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Purge, by Sofi Oksanen

Purge, by Sofi Oksanen

Purge was written by Finnish-Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen, and translated from Finnish into English. It has also been translated into 49 other languages, and is billed as an international bestseller. The picture above is from the Finnish paperback.

The novel takes place in Estonia, and alternates between chapters in the 1990’s, and chapters from the 1930’s to 1950’s. The story begins with an elderly woman, Aliide, finding an injured young woman in her yard. Against her better judgment Aliide invites the young woman (Zara) into the house and takes care of her. We soon realize that Zara knows who Aliide is and has been looking for her, although Aliide does not know who Zara is.

What is the connection between Zara and Aliide? Why is Zara looking for her? These are just the first of many mysteries which the author develops as the novel progresses. While the story focuses on human relationships and personalities, it is based on historical events, so it is helpful to know some basic Estonian history (which I looked up in an encyclopedia). Here is what you need to know: Estonia was independent from 1918 to 1940, when it was taken over (against the will of most Estonians) by the Soviet Union. From 1941 to 1944, Germany occupied Estonia, and in 1944 the Soviet Union took over again. Estonia gained independence in 1991.

Knowing this history makes clear the significance of the novel’s dates. The modern sections take place in 1991 and 1992, shortly after Estonia’s independence, and the historical sections takes place from 1936 to 1951, shortly before and during the Soviet takeover of Estonia. Two maps in the book are helpful, and show that Estonia borders Russia and is separated by a narrow gulf from Finland. Zara’s home, Vladivostok, is a city at the other end of Russia, past Siberia, on the border with China.

I don’t want to give too much away about this gripping novel, but it is clear at the beginning that some of the characters fought for Estonian independence, while others worked for the Soviets. The novel prompts readers to consider issues of motivation, fear, and love. Aliide, in particular, is a fascinating character. Be warned that some parts of the novel are unsettling to read because of the abuse suffered by the characters. This is an unusual, complex, and discussion-worthy novel.

The Lost Daughter of Happiness, by Geling Yan

The Lost Daughter of Happiness, by Geling Yan

I’m not sure how to describe this beautiful novel. On one level, it is a mysterious love story between a Chinese prostitute, Fusang, in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1860’s and 1870’s and a white boy of German heritage, Chris. On another level it is an exploration of a Chinese immigrant woman at the beginning of the 21st century attempting to research Fusang as a way of understanding the history of Chinese people in San Francisco, as well as the relationship between Chinese and white people.

The Lost Daughter of Happiness  begins with the modern-day Chinese immigrant writer addressing Fusang. Here is a passage from page 2:

I know who you were: a twenty-year-old prostitute, one of a succession of three thousand prostitutes from China. When you stepped upon these golden shores, you were a fully grown woman. You had no skills, no seductive charm, not a trace of lust in your eyes. People could sense your distinctive simplicity the moment they met you.

Parts of the novel are told in a conventional narrative in third person. In other parts, the narrator speaks in first person, addressing Fusang as “you,” or relating information from the 160 books she has been reading on the history of San Francisco’s Chinatown, or even talking about her own relationship with her white husband.

I found the story to be compelling and suspenseful, especially as Fusang finds herself in dangerous situations, and as Chris, who is only 12 when he first sees Fusang, attempts to get to know her. However, the novel is not always told in chronological order. Flashbacks and flash forwards force the reader to piece together the narrative, which can sometimes be confusing, but can also reveal surprises. Ultimately, I found the structure of the novel intriguing and thought-provoking.

Fusang and the other characters often function more as symbols than as fully developed characters. Sometimes Fusang can be a puzzling mystery who seems almost unreal to Chris and to the reader. Yet she is also a flesh-and-blood woman who experiences pain, sadness, and joy.

