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

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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’

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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’

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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

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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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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.

Family Secrets Unravel in Liz Nugent’s ‘Lying in Wait’

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Liz Nugent‘s latest novel Lying in Wait is a masterclass in dissecting the ripple effects of murder. In the fall of 1980, Annie Doyle is murdered by a wealthy Dublin couple. We know the how, the where, and the why early in the novel. These driving murder mystery elements play no role in this story. Instead of pursuing a breadcrumb narrative to and ending of truth and resolution, Nugent makes the reader an omniscient observer — presenting all the details of this sordid tale through the perspectives of three separate characters. In doing so, we, the voyeurs, must watch in horror as Annie’s death leads to a lifetime of poison and malice for all those who remain living.

Annie’s murderers — Andrew and Lydia Fitzsimmons — avoid suspicion by wielding their wealth and social status as a shield. Nobody would suspect an upstanding judge and his pretty, unassuming wife in the death of a junkie prostitute, but a few key details catch the attention of one astute detective and the Fitzsimmons 18-year-old son, Laurence. Lydia, incapable of empathizing with anyone outside her class feels little remorse over her role in the murder and attempts to shade over her crime as an unfortunate mishap that Annie was asking for by virtue of her status as a guttersnipe.

Andrew, on the other hand, does not deal well with his crime. Who knew a history of angry outbursts would lead to him strangling a woman he hired to carry his baby so Lydia could finally have another child? On top of his business partner running away with the family money, the guilt becomes too much to bear. Meanwhile, Laurence is piecing together the events of that night and comes to the realization of what he believes to be solely Andrew’s crime. Their already strained relationship becomes further damaged as the mounting anxiety and disdain begin to seep into every aspect of their lives.

Fast forward to five years later. Andrew is dead. He made it only six weeks after the murder before having a heart attack. Laurence is still obese and subdued — resigned to covering up his father’s crime, which his mother now knows he’s aware of. Lydia — the darkest and most sinister character in Nugent’s story slowly reveals more about her past. Her killing blow to Annie’s head wasn’t her only act of violence, and that act has left her in a limbo between perpetual childhood and suffering motherhood. Even as Laurence makes attempts at living an independent life, Lydia’s relationship with him grows ever more toxic and dependent.

It seems like they’ve struck a hopeful balance when Laurence find work as a government employee and begins dating a mousy young woman named Bridget. It isn’t love, but Laurence is relatively content even though the shadow of Annie Doyle, and his obsession with her, still covers life like a veil. When he meets Gerry Doyle, the insidious notions of class and wealth passed on to him by Andrew and Lydia begin to recede. Gerry separated from his wife after Annie’s disappearance, blaming him for her broken life. When she was a teenager, Annie became pregnant. Gerry sent her to a mother and daughter home — a notorious institution run by the Catholic Church where women are renamed, forced to perform manual labor, and eventually give up their children. Unable to escape those years of her life, Annie fell into drug and alcohol abuse.

Annie family never stopped hoping for her return. Especially her sister, Karen — the ultimate link between past and future. But the cops never do much to investigate, and they’re told to simply move on. Karen marries young, and works in a dry cleaner until she’s discovered by a modeling scout who’s son was none other than the detective who had suspicions about Andrew Fitzsimmons five years prior. Through her, she learns that Annie is most certainly dead, which sends her on a mission to find the killer.

When Laurence meets her, past, present, and future are set in motion towards one of the most twisted endings to ever grace the pages of a thriller. Nugent paces each character’s narrative to a steady rhythm of dread, misplaced trust and rage. Laurence, Karen and Lydia inch closer and closer to each other, drawn inexorably towards a cataclysmic end.

But Nugent isn’t solely interested in the ways a murder can bend the course of events over time. Lying in Wait also bears the mark of Ireland’s troubled history of shaming women in the name of religion, fostering a culture of abuse by men and those in power, and the way undesirable members of society are subjugated into silence.  Annie, who falls prey to these forces, avenges the atrocities of her life in death.

Unfortunately, not all is redeemed, and in the end, we find the cycle has continued.

Jeanne McCulloch’s Riveting Debut ‘All Happy Families’ Hits Home

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Jeanne McCulloch‘s poignant debut memoir, All Happy Families, examines the precarious nature of familial life and love in the wake of her father’s fatal stroke on the eve of her 1983 wedding. The family’s excitement suddenly shifts into a haze of shock and numbness, but there is never any question about the wedding continuing as planned. Jeanne’s imperious mother, Pat, has only one instruction for the hospital on the morning of August 13: “If anything happens to my husband this evening, do not call this house. We cannot be disturbed…We are having a party.”

McCulloch hones in on dialogue like this and connects it to past and future moments throughout the narrative, deftly exploring the incidents that stem from that day in August. She chronicles the ripple effect of her father’s death without judgment, moving from her childhood on Park Avenue and her father’s descent into alcoholism to the courtship between her and her husband, Dean, and the tentative position she holds within his family.

If McCulloch’s memoir could be defined by any one line or moment, it would come from something her mother says during a hurricane season while the family is living in their Hamptons vacation home — a place that exists as its own character in the narrative. She says: “We live on such a perilous dune. All of this could just go, like that.”

Not only does Pat’s simple observation pinpoint the all-encompassing fact of our transience as human beings, but also the small ways in which love and the halcyon days of youth morph over time.  McCulloch points to the happy moments of her childhood when her father, John — an immensely wealthy hyperpolyglot — would take his daughters on trips all over the world, a chance for him to practice one of his many languages; or days after school when she and her sisters would style his hair into outrageous designs while watching sitcoms that would make him snort with laughter.

Looking back, though, McCulloch recognizes that her father was at the beginning of a steady decline as his dependence on alcohol worsens. Even the childhood stories John made up for his children featured an octopus named Franklin who frequents a bar and orders drinks for all eight tentacles. Nevertheless, the lucidity and precision with which the author recollects her past and deconstructs the multiple perspectives that layer each remembered encounter successfully avoids the hyper-sentimentality that often accompanies similar stories.

Yet it isn’t entirely clinical, either. There are moments when I wonder what she’s thinking or how she manages to keep herself together or she’s communicating with her husband during certain scenes since she positions herself as an observer in almost all situations, but she never dips into self-indulgence — everything pieces into the atmospheric and thematic prose that she’s weaved together. Best of all, the text never lacks for humor and grace in the midst of bad circumstance.

With spare and economical writing, she elucidates the ways in which the “perilous dune” crumbles. Whether we want it to or not. The point — which she gets at without making too much of a fuss–is that people go on anyway. Because that’s what life is.