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09.18.11

Great Weekend Reads

From a magical circus troupe to the perilous state of England to an abduction that is not quite what it seems, our reviewers pick 4 new novels that you won’t want to miss.

Circus Games

Before you begin reading The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, catch up on your sleep. You’re going to need it. This is a story so good that it will keep you up late and then have you grabbing for the book first thing when you wake up. It is tempting to use the word relentless when describing Morgenstern’s narrative, but relentless doesn’t sound pleasurable or fun, which are in fact two words that do describe it perfectly.

Set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the novel follows the progress of a mysterious circus that has no announced itinerary and only opens when the sun sets. Everything—costumes, tents, animals—is black or white, but the action that unfolds against this stark background is as colorful as a tarot deck, which does indeed play a crucial role in the story—what is a circus without a fortune teller?

At the center of the circus—and the center of the story—is a young woman, Celia Bowen, an illusionist (it’s a high class circus), although as we know—and the patrons do not—Celia’s magic is more Merlin than Houdini. Celia is in a competition with another magician, Marco, the assistant to the circus’s proprietor. The two of them have been trained for this game since childhood, but neither they nor we know its purpose or its outcome, at least not initially. All Celia and Marco know is that neither can quit the game. And so on they go, each creating enchantments in an attempt to outdo the other—a garden fashioned entirely from ice, a merry-go-round that travels much farther than a circle, a maze upon which they collaborate, each building on what the other has just finished.

For those of us who are not outright fans of fantasy, such an abstract of the plot may sound off-putting. But Morgenstern is more clever than you may have reckoned. She always makes human nature more important than any special effect she may devise, and she never cheats by using some fantasy element to get herself out of a corner. The world in The Night Circus works more or less like our own, it’s just more fun.

The real magic here is the accomplishment with which Morgenstern tells her tale.  She is, without seeming to be, always in control of her characters, her plot and her pacing. That is, things seem to unfold naturally, inevitably, almost as though the story was telling itself.  Only the ending seems a little rushed. But perhaps that is because we did not want it to end so soon. Could there be a better marker of a truly satisfying tale?

—Malcom Jones, Contributor

The Other Britain

Philip Hensher’s seventh novel, King of the Badgers opens with the disappearance of 8-year-old China O’Connor from her council estate home in Hanmouth, a small town in Devon. But before we are introduced to China’s grieving family, we are given a whistle-stop tour of “Hanmouth proper” with its Dutch-gabled houses, fortnightly French-style market, and expertly manicured flowerbeds. Amongst the residents who “pronounced their town Hammuth” are Hensher’s main protagonists: Miranda, an academic at nearby Barnstaple University who writes books on Regency women poets (her two books on the subject “this year’s and last year’s Booker shortlist”); her husband Kenyon, a civil servant on loan from the treasury to an NGO (“something to do with AIDS in Africa”); their teenage daughter Hettie who spends her time enacting mock trials and funeral ceremonies with a cohort of disfigured dolls with names like “Child Pornography” and “Dead in Childbirth”; “Gay Sam” the cheese shop owner who lives with his boyfriend, the aristocratic lawyer Harry; Sam’s friend Billa, and her husband the retired brigadier; Sylvie who makes collages out of pictures of erect penises; Catherine and Alec Butterworth, newly arrived from St Albans to enjoy a coastal retirement; and the ever-so-slightly sinister John Calvin, ringleader of the local Neighborhood Watch group. 

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‘King of the Badgers’ by Philip Hensher 448 p. Faber and Faber. $26. ()

China’s disappearance fuels Calvin’s campaign to fill the town with CCTV cameras: “Nothing to hide: nothing to fear” he chants at skeptical residents. Here we encounter the underlying theme of Hensher’s work: the erosion of personal privacy under increasing state surveillance. And, in shining a spotlight on provincial middle England life, Hensher examines the notions of seeing and being seen. The O’Connor’s house becomes a “public space” through which “police officers, case workers, victim-support officers, spokesmen, Mr. Calvin and half a dozen others came in and out at will,” and the incessant media coverage attracts hordes of voyeuristic day-trippers, though as the aged local boatman wisely notes: “I don’t know what they think they’ll see, though. Won’t see her. She’s missing.” Meanwhile, with their gay friends “the Bears,” Sam and Harry indulge in coke-fueled orgies of such spectacle their curtains should really be “fastened tight with clothes pegs.” 

