To the End of the Land, by David Grossman

This is a marvelous novel from 2008. Nothing happens, yet the reader is fascinated. Because life is created, a family is created, and history lurks in the context.

This is the story of Ora, her husband Ilan, her lover Avram, and her grown sons Adam and Ofer. It is the story of their youth at one level, when as two young boys, best friends, they fall in love with the same girl. Both Avram and Ilan are in the army, whereupon a weekend pass is offered, but to only one, and they agree to have Ora draw the winner from a hat. She does, and draws Ilan’s name, whereupon Avram, left on duty, is sent into battle, becomes a prisoner, and is tortured.

Caring for the discharged Avram, whom they both love, Ora and Ilan are thrown together and conceive a baby they name Adam. But it is a difficult relationship, and Ilan leaves Ora, leading to her having an affair with Avram, which produces the other son, Ofer. However, Avram’s war experiences have turned him into a recluse, and he refuses any contact with Ofer, just as he has separated himself from all human contact following his torture.

And now, on the second level years later, Ora, has persuaded Avram to join her on a long hike. She is separated again from Ilan, and when her youngest, Ofer, is sent into battle instead of being discharged, she decides that she can assure his safety if she is not home to receive a message he has been wounded or killed. She also thinks if she talks to Avram about him she will make the boy come alive to his father, which will also keep him safe.

We learn all this background during Ora’s and Avram’s long hike that comprises the bulk of the novel. It is a fascinating concept, for nothing happens on the novel’s surface except their talk about her family and their own past. With the fascination coming from both the slow revelations that deepen for the reader the complex emotional relationships among the three, and the reader’s gradual ability to get to know each of these characters.

Meanwhile, Ora’s and Avram’s long discussions are grounded in the details of their hike down half the length of their country. With them, we encounter the changing weather, the rocky obstructions, the insects and animals, the rivers crossed and the mountains climbed, and the physical toll their journey takes. It is so detailed that this reader was convinced the author must have based such detail on an actual hike. And, indeed, he did. On his fiftieth birthday, as he was writing this novel, Grossman made a similar hike half the length of Israel—just to get those precise details. And it is through the details that he not only communicates the demands of such a hike but also conveys the military tension within Israel that the two lovers are also trying to forget through discussing their family history.

This is a memory novel, a novel that explores the meaning of love within the emotional complexities of life, a novel of talk instead of action and yet a novel in which the exploration of character is the substitute for action. Its story is driven by birth and death, by fear and hope, by openness and withdrawal, by the onset of love and the threat of violence, by both a female and a male perspective, by both external movement and introspection, and by time past and time present. But, above, all, it is a story about connections, especially between Ora and Avram. As Grossman has written: “What interests me most is the nuances of what goes on between two people, or between a person and himself.”

George Packer summed up this novel in the New Yorker: “Ora mainly talks and Avram listens, her words leading seamlessly to scenes from the past. Her story, which emerges slowly and out of chronological order, encompasses both the complex fullness of one life and the broader history of Israel’s modern conflicts.” He writes that this “is not an apolitical novel; it is antipolitical—a protest against history and its endless incursions” into private lives. In sum, he cites Ora’s “awareness of the randomness of life.”

Colm Toibin has equal praise for Grossman in The New York Times Book Review: “He weaves the essence of private life into the tapestry of history with deliberate and delicate skill; he has created a panorama of breathtaking emotional force, a masterpiece of pacing, of dedicated storytelling, with characters whose lives are etched with extraordinary…and unexpected detail…about the shapes and shadows that surround love and memory, and about the sharp and desperate edges of loss and fear.”

Toibin describes Ora, the main character of this novel, as “emotional, introspective, filled with…an ability to love.” Avram is her foil in literary terms and represents the love she seeks. He is, Toibin says “impulsive, brilliant…larger than life,” Ilan, whom Tobin describes as “rational, vulnerable…oddly needy and nerdy” has meanwhile left her and represents the absence of love, and perhaps its risks. While Adam and especially Ofer are there to receive the motherly love that sustains her. On another level, the hiking trail represents both the unity of this story and the diverse complexities that color the history of Israel.

The ending also merits discussion. Like history, like Israel’s fate, it is both inconclusive and elusive. And yet the reader understands it, even as Grossman deliberately does not reveal it. It is undoubtedly why even Israeli critics have called this an anti-war novel. For it has an ending the characters do not want, and the reader does not want, but it offers a reality that the author insists upon. That his entire novel insists upon. That mankind’s pursuit of happiness is subject to the whims of others—and to the whims of history.

Even the title reverberates with the novel’s theme. The end of the land suggests, indirectly, the possible end of Israel as a result of the wars her sons are fighting, as well as, more directly, the end of the hiking trail that will bring Ora back to her home—and perhaps to news of the death of her son. Which is the end that she fears most. It is a much more evocative title than the Hebrew version, whose literal translation is “Woman Flees Tidings.”

