A Literary Cavalcade

Literary comments by Robert A. Parker on a wide range of serious 20th and 21st century novels

Category: Literary reviews

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)

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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)

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

This 2012 novel is worth studying. By potential mystery writers. For its structure. For its twists and turns. For its shifts of reader sympathy from one character to another. For its psychological manipulation of two characters who are in major conflict. And for a resolution that resolves that conflict in one way, but perhaps not in another.

This is the story of Nick Dunne and Amy Elliott. The author, however, makes them tools of her structure, rather than normal, sympathetic characters. With the result that, from the moment they are introduced, I was unable to like either one and/or even to identify with either one. For they seemed too clever, too artificial, too sure of themselves. And it soon became clear why. For each is pretending to be what he or she is not. Nick becomes someone else in order to please Amy, and Amy hides her true character in order to turn Nick into a perfect spouse.

To complicate matters, Amy is a spoiled daughter of a famous couple who have written a series of children’s novels that feature a smart little girl named Amy. Meanwhile, Nick leads a pedestrian life. He owns a bar with his twin sister, Margo. And he is an unassuming writer who is ignored by others, except for brief moments when his emotions click on. As they do when he meets Amy. But after their sudden marriage such moments grow infrequent, and the two become a mismatched pair. Not least because they both lie. A lot. They even lie to us.

In any event, when Amy suddenly vanishes on their fifth anniversary, I was little interested in what had happened to her. What interested me was not the fate of either of these characters but what the author was going to do with this situation she had devised. Particularly when everyone suspects that Nick had killed his wife, and Nick discovers that Amy has set him up for exactly that. Indeed, in the guise of the author, she has been setting up the reader as well. For she is not the love-struck woman she has pretended to be in her diary that we have been reading, a wife who is becoming concerned about the conduct of her husband.

No, she is a manipulative woman who, when she discovers that Nick is having an affair, has decided that he is not worthy of her. And as any spoiled brat would do, she seeks revenge. In fact, the author builds this entire novel around her elaborate plot to destroy her husband.

But while the revelation of Nick’s affair is a major plot twist, even greater is the explanation of the seven-year diary that Amy has kept, a diary that suggests Nick has (mis)treated her during their marriage. And when this reader discovered that the story of her diary was not what he had understood it to be, I was ready to throw this book against the nearest wall. But it was such a clever twist, and this novel has become so famous, that I read on. I wanted to see how clever, how manipulative, the novelist herself was going to be.

And I will admit that further twists and turns kept me going. Especially when Nick begins to figure out Amy’s cleverness, and decides he is going to match her manipulative skills. Which prompts him to be deceptive too, to lie, in order to avoid both the media and the police. Now, we are reading about two liars. Two deliberate, desperate liars. And when Amy becomes alerted to her husband’s lying efforts, she ups the ante to counteract his strategy. And so they maneuver back and forth until the end, with cops and reporters and the media hovering nearby, with both of them still trying to control their now dark relationship, and first one, and then the other, getting the advantage over their mate.

In fact, as I approached the end of this novel, I began wondering who was going to come out on top. And would the fact that the author is a woman influence the outcome? In other words, I was still more fascinated by how she was structuring of this novel than by the outcome of the plot. Much less the fate of Nick and Amy themselves.

Tana French sums up this novel accurately when she writes: “Nick and Amy manipulate each other with savage, merciless, and often darkly witty dexterity. This is…about how the happy surface normality and the underlying darkness can become too closely interwoven to separate.” She also calls the novel “wonderful and terrifying,” and with this I do not agree. I could not get close enough to either of these characters to feel the emotional connection that she did.

In sum, this is an intricately crafted mystery novel that features a married couple who are trying to manipulate each other for their own ends. But it is the author who is crafting the greater manipulation. And she does it at the expense of her characters. She does offer intricate psychological observations about the reasons behind their conduct, but these emerge more as tools to explain the conduct she has devised for these characters, rather than as revelations that betray what is truly behind these characters’ devious conduct.

To sum up, I was too turned off by the characterizations of these two people, Amy and Nick, at the start of this novel, to become involved emotionally with them, much less be interested in their fate. And as a result, this work does not prompt me to turn to other novels by this author, as intricately crafted as past and future work may be. (March, 2019)

Blood and Sand, by Vicente Blasco Ibanez

Here is a classic from the past, of Spain’s literary past. A tale of bullfighting that takes us behind the scenes with its portrait of an egocentric matador, and then out into the arena, where the matador confronts the horns of massive and agile bulls. It will become a tale of courage and cruelty in a violent world.

