Natalia Ginzburg’s Genius Shines in Her 1947 Classic ‘The Dry Heart’

the dry heartNatalia Ginzburg’s novella The Dry Heart famously springs forth from an unnamed narrator’s matter-of-fact statement, “I shot him between the eyes.” But even before we get her pronouncement, our narrator asks this man, her husband Alberto, to, “Tell me the truth,” and he responds, “What truth?” In this brief exchange—in the moment just before such an extreme act of violence—Ginzburg presents the core theme of her story: what truth can be found in this narrator’s life? Can it be found in her marriage? Her motherhood? Her role as a daughter or friend? The simple answer embedded within this shocking, tension-filled portrait of marriage is that truth does not exist for our narrator. It has been, by turns, misinterpreted, morphed, stolen or replaced—an alchemical transmutation, collapsing deceptive imagination and a husband’s fatal weakness of character into an eerily exacting portrait. Our narrator observes, “It’s very difficult…to know what we’re really like inside,” and we see, in Ginzburg’s incisive, direct prose, how an ill-defined life has pernicious and tragic consequences.

Our narrator, a woman in her late twenties, lives a dull life. She dutifully visits her family every weekend and returns to her boardinghouse to read novels in her spare time. When she begins seeing Alberto, an older man who cares for his elderly mother, a new, entirely imagined world opens for her. Ginzburg writes:

When a girl is very much alone and leads a tiresome and monotonous existence, with worn gloves and very little spending money, she may let her imagination run wild and find herself defenseless before all the errors and pitfalls which imagination has devised to deceive her.

-excerpt from The Dry Heart

She and Alberto have no real love for each other, but the anticipation of their meetings—the visions for the future she constructs from the possibilities associated with their pairing—lead to an imagined love, which happens to be as powerful and all-encompassing as the real thing. Of their dates, she says, “We went for long walks along the river or in the outskirts of the city, where lovers go, and yet we exchanged none of the words or gestures of love.” Such is the only excitement she can find, perhaps, within the strictures of Italian society in the 1940s.

Her thoughts are entirely preoccupied with Alberto. Her work as a schoolteacher no longer interests her, and she sits and waits for him to visit or call. Eventually, they marry because, it seems, they have nothing else to do with their attachment, and a child is born. The narrator is uncertain about her relationship with Alberto, the love she breathed into being disappeared with the birth of her child. Although she knows about  Alberto’s long, torturous affair with a woman called Giovanna, she carries on with the care of their child by herself while he leaves for extended periods of time.

She obsesses over the child, placing all of her care and affection into the rearing of her daughter’s sickly form. When her cousin Francesca comes to stay, the younger woman’s disregard for social convention reveals to the narrator a different sort of life, jaded as she is trying to understand her own motivations and those of the people around her.

In just under 90 pages, Ginzburg offers up a clean sliver of the human heart, revealing all its frustrations and limitations; its foolish desires keeping us pinioned within worlds we can’t remove ourselves from even if we wanted to. In the end, our narrator’s final act takes on a frightening logic. Why wouldn’t we attempt to break the cycle and free ourselves from these hellish turnings of the mind? Only a writer of Ginzburg’s caliber could turn this simple sketch of life into a trenchant examination of despair.

Jac Jemc’s ‘False Bingo’ Defies Convention

false bingoThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

In her latest collection of short stories, Jac Jemc explores the tenuousness of morality, plotting the ways in which good and evil intermingle with fear, desire and violence. Each story—touched with a sense of foreboding or uncanniness—depicts some small imbalance in the realities of its characters. From a woman who takes refuge in a crumbling, allegedly ghost-ridden former plantation to an ex-con delving into the therapeutic effects of taxidermy, Jemc reveals herself to be an ambitious writer willing to take risks for the sake of cutting into the heart of something sinister.

Jemc presents readers with a mixed bag of odd stories, alternating between sketches like “Any Other” and “Loitering” with longer pieces such as “Manifest” and “Don’t Let’s.” In some instances, Jemc writes deceptively simple narratives that contain a hint of unease. Other stories eschew conventional plotting altogether for something more impressionistic. We see this in “Get Back,” where she begins with the following sentence: “Villard took my grace with an undone, half-paralyzed anger, and so I found him daily and burned his house down on what I deemed a repeated whim.” A succession of violent acts ensue, none of which come with context or explanation. Is this the psychological portrait of a torturer, or is it another exercise in questioning the boundaries of morality?

