The Plover, by Brian Doyle


This 2014 work is quite a novel, quite an unusual novel. Indeed, a tour de force. It breaks so many rules, in fact, as it creates worlds of its own. It offers both a real world and an imaginary world, each created with poetry, sensitivity, and humor. But most significant are the many rules of fiction it breaks—with its endless, rhythmic sentences, its magic realism of talking birds, and its direct and indirect addressing of the reader.

This is the story of a man, Declan O’Donnell, who journeys around the vast Pacific in his small fishing boat, the Plover. He revels in his solitude, but slowly takes on passengers along the way, passengers who expand his and our awareness of the expanse and depths of both the Pacific and the human experience. But this book requires patience. It is not a book for everyone. For a long while, I wondered where it was going, much less where the boat and Declan, its captain, were going. Finally, I realized that there were no rules. That I was to experience here the journey within as much as the novel without. That this was not just about reality, this was also an inner voyage, a journey into the meaning of human nature and the implications of our natural environment.

This Pacific voyage is so real, however, that one wonders how Doyle has made it come alive with such detail. Yes, the credits listed in his acknowledgements suggest tremendous research, which is often the key to richly conceived novels such as this. But one also speculates that it is time he has spent at sea himself that has enabled Doyle to capture this experience so brilliantly.

And yet the strength of this novel is not in that reality, but in the magic, meaning the author’s imagination. In the miracle of an impaired, dumb child, for example, who can communicate with birds, one of whom suddenly enables her to speak. And in other birds that give comfort and anticipate danger. There is even literary magic in the long, complex, yet clear sentences that stretch the core of a thought or of a situation to its verbal limits.

Underlying the magic and the beauty, however, is a story, for Doyle understands that he needs a story in order to draw the reader through what are at times ephemeral pages. And so the hero Declan picks up various passengers, each with a story to tell and each contributing to the journey. There is an old friend Piko, and his daughter Pipa who has been crippled by an accident and cannot talk; Tauromauri, a woman so huge she is first taken to be a man; Tungaru, a minister for fisheries, etc., who dreams of a Utopian nation of Pacific islands; and Danilo, a refugee with a marvelous singing voice. And finally, for suspense, there is the mysterious Tanets, a ship in pursuit of the Plover. Why is its captain, Enrique, so intent on sinking the Plover and its passengers? It will become clear when he becomes the final passenger.

There is additional suspense in a typhoon, a kidnapping and rescue, a hijacking, and a sea battle, but it is balanced by Declan’s introspection as he seeks to escape society, and society keeps confronting him with new passengers, new adventures, and new implications. And hovering in Declan’s mind are the writings of Edmund Burke, the Irish philosopher whose thinking enriches the context of Declan’s search for meaning across a vast and empty Pacific Ocean.

One senses that Doyle declines to be limited by the rules of fiction. Perhaps this follows his interest in the spiritual aspects of life. Thus, just as that level of perception breaks the bounds of reality, so does a similar perspective seek to break theough the limits of the literary world. I do wonder how much this limits his exposure inside the literary world, but one suspects his primary concern is exploring the limits of both literature and the human experience—as, indeed, Declan is exploring his own limits across a Pacific also limitless.

This novel offers the continuation of Declan’s life after he fades into the Pacific on the final pages of Mink River. One wonders if Doyle will continue Declan’s story, and extend these books into a trilogy. He does open the door to a third volume, when Declan discovers a potential love on the final pages here. Such a continuation may depend, however on Doyle’s interest in exploring further a Declan who has changed from a troubled hero in the first volume to a solitary, searching hero in the second. Do still new adventures await him, in which he will further pursue the fulfillment he seems denied? It would appear that love might well offer a new, and perhaps spiritual, horizon. (April, 2016)

Note: Because of a previous contact, I sent the author my review; and he wrote this in his response: “I am interested in writing novels that are experiences in and of themselves. I want the language to be a world; I want the reader to be lured in and mesmerized; I want them to hear and see and smell what the beings in the book do; I want you to be startled when you find a blank page at the end; I want you to come with me into imagination and possibility and the probability of the nominally impossible; I want you to question what you think you know; I want to soar and sail and dive and delve; I want to push the form as far as I can, and I have only one rule: be clear. As long as the reader doesn’t get clogged and slowed, everything is possible.”

