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There have been many excellent novels about the immigrant experience in America. But I feel like the richly detailed and engrossing story of “America Is Not the Heart” by Elaine Castillo shows a really unique point of view I've not read about before. The story primarily revolves around Geronima De Vera who is nicknamed Hero when she arrives in America from the Philippines. She goes to live with her aunt, uncle and feisty young cousin Roni in Milpitas (a suburb outside San Jose, California) where she primarily helps looks after the 7 year old girl. As an illegal immigrant she’s not able to seek out work despite being a trained doctor back in the Philippines. Even if she had papers to find employment she’d have to retrain in medicine as her uncle has painfully discovered. Though he was a highly respected surgeon in the Philippines he can only find low-paid manual work in America. Hero has gone through many difficult experiences to arrive here and the novel slowly discloses the complexity of her life over the course of the novel, but it integrates this so gracefully into accounts of Hero’s day-to-day life in this Filipino-American community and her relationship with a woman she meets there named Rosalyn. Of course Hero’s life has been shaped by her heritage, but the story doesn’t hang on the question of national identity as much as how she’s constantly evolving as an individual.  

It’s especially striking to read a novel that centres around a bisexual female protagonist and the story powerfully captures the development of Hero’s sexuality – alongside Rosalyn’s who is refreshingly blunt in her forthright desire to be with Hero. Not since reading Amy Bloom’s novel “White Houses” have I read a novel that considers so meaningfully the dynamics of physical intimacy. This novel deals with that so honestly without feeling the need to mask the act using lyrical language or overwrought prose. It straightforwardly lays out how desire, pleasure and emotion mingle in sex. But it also shows the challenges of building a same-sex relationship with the influence of family and a tight-knit community around them.

Surrounding Hero’s very personal story Castillo powerfully describes the way economics shape people’s lives more than questions of nationality or politics. She includes how corporate enterprise manipulates the living standards and health of whole communities. The story also shows how poverty makes people aliens within their own society: “You already know that the first thing that makes you foreign to a place is being born poor in it.” The novel is filled with people trying to belong by buying the right perfume or correcting their skin, but no matter how much they try to change there are elemental parts of their being which stick: “your accent still hasn't left, and you're starting to understand what it means to have baggage. Baggage means no matter how far you go, no matter how many times you immigrate, there are countries in you you'll never leave.” What I loved most about this novel is how it demonstrates that Hero is like a country unto herself changing in time and led only be an instinctual feeling for what she wants her future to be.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesElaine Castillo
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Many book lovers have fond childhood memories of going to the library and discovering there the wondrous breadth and power of great storytelling. Early in “The Library Book”, author Susan Orlean gives a moving personal account of her burgeoning passion for literature found in the library and also the quality time spent there with her mother as they’d take regular trips to borrow new books. It’s her memories and ardour for the institution which prompts Orlean to explore the bizarre mystery surrounding the horrific fire in Los Angeles’ historic Central Library which occurred on April 29, 1986 and destroyed approximately 400,000 volumes or 20 percent of the library’s holdings. She gives a vivid account of the incident and the case surrounding it - especially the investigation of Harry Peak who was suspected of starting the fire. Moreover, Orlean meditates on the LA library system’s history as well as how libraries are institutions central to many communities. Although it recounts a very bleak incident, this book is ultimately hopeful in describing the resiliency of libraries and books because people’s desire for them keep them alive: “The Library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.”

Some of my favourite sections of the book are her descriptions of the endearingly quirky people who have organized and run the library system in Los Angeles since its inception in 1872 and the diverse librarians who run it today. It’s bracing discovering how the management of the library was at times wrestled out of the hands of more capable female librarians because the library board believed it was a job for men. There were also bizarrely prescriptive rules in place early on for patrons who were discouraged from reading too many novels or they were labelled as “fiction fiends.” Naturally, as society became more progressive, so did the rules of the library and the ways in which it served the community from the city’s homeless to being more accessible to children, immigrants and the disabled. It was also compelling reading about how libraries have embraced the arrival of the information age and the challenges of updating how information is stored and disseminated to the public. It made me feel for librarians who get asked some of the most bizarre questions imaginable by the public every day.

