Saturday, May 18, 2013

The dysfunctional dance of families featured in novels by Strout and O'Farrell

Recent reading includes two novels about dysfunctional families, life in a London neighborhood, the first detective novel in the English language and a collection of disturbing short stories.

Let's begin with those books about family life.

Book 56: The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout   
Book 66: Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell 

Family secrets are at the heart of these two fine novels.

In The Burgess Boys, the secret revolves around a father's death. In Instructions for a Heatwave the secret lies at the heart of a father's disappearance.

Those secrets are less important to either story than the bonds of blood and shared history that ensare parent and child alike. Within the mysterious graviational pull of those forces long-simmering resentments, childhood hurts, parental favoritism, inter-dependence, guilt and elusive love pinball wickedly among fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. 

O'Farrell perfectly captures the family dynamic time and again. A dynamic that can quickly produce tears of frustration in an independent adult:

"Aoife has to resist the urge to grind her teeth, to throw something at the wall. Why is it that twenty-four hours in the company of your family is capable of reducing you to a teenager? Is this retogression cumulative? Will she continue to lose a decade a day."

Strout brings her family together when a nephew of the two Burgess boys hurls a pig's head into a mosque in their hometown of Shirley Falls, Maine.  While Strout keeps that storyline alive, it is merely a diversion. The real story here is not the clash between immigrants and long-time denizens of Shirley Falls, but the clash of emotions within the Burgess family.

O'Farrell's family assembles, for the first time in years, after recently retired banker Robert Riordan steps out to buy a newspaper and never returns. Conflicts among the siblings, and with their mother, must be resolved before the search for their missing father can begin.

The previous novels by Strout (Olive Kitteridge) and O'Farrell (The Hand That First Held Mine) were stellar works.

Both these novels shows the authors in top form, although I found Instructions for a Heatwave to be a richer, more satisfying read that seems certain to attract interest from Booker Prize judges.  O'Farrell has quickly become a novelist I respect and enjoy.  
Book 57: The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

I thoroughly enjoyed The Moonstone, a 19th Century novel considered to be the first English language detective novel.  The Moonstone is an epistolary novel (it's told through a series of letters).

The various voices allows Collins to tap a rich vein of sly humor and fashion a complex novel from a seemingly simple event -- the theft of a rare Indian diamond.

Book 55: Capital by John Lancaster

In Capital, the personal stories of the residents of Pepys Road, London, are connected by a series of sinister postcards, photographs and videos.

The individual stories are not without interest, but the novel falls short of its sweeping ambition. It's never clear exactly what point Lancaster is attempting to make.

Book 59: Dark Lies The Island by Kevin Barry

This 13 short stories in this collection by Kevin Barry are similar to the work of George Saunders, but darker and more disturbing. Barry is a writer to watch.

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