Where Reasons End: A Novel by Yiyun Li

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Since Nikolai’s death I had asked people to send poems. They came like birds from different lands, each carrying its own mourning notes. 

I felt the deep sorrow expressed in this novel so much I researched the author. I wondered, did she herself lose a son to suicide, only to discover more about Yuyin Li’s own breakdown. Li wrote a memoir Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life  while she was struggling with deep depression. In Where Reasons End, Yuyin Li tells a fictional tale of a mother composing a story in conversation between she and her son, who has taken his own life. This is a story about the elusive presence of grief, how it transforms us even if we don’t understand it. It is a mother reflecting on memory, where her son can now only live for her, and questioning how memory isn’t enough. If she can just keep the conversation going, she can keep him alive, stop the essence of him that lingers from escaping, disappearing. Too, she knows words are incapable of expressing the all consuming sorrow, pain. That clichés cannot carry us through life, nor the losses in one. How to recapture time? How to breathe and exist through the worse thing that can ever happen, to know her son has succeeded in the biggest win of hide-and-seek.

“I was almost you once, and that’s why I have allowed myself to make up this world to talk with you.” Our narrator promised her son she would understand, didn’t she? Her own past sufferings, were they inherent in the blood? She can’t lose him more than she already has. The old things remain, things Nikolai made or wrote, remembrances of the Nikolai his friends knew, objects she has never kept tract of nor made an effort to freeze in time, not much of a keeper of life’s detritus nor treasures unlike other mothers whom fiercely cling to ‘things’. This conversation is made up, right… but “sometimes what you make up is realer than the real.” Such a bright boy, whose perfection hurt him too much to anchor him to the world.

Not a day will pass, when you’re left behind, that you don’t imagine how your loved one would react to each of your remaining days, from the mundane to the eventful. It truly is a novel about ‘inescapable pain’ and the solitude of grief. There is a gut wrenching chapter, Catchers in the Rain that left a lump in my throat because there isn’t anything thing left to catch, she can longer be her child’s safety net. This isn’t the sort of novel that makes you weep with the obvious moments, nor is it an attempt to explain suicide. Though through the intimacy between mother and son, remembering even the stories he himself wrote where the boy characters often died hints that maybe he was sad for a long time, and she didn’t see. Or maybe not, maybe that’s what we do in the aftermath, look for reason where maybe there is none. Maybe fiction is just sometimes fiction. The Nikolai she gives life through writing is as witty and biting in her creative story as he was in life. She utilizes her gift of authorship (which her son himself showed promise of early on) to attempt to soothe herself and carry on in this abyss she never asked for.

Yes, Nikolai took his own life but it is as much about motherhood because even when it is taken from you in such a way, you are still a mother. How should one find meaning in their child’s death, in this backwards way to travel in time, when a child should never go first, especially through their own hand? With the novels closure,  I want to ask only who are you today, instead of how are you?

Publication Date: February 5, 2019

Random House

 

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Little Darlings: A Novel by Melanie Golding

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He really hadn’t seen it. Seen her, the woman from the hospital, the woman in the bushes. But Lauren had, solid and real as the trees themselves; the eyes still glared at her when she closed her own, the image burned there like she’d looked at the sun too long. She was going mad, she must be. That or the woman was some kind of witch, some kind of demon would could disappear at will.

When Lauren gives birth to beautiful, healthy twin boys, Morgan and Riley, the birthing process was less smooth than she hoped, leaving her exhausted, sore. Then, her husband leaves too fast for her liking leaving her, a new mother, alone with the boys in the hospital. When she finds time to rest, sleeping when not feeding her boys, the strange dreams overtake her, terrifying and lingering upon her waking. She is sure in between a state of wakefulness and sleep that she heard another mother with infant twins too, just like her. The next day, the nurses are perplexed, what other patient? What other babies? Trapped in the hospital for yet another night, things take an eerie turn. Is it just a bad reaction from the difficult birth that makes her imagine a filthy, ragged woman is trying to trade her babies for her own vile mewing creatures, or is Lauren’s world becoming a dark fairytale? The police aren’t taking it seriously, the doctors and her own husband are convinced it’s all in Lauren’s head. No one could possibly get in without being seen, not with the secure settings in the hospital. Detective Harper is determined to check on the new mother, despite the assumption it’s just ‘bad trip’. What she sees is a woman who is terrified, and unsure of her own mind. Something about her story pulls DS Harper in, and the hospital visit won’t be the last of it.

