Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

This novel begins with two chilling sentences. "Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet."  In her debut work, Ng creates a mystery, thriller and a very insightful look at complex familial relationships. Everything I Never Told You held a place on the NY Times best seller list as well as being named's book of 2014. The Gables Book Club chose it as the selection for May 2015. 

As do so many books today, Ng begins her book in media res. It is 1977 in a small town in Ohio not far from Cleveland when the reader and her family learns of Lydia Lee's death. From there the back story is given of her parents, Marilyn and James Lee. Marilyn is from Virginia, a medical school drop out after she met James who was a Harvard teaching assistant in the PhD program. He was the son of Chinese immigrants and was not, according to her mother, a desirable catch for Marilyn. Nath is a senior in high school who has his heart set on Harvard, Lydia is 3 years younger and Hannah is the baby in the family. Marilyn seems to be living vicariously through Lydia as she pushes her daughter to be perfect, especially in her science courses. James, however, pushes her in another way - to be popular and have friends. Nath has always been his sister's protector and rock and as his departure to college looms imminent, Lydia finds it hard to imagine what her life would be like without him, the only other Oriental in her school. Hannah is the youngest and often seems the forgotten child. The other major player in the novel is Jack, a ruffian and bully. He tries to teach Lydia to drive, but one suspects he may have other plans for the relationship and he becomes a key suspect if Lydia was murdered.

As the novel unfolds, the relationships among and between family members revealed. One learns that after her mother's death, Marilyn leaves her family to return to school, to follow that dream that she had to give up. She doesn't tell her family and leaves them to their own devices, living on peanut butter sandwiches. Lydia has much that she does not tell as well. After her death, her mother looks for the diaries that she had given Lydia year after year, hoping to gain some insight into what has happened to her. And so it plays out. Each and every one of the Lee family has a his or her own secrets that are not told.

This is a powerful novel that accentuates all those relationships that are played out in a familial/work/school setting. One feels an incredible amount of empathy for them all. One concept that was surprising to me was the treatment of ethnicity in the late 60s and 70s. The prejudice against Asians took me by surprise. I guess that is my naiveté, but it is a major part of this novel. A wonderful read and thought provoking book.

Celeste Ng is from Pittsburgh and I look forward to her lecture on 1 June. It will be interesting to hear her commentary on the book.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The theme of unreliable narrators in popular fiction continues in The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. The novel has held the top spot on the New York Times list for 12 weeks and rightly so. It was a page-turner, psychological thriller, and mystery rolled into one. 

The novel is narrated by three women - Rachel Watson, an alcoholic who travels daily on the train from Ashbury to London every day, divorced from Tom Watson; Anna Watson, Tom's new wife and mother to his child, Evie; and Megan Hipwell, a former art gallery owner and nanny to Evie. As Rachel rides the train everyday she becomes immersed in a fantasy world as she passes the same houses and people on her commute, including the home of Megan and her husband Scott whom she names Jess and Jason. But then Megan disappears and all the characters are entwined in an eddy of conflicting facts and circumstances.

The narration shifts back and forth among the women and perplexes the reader as to what is real, what is imagined, and what is less than accurate. It reveals deceptions and interrelationships that are frightening and abusive. Back stories are brought to light and illuminate some of the motivation for actions of the players. In our book club discussion, one member likened the novel to a Hitchcock move, especially Rear Window. Hawkins also creates a bit of confusion with the timing of each woman's narration. In one chapter Megan is present and narrating only to be followed a few chapters later as a missing person. It is a technique that can be a bit perplexing, but effective in the way that it intensifies the narrative. In the end, all the characters are suspect and the reveal and resolution are startling and unpredictable.

The Girl on the Train has been compared to Gone Girl for the psychological manipulation of the reader. Like Gone Girl  it will be a successful move. But read the book first. It is not to disappoint.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

I missed posting a read. Burial Rites was a Gables Book Club selection for February and in the midst of the business of life, I neglected to post.
In 1829 Iceland the last public execution was carried out. In this novel based on that happening, Kent describes the events and crime that led to the execution of Agnes Magnusdottir. 

Agnes and two others had been convicted of killing her employer and another man and then burning their bodies. At this time Iceland was under the rule of the Danish king and ratification of the death sentence needed to come from Denmark. Because of the overcrowding of the prisons, Agnes was removed from the prison to the farm of Jon Jonsson and his family to await day of execution. The Jonssons had no say in the matter as the edict came from District Commissioner Bjorn Blonda. It is understandable that they weren't happy with the situation.  In order to atone for her crime and give opportunities for penance, Reverend Toti is sent to the farm to be a sort of spiritual advisor for Agnes.

When she first arrived at the farm, the family was less than hospitable as to be expected. Why would they welcome a convicted murderer into their home? They had no choice and because of his position as a District Officer Jonsson felt that it was his duty. Margret and Steina, the older daughter, treated her civilly as Agnes proved herself to be a good servant in the household. 

Through the sessions with the minister, the reader learns of the troubled life Agnes led from her abandonment by her mother to the shunning by the man whom she believed loved her. The story is painted in such a way to elicit empathy and at times sympathy for the woman. It is hard to believe that she endured the life that she did without succumbing to the brutal conditions under which she lived. 

Hannah Kent also imbued the novel with another character in the setting. It is the harsh winters in Iceland and the remote rural setting that play heavily on the human characters in the novel. They cannot be separated from the world around them with the austere conditions of life. Their home is virtually falling down, water is scarce, and food dependent on the weather. A modern day reader is naturally horrified by appalling habitat.

Burial Rites was an informative and interesting read. The names were a bit problematic at first, but became easier as the novel progressed. It wouldn't have been a book that I would have chosen from browsing in a book store or library. However,  book clubs do force one to read outside of their comfort zone and this is one that I am glad to have read.