On the Contrary, by Andre Brink

This 1993 work is a strange novel. It took me a long time to get into it. It is narrated by Estienne Barbier, a Frenchman who has mysteriously fled to South Africa, arriving in 1734. We meet him imprisoned in a dark hole in a dungeon, unable to see light and fed sparingly. But who is he, and why is he there? He passes the time by writing letters to Rosette, a slave who once fascinated him, and whom he once helped escape but soon lost. And these letters to Rosette, this illiterate slave girl, is the novel we are reading. He is explaining to her, and to us, why he has ended up where he is.

He begins with his life story, how he escaped Holland and France with a girl named Jeanne, fleeing in part to escape family responsibility but primarily to escape obvious complications from the scorned husbands of the many women he had seduced. Slowly, we realize that Jeanne is Joan of Arc, and that she is not real but the voice of his conscience, guiding and defending his actions.

He also carries a book that he uses as a guide. It is about Don Quixote de la Mancha, and we realize that Estienne is also a dreamer, an idealist, who initially seeks a mythical city of gold far away in the beautiful African landscape. He learns of it while acting as a record-keeper on an army expedition. And when this idealist tries to write of the injustices he also encounters on that expedition, he is order not to do so. It is the first evidence of his refusal to accommodate to the reality around him, which will soon be exemplified by his pursuit of justice.

The reality that Estienne ignores is that the harsh local government steals from the colonists; and he becomes a leader of the colonialists’ cause. For much of the book he is fleeing from government forces who are after him, finding refuge with various farmers (and their wives). Eventually, however, his colonialist friends desert him, and while the government’s solution, which is to reward his friends, is completely unjust, he realizes his failure and surrenders—and ends up in the dungeon in which we find him at the start of the novel.

Brink obviously intended this novel to offer commentary on the origins of his country, how the modern prejudice against blacks was forecasted in this earlier era when the Dutch administrators controlled the life and the economics of the white settlers, the Afrikans, and the frustrated Afrikans sought wealth by expanding their settlements into the territory of the Hottentots, longtime livestock farmers who came from central Africa—and who became the scapegoats in this failing society.

But Brink has also stacked some of the odds against himself. For while he has created a hero whose position as a fugitive underdog is easy to relate to, and who works in the cause of justice for the settlers, he is also a man who also regards women as victims to satisfy his passions, and who is insecure, often debating with Jeanne to decide and then justify his actions. It is Jeanne, for example, who helps him rationalize leaving his original wife, Neeltje, and their children, and then abandoning the succeeding fiancée, Ghislaine—all so he can achieve his destined glory. For an author to create a complex hero is often desirable, but here the complexity for me is in black and white, rather then in shades of grey.

When Brink also tells us at the beginning what will be the fate of his hero, he forgoes much of the suspense that would be natural as his hero flees the government authorities during most of this book. Which means he wants the focus to be on the society he is depicting and the role of justice in that society. Not on Estienne himself. With the inevitability of Estienne’s failure only emphasizing the injustice he is intent on depicting. It is these hindrances, the absence of a hero I can identify with and the inevitability of his fate, that have thwarted me from becoming involved in this story and in this book.

To sum up, this work has been a disappointment. Not because of its historical setting. Not because of the injustice that is depicted at the heart of this novel. But because of the initial difficulty in understanding who Estienne is and where he has come from. And then because of the focus on his situation, the conclusion of which we know, rather than on the complexity within him as a person. (December, 2015)

Life after Life, by Kate Atkinson

This 2013 work is a strange novel, a marvelous novel, a puzzling novel. As the title suggests, it is about its heroine Ursula Todd dying and then not dying. It is also about premonitions she has, as a child, about others dying, and her efforts to prevent that from happening. Her parents send her to a psychiatrist at age ten, a man who introduces the idea of reincarnation, which Ursula and the reader rejects, for reincarnation does not apply precisely to her situation. But the psychiatrist also introduces the idea of the circularity of time, and while this does not fit Ursula’s life, it does fit the construction of this novel.

