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Posts Tagged ‘debut novels’

Hala Alyan is a Palestinian American poet and a psychologist, and both her vocations and her heritage are evident in her debut novel Salt HousesShe has a poet’s sense of imagery and language, her book is the story of Palestinian displacement over several generations, and her insights into the psychological wounds of war, statelessness, and resettlement are astute and moving. While I haven’t experienced being a refugee, I’ve volunteered with resettlement so I’ve enjoyed the hospitality of people who are at once American and something else, people who feel they belong everywhere and nowhere.

The main characters of Salt Houses are the progeny of Salma, matriarch of a family living in Nablus when the book opens. It is 1963 but the pain of fleeing Jaffa fifteen years earlier is fresh for Salma. Her younger daughter Alia is about to marry Atef, who is Alia’s brother Mustafa’s best friend. They live well in Nablus, even though Salma is a widow. The book moves forward a few years at a time, and in 1967, Nablus, too becomes a part of their past, when the Six-Day War scatters them. Salma goes to Amman, Alia and Atef join Alia’s older sister and her husband in Kuwait City. As you may recall, Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait City in 1990, and so Alia’s generation is the next to flee a war with a fraction of their belongings, leaving behind jobs, neighbors, and a home. Alia’s children end up even more scattered, in Paris, Boston, Beirut, and Amman. In Beirut they again experience war, although they don’t flee. By the end of the book, Alia’s grandchildren travel from many countries to visit with her and Atef. Life goes on around them, but each generation retains the sense that within themselves, they are never far from where they come from, wherever they go. And where they come from, originally, is Palestine.

Through it all, Atef lives with trauma from the 1967 war that he can manage only by writing letters in secret in his study, letters he can never send. He also copes by focusing on his children, being present with them so that he doesn’t slip into the past. Alyan describes Atef’s feelings for his firstborn, “. . . he loves Riham beyond reason, a love tinged with gratitude, for when she was first placed in his arms, tiny and wriggling and red-faced, he felt himself return, tugged back to his life by the sound of her mewling. The arrival of Riham restored something, sweeping aside the ruin of what had come before.”

These family relationships form the heart of the story, which Alyan tells well. You want to know whether the tempestuous Alia and her equally strong willed daughter Souad will make peace, whether gentle Riham, so like her grandmother Salma, will be happy with her much older husband. Will Abdullah become radicalized? Will Manar find what she’s seeking? The many small dramas that make up a family’s life provide plenty for the reader to savor as the pages turn.

What makes this much more than a standout family saga is the greater narrative: the story of ordinary Palestinians – professional people, whose children watch too much TV and eat too much sugar, who work and worry about the same things families like theirs worry about around the world —  caught in a cycle of loss and displacement, the shadow of each generation’s pain resting on the next. They are resilient, and fortunate in many ways, but also perpetually grieving for what could have been, perpetually speaking with the wrong accent, and yet perpetually seeking and making home wherever they are.

This is a beautiful book and an important one. I think it’s safe to say that most Americans have only a tenuous understanding of the Middle East, and even though this is a novel it gets at human truth in a universally recognizable way.  Definitely, we should all learn the facts of the region’s history and geopolitics, but it can’t hurt to also try to understand the feelings of people who just want the best for their families, as my wise grandmother used to say. whenever we talked about places caught up in conflict. Salt Houses offers one way to begin to understand.

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I saw a review of Radio Girls somewhere, and thought it was just the thing after my Infinite Jest fail and an interesting but not exactly light nonfiction read. I was right. Sarah-Jane Stratford based her novel on some real people — especially Hilda Matheson and her friends (who included Lady Nancy Astor and Vita Sackville-West) and the BBC Director General John Reith — and some fictional characters. Her heroine is the fictional Maisie Musgrave, who was born in Canada, grew up in New York, and ran away to become a WWI nurse even though she was underaged. When we meet Maisie, it’s 1926, and she is back in London after attending secretarial school in New York, and is trying to find work. Maisie is young and fairly adrift, having never known her father and never really felt any love from her mother.