Although the author, Geling Yan, lives in the United States, she writes most of her books in Chinese. This book was first published in Taiwan and translated into English by Cathy Silber. I suspect that American readers might miss some symbolic references that would be apparent to a Chinese reader. For example, several times Fusang plays a haunting tune on her flute, a song called “Shepherd Su Wu.” I looked this up and found out that the song is a reference to a Chinese hero lauded for his faith and loyalty despite extreme stress. In case you’re curious, here is a performance of the Shepherd Su Wu song on flute.

If you are looking for a story with a linear plot and easy-to-understand characters, this is not the book for you. But if you enjoy magical realism and are intrigued by multiple layers of meaning, you might treasure this book.

For more information about Geling Yan, please see her web site.

Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites is based on the almost mythic Icelandic true story of 34-year-old Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman beheaded in public in Iceland (in 1830). The author, Hannah Kent, was a teenaged Australian exchange student in Iceland when she first heard about the execution of Agnes, and became fascinated. She then spent many years visiting Iceland and researching the story of this woman through oral histories and government records.

The jacket copy for this book is a little misleading: “Charged with the brutal murder of two men, Agnes Magnusdottir has been moved to her homeland’s farthest reaches, to an isolated farm in northern Iceland, to await execution.” From this it sounds like the murders were committed in a more populated part of Iceland, and that Agnes was moved to a remote area that was unknown to her. In fact, the murders happened in an even more isolated, even more northern part of Iceland. There were no jails in this part of the country, so Agnes was housed in the homes of district officials. After sentencing, she was in fact moved to the valley in which she had grown up, to a farm where she had worked as housemaid for a previous family.

The story is told through several points of view: Agnes tells us her memories in first person; the reactions of the people around her are in third person; and interspersed throughout the novel are government documents and poems written about, to, and from Agnes. I found the novel full of suspense from the beginning: did Agnes really commit these murders? How will the family react to her being housed with them? Why did Agnes request a young priest who does not know her to help her prepare for the execution? What is Agnes really like? What was her relationship to the murdered men? These answers are revealed slowly, painting a fascinating and complex picture of the character and actions of Agnes. Almost every main character who encounters Agnes changes as a result.

In addition to the nuanced characters, the novel is also compelling for its detailed descriptions of the scenery and life of northern Iceland in the early 1800’s: the endless work, the harsh weather, and the objects of daily life. A map of the region and a pronunciation guide are helpful. I also listened to part of the audiobook for the pronunciation of names and places. The writing style is simple, direct, and spare, yet full of emotion.

Kindred, by Octavia Butler

Kindred, by Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler is best known as a science fiction writer—one of the few African American women science fiction writers, and the first science fiction writer to receive a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation. However, she has written at least one book which combines historical fiction with time travel.

Kindred was a best-seller when it was first published in 1979, and is still taught in schools and colleges today. I can easily understand why. It is an absolutely gripping novel: engaging characters and plenty of action and suspense, as well as thought-provoking situations that lend themselves to classroom discussion. I could not put it down, and finished it in two days.

Kindred begins in 1976, with an African-American woman, Dana, and her white husband, Kevin, unpacking in their new apartment near Los Angeles. Suddenly, Dana finds herself transported to the bank of a river where a white boy is drowning. She saves his life, and then returns home to her California apartment just as suddenly. She doesn’t know where she’s been, or who she has just saved. However, this becomes clear on her second sudden trip, when she is called to save the same boy, Rufus, now a few years older, from a fire he started. Upon questioning the boy, she finds out that she is in Maryland and the year is 1815. When Rufus reveals his full name, she recognizes him as one of her own ancestors.

It turns out that Rufus somehow has the ability to call Dana back to him whenever he’s in a life-threatening situation. However, each trip for her grows longer and more dangerous. Rufus is the son of a slave-owner, and each time she visits, Dana is in danger of being enslaved herself. During her third trip, Kevin tries to prevent her from being transported by grabbing onto her, and he is also transported with her.