Orlean spent a lot of time conversing with people who work in many different functions within the library: not just librarians who check books in and out, but people who organize the stock, transport books, guard the library and run community programmes. In this way reading this book felt like getting a tour of the institution itself. Seeing so many levels to its running and management felt similar to watching Frederick Wiseman’s 2017 documentary Ex Libris: The New York Public Library. Orlean’s book is also a great conversation starter about what libraries mean to us personally. In this way, it’d be a wonderful companion to reading Ali Smith’s “Public Library” which is a book of short stories as well as a series of testimonies by authors and publishers who’ve found libraries springboards in fostering their passion for literature.

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I also found it fascinating reading about some of the LA Central Library’s most famous patrons including Ray Bradbury who frequented the library in his youth. It’s ironic that the institution which fostered a love of reading for the author of “Fahrenheit 451” would eventually lose so many of its books due to fire decades after this classic novel’s publication. While the mystery surrounding the cause and reason for the destructive fire of 1986 is at the centre of this book, its heart is a celebration of libraries and the people who are devoted to them. “The Library Book” feels like the most wonderfully intimate conversation for book lovers. But it also meaningfully grapples with the struggles that libraries face. Like many places in the world, libraries in the UK are facing increasing budget cuts despite the number of patrons increasing (according to a recent BBC report). I loved using and borrowing from my local library when I first moved to the UK. In recent years I’ve frequented places like The British Library and the London Library for special exhibits like a celebration of Jean Rhys or book prizes such as The Young Writer of the Year Award. But I’d like to return to libraries more frequently for the objects they’re founded upon: books!

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSusan Orlean
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This is a book that felt so thrillingly alive and teeming with ideas that I frequently copied down quotes while I was reading it. Meena Kandasamy writes about a young woman reflecting on the atrociously abusive marriage that she lived through. Her narrative is very analytical as it artfully poses statements with challenging concepts and ideas about why abuse occurs, why the abused feel pressured to remain in that relationship and the challenges of extracting oneself from that relationship, but at the same time it is so heartfelt and meaningful that I felt totally drawn in and emotionally connected to this woman. Her story is very particular and beyond all theoretical commonalities she asserts “Abstractions are easy, but my story, like every woman's story, is something else.” She marries her husband and moves to Mangalore where he works as a professor heavily involved in the Communist revolutionary movement and gradually he cuts her off from her friends, family and livelihood to the point where she's totally isolated. This isn't just a novel that honestly explores how someone gets drawn into an abusive relationship, but also the way familial and social reactions to that abuse can inhibit abused people from sharing the reality of their situations. The story traces this unnamed narrator's journey from the start of her marriage to the gruelling aftermath as she navigates the world having confessed the brutality she endured within her marriage.

The narrator is a highly educated and capable woman so a common reaction to her situation is: shouldn't a woman this smart know better than to be caught in an abusive relationship? She's well-versed in feminist theory and sociological ideas. It's a common assumption that abuse only occurs amongst the poor and under-educated. The development of her relationship is complicated, but part of what draws her to her husband is an intellectual reverence: “I fell in love with the man I married because when he spoke about the revolution it seemed more intense than any poetry, more moving than any beauty. I'm no longer convinced.” He's an influential figure within a social and political movement that is larger than himself. Although the title of this novel is a play on James Joyce's famous novel that traces his alter-ego's intellectual and religious development, it felt in some ways that “When I Hit You” also connects with George Eliot's “Middlemarch”. Dorothea's attraction to what she believes is a cerebral excellence in the boorish Mr Casaubon seems to mirror Kandasamy's protagonist in some ways, but it also makes me think so much about Susan Sontag. Sontag once wrote about how she married an older professor and it wasn't until she read “Middlemarch” that she realised she had fallen into the same trap as Dorothea. The attraction towards a perceived intellectual superiority is very powerful for some people and it's often not until the seduced spends a lot of time with this “brilliant” person that they realise that person is actually full of hot air.

Watch Meena Kandasamy in conversation with Naomi of TheWritesofWomen.

