in this story—that Pete Saubers and his family now live in the same house where Bellamy himself grew up. Which has made it convenient for Pete, years later, to wander into the same field and discover where Bellamy had hidden the trunk with the notebooks.

As an aside, the title of this book reflects not just to Hodge’s retirement business but also to the “right” that Pete has to the money and the notebooks that he has found. For this novel is built on that key event.

Alternating among the two Rothstein fans, one seeking to read the notebooks and one seeking to sell them, along with the efforts of Hodges and Holly to support and protect Pete, the novel builds to a deadly confrontation between Pete and Bellamy, which explodes into a threat to Pete’s family, and eventually even puts at stake the existence of the notebooks themselves.

The richness of this novel evolves from its exploration of two points of view about our literary heritage and two points of view about our responsibility toward one another. All of which makes this work more than a tension-filled mystery. Through its reverberations of the world of J. D. Salinger, it draws us into a portrait of our attitude toward American culture, as well as into the tensions between the idealism and the violence that pervade our society.

There is violence here, note, but no horror. None of King’s trademark of the past. This is simply the King the storyteller, with a tale that fuels the imagination of every reader. Until the final chapter, that is, which introduces something new.

This is when Bill Hodges resumes his hospital visits to Brady Hartsfield, the killer of Mr. Mercedes. Because Bill is growing more and more suspicious that this villain is only pretending to remain in the coma he endured after being violently subdued at the end of Mr. Mercedes—and thus preventing from going off a bomb that would have killed hundreds of children. Hodges suspicion is confirmed after he leaves the hospital, for in the final paragraph Brady activates an e-reader, opens a distant water faucet, and tips over a photograph. All without moving from his hospital bed.

It is the only suggestion in this novel of a world beyond the natural, the only suggestion that King has not forgotten his origins as a novelist of horror. But what it also appears to do is to foreshadow the last in this series of three Northfield novels. It teases that something is going to happen in the third novel that will take us beyond our normal human experience. One can only hope that such developments will be believable. And hope for a similar literary or philosophical context that will also extend the story-telling of this final work in the series beyond the limits of a horror story. (May, 2019)

 

The Keep, by Jennifer Egan

This 2006 work is a strange novel. We read mainly about Danny and Howie, two cousins who have a back story in which Howie has a reason to resent Danny. Now, Howie is wealthy and invites Danny to join him at a castle in Central Europe that he is restoring and from which he has deliberately removed all forms of modern communication. Danny has offended some gangster types in New York and needs to escape, so he is grateful for the invitation. But when he arrives at the hotel he is uncomfortable at losing communication with the outside world. He is also not sure whether he should trust Howie. Has his cousin invited him abroad because he finally is out for revenge?

But just as we get into the intriguing and realistic story about their relationship and about the castle and its keep, their story is interrupted, and more than once, by a first person narrative of Ray, a convict confined in a maximum security prison for violent offenders. Who is taking a course in creative writing under a teacher named Holly. And it is difficult to see the connection between these two stories.

But of course they do come together at the end. Except, in a strange way. They come together as mutual stories of confinement and escape, of victimization and imagination. Moreover, only one of the stories is real, even though both have been presented in vivid detail, especially that of the partly restored castle, which is built over hidden tunnels, and otherwise is dark, is falling apart, and houses a mysterious and elderly, albeit seductive, baroness.

One sees such disjunction as characteristic of Egan novels. Which often jump back and forth in terms of place and time and culture. They keep the reader working, keep him off balance, presumably to get him more involved in her work. But there is also a playfulness here, almost a taunting, as if she wants to keep one step ahead of the reader. To say, this is my world, my story. Not yours. Not what you may be accustomed to.

This is illustrated most openly by the voice of Ray that keeps popping up out of nowhere to address the reader. It may be about how a certain transition is achieved. Or it will reveal a character in one story becoming a character in another story. Which certainly pulls the reader up short, pulls him out of the world he is reading about and prompts him to ask: what is going on here? What is this novel trying to say?

The realism of the castle and the keep provide the basic solidity to this novel. And at the same time, we feel ourselves in a world of the unworldly, of the preternatural if not the supernatural. When Danny meets the resident baroness, the novel captures the medieval magic of the past. When Danny explores the tunnels, we feel the desperation of an adventure story. And when the hotel’s entire staff is trapped in the tunnels, we feel immersed in a world of horror and fantasy.

