Love After Love: A Novel by Ingrid Persaud

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Thing is, worse than the pain in my arm is Sunil’s spirit in the house. The man in the walls, on the stairs, in the rooms. Before he passed he must have put the bad eye on me for truth. 

Love After Love is an interesting title for this novel, because it is about love but not the sort we tend to seek out with romanticized notions. Love here is far stronger between friends and family than in lovers, forced into terrible situations and entanglements for passion. Written in Trinidadian dialect it may take some readers time to get into the flow, but I feel it lends a more authentic flavor to the tale. It begins with Betty Ramdin’s husband Sunil, stinking of rum and feeling big and mean after ‘working hard all week’ he is taking everything out on Betty and their little boy Solo. From the way Betty caters to him, the ugliness spewing from his hateful mouth and her terror as she watches him bully Solo it’s obvious she is like a beaten down dog, trained on the scent of her husband’s brutality. It’s for her son that she fears, who she tries to protect, often inserting herself to do the things Sunil demands of Solo, so that when his clumsy little boy hands fail he won’t get punished. To think people told her she was lucky, looking at Betty with Sunil by her side, but what sort of lucky leaves you with broken bones and a cowering child? Sunil may be dead in a few pages, but his poison has spread and his death will have damaging consequences through the years, testing the bounds of love between mother and son.

Betty is a good mother, trying to raise her boy right once she’s free from the imprisonment of a bad marriage but living in the big old house she could use money and a lodger would be ideal. After giving Mr. Chetan (her co-worker) a ride one morning, Betty mentions she needs a lodger, if he knows of anyone needing a place, particularly a mature woman, it would help her greatly. This in turn becomes the perfect opportunity for Mr. Chetan, as fate would have it, his landlord is selling everything thanks to the misfortune of crime. A gentle, quiet, private man he will be no hardship, though Betty herself seems to be talkative and possibly a meddler in time the two come to mean as much to each other as devoted spouses.

Both Mr. Chetan and Betty have shameful secrets, even criminal to some minds, but in life we are pushed to make choices to save ourselves, and others. There are rules about love and in Trinidad trying to embrace who you are under the condemning eyes of the people can be one’s ruination. People are fast to talk, Betty learns this all too well as she ventures out for a man’s touch, much to her son Solo’s humiliation. Despite Mr. Chetan’s role in his life, a type of surrogate father and a far better one than his own departed dad, when Solo discovers what his mother has kept hidden from him he concocts a plan and with his savings soon abandons their life and flees to live with his paternal uncle in New York. Betty thinks it’s temporary, but he wants nothing more than to be free of her and her lies, to cut her out like a cancer. In the process, he pushes Mr. Chetan to take a backseat role too, and the thing about leaving is that you can’t always return to the people you have left.

The dynamics change once Solo is gone, Chetan is living his life more freely, maybe more for himself finally when someone from the past is again in his life. Betty is yearning to hear about her son’s experience in America, jealous of the closeness he has with his uncle while she is again like a dog begging for a bone, resorting to sending letters to the boy who refuses to see sense in her explanations. He is keen on his pain, and finds many outlets for it.

Solo struggles in New York but feels good being a part of the Ramdin men under his Uncle Hari’s guidance, and no longer under the ‘suffocating’ care of his mother, who kept him a blind fool. Hari tells him it won’t be easy working hard jobs, he should stay in school as his dad would have wanted that but having Solo around he tells him ‘Every time I look at you I seeing piece of Sunil.’  Solo cannot go back to Trinidad and his mother’s lies. Through Uncle Hari, Solo can get to know the father who is just a fading memory and cling to the toxic blame he feels is all his mother’s due. The truth, the same as people, has many faces and may well turn us against the very people who made dangerous decisions for our sake. It will cost Solo, his mother Betty and Mr. Chetan time that they will never get back.  Solo has a lot to learn and finds he is more like his mother than he thinks; getting a mother who has cared for you all your life out of your system isn’t so easy.