Ursula is the daughter of Sylvie and Hugh Todd, he a doting father, she a snobbish mother. Ursula has an older brother Maurice, aloof and supercilious; an older sister Pamela who is bossy as a child but becomes Ursula best friend as an adult; and younger brothers Teddy, who is her favorite brother and will join the air force, and Jimmy, less significant, who will leave England after the war. They represent the strong base of this novel, an upper middleclass family that represents the heart of English society.

But the reality of this family shifts from the moment Ursula is born. Because Ursula dies, strangled by her own umbilical cord, but then does not. She falls off a roof and dies, but then does not. Influenza kills her and a faithful servant, but then does not. A neighborhood girl is raped and killed, but then, with Ursula’s help, is not. Ursala herself is killed in the World War II, but then is not. What is going on here? It is not easy to determine, for the author jumps back and forth in time as she blends Ursula’s disruptive life and modern British history.

Then come three dramatic moments that do not seem to belong, that even seem a misjudgment by the author. First, Ursula is raped at age sixteen, by an American who seems to exist only to be a tool of the author. And she becomes pregnant. But that life is replaced by another, in which Ursula marries an abusive schoolteacher. She flees, but he tracks her down and attacks both her and her brother Teddy. Darkness falls, which is the repeated sign of her dying, but we never read the consequences of that attack, not on Teddy and not on the schoolteacher. The event fades into non-existence.

Then, in an alternate life, Ursula meets a boy on a visit to Germany, falls in love, and remains in Germany throughout World War II. Here, Atkinson suggests, through Ursula and her alternate self, parallels between how one experiences the bombing of Berlin and how one experiences the bombing of London. Indeed, the London blitz scenes are the most memorable in the book—and not simply because Ursula dies once in a cellar, then dies while trying to save people in that cellar, and finally lives on when a dog’s presence, which led to her second death, now leads to her survival.

And at this point, this reader realized two things. Atkinson was through this one family trying to convey mid-twentieth century English history; and, even more important, she was dramatizing how a single event, a single decision in one’s life, can change that life dramatically. (Do I subscribe to this because my marriage, my own life, was so changed?) There is at the end even an explanation for a mysterious opening scene, in which Ursula seems poised in 1930 to kill Adolf Hitler—with speculation about how that could have changed modern European history.

At the end of her novel, the author attempts to tidy up her many divergent stories. Just as “Darkness fell” heralds the frequent deaths of Ursula, “Practice makes perfect” heralds some of these reversals of death. A near-death experience of Ursula at the beach had followed her actual death, and now this event is tidied up by becoming the drowning of the handicapped and illegitimate child of her Aunt Izzy. Or is this an example of a past drama altering one’s memory? In fact, which event is real? Then Ursula tells a lie to save the family servant Bridget from going to London to catch influenza and die with her lover Clarence. (Ursula, in one instance, had failed to achieve this when she pushed the girl down some stairs.) This recapitulation is also when the psychiatrist asks ten-year-old Ursula to draw something, and she draws a snake swallowing its tail—representing, he says, “the circularity of the universe.” Aha!

This section is also when we learn Ursula is a good shooter, which hearkens back to her confrontation with Hitler (although not how she got in that situation). We also learn why a neighbor Nancy died on one level, due to Ursula’s actions, as earlier we learned why she did not die, also due to Ursula’s actions. Finally, the novel has a happy ending in its next-to-last chapter, an ending that seems unnecessary. A character everyone thinks has died in the war has not died, and is reunited with a lover. Yes, it illustrates the uncertainty of life, as well as of war, but it seems unnecessary—mainly, I think, because we never see the consequences of that return to life.

Speaking of circularity, there are also the dogs in the life of Ursula and her family. They keep dying and then being replaced. Not always, but many are also given the name of Lucky. Their dying and “rebirth” as another dog surely is intended as a parallel to both Ursula’s shifting life and the novel’s construction.

