Sam Kaas

Review: ‘The Life-Writer’ by David Constantine

Review: ‘The Life-Writer’ by David Constantine

The Life-Writer_9781771961011_bd079As anyone who has ever loved and lost can attest, love and mortality are hopelessly entangled. Katrin’s husband Eric makes it clear that he plans to face his own mortality in as matter-of-fact a way as he can. “I don’t want to be like that colleague of yours, Dennis What’s-his-name,” he says, in the opening sentence of The Life-Writer, the poignant new novel from David Constantine (whose collection In Another Country inspired the Oscar-nominated film 45 Years). “I don’t want to be…clinging on…I don’t call that living when all you think about is staying alive.” Eric has been diagnosed with a terminal cancer, and elects to let it run the course it will. “I can’t complain,” he says, describing his illness as “correct and final.” And, perhaps, the truth is that he can’t. He’s lived a full life, and even a rewarding one.

His death, dignified or not, does not take long. Before too much time has passed, Katrin is his caretaker, and not long after that, he is gone. But, one night right before his death, Eric surprises Katrin when, lucid and energetic, he begins to tell her a story.

It is from these beginnings that Katrin, a respected literary biographer who has devoted much of her career to exploring the lives and works of little-known and largely unpublished writers and artists, will begin to sketch a broader, and yet simultaneously more incisive, portrait of the person she loved. And it is from these beginnings that Constantine crafts a tender, richly observed novel that slices right down to the bone of the state we universally define as love.

The story Eric wants to tell – and that he cannot finish – is the story of a long-ago summer spent in France, when he thought  that “the land and its roads and traffic would never be anything but kind to him.” It is also the story of his first love – a woman who is still alive and well in Paris.

After his death, left with his letters and with the memories of one of his closest friends, Katrin, with her biographer’s eye, begins to read between the lines, picking out the instances that, eventually, made the man she knew.

Ordinarily, a reader would expect this premise to lead them one of two ways – either to a catastrophically painful revelation, or on a trite journey of self-discovery. Under Constantine’s steady, gentle touch, however, The Life-Writer becomes something quite different and truly rare: a honest and objective story of grief and acceptance.

The Life-Writer is perhaps at its most powerful, in fact, when Constantine is examining not only the acceptance of a loved one’s death, but acceptance of the life they inevitably lived before they met you, outside of the orbit of your shared existence. Few readers will have trouble relating to Katrin’s particular brand of fascination with the parts of Eric’s life she missed out on – the chapters of his biography penned in the decades before they met. Who, after all, has not felt some keen interest – neither wholly innocent nor malevolent and jealous – in the long-ago experiences, routines, friends and lovers of a person they later loved themselves?

It may be that the most loving thing we can do is to delve head-on into that past. It may be that the truest way to grieve is to tell stories.

Learning and telling the story of a life can be gratifying, surprising, and mesmerizing. It can be painful, too, but it is the kind of pain that goes hand-in-hand with love. It is in examining a life, in learning its minutiae, that we acknowledge and even overcome our grief. It is in telling stories, Constantine shows us, that we come to terms with just how close love and mortality truly are to one another.

In The Life-Writer, David Constantine points us right at the intersection of love and grief, and rolls us quietly, kindly through. We are better for the journey.

The Life-Writer by David Constantine (Biblioasis | 9781771961011 | October 11, 2016)

Review: ‘Into the Sun’ by Deni Ellis Béchard

Review: ‘Into the Sun’ by Deni Ellis Béchard

IntoTheSun_9781571311146_efb2cOn a cold, clear winter night, a party is interrupted by gunfire. From a luxurious safe room, the guests–journalists, security contractors, human rights lawyers, teachers–watch as the home in which they were relaxing moments before is stormed by armed men. It’s 2012 in Kabul, ten years into the US occupation, and in the expatriate community that has sprung up in the wake of the invasion, such contradictions are commonplace–frivolity and boredom give way to sudden violence, and idealism and opportunism mix freely. The people at the party have come to Kabul for similarly varied reasons–some out of faith, some out of passion, some out of greed–but all of them are united by a common desire for reinvention. And in just a few days, three of them will be dead.

Thus begins Into The Sun, the haunting, ambitious, and utterly compelling second novel from Deni Ellis Béchard, who won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for 2007’s Vandal Love.

“At parties,” the novel’s narrator observes early on, “we laughed about those who’d become unhinged in their quest for purpose while we quietly worried about our own.” Béchard’s Afghanistan is not a nation of constant danger–it’s a nation of constant redefinition. While the country’s residents struggle with an unending cycle of violence, poverty, and corruption, the western civilians who come to write, teach, or work for NGOs lose themselves in personal quests.

Justin, Alexandra, and Clay seem like an improbable trio–casual acquaintances united only in their sudden, violent deaths, when the car they are sharing explodes in the center of the Afghan capital. But when Michiko, a journalist who has found herself pulled to Afghanistan by its promise of danger, self-sacrifice, and personal purpose, begins to dig into their pasts, she discovers that the chain of events that brought them together–in this strange and merciless country, in the safe room, and on the day they died–was set in motion long ago.