Egan uses most of her creative energy writing about the castle and the keep—which explains the title. And Danny’s adventures there are what most interested me. But those adventures end up being more metaphors for the meaning of this novel than the actual meaning. And the meaning itself is elusive. Is it in Danny’s story or in Ray’s story? For Danny, it involves the abandonment he feels at having lost contact with the outside world and its sources of information. And his adventures at the castle, with its mysterious swimming pool, with its hidden and closed-off tunnels, require a survival therapy. Which he needs, being entirely dependent upon himself, and feeling powerless in an unfriendly world.

But is the castle’s world real? Beginning with the night he spends with the baroness. What, in fact, is reality? And what must he do to escape this form of reality? Especially when Danny suspects that Howie’s banning of all tools of communication serves to control him, even to prevent him from leaving. The novel suggests one answer. That his imagination offers Danny an escape from his sense of detachment and powerlessness. Indeed, his gothic adventures contrast the world of fantasy and magic with the familiar world of technology, and suggests this as the means to open the door for his escape.

Egan herself, offers an explanation during an interview published by The Writer: “I was interested in the ways technology has altered, or questioned, our sense of what is ‘real.’ Though I hadn’t planned it consciously, the gothic environment was the perfect place in which to explore that question.”

Inevitably, this search for what is real leads inward, and to self-reflection in the presentation of this novel. Which places Egan in the literary world of metafiction. Usually, I am intrigued by such awareness than an author brings to his or her work. But, here, the particular world of the castle is so real that the self-reflection kept coming between me and the world I was immersed in. Indeed, the author seemed to be jumping out in front of her characters, distracting me from them.

Madison Smart Bell’s positive review in The New York Times cites the novel’s ”Escherian architecture, replete with metafictional trapdoors, pitfalls, infinitely receding reflections, and trompe l’oeil effects” along with its “unusually vivid and convincing realism.” And this certainly captures my perspective. Except, I place more value here on the realism and less on the effects. And do wonder about the similar literary awareness that the author reportedly brings to her later novel about the Goon Squad. Will the emphasis there be on the characters and their story, or on the meaning of the story?

The Kirkus Review reaches a conclusion similar to the Times. “The beautiful prose doesn’t entirely disguise how wildly improbable the novel’s events are, but the characters’ emotions are so real, the author’s insights so moving, that readers will be happy to be swept away.” And, indeed, I was swept away, but by Danny’s story rather than Ray’s, and by the adventure rather than by the search for meaning.

I am still interested in Egan’s other work. Next on my shelves is Good Squad. But I do hope that from now on subsequent novels will be closer to the reality of the recent Manhattan Beach than to the fantasy inherent in this novel. (May, 2019)
Continue reading “The Keep, by Jennifer Egan”

The Unlikely Spy, by Daniel Silva

Written in 1996, this is Silva’s first novel, which I did not realize when I bought it. But one can see from the early pages set before and during World War II, why he has established himself since with a series of popular espionage novels.

This work is built around the preparations for the invasion of France on D-day. The Allies need to conceal from the Germans that they plan to land on the beaches of Normandy, rather than at Calais, just across the narrowest part of the English Channel. But to move troops and armaments ashore, the Allies need a harbor complex, of which there is none at Normandy. So, to create one, they build huge concrete structures to tow across the channel, but they need to hide this strategy from the Germans, since it will betray that their actual landing site is Normandy.

This novel, presumably fiction, suggests how they tried to deceive the Germans with Operation Mulberry. It required a complex plan, and Silva creates many interesting characters to execute the plan, as well as the German characters whom the Allies are working to deceive. This means that Hitler, Himmler, Canaris, and other Germans appear regularly in this novel, along with Churchill and Eisenhower in smaller parts.

The main adversaries are Alfred Vicary for the Allies and Kurt Vogel for the Germans. Vicary does not create but he does implement the plan to make the Germans think that the huge floating harbors being built are actually anti-aircraft batteries. Meanwhile Vogel is running two sleeper spies in England who are actually half English, and whom the Allies know nothing about. He assigns them to find out the real site of the Allied landings and the purpose of those huge concrete structures. If they learn the truth, of course, the entire invasion and the future of the Allied war effort will be at risk.

To further the suspense, Silva continually switches back and forth between the sleeper spies and what Vicary and his MI5 colleagues are doing to discover them. One of his achievements here is to make the German spies, Horst Neumann and Catherine Burke, not her real name, very human. Indeed, the reader identifies with them as they develop sincere relationships with other Englishmen. One is even drawn toward rooting for them, although they are both, especially the woman, brutal killers. Meanwhile Vicary, their adversary, is also quite human, with his doubts about himself, about his boss, and about what he is being asked to do.