A major plus of this novel, which helps the reader accept this English version of magic realism is Atkinson’s style. It is reminiscent of Muriel Spark, and early Waugh, in its clear, aloof, arbitrary, witty, godlike treatment of the lives and the fates of these characters. Not to be overlooked, either, are the relationships established among the many characters, whether within Ursula’s family, including with her naughty Aunt Izzy, with the family servants, or with Ursula’s various lovers, air wardens, and German friends, even Eva Braun.

This is one of those rare novels in which I did not mind trying to puzzle out Ursula’s life, the reality of its events, or the meaning of this novel. Nor was I frustrated that the novel offered no clear answers. Not why her power to foresee calamity faded after childhood. Not why she has the power to die and return. And not what the power of recreating history means.

This was for Atkinson, I believe, an exercise in the imagination. What if one could die and come back? What if one could affect the lives of others? What might a novelist do with that? Atkinson has seemed interested in her other novels with the idea of connections. Here, the connection is with destiny. Not, what happens to us after death, but what if our destiny in life changes, or what if we could affect that change.

As Francine Prose sums up in her excellent Times review: “Atkinson sharpens our awareness of the apparently limitless choices and decisions that a novelist must make on every page, and of what is gained and lost when the consequences of these choices are, like life, singular and final.”

Atkinson herself has written: “People always ask you what a book is ‘about’ and I generally make something up as I have no idea what a book is about (it’s ‘about’ itself) but if pressed I think I would say Life After Life is about being English (on reflection, perhaps that’s what all my books are about). Not just the reality of being English but also what we are in our own imaginations.”

Atkinson has explained that she was born after World War II, and her family rarely discussed that era; but that she intended here to write a novel about that war. And that the “dark, bleeding heart” of that novel would be the blitz. In this she certainly succeeded, because the lengthy treatment of Ursula’s work as an air warden is the most memorable section of this work. But Atkinson also realized that in order to write about someone in the war she had to give her a back story—which in this case turned out to be the heart of the novel. And its theme of worldly life after worldly death certainly reflects the wishful thinking that takes place after any war—as one recalls its senseless and horrible death toll.

One should also note that Atkinson’s next novel, A God in Ruins, is to be about Ursula’s brother Teddy, who is shot down during World War II. He was Ursula’s favorite brother, and apparently of the author as well. One awaits learning whether Atkinson will explore that war further, or whether she has something else in mind—even, again, the theme of endless death. Indeed, one wonders if a final, incongruous appearance of Teddy in this novel was written in order to set up this next 2015 work. One also wonders if the word God in the title has any significance. It would seem doubtful, based on the spiritual beliefs held in this novel. But…

To sum up, this is a novel about life, not about death. And a novel about this world, not the next. It works because of its solid family portrait and its vivid capture of the historic context, including but not limited to World War II. It certainly entices me to read more of Atkinson’s work. For the degree of control she has over her characters, which turned me off in Case Histories, here she uses to her advantage, as she integrates it into the structure of this excellent work. (February, 2015)

Four Letters of Love, by Niall Williams

This is a beautifully written 1998 novel that troubled me during the reading, but then was spellbinding toward the end, except a conclusion that seemed to be just but also arbitrary. Overall, this is a love story between Isabel and Nicholas, who never meet until the final forty pages—forty pages that are the highlight of the novel. They do not meet because Nicholas lives in a Dublin suburb with his father William Coughlin, a civil servant whom God told to become an artist, and his mother Bette; while Isabel lives on an island off the west coast of Ireland with her father Muiris Gore, the local schoolmaster, her mother Margaret, and her brother Sean.

I was troubled first because the lovers take so long to meet, but also because Isabel’s life is told in the third person and Nicholas’ in the first person. In an afterward, the author explains that Nicholas is really telling Isabel’s story; and that the lovers do not meet until late in the story because what interests him most here is the pattern or design in life that brings people together, not what happens afterward. Which I can certainly testify to in my own life, where the pattern of losing my parents and encountering my one love is far more interesting, to anyone outside my family, than the life that followed.

