The Fall of Light, by Niall Williams

This 2001 novel comes to us as a legend. It is about a father and his four sons who journey across Ireland, leaving their home, their life, and a stubborn mother behind. The author pretends—or does he?—that this is his family, that he is passing down family tales that have been enhanced by each generation. That is, he writes in the tradition of Irish story telling.

But the proposed reality does not matter. What matters is the beautiful language that is characteristic of all of Williams’ novels, and which is perfectly suited here to the novel’s legendary tone, to its tale of Ireland in the middle of the 19th century, an era of poverty just before the Irish famine that led many families to cross the sea to America.

The adventures of the five Foley men begin as soon as we meet them. They are swept apart as they attempt to cross the raging River Shannon, and their father disappears, leaving the sons alone. Is their father lost? Will they ever see him again? And, later, will each of the sons also reunite, when circumstance also separates them? This novel offers the tale, a romantic tale, of each family member—of Francis the father, of the son Thomas, the twins Finbar and Finan, the youngest son Teige, and Emer, the stubborn mother who has refused to join them.

Frances is a dreamer who has refused to raise his sons to a life of poverty. He steals a telescope from the manor house at which he works, and will forever spend free time gazing through it at the stars. It is a perfect symbol of his desire to escape a family life of poverty, of dependence, and to fulfill his dream of a more satisfying life. It may even be reflected in the novel’s title, as the light of the stars falls toward him on earth.

The oldest son, Thomas, encounters the beautiful Blath, and his pursuit of her makes him the first to be separated from his brothers. We shall later follow him as he crosses the Atlantic and then crosses the United States, joining an army engineering team as it scouts future railroad routes. The remaining three sons are enraptured by a caravan of gypsies. Finbar is seduced by the woman Cait and will follow her troupe across Europe, where he will become its leader with a yearning to return home. His twin Finan joins the gypsies for a while; but, to atone for a crime, he will leave them for a monastery and become a missionary in Africa.

The prominent son in the novel is Teige, whose skill at horsemanship first pleases the gypsies, as he wins a traditional race on a white pony; but he refuses to join them and uses his skill with horses to work for a rich landlord whose daughter seduces him and changes his life. Indeed, his visits to her bedroom at night represent the romantic high point of this novel. But the two have different dreams, and he, too, will cross the ocean, and there will survive because of his skill with horses.

But we are following these characters from the perspective of a legend, and, like many legends, there are high points; but legends also may arrive at uncertain conclusions. And that is true here. For there is no climactic ending, no rush of emotion, as we learn the fates of these characters. What we have, instead, is an imagined future in the mind of their father as he stares at the stars, stares into their future and the future of his family.

He will scan the skies from an island in an estuary of the River Shannon, where he and Teige have built the family’s new home, a site that is the geographical center of this novel. Indeed, it is this isolated island in the estuary that the characters regard as home turf—much as all Ireland sees its identity to be in this small island off the coast of England and France. The Foley’s cluster of buildings also represents the perspective from which the author tells this family story.

As Diana Postlethwaite quotes in The New York Times, ”Always the story returns there. . . . It is as if the teller understands that the island is an image for all Foleys . . . something passionate and impetuous . . . that made each of its men islands in turn.”

To criticize, there may be a little too much coincidence in this novel, both when circumstances seem to change the course of a life—such as a raging river, a seductive woman, or the arrival of gypsies—or when these individual characters have separated and then, casually, rejoin. And yet, this is a legend, after all, enhanced by generations of retelling—and why might not coincidences have crept in to fill certain gaps?

Another mild criticism I have concerns the extended details of some of the brother’s adventures, particularly of Finbar with the gypsies. Granted, the author wanted to include the stories of all four brothers, along with the father, but I was more interested in the adventures and fates of Frances and his two sons, Thomas and Teige. Thus, the long sojourn of Finbar with the gypsies does slow down this novel, even if his will continually draws him toward home on that estuary island.