One of the most heartbreaking things about reading this novel is tracing the way the narrator loses confidence in herself as her relationship devolves into one of rancorous abuse. Her husband plays upon this by undermining her and cutting her off from her lifelines (making her delete her email history, quit FaceBook, taking her phone away, cutting her off from all professional and personal contacts.) He criticises her conduct and body to the point where she tragically states “I learn to criticise myself for who I am.” With her self confidence and self worth shattered she becomes wholly reliant upon economically and psychologically. The incremental introduction of physical and sexual abuse into the relationship builds and develops a special kind of terror where “The use of force is always to signal the impending threat of greater force.” Adding to this the majority of her Indian community and her parents make her feel like the guilty one in this relationship. Even when she admits to her parents that she is being hit she's encouraged to be patient and her father frighteningly speculates “These problems will cease to exist when you have children.” All these things contribute to her remaining within this horrific marriage despite it clearly being a poisonous situation.

Leaving her abusive relationship is especially hard because she observes how “Sometimes the shame is not the beatings, not the rape. The shaming is in the being asked to stand to judgement.” Once the narrator actually extracts herself from the marriage she becomes very cognizant of the dialogue and judgement placed upon her as both a victim and participant in her marriage. It's interesting how Kandasamy points at how this is indicative of latent sexism that exists in our communities which should support women in perilous situations like this. She states how “The post-mortem analysis of my marriage reveals more about people and their prejudices than anything about me or my husband.” Reading this novel made me think about how abusive relationships are much more complex than they outwardly appear and the contributing factors to their continuation are far more insidious than most people would assume. I also particularly like how each section begins with quotes from different women writers and the way she analyses situations shows how she is in dialogue with these women's ideas. “When I Hit You” is incredibly revealing not just in the way it shows how abuse occurs within the privacy of home, but in the way our society reacts to it.

It begins like a caper story. A young man named Carlos went missing from a family dinner when he stepped out to use the bathroom and never returned. An investigator is given the case to track him down. But his search almost immediately folds in upon itself when he starts searching the restaurant/Carlos’ office and interviewing people connected to him. The woman he speaks to who he believes is Carlos’ mother is not really his mother and many people at his office are only actors hired to look like productive employees. A scientist named Isabella analyzes traces of Carlos’ biological makeup and expounds upon an increasingly improbably multitude of chemical factors which could have led to him departing. The borders of reality collapse as the investigator struggles to analyse, research and report. Nothing is what it seems. The closer you look at things the more the world becomes an absurdist fantasy. Martin MacInnes’ compelling debut novel is a story of existential crisis and irreconcilable loss.

There’s a wonderful fluidity to MacInnes’ writing so that, although his narrative makes surprising tonal shifts from the comic to the horrific to exhaustively detailed analysis, I felt entranced by his skewed perspective of the world. It all resonates with how the investigator is not just searching for a missing person but for a way to wholly capture experience. By the time all the details are accounted for, time has moved on and the moment has passed and we must mull over it all again trying to faithfully recreate/understand it. If you think of these things as obsessively as the investigator then “it was a marvel, he thought, that any of them managed to do it all, to get from one day to another, to keep everything going just like that.” The novel artfully expresses the fallibility of memory and the clunky mechanics of consciousness. It’s interesting reading this so soon after César Aira (a quote on the cover compares this novel to his work) because Aira equally uses dream-like logic as a way of highlighting the futility of accurately representing reality.

The investigator frequently looks for a more primal understandings of human motivation and behaviour as a way of explaining our actions. Many chapters of this novel are prefaced with quotes from a fictional book about tribal behaviour. The second half of “Infinite Ground” entails the investigator’s travel to “the interior” of a forest where he believes Carlos has slipped away to. Here he embarks on tours to find others who have become lost in this wilderness as well as searching for more authentic modes of life. Hilariously reality here turns out to be as simulated as that in urban life. This is also where the investigator becomes more psychologically revealing as his civility is stripped slowly away. Some time ago he lost his wife and instead of dealing with her loss he seems inspired by Isabella’s proposition that “If it were up to me I would spend my whole life digging up the lost civilization of a single vanished person. There would be no end to the project, Inspector. No end to what may be discovered.” Instead of narrowing down possibilities, the investigator opens his mind to an infinite amount of them. It becomes apparent that “He was out of his depth in a case he couldn’t understand and would never resolve.” This was never about finding out what really happened to Carlos, but accounting for the totality of life when we’re caught in the unstoppable flow of time.

