Victoria Jelinek

Plainsong by Kent Haruf
July 21, 2016, 2:24 pm
Filed under: Book reviews | Tags: , , , , , , ,

PlainsongA small town community in the ‘heartlands’ is the setting for Plainsong and its rendering of the quintessentially American experience. Kent Haruf interweaves the stories of a lonely teacher, a pair of boys abandoned by their mother, a pregnant high school girl, and a couple of brittle old bachelor farmers as they undergo radical changes over the course of a year. With lyrical, eloquent prose that is richly nuanced, Haruf presents the steadfast courage of decent, troubled people getting on with their lives.

Weather and landscape set the quiet, observant mood of the narrative, while descriptions of rural existence are poetic invocations to the natural world. Haruf steers clear of sentimentality and melodrama, however. His beautifully imagined characters and the vivid depictions of their experiences, makes each of them seem non-fiction, which can evoke both heart-warming and heart-wrenching feelings (respectively) in the reader. Emotions that resonate long after one finishes the novel. This is a contemplative and compelling story about grief, loss, loneliness, and frustration, as well as kindness, love, benevolence, beauty, and what it means to be a family.

Earthly Possessions by Anne Tyler

earthly-possessionsFor thirty-five-year-old Charlotte Emory, leaving her husband is the only way out from the humdrum of her days and the banality of life’s earthly possessions. She goes to the bank to withdraw what money she has, but finds her getaway is not at all what she expected when a young bank robber takes her hostage and they head south for Florida in a stolen car.

I don’t read the “blurbs” on the back of books anymore, relying, instead, on its reviews. John Updike, Nick Hornby, The Times on Sunday, and The Observer all write that Ann Tyler is “wickedly good.” So I dug in. While I appreciate Tyler’s prose and her astute eye for the “ordinary” detail that’s telling about a person, circumstance, or context, I didn’t rush to bed at the end of the day to read the book, nor drag it everywhere I went in case I found a moment to read a page or two.

That said, the book remained with me after I finished it. I found myself lingering on elements of it, particularly the characterization. Our heroine, seemingly mousy in all ways, from her looks to her actions. The obese mother who told her own daughter she was a changeling. The husband, who seemed so romantic and moody. The bank robber who appears to be a greasy loser. It was only upon reflection that I understood how expertly Tyler had developed these characters and given them a wholeness that wasn’t immediately apparent. They are at once repellent and utterly sympathetic. There’s a line in the book that reads, “I never did have the knack to realize when I was happy.” This sentiment remains with me because of its message, and also its subtlety, truthfulness, and its poignancy — three words that encapsulate Anne Tyler’s book Earthly Possessions.

Dark Places

Dark Places book coverBy Gillian Flynn

Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered in their home in an attack dubbed by the press as “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” Libby and her then fifteen-year-old brother, Ben, survived, and it was Libby’s testimony that sent Ben to jail on a life sentence for the monstrous murders.

As a youngster, Libby received a lot of money from strangers for having survived her ordeal (and for being cute). Twenty-five-years later, she’s broke, and hasn’t done anything with her life except grow angrier and more depressed. Then the Kill Club locates her. They’re a secret society obsessed with notorious murders, and they want to pump Libby for details because they believe Ben was wrongly convicted and want to find proof that will liberate him. In turn, Libby hopes to make a profit off of her tragic history. For a fee, she’ll reconnect with people associated with that night and her family at that time, and report her findings back to the club. When Libby begins this journey, she’s convinced her brother is guilty. But as her search takes her from decrepit Missouri strip clubs, to deserted Oklahoma tourist towns, and back to the site of the fatal killings, the inconceivable truth emerges, and Libby finds herself back where she started – running from a murderer.

This novel is a complex character study and an evocative portrait of people on the fringe of society. Told in sporadic flashback, Libby narrates the present-day chapters in first person, while the flashback chapters are told in third-person, describing the actions and perspectives of several key characters on the days leading up to, and on, the day that the family was murdered. Libby is not a particularly likeable protagonist – she’s bitter, tough, and selfish. Even so, you root for her, and you’re sad about her horrifying childhood. Similarly, Ben isn’t particularly appealing – he’s awkward, shiftless, impressionable, and irrational. Like Libby, you feel immense sympathy for him. Each of the characters in the book are compelling, even if they’re not agreeable, and Flynn expertly weaves their stories together. The narrative is consistently developed, compelling, and absolutely suspenseful throughout (I had to resist reading the last chapters to find out how it ended!). The best aspect of this book, however, is in Flynn’s ability to create a vivid picture or a situation in a phrase or two, giving the reader a believable glimpse into a world we might never see otherwise.

This is an insightful, poignant, and well-written book. Its ability to affect its reader is also impressive. I was troubled for several days after finishing it – I found myself checking on my sleeping child in the night, hugging him more during the day, and double-checking that the front and back doors were locked when I went to bed. Would I read it again? Not for some years. Do I recommend reading it? An emphatic yes!