But this 1908 novel does not begin that way. Indeed, it is carefully constructed. In the first chapter we encounter the successful bullfighter, Juan Gallardo, as he prepares psychologically for an afternoon corrida, and slowly dons the traditional suit of lights. Then we follow him through the streets, past adoring fans, and into the sunlit arena where he confronts two bulls and draws loud cheers. Which establishes both his character and his presence.

But where did this successful torero come from? The novel backtracks to his humble origins, as Gallardo struggles with poverty and dreams of escape by becoming a famous matador. He also grounds himself by marrying his first love, the beautiful Carmen. And in the next chapter, as he becomes established, he develops a personal relationship with both El Nacional, a member of his entourage, in whom he confides his innermost thoughts, and Dona Sol, the beautiful and enticing niece of an upper class don who raises bulls. But while he falls for her, she is aloof and mysterious; and she will later prove to be as fickle as his bullfight fans.

Gallardo’s success in the ring leads, perhaps inevitably, to his enjoying the wealth, prestige, and glamour of the upper classes. For they now treat him as an equal. After all, he is a very personable young man. And we have the first signs of both the egotism required of a bullfighter and of how newly found fame can go to a matador’s head.

During one off-season, Gallardo is visited at his ranch by another famous figure, the bandit Plumitas. Who tells him they are very similar, both having their origins in poverty and both having now attracted thousands of followers. But the bandit also reminds him that they have earned public fame because both are killers. Except Gallardo kills bulls and Plumitas kills men. Which plants the seed of the violence that underlies both their lives. And reminds us that both do share a potentially violent fate.

And then the drama heightens as Gallardo’s mother and wife both rebel against his carrying on with other women, especially with Dona Sol. Whereupon—is this retribution?—the matador is tossed by a bull at a corrida and is severely wounded. And yet…the author offers little detail of the matador’s recovery. What he does, instead, is bring Gallardo back into the public eye, as he joins the Holy Week celebrations of his native Sevilla.

This is the most remarkable commemoration of Christ’s death in the Western world, and Blasco Ibanez offers a rich and satisfying portrait of its two main processions. These alternate processions carry two great figures through the streets on Holy Thursday, that of Jesus of the Gran Poder, the Great Power, the fraternity of the upper classes that Gallardo now identifies with, and that of the Macarena, the Virgin of Hope, who belongs to the poor people among whom Gallardo was raised.

For his return, Gallardo has rejoined the procession of the lower class followers of the Macarena, instead of continuing as a Nazarene for the Gran Poder. And so, just as this matador faces death every time he enters the bullring, he joins here in commemorating the death of Christ, a death that carries meaning for all levels of Spanish society.

The doctor who treated Gallardo’s wounds, incidentally, offers a theory about the history of bullfighting that surely reflects that of Blasco Ibanez. That once the Americas had been conquered and that wars in Europe had ended, the true art of bullfighting developed. For the soldier or colonist of that past found that becoming a torero was his new path to fame and glory. And bullfighting truly flourished, he says, because it replaced the cruelty of the auto-da-fe, the burning of heretics. He writes: “The savagery of the crowds reared on the spectacle of violent death and torture needed a new escape valve.” This analysis, however, will color the novel’s conclusion, and one questions how appropriate such a message is for a literary work

Indeed, the novel then changes. For Gallardo fails to show courage on returning to the bullring. His body refuses to go over the horns for the kill. And as his courage fades, our interest in him also begins to flag. In fact, one wonders where this story is headed, especially when the matador arranges a meeting with Dona Sol. For he become further disillusioned when she says he is now only a “friend.” Which pushes Gallardo further off his self-generated pedestal, and one anticipates the author heading off in a new direction.

And, indeed, this is what happens. As the author’s true feeling about bullfighting take over, he now distances himself from the matador, and emphasizes the rabid spectators and their hypocritical demand for blood. For they demand he risk death for them, and then curse him when he refuses. It is a response that comes less through Gallardo himself, and more through his companions, or by means of a simple description of events at a distance.

But in highlighting his true feeling about bullfighting, Blasco Ibanez sacrifices the humanity of this novel to its message. Forcing him to blend the fate of his hero to that message. With the result that Gallardo’s fate is not moving. Indeed, one is separated from a hero one had once identified with.