What ties the book together, indeed, is this sense of family, the yearning the five men have for each other, their continual thinking about the each other, and their desire to be together. This is emphasized by the island home the father and Teige build for themselves. And it is held together by the telescope and the stars, by the dreams of the future they represent. It is a fitting romantic dream that belongs in a legend.

Some have criticized this novel because of its romantic view as well as its coincidences, but Williams might have cast this story as a legend because he was aware of precisely that. Certainly his typically rich and poetic writing style is appropriate to this tale he regards as a legend. And certainly this reader, who is a romantic at heart, will continue to indulge in more of Williams’ novels. (January, 2017)

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Someone to Run With, by David Grossman

This is a fine novel from 2000 about two teenagers caught in the underworld of Jerusalem. It begins: “A dog runs through the streets, a boy runs after it.” The boy, Assaf, belongs to a poor family, and has a summer job with the city. The dog, a yellow Lab, is Dinka, and belongs to the teenage girl, Tamar. Actually, she has lost the dog before the novel begins, and on the opening pages Assad is following the dog as she seeks out her mistress’ former haunts.

We thus confront a simple beginning, but a complicated novel, complicated because its story does not does not flow in sequence. It is told in different time frames, switching us back and forth between Assaf and Tamar. And to compound the confusion that Tamar’s story has happened before Assaf’s begins, we learn in progressively slow stages why Tamar and Assaf are even doing what they are doing. Indeed, Tamar’s story has nothing to do with her dog. Dinka is simply with Tamar as the girl attempts to join an underground street gang for, at first, unknown reasons. In sum, it is not easy to adjust to the fact that the first story, Assaf’s, is actually happening after the story of Tamar, which soon dominates the novel.

And so while we begin with Assaf running through the streets behind Dinka, who is looking for her mistress, it is really Tamar who is the main character, as well as a more complex character. At first, we do not even know why she wishes to catch the attention of the gang, why she wants to be invited to join it. Slowly, we gather that she wishes to rescue someone in the gang and that she is desperate to do so. But all we know about this gang is that it is run by hard-nosed Pesach, a Russian thug who distributes drugs and sends young runaways out into the streets to perform and collect donations, while gang leaders pick the pockets of those who stop to listen or watch.

But Tamar realizes that the only way she can get inside the gang is to be invited, and so she offers her talent as a brilliant singer. It is a dangerous decision, for once you are in the gang it is difficult to leave. And we do not understand her decision to join, moreover, until she starts planning the rescue. And only when we know whom she wishes to rescue do we realize the reason for her commitment. Much less, the difficulty she faces in rescuing this victim who has been seduced through drugs into joining the gang.

Meanwhile, we keep switching into the future to follow Assaf as Dinka leads him to clue after clue in the search for her owner. And Assaf himself receives, like the reader, a tour of seedy Jerusalem and an introduction to a range of unusual characters. These alternate time frames are somewhat confusing for a while, but each teenager is so well drawn (Tamar, an extrovert, older and wiser than her years, and the introvert Assaf, an innocent confronting the darker side of the city), that both come alive in their world of self-doubt. And so well captured is the desperation of the victims Tamar finds caught in the gang, and so well captured is Assaf’s innocence as he encounters Jerusalem’s unknown world, that we are caught up in both their tales.

What is most remarkable about this novel is that the two main characters meet only at the novel’s climax. Otherwise, they do not know that each other exists. Yet in their yearning, in their search for fulfillment, in their idealism, they seem meant for each other, and the reader cannot wait for them to finally meet. But, of course, the entire structure of the novel has been created to keep them apart. They exist, after, all in two time frames.

This becomes a story of love on many levels. It begins with Dinka’s love of her mistress, as well as Tamar’s love of her dog. It is even more Tamar’s love of her family, since the main action of the novel is built around both the rescue of a loved one and her effort to weed him from drugs. And, finally, there is the burgeoning love of Tamar and Assaf, as each finds in the other what has been missing from their lives, essentially a tenderness that breaks through the hard shell they have built around themselves to survive.