Most of the novel takes place in the early 1800’s, with only brief interludes in 1976, so it is more of a historical novel than a science fiction novel. The time travel is the only science fiction device used in the novel, and there are no machines or other technology to make it happen. It just happens.

In a 1997 interview in Callaloo magazine Butler said the idea for Kindred came to her in college, when she heard a young man, part of the Black Power Movement, blame his ancestors for submitting to cruel and humiliating treatment. Butler realized that this man, and perhaps other young adults like him, didn’t understand that he wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the endurance his ancestors exhibited under extreme stress. Butler uses Kindred as a way of exploring how slavery changed both white people and black people. How does a slave-owner develop from an innocent child? Why might a black person choose to endure mistreatment rather than to fight back or try to escape? How might a modern African American cope with a life of slavery?

Kindred is truly a classic work of historical fiction, science fiction, African American literature, and literature in general. I just found out that a Kindred graphic novel adaptation will be released in 2017, so this wonderful novel should find new readers!

The Translation of Love, by Lynne Kutsukake

The Translation of Love, by Lynne Kutsukake

Before I read this book, I was familiar with the plight of the Japanese in North America who were forced into internment camps during World War II. But I had never given a thought to the situation in Japan after the war. The Translation of Love by Japanese-Canadian author Lynne Kutsukake shines light on the human story behind the American occupation of Japan after the end of the war.

The story is told in third person through the eyes of several people, both Japanese-born and people of Japanese heritage from North America. A Japanese-Canadian girl, Aya, and her father are deported to Japan after their time in an internment camp. While struggling to fit in at school, she is befriended by Fumi, whose sister, Sumiko, has been earning money by dancing in bars with American soldiers.

Two other important characters include Japanese-Americans Matt and Nancy, who work as translators for the American government. For the most part, the Japanese people welcomed the American occupiers, and many wrote letters to General Douglas MacArthur, who was the leader of the occupying forces to bring democracy to Japan. These letters needed to be translated into English, and this is where the title of the book comes from.

The characters’ longings and desires are clearly drawn, and I was engaged by their intersecting stories. Fumi wants to send a letter to General MacArthur asking him to find her sister, and she enlists Aya’s help. They end up giving the letter to Matt who, along with Nancy, tries to find Sumiko among the myriad bars in Tokyo. Meanwhile, Sumiko develops a problem of her own and flees to a hidden location.

Lynne Kutsukake’s writing style is clean and straightforward. She weaves in relevant details about life in Japan to help the reader imagine what it would have been like to live there at that time both as an American (who had access to more wealth and food), and as a Japanese person (many of whom struggled to make ends meet). Here is the beginning of chapter 1, just before Fumi meets Aya:

Ever since her sister had gone away, Fumi looked forward to the democracy lunches with a special, ravenous hunger. The American soldiers came to her school once a week with deliveries, and although she never knew what they would bring, it didn’t matter. She wanted it all, whatever it was. Sometimes it was powdered milk and soft white bread as fluffy as cake. Sometimes it was a delicious oily meat called Spam. Occasionally it was peanut butter, a sticky brown paste whose unusual flavor—somehow sweet and salty at the same time—was surprisingly addictive.

The characters in this novel are gentle and appealing. I was surprised at the lack of anger and resentment on the part of the Japanese, but perhaps this was true to life.

Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea is the story of the “madwoman in the attic” of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre—the woman who was the first wife of Edward Rochester, Jane’s lover. According to Jane Eyre, this madwoman was Bertha Antoinetta Mason, born and raised in Jamaica. She inherited the madness that ran in her family. Rochester claims that he was not told of this inherited insanity before his marriage. Later in the book, we learn that she sets fire to the house and burns it to the ground.

Jean Rhys was the pen name of Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, born on the West Indies island of Dominica in 1890. Her father was Welsh and her mother was a white Creole (born and raised in the West Indies). She moved to England at the age of 17. Her life story sounds fascinating, and is the subject of a biography, The Blue Hour: A Portrait of Jean Rhys, by Lilian Pizzichini.