This is an experimental novel whose imagery and ideas challenge our modern sensibilities. In an age when our understanding of other people’s lives are mediated through how they are represented on social media it seems more pertinent than ever to question how we can really understand or know about another’s experience. At the same time there is something pleasingly retro about the novel’s style and earnest manner (perhaps because its action isn’t located in any specific time or place). It harkens back to post-modern literature like Joyce Carol Oates’ phenomenal novel “Mysteries of Winterthurn” which is more about the process of investigation than the crime itself. No matter how objective we try to be in understanding the world it is always refracted through a personal perspective leading the investigator of MacInnes’ novel to see he was “so naïve as to believe in the authenticity of the investigation and the autonomy of his own role.” The totality of the investigator’s being is caught up in searching for answers (which might be why he has no name), but he can only start to see what’s true when he looks hard at himself.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMartin MacInnes
4 CommentsPost a comment

A common theme in many Irish novels is emigration where new generations often go to settle in England or America, but not as many recent stories have been written about immigrants who come to Ireland. Ruth Gilligan’s new novel “Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan” is in part about a Jewish family from Lithuania who sail in 1901 expecting to arrive in New York City only to discover upon landing that they are in Ireland. And there they stay. The patriarch Moshe was a well-regarded playwright in his native region and strives to get his new play about a fifth province produced in Ireland. As there are four provinces in Ireland this refers to the literal translation of the Gaelic word for province which is fifth, but also an ideological space where cultural identity isn’t so rigidly defined. The meaning of this resonates throughout the novel which follows three distinct and engrossing stories over a century. Gradually these strands tie together to form a complex picture of Jewish life in Ireland.

Gilligan has an interesting and complex way of building a fascinatingly layered story. Moshe’s youngest daughter Ruth was only a young child when they first arrived in Ireland so feels thoroughly Irish and is determined to remain there. Shem is a mute teenager who has been admitted to a poorly run mental health facility by his parents in 1958. He’s made to share a room with the only other Jewish patient in the house: a cantankerous and legless man named Alfred who desperately wants his story to be recorded. In 2013, Aisling is an aspiring journalist from an Irish Catholic family who moved to London. When her partner Noah requests that she convert to Judaism she returns to her familiar Dublin family home for Christmas to contemplate this choice. The novel revolves between these three stories and builds in suspense as the reader discovers how each strand resolves itself and what the connections are between them. It also makes a larger statement about the attitudes towards the Jewish community in Ireland over the course of a century.

As a religious minority in the country, it's observed how levels of antisemitism vary from mild to extreme over time. For the Eastern European Jewish family who has long settled in Ireland it's observed “There had been other terms flung their way these past few years. ‘Bloodsuckers’ and ‘Moneylenders’. ‘Murderers’ too. ‘Jewtown’ the locals called their neighbourhood, though they claimed it was only an endearment.” In other instances a pelt of rashers are thrown on a Jewish doctor's car, “Kike” is shouted at a young man in a canteen and Catholic parents have a stony reaction to the news their daughter might convert to Judaism. Gilligan also recounts Zionist movements amongst the Irish Jewish population where established or native Jewish people would move to Israel. During WWII when a German bomb coincidentally falls on “Clanbrassil Street, right in the heart of Dublin's Little Jerusalem” there is a house which is perfectly split in two. This comes to symbolize the feeling of Jewish Irish identity – only ever half existing in the country. There is a prevailing sense that if you are Jewish in Ireland you are made to feel in a sense “other.” But the author builds a more complex sense of national identity and what it means to belong observing that “maybe we have all changed into something other by the end, whether we decide to or not.”

There are playful references to Ireland's literary history throughout the narrative where figures like James Joyce and Anne Enright loom large. School notebooks are covered with “a sketch of Martello Tower on the front as if to encourage every gobshite in the country to become the next James bloody Joyce.” Later a scene builds to a climax in imitation of Molly Bloom: “faster and faster, higher and higher until she felt. Herself. Say yes.” When Aisling is booking a flight to Dublin banner ads pop up for the novel “The Gathering” and the novel appears again when she's contemplating the state of being one who has left Ireland: “The various snippets of the annual rant in all its different forms, like how lucky they are to have escaped, but how bloody amazing it is to be home – The Gathering indeed – nostalgia and disdain all slurred into one, the emigrant's beautiful paradox.” This beautifully summarizes and adds meaning to the conflicted sense of national identity for people who have left their native country.

