Gary Guinn

Literature of the Ozarks

Category: Writers and Writing (page 1 of 13)

Review: Julia Haeberlin’s Black-Eyed Susans

The Black-Eyed Susans:Book Cover Black-Eyed Susans

“The Susans are a greedy plant, often the first to thrive in scorched, devastated earth.” This line, early in Julia Heaberlin’s novel Black-Eyed Susans, works on more than one level and becomes an underlying motif for the narrative. Tessa Cartwright was raped and left for dead as a teenager among a field of flowering black-eyed Susans. The bones of other long-lost girls surrounded her. In the media coverage of the case, she and the other girls become known as the Black-Eyed Susans. Out of her scorched and devastated life, Tessa has managed to thrive.

Tessa:

The attack itself remains an empty spot scorched in Tessa’s memory. The novel opens years later, when Tessa has a teenage daughter of her own. She is working with an attorney and a forensic scientist to free the man convicted of the crime, who sits on death row awaiting imminent execution. Though she can’t remember the attacker, she has become convinced that her testimony at the trial sent the wrong man to death row. Underlying the race to save the condemned man is the possibility that the real killer is now stalking Tessa.

The Voices:

Two voices tell the story—the first-person voice of the present-day Tessa, and the first-person voice of her earlier self, the young Tessie in the months after the attack. The voices alternate in short chapters of three to five pages, creating a dynamic pace in the complex and gripping narrative. The two narrative voices press against each other, one from the past and one from the present. The tension grinds inevitably toward the final revelation, squeezing out the truth that lurks behind the Black-Eyed Susans.

Supporting Cast:

Tessa’s teenage daughter, the defense lawyer, and the forensic scientist are engaging and well-developed characters and become important pieces in solving the puzzle, as does Tessa’s best friend from childhood, who disappeared years earlier after the trial. And always, the voices of the other Susans in Tessa’s head, the dead girls who encourage, warn, and challenge her.

Conclusion:

Some readers may find the resolution of the mystery a bit contrived, maybe a little far-fetched. I did. But that won’t take away from a really good story told very well. As in the case of the Nordic Noir novel Sun and Shadow, by Ake Edwardson, the flaws do not outweigh the strengths. I don’t hesitate to recommend the book.

Review: An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Introduction: Ishiguro

Memory and the heart. Such fragile things on which to build our notion of ourselves. As the old prophet Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful above all things . . . Who can understand it?” And memory is surely at least as deceitful as the heart. Both memory and the heart seem to function at the mercy of the transient, ephemeral world of human life. And they are central to the fiction of Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro, who  just won the 2017 Nobel Prize for LiteratureKazuo Ishiguro photo

An Artist of the Floating World is a beautiful emotional set piece. Following World War II, an aging Japanese artist struggles with his experience of post-war Japan. In time, he regrets his role in the rise of empire that ended in the destruction of the old world.

Comparison: Remains of the Day

Remains of the Day film still Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins

Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day.

It may be that most people know Kazuo Ishiguro for his novel The Remains of the Day and its film adaptation, with Anthony Hopkins as the butler Stevens and Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton. In fact, there are significant similarities in tone and theme between the two novels. In both cases, the main character looks back on a career in which he devoted his life to a cause that was later shown to be horribly mistaken and in which he turned his back on a path that would have resulted in a different, and probably more fulfilling life. Mr. Stevens, in The Remains of the Day,  does not marry Miss Kenton. In An Artist of the Floating World, the artist Masuji Ono turns his back on “fine art.” Fine art focuses on the fleeting beauty of this world. Ono  makes his art serve the empire of the “New Japan.”

Both novels come from a perspective not long after the war. The protagonists look back on a time prior to and during the war, blended with their current lives. The tone of both is nostalgic, beautiful. In An Artist of the Floating World, Ishiguro’s use of an unreliable narrator, whose growth in the novel is toward self-realization, is masterful. Numerous times in the narrative, the artist Ono says it is entirely possible that his memory of an event or conversation is not accurate, that things might not have happened exactly as he presents them. These admissions become part of his growth in awareness of self. They are some of the elements that make him sympathetic and human, and very like all of us.