Once home with her husband and baby boys, everything feels like a threat, especially the strange gift she receives. Then her husband tells her he plans to head back to work sooner than he promised, leaving her to cope with no support. Wanting nothing more than to get away, a fresh breath, to escape her husband droning on about how good she is at this baby stuff, trying to convince her that she can do it when she knows she needs help, she bolts for the door ready to leave it all behind. Then she sees the frightful woman again, lurking! Patrick doesn’t though, and it feels like her mind is cracking. If no one is there, why is she so frightened? How to explain the strange gift that her friend swears isn’t from her? Before long, Lauren seems the woman’s filthy face peering in the windows of her home, creeping, waiting until the time is right to swap the babies. She holes herself up in the home, locked up, curtains drawn but Patrick won’t hear of it. All she needs is to get out, be in the world again, just get outside. Heeding her husband’s advice, she ventures upriver with the boys and meets her friends Rosa and Cindy, after commiserating over birth stories and mothering, sharing cake and coffee they part ways. Lauren walks to a clearing, upriver where the secluded bench sits. “Sinking down gratefully” Lauren closes her eyes and falls asleep, knowing only of her careless, unintended slumber when she startles awake and sees the baby stroller gone.

So begins the terror that her children must have been taken by the witch even when they are found not far away with another strange woman. Though they are returned to her, Lauren is convinced these are not her babies! That monstrous woman must have taken them,  and replaced them with these stand ins for these ‘others’ are not her own! To the raging river, she and the stroller must go if ever her real, flesh and blood human babies will return to her. This mad turn in her behavior has her locked up, but she will know the truth! She will do anything it takes to get her real children back. “They strapped her down. Like a madwoman.” The doctors know it is true that ‘someone took my babies’, for it is a fact and she is simply confused,  embellishing on a real incident because they are back now, safe, unharmed! She must play along if she is to be released, despite the constant truth that circles in her head “they are not my boys”.  Pretend, pretend they are yours.

Is it in the pretending that she becomes a threat to her children or is something far more sinister truly at work?

This is a nightmare seethed in folklore, quietly believable enough that you don’t have to suspend your disbelief. Lauren is flawed to begin with, surely someone who could create a fantasy through some sort of mental break, but there are things that lend her outrageous imaginings some credibility, and DS Harper is tied to the strange mystery because of her own past. Why does she feel so close to the case? Looking to study the evidence with an open mind when colleagues are quick to dismiss Lauren as a deluded new mother? This was a creepy gem of a novel, add it to your 2019 TBR list!

Publication date: April 30, 2019

Crooked Lane Books

 

 

 

Soon the Light Will Be Perfect: A Novel by Dave Patterson

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I’ve often prayed for our misery to be transferred to someone else- anyone else.

A young man comes of age  in rural Vermont alongside his older brother, just a sliver away from the trailer park and poverty they used to live among before moving into a house. The two contend with more than their hormones. Their Catholicism is little help in facing the harsh reality of a mother whose illness turns out to be cancer. The shame and confusion of raging urges that are becoming more of a fetish has him believing he is a deviant whose desires cannot be controlled. Often hungry for a filling meal himself, sick of heating frozen meals, he begins resenting his mother’s charitable meals for those that have even less, considering the recipient’s son is anything but thankful and seems enraged by generousity. His own mother tends to others needs despite her fragile health, yet contrary to her faith goes against the church during a protest, proving sometimes you have to honor your own moral code.  There is the debt he owes for a cat, a ‘fruitful’ endeavour that sees felines taking over their home but far more confusing is his father’s concerns over the tanks he helps build for the war. There is an inner conflict, risk losing the job that provides for his family, particularly now with his wife so ill or just do one’s job and remember ‘it’s best not to question things’. Their father isn’t the only one struggling with his place in life. How do you put your faith in God when even Father Brian isn’t holding strong?

As the boys help their father build a table for their ailing mother, the only thing she truly demands, her health continues to decline. Then new girl Taylor comes along, confusing him with her desire to know what his life feels like, that even as empty and terrible as it sometimes proves to be, it is still full of the love and stability others with so much less may long for. He finds himself drawn to her, whether it makes sense or not. Taylor’s environment is wildly freer than his own, surrounded by kids in the trailer park who have nothing better to do to pass the time than drink or worse. With a mother who goes through boyfriends, she needs protection and maybe he can be the one, even if he is wise enough to know running away isn’t an option, not when they don’t have two dimes to rub together between them. The only certain truth about Taylor is he understands even less about her actions than he does about his own.