In this story some people’s love is so pure they are willing to risk their very soul and yet others can’t find enough heart to accept their child for who they are. Some are so hungry for love they will tolerate any sort of arrangement just to feel alive, to be near their beloved and society itself forces people into dangerous situations just to feel the burn of it. Love shouldn’t cost this much. Shame weighs more than the soul can bear, but how do you release it’s grip? “The moon can run but the day will always catch it.” There is family dysfunction, grief, abuse, distorted memory, mother’s pure love and then some. Here, Mr. Chetan is the glue between Betty and Solo, for that it is a savage and beautiful love story.

Publication Date: April 14, 2020

Random House Publishing

One World

A QUICK NOTE: There are sexual encounters that may put off some readers but it is not the sole focus, keep going with the novel. It broke my heart.

Dead Heat by Benedek Totth (Ildikó Noémi Nagy, Translation)

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As I snapped Mishy’s nose back into place, it made a huge cracking noise, then the poor bastard howled and had some kind of spasm.

Dead Heat is a wild coming of age story about teenage boys on a swim team in Hungary who also happen to spend most their days in a drunken, drugged out daze when they’re not having sex with any and every girl in their vicinity. Porn obsessed the boys see girls as nothing but ‘sluts’, there to please them. The girls themselves all too willing to ‘give it up’ any time and every which way. The boys feel invincible, as the youthful often do, able to maintain, for a time anyway, their strength for a highly competitive sport. Pushing through hardcore practices lead by their brutally hard coach, whose rage they have a gift for invoking, over time becomes harder fed by their many vices. Our narrator along with his loser pals Zoli-boy, Ducky, Buoy and Mishy are soaked in testosterone, playing violent video games, starting war with dealers,  packing heat, stealing and speeding through the streets high as kites. The rot in their bond starts when they are involved in a serious accident, forced to pretend like nothing happened. Silence is for wise men, and they better all keep their mouths shut. Top of their game, they’ve been too free to prowl the town and their parents are either too high themselves to notice anything about the boys, or oblivious.

There is so much to rage against and the boys are each numb to their existence, not even taking beatings seem to shake them awake. Criminal behavior is second nature, what else fires the blood when you’re bored more than the thrill of the getting away from authority? What makes the heart pump faster than chasing girls, chasing highs? Are they afraid of anything or just pretending not to be? Before long, their criminal acts push them into murky waters of life and death. Violence is around every corner, when one of their friends goes missing, the heat intensifies and loyalties are pushed to breaking. Who can they trust? Just how far will they go? Swim meets are nothing compared to the pressure of enemies, and soon going into hiding may be the only way for our narrator to get his head straight, to make sense of what has happened, to examine his friends, to determine which direction threats are coming from.

It’s a raw, gritty, sordid read. It is a coming of age in a time when boys feel dead inside, when culture fuels the violence, and no cage is secure enough to stop them. It’s hard to find a redeeming quality, but maybe their is a slim chance at redemption for the narrator… very slim, if he makes it out alive. These boys are the crime scene you stop and stare at on the side of the road. It’s only a matter of time before they have to wake up to reality, and it’s going to be a brutal hangover!

Publication Date: November 19, 2019

Biblioasis

 

 

The Topeka School: A Novel by Ben Lerner

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They felt at once profoundly numb and profoundly ecstatic to be young and inflicting optional damage on each other; the heat was its own justification, but so was the cold- there was a second-order thrill in knowing you could kick someone in the chest without emotion. 

