Monday, March 26, 2018

The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld

Of the children she had found, the ones who did best over the long term were the ones who found a way to play. They created fantasy  worlds in which to hide. Some even talked their captors into giving them toys. Escaping into another world was a way for them to disassociate safely, without losing touch with reality—unlike someone like Naomi, who had blanked it all out. Yes, the ones who did the best in the long run made a safe place inside their very own minds. 

Sometimes they even pretended to be someone else.  

Naomi didn’t believe in resilience. She believed in imagination.

So says the lead character and investigator/ child-finder in Rene Denfeld’s superb novel, The Child Finder. Denfeld is a licensed investigator who specializes in death penalty work. Many of you readers will already know of her through her non-fiction writing or her excellent debut novel, The Enchanted, which I reviewed in 2014.

Naomi (the child finder) has, herself, lived under captive conditions, and we readers are introduced to her as she looks for a girl, Madison, a girl who disappeared three years before when she was five years old. I have no intention of laying out much of the story here, since it is a finely woven mystery, and giving away much at all of the plot would be a sure spoiler.

I will tell you that one of Madison’s favorite folk tales is a Russian one of a snow child. Indeed, I just came across the folk tale this year in reading and reviewing Eowyn Ivey’s lovely novel The Snow Child. Madison decides that she, too, was rolled from the snow by her captor.

In this time of great awakening, the snow girl learned much about herself and the world. She learned the world was a lonely place, because when she cried no one came. She learned the world was an uncertain place, because one moment you were one person and the next you landed on your head all goofy and woke up in a dream. She learned the world was a wild place, full of imagination, because that was the only possible explanation for what had happened.

Ms. Denfeld skillfully takes us from the point of view of Naomi and her work to Madison’s, and she is so deft in her weaving together of the two tales that the reader is kept on edge but occasionally hopeful. Hopeful that Naomi will uncover more of her own blocked past via her search, and also that somehow, miraculously, Madison may be found.

Besides great descriptions of the Pacific Northwest and the icy Cascades, Denfeld also shows her tremendous compassion for children and through telling this tale makes evident her own great imagination.

I found this book totally enchanting, and actually read it in a long, single sitting, not something I do very often. It is very difficult to put down.  On the jacket cover for the book, one commentator says, “Rene Denfeld has a gift for shining bright light in dark places.”  Indeed she does, and rather than risking being a spoiler, I’m going to stop now and urge you pick up the book for yourself. It deserves all the praise it has gotten and more.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Women’s Fiction

With women’s Day just behind us, I am focusing my reading this month on women authors. I notice more and more when I peruse big distributors like Amazon that there is now a genre called “Women’s Fiction.” Not so long ago, this same genre might have been called romance novels, and I take both designations as at least faintly negative, alerting readers that this is light fiction, all about squishy love and relationships, unlike the more muscled serious literature produced by men. In fact, if a reader really wants to read about relationships, between men and women, women and women, parents and children, and even our relationships with other animals, I think the category to look to is women’s fiction.

Indeed, when I look back over women authors of the last century or more, I think most could be put in this category. Simone de Beauvoir, Iris Murdoch, Penelope Lively, Doris Lessing, and even Nadine Gordimer write primarily about family and relationships. Yes, Murdoch’s novels are deeply philosophical, and Gordimer’s deeply political, but the stories told are about relationships. Take for example one of Gordimer’s later novels, A Sport of Nature, Lively’s The Photograph, Lesssing’s The Golden Notebook, de Beauvoirs’ The Mandarins; all of these novels are about relationships, and all (as I read them) feminist novels. 

But I want to put in a word or two today for even more popular so-called romance writers like Jojo Moyes, Joan Silber, and Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. Recently, after finally finishing an agonizingly long and gruesome psychological thriller, a reader friend loaned me a stack of library books when I told her I needed to read something more hopeful and optimistic. The stack included Jojo Moyes, The Last Letter From Your Lover, and The Horse Dancer both of which were deeply perceptive about how relationships go wrong, and how they can sometimes be righted, perhaps with just a few moments of real honesty or a real attempt to un-self, in Murdoch’s words, to really attend to the other. The Horse Dancer not only reveals much about how secrets and  hiding of insecurities prevents real understanding between lovers, and between children and parents, it also describes a beautiful relationship between a girl and her horse, and much advice about how we ought to attend to and treat animals in our lives. 

Now I agree that romance novels often become formulaic, with too much talk of six-pack abdomens and hot, smoky sex. And, as in The Last Letter From Your Lover, too much jerking around of the readers, first giving one hope of a breakthrough, a reunion, a happy ending, and then ripping the carpet out from under those hopes, only to begin to build a new anticipation of resolution, a new thread of hope cut off again, and again. Still, the characters in the novels mentioned are believable and fully fleshed out, and the circumstances usually quite plausible. 

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s fine novel, Set Me Free not only describes human relationships well and perceptively, it also tells us a lot about racism and the broken promises Native Americans have continually faced. I’m sure some readers would want to insist that Set Me Free is much more than a romance or women’s fiction book, but my point is that many in this poorly defined genre are much more than romances.