Shem travels to Gleann-na-nGealt or "the Valley of the Mad" seeking a miracle cure by bathing in its legendary water.

Shem travels to Gleann-na-nGealt or "the Valley of the Mad" seeking a miracle cure by bathing in its legendary water.

Gilligan has a talent for building highly dramatic scenes where images from the past are interspersed with dialogue. This is artfully done and adds meaningful depth to the action as it plays out. She also has a keen ability for descriptive detail such as this moment “I stirred my soup. The skin on the top puckered like an elbow” or when a character looks at the sky “Behind the flag the sky wore diamonds, a sparkle on black like a widow's throat.” These create a vivid picture in the reader's mind as well as setting the emotional mood in a way which is poignant and memorable. There are some moments when observations are made which powerfully resonate such as how “The silences a family is made up of, to try and protect one another; the silences which shove us apart.”

“Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan” is a deeply thoughtful novel. It's in turns dramatic, comic and heartbreaking making it highly readable. It poses challenging notions of how identity is commonly viewed in neat categories, but in reality who we are is much more complex than any one label. Legends and myths are passed down through generations making appearances in each part of the story where they find different resonance. In writing about what stories are remembered or forgotten over a century, Gilligan forms in this novel a powerful triptych of Ireland.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRuth Gilligan
2 CommentsPost a comment

“Volcano Street” is partly like an Ibsen drama, partly like a Vincent Price creep show, but mostly it is an innovative coming-of-age story. Twelve year old Helen (who likes to be called Skip) and her teenage sister Marlo move in with their domineering aunt Noreen after their single mother is put in a mental institution. The girls have been heavily influenced by their liberal mother Karen Jane who was very anti-establishment and anti-war. Marlo emphatically reads “The Female Eunuch.” In a difficult situation the girls will ponder “What would Germaine do?” So it is quite a shock when they are moved to a small conservative town where Marlo is forced to give up school to work for her aunt. Skip’s tomboy behaviour is deeply frowned upon and criticized. Noreen and many people in the town regularly spout racist or homophobic jokes or insults. There is a fascinating clash in ideologies. As the girls grow and change, they come to know some people who have been outcast and scorned by the majority of the town. Gradually they find a place where they fit in the community and a way to go forward in the world.

David Rain describes Skip’s development so well. She’s the kind of feisty, creative character you really want to root for. Her close relationship with Marlo alters as her sister’s values change and she begins a relationship with a man. The antagonistic relationship between Skip and a local boy named Honza gradually develops into a close friendship. This shows how our connection to other people changes as we grow and find our view of the world altering. At first Skip’s perspective is fixed firmly in the moment and her immediate surroundings. But gradually this opens up to include broader points of reference so that she sees what has come before and how provincial her surroundings really are: “Dull, sensible South Australia was not all it seemed. Volcanoes had once shaken this green corner of the state; riven with fissures, faults, subterranean channels, the earth spoke of strangeness. This hole in the ground was a prehistoric pit. The park above, with its rows of roses, the town hall with its tick-ticking clock, were the merest imposition on a timeless land.” Skip learns that life in this town is fleeting and circumscribed. This shift in perspective is an essential part of development as it shows how opportunities in life need not be limited by the short experience or the small-minded views of those around us. At first we accept everything about our surroundings because it’s all we’ve known, but as we learn about history and radically other ways of living we seek out what’s different to assimilate into places and connect with people we feel a more natural kinship to. Rain’s novel skilfully articulates and beautifully plots out these remarkable stages of development.

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  “In any situation, ask yourself: What would Germaine do?”

“In any situation, ask yourself: What would Germaine do?”