Rhys takes the sketch of Bertha Antoinetta Mason given in Jane Eyre and constructs a fully realized character, starting with her childhood in Jamaica, where she lives on Coulibri, a crumbling estate, with her mother and ill brother in the mid-1800s. The family has fallen on hard times: her father is dead, most of their slaves have fled, and the other white people in Jamaica shun them because they are Creoles. The young Antoinette’s best friend is her nanny, a black woman who has knowledge of obeah (folk magic).

The novel is told in an imagistic style, and readers must piece together events and relationships from sometimes disconnected scenes. The writing style is lush and descriptive. Here is a passage towards the beginning, as the child Antoinette, shunned, lonely and almost abandoned by her restless mother, struggles to find a way to spend her time:

I took another road, past the old sugar works and the water wheel that had not turned for years. I went to parts of Coulibri that I had not seen, where there was no road, no path, no track. And if the razor grass cut my legs and arms I would think “It’s better than people.” Black ants or red ones, tall nests swarming with white ants, rain that soaked me to the skin—once I saw a snake. All better than people (p. 28).

Antoinette’s mother soon marries a Mr. Mason, and Antoinette takes his last name. (It is this man’s son—Antoinette’s step-brother—who, in Jane Eyre, travels to England to stop the marriage between Jane and Rochester). Antoinette’s mother goes mad from grief due to tragic events. This first section of the novel is told from Antoinette’s point of view.

The second section, which starts after Antoinette is persuaded to marry Edward Rochester, visiting from England, is told from Rochester’s point of view. It is not entirely clear why they get married. Is Rochester only interested in her wealth, to be inherited from Mr. Mason? Does she really love him? He insists on calling her “Bertha” because he likes the name, even though that is not her name, and even though she asks him not to. This section takes place during their honeymoon on a small island in the West Indies. Rochester hears rumors about his wife and her companions, and is not sure who or what to believe. His mental confusion is mirrored by his confusion at the unfamiliar landscape in which he finds himself.

The third section, again told through the eyes of Antoinette, who is now insane, takes place in England during the time she is imprisoned in the attic of Rochester’s mansion. Readers familiar with Jane Eyre will notice events and incidents that are mentioned in that novel, but now re-told through the eyes of the insane Antoinette.

Wide Sargasso Sea is a short, intense book, as colorful as the tropical West Indies home of Antoinette.

Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier

Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier

I first read Remarkable Creatures several years ago while researching books for a blog post on Women Scientists in Novels. It features two women fossil hunters in the small English seaside town of Lyme Regis in the early 1800’s. When I read it again to prepare this review, I enjoyed it all over again.

The novel is based on two real women fossil hunters: Mary Anning (a working-class woman who discovered complete skeletons of ichthyosaurus, plesiosaurus, and other ancient animals) and Elizabeth Philpot (an upper-class woman who is known for her collection of fossil fish). Chevalier used their real friendship as a basis of her story, including actual details such as the fact that Mary survived a lightning strike as a baby. The story is told in alternating chapters from the first-person points of view of Mary and Elizabeth.

After the death of her father, 11-year-old Mary and her family struggle to make a living by finding and selling “curies” (fossils, which were called “curiosities”) to tourists. Mary is especially good at spotting fossils. Elizabeth, a grown woman, moves with her sisters to Lyme Regis from London in order to live within the means of their inheritance, and she develops an interest in the fossils littering the beach. Despite the difference in age and social class, the two become close friends based on their shared interest in fossils. The novel follows them for several years, as Mary grows up and Elizabeth grows older.

Conflicts arise around religion (is the universe much older than the Bible suggests?); gender roles (men collectors often buy from Mary and then pass off the skeletons and fossils as their own); marriage vs. spinsterhood (Mary falls in love with an upper-class collector and hopes to avoid the stigma of being a spinster like Elizabeth); and science (are Mary’s bizarre skeletons truly creatures from another era, or are they hoaxes?).