And so—despite the thoroughness with which this novel recreates the world of bullfighting, from one man’s humble origins to the egotism cultivated by success, from the rituals behind the scene to those of the sunlit arena, and even the rumors and the gossip that follow bullfighters everywhere—despite the fullness with which this life is portrayed, the author negates much of his message by negating the power of Gallardo’s fate.

I called this novel a classic. Perhaps I spoke too soon. For despite the brilliance with which it has portrayed Gallardo’s life, the author has sacrificed its power to make his point. Indeed, the Introduction by Isaac Goldberg that accompanies this novel says “the thesis element predominates” in Blasco Ibanez’ work. With the author also called a “novelist of ideas-in-action.” And so what began here as a character-based literary work ends with a regrettable focus on a social message. (March, 2019)

Drums, by James Boyd

As one begins this 1925 novel, one immediately becomes immersed in the world of the 1770s, just before the American Revolution. And one also becomes exposed to that world of more traditional literature that reigned until the 1920s. It was usually a world of rich description and little forward movement. Far different from what is soon to evolve, in which human beings drive the action, in which the story must move on.

Here, the initial effort is to create the world of rural North Carolina in the months before the Revolution. What concerns the people of that era? What are their lives like? What are their homes like, their fields, their clothes, their food? So much detail has been researched by this author to enable him to recreate that world of 150 years earlier. So much that it is clear the author wants his readers to experience that world—before he wants them to identify with his main character, the teenager Johnny Fraser, an insecure boy who respects his father and mother and is unaware as yet of the challengers of the adult world beyond the limits of the family farm.

But soon the novel will introduce both him and the reader to that adult world, beginning with rural North Carolina where the British administer that colony but where some of the local people are unhappy with the new taxes and their own lack of political control. And where tension rises as word reaches them about a rebellion in the North.

Much of the novel focuses on the youthful Johnny. His parents send him away from their farm to a local seaport, Edenton, where a preacher, Dr, Clapton, educates him in Latin and prepares him to be a true gentleman, not a farmer like themselves. There, Johnny meets more worldly people, and another kind of education begins. He meets and is impressed by Captain Tennant, the British officer who represents the King and administers the colony, although he is confused by Tennant’s sassy daughter Eve. He meets the worldly and friendly Captain Flood, who transports him to and from his family farm. He meets the distinguished Sir Nathaniel, who raises horses and organizes cockfights, and is impressed by him, as well as by the wealthy and pretentious Wylie Jones. He also meets the Merrillees, and is fascinated by, but confused by, their beautiful daughter Sally.

The character of Johnny ends up being elusive, much as was the political thinking of that era in North Carolina. Throughout the novel, in fact, Johnny is analyzing the faults of others, as well as doubting himself and his own faults. He also sees people’s good qualities, and he strives to adapt many of those for himself. But he is confused by the various attitudes he observes among his fellow North Carolinians when word first arrives of the unrest and then the military action in the North. For they reveal mixed feelings about whether one should be loyal to the King, or whether one should strive to be free of England.

Johnny has even greater difficulty, however, is in reacting on a more personal level to the attitudes shown by young women, particularly Eve Tennant and Sally Merrillee. Note, however, that there is no discussion here of the status or the freedom of their black slaves. Indeed, the care given here is that the dialects of the Negroes be as accurate as possible—along with the spoken language found in the rural South or in the formal clubs of London. Any discussion of the rights of slaves does not arise, not until nearly a century later, and then only in the North.

Meanwhile, when news of dissension does spread southward, Johnny’s family sends him to England, both to enable him to avoid making a choice in the potential conflict, as well as to preserve some family investments abroad. And that London world is richly drawn as well, from its social scene to its political scene, as well as from its pubs to its clubs. Once again one marvels at the brilliance with which that far different world is captured. For Boyd again captures the details, in order to bring that distant European reality to life—a sedate and peaceful life for Johnny, which is soon disrupted by battle scenes. These are aboard an American warship under the captaincy of John Paul Jones. For Johnny has at last chosen sides in the American rebellion. And, following a brief interval in Brest, France, Johnny rejoins Jones and his crew on a newly refurbished Bonhomme Richard, which encounters a British warship and overwhelms it in a famous battle.

