Friday, September 28, 2007

Offutt's short story collection, Seiffert's new novel are both superb works

Books now read in ’07: 93
Title: Kentucky Straight
Author: Chris Offutt
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 9-23
Pages: 167

Books now read in ’07: 94
Title: Afterwards
Author: Rachel Seiffert
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 9-25
Pages: 321

Books now read in ’07: 95
Title: Machiavelli, Philosopher of Power
Author: Ross King
Genre: Biograph
Date Completed: 9-26
Pages: 238

In 1992, Chris Offutt made his debut as a writer with Kentucky Straight, a collection of nine short stories set in the Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky. These stories are a powerful, sobering reflection of a section of American where superstition and ignorance hold sway and where life can be short and brutal and is as limited as the view of a patch sky overshadowed by thick stands of trees and endless hills. Offutt never matched the power and beauty of these stories in his later works. We can only hope that a new collection of stories is waiting to emerge.

Rachel Seiffert first came to my attention when her novel, The Dark Room, was short-listed for the Booker Prize. Her new novel, Afterwards, has yet to garner any prize nominations, but is a superior work and one that forces me to consider Seiffert with new respect and regard.

Afterwards is the story of Alice, a young British woman raised by her mother and grandparents. Her Gran has recently died, leaving Alice to spend more time alone with her grandfather. Alice loves her grandfather, but finds him emotionally remote and socially awkward. His emotional distance both frustrates and angers her.

Alice becomes even more disconcerted when her grandfather establishes a shaky emotional bond with her boyfriend, Joseph. Alice is slowly falling in love with Joseph, but finds that, like her grandfather, he withholds something of himself from her. He can become silent, distant and is inclined to vanish for days without explanation.

Their behavior, that of Joseph and Alice's grandfather, is shaped by their experiences in war – her grandfather in Kenya in the 1950s during the Mau Mau uprising and Joseph more recently in Northern Ireland.

Part of Seiffert’s skill as a novelist is her ability to balance the dichotomies that exist among the characters and to which she is drawn as a writer. Afterwards is a tender love story and a frank anti-war novel. Seiffert is, at once, both gentle in her treatment of her characters – there are no villains here – yet unsparingly, brutal in exposing the damage that war has wreaked upon them.

Afterwards is a profoundly sweet book. It also profoundly wise in the author’s understanding of people and how past events shape their present.

Ross King’s Machiavelli Philosopher of Power is rather humdrum. After almost eight years with Dick Cheney as Vice President, Machiavelli appears neither exceptionally evil nor preternaturally clever. King fails to make the claim for Machiavelli’s relevance today. This is a disappointing entry in HarperCollins’ Eminent Lives series of short biographies.

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