While I could not finish David Grossman’s first novel, The Smile of the Lamb, and did not fully appreciate See Under: Love, I did enjoy the simpler Someone to Run With. And now with this masterpiece, I am committed to reading more of Grossman. (February, 2018)

Miller’s Valley, by Anna Quindlen

I have long liked Quindlen’s work, but this 2016 novel is a disappointment. It is about the Miller family, whose ancestors founded a Pennsylvania farm village named after them. The story is also about this village and its future, and is narrated by Mimi Miller, whom we first meet as a child in the 1960s. Unfortunately, her family appears to be an ordinary one, with its typical loyalties and typical disputes, typical silences and typical black sheep. And its members rarely impact one another or the world about them. Instead, they let things happen, from accidents to strokes, from being seduced to refusing to challenge others. And, above all, they never resist the major change the government plans to make in their lives.

The government has announced that the Pennsylvania valley where they live is to be flooded, that a dam is to be built for flood control, as well as to create both a new source of energy and a recreational area. The title suggests that the flooding of this farmland is to be the underlying theme that ties this novel together. But it does so only at the end. For most of the novel, this work is about the Miller family; and, as I said, this family, especially Mimi, mainly reacts to the events around them.

The structure of the novel follows Mimi, from her school days and school crushes, to a long affair and a desperate abortion, to a casual scholarship recommendation and the casual return of a lost love. She has to deal with her farmer father, Buddy, also the town handyman; her close-mouthed but wise mother, Miriam; her rebellious brother, Tommy; and her recluse aunt, Ruth. But while we learn a lot about this family, there is little conflict among them to draw the reader on.

In addition, there is a girl friend LaRhonda, who simply fades from Mimi’s life after high school. And there is also Winston Bally, who represents the government threat and is rather obnoxious; but he is eventually disposed of quite casually—and maybe ironically in the author’s mind. Perhaps Mimi’s mother is the most interesting character, because of her mysterious dislike of Ruth, but even more because she recognizes that her daughter must escape this town if she is to fulfill her potential.

In the foreground, meanwhile, Mimi is simply reacting to the people and the events around her, especially to her troubled brother Tommy. She herself does not strive to create her own future. It is the author who moves the reader on to the next stage in her life, rather than Mimi herself who does so. Such as not knowing her future, until a teacher sits her down and points to a scholarships to the University of Pennsylvania and then to its medical school. Such as delaying her career when her father suffers a stroke. Such as being pursued by the seductive Steve, and, later, tracked down by a man, Donald, who long ago faded from her life.

My reaction to this novel is opposite to my recent view of Prince Edward, by Dennis McFarland. There, I was very involved in narrator Ben’s family life (and note the similar structure of that family and this one). But I was not drawn into the local government’s resistance to desegregating its schools. Whereas, here, I was not at all interested in Mimi and her family, but was hoping there would be more involvement between her family and the government’s plans to flood their valley. One does wonder if the author deliberately made Mimi’a family so passive regarding the threatened flooding, intending it to reflect Mimi’s own passivity in her personal life. Or perhaps vice versa. In any event, passivity does not bring conflict; and that, for, me is the key to keeping a reader interested in a novel.

Quindlen does write an interesting ending, a poetic ending, a kind of summing up of these characters’ feelings about their land and their valley. I wish I had felt some of that emotion earlier, however, as the threat of the dam filled more and more of their future landscape. Yes, it is natural to feel helpless against the plans of the government, but that means there is no story, when no one is fighting the government’s decision. Instead, we have the passive Mimi, who mainly worries about, but does little to help, the rebellious Tommy. And he is fighting not the government but his own demons. Indeed, his story almost belongs to another novel.

There is also a tiny surprise toward the end. We learn why Ruth has been such a recluse. And it explains the actions of certain people in the family. But it has no broad repercussions on the life of Mimi or anyone else. Indeed, Mimi discovers the secret almost accidentally, and does not allow it to alter her opinions about anyone in her family. While the reader achieves a brief “aha” moment, and then moves on. It is merely the high point in a final chapter that rounds up these people’s lives, especially Mimi’s—a roundup that many authors think their work needs.

I should note that my response to this novel is completely opposite to that of Caroline Leavitt in the New York Times Book Review. She called the novel “mesmerizing,” and the characters “richly alive.” Which only goes to show how subjective book reviewing can be. Usually, I like novels in which a mature character narrates his or her youthful experiences, and how those experiences helped that person grow into maturity. But I did not find that here, as I have explained. Usually, I also enjoy reading fiction about a disappearing way of life. But I also did not experience that here. In part, because the threat was in the background for much of the book. As if the author was torn between two stories. One, about a family; and the other, about a change in their way of life. I simply think she did not sufficiently merge the two—although other critics have thought that she did.