It’s a story about being trapped in situations outside one’s control, that even faith sometimes has to take a backseat to the harsh realities and obstacles that come into our lives. Not all moral dilemmas can be resolved with a prayer anymore than laying on of hands is going to cure his mother’s illness. Paths can converge and lead to happy awakenings, as much as it can lead to tragedy. Before the end of the novel, our young narrator will grow up and discover that when misery and suffering eases its hold on us, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve seen the last of it.

Publication Date: April 9, 2019

Hanover Square Press

Look How Happy I’m Making You: Stories by Polly Rosenwaike

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A woman’s body was suppsed to know exactly what to do.

In Polly Rosenwaike’s debut collection of stories, women are confronting more than just motherhood. There are relationship struggles, bodies that are failing to behave as nature intended, and conflicting emotions within their own minds. Growing up girls are rarely privy to the reality of pregnancy and childbirth. It isn’t like all those movies where an unexpected pregnancy is a happy blessing, or the moment you try for a baby its immediate succes, the men are all adoring, the mother to be is glowing and when the time comes the couple has supportive family, friends, money and boom her body is back to its pre-pregnancy shape. Of course the baby and mother bond instantly, there isn’t any struggle breast-feeding, absolutely no sign of postpartum depression!

The reality is, there is jealousy particularly when you can’t get pregnant and all around you everyone else seems fruitful. Some women wait for a partner to arrive and realize they are stuck in a constant state of expecting, better maybe to have a child alone, for another her child’s birth represents the cycle of life and death as her beloved aunt is dying, a moment of joy tangled in grief. Pregnancies themselves aren’t one size fits all, for some months are spent consumed by illness, stress, pain. Some women get desperate and lie, their desire to grasp at their last chance to have a child before their biological clock turns everything off. Maybe forcing a man who is too young, who hasn’t chosen to be a father, through deceit. That sometimes, dishonesty feels like the only way to get what you want.Then there is the depths of postpartum depression, because expectant mothers never truly think it will happen to them. Your emotions turning you against your own nature, a dual person who can love and then feel resentment towards the baby, repulsed with breast-feeding, exhausted, visualizing doing terrible things to your child. Oh no, you would never! Courting thoughts of your own demise…all the panic within’. This is just one window to look through at the characters within.

A woman  psychologist is a ‘curator’ of babies laughter, but one infant’s silence is a tragedy that forces her to face her own cowardice. A childless couple (by choice, in agreement) find a shift in their desires when the husband changes his mind, because men can feel the tick of a daddy clock too. The manuals will tell you a lot, but not everything. There is so much advice about pregnancy, parenthood in books, from friends, doctors, family, strangers and online, and still yet it might not speak to your situation. Parenthood makes you hate and love your partner, it can seal your bond or break it. A woman may dream of being a mother her whole life, idealizing motherhood but when the moment comes may feel like an absolute failure. Another woman may become a mother on accident, with reluctance and fall head over heels, discover she was born for it, a natural! Others may decide to go it alone, or to never have a child at all. The kingdom of parenting never truly runs smoothly. It is a land dominated by disruption, illness, surprise attacks as much as celebration and love. Our bodies through pregnancy are the same, they can be foe or friend. Our thoughts can betray us just as much as those we love, and that bundle of joy along with our hormones can wreak havoc too, reminding mothers “Look How Happy I’m Making You”. Yes, read it! There has been quite a bit of fiction recently delving into the territory of motherhood and I champion it! We need to explore every crevice of what can go wrong (or even just feel wrong) as much as the good. When a woman is struggling, it shouldn’t be a desert period with no one to help. It’s good to know that it isn’t all teddy bear picnics, that women just like you struggle sometimes. There really isn’t a solid ‘supposed to’ in pregnancy, parenthood. It isn’t ‘one size fits all’. What pressure to be told what you should feel, how you’re meant to engage as if each baby is quiet, peaceful. Some babies come into this world squalling and how can you not resent the smugness of mothers whose little sweatpea sleeps like an angel bragging about their special bond. I wish I could have read such fiction when I was a young mother. This will be out in the new year!

Publication Date: March 19, 2019

Doubleday Books

 

Not a Clue: A Novel by Chloé Delaume, Dawn M Cornelio (Translator)

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You’re all even more sealed off from your environment than from yourselves, have been for a long time.

