Monday, February 8, 2010

More Book Reviews

I'm still plowing through Guenter Grass' The Tin Drum, which I'm enjoying immensely, so that review will have to wait. First up:

J.D. Salinger's been on my mind lately since his recent death and Lowboy reminds me very strongly of The Catcher in the Rye: the flight, the trains, the city, the alienated teenager. But Wray's William Heller isn't a refugee from Pencey Prep, he's an unmedicated paranoid schizophrenic on the run from an institution. Will believes that if he doesn't have sex, soon, the world will end (which, when you think about it, perhaps isn't all that different from non-paranoid schizophrenic teenagers). Will crosses New York City in pursuit of his childhood crush, Emily, while his mother Yda "Violet" Heller and a policy officer, Ali Lateef, try to find him before he hurts himself or someone else. Meanwhile, the voices in Will's head are getting louder and more insistent.

Wray does an excellent job capturing the cacophony and occasional piercing rays of clarity of Will's schizophrenic mind, and the novel ratchets up the tension when Will tracks Emily down, as the reader can't be sure that he won't injure her, which is what got him institutionalized in the first place. Emily's eagerness to abscond with Will and her growing horror when she realizes that he is truly dangerous is arresting.
Be warned, though, reading this book through in one sitting may leave you with an intense sense of vertigo. Will's narrative slides from fairly coherent to extremely shattered as the book progresses and his mind starts to fall apart.

Chris Cleave's Little Bee deals with a different kind of insanity, the kind of insanity that takes over a country until it becomes part of the fabric of the country itself. Little Bee tries to unravel that fabric, with gut-wrenching results. It's not surprising that Cleave's novel is excellent. His first work, Incendiary, won several awards and established him as a talent to watch, and Little Bee doesn't disappoint.

The novel opens with the titular character being released from the Black Hill Immigration Centre outside of London with a small group of young women from different countries. Little Bee becomes their spokeswoman by virtue of her ability to speak English, an ability that Little Bee understands holds the key to acceptance. Even the taxi the girls try to summon to the immigration center won't come pick them up until Little Bee speaks to the dispatcher.
Little Bee's rumination of the power of language are heartbreaking. I volunteer as an English as a Second Language tutor for adult learners, and I am constantly amazed at what my students have accomplished in the face of odds that would make most people crumble.
Little Bee travels to Surrey, to the home of Andrew and Sarah O'Rourke, a bourgeois English couple who, after a horrific experience on a Nigerian beach while on holiday, have retreated to their upper-class cocoon and set about trying to forget what they've witnessed. But the past, in the form of Little Bee, won't let them escape.

Little Bee is an extremely powerful novel, touching on themes of colonialism, globalization, and the atrocities visited upon countries like Nigeria with the collusion of transnational corporations. But Little Bee distills the vastness of these themes into one pivotal scene on a Nigerian beach and shows the corrosion caused by cowardice and the impossibility of forgetting. Although it may be easy to ignore disaster on a larger scale when it's more removed, when it becomes personal, the results of refusing to become involved can eventually prove fatal. There is and is not a happy ending for Little Bee and Sarah, but the novel ends with a heartbreaking sense of weightlessness on another Nigerian beach.

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