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06.19.12

Must-Read Fiction: ‘The Watch,’ ‘Alys, Always,’ ‘The Year of the Gadfly’

Three new novels: an Afghan woman will not abandon watch over a U.S. military base; a young woman insinuates herself into a dead woman’s family; and the dark world of a prep-school secret society.

On the Ramparts

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The Watch. By Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya. 304 pages. Hogarth. $25. ()

In Sophocles’ classic play Antigone, the title character defies the order of her ruler, Creon, and buries the body of her dead brother, Polynices. He had died during a battle for the throne of Thebes, which was ultimately claimed by Creon; and in the grand tradition of spiteful ancient victors (think Achilles dragging Hector outside the walls of Troy), Creon ordered that Polynices’ body should be left to rot above ground. Like any good, dutiful sister, Antigone wasn’t going to let that happen. She buries her brother, even though this act of defiance will assure her doom.

The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya is a loose adaptation of the tragedy of Antigone, and the setting is the recent war in Afghanistan. Captain Evan Connolly is commander of a small American base in Kandahar which has been attacked by suspected Taliban sympathizers. Among the dead is a fighter named Yusuf, who was considered a high-value target by the Americans.

“The powers that be in Kabul have made a big deal out of the prospect of displaying the body on television. They don’t want people to question its authenticity,” says Connolly, a stand-in for Creon in this modern retelling. “Nor do they want to deal with the kinds of questions that have arisen in the past regarding the credibility of their claims about the deaths of key insurgents, who then turn out to have survived after all.”

But when a helicopter carrying the base’s wounded soldiers crashes under suspicious circumstances, further flights are temporarily postponed because Connolly and his battalion commanders are unsure if the helicopter malfunctioned or was shot down by the enemy. The body of Yusuf will remain inside the base, unburied, until it can be flown out. That’s the plan, anyway. But then a woman claiming to be Yusuf’s sister approaches the base.

“I think it’s a woman in a burqa … on some kind of platform on wheels. She’s using something to propel it forward,” the base medic observes. Her name is Nizam, and she’s using her hands—because her legs were blown off by an American drone missile that killed everyone in her family except her and Yusuf. She approaches the American base and shouts her intentions: “I am here to bury my brother according to the tenets of my faith. That is all there is to it.”

And yet nothing is so straightforward in this subtle, discomfiting novel, a nonsequential tale that defies conventional storytelling. It contains first-person descriptions from characters who end up dead—traditionally a no-no in fiction, as it tricks the reader into believing such characters have “lived to tell the tale.” And yet in a novel inspired by the tale of Antigone (who made her name by flouting the so-called rule of law), defying convention seems perfectly apt. The threat of the unexpected is one of this novel’s most charming enticements, along with its beautiful renderings of the harsh Afghan landscape, where “mountains look like serrated shadows rising into the air.”

Nizam is a figure of intrigue to the American soldiers. A member of Connolly’s staff, Lieutenant Ellison succinctly summarizes their nagging suspicions. “I don’t know, he says slowly, but does it make sense that, in this country, a single, unaccompanied woman—and one who claims to be the sister of a tribal leader, what’s more—would show up in a fucking go-cart to demand the return of his body? It seems culturally way off the mark. Too much freedom of movement and direct involvement for a woman. Somehow it’s asking for an inordinate suspension of belief.”

She might be a dutiful sister, but she also might be a suicide bomber bent on revenge.

“(S)he’s the perfect Trojan horse in the wake of a firefight that’s left every one of us jittery and exhausted,” Ellison says. “They’re aware that our rules of engagement prevent us from hosing her out of hand. So they’re counting on us to make just that one critical mistake: believe her story and let her get close enough. As a plan, it’s brilliant.” And so the soldiers watch her, and she watches the soldiers. And vultures circle overhead, watching them all—and waiting.

The first section of the novel is titled “Antigone,” while a later section is called “Ismene,” a nod to Antigone’s sister, who in Sophocles’ play tried to convince her not to go through with her plan to bury their brother in defiance of Creon. In The Watch, this Ismene character is an effeminate translator named Masood, who’s also a member of the Afghan National Army. It’s his task to convince Nizam to abandon her vigil outside the base.

“This is a battleground,” Masood says to her. “It isn’t a place for women’s hysterics.”

