Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

23492822Fiction — print. Scribner, 2015. 400 pgs. Purchased.

Set in Ireland’s County Wexford in 1969, Tóibín’s novel is focused on the efforts of the title character to reconstruct her life after the death of her husband, Maurice, from an unexplained illness. Life without savings and a smaller-than-expected pension, Nora must return to work as a typist after many years away in order to support herself, her two daughters away at school, and her two young boys still living at

Much of the novel’s drama — which is likely too loud of a word for this quiet story — is dedicated to the ripple effect Nora’s return to work for the Gibneys — the most prestigious family in County Wexford — has on the community. The Gibneys’ eldest son is fixated on efficiency and cost-savings, and he has aligned himself with a hated clerical worker to give the traveling salesmen the runaround on their reimbursement checks. The situation encourages Nora to join the unionizing workers, which the upsets the son and the Gibneys’ daughter whom Nora worked under in the office, and Mrs. Gibney is forced to step in to restore peace.

This “peace” allows Nora to dictate her hours and wages freeing her to be home in the afternoon with her children. Yet Nora is rather distant from her children still living at home, and she is largely blind to the impact of Maurice’s death on their four children. One of the boys, Donal, has developed a stutter, which Nora worries over but refuses to address, and become sullen and withdrawn focusing on a growing interest in photography. The other son, Conor, is moved from the A-class to the B-class whilst one of the daughters living away from home, Aine, has become drawn to the conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, which would latter be known as “The Troubles”.

The choices of and changes within her children become fodder for conversation between residents of rural Enniscorthy. Already resentful of their intrusion into her grief, Nora tries to find a new community and, therefore, a new identity for herself, through music by a records listening society and taking up vocal lessons. Music allows Nora to find her voice, to be able to address Conor’s classroom switch and better understand Donal’s new found passion.

If it sounds as though the story lacks a climax, that is because the novel largely lacks one. The novel is character-driven focusing on the efforts of one woman to move forward in a life cloaked in grief, to figure out who she is as an individual after being part of a couple for so long. It’s a struggle I think many could identify with, but grieving is also so individualistic that the lack of quickly moving plot could lead interests to wane.

Yet the gripping aspect, the reason why I kept returning to the novel despite the late hours of the night is the beauty of Tóibín’s writing. His subject matter is melancholic; his writing style is surprisingly comforting. Like slipping into a worn sweatshirt on a long, cold night. And so I finished this book and was immediately filled with the desire to read Tóibín’s entire back catalog, to pull that sweatshirt back on.

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

6984009Fiction — audiobook. Read by Gareth Armstrong. Naxos Audiobooks, 2010. Originally published 2008. 5 hours, 23 minutes. Library copy.

Set at the beginning of what would become a nearly four-year long siege of the city, four individuals are attempting to navigate the complex jungle that Sarajevo has become. A man named Kenan has left his wife and child to collect water from a clean, working source on the other side of the city while another man, Dragan, has left the safety of his apartment in search of food. Both men fear for their lives as they move through the shelled streets of Sarajevo because the snipers have set in the hills around the city and the burnt out buildings shooting innocent civilians at random.

One of those snipers is a twenty-eight year old women who has shed her civilian identity and adopted the code name Arrow. Pulled from her position by the nationalist militia she’s aligned herself with, Arrow is assigned to a protect the titular character — a cellist who has decided to serenade the city for twenty-two days. One day for each of the friends and neighbors he saw killed by a mortar in front of his apartment building as they queued up for bread.

The beauty of this gesture seems incredibly stupid given conditions on the ground and the struggles of Kenan and Dragan to source food and water. And yet the music is what allows Kenan, Dragan, and Arrow to reconnect with their own humanity. Allows them to ponder about life before the war and the possibility of life after the war; allows them to see the people hiding in the shadows with them as humans rather than shields from the snipers

And this struggle to persevere one’s humanity is the central focus of Galloway’s novel. Dragan has also lost his community because hiding away from windows, away from the scopes of the snipers means he has had little contact with his friends since the siege began. On this particular trip to source food, he runs into a friend and is finally able to reconnect with his own humanity.

Kenan’s elderly female neighbor asks for assistance with fetching water, and Kenan is dismayed that she insists on using a particular set of canisters. The lack of handles on these containers make them difficult to carry, to run with thus placing Kenan’s life in greater peril as he moves about the city. Kenan wants to ignore her and focus on the survival of himself and his family highlighting how (civil) war tears apart the community, which in turn helps to perpetrate the violence.

And, most poignantly, there is Arrow who is trying to protect her humanity by keeping her true identity and her history a secret from her commanders. If she keeps her life as a student and then as a sniper — as a killer of men and women without concern for their innocence — separate, then maybe one day she can return to who she was. One day she can put down her arms and walk away. Or, one day she will die as a sniper without tarnishing the innocence of the person she used to be.