Jemc’s transition between these modes of narration can be jarring, like encountering mismatched set pieces in a pristine stage design. But these stories beg to be reread and reexamined, and, in so doing, the grand scheme of the author’s thematic vision becomes clearer. She leaves it to readers to piece together the jagged edged remains of her broken characters and their shame, but the doomishness of it doesn’t come entirely without levity, as in “The Principal’s Ashes.” Can you imagine a classroom of seven-year-olds reciting Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”? You know, the poem with “waving genitals” and cigarette burned arms, etc. Such is the product of Jemc’s imagination.

Despite its incongruousness on first inspection, Jemc manages to construct a masterful collection similar in tone to Maryse Meijer’s staggering 2016 debut, Heartbreaker. These stories, when experienced as a whole, will linger with readers as they attempt to complete the puzzle Jemc has left for us to solve.

Margaret Renkl Melds Personal History with the Natural World in ‘Late Migrations’

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This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Margaret Renkl‘s debut, Late Migrations: A  Natural History of Love and Loss, contains multitudes for such a slender volume. Structured as a series of vignettes through which Renkl juxtaposes her family history with observations of the natural world, this timely collection presents the universe in miniature—the violent, painful, heartbreaking realities of daily life that, when accepted for what they are, yield hope.

Renkl writes with the well-trained eye of a seasoned naturalist despite her not being one. Her thorough attention to detail—her ability to name things in the natural world for what they are—imbues each piece with an authoritative grist and a tapestry-like quality, aided by Renkl’s assured poetic flair. Her encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world, particularly her knowledge of birds and flora, stems from the adventurous days of an uninhibited childhood during which time was spent running barefoot in the red clay of southern Alabama. Such is her attachment that a twenty-something Renkl could not complete her graduate course in Philadelphia, where she came to understand the loss of nature was like the loss of home.

In the present, Renkl makes a small haven for wildlife out of her backyard in Tennessee, where she observes the “red in beak and claw” behavior of territorial passerine birds and the steady predation of rat snakes and raptors alike. “This life thrives on death,” she writes, and with that, the difficulty in knowing when to provide aid and when to leave things as they are. Through these observations, Renkl tells stories of her family, her universe—an endless source of deep love, support, and humor. Their struggles, presented in tandem with scenes from the natural world and the insight Renkl draws from them, weave together to form a narrative that discourages cynicism and despair. And while it might take the reader some time to gain purchase in the short, seemingly desultory passages at the book’s beginning, the overall effect is something deeply moving.

When I began Late Migrations, I feared what conclusions Renkl would present concerning the ever-growing existential threat to our natural world. After all—the longstanding hope of our species, all our talk of eternity—rests on the fact that life will continue beyond our oblivion until the sun reaches the end of its life cycle and the entire galaxy is destroyed. How do we manage the weight of this knowledge? And with it—how do we possibly maintain hope? Renkl touches on the effects of climate change lightly, going into some detail about the ways in which the migrations of certain birds are altered by changes in climate patterns and the forced encroachment of non-native species into areas where their presence threatens native wildlife. I was saddened by these accounts, but I was also unexpectedly comforted by Renkl’s optimism about the resiliency of these living things.  She does not place blame, or attempt to shame anyone, the implication being that, while the situation is dire, there is always the chance for life to regain its balance with death. Ultimately, the cycle continues as we expect it to. Every living thing adapts to tragedy.

On her imagining of what an early human would have thought upon encountering the “flare of light on moving water,” she writes:

The first instant must have felt the way waking into darkness feels–not knowing at first if your eyes are open or closed.

In that instant, the river is not a life-giving source of water and fish and passage. In that instant, it is not the roiling fury that can swallow whole any land-walking, air-breathing creature. It is only itself, unlike any other thing. It was here long before we were here, and it will be here after we are gone. It will erase all trace of us–without malice, without even recognition. And when we are gone to ground and all our structures have crumbled back to dust, the river will become again just the place where light and water and sky find each other among the trees.