Another element that bothered me was the arbitrariness of the ending. Which the author also explains. I noted the significance of his line that “the plots of love and God are one and the same thing.” Meaning, I felt, that God is love, and that the love between humans is a metaphor for the relationship between God and all humans. But Williams also means that, despite all the obstacles, this love story was inevitable, “that loving Isabel Gore was what Nicholas Coughlin was born to do.”

Another aspect of the ending was also bothersome. There is almost unbearable tension in waiting for the outcome of the last four love letters that Nicholas writes—that is, learning the final destiny of these lovers, whether they will be together or apart—but that destiny reverses itself too many times. Indeed, the final answer seems almost arbitrary—until one realizes it fits the author’s theme. But I do question the need for so many reversals.

There is a spiritual magic that fits seamlessly into this novel, both because of its mystical Irish setting and because of the link it makes between the living and the dead. That is, Nicholas’ dead father, the creator of a painting that brings Nicholas to Isabel’s world, is very alive in the first part of the book, as Nicholas tries to connect with him; and then his father’s spirit does connect, appearing at crucial moments to aid his son’s pursuit of Isabel.

Another mysterious element is the stroke that early in the novel paralyzes Sean, Isabel’s brother. There is no explanation, but Isabel blames herself. And then Nicholas arrives on the island, to buy back his father’s painting as his own means of connecting with him. Whereupon, he takes Sean to the same site where Sean suffered the stroke, and the boy is cured—which is long before Nicholas meets and falls in love with Isabel.

Nicholas has no explanation for the cure, indeed denies he has done anything, but it as if he has brought a mysterious goodness to the family on this island, a goodness that will later impress Isabel. One can only suggest that this goodness comes from God, and is part of the destiny that moves all our lives.

While organized religion plays no role in this novel, the work is deeply spiritual, and God is present everywhere in the lives of these characters—in their loves, their dreams, their inspiration, and their fate. Indeed, early on, the narrator Nicholas writes about his boyhood. “It seemed to me, God came to live in our house. He was not often spoken of, and was never addressed. And yet we knew he was there. Not exactly holy, not exactly prayerful, but a kind of presence.” It is this presence, one senses, that follows Nicholas to the island and perhaps results in the cure of Sean.

Another mysterious element are the flies that inundate the island as the love of Isabel and Nicholas is challenged by Isabel’s mother. Except, they do not invade the cottage where the good Nicholas is staying—as if the evil of their separation exists elsewhere. And these flies vanish when the human obstacle to the couple’s love no longer exists.

As I approached the ending, this novel seemed to be leading toward tragedy, toward a death of one of these characters that so engaged me. But Williams’ interest is not in creating a literary impact; it is in portraying human fulfillment, in destinies he sees infused by love, and by the loving hand of God. And who am I to dispute the appropriateness of that approach in a work of literature?

When Williams writes, “the plots of love and God are the same thing,” he is writing about more than Nicholas and Isabel. For there are other love stories here, that of William Coughlin and his wife and how they met, that of Muiris Gore and his wife, both how they met and how Margaret sustains their love (whereas Nicholas’ mother Bette could not), that of Isabel and her brother Sean, that of Peader O’Luing’s pursuit of and appeal to Isabel, and that of Nicholas and his father William.

Williams also captures the many permutations of love in the thoughts of Isabel’s mother: ”If Margaret Gore had spoken to her daughter she could have told her. In love everything changes, and continues changing all the time. There is no stillness, no stopped clock of the heart in which the moment of happiness holds forever, but only the constant whirring forward motion of desire and need, rising and falling, falling and rising, full of doubts then certainties that moment by moment change and become doubts again.”

Despite my many criticisms of this novel, it confirms my interest in reading more of Williams. First, because of his beautiful, evocative style, and then because of the presence of many varieties of love, but mainly because the spirit of God impacts the lives of these characters. As Kathleen Weber wrote perceptively in the Times, this novel gives us “ a place devoted to the belief in miracles and the obsessive power of love.” (January, 2015)