She becomes a secretary at the BBC, working for both the Director General’s assistant and Hilda Matheson, who heads the Talks Department. The novel follows Maisie’s ups and downs as she discovers she doesn’t have to be mousy, she loves radio, she’s capable, and she longs to write. It’s her story, but it’s also the story of her time, and the BBC at that time, especially the development of the Talks. I enjoyed the parts about political events, especially the passage of universal suffrage and the first vote for all British women. Maisie also finds her way into a mystery that leads to a brush with spying and to a subplot about British fascists who want to take over the press. And she learns a great deal from Hilda.

In her author’s note, Stratford tells readers that many of the bits about the BBC, its inner workings and growing pains, Hilda Matheson’s accomplishments, and Reith’s actions at the helm are true. So are some of the facts about British fascists, although the story Maisie uncovers is fictional. Also true are the parts of the book about women having a hard road to advancement or even to working after marriage. Some of the plot gets a bit far fetched but it’s a fun read. I came away wanting to read more about Hilda Matheson — what a woman! —  and about the BBC.

Radio Girls isn’t perfect — some of the plot is far-fetched, and some of the language is a bit stale, with characters turning “bright red” or “white” whenever they are expressing shock or anger, for example. But I really enjoyed this debut and kept thinking it would make a wonderful Masterpiece production. Maisie is a delightful character.

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It’s been a while since I read a book that made me want to stay up too late or get up early to read. The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence did both.

The hero of Extence’s debut novel is Alex Woods, a seventeen year old from Lower Godley, a village near Glastonbury. When we meet him it’s the middle of the night, he’s just off a ferry from France, he’s had a partial seizure, and he’s being arrested for having a bagful of marijuana, a considerable amount of cash, and an urn full of ashes in the car. As he sits in police custody he reviews how he ended up in this situation.

We learn that he’s the child of a single mother who operates a witchcraft shop and does tarot readings, and who conceived him at Stonehenge with a man she never saw again. When he was ten, he was the victim of a freak accident:a meteorite streaked through the sky over his home, broke through the bathroom ceiling, and hit him squarely on the head. When he came to a couple of weeks later he had a scar that would prevent him from growing a normal head of hair ever again and a brain injury that caused his epilepsy.

By the time he began secondary school, Alex was firmly “different.” Besides having an unusual mother, he did well in school, was “poor” in the view of his peers (which meant “not having the right stuff,” he explains), had a shaved head, and liked to feed ducks, learn about space, read, and care for his regularly-pregnant cat Lucy — all “gay” behavior as far as the school bullies were concerned. One Saturday three of them chased him through the village. Alex crashed through a hedge, took shelter in a shed, and had a seizure. When he woke up the shed’s owner, Mr. Peterson, (an American, Vietnam vet, and widower) was pointing a gun at him. It turns out the thugs smashed some windows and left Alex to take the blame.

Alex’s mother made him agree to do chores at Mr. Peterson’s house to make amends. His first task was to type Amnesty International letters. As he got to know Mr. Peterson he began to borrow his Kurt Vonnegut novels. And they became friends — one review suggests Mr. Peterson is a father figure, but I’d argue that’s not the case. As Alex tells it, Mr. Peterson treated him as an equal, not a child.

Other adults also factored into Alex’s strange upbringing. From his neurologist, Dr. Enderby, he learned meditation, which tames his epilepsy even better than medication does. From Dr. Weir, the astrophysicist who saved the meteorite from trophy hunters while he was hospitalized, he discovered his affinity for science. From the librarians at Glastonbury Library and other members of Alex’s Secular Church of Kurt Vonnegut, which he advertised as “a book club for people interested in all or some of the following: morality, ecology, time travel, extraterrestial life, twentieth-century history, humanism, humor, et cetera) he learned that his interests and views were valid and valued.

So why is he sitting in a police interrogation room? He’s had to make life-altering decisions. Not about university education. Not about his strange relationship with Ellie, a classmate who works for his mother. Alex is unlike other teens, and the challenge he faced turns out to be unusual as well: Mr. Peterson needed help with two things that were perhaps ethically and morally right based on his circumstances, but illegal, at least in England. If I say any more I’ll give away too much of the plot.

So what was simply a quirky, funny, perceptive coming-of-age story is suddenly entangled with moral conundrums. I could not wait to learn the outcome.This much I can say: Alex, who was a bit of a twit to his mother and a bit too attached to his own precocious loner status, proves himself to be a deeply thoughtful and compassionate young man who copes with what happens with grace and love.

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