And the intrigue doesn’t stop with Vicary vs. Vogel. Vicary’s boss, Basil Boothby, also acts very suspiciously, frustrating Vicary at times. And the reader wonders at his true motives. For we learn from the Germans that they also have a secret spy within MI5 who is passing information to them. Meanwhile, over in Germany, Himmler is plotting to take over the Abwehr, which under Canaris is running German espionage operations in England. Because he suspects, as is true, that Canaris is foiling the German spying efforts because he despises Hitler and his methods.

The plot begins when the Allies hire an American engineer, Peter Jordan, to see to the construction of the huge floating harbors. Vogel learns about Peter, and assigns Catherine Burke to seduce him and to discover more about those huge constructions. Which she does. Indeed, the two also fall in love, prompting Catherine to wonder if she is the cold-blooded person she assumes she is. Which earns the reader’s additional sympathy. Momentarily.

But it illustrates Richard Bernstein’s comment in The New York Times that Silva “has a knack for allowing the unforeseen, the accidental, the all-too-human to intrude, pushing the plot in an unexpected direction.”

While this is a highly suspenseful novel, the strategic duel between Vicary and Vogel is less suspenseful than it might have been. That is, while each side reacts to the other’s actions, the reader never feels that the Germans are one step ahead of the Allies, and thus likely to succeed. Indeed, one knows from history that they did not. But from a strictly fictional standpoint, if the Germans could have been more clever—anticipating Vacary’s moves, for example—the suspense could have been even more intense than it is.

And the final moments of the novel are truly gripping, as the two German spies are convinced the information they are sending back home, that the Brits are building anti-aircraft batteries, is false; and so they flee across Britain toward a German submarine hovering just off the coast. It will take them back to Germany, where they will expose the Allies’ deception. Which, in turn, will help the Germans realize the true invasion site: Normandy.

At the same time, their desperate flight prompts their own brutality, which the reader realizes but has been reluctant to accept. For they kill many anonymous and innocent people—as they also have, particularly Catherine, earlier in the novel. It is perhaps Silva’s way of stressing the desperation of spying. But one might note that at the end, one of his characters remarks about how many Allied lives were saved in the invasion because of some innocent lives that were lost earlier in defense of the invasion’s security.

What is unclear is how much of this tale is fictional. My suspicion is that Silva has created fictional characters and fictional events at the heart of his story, but has based them on the fact that the Germans did seek to learn where the Allied invasion would land and that the Allies did plot to deceive them regarding the true landing site. And the events he proposes here do work as one logical possibility.

But Silva also raises an intriguing interpretation at the end. That Vicary—and the reader—were not told how elaborate was the fiction being created for the Germans, such as Peter Jordan’s involvement. That his presence as the engineer working on the harbor project was no coincidence. Nor was his seduction by Catherine. And that Vacary was not informed of this because his chiefs wanted his reactions to events “to feel real to the other side.” Which leaves the reader with the realization the deception is at the heart not only of all spycraft. But also of such novels.

This novel certainly makes one interested in more of Silva’s works. However, the knowledge that most of his additional works of espionage feature one of two main characters prompts one to wonder if they may not be more formulaic than this intriguing and promising first novel. (April, 2019)

Angelica, by Arthur Phillips

This is a puzzling novel from 2007. And deliberately so. It is billed as a ghost story, and it certainly is. And usually I do not like ghost stories. But as I began this work, I had to admit at how enjoyable it was. Even though it also had a suggestion of horror, which I like still less. But I realized I was enjoying this novel because it is so beautifully written. And it was also a family story, which I also relate to, a story of the tension between Constance and Joseph Barton, as well as between each of them and their daughter of four, Angelica.

Their story unfolds in the London of the 1880s, and is related from four differing viewpoints. First, from that of the wife and mother Constance, who believes the ghosts she sees are also being experienced by her daughter. And who sees these ghosts as serving the needs of her husband, who, she decides, wishes to win from her the affection of their daughter.

The next section is from the viewpoint of Anna Montague, a spiritualist who makes her living advising people how to get rid of ghosts. She is a very practical woman, whom this reader accepted at face value, as she makes the purpose of these ghosts seem, like her, more down to earth, more practical than mystical.

