Fantasies

08.12.13

This Week’s Hot Reads: ‘The Bridge of Beyond,’ ‘The Virgins,’ ‘Holy Orders’

From a newly translated 1972 classic about women in the Caribbean to the latest in Benjamin Black/John Banville’s crime series.

The Bridge of Beyond
By Simone Schwarz-Bart

A 1972 classic laced with beauty and wonder, about women on the Caribbean island of Guadalupe.

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‘The Bridge of Beyond’ by Simone Schwarz-Bart. 272 pages. NYRB Classics; $17. ()

The narrator of this 1972 novel by Simone Schwarz-Bart (newly translated by Barbara Bray) is Telumee, who is looking back over four generations of women in her family on the Caribbean island of Guadalupe. Telumee finds miracles in the everyday as she draws on the struggles and triumphs of her forbears and navigates the pitfalls of her own life. Schwarz-Bart knows her setting well; she spent much of her childhood in Guadalupe and settled there again later in life. In this world, even tragedy comes laced with a sense of wonder, as when the beautiful Toussine’s daughter dies after being burned in a fire. The townspeople climb a nearby tree periodically for three years to confirm that she has yet to reemerge from her house. When she finally does one day, the moment feels like a fairy tale. “They thought of the old Toussine, in rags, and compared her with the Toussine of today—not a woman, for what is a woman? Nothing at all, they say, whereas Toussine was a bit of the world, a whole country, a plume of a Negress, the ship, sail, and wind, for she had not made a habit of sorrow.” It’s along sinewy prose like this that the story floats, without ever quite relinquishing its grip on reality.

The Virgins
By Pamela Erens

Two young men fall for the same girl. One wins her heart; the other narrates this book.

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“The Virgins: A Novel” by Pamela Erens. 288 pages. Tin House Books; $16. ()

At the start of a new year at a boarding school in 1979, two young men develop an obsession with the same new girl on campus. Only one of them wins her heart. The other one is the narrator of this second novel by Pamela Erens. Bruce catches occasional jealous glimpses of Aviva and Seung in varying states of coupledom, sitting a few rows ahead of him on the train back to school after Thanksgiving, or displaying their affection publicly on campus. From that limited contact he imagines the totality of their life together, every touch, glimpse, insecurity, and kindness. The unconventional structure of the novel—it is a study in voyeurism and the stories we construct with only limited information—lend it an eerie, sensual quality. So do the characters, whose simultaneous yet varying sexual awakenings are tinged with sadness, and, as we soon learn, eventual tragedy. “I’ve come to understand that telling someone’s story … is at once an act of devotion and an expression of sadism,” writes Bruce, now an adult seemingly taking stock of his past failures and transgressions. His continuing attraction to Aviva is both loving and vengeful. And it’s not just a sense of altruism that leads him to tell her story—he has the tone of a man trying to clear his conscience.

Another America
By James Ciment

The story of America’s essential role in the creation of an African country.

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“Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It” by James Ciment. 320 pages. Hill and Wang; $30. ()

In 1816, the statesman Henry Clay spoke at the inaugural meeting of what would soon become the American Colonization Society, a group of prominent white Americans who aimed to promote the return to Africa of former slaves. Clay explained that not only would such a movement “rid our country of a useless and pernicious, if not dangerous portion of its population,” but would also offer the “possible redemption from ignorance and barbarism of a benighted quarter of the world.” Fancy words for what could essentially be considered ethnic cleansing, writes James Ciment, author of this new history of Liberia. Four years after Clay’s speech, the ACS organized the first trip across the Atlantic for roughly 80 black Americans, a first step toward the eventual creation of Liberia a quarter century later. Ciment captures the establishment and destiny of that country, from those expectant beginnings, to the Orwellian zeal with which the formerly oppressed in many cases became the oppressors, to the more recent atrocities committed by Charles Taylor. That few Americans today seem aware of Liberia’s story, and their own country’s essential role in it, gives this book a place in the lexicon that exceeds the mere quality of its research or readability of its text, both of which are considerable.

Archangel
By Andrea Barrett

Five stories in the age of modern science from a National Book Award winner.

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“Archangel: Fiction” by Andrea Barrett. 256 pages. Norton; $25. ()

In this collection of five nearly novella-length stories, Andrea Barrett, who won the National Book Award for a previous collection, Ship Fever, again draws on her training as a scientist to explore the intersection of history and science, capturing those moments when some discovery or theory promises to change everything that comes after, and giving us characters caught at the subsequent crossroads. At the moment when older theories are ceding to Darwinism, or when the world sits on the verge of air travel, Barrett’s characters rise to the new challenges or shrink from their implications. The stories are connected by more than their preoccupation with the history of innovation; many characters reappear throughout the book. One of the most engaging is Constantine, a child in the opening story, “The Investigators,” who is on hand as the first airplanes take flight. Constantine reappears as a soldier in Russia in the final and title story. If Barrett sometimes forgets her characters in her thrall of science’s seminal achievements, she redeems herself with moments such as the one in which the most unfortunate outcome of those advances—the increasing scope of war—is shown ruining the lives of people like Constantine, whose mission has become futile, and who wants only one thing, which he can’t have—to go home.

Holy Orders
By Benjamin Black

The seventh novel in John Banville’s Quirke series finds the doctor clashing with the Catholic Church over a murder.

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“Holy Orders: A Quirke Novel” by Benjamin Black. 304 pages. Henry Holt and Co.; $26. ()

In this seventh novel in the Quirke series by Benjamin Black—the pen name that Booker Prize-winning author John Banville uses when he wants to write a crime novel—a young reporter is found murdered in 1950s Dublin, a time and place where the Catholic Church served as far more than a mere moral compass for its denizens. When the victim arrives on the pathologist’s cold metal table, Dr. Quirke realizes that he knows the man as a friend of his daughter. It’s the detail that pulls him once again into the unofficial role of investigator, leading him toward a series of clues that subsequently lead him to a head-on collision with the authoritarian church. The writing here isn’t up to the same standard as in Banville’s other fiction, known for not only its intensity but also the inventiveness with which it makes words work in new ways. Here, Quirke “had a difficult task ahead of him, and he did not relish the prospect,” and a new nurse is described as “pretty in a mousy sort of way, and painfully young.” Descriptions can be uninspired and character development a bit paint-by-numbers, but Banville’s knack for drawing the reader in with a good story remains forcefully intact.