This installment: Erdrich’s latest; a Cambodian girlhood; a novel combining love of words and clothes, and WWII novel about the folly of stuff.
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
It was once a sacred structure, built surreptitiously for ritual. Now abandoned, it has become the site of a horrendous crime. 13 year old Joe's mother managed to escape but is left damaged, shut down. His father, a tribal lawyer, is hamstrung by the white establishment and arcane laws. Joe wants revenge and eventually discovers what he needs to know. Along the way adolescent temptations, adventures, and preoccupations also come into play. Old Mooshum, his grandfather, tells old tales in his sleep that have eerie relevance. And there are grown twins, raised apart, whose story might have arisen from Greek tragedy. Full of tribal lore and language but grounded in local color and universal emotional truths. Erdrich does it again!
In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
This is a fictionalized account of the author's girlhood in Cambodia during the most dreadful of times. Raami's family is royalty: father a poet, mother somewhat removed. The Khmer Rouge descend and they're all routed out abruptly and hauled from one dismal camp or village to another where they are forced to support The Organization's plans for a total societal makeover with hard labor. So much is destroyed along the way and those in charge are young, heedless, power-drunk, and corrupt. Raami is crippled by polio but somehow she and her mother, who develops amazing strength and survival skills, come through. The writing is often poetic yet immediate. The book served as a good antidote to any discontents I might have about elements of my present life which is, after all, relatively stable and privileged.
The Secret Lives of Dresses by Erin McKean
The author is a lexicographer and lover of vintage fashions, so both words and clothes are burnished in this entertaining novel. Dora's grandmother has a shop that features outfits from the '50s. She has a stroke and Dora ends up taking it over, which turns out to be much more satisfying then her less-than-committed graduate studies and needy if charming boyfriend. Dora finds some garments have their "story" tucked into a pocket, and eventually she discovers her grandmother's secret through one of them. There are horrid, tasteless, greedy relatives and a mysterious handy fellow who--you guessed it--becomes her intended. So this book has the familiar elements of a cozy romance, but it's thoughtful, well written, and witty as well.
The Life of Objects by Susanna Moore
Young Beatrice in Ireland knows how to make lace. She really wants a different life so when the prosperous Metzenbergs offer to take her home with them, she leaps at the chance. But it's 1938, her employers are Jews, and they live in Germany. They take great pride in their collection of art objects and for a while are both insulated by and tethered to their riches. But soon they have to flee to their country estate and things get worse and worse. All this through the eyes of Beatrice, a provincial yet ambitious 19-year-old-- an unusual perspective on familiar wartime material. I wasn't emotionally caught up with the characters but found it compelling enough to keep reading.
Back next Tuesday. (Have a good holiday.)