Whereupon, a wounded Johnny returns to North Carolina to heal, and to witness the arrival of the Revolution in the houses and taverns back home. And we realize that this novel is not so much a portrait of Johnny Fraser as it is a portrait of the Revolution seen through the eyes of Johnny Fraser. He has been less the hero of our novel than the vehicle with which we watch a cross section of society experience this dramatic period in American history. The novel itself is not dramatic, even as the events themselves range from mundane on one level to truly dramatic on another. In fact, we do not even identify with Johnny, even as we see that world through his eyes. And, at the end, when we do see in him a final maturity, there is also an open-ended conclusion about how his life will continue, especially a love life that has until now been unfulfilled.

This novel has been called “the best novel of the American Revolution ever written.” And I would not argue. Well, I loved the smaller scale April Morning by Hoard Fast, but not least because it was about the Battle of Concord and Lexington, near where I grew up. And, in fact, to support Drums’ pedigree is a later decision by Scribner’s to bring out a special edition with illustrations by N. C. Wyeth.

The title, Drums, refers to the drums of war. Before he leaves for England, a youthful Johnny encounters an old Indian who explains that the drumming he hears is that of nearby Indians who have heard reports of rebellion in the colony, and their reaction to the rumors is to send out a message, as they have long done when their own tribes prepare for battle. Boyd also recalls this incident in the last lines of the novel, when Johnny, hailing a distant soldier, “raised his stiff arm in the Indians salutation….[and] the distant figure lifted a long black rifle against the sky.” It is a final touch of the artistry that went into this novel. (March, 2019)

The Translator, by Ward Just

This 1991 work is not the novel I expected from this author. It is not about the Mid-West. And not about Washington, DC. Nor is it about the newspaper business. It is about being German, being a German after World War II. And it is excellent. It is a true literary work, as if Just sought not only to work outside his comfort zone but also to explore his subject matter to an even greater depth than previous, and also subsequent, work. As if there is a German heritage in the Just background.

This is the story of Sydney Van Damm. He is the translator. After a quick memory of growing up in northern Germany during the war and enduring the horror of Allied bombing raids, we learn he has rejected his homeland, even though his mother has warned that he would never escape his nationality. But he has fled to Paris, where he joins its expatriate world and soon meets and marries an American girl, Angie Dilion. He makes his living in Paris as a translator, working between English and German or French and German. He earns an excellent reputation, but he does struggle to earn the comfortable life that Angie is used to. He thus becomes open to renewing a friendship with Junko Poole, a former intelligence officer with an elusive reputation and no scruples, who is also living in Paris.

What makes this novel a literary work is that it is not driven by its plot, such as each new development in Sydney’s life. But it does engage the reader, by exploring the richness of each new experience. After Sydney marries Angie, their happiness is interrupted by tragedy, for they have a son, Max, who is brain-damaged, and they must adapt their lives to his. They live in an old Paris apartment house, where they also meet its various tenants, especially one German stewardess, Milda, and two others. These stewardesses enliven the setting through their adventures with Arab sheiks. He also meets for the first time a famous German author, Josef Kaus, whose work he has been translating. Indeed, to better understand the hero of Kaus’ current book, Sydney projects himself into the mind of Herr Hoerli, the German hero of that novel.

It is in Sydney’s memories of his mother, in his probing the mind of Herr Hoerli, and in heart-to-heart talks with both Milda and the novelist Kaus, that this expatriate translator engages in conversations that open up the exploration of the German character. How the war changed them, how they survived postwar poverty and then adapted to in the powerful economy that now flourishes around them in the late 1980s, whereupon how this has changed them, as well as how they have reacted to the freedom that now contrasts to the world of their German youth. Here is where Just truly explores the German character, the German psyche, each person seeing this new world differently but each one also revealing, despite the changes, how much they have in common.

Tying the novel together is the Van Damm family need for economic security, and the proposal of Junko Poole for a risky adventure that will resolve those economic needs. For me, it is the one artificial element of this novel, an element introduced by the author rather than by Junko himself. This is because the scheme is so nebulous. We know that material, or items, are to be shipped, without authorization, from one location to another, beginning in East Germany. But we do not know why they are being shipped, who has agreed to their being shipped, or even where it is being shipped from and where it is being shipped to. And this nebulousness is going to lead, for me, to a conclusion that is far from satisfying.

Despite this one caveat, I agree with the overall conclusion reached in the Detroit News and Free Press, that this novel “is a capricious and serious work—part love story, part political allegory….As the title indicates, it is a rumination on the nature of language, as well as that of national identity.”