As for love at the family level, it exists in both Tamar’s and Assaf’s family, even though a few do not recognize it. There is even love within the gang’s victims, especially between Tamar and her roommate Sheli. And Assaf has his friend Rhino, who will play a crucial role at the end.

That ending, in fact, is for me the only mis-step in the novel. It is too dramatic, almost soap-operatic, in its turn of events. In particular, its drama contrasts with the development of a tender relationship between Tamar and Assaf, a relationship that seems headed for love, until rudely interrupted. And I was not convinced by either that interruption or the fortuitous rescue that followed. At least, the novel ends on a grace note, as Grossman returns to the possibility of love. The last sentence reads: “Tamar noticed that she had never met a person she felt so comfortable being silent with.”

While some have considered this a young adult novel, the Germans even honoring it as such, it is also a valid adult novel. It simply has two teenage protagonists. And if the movement is fast-paced, to appeal to a younger audience, the novel also probes its characters’ interior lives as well as tension within the contemporary Jewish society in which they live.

Grossman has also been criticized for continuously withholding information from the reader. To enhance the suspense. To entice younger readers who are more interested in plot than in character. The Times reviewer Claire Messud writes: “As readers, we are being toyed with.” She also writes of the author’s manipulation of his two heroes: “Where are the parents of these young people? Why aren’t their surrogate guardians more attentive?… Grossman’s tale requires that Tamar and Assaf be independent agents in order that they may fulfill their respective quests and (inevitably) find each other.”

To me, this is accurate, but unfair. We would not have a story if the lead characters were not on their own. They would not have the independence that leads them to one another. Nor the recognition that they complement one another. We would have an adventure story without a love story. We would have a young adult novel rather than an adult novel. This is not Grossman’s only novel, incidentally, about the search for love. (September. 2016)

Corelli’s Mandolin, by Louis de Bernieres

This 1994 work is a serious, imaginative, and moving novel, but not the great novel it might have been. It does, however, reveals much more depth than its almost frivolous title suggests.

This is the story of a small Greek island town at the time of World War II. It is a story of adventure, romance, heartache, and loss. The town’s story is that it endures the Italian occupation, a German reprisal massacre, and a postwar earthquake. The family story revolves around Dr. Iannis, the father, and his beautiful and spirited daughter Pelagia. But taken into the family are handsome Mandras and his mother Drosoula, and then Antonio Corelli, the captain of the Italian occupying force, who is a virtuoso of the mandolin. Another Italian is Carlo Guercio, a homosexual soldier, while there is also a sensitive German lieutenant, Gunter Weber. Others are citizens of the town, such as strongman Velisarios, and two adversaries, royalist Stamatis and communist Kokolios.

The entrancing first half or more of this novel begins with the pre-war romance between Pelagia and Mandras; each believes they are destined to be together. But war interferes, and then political belief as Mandras goes off to fight. Whereupon he is slowly replaced by Captain Corelli who flirts with Pelagia and wins her kisses but nothing more. He becomes her true love.

But the war eventually interferes, not only with both their romances, but with the novel also. The Italians government surrenders, and the brutal Germans take over the Italian occupation of Greece, including Corelli’s town. And with the novel and its characters taken over by history, our friends no longer control their lives, and we read page after page of fictionalized history.

There are brief dramatic moments, involving an operation, murderous firing squads, and a soldier’s return, but they are momentary before we return to the narration of history. Which continues after the war, as the novel becomes a chronicle of the events experienced by this family and this town into the 1990s—all beautifully described in often lyrical prose, but with all the accounts being told more than dramatized. Finally, there is a dramatic finale, beautifully and emotionally described, and yet more the result of a decision by the author than by the characters involved.