But she won’t leave without burying her brother. Day after day she hunkers down in the blazing sun, earning the respect of the American soldiers who marvel at her pride, stubbornness, and commitment—a legless woman in the middle of a war.

Given the author’s deft arrangement of scenes, readers will dutifully persevere to see what happens, even if the ending is foretold, tragic, and seemingly inevitable.

—Cameron Martin

She Has Something He Wants

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Alys, Always. By Harriet Lane. 224 pages. Scribner. $24. ()

Harriet Lane’s mesmerizing debut novel, Alys, Always, is a slow-burning psychological novel that unsettles and satisfies in equal, tantalizing measure—a literary All About Eve that testifies to the old saying that it’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for.

Frances Thorpe is a 30-something subeditor on the books pages at the Questioner, a left-leaning national British newspaper (not a million miles away from the Observer where Lane herself used to work); an “invisible production drone” whose job it is “to rescue some celebrity professor or literary wunderkind from hanging participles or apostrophe catastrophes.” She’s the “shy” and “retiring” type, better described by words people are “too tactful to use”: “Colourless. Unimportant. Forgettable.”

One dark, wintery night, driving back to London after visiting her parents in the countryside, she’s catapulted into the limelight when she comes across a car crash. Waiting for emergency services to arrive on the scene, she finds herself offering a few words of comfort to Alys Kyte, the dying woman trapped inside the wrecked vehicle.

Alys’s widower, Laurence Kyte, is a big man in the world of letters, a Booker Prize–winning author whose CV includes a residency at Princeton and a period screenwriting in L.A. (one of his films “earned Daniel Day-Lewis an Oscar”). Frances is familiar with Laurence’s “authority and remorseless judgements” from “the half-page reviews and the diary pages and the guest slot on Newsnight,” but, when invited to his home so he and his two grown-up children, Polly and Teddy, can thank her for the kindness she showed Alys in her final moments, the man she encounters is grieving and vulnerable. With a disquieting “prickle of possibility” that sends a “tremor of excitement” through her, Frances realizes that for all his and his children’s “privilege and indulgence,” she has “something he wants,” and she’s more than prepared to give it to him.

All it takes is one little white lie, and Frances stealthily gets her foot in the door of the Kyte family home. Thrown around “like a handful of jacks” in the aftermath of Alys’s untimely death, her husband and children’s lives quickly settle in a “dangerous new configuration” at the heart of which sits mousey, unassuming Frances—wrapping herself in Alys’s oyster silk dressing gown behind closed doors, purloining “talismans” from the dead woman’s bedroom and listening, always listening, for that little bit of “useful” information that comes along once in a while, all the time treading carefully, always on her guard, “content” to let them think she’s dull: “It’s safer that way.”

Lane writes with a concise precision, cutting straight to the bone with razor-sharp character descriptions every time, whether it’s in her lightly mocking send up of the London literary scene with a books editor who carries her “enormous handbag open to show off the gigantic turquoise Smythson diary,” and a deputy whose family connections obviously outweigh his lack of experience or commitment, or her likening of the “air of entitlement, the absolutely impermeable confidence” that exudes from a Kyte family friend to that seen in the face of a subject of a Sargent painting.

Frances may be an unlikely femme fatale, but this makes her all the more dangerous, not to mention all the more enticing a creation. She’s clearly attracted by all that glitters, but ultimately if there’s any moral to be found in this unlikely page-turner it’s that one would do well to realize that more often than not everything hangs on “the random luck and lucklessness of an ordinary life.”

—Lucy Scholes

Prep School Blues

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The Year of the Gadfly. By Jennifer Miller. 384 pages. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $24. ()

The news of Mitt Romney’s teenaged tonsorial attack on a fellow Cranbrook classmate probably didn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has survived high school. The fact that years after the bullying, so many of Mitt’s former friends willingly came forward, breaking their prep school Omerta, to admit their bad behavior, is somewhat of a heartening surprise. Though it may or may not “get better,” sometimes the people who made it awful in the first place take responsibility for their misdeeds. While Romney may claim to have no memory of the incident, the image of him holding down his classmate and hacking away at his hair may be the defining image of his campaign.   

