I Let You Go

9781101987490_p0_v2_s192x300    A hit and run driver kills a five year old boy walking home with his mother on a rainy night; after the accident,  his mother disappears in Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go.  The story follows a police procedural formula with chapters alternating between the investigation and the distraught mother, until a surprising revelation at the end of Part I changes the narrative into a tense mystery thriller.

Without revealing too much to spoil the fun of the many surprises, let’s just say every time I thought I had solved the crime, Mackintosh changed direction, and the plot twists were shocking.

After the death of the boy, Jenna is distraught and shaken. She leaves everything behind, and decides to disappear to a remote seaside town in Wales where she slowly begins her life as an artist again, drawing messages in the sand and taking photographs of them from the top of the cliffs for tourists to buy.  A year later, the police reopen the investigation with a new lead to the killer, and at the same time begin looking for the boy’s mother. They find both in the first shift in the plot.

Part II backtracks to Jenna’s life as a student and her relationship with a controlling abusive lover, who interrupts the story with his own insane ramblings.  In alternate chapters, Ray Stevens, the police inspector who is pursuing the case with his sidekick Kate, an attractive junior officer, tries to juggle the investigation with his own problems at home with his teenage son and his wife, a former police officer.  The family drama is a good distraction, but the pursuit of the hit and run killer is the focus, and drives the suspense as Mackintosh throws in red herrings – even to the last page.

I did not expect to enjoy this book as much as I did – a great summer book to read fast and furiously – but probably not before going to bed.

 

The Vegetarian

410gorh9G-L._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_   The winner of this year’s Man Booker International Prize, The Vegetarian by Korean author Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith, is not what I had expected. With an innocuous beginning, the story quickly progresses from someone who has decided to become a vegetarian to a disturbed protagonist straddling fantasy and reality.  Like my recently reviewed Man Booker Finalist, A Little Life, The Vegetarian questions  whether it is better for the protagonist to survive or to die, and answers “…is it such a bad thing to die?”

Reviewers have used Kafka as the model for Han Kang’s storytelling.  Kafka was always a mystery to me, yet I remember a philosophy professor expounding on Kafka’s parables. His stories represented a world of anxiety, fear, and paranoia, but mostly strangeness, and always with a haunting ending. The Vegetarian meets all the criteria.

Although the focus of the book is Yeong-hye, the vegetarian, this slim book is narrated in three parts by others: Yeong-hye’s husband, who has an unsatisfactory office job; her brother-in-law, an unsuccessful visual artist; and her older sister, who owns a cosmetic store and works full-time to support her child and artist husband.

Yeong-hye’s mind crumbles slowly; at first, her demand to throw out all meat and refuse to eat meat seems reasonable, but she faces the fierce opposition of her father and her husband.  She battles tradition and becomes a victim of abuse.  Gradually, she loses weight and suffers from insomnia, eventually abandoning  any normalcy in her life.

After her husband leaves, her brother-in-law becomes obsessed with her and lurid yet strange erotic sex scenes follow.  Finally, her sister places her in an asylum  and the reader is treated with scenes of force-feeding and depression.  In the end, everyone deserts Yeong-hye – family, physicians, friends; all but her loyal sister, who at times thinks about abandoning her to find relief from watching her sister’s decline.

In the end, her sister’s wondering just how close she is herself to losing her own mind makes a case for the slim thread of sanity with which every person struggles.

Although The Vegetarian is short – under two hundred pages – it has a heavy and thoughtful impact and is not for everyone.  Underlying its themes of abuse, eating disorders, sexual assault, and violence, however, readers may find some relatable truth in the vegetarian’s journey.   Porochista Khakpour in a review for the New York Times  calls it “a parable of personal choice, submission and subversion.”  Kafka would be proud.

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Prague Kafka Statue

Related Review:  A Little Life

The Museum of Extraordinary Things

As with all of Alice Hoffman’s books, “The Museum of Extraordinary Things” includes strange characters in unusual circumstances who must use theIr powers to overcome adversity and find themselves. Hoffman weaves a Grimm-like tale with an evil villain and an unlikely hero and heroine, who are destined to meet. If you can suspend belief, the story will carry you through a gruesome mystery set in Coney Island at the turn of the twentieth century.

Ezekiel, a Jewish boy who changes his name to Eddie, and Coralee, born with webbed fingers, follow singular paths until late in the book, when the body of a dead girl draws them together. Both have unusual talents – Eddie can find missing bodies, and Coralee can hold her breath underwater long enough to pass for a mermaid in New York’s Hudson River – a talent her abusive father hopes to turn into a profit.

As I travel through California, I’ve come to a stop with fewer distractions at Asilomar campgrounds, and finally have finished my traveling library book.
If you are a fan of Hoffman’s facility for turning the ordinary into the other worldly, with her asides of historical drama, you will enjoy the story. But this book is not for everyone.

Rather than describe the many twists, I’m directing you to Katherine Howe’s well- written review in the New York Times – “Girlfish.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/02/books/review/alice-hoffmans-museum-of-extraordinary-things.html

Howe clearly outlines the story, and offers a note of caution: Hoffman’s melodrama does get a little convoluted. The story digresses many times with the main characters’ history as well as Hoffman’s views and diversionary soliloquies. I skipped some of the rambling, and wondered why Hoffman did not end after the dramatic fire and rescue scene…
yet, I liked this book – it carried me away…

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Brewster

Mark Slouka’s coming of age story – Brewster – set in the small town of Brewster, New York in the sixties, follows the lives of three unlikely friends: Ray, the abused Jimmy Dean rebel from the other side of the tracks; Karen, the beautiful girl from the good family who falls in love with him, and Jon Mosher, the narrator, a star runner on the high school track team who is battling the guilt of his older brother’s childhood death.

With strains of “Ordinary People” and “Rebel Without a Cause,” Slouka ties the lives together with an examination of how the young friends cope with their families and themselves while the history of the times – Woodstock, Kent State, the Vietnam War – evolves around them. Raw scenes of cruelty, hostility and hatred are countered with loving care and loyalty. As Ray tries to live with an abusive father, while trying to take care of his baby brother, Jon copes with his cold unloving mother who blames him for his brother’s death. The unlikely friendship between the two boys saves them – until the climax when an irretrievable incident threatens to destroy all their lives.

A fellow reader’s recommendation had me looking for this book when she described it as “literary fiction. Although I could guess where the story was headed, I still could not stop reading. I kept hoping they would escape Brewster and all that misery. Slouka follows through with a realistic ending, projecting into their adult lives. This is no happy ending, yet the point is made in the last lines of the book that stay with me – focus on how well the race is run, regardless of who wins:

Maybe we’d been meant to lose. Maybe, I thought, but he’d never believe it. He’d be sprawled out next to me, taking up space, and he’d smile that too-late smile and call the world’s bluff. So what if we’d lost? F… it. We’d run it anyway. We’d run it like it mattered.”