The third section we see from Joseph’s point of view. He is a research scientist who seems truly in love with his wife, and who appears to be a normal man legitimately puzzled by his wife’s new conduct, so different from that of the charming girl he married. And the final, and short, section is from the viewpoint of a mature Angelica as she tries to analyze what happened between her parents when she was a child.

But like Henry James, Phillips appears to want to turn the screw on his readers. Because before he begins his novel, the author quotes Sir Everett d’Oyly: “Haunting can emerge from the forgotten depths of our own past….Memories and ghosts are not so easily distinguished as previous generations have assumed.” And this is the fulcrum on which Phillips has poised this novel. Are the ghosts real? Are they only in the mind of Constance? Or should the memories of both parents be challenged? And what exactly are these apparitions that are distorting the reality of their lives?

The emotional lives of Constance and Joseph dominate this household. After giving birth to Angelica, and then suffering three miscarriages, Constance is warned that she risks her life if she has another child. So she has withheld herself from her husband for more than three years. Which prompts both anxiety in her and frustration for Joseph. And culminates in her leaving her marital bed in order to sleep in a chair in Angelica’s room, standing guard over her. For Constance has seen a ghost hovering over her sleeping daughter at night, a ghost which suggests her husband’s presence, and which seems to signal his sexual designs on the young girl. A conclusion which is re-enforced when Angelica tells Constance she wishes one day to marry her father.

The story then takes on a more practical bent. Anna Montague enters the house and offers Constance her practical advice on how to defeat these apparitions. She acknowledges to herself that Constance will be a fruitful client, but she persuades her, and us, that she believes there are truly ghosts to be removed from the house and that, in doing so, she will not take advantage of Constance Barton’s wealth. She also supports Constance’s belief that husband Joseph is likely behind these ghosts. One should note that in the novel’s time frame of the 1880s, spiritualism and ghosts were a commonly accepted presence in this Victorian world.

Joseph, on the other hand, is not aware of these ghosts, only that his wife is acting mysteriously. He is also persuaded by a Doctor Miles that women in general are flighty creatures and need to be handled firmly by their husbands. While this novel subtly probes the psychology of this family from a modern novelist’s perspective, this is the one point where it truly reflects the psychological beliefs held about women in the male world of London in the 1880s.

Thus, the first section ends with the reader suspecting that Constance is trending toward insanity out of sexual repression, but also not being sure whether there may or may not be real ghosts. The second section ends, however, with the practicality of Anna convincing the reader that either these are real ghosts or that she and Constance truly believe that the ghosts are real. While the third section convinces us of Joseph’s reality, that there are no ghosts, and that all is in the mind of Constance. Whereupon, the final brief section, from the viewpoint of a mature Angelica, tries to have it both ways. She has convinced herself, she says, that “there was a ghost,” and that her mother “struck down the man who invited that ghost into our home.” Which act “evicted” the ghost as well.

Indeed, that early scene in which Constance drives a knife into the ghost is perplexing. For we later realize that the three sections, of Constance, Anne, and Joseph, cover the same time frame and the same events—but are being described from their three separate viewpoints. The problem arises when the sections from Constance’s view and Joseph’s view seem to end so differently. First, because Doctor Miles, who has been called to the scene, seems to act differently. And, second, because the author introduces Third, a mysterious friend of Anne, who suggests, if only symbolically, the final act. But is it by Constance or by Dr. Miles and his colleagues? Which is why, although normal literary logic is on the husband’s side, Angelica has to convince herself in her quote above what she believes truly happened. And that Arthur Phillips uses her conclusion, in turn, to convince the reader. Or at least to understand what he, the author, has intended. Or does one? For Angelica says she has no memory of being abused, wondering if Constance pretended seeing the ghosts rather than admitting her husband’s actual abuse.

One reads this novel, first, because it is so beautifully written. And, second, to learn what is going on. The blend of memory, psychology, spiritualism, and family intrigue is also fascinating to the modern reader. But the resolution, as with James, is confusing. For if one has a sense here of what the author intended, he also makes sure we are not certain. (April, 2019)

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

This is an interesting and imaginative novel from 2016. It draws the reader in by portraying the horrifying world of its heroine, Cora, who begins as a teenager enduring the violence of slave life on a Georgia cotton plantation run by the cruel Randall family. She then evolves into a mature young woman after escaping from the plantation—inspired by the escape of her mother a decade earlier—after which she endures a variety of contrasting adventures that form the remainder of the novel.

