The Hermit‘s hero is a loner, a Dane who fled some mysterious past to eke out a living as a taxi driver and piano tuner (really!) on one of the Canary Islands. He decides to investigate the suspicious death of a baby and unravels police corruption, too-cosy arrangements between money-hungry developers and the authorities, a family feud, and large-scale insurance cheating. Meanwhile corpses pile up.
The main character is satisfyingly unhinged and ruminating. The plot is certainly complex, so much so that it becomes almost absorb at the end. And I thought that the story just went on a little too long, that it lost some of its rhythm a hundred pages before the official end. But it’s certainly a different kind of mystery.
In The Dry, an Australian federal agent is called back to his rural hometown to investigate a murder-suicide apparently committed by his childhood best friend. It turns out that his father and he were very literally run out of town years ago following another death and he is not welcome back. We follow his difficult investigation amongst hostile residents and thick secrets, while the earlier death is also revisited by him and the long-term residents, which means everyone except a handful of newcomers. It’s wonderfully grim and the long-term drought that is ruining the farmers adds to the gloom.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing sets out to tell the story of two intertwined families through the eyes of the youngest daughter, leaving safely in Vancouver while the rest of the protagonists suffer various hardships in 20th century China, including the Cultural Revolution (particularly dangerous for devotees of classical music) and the Tiananmen Square massacre. The Booker Prize committee loved it; I found it tedious and overly heavy with history. Sure, there are lots of clever observations, including the ongoing theme of sending secret messages through hand-copied books, but I would have liked more personal stories and fewer political ones, since they are abundantly told elsewhere.
Perfect Little World tells the story of a crazy experiment, one that could only be financed by an eccentric millionaire: raising 10 children for 10 years in a tight community with their parents (who are forbidden from having any other children!) and a large cast of psychologists and other helpers. The story is told from the perspective of a teenaged single mother who is seeking an environment to raise her son that will be more nurturing that what she can expect as a high school graduate in a small town with no family to help out.
Of course, the experiment is bound to run into some issues, many of them apparently not foreseen by the researchers or the founder. I liked the witty observations of the complicated relationships between the adults (the children seem to do quite well, thank you very much). There is also a wonderful portrait of an older coworker of the mom’s who becomes a substitute father and grandfather. After all the adventures, the ending seems abrupt and overly sweet, but the story itself is a lot of fun.
Before the War is a delightful comedy featuring a wonderfully self-centered and monstrous mother, a distracted father, an oddball daughter and her new husband, who must be wed and accepts so he can share in the wealth. What follows are lots of secrets about babies with doubtful pedigrees, which baffle most of the main characters to the very end. Well done, in a come-in-my-parlor style that manages to be cosy and cynical at the same time.
A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870 is a fascinating, detailed account of women’s lives during the early years of the Mormon Church. The author painstakingly combed through diaries and other original documents, even quilts, to find stories of real women, some famous and others not. The ignorant reader, like me, will learn a lot about the painful start of the church and the violent attacks that inspired the move to Utah. And about the very busy, very hard lives of frontier women.
Then, there is the history of plural marriage, and although the author faithfully transcribes the thoughts of the women, who certainly had a wide variety of opinions on the matter, she often seems to represent that women “in favor” of plural marriage just loved the idea. Methinks that she ought to consider a bit more in-depth the social environment of these women. Sure, they could say they were against plural marriage (they could vote, after all, at a time when most American women could not), but in a society when unmarried women were quite vulnerable, and in a church where it was presented as dogma, opposition must have been hazardous. And while the Mormon Church did have some progressive policies towards divorce that was favorable to women, it’s clear that the wonderful benefits of plural marriage were accorded to men: no women-led, multi-husband family was dreamed of…
The Strays paints a brilliant picture of a willfully bohemian family that draws in the best friend of the middle sister, who is dazzled by the unlikely goings-on of artists, so different from her own poor and conventional family. Of course, not all is well in bohemia and the family (and the girls’ friendship) will eventually explode and destroy some of the players. The separate world of children and teenagers is perfectly captured. The part of the book that does not work is the present day musings of the main character, which read like a cheap novel with canned feelings. Fortunately it’s a small portion of the story.