Chevalier does a great job of evoking the small, hilly town of Lyme Regis and its fossil-strewn cliffs and beaches. Here is Elizabeth’s first description of the beach where she will spend so much time:

It is as if there are two villages side by side, connected by a small sandy beach, where the bathing machines are lined up, awaiting an influx of visitors. The other Lyme, at the west end of the beach, doesn’t shun, but embraces the sea. It is dominated by the Cobb, a long gray stone wall that curves like a finger out into the water and shelters the shore, creating a tranquil harbor for the fishing boats and trading ships that come from all over. The Cobb is several feet high, and wide enough for three to walk along arm in arm, which many visitors do, for it gives a fine view back to the town and the dramatic shoreline beyond of rolling hills and cliffs in green, gray, and brown. (p. 13)

Chevalier used real names throughout the book, and this caused me some confusion, because many of the men have names that start with “B” (Bullock, Birch, Buckland) and I had trouble keeping them apart.

Remarkable Creatures would be a good companion read to Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which takes place in the same time period, and one section of which is set in Lyme Regis. I love Jane Austen’s novels. However, it is certainly refreshing to read about women of that era who are not fixated on marriage, but are devoted to their own interests and their own work.

Women of the Silk, by Gail Tsukiyama

Women of the Silk, by Gail Tsukiyama

Although there’s not much of a plot in Women of the Silk, the appealing characters, detailed descriptions of setting, and themes of women’s independence and communal living, kept me reading. The novel follows Pei from childhood as she leaves her poor family and joins a “sisterhood” of silk workers in a village near Canton, China in the early 20th century.

I enjoyed learning about the production of silk thread from cocoons, as well as the communal houses the girls and young women live in. Pei, along with several other women, decide to forego marriage and dedicate themselves to silk work. They even stage a successful strike for shorter working hours. The invasion of China by Japan changes everything, and Pei and her “sisters” must make some wrenching decisions.

The writing style of this novel is simple and direct. Shortly before two of the women undergo the “hairdressing” ceremony which marks their entrance into the silk sisterhood, Pei spends some time with her best friend, Lin:

When they reached the main road, Pei wished that she and Lin had walked in another direction, away from all the noise and suffocating crowds. Her mouth felt dry and sour. It was a week before Chen Ling’s and Ming’s hairdressing ceremony, and the girls had been given a rare day off from the factory while waiting for a new shipment of cocoons. Pei felt she’d seen so little of Lin in the past year that it was as if they had just awakened from a long sleep, still awkward and shy. (p. 83)

The author, Gail Tsukiyama, is an American of Chinese and Japanese ancestry. She became interested in the lives of women silk workers while researching southern Chinese history. The meandering feel of the novel could be attributed to the fact that Tsukiyama started the novel with “culture but no story,” according to an interview with Elizabeth Sherwin.

I was interested enough in the lives of Pei and her friends that certain inconsistencies bothered me. For example, when Pei first begins to work in the silk factory, her hours are from 5:30 am to 7:30 pm – 14 hours per day. Yet the girls and young women don’t complain about this, and seem to have plenty of free time to visit restaurants and pursue hobbies. Later in the book, the factory is said to increase the hours to 14, which causes the women to strike and demand a 10-hour work day.

Despite puzzling details like these, this quiet, lyrical book is a worthwhile read. Tsukiyama also wrote a sequel entitled The Language of Threads.

River, Cross My Heart, by Breena Clarke

River, Cross My Heart, by Breena Clarke

One would expect a novel that starts with the drowning of a child to be a tragic book. River, Cross My Heart is anything but. It takes place in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC in the 1920’s, and is based on stories the author was told by her family about living in the African-American community of Georgetown at that time.

