Reviews

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)

‘My Best Friend’s Exorcism’ by Grady Hendrix

Fans of Hendrix’s previous novel, Horrorstör can rest easy. His followup book is enough like his first that you’ll enjoy it from cover to cover, but it’s dissimilar enough to keep you from feeling like you’re reading a bad sequel.

For the unfamiliar, Horrorstör resembles an Ikea catalog and is, indeed, also set in an Ikea-like store. It’s a gory supernatural horror novel packed with easter eggs, layers of meaning, and jokes. My Best Friend’s Exorcism, in contrast, is less overtly postmodern but still creepy and threaded with humorous moments. While the constant pop culture references can, at times, recall the overindulgence of Ernest Cline, mostly they feel about right, considering that the main characters are in high school (and in high school, obsession with pop culture is not indulgent but a natural state).

The two main characters are young women, best friends since meeting in the fifth grade. One is rich and the other poor; one is from a strict religious family while the other’s parents are wholly secular. When we begin to see the darker aspects of the wealthy girl’s home life, it looks easy to predict where the story goes–but it doesn’t go there, not really. While the actions of her parents are definitely worrisome and suspicious, it turns out she’s actually possessed by a demon. Yes, the title refers to actual demonic possession and exorcism.

If readers can suspend disbelief and immerse themselves in an era when backmasking, rock lyrics, and TV plot lines could incite a national furor over the fate of young souls, they won’t find it hard to enjoy a plot involving an actual demon from hell interfering in an adorable high school friendship. Hendrix nails the essence of what it’s like to be a sixteen year old girl so perfectly that sections of this book could’ve been lifted from Judy Blume, if Judy Blume also wrote about tapeworms erupting from the mouths of snobby rich girls or topless, lovelorn teens trying to fling themselves from school rooftops. The plot twists are genuinely gripping, the exorcism passages are original without dismissing genre convention, and the ending was beautiful enough to make my eyes water a little. Best of all, the language and imagery of the grossest passages are executed so well that they might pop into your head a week or so later and ruin your dinner.

In short, if you’re looking for a fun read with enough depth to make it interesting, My Best Friend’s Exorcism belongs on your bookshelf. It’s not as groundbreaking as Carrie (but how many books are?) or as nuanced as Shirley Jackson’s horror writing (though what is?), but it’s  a compelling twist on an interesting subgenre and well worth the time spent in reading.

‘Over the Plain Houses’ by Julia Franks

‘Over the Plain Houses’ by Julia Franks

OverThePlainHouses_9781938235214_583feWhen a novel takes its title from one of Anne Sexton’s best poems, it sets the bar high before readers can even scan the blurbs on the back cover. Luckily, Over the Plain Houses is up to the challenge.

This is the absorbing tale of a preacher’s wife who wants more than what her hardscrabble life gives her, the story of a couple divided by loss, the story of a gifted child limited by circumstance, and the story of a man desperate for certainty in a changing world. The plot is absorbing enough on its own, but as Over the Plain Houses progresses, shadows of the past fall across contemporary events. When I started reading it, for example, armed militants had just been removed after occupying a federal wildlife refuge for over a month, and several headlines about efforts to limit women’s birth control options appeared in the news. It’s easy to feel as if the characters’ problems could be our problems.

Beyond its layered storytelling, the novel is deeply atmospheric. While this is true of most good historical fiction, Over the Plain Houses hasn’t tackled shining Belle Epoque Paris or the sleek sophistication of mid-century New York. It thrusts readers into rural American life during the Great Depression, a setting that helps set this novel apart from the pack. Whether through looming mountains, frigid nights, or dour church services, Franks immerses readers in a world where danger and familiarity thread together through the protagonist’s life.

The book doesn’t stop at broad strokes and moody landscapes, either. The plethora of minute details and careful descriptions of outmoded practices, defunct technologies, and vanished places indicate a great deal of careful research, but this is never at the expense of plot or character. Instead, they’re blended into colorful phraseology or poetic passages that effortlessly serve many purposes–for example, one section describes the steps involved in tobacco farming in the 1930’s, and it advances the plot while offering insight into the protagonist’s thoughts and re-establishing the importance of seasonal rhythms in the characters’ lives. Franks makes her sentences multitask, and she makes it look easy.

Spooky without verging on horror, dreamy without growing fantastic, and steeped in realism without forgetting to be beautiful, Over the Plain Houses is one of the best examples of historical fiction I’ve read lately. People who typically avoid the genre because of its over-reliance on romance and tendency for hyperbole will enjoy how this book resists the typical limitations. Sticklers for period detail will be pleased rather than frustrated, and anyone annoyed by the slew of fictionalized biographies will find this novel wonderfully devoid of any famous writers, movie stars, or politicians. Come for the gripping domestic drama–stay for the dynamite.


Over the Plain Houses by Julia Franks (Hub City Press | 9781938235214 | May 1, 2016)

‘Zero K’ by Don DeLillo

ZeroK_9781501135392_215c8Zero K falls squarely into a hot publishing trend, yet it resembles none of its peers. DeLillo does dystopia, but we’re living in it right now, and there are no heroes or adrenaline-drenched action scenes. Nobody saves the world. Instead, the main character/narrator spends more time observing than doing; reacting more than acting. To him, life is often a series of puzzles whose solutions he must tease out for no special purpose, full of questions whose answers beget more questions.