This does not turn me away from future Quindlen novels, but I do hope she returns to family rivalries, family disputes, and stories of inner turmoil, rather than to sociologically significant subjects. Novels should be about people, and about their interaction with society, yes, but about what is happening in society only through their own personal stories. (May, 2017)

Only Say the Word, by Niall Williams

Is this 2004 work one novel or two novels? It is surely one commenting on the other. But is it one completing the other? And which is completing which? The one guide, the only clue, we have is that one part is printed in italic and one in roman type.

We begin in italics, with the first-person narrator, Jim, in his forties and apparently a successful author. He is bemoaning the death of his wife Kate, and in later italic sections is attempting to make a normal family life for his two children, older Hannah and younger Jack.

This story alternates with a much longer story in roman type. Told in much greater detail and also in Williams’ elegant prose, this is about Jim Foley growing up in Ireland, always reading and wanting to be a writer but not knowing how. His is not an easy life. A younger sister dies, disrupting family life, then his mother does also, suddenly, and his aloof father suffers a stroke. While a brilliant brother deserts the family for London.

Reaching manhood, the roman type Jim falls in love with a wealthy American girl and follows her back to New York to marry her. But, uncomfortable in adapting to American life, he persuades wife Kate to return with him to the same house in the small Irish village where he grew up. There, she attempts to become a painter and he a novelist.

What becomes confusing at the end is that the italic section seems to reach a completeness, while the roman section, which is much longer, appears not to. All along, the reader has sensed that the roman section is the earlier life of the successful novelist of the italic section. That is, this is one story we are reading. And so, the completeness of the italic section is meant to bring completeness to the novel. But there is an Afterward that completely undermines this interpretation. Indeed, it represents a surprise ending, if I am reading it correctly.

And because Kate is not present in the italic sections, having died, although we do not know how she died, and because Kate is alive in the roman sections, and there is no hint that she will die, I am drawn to the conclusion that these are not, despite appearances, the same families. I see this interpretation in none of the comments on this novel, so perhaps I am wrong. But the work shows such a sensitivity to family life and the emptiness behind the lack of love that the separation of the two families seems deliberate.

And, still, there is more to my interpretation. In Church liturgy, the title, “Only Say the World,” is followed by “and my soul shall be healed.” This clearly applies to the italic portion, in which the narrator father and the two children are traumatized by the loss of Kate, their wife and mother. And they are “healed” by their confrontation with water at the climax of that section, water often being a symbol of rebirth. But the title suggests a deeper meaning, as well, if one focuses on the word “word.” In this case, “word” represents the written word, or Jim’s efforts in the roman typeface to write his first novel. And the Afterword reveals that by writing his initial words, his initial novel, be conquers the writer’s block he has endured in the roman section and is on the road to becoming an author.

But, in another sense, my interpretations do not matter. For this beautifully written novel can be appreciated on so many other levels than its plot. It is a novel about family life, about the relationships between parents and children, about their inability to express love to one another, and about children being able to conform to the world they are growing into. It is also about death, and the survivors adjusting to it. Indeed, it begins with the narrator rejecting God after the death of his wife, then ignores any spiritual aspect until the end, when a dramatic scene at the seashore helps both the narrator and his children to accept her loss—and, by implication, the spiritual world as well. It is also a novel about the written word and the reading of books, even the stealing of them, and even more the writing of books, especially the difficulty of writing that first book. It is a work that takes full advantage of the meaning behind “word” as used in the Gospel of John.

This is a complex novel in my reading. If this reading is true, it is a far richer novel that that perceived by most critics. If it is not, I apologize to my own readers. I am partisan to family stories that focus on personal relationships, the world of faith, and love. I am also needless to say, a partisan of works that explore the mind of a writer as he explores the art of creation. (November, 2015)

 

Note. Unsure about my interpretation, I e-mailed a query, and received an immediate reply from the author himself. He wrote:

“For me the aim in that novel was…to try and capture something of the healing if mysterious power of art, in this case fiction. And to dramatize this by engaging the reader on two fronts at the same time, so that in fact the reader would experience the same journey the writer in the novel does. That is, healing through words, through storytelling….I do believe the two ‘Jims’ are the same person, but with this difference: the one in Roman type has been written [been created, I would add] by the one in italics, and so by necessity therefore less real in the normal use of that word. If that makes any sense.
“My intention was that The Afterword be on a different plane entirely. It should ideally have been in a different typeface. I wrote it, deleted it, added and removed it several times before publication. But in the end I thought it was the most truthful way to finish the book. Here there is no Jim and the woman says ‘You call me Kate in this one.’…This is the person who in turn writes the two Jim narratives and by doing so faces the fear that he will lose his wife, who in this one he calls Kate.
“I know that many readers hated the Afterword….So perhaps it was a misjudgment. You can’t go back and delete it now. Personally I still tend towards believing it was truthful to the intention of the book, even if it failed artistically.” [The book itself didn’t fail. I am grateful to the author for the clarification.]