With two parents who are highly successful psychologists working for “The Foundation”, surely one would imagine their son Adam would have a solid structure to build his life upon. It’s not so, the parents marriage isn’t so perfect neither is he the well rounded, popular student the surface would have people believe. Like other foundation kids, he is on his way up, a debater and orator sure to win the state championship, popular with the other foundation kids despite being a poet (whom everyone knows makes you a total wimp, right), growing up in middle class Kansas, a seemingly charmed existence but his parents strategies are enough to drive him into a rage. He’s got verbal battles to channel bullying, a safe outlet. Thank god for his ‘language’, and he can always do ‘talk therapy’ or consult with someone they really admire, anything to dull that ‘intensity’ of his. A concussion leads to migraines, and of course there is terror in the debilitating neurological effects for people of any age. Are these migraines just the effects and pressures of ‘passing himself off as a real man?’ Lucky for Adam he has The Foundation and Erwood, “a pioneer in biofeedback” to pull him through.

There are pages where we get inside of Darren’s mind, a student with mental problems who is pulled into Adam’s circle,“Hadn’t they always been told to include him?” and involved in an incident that leads to a violent episode. In fact, this was what I loved most about the novel… that even parents with all their brilliant research and Adam’s father with his keen insight into troubled boys can still fail just like the rest of us. “Of course they knew better, but knowing is a weak state, you cannot assume your son will opt out of the dominant libidinal economy…” you want to talk about intensity and aggression how about what it means for boys to embrace violent masculinity even in a world that is ‘inclusive’, with a top-notch support system. Kids will be cruel, even when they know better, even when they are trying to be better. There is a mockery of the world as modeled by their parents, and no one exposes it in the way Lerner does in this novel. Even the adults, like Adam’s father understands that you can’t transcend feelings, even if you do understand them.

Going back in time and reading about Adam’s parents family dynamics leads us to some understanding on why they are concerned about the human psyche, what they themselves have embraced or discarded from their own childhoods, all the old wounds. But a parent can’t apply their own lessons perfectly to their own children, we live in different times, different worlds. You still have to fight societal norms, the culture of youth, the expectations of peers and the world always breathing down your neck. Jane’s interactions with The Men, the harassment she tolerates because other women suffer so much worse. How it touches Adam when he is a young boy. Just who are the men? You know them, the woman haters, the ones who would have her raped and ‘taught a lesson’ if wishes could make it happen.

Having a successfully famous feminist mother, and wondering during an interaction with another mother and son should he feel proud or emasculated by mom’s success is a fascinating thought to explore. It seems her very existence can generate situations that demand Adam act out, with ape mentality.  There is a section of the novel where his mother Jane is receiving an award after an encounter Adam has with a member of the Westboro Baptist Church. His behavior the opposite effect of what his feminist mother teaches others. The mockery from the protester when Adam does show his own hatred. When does masculinity cross the line, when is it more about appearances? What causes so much anger inside of Adam, whose been raised to redirect any form of aggression in a healthy way? The world still demands a man ‘prove’ his strength, the world still sizes him up. How do we fight back without losing our own dignity? This isn’t the last he will see of the protesters.

There seem to be pivotal moments in Adam’s life, the concussion and the incident that he drags with him into adulthood. Adam blames himself for Darren still too. The collapse of a serious relationship, the collapse of his own parents calm little marriage. Has he really ‘graduated from childhood’? What does that even mean? Has he learned to be a man yet, the sort of man mom wouldn’t be ashamed of, the sort of man that channels his own father’s calmness? But there are so many tests for a man beginning in childhood to adolescence, and then fatherhood?

The story shifts perspectives, we see the infidelities through his father Jonathan (how we cross the lines of intimacy in marriage), the toxic violence of our current times, the issue of masculinity, why Jane holds herself back, how our past can both guide and haunt us and the impossible task of trying to understand what it means to even be a man anymore in the world. How we distort the truth, how we make sense of the chaos outside and inside of us. Time skips, and folds in on us through the telling, it works in this novel. How do you raise a solid human being when our culture is crumbling, especially as Adam is coming of age in the 90s, where being a man seems to be modeled on demeaning others, on knowing if you can ‘take someone down’?  Having a feminist mother, parents who understand the human psyche doesn’t mean the rot of the world won’t stick to you. This is an intelligent novel but it felt scattered sometimes. There is a lot going on, and you have to keep up.

Publication Date: October 1, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux