Book Review: There There by Tommy Orange

Tommy Orange

Though a work of fiction, Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, is steeped in history. And not just one kind. Entire chapters deal directly with the history of Native peoples in the Americas and their largely tragic encounters with European colonizers. It can be argued that the entire book, set in modern day, permeates with the centuries old theme of searching for identity in the face of cultural destruction. On a different level, it also explores the private histories that shape the everyday actions of all people. Orange expertly weaves together numerous personal stories into one greater tale, one where the individuals he follows, all with at least some Native lineage, make their way towards a sprawling powwow event in Oakland, California. And like much of the history that Orange touches upon throughout the novel, this book turns into a tragedy by the final pages. However, like in all tales, there are moments of beauty and sadness and humor that give the novel its soul. Individuals are the driving force of being human, and that is no different here. Eventually, these vignettes all come crashing together to create a complex story where multiple strands eventually connect into a heartbreaking tapestry.

Orange’s technique of highlighting a wide variety of characters proves to be both the strength and weakness of There There. The ones that hit truly hit. They make you feel both the huge theme of the Native American experience in the United States, particularly the one born in urban areas, while also exploring the pain that is both common and unique to all of us.  A young man named Edwin Black was one of my favorites. In his first featured vignette, he is awkward, overweight, and self-isolated, totally unsure of where he fits in the world. Which brings up a question: what is it like to feel ostracized within a larger group that is already largely excluded from the society it exists in? Eventually, though, his arc transforms into one of cautious hopefulness. He becomes deeply involved in the planning of the powwow and contacts the man he believes to be his father through his mom’s Facebook account. Another character that helps bring true emotional depth to the book is that of a woman named Jacquie Red Feather. Her devastating story of family strife, abandonment, and alcoholism is perhaps the most powerful among several worthy contenders. A speech she gives at an AA meeting led by the long-disappeared father of her first child perfectly encapsulates the struggles felt throughout the novel, those of regret and tenuous optimism for the future. Continue reading

Halloween Book Review: From Hell by Alan Moore

The “Jack the Ripper” murders of the 1880s in London have long held the imagination of popular culture in both England, where they occurred, and the United States, where a fair number of people hold a fascination with famous serial killers. The graphic novel From Hell, by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, proved to be an interesting read this Halloween season for these very reasons. It would probably be a stretch to define it as work of horror, but there are certain elements present that make it a prime example of unsettling and weird fiction.

Moore uses his fictionalized telling of the murders of several prostitutes in the Whitechapel district of London to posit a theory about who Jack the Ripper may have been. It would be impossible to talk about all of the truly massive cast of characters in this graphic novel, but two certainly stand out: Sir William Gull and Fred Abberline (Spoilers ahead). Gull is the royal physician to Queen Victoria and a high-ranking member of the Freemasons in London. After her grandson has an illegitimate child, Victoria tasks Gull with essentially making the problem go away. Thus begins the action of the story, as Gull sets out to kill the women who know about the scandal in order to protect the royal family. However, he also begins to see the murders as a spiritual experience, having visions of the future during which we as modern readers know to be actual truth. Continue reading

Book Review: Milkman by Anna Burns

cover of the book Milkman

Anna Burns’s 2018 Booker Prize-winning novel Milkman is a unique account of one girl’s experience with sexual menace in a hyper specific time and location. The narrator is a teenage girl in 1970’s Northern Ireland, when the country was torn by the Troubles, a nationalist conflict that brought division and violence to the region for decades. The unnamed Irish city (possibly Belfast) and its community is revealed through her. The city is divided into sides, with paramilitaries controlling and threatening both sides based on “the right religion” or “the wrong religion,” but the issues of the conflict itself are alluded to rather than explained (check out our reference sources for that!). Community members are divided and categorized based on their rightness or wrongness related to religion, and further categorized based on their ability to (or lack thereof) to amalgamate, to weave themselves without notice into the fabric of daily town life, or be deemed “beyond-the-pales” and socially isolated. 

Our narrator, unnamed, is a daughter and sister, a maybe-girlfriend to a young mechanic, a runner, and a reader of pre-20th century literature. She is known for long-distance solo runs and for reading while walking. Her reading while walking is an issue for the community, because it isn’t possible to melt seamlessly into the fabric of the community while reading rather than, say, looking at your surroundings. She is desired by, and targeted by, a local paramilitary bruiser known as the Milkman, who finds ways to isolate her and threaten her well-being, leading her to be increasingly paranoid and anxious. This story, as relevant today in our contemporary #metoo moment, was explored with a depth not often seen in literature describing sexual assault and menace. I was most compelled at the infrequent but utterly fraught encounters between our narrator and the Milkman. 

I know next to nothing about this particular conflict and found the world-building to be fascinating, and the narrator’s voice completely unique. The issue I had with this novel was the dizzying prose that Burns builds into towering paragraphs that go for pages. Any facet of the community could be a topic for lengthy diversions from the main thread. For example, passages detailing the creation and history of a small outsider sect of feminists, the unusual media literacy of the narrator’s many sisters, and the sublime realization that sunsets contain many colors, typically invisible to the community’s myopic eye. Burns loves constructions of threes, much like the previous sentence of this review, a tactic that feels fresh at first, then increasingly meandering and stale. 

The community itself is examined for its levels of outsiderness, each member having no real name (naming conventions are also thoroughly critiqued) but for having an illness, a death, an occupation, something to separate them and name them. Some of the nicknames: maybe-boyfriend, tablets girl, Somebody McSomebody, real milkman. (For more about the naming and the not-naming, see this review at NPR.) The divergence from the central thread of the story to include many overlapping and interwoven stories felt burdensome at times. However, it was a richly-realized portrayal of the communal anxiety of life during wartime, where boundaries and hierarchies are created among people to make the inflicted boundaries of “peace-walls” more bearable. 

The voice of the narrator is specific, rich, unique to her sense of self and her community. But it also, often, felt like a vehicle for oblique references I didn’t understand. At times, I wondered if the narrator was really the voice I was reading, or if it had somehow merged, chorus-like, with the community’s. The stream of consciousness was self-conscious, and didn’t always feel like a teenage girl, even one who read 19th century novels. I can’t help but draw similarities to the stream-of-consciousness of a Virginia Woolf character, which so often switches and subsumes another voice, or group of voices. I felt very aware of the writing, and the machinations of the author (the names, the digressions, the things said in threes), and never once sank into the narrative voice of the girl. That said, the book is intellectually challenging and colorful. I do recommend it, especially if you have an interest in Ireland, the Northern Irish conflict, the life experience of teenage girls during wartime, or sunsets.

 

Book Review: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Written by Benjamin Clanton, Government Publications:

Esi Edugyan, with the highly acclaimed novel Washington Black (one of President Obama’s favorite books of 2018!), has written a harsh but touching story of a runaway slave and his journey to find identity and his place in the world. The title character, Washington Black, or Wash as he comes to be known, is a field slave early in life on a sugar plantation in Barbados. Watched over by a female slave named Big Kit, his world is one of unceasing labor and vicious treatment at the hands of the plantation owner and overseers. Erasmus Wilde, whose family owns Faith Plantation, rules over it with brutality, displayed in his almost casual violence towards the slaves, viewing them truly as mere property. Sugar plantations were historically notorious in the Caribbean for their awful and inhumane working conditions. Therefore, it is not unrealistic that Erasmus treats his slaves in such a manner, something he explains to his brother Christopher: ‘My language cannot offend her. She has no sensibilities to offend . . . They are not the help, Titch. They are the furniture.’ Continue reading