Clay and Justin attended high school together in Louisiana, before a tangled web of circumstances and a singular act of violence drove them apart. A decade later, Justin was a devout Christian teaching at a run-down school, and Clay, discharged from the military, was a private contractor specializing in “K&R”–kidnapping and ransom. Alexandra, a Quebecois lawyer drawn to the latent brutality of the newly-opened war zone, came to Kabul to provide legal help to imprisoned women, and became connected to both men.

Clay reinvented himself as a mercenary after a military career that ended in disgrace. Justin, unable to join the army, reinvented himself as something of a missionary, a zealous educator who sought to “save” his students. Alexandra reinvented herself as a response to the violence she faced as a young woman.

During their time in Kabul, all three became involved with Frank, the fervent, unyielding founder of the school at which Justin taught, and with Idris, an Afghan boy who worked for Frank as a driver, handyman and general laborer, ostensibly in exchange for an education.

When Michiko learns that Idris, who was working in vain for a scholarship to the United States, may have been in the car with her friends, she realizes that it isn’t just expatriates trying to reinvent themselves in Kabul–in this new frontier, everyone is chasing what they believe is their manifest destiny.

Béchard, who, as a journalist, has reported from the Congo, Iraq, and Columbia in addition to his time in Afghanistan, captures with an exacting eye the strange mixture of hubris, aspiration, and almost childlike conviction that drives people from all over the world into places of conflict. It is with that same journalist’s perception that he explores the lives of those who have no choice–the ordinary citizens of Kabul, caught up in ceaseless years of warfare. His characters seek affirmation, fulfillment, a paycheck, or perhaps just to survive, but they all seek something–something that they will redefine themselves, again and again, to attain.

As thought-provoking as it is engaging, Into The Sun is a remarkable study of how we all shape our identities, and of how our constant reinventions may ultimately define us–and perhaps destroy us.

Into the Sun by Deni Ellis Béchard (Milkweed Editions |9781571311146 | September 20, 2016)

Review: City on Fire


Once in a while, a novel comes along, reaches somewhere deep inside you, and touches some kind of metaphysical ground wire, lighting the whole thing up. Once in a while, a novel comes along and hits you right in the gut.

Once in a while, a novel comes along and says exactly the things you’ve been longing, without even knowing it, to hear. Once in a while, a novel comes along and really examines the universal human darkness that all of us know.

City On Fire is such a novel.

Weighing in at 944 pages, Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut is vast and undeniably ambitious. But while some books are long for the sake of length, City On Fire may be the opposite – a book that contains a dizzying number of overlapping stories and an infinite number of possibilities in what seems to be an impossibly small space. It’s the pressure built up behind a champagne cork. It’s the feedback howling against a tube amplifier. It’s a universe expanding forever outward.

It’s a bomb, and it’s about to go off. It’s a light, and it’s about to go out.

On New Year’s Eve, 1976, millions of people converge on Manhattan. A few of them, from disparate walks of life, are about to collide. Regan Hamilton-Sweeney, the reluctant heir to one of New York’s most powerful families, attends her stepmother’s annual soiree. Her brother, William, whom she has not seen in decades, heads downtown to see the reunion of the punk band in which he once played guitar. Her estranged husband, Keith, trudges through the snow, debating whether to keep a date with his former mistress. Charlie Weisbarger, seventeen and grounded for the last six months on Long Island, heads to into the city to meet Sam, the girl he’s loved from afar since last summer, and to see their favorite band reunite for one final show. Mercer Goodman, in love with William but frustrated by his secrecy, sneaks into the Hamilton-Sweeney party.

Before the clock strikes midnight, a gun has gone off, someone lies bleeding in Central Park, and a force far greater than the sum of its parts has begun to gather momentum. Over the next six months, these characters and others – a disgruntled reporter, his idealistic neighbor, destitute punks drawn toward an enigmatic leader, and a retiring detective trying to finish one last case – will fly in and out of each other’s orbit, until the moment in mid-July 1977 when the city, itself a living, breathing entity, goes suddenly dark.

New York, in 1977, is a proverbial melting pot reaching a very real boiling point. Economic woes are plaguing the City. Neighborhoods inhabited by poor minorities are being destroyed by arson. Violent crime has been on the rise, and fear is palpable. A summer heat wave has everyone restless and on edge. The righteous idealism of the ‘60s has been replaced by a nihilistic rage.

And on the evening of July 13, when ConEdison’s biggest generator fails and a devastating blackout begins, the darkness that has been encroaching on the city for months becomes literal and uncompromising.

People do awful things, and cowardly things, in the face of darkness. When the darkness comes, people so often react selfishly. In darkness, our worst instincts sometimes guide us.

But sometimes, in darkness, they do not.