There is a dramatic shift two thirds of the way through this novel when the story breaks partly away from Skip to focus on a different story. Skip has long been haunted from watching the classic Vincent Price flick House of Wax. She is sometimes shadowed by a mysterious man who turns out to be a hidden member of the community that has a fascinating story of his own. Roger was a man who grew up in the town with tremendous promise as an actor. He’s singled out by Laurence Olivier who toured through Australia alongside his wife Vivien Leigh looking for fresh talent. Roger and his lover/mentor Quentin move to London as a consequence of this to launch Roger’s performing career. But soon their relationship deteriorates into a hostile partnership trapped in a squalid room. The inequity and jealousy between the couple is terrifyingly reminiscent of playwright Joe Orton and his partner Kenneth Halliwell. I believe this change in story between Skip’s development to Roger’s rise and downfall is meant to reflect the tension between emerging into the world and retreating back to the place of our origin. While both of these stories are compelling and well-told I’m not sure they integrate fully together as the novel reaches a dramatic climax towards the end. Nevertheless, this is a novel with tremendous force, intelligence and passion. Skip is a wonderfully realized character and certain vivid scenes from “Volcano Street” will stick with me.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDavid Rain

What happens to people’s sense of national identity when their country is occupied during war? Estonia has a particularly complex history having been a part of surrounding nations or occupied by its warring neighbours for centuries. In the aftermath of WWI, the country fought a battle of independence for two years and finally achieved sovereignty. But with the onset of WWII the country was again seized to be used as a pawn - first by the Soviets and then occupied by the Germans in 1941. This is where the novel “When the Doves Disappeared” begins. The characters are suspended in a state of agonizing tension as no one knows what the outcome of the war will be or where their loyalties should lay. It primarily follows the stories of Roland, his cousin Edgar and Edgar’s wife Juudit. Each character makes different choices and transforms themselves to survive the subsequent crucial few years. During this time the Estonians discover that the German “liberators” are another occupier intent on using their resources and instigating their pogroms upon their Jewish and gypsy populations as well as others. The novel flips back and forth between these years and the 60s when the Soviets have re-occupied the country establishing networks of informants who watch the population and report to the government any dissenters. This complex powerful novel shows the degrees to which people radically transform their identities and how close relationships are destroyed under pressure from the overwhelming onslaught of war.

The novel begins at the grave of Roland’s wife Rosalie. She was mysteriously killed and Roland is determined to discover what happened. Only at the novel’s end do we find out why she was silenced. In the meantime, Roland fights with the resistance while Edgar’s loyalties change with the times. He renames himself while desperately trying to endear himself with the Germans and report to them about the political loyalty or dissent of members of the Estonian public. When the Soviets take the country over again he gives himself yet another name and continues his spying as well as writing outlandish propaganda against enemies of communism. His estranged wife Juudit in a way comes to represent Estonia itself. Rejected by her husband for reasons she never understands, she is at first recruited by the Estonian resistance but becomes a German officer’s lover. When circumstances tear them apart she’s left as a husk living out her days back with her husband Edgar who neglects her and treats her as an invalid. These characters’ intricate tales are played out over a number of years in a way which shows how people’s integrity can be worn down over time while living under oppressive governments.

Museum of the Occupation in Tallinn

Museum of the Occupation in Tallinn

It can be confusing and disorientating at first trying to follow characters and the narrative as this novel switches through time and place – especially as some people’s names change over time! However, about halfway through it all fell into place for me and I felt the building suspense of Sofi Oksanen’s heartrending labyrinthine tale. This novel makes you feel the persistent tension people feel when living in perpetual state of fear. There is also the horrific silence which builds when people die or disappear as people are worn down and don’t speak because “Maybe life was so fragile and meaningless that there was no need to add to their troubles.” Beyond physical damage and death, Oksanen captures the way in which people are defeated in their minds. For those who try to be savvy in order to survive by transforming themselves, she shows how they lose an essential part of their being. This is demonstrated particularly in a homosexual character who denies his sexuality and loses himself entirely in his attempts to assimilate to changing ideologies.

One of the most impressive things about “When the Doves Disappeared” is the complex way Oksanen represents time. She observes at one point that “Everyone had his breaking point, and if nothing else destroyed the mind, time would.” Following the entangled stories of the characters in this novel you learn the way war can ultimately tear people’s sense of themselves apart. This is a cleverly constructed novel filled with many poignant and haunting moments. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSofi Oksanen