What is most interesting however, is Hensher’s depiction of the class divisions that we have, as the recent riots here in Britain have demonstrated, been refusing to see. Prior to her daughter’s disappearance, none of the other characters “had ever heard” of Heidi O’Conner (who combines the beauty of Kate McCann with the twisted mind of Karen Matthews). She inhabits a foreign world of suburban sprawl where “feral children” run wild in the streets, windows are adorned with football scarves and emblems, and “at seven thirty or eight o’clock on weekdays, a ghostly unanimous chorus of the theme tune to a London soap opera floated through the open windows of the entire suburb.” Billa sums up the class divide in the town when she remarks, “You don’t hear about children disappearing from Hanmouth proper, do you? It’s just bad education, ignorance, idleness and avarice.” Just like the middle classes who are keen to draw the line between “them” and “us”—those who have blindly labeled the recent rioters “scum”—the residents of “old Hanmouth” are eager to differentiate themselves from their council estate dwelling neighbors: “[…] the whole world now thinks of Hanmouth as being this sort of awful council estate and nothing else, and Hanmouth people like this awful Heidi and Micky people. Absolutely everything you read in the papers is about how they live in Hanmouth and, frankly, they don’t. They live on the Ruskin estate where I’ve never been and I hope never to go anywhere near.” 

Even without this astute social commentary Hensher is, without doubt, a talented novelist who manages a cast of Victorian proportions. His rendering of awkward social niceties is second to none—the Butterworth’s cocktail evening is nothing short of genius. My only criticism is that the novel’s sharpness is slightly undone by its length, especially as so much of the central section is devoted to lonely out-of-towner David, the Butterworth’s overweight gay son. But, with this diversion forgiven, what remains is a masterful modern condition-of-England novel that is as dark as it is funny.

—Lucy Scholes, Contributor

The Perils of Childhood

Over the last decade or two of American fiction, a plague has appeared, infecting novels with its affectations. The disease is mostly confined to young novelists, and causes peculiar results in their child protagonists. From Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to Marisa Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics we have seen child narrators possessing Mensa-level genius, the vocabulary of William Safire, and varying levels of emotional maturity. These characters are often endearing, like a whiz kid Tonight Show guest, but something about them rings false—as if the authors aren’t prepared to fully plunge into childhood and to show us what that period is actually like. Instead they use their young characters as hosts for their own formidable intelligences, leveraging the childhood’s innocence and glazing it with the linguistic and perceptual sophistication that only an adult can muster.

It’s a relief, then, to find in The Dubious Salvation of Jack V., the first novel by Jacques Strauss, a South African living in London, that his character is truly a child, a bit precocious perhaps but not “particularly smart.” The opening prologue is dedicated to explaining just that, as Jack Viljee, our narrator, tells us quite directly what he does and does not know. We learn that Jack, the 11-year-old son of an English mother and Afrikaans father, passes frequently between the two cultures; that he is in the very early stages of a sexual awakening; and that apartheid South Africa in the late 1980s can be quite ugly. Telling his story from an unspecified remove, Jack also says, “it was the last time I could lose myself completely in games of the imagination.”

Though Jack is clearly narrating his story years later, as an adult, Strauss is strict about delineating the borders of young Jack’s perceptions. And so while Jack is sometimes wise to what’s going on around him—particularly how being white gives him some power over blacks that he doesn’t fully understand—he is also vulnerable, prone to transgressing social boundaries that still elude him.

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‘The Dubious Salvation of Jack V.’ by Jacques Strauss. 256 p. FSG. $22. ()

From the beginning, we know that Jack eventually will betray Susie, his family’s beloved black maid. How and when this betrayal manifests itself is the novel’s nominal mystery, but most of the book is a series of vignettes describing Jack’s tottering toward adolescence: escapades with friends; his discovery of masturbation; his long chats with Susie, the book’s liveliest character; his education in English and Afrikaner schools, the latter of which brings with it supremacist teachings about the glories of Boer history. About one fiercely proud Afrikaner teacher, Jack offers a description that uncannily echoes America’s Tea Party: “For Marietta Hennings, history was a detailed appendix to the Bible, a simple and unambiguous battle between the righteous and the wicked, the brave and cowardly, the sacred and the profane.”

Unfortunately, the novel’s structure—a collection of anecdotes presaging that betrayal—does itself no service. The book is long on atmosphere but short on spark. The individual chapters are most interesting for their descriptions of 1989 South Africa and of how one boy passes between the English and Afrikaner communities “like a spy.”

With its laconic pace and lack of a comprehensive plot, The Dubious Salvation has the whiff of memoir. (We even learn that Jack goes on to study philosophy at university, as Strauss also did.) Reading it is much like visiting a friend’s distant hometown. He points out the sights, offers the local gossip, reminisces about old haunts, and finally stops in front of his childhood home. There his voice drops, he rubs a hand over his face, and he confesses the terrible thing he did to someone he loved when he was 11 years old in a strange country rife with systemic racism. Except, in the end, the betrayal sounds not so bad at all. Like many things we experience in childhood, it comes to seem—not for Jack, but for his family and certainly for this reader—like a sad misunderstanding. It pains Jack because, like many children (and in this, Strauss’s portrayal is authentic), he thinks his world revolves around him. But it does not; it is bigger than him, a misconception that’ll haunt him for years.