We are told in the beginning there are six patients and ‘you killed me. One of you or maybe each of you.” The murdered is Dr. Black, each of the accused patients at Paris’s St. Anne’s Hospital is gathered to play a life-size game of clue. The murderer really isn’t important, the novel lends itself to unraveling minds, and the writing can induce nervousness, anxiety, depression, confusion, anger, paranoia the list goes on. How to trust minds that don’t even trust themselves? This is not an easy read, and may well slip through the cracks of reader’s minds, myself included. I think I get it, some of it, but confess to being lost here and there. This is challenging reading, certainly creative writing that plays with and bites you in turns. I was exhausted, just as exhausted as the wounded characters. The author has lived through tragedy herself, I won’t go on about that, though certainly it must lend itself to her work as anything in life touches us, from tragedy to the most mundane moments, if you’re curious just look her up.

I got to the point that I didn’t care about killer, murderer and found I was far more invested in the why. Why is each patient sick, who brought them here or why did they come of ‘their own volition’. What about life disturbed this ‘chorus of misfits’ so much that they broke? There is a lot to trudge through, and if you aren’t one who reads literary fiction, who accuses certain books of being ‘too wordy’ then move along. “In her head, Aline was talking loud. In your head it’s always very easy to talk so loud you bother yourself.” There are certainly gems, beautiful writing between these pages. I’m not sure I’ve grasped the writer’s purpose but there seems to be any manner of meaning one can find.

Each patient brings their damage to the table, to the game. Life has had its way, and the result lies in forgetting, vacancy, or best yet becoming a revisionist. Aren’t we all, in our own precious way revisionists? Some look at themselves and are horrified, maybe it is better not to look at oneself too closely. One of my favorite lines “I can feel the word solitude.”  Solitude not a horror for the patient, but a comfort, a necessity. One of the b&l’s (The Bipolars and the Like) goes on to discuss the torment of memories, wanting to be emptied out. To express the pain of not wanting to accept the particular body given, well… it’s hard  not to the polish that little nugget of wisdom. To not understand in some circumstances that with so much internal struggle, you are bound to be swallowed by tidal waves. It’s eye-opening to think about the difference between temptation and those with illnesses they don’t chose. Never being able to avoid their mental torment as an alcoholic or drug addict can deny themselves (if even for a moment) their fix. Those with their poor polluted brains, their vanishing or rotting memories gathered together, afraid of who they are in the outside world, suspects, pariahs, discarded for your reading pleasure. Most didn’t have a say in their pollution, their fog.

Then there is the Omniscient Narratrix, a ‘psychological harassment’ to all fictional characters who should really be charged with a crime too, all those ‘repeated offenses’ against characters just trying to live, much like real people, without judgement or humiliation. A god, who wants to manage its cast, make them be better or worse than they are. Oh the hell of literature! Then there is the writer who won’t interfere, laughable because that’s all writers do is interfere. The characters in this novel are in revolt, and refuse to be managed! There will be no established form, this book is inhabited by characters that want to be left alone, to simply exist whether worse for wear or not, and remain unimproved if they so chose. Not A Clue thumbs it’s nose at how we say things, and Delaume disturbs the text, shakes things up. She is testing narrative conventions, breaking out of themes, toying with the setting, blowing up the plot because I am still not fully certain of the plot here. It works but it also confuses the hell out of you, or maybe just me.

If you want to read something wildly different, this is it. I liked it and at times found it aggravating, sort of like my own life. For me,  room I want to visit is what is real for the patients, not for arrogance of repairing them but simply to see their perspective. Not A Clue certainly is a unique read, though won’t be everyone’s drug of choice, ha.

Publication Date: December 1, 2018

University of Nebraska Press

 

Late Air: A Novel by Jaclyn Gilbert

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Murray’s fist tightened over his watch, numbers slipping like sand.

What began as a romantic, surprising love in Paris when Murray (a marathon runner, olympic competitor, coach for Yale) and Nancy ( literary archivist) first meet in a cafe, turns into marriage. Her family isn’t thrilled about his background. Just finishing her PhD, her mother wanted far more for her than someone with Murray’s less than stellar background. Not even after marriage and a child are her parents able to open their hearts. Murray himself doesn’t have many familial connections with both parent’s deceased and a brother who dropped off West when their mother was ill. Together, they create a family of their own to build upon, chosing to focus on their careers and marriage.