Conclusion: CatharsisArtistOfTheFloatingWorld.jpg Cover

A reader who identifies with Ono, and feels compassion for him, may experience in reading this novel what Aristotle called catharsis in his Poetics, a vicarious purging of guilt and fear, the impetus toward self-understanding. (See Aristotle on Character)  Ishiguro seems to be saying that as we grow older, we come to realize how much of our image of ourselves is dependent on feeling and memory, and we come to understand how fickle, how deceitful, those things can be. If we are to live in peace with ourselves, we must see ourselves honestly and forgive ourselves. We have all committed well-intentioned errors in our pasts. Only with honesty and forgiveness can we live with integrity and dignity.

Review: Sun and Shadow, by Ake Edwardson

Overview Cover photo of Edwardson, Sun and Shadow

Sun and Shadow, the first Detective Erik Winter novel by Swedish writer Ake Edwardson to be translated into English (1999), is a dark psychological mystery that chronicles two grotesque double murders and the exhausting investigation that follows. The plot is complex, and it delivers the build-up to a suspenseful ending.  (See review of The Preacher, by Sander Jaboksen)

Edwardson’s Style: Dialogue, Description, Verbs, Filtering

Dialogue-

Edwardson’s style is literary. The writing is strong, especially the descriptive language and the dialogue. After Detective Winter visits his father, who has just had a heart attack and with whom Winter has had a strained relationship, he tells his lover, Angela, about it:

“ What was it like, seeing him again?”

“As if we’d been chatting only last week.”

“Sure?”

“Depends what you mean. We spoke about safe subjects.”

“Everything takes time. He has to get better first.”

“Hmm.”

“Are you tired?”

“Not so tired that I can’t indulge in a glass of duty-free whiskey. What about you?”

These spare conversations, circling around a subject like a dance, are common. In effect, dialogue carries the narrative.

Description-

Edwardson avoids extensive descriptive passages that tend to slow the narrative movement. Yet often the descriptive language is strong. Here is an example of a strong and spare description:

“It was night in the apartment, no lights burning anymore. A standard lamp had been on all day, but the bulb had gone. As dawn broke, autumn sidled in through the venetian blinds and a roller blind in the bedroom let in patches of light.”

I would quibble with a couple of things (pet peeves of mine) in Edwardson’s style. (I should add here that it’s entirely possible that the first of these problems results from translation and may not exist in the original.)

Verbs-

First, Edwardson works the poor, overused verb “to be” to within an inch of its life, both as the main verb in a sentence and as the helping verb used with a main verb in the “–ing” (progressive) form. I’ll italicize examples in the following short paragraph to demonstrate:

“Winter was walking along the Ricardo Soriano. It was evening again. He went into the cerveceria Monte Carlo and ordered a glass of draft beer at the bar. The place was full of men watching a football match on a large screen. Real Madrid versus Valladolid. He drank his beer and felt comfortable among all the shouting. There were no women inside the bar. They were sitting at tables on the pavement outside, waiting for the match to end and the evening to begin.”

Five “to be” verbs in a short paragraph. The problem: All these “to be” verbs kill the immediacy of the reader’s experience of what happens. Compare the following possibilities: “Winter walked along  . . . “ or “The bar overflowed with men watching . .” or “All the women sat at tables on the pavement outside . . .” Revising “to be” verbs into action verbs is a staple of good writing.

Filtering-

My second quibble: Edwardson tends to filter sense experience instead of giving it to the reader directly. Here’s what I mean. Detective Winter goes into a bar, and the narrator tells us: “Winter could hear people speaking Norwegian, Swedish, and German.” The readers should experience the bar, not have Winter experience it for them. It would be easy to revise this passage to say, “People at the tables around him spoke Norwegian, Swedish, and German.” That way the reader experiences the polyglot with Winter instead of being told that Winter experienced it. This kind of filtering is too common in the novel.

Summary

Okay, with all that said, this book was a good read. I recommend it, especially for fans of Scandinavian crime fiction. It’s a strong example of the genre. The complex plot builds slowly and in the end delivers a powerful, driving finish.

 

 

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