Cora escapes from Georgia via the title’s underground railroad, which turns a metaphor into reality. For the railroad of this novel literally burrows underground through the Southern states in order to carry slaves north to freedom. It is a marvelous example of what an imaginative author can do. In this case, a verbal metaphor becomes a vividly described actual railroad. Its various stations have steel rails, tile walls, often-decrepit furnishings, an irregular schedule, and a variety of station masters, both black and white. Indeed, Cora’s final journey on this underground railroad closes out the novel in a beautifully crafted ending.

But once Cora has escaped the cruel Georgia plantation, with Caesar, a plantation colleague, the remaining portion of the novel becomes less dramatic. Cora’s first landing spot is a town in South Caroline that seems to be exploring how to integrate Negroes into their society. It is in stark contrast to her experience on the Georgia plantation, and she and Caesar, are tempted to stay there. But then she learns that the town is using their Negroes for a medical experiment, and on top of that a slave catcher named Ridgeway is in town, the same Ridgeway who had sought Ruby’s mother, and failed, after that woman’s earlier escape. So Cora has no choice but to flee what had seemed to be an hospitable town.

The next railroad stop brings Cora to the home of a station master, Martin, in North Carolina, where he hides Cora in his attic. For the slave catcher Ridgeway is still after her. Meanwhile, from this attic she can see the anti-Negro attitude of the town being dramatized below her on Fridays in public performances. And in doing so, Whitehead captures the anger and violence that marks the white society. This is in contrast to the South Carolina town she has just left, as well as later in Indiana, in which the slaves create their own self-governing community on a farm, and are accepted as human beings.

However, the contrasting attitudes found at these and future sites begin to seem arbitrary. They concentrate more on the different treatment of the Negroes than on what is happening inside Cora herself. Once Cora is betrayed in North Carolina, for example, and Ridgeway tracks her down, her subsequent adventures become far less dramatic. It is as if the author wishes to cover certain ground, certain life experiences of the slaves, and takes his eye off Cora herself. Indeed, he admits he did extensive research into the lives of the slaves of the 19th century, and it as if he felt the need to include much of that information in this work. Which results in the reader being less involved over the second half of the novel in the life and fate of Cora herself.

Whitehead also reveals a lack of structural discipline as he inserts short chapters or scenes in his account that have nothing to do with Cora, but merely provide a fuller history for certain other characters. In two occasions, he offers such short sections to tidy up loose ends regarding the fate of Cora’s mother Mabel, and that of Caesar, Cora’s companion in escape.

As suggested, there is a sameness to Cora’s adventures in the various locales she flees to. For while each locale reflects a different attitude, positive or negative, toward Negroes, as well as the different types of cruelty toward them, it is those difference that are the point of each of those locations, not how those differences change Cora’s attitude or her own future decision-making. Which, one suspects, is what appealed to the Pulitzer judges who honored this novel with their prize. That is, the message of the novel, the exposure of slave life in horrific detail, is what impressed them, rather than the story of Cora herself and any psychological impact these adventures might have had on her. Plus, these judges were also surely impressed with the imaginative travel the author uses, as well as the potential contributions that Negroes might bring to the country if truly integrated into American society.

In other words, for much of this book, after Cora escapes with Caesar, she is a victim of circumstance. She makes no real decisions herself, as she is moved from one location to another. She simply reacts to what is happening around her. She is, as I implied, more a symbol than a real person, more a typical black slave than an interesting individual. We do not get inside her to feel her hopes and fears, her sorrows or her happiness, or what various frustrations and successes do to change her.

I also do wish that Whitehead had made greater use of his concept of an actual underground railroad. For he does nothing with it in terms of his story. It moves Cora about, yes. But it has no influence on her actions or her fate. It merely enables her to move from Georgia to South Carolina to North Caroline, to Tennessee to Indiana, where she encounters different attitudes toward slavery in each location. What I wanted was for the railroad to affect her safety, such as having her take the wrong route, or for it to have brought her to people different from what she expected, good or bad, after she has perhaps misreads its schedule. That is, I would have much preferred to have the railroad directly influence her adventures or even determine her fate.

This appears to be more of a traditional novel than are other works of Whitehead. And the traditional usually appeals to me. But I sense that the author became too involved here in his message, and too committed to the considerable research he conducted about the life of 19th century Negroes, both the enslaved and the free. So after the first half of this novel, I stopped being caught up in the fate of Cora. I read more to discover what fate the author was going to devise for her. Which turned out to be unsatisfying, but nevertheless beautifully written. (April, 2019)