I learned long ago that I loved what many critics deride as ‘chick flicks,’ for many of the same reasons I find so-called romance novels important and uplifting. When I look back and recall why I so loved Edith Wharton. Alice Munro, Willa Cather, I discover that it was their acute understanding of relationships that endeared them to me. Would Jane Austin and Emily Bronte (were they writing today) be labeled romance writers? Certainly, relationships between lovers were key part of their works. 

At various times in my reading life I have rejected whole genres of writing: science-fiction, mysteries, only to discover my reasons were superficial and largely unjustified. So-called romance novels are, I suppose, my latest treasure-trove of overlooked or too quickly rejected novels. Jojo Moyes has made me laugh out loud and cry as she describes the sad but often laughable antics of lovers.

I have not learned much from self-help books on how to make relationships work, or how and when to jettison ones that don’t, but novels (especially those by women) have shown me just how deceit tarnishes and/or destroys relationships, just how even moments of real honesty can restart a relationship in trouble. 

I am a reader who loves to read about families, and here, again, I think the place to go is often this slippery genre I’m trying to characterize.

Next week I will return to my usual habit of reviewing a single novel when I review Rene Denfeld’s The Child Finder, another novel primarily about relationships. But today, I am happy to be recommending to you women’s fiction, which is neither soft nor shallow.

Monday, February 19, 2018

A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

Garth Stein begins his intriguing novel, A Sudden Light, with a quote from Anais Nin, “We do not see things the way  they are, we see them as we are”, and with this Kantian insight he begins to tell a long story that calls into question the reliability of memory, the responsibilities of wealth, and the destruction of the forests of this country by the lumber barons of the 19th and 20th centuries. 

Most of you readers will know Stein by his famous novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, and while that was a fine book, I think this one is better and more important. Trevor Holloway, who is fourteen years old, goes on a trip to Seattle with his father in order to discover about his past and about the vast estate once owned by his great, great grandfather Elijah Riddell. Trevor’s parents, Jones and Rachel, have recently separated after Jones’ business has collapsed and his mother has ‘escaped’ to England to be with her family. While he is not sure why his father has insisted that he accompany him on the trip, he is sure of what his personal mission is. 
…I understood two things:  first, somewhere along the way, my father had gone wrong and my mother stopped loving him; second, I could fix him. I could pull him together. And I believed that, by the end of the summer, if I did my job right, I could deliver my father to my mother as if he were a regular, loving person, like when she first met him…And then? Well, then it would be up to her to decide where her heart lay. A kid can only do so much.
During the course of his summer, he meets his 73 year old grandfather, Grandpa Samuel (who is said to be suffering from dementia), and his beautiful aunt, Serena, who feels that her brother Jones simply abandoned her when she was eleven, but has now come back to save her by getting their father to sell the huge old wooden mansion they still live in and the extensive grounds that are worth a fortune given the proximity to the city of Seattle. 

He also learns how Elijah was one of the major timber barons who, according to his dead son Ben, destroyed nature for profit. Ben is the conservationist son who bends all of his efforts to saving ‘The North Estate, and returning at least that small part of the forest back to nature.  

The story is a long and intricate one, and you will have to discover its many turns by reading the book yourself, but I can say you will be reminded of another forester Pinchot, and of the great conservationist John Muir. The book reminded me in a powerful way of my fascination with Muir in the 70s, and sent me back to some of his work. 

Trevor comes to know Ben through his dreams, and comes to believe that he is a somehow channeling Ben, and joining him in the struggle to preserve a bit of the land Ben’s father acquired. Trevor slowly explores many of the hidden rooms and chambers in the huge mansion and pieces together a story of the house’s past and of sins of his forefathers.

Grandpa Samuel provides the first clues about the past and the struggle he is having with his daughter, Serena, over selling the house and land. Serena has essentially surrendered her own life in the service of her aging father, and she wants finally to reap some benefit from the caretaking of the house and Samuel. We come to learn that her love for her brother, Jones, is not simply sisterly love, but has a romantic and carnal aspect as well. Indeed, her long-term plan is to get power of attorney so she and Jones can sell the land off (to be parceled into plots for McMansions), and then to tour the world with Jones as her brother/lover. Serena even tries to seduce young Trevor as an aid to completing her plans.

While the story totally caught my interest, I was even more interested in the history provided of the  rape of the land by the timber barons and the collusion between the timber men and mighty new railroads in exploiting the land for profit. While that history is certainly a sad and disturbing one, there is light in this story and some lovely excursions into nature mysticism as well. While some readers may be put off by the aura of magic in the novel, I read it more like a struggle between head and heart, between hard logic and a relationship with nature that transcends the need to codify and understand. Much like McEwan’s, Black Dogs, in which I believe McEwan presents his own struggles to rectify the division between rationality and spirit, I believe this is Stein’s attempt to take on this same struggle. There is in the incomprehensible complexity of the universe mystery that is not to be solved but simply to be embraced, and Stein does a fine job of standing before and embracing the mystery. 

I came away from the book feeling more optimistic about the world even in this dark and chaotic time. And I carried from it a quote from John Muir that has become a sort of mantra for me, “My peace I give unto you”. When you read the book, you will understand the importance of the mantra.