New Novels About Family Ties (and Their Many Hazards)
“I don’t believe in God,” the Spanish writer Elvira Lindo concedes in her prayerful work of autofiction, OPEN HEART (Other Press, 359 pp., paperback, $18.99),“but I do believe in those memories that rain down on us endlessly, taking shape as ghosts that accompany us.” The ghosts, in this case, are the narrator’s father, Manuel, who in 1939, at 9 years old, is all but abandoned in a Madrid gutted by the Spanish Civil War, and her mother, who quails before the gregarious tyrant that Manuel grows into and who dies from a heart defect before the narrator is out of high school.
Manuel tries to subdue his heartache by cultivating a hostility to reflection and forging a “negation of weakness.” But his tactic stunts the narrator and her siblings, who are left to stand “loyally, mulishly” in his shadow, enthralled by his outsize personality but wary of an impulsive rage.
The title of “Open Heart” gestures to the author’s courage to probe her family’s anatomy (What interior code made her father so seductive and so cruel? How could her mother be so protective and so negligent?) and to forgive Manuel’s transgressions. In earnest if elliptical prose, elegantly translated by Adrian Nathan West, the narrative knits into itself, a dreamlike and reiterative bundle of crisscrossing timelines and remembrances.
More exposition than action, and designed chiefly to bear witness, the book professes an admiration for the promises and perils of family and of Spain, and a trust in art’s faculty to process trauma. “Manuel, Manuel, Manuel!” the narrator wails at book’s end — a cry less of discovery than of supplication to her earliest god.
MINOR PROPHETS (Ig, 286 pp., paperback, $17.95), Blair Hurley’s generous, unblinking novel, examines life in and beyond an apocalyptic religious cult, a hallmark of the American condition, the author suggests, for reasons both irrational and justifiable. Nora Delaney has been raised on a survivalist compound in the uncultivated reaches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where “root cellars, gasoline storage sheds, gun lockers” fill the earth and “willow bark, juniper, St. John’s wort” populate the medicine cabinets — and where her megalomaniacal father beguiles a congregation into preparing for cosmic cataclysm. (“There will be angels, and we will see the whole sky in diamonds,” he prophesies, paraphrasing Chekhov.)
After Nora discovers she can speak in tongues, her father decrees her his “weapon of faith,” exploiting her ecstatic performances to recruit followers. Even once she escapes, at 19, and begins to work as a hospice nurse in Chicago, superintending private apocalypses, she strains to resist the cult’s allure: “There’s something beautiful about giving your entire life, everything you have, in submission to a principle.”
Hurley stipples Nora’s story, which alternates between a harrowing past and an unsettled present, with erudition. Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, a mathematical conundrum known as the Angel Problem and dozens of Bible verses deepen an appraisal of how humans satisfy a thirst to meet the sacred. If moments read overly cinematic, and stretches of dialogue improbably polished, Nora’s endeavors to learn the fates of her family and the cult, even as she knows she must exorcise both from her life, give thoughtful voice to the power of doctrine. “Like all things it comes down to faith,” Nora concludes. “At some point you have to believe in this world more than the other.”
Sustained sorrow — both individual (a dead father and husband, an arrested career, the end of childhood) and collective (the tyranny of capitalism and the patriarchy, the self-inflicted wound of climate change) — underpins Ramona Ausubel’s new novel, THE LAST ANIMAL (Riverhead, 278 pp., $27). Ironically, the book also manages to be a mirthful romp of chicanery and derring-do.
Jane, a 38-year-old graduate student in paleobiology, has lost her husband to a car accident and been relegated to “spreadsheet keeper” by her male colleagues, who call her “lady” and steal her ideas. Her children, the teenagers Eve and Vera, ache for their dad and an adequate household income. So when a moneyed eccentric with a private zoo advises Jane to “care less, do more,” she resolves to plunder her lab’s genetic material in hopes of birthing a woolly mammoth. The “de-extinction” plan might just be a sovereign remedy, revivifying not only a Pleistocene beast but also Jane’s career, her daughters’ serenity and a dying planet.
The brittle desperation inherent to Jane’s scheme is subverted by Eve and Vera’s gleeful disparagement of it (as they see it, they’re “deranged Girl Scouts” earning the “Extinct Animal Resuscitation Patch”) and by the acute absurdity of the plot. Jane should try to breastfeed the infant mammoth, right? Eve might be pregnant with an iceman’s baby, yeah? Ausubel grips her reader’s hand firmly, constantly dropping blunt reminders of her tale’s ideas and stripping them of nuance. While the family’s revelations are deeply felt, and the book’s concerns authentic, misty-eyed pronouncements run riot. “Until the planet kicks us off,” Jane tells her daughters in a characteristic entreaty, “we have to keep trying to do good.”
Nathacha Appanah’s slim but full-blooded novel THE SKY ABOVE THE ROOF (Graywolf, 134 pp., paperback, $15) draws its breath from a poem by Paul Verlaine: “The sky above the roof — / How calm and blue!” Phoenix Eviard, a heartless, unyielding single mother of two, lives decidedly in the turbid muck below. Scarred by childhood sexual and psychological assaults, she extends a wary form of maternal love, poised to “take flight at the slightest noise.”
Panic attacks torment her son, Wolf, while her daughter, Paloma, endures only by cowering in the shadows. When Wolf lands in jail, the splintered family must “uproot themselves, unaided, out of their own interior prisons” in order to persuade a judge to release him. Even then, to these wrecked souls, so long caught in an earthbound snarl, the peace of Verlaine’s “unvexed, complete” celestial space seems destined to remain beyond reach.
The profundity of Appanah’s tale, sensitively translated by Geoffrey Strachan, emerges from a puckish mix of the fairy tale (“And so once upon a time in such a country…”) and the meta (a prismatic sunset she’d “only encountered in the pages of books”). Free indirect discourse, in which seemingly omniscient narration slips slyly into a character’s limited perspective, colludes with self-assured direct address — “we must not forget…” — to insist that characters’ insights, like so many of our own, shouldn’t be relied on. All is shot through with a mournful lyricism.
As the family’s situation refuses to resolve easily, the book’s sincerity glows anew. “One’s heart needs to be scrubbed clean every day, at every challenge,” the narrator says. The world’s beauty lies in its imperfection — and in our earnest, if inadequate, stabs at ethereal escape.
Mike Peed is an editor at The Times.
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