When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro

I have long been curious about this author, and I am glad to have finally read him. Ishiguro was brought to England when he was five, and is clearly English now, and is contributing to serious British literature.

This 2000 novel is the story of Christopher Banks, who spends his youth with his parents in Shanghai around 1910, playing with a Japanese boy, Akira, until his parents mysteriously disappear, and then is sent to London to be raised by an aunt. Which suggests a parallel, in its way, to the author’s own change in his upbringing.

The novel begins with Banks in London, now a famous detective and moving about English society. An encounter with an intriguing woman, Sarah Hemmings, revives in him memories of his youth, and even as this portrait of London society becomes fully alive, we gradually realize that the novel is really to be about his attempts to discover what happened to his parents, and the effect on him of that effort. Perhaps it is even why this hero has chosen as his profession that of being a detective. (Or is that merely a convenience for the author?)

The heart of the novel concerns his return to Shanghai in 1937 when it is under siege by the Japanese. This is the most dramatic section of this novel, and its most effective. For Banks is misdirected by the British in his search, encounters again the intriguing Sarah Hemmings, follows up a clue about his parents that exposes him to the block-to-block fighting in Shanghai, believes he meets his boyhood pal Akira, now a Japanese soldier, is captured by the Japanese and returned to the British, and finally learns the fate of his parents.

He learns their fate from his Uncle Philip, who is not a fully fleshed character, but is a necessary one to the story. For Philip was involved in the disappearance of Banks’ mother, and he is now the one who explains the parent’s fate; and, much as the detective in a detective novel, takes many pages at the end to explain the motives and the guilt of the villain. Of course, while Philip confesses, he himself is only a half villain, which gives his character dimension but not sufficient depth. Even when he hands a pistol to Banks.

What Banks learns is not at all what he expected. Nor does the reader. In its way, it is an ironic ending, an intellectually convincing one, but it is not an emotionally convincing one, at least for me. Perhaps because it is an ending over which Banks has no control, and an ending which appears to have no repercussions on his subsequent life that is revealed in the final chapter. In this last chapter, Banks encounters a welcome truth about his family life, and yet it is a truth that should have been clear after the dramatic revelations in 1937. As Banks eases off into the sunset of life on the final pages, in fact, we sense that we understand more of his life than he does. Which, of course, is an ideal objective of many a novelist.

Despite any criticism I offer, I did enjoy this novel. Very much. Particularly the dramatic reality when Banks on his own ventures into the battle-scarred ruins of Shanghai, where danger and gunfire lurk behind every wall. And even when the outcome of this venture behind enemy lines is followed by a final revelation that let me down somewhat, I had to admire the professionalism of the author. And surely he would claim that this is what life is often like. That a life filled with drama is not always one that has a dramatic ending. That, instead, we often accommodate ourselves to the reality that overwhelms us.

One reason I enjoyed this novel so much is that it is a memory novel. Banks is recalling these events of his past, and is able to interpret them, to give them perspective, as he remembers them. His adventures are an attempt by him to resurrect the youthful experiences with his parents that he once so enjoyed. And yet we the reader also understand at times more than he does; we understand how his determination to find his parents is clouding the reality around him, whether it is his potential relationship with Sarah or the risks he faces, both at the battlefront and from the fellow Englishmen who are concealing their involvement in the opium trade of the past.

Another reason for enjoying this novel is that it has the structure of a detective novel. It is about this detective encountering obfuscation as he attempts to solve a mystery of his past, the disappearance of his parents. But it is more than a detective novel, of course. Because Banks’ character both is revealed by and determines the nature of that search. Thus, it is not the solution that matters here, as in a detective novel; it is the search itself.

The orphans of the title suggests the helplessness of Banks in confronting his own history. That he is left on his own, and becomes immersed in a culture he does not quite understand. This appears to be characteristic of other novels by Ishiguro as well. One speculates, in fact, how much his own history has influenced that perspective—of being born a Japanese boy and then fully integrated into the life of an Englishman.

So more novels by Ishiguro are a must. He is my kind of writer. He begins with character, creates an interesting life for that character, presents the character’s life with a perspective that enriches our understanding, describes this character and his life in a straightforward style, and yet conveys a reality that is below the surface, that is often between the lines. Perhaps that last is the tincture of Japanese that colors his British sensibility. (May, 2014)