One hot summer day, 12-year-old Johnnie Mae disobeys her parents’ rule and decides to go swimming in the Potomac River. One impetus for this daredevil act is the fact that she is not allowed to swim in the only pool in the neighborhood, which is for white children. Her 8-year-old sister, Clara, who doesn’t know how to swim, falls off a branch into the water and drowns despite Johnnie Mae’s efforts to save her.

The novel uses this event as a way to show how the community mourns together, works together, and eventually celebrates together. Clara reappears in memory throughout the book as Johnnie Mae does chores, goes to school, makes a new friend, and participates in community events. Although the plot is not strong, there is forward movement and a satisfying closure. The characters are engaging and three-dimensional. Each chapter paints one scene or vignette in the life of Johnnie Mae as she grows up, searches for her place in the world, and tries to forgive herself for her sister’s death.

I don’t know if Breena Clarke is a poet, but the writing style is beautiful and full of images that reflect inner states of being. Shortly after Clara’s death, as Johnnie Mae helps with the cooking, she is mesmerized by what she sees in the boiling water:

The string beans Johnnie Mae poured into the boiling water came alive as they touched the water. They wriggled like garter snakes. Her eyes stayed on them as they hit bottom then floated to the top. A foamy substance bubbled on the surface of the water. . . . From the center of the cauldron, a mass seemed to form. It appeared to come together in the shape of a heart, disperse like a cloud, and then reformulate into a solid mass. It seemed to come together this time as a heart-shape face with amused eyes. Slender green plaits emanated from its skull and framed the face. (p. 87)

I enjoyed this novel not only because of the characters and language, but also because it immerses us in the details of daily life at that time and place. Everyone—children included—worked hard at home and held jobs for pay. Women worked as cooks, seamstresses, beauticians, and herbal healers. Johnnie Mae delivers and picks up clothes for a laundress. We also learn about the changes affecting the community. Electricity is introduced, and we feel the excitement when a swimming pool for African-Americans is finally built.

This novel is not at all sentimental, yet is full of heart. It was selected for Oprah’s Book Club.

Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks is the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of March and several other historical novels. But it all started with her first novel, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, published in 2001.

I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy Year of Wonders because it is about a year filled with disease and tragedy. I’m glad I read it—it’s a beautiful, thought-provoking novel. It is narrated in the first person by Anna Frith, a servant to Michael Mompellion, a rector of a small village in 17th century England. When plague hit the village, Mompellion convinced the villagers to voluntarily quarantine themselves in order to avoid spreading the disease to neighboring villages.

Brooks based this novel on the true story of the village of Eyam, which is known even today as the “plague village.” During a holiday, Brooks, a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, came across the village and was so fascinated by its story that she decided to write a novel about it. There really was a rector who convinced the villagers of the need for a quarantine. In one of his letters, this rector mentioned his gratitude for his maid, and from this line, the character of Anna Frith was born.

The novel begins at the end, after the plague has passed, when the rector has lost not only his beloved wife but also his faith in religion. Anna tends to him as best she can, but he barely eats and refuses to leave the house.

The story then goes back to the spring before the plague set in. Anna, a widow with two young sons, accepts a young tailor as a lodger. A bolt of cloth ordered from London, where the plague is raging, brings the disease into the village. The lodger dies, and soon others nearby die as well. Villagers begin pointing the finger at two women healers, accusing them of being witches. When these women are murdered by several villagers, the horror and guilt of this deed lay the groundwork for the quarantine that Mompellion asks the villagers to agree to.

Anna and her employer, Elinor Mompellion, begin to educate themselves about herbs, and serve as the only healers in town. This is just the first of many trials and transformations that Anna goes through in this surprisingly action-packed novel.

Brooks sprinkles the text with archaic phrases and words which add to the historic feel without hindering the overall meaning. I read the novel through without bothering to look up such words as “whisket” (a small basket) and “posset” (spiced milk with ale).

Anna’s voice is spare, honest, and warm, and you will not regret the time you spend with her.