Rainy Day Reads – Dark and Difficult Tales

Although the stories are difficult to read, each leaves the reader with an understanding and some sympathy for the characters’ circumstances, and possibly a sense of shadenfraude.

514KmtX+MGL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_  Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Hamid focuses on the lives of two immigrants, Saeed and Nadia, whose country is bombarded by war and terror.  Saeed, the son of a university professor, works at an ad agency and lives with his family. Nadia lives alone, rides a motorcycle,  and wears a full black robe, not for religious deference but to discourage men’s interest in her.  Opposites attract; they meet in a college class on product branding and fall in love.

As the city becomes overrun with refugees and the terror escalates, many yearn to escape.  Hamid graphically documents what is it like to live in a war zone and the desperate lives of those who are collateral damage.

The novel veers into magical realism when Hamid creates mysterious doors opening to other places.  Unlike the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicle of Narnia, these portals lead to actual places – in this case, first to the island of Mykonos, then to the outskirts of London, and finally to San Francisco.  As  Saeed and Nadia escape through each set of doors, they find themselves among other refugees and subsist poorly.  Their lives are difficult, facing constant fear and roadblocks.  Hamid electrifies the refugee crisis as he melds the political and personal, and disconcertedly jumps between scenes of bombing and drones to starry skies and dreams of a future.

The novel ends with hope, but also emphasizes how experiences have affected the couple – even magical doors take a toll.   The story is difficult to read, not just for the misery and struggle but also for its truthful timeliness.

8f097af436887d7ef6a7422ab1e6e846-w204@1x  Stream System by Gerald Murnane

When I read Mark Binelli’s interview of Gerald Murnane in the Sunday New York Times – Is the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature Tending Bar in a Dusty Australian Town? my curiosity led me to Binelli’s recommendation for a place to start reading the author – his collection of short fiction, Stream System.

An obscure Australian writer, Murnane lives in a poor ramshackle space outside of Melbourne and would seem more eccentric than brilliant.  He prides himself on writing only what he knows within his small sphere – no travel and little patience with people.  His stories are set near Melbourne, are in part autobiographical, and focus on perceptions.  The canon of his work is extensive and his writing reflects a strange simplicity reminiscent of Hemingway.  The first story in his collection – “When the Mice Failed to Arrive” – jumps from introspection to problem-solving and left me not with a yearning for more but with a general unease.  You can read it – here – and decide for yourself.

180319154736-the-child-in-time-cumberbatch-exlarge-169  The Child in Time by Ian McEwan

McEwan’s stories are always compelling but with sad endings.  Although I have read many of McEwan’s books (Atonement, On Chesil Beach, Sweet Tooth, Nutshell) I had not read this earlier work – The Child in Time.  More for the actor Benedict Cumberbatch than for the story, I watched the PBS Masterpiece production.

The story shows Stephen, an author of children’s books, and his wife, as they deal with the kidnapping of their three-year-old daughter Kate.  A sense of magic as well as despair pervades their grief as Stephen has glimpses of his daughter after her abduction.  The ending offers a sense of hope but their overwhelming pain persists. The drama was compelling and worth seeing.  The story will stay with me, but I doubt I will read the book – enough.

 

 

The Child Finder and Elizabeth Smart

61JqRLhUD5L._AC_US218_Rene Denfeld’s The Child Finder reminded me of  the 2002 kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart, a story I had heard on the news. I had avoided reading Smart’s account of her nine months in captivity in her book, “My Story,”  but this fictionalized tale of a young girl  stolen in the woods, abducted by a trapper who had once been a victim himself, revealed the horror and strength of missing children.  Fiction can be as true as fact.

In 2002, fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart was taken from her home in the middle of the night, kept chained and repeatedly raped. In Denfeld’s The Child Finder, a young girl, Madison, gets lost in a snowy wood in Oregon when she and her family are looking for the perfect Christmas tree to cut down.  A deaf trapper finds her, almost dead from the cold, and hides her in the dirt cellar of his cabin in the woods.  Madison survives by telling herself remembered folktales, and imagines she is now someone else, outside her own self and in the body of the Snow Girl, a fairytale she knows from before she was taken.  Denfeld masks the horror of the sexual abuse and the beatings with the girl’s stories;  her resilience and determination shine through the misery and offer hope for a rescue.

After years of fruitless searching, Madison’s parents hire Naomi, an acclaimed investigator and tracker with a reputation for finding lost children.  Naomi, who escaped her abductors as a child, struggles with her own demons – a haunting past she only remembers in nightmares.  As she pursues clues leading her to finding Madison, Naomi searches not only for the lost girl but also for her own lost identity.

Elizabeth Smart is the real life embodiment of a Naomi, transformed from victim to advocate.  After her rescue in 2003, she rejoined her family and continues to work to restore her life.  I look forward to meeting her soon at a book reading.

The Child Finder is not an easy read, but Denfeld uses her own experience as a Portland-based journalist and private investigator, as well as the adoptive mother of three foster children, to create a powerful and disquieting novel.