The question of whether or not adults can and should be judged by their worst high school transgressions is at the heart of Jennifer Miller’s ambitious debut novel, The Year of the Gadfly. Set in an elite New England prep school, Mariana Academy, known both for its honor code and for its history of scandal, the novel considers the impact and influence of Prisom’s Party, the school’s vicious secret society. The bullies at Mariana push the boundaries of bad behaviour beyond the typical adolescent hijinks and hazing. Blackmail, illegal surveillance, and sex tapes are all fair game for Prisom’s Party. Told from three different points of view and set in two different time periods—the recent past and the immediate future—the novel is structurally complex and intricately plotted. The result is something harrowing, enchanting, and utterly original.

The heroine of the novel, Iris Dupont, transfers to Mariana in the fall of her sophomore year still reeling from the suicide of her best friend Dalia. An aspiring journalist, Iris masks her grief by seeking the wise counsel of her hero Edward R. Murrow. She summons Murrow’s ghost at will and has long conversations with him about journalistic integrity and the danger of speaking in clichés. Murrow advises Iris to join the school newspaper and encourages her to make a real difference. “Your goal should be revolution.” Iris’s fascination with Murrow could be written off as a literary affectation but Miller, an accomplished journalist herself and the author of Inheriting the Holy Land: An American’s Search for Hope in the Middle East, has created a rare breed of female protagonist. Iris is not merely quirky or adorkable. Iris is smart. One of the great pleasures of the novel is bearing witness to Iris’s investigation into Prisom’s Party and her sensitive understanding of high school hierarchies. 

Though Iris shies away from her classmates, she is drawn to her biology teacher, Jonah Kaplan. In Jonah, Iris recognizes a kindred, damaged soul. A graduate of Mariana, Jonah has returned to his alma mater with a covert agenda. He hopes to lead his own revolution encouraging students to avoid conformity and training them to think for themselves. Jonah is also eager to confront his past. He is haunted by the high school death of his twin brother, Justin and by an unrequited love triangle between himself, his brother, and their best friend, Hazel, “the queen of the geeks.” While students at Mariana, Jonah and Justin were both victims of constant bullying. Their entomologist parents decorated their home with rare beetles and scorpions adding to their sons’ feelings of freakishness. As an adult, Jonah is drawn to study extremophiles, microorganisms that flourish in intense climates. He teaches his students about extremophiles and suggests that their ability to thrive under pressure serves as an apt metaphor for adolescence. Like Iris, Jonah is an extreme character—highly intelligent and deeply out of touch with his emotions. Mariana Academy still has the power to damage Jonah reminding him of his lost love, his guilt over his brother’s death and his own arrested development. When Iris uncovers a connection between Jonah and Prisom’s Party, her investigation threatens to endanger both of their lives.

The novel alternates points of view between Iris, Jonah, and a third character, Lily, an albino girl who is Justin’s first and only girlfriend. All of these characters are proud outsiders but all are quick to betray those closest to them for the chance that their betrayal will lead to popularity. One of the great revelations of the novel occurs when the teenaged Lily confronts the teenaged Jonah. “For the first time in her life, Lily understood why the popular cliques had been so cruel to her: meanness was sustenance. She’d finally lambasted Jonah, and the experience was delicious. She now saw how once you had the taste of meanness in your mouth, you might crave it all of the time.” Miller does not shy away from the pleasures of bullying. Characters who start off as victims willingly slip into the role of tormentor. The desire for power, popularity and acceptance leads teenagers and adults alike to not only hurt the most vulnerable but to enjoy the pain they cause.

The Year of The Gadfly has moments of darkness and psychological intrigue, but Miller also manages to have a light comic touch that enables the novel to straddle the line between Young Adult and Adult Literary Fiction. At times the narrative seems a bit overcomplicated but like a brilliant conspiracy, the story is a triumph of invention and plot-twists. Iris, Jonah, and Lily have rich interior lives that resonate deeply, revealing the pain and pleasures of adolescence. Ironically, in The Year of The Gadfly, it’s often the teenagers who behave like world-weary adults while the adults desperately attempt to recapture their best teenaged selves.

Early in the novel, Iris discovers a book about insects that Justin has given to Lily. The book is inscribed, “To Lily, marvel of my life.” In The Year of The Gadfly, Miller has created her own marvel, daring to consider the legacy and realities of bullying while leaving the reader with a hopeful message of acceptance and forgiveness.

—Amber Dermont