Indeed, it is. It is an exploration of postwar Europe on one level and of the Parisian expatriate life on another. But it is also an exploration of the uses of language and of the different ways language is used by different cultures. And it is always focused on people, on their nationality, rather than on their politics, and on their struggle to survive more than on the economy they live in. And, of course, it is focused especially on individual Germans. On Sydney’s German mother who despises the Americanization of West Germany and flees to the comfort of her hometown in East Germany. As well as on the shady characters who arrive from the East. But it also compares, on the opposite shore, Angie’s father, who had inherited great wealth at home in Maine, but who has carelessly, incompetently, lost it, and who now wallows in self-pity.

And yet in the background is politics as well as people. Why does Sydney flee to Paris after the war, and turn to translation? Because he wants to escape the history of modern Germany. And he compares translation with his own move to a different culture; that is, “the moving of things from one condition to another; it was the same thing but changed utterly.” For that is what he wants, to escape from the German nationality, German politics, and especially his own history. And yet, inevitably, one cannot escape one’s past, one’s memories, nor, the author suggests, the tragedy that waits in the wings.

George Stade offers another summary of this novel in The New York Times. He says that Sydney and Angela “are also, after all, stand-ins for whatever in us is private, for that part of us that believes the matters of consequence in human life are family and work, for all in us that is threatened by the political waste that kills.” He also calls for an expression of hope, “though not because modern history warrants it.”

Yes, one wants to find more of Just’s work, more of these novels that immerse you in an interesting life in an interesting world. With the value of the work being in the interpretation of that life and that world, rather than in the events that these characters encounter, events that then sweep the reader along from one development to the next. (February, 2019)

The Crossing, by Michael Connelly

This 2015 novel is the work of a professional. The story has pace. The characters are interesting. There is a sequence of events that at first do not seem connected, but their development builds suspense as the events become more and more linked. One caveat: while the conclusion is dramatic and convincing, it does not reveal new emotional ground or a surprising character revelation.

The author brings together here the two heroes of his series of crime novels, Harry Bosch and Mickey Heller, who are half brothers. Bosch has been forced to retire from the police force for a trumped up minor offense, and is the major character of the novel. Heller is still the Lincoln lawyer, and has been hired by Bosch to prove the charges were unfair and to return his reputation. But as this novel begins, Heller has come to Bosch to seek his help in proving a client, a former gang member, is not guilty of a brutal murder.

Bosch is initially reluctant to help his brother, because it means going against police tradition. A cop does not help the defense when a crime is committed. But Heller teases Bosch into looking at the evidence, and this convinces the retired policeman that Heller’s client is truly innocent. And since Bosch believes a cop’s overall duty is to seek justice, that duty overrides the tradition of not helping the other side, the defense side. Especially since it’s being run by his half brother.

The Crossing of the title refers to decisions that people make that can change their lives. Thus, it can mean decisions that victims make that lead to their murder. But in this case it refers more to Bosch crossing to the other side, the darks side Bosch calls it, and helping Heller refute the convictions of his fellow policemen.

In this case, although semen from Heller’s client has been found on the murder victim, Bosch becomes convinced that the surrounding events do not add up. And the remainder of the novel consists of him pursuing the truth of what really happened. Meanwhile, the author also introduces the actions of two corrupt policemen who are behind the murder, and interweaves their actions with those of Bosch. It is a familiar technique geared to build suspense. And while it does do so, it does not make the corrupt cops so effective that the reader feels that they are a major threat to Bosch.

Bosch is intrigued by an expensive watch that the victim owned and which was sent out for repair. He becomes convinced that it is a key to finding the true killer of the woman, and he spends much shoe leather tracking down its various owners. Whereupon, additional murders follow, and he realizes his is on the right track.

The conclusion brings a dramatic confrontation between Bosch and the killers, and then is followed by a hearing before a judge that brings Heller back into the scene. Thus, we see both Bosch and Heller performing at their best, as cop and as lawyer, to reach the satisfying conclusion.

This is not a deep novel that probes the psyche of either the detective or the killer. But, as I said, it is a professional work that draws the reader into a tale of violence, police corruption, a provocative DNA, and mysterious clues. It also suggests a personal life for Bosch, who has an interesting relationship with both a daughter and a girl friend. But the emphasis is on solving the crime, and how the pursuit of a damaged watch can lead to hidden levels of Hollywood society and to unforeseen conclusions. (February, 2019)