“There is no one, unitary city,” Hallberg writes in the novel’s opening pages, “or, if there is, it’s the sum of thousands of variations, all jockeying for the same spot.” Indeed, there are so many different New Yorks packed into City On Fire that it’s hard to imagine how an island the size of Manhattan could possibly contain them all. The big, mythical New York – the one that has inhabited the hopes and dreams and wild fantasies of generations of people – is here. But so is the grimy, charred, slightly paranoid New York familiar to so many of the city’s inhabitants.

When the darkness flings all of Hallberg’s characters – and all of these infinite cities — together, some people react predictably, taking advantage of the chaos that has been building around them. But others band together – bravely, bizarrely, and sometimes quixotically – to face that darkness head on.

City On Fire is a big, loud, combustible novel about love and art and addiction, punk rock and murder and anarchy and fireworks. But at its smoldering core, it’s a novel about people banding together against the darkness, without any guarantee that the lights will come back on.

Once in a while, a novel faces the darkness. City On Fire turns into it head on, and if we can take one lesson from Garth Risk Hallberg’s stunning new novel, it’s a comforting, if slightly defiant one: No matter which of those thousands of New Yorks we belong in, we’re all in this together.

City On Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg (Knopf | 9780385353779 | October 13, 2015)

Review: “Fates and Furies” by Lauren Groff

Fates_and_Furies_9781594634475_68932Generations of armchair philosophers, jilted ex-spouses and garden-variety cynics have stated, over and over again, that they do not believe in love. It’s been said enough times to qualify as banal and trite, a phrase recycled as often as “it’s not you, it’s me.”

But when they say that they don’t believe in love, what most people mean is that they don’t believe in love stories. Love stories are predictable and more or less unchallenging, which, as anybody who has ever been in love will tell you, is the exact opposite of how the thing actually works. Love stories, as Kurt Vonnegut once explained, follow a familiar arc – you start in down in the dumps, you meet somebody, you experience the whirlwind highs of romance, it all comes crashing down (throwing you further into the depths of despair than you’d ever been before) and then, because this is a love story, your triumph over adversity, win back your paramour and live happily ever after.

What Lauren Groff (The Monsters of Templeton, Arcadia) has achieved in Fates and Furies, then, is an incredible love story that also manages not to be. It’s a novel about love, and about marriage, and about all the sacrifice, unspoken compromise and obfuscation that is inherent in any partnership. It is a novel full of sharp edges and blind corners. It is a novel that is sure to be celebrated for years to come.

We first meet Lotto and Mathilde on a cold, out-of season beach, the site of their clandestine honeymoon. They’ve eloped, at twenty-two, after knowing each other for only a few short weeks. He is an actor known for his electrifying charm, his appetite for seduction and his claim to a massive fortune. She is elegant and quiet, an orphan who has worked as a model to pay her way through school. Tall and charismatic, they stand out in any crowd. Together, they are certain to conquer the world.

And they do, of course. Or, at least, they will, after some hard years of work and poverty and bare-knuckle, paycheck-to-paycheck living. His overbearing mother will disapprove of their marriage. Relatives will sneak them money. While Lotto finds nothing but rejection on the New York theater scene, Mathilde will take unfulfilling day jobs to make ends meet. Throughout it all, however, they will maintain their place as the couple their friends are drawn to, throwing parties in their basement apartment and provoking respect and ire in equal measure. They may not be universally liked, but they are universally admired.

This continues, albeit on a grander scale, with Lotto’s unexpected success as a playwright. Suddenly, Lotto and Mathilde are a power couple, the toast of Manhattan. And, although both of them make the aforementioned sacrifices, and plenty of mistakes, they always seem to weather the storm. Sacrifices and mistakes may test Lotto and Mathilde, but will never end them. What they have is something far too strong for that.

And then, everything changes.

Suddenly, we begin to see the holes in the story we’ve been told so far. Suddenly, we begin to realize how many stories have not been told.

Is Mathilde really who she says she is? Is Lotto actually what he believes himself to be? What was their relationship founded on, in the first place? What is the truth and, more importantly, does it matter?

Love is great, sure. But love is complicated, too.

The first half of Fates and Furies is told from Lotto’s perspective, the second from Mathilde’s, and the result is a tale of parallel lives that is revealing, unsettling and, in its careful dissection of what it means to share yourself with someone else, utterly fascinating. Because what, really, do we share? What do we keep to ourselves, and why? Are the reasons we repeat to ourselves, over and over again, really the source of our motivation? Groff relentlessly asks these questions throughout Fates and Furies. She never flinches at the answers.

This is a beautiful novel, a compelling novel, and at times a very funny one. It is astounding in its complexity, and yet so simple once unraveled. It is heartbreaking and a little harsh, full of promises almost kept and secrets almost revealed. In short, it is the story of love.

Maybe, in the end, all of our stories are love stories. While Fates and Furies does not follow the conventions of the standard love story, it is, at its core, a novel about love and all of love’s strange power. No matter how you feel about love, or love stories, it is a stunning piece of work.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (Riverhead | 9781594634475 | September 15, 2015)