The beauty of Renkl’s writing in Late Migrations is staggering—on a par with other naturalist writers such as Annie Dillard and Peter Matthiessen. The honey-tongued lilt of southern dialogue and the verse-like quality of her prose show a writer with full command of her craft, effectively transforming a slim, unassuming collection of essays into a magnificent microcosm of the multitudinous universe.

Richard Roper Delivers A Funny, Heartwarming Debut With ‘How Not to Die Alone’

Richard-Roper-How-Not-to-Die-AloneThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

In  How Not to Die AloneRichard Roper explores loneliness and isolation as a modern phenomenon from the perspective of a man in pursuit of his own happiness. Fascinated by a news piece about government agencies responsible for burying those who die alone, Roper tells this story from one such government employee named Andrew—a 42-year old who spends day in and day out bearing witness to the lives of the poor and lonely. Some of the people Andrew deals with have been dead for months before anyone realizes, and those who come around afterward claiming to be friends of the deceased are often opportunists hoping to stake a claim on anything they might have left behind.

Every year his department sees an increase in these lonely deaths, but no one is worried about Andrew. Everyone knows he has a wife and kids to go home to every night…at least that’s what they believe. For five years, Andrew’s been harboring a secret. A misunderstanding during the interview for his position becomes the lie that he’s too embarrassed to rectify. When his boss suggests the department staff bond by visiting each other’s houses for dinner, Andrew is faced with the weight of his lie and the mortification that will come when people find out he doesn’t actually have a family. The wife and kids he made up in his interview don’t actually exist.

Over time, he creates intimate details about his imaginary family, creating endless fabrications about who they are as individuals and the goings on of their daily activities. Allowing himself to fall into that world is a comfort, one that bars him from the reality of his life. The relationship with his only living relative—his sister, Sally—is strained at best. She feels obligated to call him every few months out of guilt over their shared past and a trauma that she has never been able to help Andrew get over—a trauma he refuses to address, but which he is triggered by often. When Sally dies, he’s forced to contend with her leftover guilt and the ways in which he never allowed himself to open up to her.

It’s the constant proximity to the reality of living life alone that forces Andrew to take comfort in the little things he places around himself as a shield—his nonexistent family, the music of Ella Fitzgerald, and his model train collection. The only substantive personal interaction he has on a daily basis is with the other model train enthusiasts he chats with on an online forum. Such is Andrew’s life until Peggy comes along.

Peggy is funny and genuinely warmhearted. She tries to comfort Andrew after Sally dies, even as she struggles with the tragedy of their work and her own marital problems; she befriends him even when he makes doing so difficult. Interacting with others is difficult for him, but he soon realizes that it’s easy to talk to Peggy. They develop a routine—house inspections together and lunch at the pub on Fridays. Like a brick to the face, he comes to understand one day that he’s made a friend.

But how can he be a friend? Peggy is honest with him, and Andrew continues to hide from his past and has yet to reveal the hoax that is his family.

Roper’s efforts in this novel are often genuinely warmhearted and funny, especially in its first several chapters. The flashback to Andrew’s interview—and a handful of his other foibles—are laugh-out-loud funny. As a non-fiction editor by trade, Roper has a grasp of economical writing and tells the story with spot-on pacing. As the story progresses, some elements of the story come across as haphazard and hastily drawn within the narrative, e.g. the feud with his brother-in-law and his somewhat relentless obsession with quirkiness. Regarding the latter point—quirkiness is fine. Lovable even. But relying too heavily on, say, Andrew’s obsession with Ella Fitzgerald or his love for model trains—while ultimately essential to the plot—become affected rather than naturally occurring.

Fans of Gail Honeyman‘s wonderful novel Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine will find more than a few similarities with How Not to Die Alone. I wouldn’t be surprised if Roper drew inspiration from Honeyman’s debut, which was a massive success in the UK before hitting shelves here. His efforts are admirable, and a lot of the narrative’s shortcomings are made up for in dialogue and wittiness, but the finesse and the distillation of these novels’ major themes—loneliness, isolation, and the means by which we open ourselves to friendship—is exemplified more wholly in Honeyman’s Eleanor than it is in Roper’s Andrew.