The author obviously intended this novel to be a great work. He writes chapters on both a personal level and an historic level. He writes from the viewpoint of various characters and various political, emotional, and historical perspectives. He writes dramatically and lyrically, brutally and romantically, and with a common touch at times and a tragic touch at others.

The result is that I was enthralled by the first half of the novel, and disappointed by the remainder, despite those occasional dramatic and emotional moments. Since the author is British and wrote earlier novels with a Spanish environment (he lived for a while in Colombia), one senses that this portrayal of events on a Greek island during and after World War II was carefully chosen. And carefully researched. But after the marvelous start, he allowed the research, and an historic message, to take over. This may have been because he wished to create two kinds of potential lovers and then to separate them. But he never created a true romantic triangle, and, for me, he lost the lovers to history. He did try to restore the emotional connection at the end in each case, but while the scenes do work emotionally they are not fully convincing. In one case, his male lover is too brutal, and in the other case he, or the author, is too romantic.

Two themes dominate this novel. The first is the presence of love in the lives of otherwise insignificant people. The other is the impact of war on these same insignificant people. And the author uses history to emphasize the helplessness of these people in any attempt to enjoy one and avoid the other.

One traditional love is Iannis’ love for his daughter, plus that between Pelagia and Mandras, and then, when she believes Mandras is dad, between Pelagia and Corelli. Another is the love of these Greeks for their country and their history. There is also the love of the homosexual Carlo for a fellow soldier, and then his hidden love for Corelli. Not to forget Corelli’s love of music and his mandolin, which, with his wit, turns him into a sympathetic character. And finally there is the love of the townspeople for one another, especially for Dr. Iannis and Pelagia.

The impact of war and violence on otherwise insignificant towns and people is also the theme of other works by de Bernieres. Here, he takes us from the Albanian front as the Greeks defend themselves against the Italians to the violent reprisal of the Germans when the occupying Italian company refuses to abandon these Greeks they have come to appreciate. The reprisal is particularly brutal and treacherous. And, later, the helplessness of the townspeople before history is underlined by an earthquake that completely destroys their lives. (Which is followed by a sardonic revival when tourists arrive and help to rebuild the town and its economy.)

The idea of history is introduced at the very start of the novel, with Dr. Iannis writing a history of his town and its island, and finding it is not easy. He believes that true history is to be seen in the lives of the people, not in movements or the records kept by leaders. Which also reflects the author’s interest in history, for he, too, is writing of the impact of modern history on this island and this small town. What de Bernieres wants us to be aware of is that we cannot avoid being subservient to history, even as we try to be the master of our own destiny.

I have read and enjoyed a later de Bernieres, and remain interested in his other works. I will note, however, that I had a similar criticism of Birds Without Wings. It was, again, a novel about the negative impact of war and violence on a small town and its people, and I again commented on its overemphasis on history during the final quarter of the novel. I would also note that that novel, too, has a sympathetic lieutenant who is part of the Italian occupation of the novel’s small Turkish town. Perhaps the more things change in this author’s work, the more they stay the same. (February, 2016)

Compass Rose, by John Casey

This 2010 work is a beautiful novel, and just my kind of novel. It became so on the very first page, as the key women of the novel attend a boy’s baseball game. Casey was perhaps comfortable with these women because he was so familiar with them, since they are characters we first met in his novel Spartina, which I so enjoyed and which won the National Book Award in 1989.

And I, too, was comfortable, for I encountered here a family group and their neighbors in a small Rhode Island town who regarded the world and each other with the same generosity and sensitivity with which I regard the world myself. Whether or not Casey was raised a Catholic, and even though there is no element of religion here, there is a sense of values that fully matches my own.

A compass rose is a marking on a compass that helps one orient oneself by showing the cardinal (north, south, etc.) and intermediate bearings of the compass. This novel is called Compass Rose, because the fulcrum of the story is a girl named Rose, as she grows from an infant to a woman heading off to college. This Rose is the illegitimate daughter of Dick, the main character of Spartina who is married to May, and Elsie, with whom he had a tempestuous affair in the first novel.