Murray is more than passionate about his girls, in Nancy’s mind maybe obsessed. Having moved to New Haven more for his work than hers, there are small resentments. Never easy in making friends, she finds her own footing and befriends colleagues to share the thoughts in her mind with as Murray becomes more distant, and their intimacy recedes. Often ashamed of the jealousy she feels over Murray’s ‘girls’, Nancy tries to channel all her energy into her newborn, Jean. But the days collect in loneliness, the maternal feelings don’t come naturally and Murray is always preoccupied by his stopwatch, training. She needs her work too, this she knows. Being stuck home all day isn’t nourishment to her mind, soul. She isn’t bonding naturally, her child is often a squalling bundle of energy. She is exhausted, depressed, and lonely.  In time, her little family is working again and everything feels good, though Murray is forgetful of important things, his mind never committed to Jean and Nancy.

Present day, sixteen years later Nancy and Murray are nowhere they thought they’d be. Tragedy has struck one of Murray’s star athletes, and the suffocating horrors of his own past suffering merges with present day. Now, he is beginning to see all the things he missed but is it too late, this breath of air? Could all the ridiculous fears, accusations and guilt from the past have some grain of truth? Is the injury Becky sustained his fault? Did he push his girls too hard? Was he a little too involved with others? Did he spend too much time running away from Nancy and Jean? Could anything he did or didn’t do change either outcome?

Time has its way with all the characters in this novel. Marriage through tragedy is a different beast, and sometimes it takes the passage of years to understand our choices, our mistakes, to confront our pain. Sometimes we understand too late that our partner’s betrayal may well be rooted in our own. This novel is an exploration of pain and love. You don’t have to be interested in runners (sports) to take meaning from the story, it’s much more about relationships, marriage, family. It burns slowly, takes you back and forth through Nancy and Murray’s lives, but those of you married long enough can relate especially partners who have trudged through loss together. If you haven’t known tragedy, you will one day. Grief and sorrow comes around for us all. It is the price we pay for being alive, for love.

Publication Date: November 13, 2019

Little A

 

The Boys Who Woke Up Early by A.D. Hopkins

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I sometimes blamed my name for the bad deeds of my youth.

1959, Jubal Early High School (Early, lying almost on the West Virginia line) Jack Newcomb walks in with a swagger, and before long becomes fast friends with Stony Shelor . When Stony isn’t avoiding trouble and juvenile court, he has fantasies about pretty country girl Mary Lou who just may teach him, and the town, more than he ever thought he needed to know about racism. Jack emulates TV characters from popular shows of the times, perfecting his swagger. Wearing a beret and sunglasses is about as foreign as a teenager could get around the hollers and Jack loves playing up his part, looking like a ‘jazz musician from a Peter Gun show’ (first detective tv series where the character was created for television). Soon, Jack convinces Stony they should each become a gumshoe themselves. First they need a licence to be detectives, but Jack figures it’s no problem, he has it all figured out already. He has researched! The boys find themselves hanging out at the Early County Sheriff’s Department learning police work and falling under the spell the power of asking questions provides. They help with a case when the Rich Conway’s (the district attorney) house is burglarized. Lacking the manpower, why not let the eager boys watch the place, rather than wasting the deputies time?  If they can catch the criminal, they can make serious money! But a stolen television leads to bigger tangles, and the person they’ve fingered as guilty isn’t as cut and dry as that.

When the boys decide to bust a speakeasy and brothel, Stony further inflames a longstanding family feud between the Jepsons (moonshiners and poachers) and his own family, the Shelors. Like his grandfather once told his daughter-in law about their own ancestors “It won’t do to shake that family tree too hard,” he told her, “you might not like what falls out.” What family is without their dubious characters, whose to say or remember exactly what started the feud. Stony knows only that all the Jepsons fought like the devil and dropped out of school by the time they were sixteen. He remembers all too well the hell Buddy put on him in grade school.

Without giving the story away, it’s a coming of age during a time when racial tensions were on the rise, when the Ku Klux Klan were hidden sometimes in your own family and two boys playing at being grown men, thrilled by the power of police work sometimes learn that the difference between right and wrong, good and bad is thin. That love can incite all manner of shocking violence, and messing with the wrong boy can possibly cost you your very life. Will Stony be brave enough to support the girl he loves, in spite of the hatred in the eyes of the entire town? Will he ever be a real detective?

This reads so much like a memoir. That people freely used such inflammatory, racist language is the reality of the time and place. That sometimes we don’t understand how ugly the things we unquestioningly accept as normal are until we open our eyes is evident in the changes Stony goes through. That in looking for our own glory, we may bring the downfall of other innocent people and at a greater cost than we thought even to ourselves. It’s hard to admit even ignorance can be understood if you look at the root of it, fear. It’s nice to see brave female characters in a story about boys too, because Mary Lou has the strength of every man in this novel.

Publication Date: March 3, 2019

Imbrifex Books