Shifting between three different seemingly unconnected characters drawn together by a theme or an event is a popular style in fiction these days, and nothing about the way Galloway utilizes this style stands out to me. The same could be said about his word choice or the narration by Gareth Armstrong, who read the novel in a style reminiscent of recorded audio tours sold by museums for tourists.

But the questions his characters raise about humanity and identity and the great care he takes to explain what is lost amidst the complexities of war is what made this novel so remarkable for me. And it is worth noting that Galloway never utilized divisive words like “Serb”, “Croat”, or “Bosnian” to describe his characters. Everyone is a Sarajevan; everyone’s humanity and shared community is affected by this war.

It’s also interesting to note that this fictional tale is based on the life of Vedran Smailović, who played his cello in ruined buildings during the siege and at funerals, which were frequent targets of snipers. Galloway never explicitly named the cellist in his story, but Smailović has publicly expressed outrage that the novel was based on him without his permission.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

22061527Fiction — Kindle edition.  Riverhead, 2014. 568 pgs. Purchased.

In the aftermath of World War I, twenty-six year old Frances Wray and her mother are obliged to take in paying guests — a more polite term for lodgers that allows Mrs. Wray and the neighbors to ignore the family’s rather spectacular tumble in social standing. Their room for rent notice is answered by a young, married couple from the “clerk class” named Lilian and Leonard Barber, and the Wrays and Barber have to adjust to rubbing elbows with members of different social classes.

Frances may be uncomfortable with soliciting the rent check every two weeks, but she is far more willing to face the realities of life in 1922 than her mother is. And she has found cleaning and cooking for her mother helps keep her mind from dwelling on the hatred she feels towards her deceased father for leaving her and her mother in this position, on the what ifs in life.

The one person she is unable to stop thinking about, though, is Mrs. Barber, and  as the two grow closer, each of them ends up confessing a secret about themselves that society would shame them over. For Lili, it’s her shotgun wedding; for Frances, it’s the love affair she had with another woman during the war. These secrets tie the two women together, and the two of them become engaged in three criminal affairs of their own — one of the heart, one of self-preservation from an unhappy marriage, and one of homicide.

The lead-in to this novel lasts about an hundred pages and could have done with some serious editing. The minuet descriptions of cleaning and household drudgery became a chore (pun intended), and I likely would have set the novel aside had it not been the March selection for my book club.

Yet this all changed when the novel shifts from the first part — a more typical novel of historical fiction — to the second part, which is something more akin to a lesbian romance novel. That shift threw the story and the characters into unexpected and unexplored territory. A very sit up and take notice moment for me to kept me intrigued as the novel metamorphosed again into a crime thriller in the third part.

The three sections are tied together through the atmospheric and melancholic tone of Waters’ writing, which became one of my favorite aspects of the novel once the plot began to progress. It adds an air of mystery and darkness to the novel that particularly works perfectly in the last section as Frances has to reconcile the Lili of her mind with the realities before her.

And while the slow pace, the attention to detail was the source of much consternation from my fellow book clubbers but, as the novel progressed, it became clear that this reflected the state of mind of Waters’ protagonist. Frances has to pay attention to every situation and every point of view in order to keep her sexuality a secret, and neither woman is inclined to instigate something illegal in the eyes of the law.

What that illegal activity is, though, depends on the point of view of each woman, and Waters’ exploration of morality within this novel is fascinating. I would side with one woman, turn on her, and then change my mind all over again. And the beauty of Waters’ writing, of this story is that it keeps Frances and Lili from ever feeling truly exonerated in the eyes of both the law and the reader.

It may have taken me awhile to slip into this novel, but I am glad I persevered through those rough, first hundred pages. Even if no one else my book club could say the same.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

16071770Fiction — audiobook. Read by Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra. Listening Library, 2013. 8 hours, 56 minutes. Library copy.

After living on the couch of her mother’s best friend for a year, Eleanor’s step-father, Richie, has finally allowed her to back into the family home with her mother and four younger siblings. The whole family walks around on tiptoes around Richie — afraid of being hit, afraid of being banished from the house — and as much as Eleanor hates her step-father, she hates the idea of leaving her family more. So she does her best to stay out of Richie’s way, to avoid drawing attention to herself both at home and at school.

Unfortunately, Eleanor is a redheaded, overweight teenager who wears flamboyant and eclectically mismatched clothes she finds at Goodwill making her a perfect target for bullying. She’s never heard the songs or the bands her classmates talk about; she’s never read the comic books her seatmate on the bus, Park, owns.

Park, a biracial fifteen-year-old whose family has lived in the flats of Omaha for generations, became Eleanor’s seatmate rather begrudgingly. He snagged a seat to himself on the first day of school because of his social standing — not exactly popular, but not a target of bullying — and he only caved on letting her sit besides him because the bus driver was yelling and Eleanor was standing there so awkwardly that it was almost painful to watch.