Indeed, it is hard to connect with a character so disengaged. His obsession with names and word games represents a form of control so passive that it exerts no power outside of his mind. As a result, there are long stretches of Zero K that are glacially internal. Whether the wordplay is amusing or annoying is a matter of taste, but these passages often yield phrases and sentences of unusual beauty. Consider these lovely inefficiencies: “Emma came east,” “whatever there is of down deep,” and an imaginary game of cartographic striptease described as, “…my jacket for Gorki, her jeans for Kamchatka, moving slowly onward to Kharkov, Saratov, Omsk, Tomsk.” Has an author ever so prettily described sex that doesn’t happen?

That’s not all that isn’t happening. If undressing while staring at a map sounds oddly impersonal, that’s because it is, and that’s kind of the narrator’s thing. Zero K is in many ways a study in stylistic detachment and impersonality. Whether it’s the avoidance of question marks that flattens many of the book’s conversations or the unusual use of passive voice (“I am shamed by this,” rather than “I am ashamed of this,” or even “This shames me”); whether it’s the narrator’s habit of stopping and staring or the numerous carefully-arranged tableaux that line his path, there’s often a distinct lack of emotion despite the book containing many emotional scenes. What would you do if your fantastically wealthy, estranged father summoned you to a remote compound halfway across the world? And what if that compound was revealed to be a utopian community, cult, and cryogenic preservation facility all rolled into one? And then your father tells you he’s going to be frozen there–not when he dies, but right now? If you’re the narrator of Zero K, you wander down a corridor trying to open locked doors.

Clearly, DeLillo has philosophical points to address here. There are metaphors for Big Ideas, some of which are also directly addressed, and conversations about the faith born from the marriage of religion and science. Contemporary life, with its ever-present technology and endless conveniences that avert our eyes from the war, natural disaster, and famine unfolding everywhere around us, isn’t a pre-dystopia to which characters want to return but something to escape, wait out, and build over sometime in the distant future. This is much more than a novel about a father and a son, but that relationship is the most important in the book, and DeLillo’s approach to it is suffused with sadness and futility. Who can we be other than ourselves; other than senseless reactions to the past? This particular idea, and the narrator’s personal past, haunt many sections of the novel. It’s surely not an accident that the narrator’s stepmother is an archeologist.

The things that are not addressed–the things glossed over and passively received–might trouble some readers. It often appears that women exist to be lost and mourned by the men who quietly watch them. There is a scene featuring violent, depersonalized sex with a prostitute who is a “gift” that suggests transactional sex, if not sexual servitude, belongs in the utopian future. Is that DeLillo’s ideal, or is this just another example of the narrator’s detachment? The problem with stylistic devices that deny emotion and refuse value judgment is that they can cloud meaning.

Zero K is probably a book everyone will be talking about this summer, both because it’s by Don DeLillo and because of its ideas and subject matter. Commit to reading it cover to cover and be prepared to take notes if you begin it. Also, perhaps consider putting aside a little money each month to put towards having yourself–or at least your head–cryogenically frozen. If you accept that we are living in the drab, lonely world its narrator believes we are, suspended existence and an uncertain future will look very appealing.


Zero K by Don DeLillo (Scribner | 9781501135392 | May 3, 2016)

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

TheVersionsofUs_9780544634244_074c0You’ve heard this concept before. A seemingly insignificant detail can dramatically alter the course of a life. What would have happened if you’d had cereal for breakfast instead of a bagel? What if you wore the blue shirt last Tuesday instead of the green one? Chaos theory has been approached in various pop cultural forms over the past few decades, but The Versions of Us tackles the idea in a fresh way.

Whereas films like Sliding Doors present two different fates that hinge on the mundane, and the Donnie Darko approach suggests that love, sacrifice, and identifying the all-important moment can allow you to shape the future you desire, The Versions of Us tracks three possible timelines and takes a realist stance. In each timeline, the characters experience the kind of tradeoffs that most people face at some point. In one version, a character might have the partner they always wanted, but this means suffering bitter professional disappointment. Perhaps another character fulfills their ambitions, but it is at the cost of alienating their children. One version might mean finding happiness early in life to one character but never finding it at all to another, while a different version leads to happy golden years. Some readers may have trouble tracking the timelines, but Barnett is usually careful to overlap key scenes in a way that highlights their differences.

While it sometimes overexplains (how many times must we be told that marijuana was associated with counter-cultural youths in the 1960’s?), and while the dialog is over-dramatic in spots (have you ever exclaimed, “No regrets! Not now, not ever!” as you clutched your lover?), this is a well-structured novel with keen-eyed attention to detail. Moreover, it avoids predictability–a tall task when you’re not just telling a boy-meets-girl story but telling it three different ways. The Versions of Us is a good read for people who enjoy sweeping dramas and romantic characters but are looking for a book that makes you think a bit more and work a little harder than the standard airport novel.


The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | 9780544634244 | May 3, 2016)