All that being said, How Not to Die Alone is still a nicely done novel that successfully explores the tragic reality of people spending the final years of their life alone. While it doesn’t delve too far into the wider causes of this increasing likelihood—Roper choosing to focus on Andrew’s personal struggles—the topic is done some modicum of justice.

Melissa Rivero Explores the Immigrant Experience in Her Debut Novel ‘The Affairs of the Falcóns’

Melissa-Rivero-The-Affair-of-the-Falcons-ReviewThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Melissa Rivero’s debut novel, The Affairs of the Falcóns, is a rich, multilayered narrative about the struggles of a young Peruvian family attempting to make a life in America. Ana Falcón, and her husband, Lucho, live in a vacuum where everything is dictated by money–trying to make it, not having enough of it, or coming up with ways to find more of it. Ana is driven to keep her family together in New York and clings to her dream of one day opening a restaurant. But the endless struggle for a comfortable life has Lucho prepared to send the children back to Peru–or have the whole family return. After all, he wasn’t the one who wanted to come to America in the first place.

The novel spans just a few weeks in time as the Falcóns’ troubles come to a head. We see how Ana is forced to bear the brunt of her family’s financial concerns, while also bearing the judgment leveled at her from her husband’s relatives with whom they are forced to live until they can find another place of their own. The threat of deportation and an unexpected pregnancy add fuel to an already blazing fire.

Through Ana’s experiences, Rivero creates a deeply moving portrait of immigrant life in the United States, focusing on the ways in which large communities of people are forced to live in the shadows as they silently form the backbone of our society. The endless struggle to make ends meet only reinforces Ana’s resolve. The opportunities available to Lucho in Peru–a college educated young man from a family of European descent–would never be available to Ana. As an indigenous woman from the hills of Santa Clara, Lima was not a welcome place. She was an outsider. Even Lucho’s mother never ceases to remind her that she is only a Falcón because her son was obliged to “do the right thing” when she became pregnant. Why else would her son marry so far beneath him?

Despite the violence of Peru’s military and its rebel fighters, Lucho longs for his days as a student and activist in Lima. Working as a laborer makes him bitter, leaving Ana with the feeling that life with her and the kids is a burden he never wanted to carry.

In The Affairs of the Falcóns, Rivero masterfully explores the intricate dynamics of family, love, and longing while effectively illustrating the intersections of race, class, and identity. It will almost certainly become one of this year’s finest debuts.

Claire Fuller’s ‘Bitter Orange’ Is A Haunting, Cerebral Tale of Isolation

bitter-orange-book-reviewThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Claire Fuller‘s eerie new novel Bitter Orange comprises a heady mix of isolation, paranoia, guilt, and a hint of gothic when a troubled couple and a lonely, middle-aged woman are hired to survey the grounds of a dilapidated estate called Lyntons in the English countryside. The novel begins 20 years after the summer of 1969 and the events of the novel’s main narrative. Frances Jellico, a bookish spinster, recalls this brief period from a hospital bed where she will soon die. The vicar who sits by her side knew Frances and the couple, Cara and Peter, during that time. He seeks answers to a question that develops early in the novel: Why did Frances do it?

From her attic room at Lyntons, Frances initially dives into her work. She spent years caring for her ailing mother after her father left. Her mother’s recent death gives her a newfound freedom. But when Frances meets Cara and Peter, she becomes enmeshed in their mysterious world. For Cara, Frances is a person with whom she can share the story of her past without the fear of Peter’s judgment. She is beautiful and close to nature as well as capricious and superstitious — an Irish woman from a Protestant family raised Catholic who believes she became pregnant through divine intervention. Frances listens closely to the story of how she met Peter and this holy child with fascination. She knows it cannot be true — that details of Cara’s story must be fabricated. But it enthralls her.

Peter, on the other hand, understands Frances as a practical woman and seems to be drawn to what he sees as stability. He asks her to keep an eye out for Cara who he suggests is mentally unable due to the loss of her baby. He resents her superstitions, her wild storytelling, and her desire for more than he can give. He will not divorce the wife who gets most of his money, so he and Cara are left in limbo, traveling from place to place.