When Park realizes that Eleanor is reading his comics over his shoulder on the rides to and from school, an unlikely friendship — and, later, romance — begins to bloom between these two. But their young love has to face to very adult problems — poverty, abuse, bullying, racism, gender conformity — and the two have to make very serious decisions about their future together and as individuals.

Listening to how these two quietly, slowly, sweetly fall in love is so heart-wrenching and beautiful. Nothing is rushed; nothing about the way they slowly fall in love seems childish or more like lust than love. It is one of those rare young adult books — or, even adult books — out there where I truly believe the characters love one another and understand each other and value the individual as well as the couple.

I tend to roll my eyes when I read reviews where people say the characters felt real (although, I know I’m guilty of doing this), but it’s hard to describe Eleanor and Park as anything else. While the problems they face are incredibly nuanced and complicated, their reactions and understanding of said issues is true to both their age and their outlook in life.

Park hates when his classmates make racist comments or jokes about him — asking him about monkey kong-fu, assuming he is Chinese as though that is the only Asian ethnicity — but he also goes home and feels shame and anger about the way his immigrant mother cannot shake her accent. It’s this duality, this blindness to how he’s internalized racism that adds realistic and much appreciated complexity to his character. And there are so many examples of this for Eleanor that it would be difficult to pick just one.

Told in alternating third-person voices, the novel switches point of view from Park’s perspective to Eleanor’s. I have struggled with this format in the past, but it was the perfect choice here as the switch allows the reader to understand Eleanor’s hesitation about telling Park about her home life or see how Eleanor gives Park the confidence to dress the way he wants. And, of course, getting to experience the awkwardness of a first relationship from both points of view adds the adorableness of the story.

Additionally, the decision to have two narrators — Rebecca Lowman as Eleanor and Sunil Malhotra as Park — brought this story to life in a way that never could have happened with a single narrator or, even, in print. I would happily listen to anything else narrated by Lowman or Malhorta based solely on their performances in this audiobook.

I won’t comment on the ending other than to say I wish this had been a selection for one of my book clubs. I would have loved to have discussed it at length with someone because, while I think the novel ended the only way it could, I also spent so much time tense and anxious that the ending felt — unsatisfying? Weak? I’m not sure of the right word to use.

Still, as I tweeted after finishing this novel,  I simultaneously want to read all her books and stay far away from them because I was left with far too many feelings at the end. And that’s the best ending possible for any book.

Aya by Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie

308424Fiction — print. Translated from the French by Helge Dascher. Drawn and Quarterly, 2007. 105 pgs. Library copy.

Nineteen-year-old Aya lives in working-class city of Yopougon (also known as Yop City) of the Ivory Coast in 1978. Aya’s father works for Solibra, a beer company, and is determined to establish a match between the young son of his boss and his daughter.

As a studious young woman determined to become a doctor, Aya is neither interested in this match nor in the cousin of one of her closest friends. As such, much of the novel is devoted to the antics of Aya’s two closest friends, Adjoua and Bintou, who enjoy dancing, sneaking out to the tables in the city center known as the Thousand Star Hotel to meet boys, and generally having a good time.

Focusing on Aya’s friends and their lives rather than Aya herself seems like an odd choice given that Aya is the title character, and I’m curious to see if this changes in the subsequent volumes. But certainly focusing on Adjoua and Bintou helped the stress the differences between Aya and her friends. And as someone who grew up in a society where my female friends expected to go to college, get married, and become stay-at-home moms, I certainly connected with Aya and how different she is from her friends. And the street harassment Aya and her friends are subjected to repeatedly? What happens in Yop City also happens in Boston and other cities throughout America.

The color palette  Oubrerie used to bring to life Abouet’s words beautifully brings to life the warmth of Yop City and the Ivory Coast. While some of the characters appeared rather cartoonist in appearance, I loved how Oubrerie focused on utilizing three colors — red, yellow and orange, or blue, green, and purple — for the panels of a certain chapter or page.

The two sections of this novel that should not be missed are the introduction and the glossary at the end. The glossary explains the slang interspersed throughout the story as well as the particular way Ivorian women dress. The discussion on how to roll a tassaba in order to make the men fall at your feet read like a humorous lesson being given by Adjoua and Bintou.

The introduction, which was written by an economist, discusses the setting of the novel — the Ivory Coast in the 1970s — and how the country was considered an example of how countries in Africa could develop. The spectacular economic growth the country experienced from the conversion of forests to cropland and from investments from French nationals in the country was dubbed the “Ivorian miracle” and explains why Abouet and Oubrerie’s novel does present a version of Africa that does not include lions, child soldiers, and AIDS. It’s such a refreshing view, and I am now wondering why this “miracle” was not discussed in my courses on economic development in university.