The real tragedy of Jack’s childhood is not that he did a bad thing the consequences of which he couldn’t anticipate or understand; it’s that his childhood, like all of ours, eventually must end.

—Jacob Silverman, Contributor

A Very Strange Trip

There can be no greater terror for a parent than kidnapping. The mere possibility of someone pulling up to your child as they walk home from school, packing them away into the trunk and disappearing forever is enough to ensure many sleepless nights. It’s even scarier to consider that the perp isn’t immediately identifiable as a balding, overweight deviant driving a rusty and sinister van. No, this child-stealing monster could just as easily be a charming and well-heeled suburbanite driving a Subaru Outback, a person who might work a few cubes down from you at the office. Perhaps the kidnapper even believes that what they are doing is in the kid’s own best interests.

Lamb, the debut novel by Bonnie Nadzam, isn’t really about the abduction that takes place, but it’s an event that nevertheless permeates the entire book. The titular David Lamb is a middle-aged lawyer lately dealing with the professional fallout from an affair with a woman at his office and subsequent divorce from his wife, the death of his father, and the lingering trauma from his younger brother’s sudden disappearance decades before. He isn’t in the best place right now, personally or professionally. On the day of his father’s wake, Lamb is approached by a young freckled reed of a girl who, egged on by her friends, asks him for a cigarette. Lamb gives her that and more. He decides to give the girl and her giggly teenaged coven a lesson in the perils of approaching strangers, and convinces young Tommie  to get in his car to scare her co-conspirators. He then chastises her for her poor taste in friends who would put her up to such a thing, terrifying Tommie with the possibility that he could have actually been a murderer instead of the decent, non-homicidal guy he is. Lamb then drops the girl off at her home, confident that he has taught her a valuable lesson.

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‘Lamb’ by Bonnie Nadzam. 288 p. Other Press. $15.95. ()

That seems to be the end of it. As she gets out of his Ford Explorer, Lamb observes that Tommie is a “latchkey kid. The sort who got C’s in school. Not a pretty kid, not an athletic kid, not a smart kid. Just a skinny, slow-blooming kid desperate to keep up with her friends. Quick to make new ones. Stupid. Maybe she’d learned something today. Maybe he’d done her a favor. What’d it matter? Girl like her.” This observation becomes the kernel of an unlikely, morally ambiguous relationship that will, for the duration of the novel, test the bounds of trust and legality.

When Lamb runs into Tommie the day after this faux kidnapping, he decides to take her to lunch. They meet again the next day, and the next. Soon enough these innocent rendezvous turn into something more serious, and he convinces her to take a road trip with him out of the Chicago suburbs to a small spread in the Rockies. It is here, Lamb believes, that he can give Tommie a glimpse of the wider world, and maybe avoid the dismal future he foresees for her otherwise. Obviously he does not get a permission slip from her parents, but Lamb does offer Tommie repeated assurances along the way that she can go home any time she wants. If she is at all uncomfortable or homesick, Lamb promises to take her to the nearest airport and send her back to her mom.

No matter what side of the Polanski debate you fall on, reading about a middle-aged man taking an extended sabbatical with an 11-year-old girl is bound to raise some eyebrows. But Nadzam pulls off a neat trick here. Often Lamb comes off not as Chester the Molester, but instead as a recognizable and mostly sympathetic character. That isn’t to say that the reader will agree with his actions, but his motivations, at least to begin with, seem pure. While kneejerk comparisons to Lolita are inevitable, David Lamb is playing a different game than Humbert Humbert.

Lamb loves this girl because she allows him to salvage something good from the wreck he has made of his life. (He has convinced himself that this is what he is doing, at least.) He’s aware, though, that while his memory of this excursion will only sweeten with age, in hers he will become a pedophilic monster. He’s not wrong. There are moments in the book that are profoundly uncomfortable, and thoughts of Lamb “helping” Tommie bathe in a motel bathroom will undoubtedly haunt her dreams and require many years of therapy to work through. As things get creepier and the prospect of Lamb getting caught heightens with the intrusion of some unwelcome visitors, the suspense builds steadily. What is going to happen if old man Foster or Lamb’s ex-girlfriend Linnie figure out that this really isn’t the daughter of a dead sister in-law with whom he’s been sharing a bunk in the middle of nowhere? Nadzam gives nothing away, and the reader will have to come to terms with the small part of them that hopes Lamb and Tommie manage to elude the world that is running them down. 

—Drew Toal, Contributor