Sunday, February 24, 2013

Trebor Healey’s new novel tells a bittersweet story of young love.

I think Trebor Healey is a wonderful novelist, and this new work is really compelling.


A Horse Named Sorrow

Trebor Healey’s new novel, A Horse Named Sorrow (248 pages, Univesrity of Wisconsin, $26.95), tells the bittersweet story of young love in San Francisco in the 1980s.  Seamus falls in love with Jimmy the first time he seems him wheeling his bike along the streets of San Francisco.  Jimmy says he has ridden his bike from New York State, and Seamus finds the young vagabond sexy and appealing.  He invites the boy home and they have a good time, but Jimmy is off again before morning.  Seamus realizes he has fallen in love, and it takes him a long time to find Jimmy again.  Jimmy is happy to see Seamus too, but he is ill and he wanted to protect the other boy.  But Seamus is committed and he cares for Jimmy till the end, promising him that he will return his ashes to Buffalo, New York, his home.

Seamus decides, however, to travel back across the country in the same manner that Jimmy arrived, by bicycle. So off he goes, on Jimmy’s bike, with Jimmy’s ashes on the handlebars.  As crazy as this scheme might seem, it emerges out of Seamus’s love for Jimmy, and Healey is wonderful at creating this deeply felt compulsion that for Seamus is the only possible response to loss and longing.

The trip itself is one of the wonderful road trips in American fiction.  Seamus encounters all the misfits and marginal characters of the great American homeland, and his attempt to carry Jimmy to safety engages him with souls as lost as he is.  If this trip teaches Seamus about loss, it also begins to give his life the meaning he thought it lacked.  Healey gets inside Seamus in a way that teaches us what it means to be caught up in the misery of love and loss.

It would be a cliché to say that Seamus discovers himself as he travels east with Jimmy’s ashes, but it is not a cliché as you watch this happen to a young man coming to terms with grief.  Healey creates the power of young love and the devastating effect it has on the two young men who experience it.  The bicycle trip puts the power of that love into terms that everyone can understand.  Seamus cannot put words to his grief, but then he does not really have to.  Instead he gives it the shape of this journey, which transforms him and starts to make him whole again.

Trebor Healey

A Horse Named Sorrow is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Elizabeth Bowen emerges as a twentieth-century novelist to celebrate.

I was thinking about the novelist Elizabeth Bowen when I saw that the University of Chicago was reprinting her titles.  What a delight to read her once again.

The Hotel

Elizabeth Bowen’s first novel, The Hotel (199 pages, University of Chicago Press, $16) was first published in 1927.  At first it reminds one of E. M. Forster’s novel A Room with a View.  A group of English tourists are gathered in a hotel, in this case on the Italian Riviera, and their interactions form the basis of the novelist’s material.  Bowen departs from Forster in that she keeps the characters at the hotel throughout the novel, and she pushes them even more brutally against one another than Forster ever quite manages.

There are many characters who feel very familiar to the novelist, as if she knows them personally, but they only appear in a few scenes and only comment on the activity of others.  The central characters include a young woman who is not sure what she really wants; a group of three sisters who are very clear about what they want; and a couple of men of various ages who are panting after the young girls.

Bowen writes beautifully and her irony is positively rich.  Her irony creates a distance between the narrator and these young characters, and it places them almost as if they were participating in an experiment.  Still, Bowen gives them enough complexity to make them intriguing, and that is the biggest challenge to a novelist. 

More interesting than any of these romances or potential romances are the relationships between and among the women themselves.  The heroine of the tale, Sydney, is most devoted to an older woman, Mrs. Kerr.  Mrs. Kerr is thoughtful and devoted until her son arrives to spend time with her.  When she becomes unavailable to Sydney, the young girl loses her head a bit and finds herself committing to a marriage that she does not even want.

Bowen does not say anything directly about the relation between the women, although certain characters gossip about it, but she makes it clear that the women depend on an intimacy that no one else fully understands.

The Hotel is a deeply satisfying novel, and I hope to read (or reread) more of Bowen’s novels.  She has been a bit lost among mid-century novelists, but these new editions may find her a whole new set of readers.  I am happy to count myself among them.

Elizabeth Bowen

The Hotel is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Tana French composes a chilling mystery for a summer’s reading.

I have read a couple of Tana French’s thrillers, always enjoying them, but I resisted this one for some reason.  But then when sent a teaser about it, I decided to give in.  It’s a powerful tale.

Broken Harbor

Broken Harbor (464 pages, Viking Adult, $27.95), the title of this novel, names a seaside location on the Irish coast.  During the boom of the early twentieth century, developers renamed it Brianstown, and it is in this faceless and only partially completed development that Detective “Scorcher” Kennedy is called to a hideous case.

Someone has murdered, or attempted to murder an entire family living in this already decrepit development.  Pat Spain and his wife Jenny are found lying in pools of blood in the sun-filled kitchen, and upstairs in separate bedrooms, young Jack and Emma are also found dead.

As the police arrive and the scene is examined, it is first discovered that Jenny is hanging onto life in spite of several knife wounds.  The first thought is that these wounds might be self-inflicted, but their disposition makes that unlikely.  Pat’s wounds, a couple of which would easily have been mortal, might well be self-inflicted, but Kennedy, with his young and urban-smart partner, Curran, who’s really on his first big case, have trouble coming up with motive or intent.  Nothing seems to have been stolen, and although there are several gaping holes in the walls, there is no certain way to connect them to the crime.

Everyone talks about Pat and Jenny and the kids as a model family.  They moved to Brianstown for the space and the location near the sea.  Many other amenties were promised by the developers, but they were never more than promises.  When the economy tanked—the recession in Ireland was as bad as anywhere—even building stopped and many houses remained half-completed.  Still Pat and jenny made the best of it.  The kids went to the best schools and pre-schools, the parents socialized widely, and friends and realtives alike admired the couple.

Some months before the tragedy, however, Pat lost his job, and rather than finding a new one quickly, he sank into the ranks of the unemployed.  Having been a champion bread-winner, he was hard hit by this; but jenny rallied round and it seemed that everything was still okay for the family.

As Kennedy and Curran investigate, they find a different story; or, in fact, many different stories.  For one thing, a young web-designer, who turns out to have had a crush on Pat and Jenny as a couple and on Jenny especially, from their days as teenagers, turns out to have been camped out in a nearby house, where he could watch all the doings of the Spain household through binoculars.  He would be a prime suspect, but he is so quick to confess to the crimes that it is almost impossible to believe him.

Young Curran seems to want to pin the crime on Pat, but Kennedy feels that he is heroic in many ways, and can hardly imagine him murdering his family.  This drives the partners apart, and creates a whole of lot of tension around the case.

Even worse, though, is Kennedy’s own history with Broken Harbor.  It seems his mother killed herself when the family was on holiday there many years before.  His own relation to the place would in any case therefore be fraught, but it is even more tormenting because his young seemingly schizophrenic sister keeps reminding him of those horrors.

Out of this psychological maelstrom, French creates an even more harrowing and powerful tale that is as Irish as it is twenty-first century, and as filled with contemporary concerns as it is with the age-old tenets of detective fiction.  This is a true triumph of the genre.

Tana French

Broken Harbor is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.