Frances relishes the approval and attention she receives from both of them. But the cracks in the idyll they’ve made for themselves slowly expand, morphing their friendship into something subtly malignant. Fuller incorporates elements of suspense and mystery with the gothic dread that inherent to the English manor house. It is the house’s presence as its own character that drives the tension between the trio. Sinister objects, glimpses of faces in windows, and the air of decrepitude that surrounds them moves the narrative arch to its horrific ending.

A novel of this nature — one that rests upon the perspective of a potentially unreliable narrator as she attempts to remember and navigate the threads of a tenuous, complex relationship — would likely have fallen flat in the hands of a writer less in command of this story. Fuller uses the full scope of her ability in to weave a tale of betrayal, guilt, and the decay of paradise, in the process making it a story that fits squarely into the era it portrays while also acting as an outlier with its sinister overtones.

Just as they say the revolutionary summer of 1969 ended with the murder of Sharon Tate, so too does Frances Jellico’s brief, happy summer.

Robert Rorke’s Debut Novel ‘Car Trouble’ Is a Poignant Coming-Of-Age Story

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This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Robert Rorke‘s debut novel Car Trouble brings us back to 1970s Brooklyn—a pre-gentrified bastion of the working class that would not be considered fashionable for at least another 30 years. For Nicky Flynn, a Flatbush teenager from a large Irish Catholic family, the 1970s means more than the shifting social and political mores of the time. In the Flynn household, Nicky’s only concern is Himself—the drunken, occasionally abusive, old-fashioned racist he gets to call dad.

Patrick Flynn’s alcoholism defines much of Nicky’s adolescence. He, his mother, and his four sisters are hyper-aware of their father’s behavior at all times, always picking up on the way his eyes get glassy and his gait staggers slightly when he’s had a few too many, and perpetually holding back comments that might send his backhand their way. Nothing in Patrick Flynn’s life is spared the fallout from his disease. The only consistency Nicky observes in his father over the years is the slew of cars Himself brings home—one jalopy after another bought at NYPD auction. Each vehicle—one more garish and impractical than the last—provides his life with a veneer of glamour, however fleeting and marred by hardship. From Nicky’s perspective, each car is a milestone in his adolescence. New cars, new experiences. Good and bad. Terrifying and joyful.

I read the book’s back cover and initially got the impression that I wouldn’t like it. It’s a safe bet that anything to do with cars won’t be my cup of tea. Also, it isn’t unreasonable to expect a novel with this setting — a parade of muscle cars — to rely heavily, if not solely, upon nostalgia to carry the story’s coming-of-age narrative. But Rorke is a much better writer than that.

The overarching theme of the car as a symbol and unifying element of Nicky Flynn’s adolescence falls to the wayside as the novel progresses. At times I forgot about the cars as the descriptions of his father’s vehicles and the experiences he’s had in them take a back seat to the family dynamic that breathes life into Car Trouble.

As a narrator, Nicky is clear-eyed and levelheaded when recounting the tales of his youth. We see moments of compassion, rage, confusion, and fear filter through his composure, which, combined with his family’s resilience, offsets his father’s destruction.

That resilience from Nicky, his sisters, and especially his mother is the most poignant and moving part of Rorke’s novel. Despite the never-ending calamity that follows Himself like a shadow, Mrs. Flynn and the children form a protective barrier around him that is borne from love, fear, and self-preservation. If they don’t keep moving forward, the earth will fall out from beneath them.

It is this quiet efficiency that builds the backbone of Car TroubleEven as Nicky struggles to find himself and nurture his newfound talents, the reader cannot help but notice that, like most all teenagers, his identity is still wrapped in his family’s identity. Being a part of that efficiency is like being in a group of unsung heroes, and for better or worse, it is the springboard off which he becomes himself.

Much like Colm Tóibín‘s  Brooklyn, Car Trouble is an impressive novel that captures the essence of an era without fanfare or sacrificing the craftsmanship of a good story. It is refreshing, cathartic, and thoroughly readable.