The title is doubly appropriate, because Dick earns his life at sea, where a compass is so necessary, and his daughter Rose is the character who brings together, who helps orient, the lives of everyone in this book.

While this is a continuation of Spartina, one does not need to have read that work to understand or enjoy this novel. It is entirely self-contained. And because it takes place across 18 years, it develops its own reality, its own frame of reference. Indeed, the events here read not like the plot of a novel but like actual life in this small community. It is primarily the story of Elsie and her daughter; of Elsie’s friend Mary who lives with them and sees the importance of Rose getting close to her father; and of May, Dick’s wife, whose acceptance is needed to bring Rose close to her father.

But there are also other important characters, many of whom are involved in a conflict between the long-time residents of South County and a luxury development at Sawtooth Point that wishes to expand by taking over the home of Dick and May, as well as other local property. The developer, Jack Aldrich, is married to Sally, who is Mary’s sister. Jack is the closest to being the villain of this novel, but he is so intent on doing good in his own terms that everyone finds it difficult to dislike him. The fisherman Dick is not a prominent character, since he is often at sea, nor are his sons Charles and Tom. This is the story of the women, and it is told from their point of view.

If the sea was prominent in Spartina, it is the woods, marshes and salt ponds that provide the natural element in this novel, a setting that stands in for the natural evolution of life, growth, decay, and death. These ponds and woods are beautifully described, and are a haven for Elsie who is a local nature warden.

Elsie has been introduced to this natural world by the elderly Miss Perry, her former teacher and another prominent character. Indeed, in her final days, Miss Perry commissions Elsie to become the conscience of the region, much as she herself was, in face of the proposed takeover by the encroaching Sawtooth Point.

There are many developments in this novel. The first is the bringing together of Rose, Elsie, Mary, May, and Dick. The second is the fate of Miss Perry. The third is the departure of Mary from Elsie’s house and her discovery of love. There are also minor dramatic elements, such as when Charles is injured at sea, when Dick ‘s boat sinks and he needs to be rescued, and when Rose earns the role of lead singer in her high school musical. But overall, from early on, hangs the shadow of the Sawtooth takeover of the property of these longtime residents.

Jack Aldridge, who runs Sawtooth, is an interesting character, complex on one level but mainly a shallow foil when compared to the women of the novel. He has an ambitious dream that he convinces himself will enhance the community, and he plots and maneuvers to have his way. Yet one doubts that Casey intends him as a true villain, based on the fate Jack encounters on the final pages. Indeed, those final pages reverberate with the sympathy Casey has for all his characters, and particularly the women.

The novel winds down with, first, Rose’s performance, and the negative reaction of Elsie, who just does not understand that her daughter has the same independence of spirit her mother had when she challenged convention in her affair with Dick. Slowly, Elsie realizes her own frustrations prompted by both the need to share Rose with others and the expansive maneuvering of Sawtooth Point that threatens everyone who matters to her.

Indeed, there is a final gathering of all the characters, as a resolution to the Sawtooth incursion is achieved. Ironically, or realistically, this resolution reflects the inevitability of human as well as natural evolution. It is another way of saying that we are all involved with each other and must bend to each other’s needs.

Dominique Browning, in her beautiful review in the Times, writes: “This bit of a world is complete unto itself, with its own force fields, its own variations on true north, its own way of tilting into alignment. Like the love affair that is the novel’s magnetic pole, Compass Rose gathers its quiet strength from a slow accretion of instants of intimacy, ‘both ferocious, and serene,’ moments that bubble up, collapse, and decompose in the natural order of things, on their way to becoming the history of a place.”

Another reviewer says that this is the second volume of a planned trilogy. Could the final volume revolve around the expansion of Sawtooth Point? I would indeed be interested in a concluding volume, for this work is far superior to anything else by Casey. But we surely cannot wait another 20 years for this 75-year-old author to produce such a work. (June, 2014)