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AusReadingMonth: Lexicon by Max Barry – “Words are weapons sharper than knives”

November 1, 2019 14 comments

Lexicon by Max Barry (2013) Not available in French.

Wil Parke is brutally kidnapped at Chicago airport. A mysterious team takes him to the lavatories and try to make him confess his true identity. He doesn’t know what this is all about. He’s a carpenter and his girlfriend is waiting for him at the arrivals. That’s all he knows. Things get violent quite fast and a man named Tom explains that their pursuants are “poets”, members of an organisation where leaders take the name of famous dead poets.

A mass killing happened a year before in Broken Hill, Australia. The whole population of the town was killed. Officially, it’s due to industrial leakage but the organisation knows that their agent Virginia Woolf went there with a weapon of mass destruction. She escaped and Wil is the only other survivor. He seems to be immune to the weapon. Problem 1: The weapon is still in Broken Hill and nobody can approach it without dying. Problem 2: Virginia Woolf is on the loose and she’s very dangerous. Poor Wil finds himself in the crossfire of two different factions among the poets and has to fight for his life.

Lexicon alternates chapters between the ongoing man hunt and Virginia Woolf’s story. Her name was Emily Duff. She was a sixteen-year old girl playing tricks on the streets in San Francisco when she was recruited to attend a special school near Washington DC. The school head is a poet, Charlotte Brontë. Her teachers are Lowell and Eliot. At the school, students learn the art of manipulating people’s minds. This is Emily’s epiphany:

But the truth was, she had just figured it out. Attention words. A single word wasn’t enough. Not even for a particular segment. The brain had defences, filters evolved over millions of years to protect against manipulation. The first was perception, the process of funnelling an ocean of sensory input down to a few key data packages worthy of study by the cerebral cortex. When data got by the perception filter, it received attention. And she saw new that it must be like that all the way down: There must be words to attack each filter. Attention words and then maybe desire words and logic words and urgency words and command words. This was what they were teaching her. How to craft a string of words that would disable the filters one by one, unlocking each mental tumbler until the mind’s last door swung open.

The poets master the art of “compromising” people, meaning that they take control over their minds and make them do what they want. Students learn languages, psychology and neuroscience. People are put into narrow segments, each segment reacts to certain words that make their mental walls collapse, enabling the poet to take over their mind. This is what it feels like:

Vartix velkor mannik wissick. Be still.”

Her mouth snapped closed. It happened before she realised what she was doing. The surprise was thet it felt like her decision. She really, genuinely wanted to be still. It was the words. Yeats, compromising her, she knew, but it didn’t feel like that at all. Her brain was spinning with rationalisations, reasons why she should definitely be still right new, why that was a really good move, and it was talking in her voice. She hadn’t known compromise was like this.

Frightening power, isn’t it?

What happened to Emily? Are Wil and Eliot right to be afraid of Virginia Woolf? Or should they be more concerned about Yeats, the director of the organisation? The two branches of the story converge in the end, giving the reader a whole picture of what happened. It is hard to give more details about the plot without giving away too much. This blog is spoiler free, so…

In Lexicon, Max Barry explores the power of language and how people can be manipulated. He imagines that the most lethal weapon is a word, a word so powerful that people die around it. The leaders of the organisation are poets because they are good with words. At their school, students have to learn to control their mind. They know they could be “compromised” and they know how to do it to others. They are taught to mask their feelings. Desires are unwanted, even basic ones like the desire to love and be loved. Desires are weaknesses and poets must keep their thoughts under a tight leash.

Emily is somehow resistant to it. She grew up cheating to survive and this instinct stays strong in her. Eliot never managed to tame his natural tendency to empathy. In the eyes of perfectly controlled Yeats, Eliot is weak. These two have one thing in common: they bend the rules because they don’t have the same ironclad control that the others have.

Lexicon plays with the idea of dominating people by feeding them words so well chosen that they target specific responses. Poets do what ill-intention press does, what social network can do, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed us. The master idea behind the organisation is that if you manage to attach someone to his adequate psychological segment, you’ll know how to get to him.

Now I have a question for English literature specialists. I’m not a good reader of poetry, not even in French, so I don’t know well Anglophone poetry either. Of course, I know about Yeats, Charlotte Brontë, Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot and other poets mentioned in the book. What I don’t know is what their names trigger in a British or American mind. Is it normal that the dissident poet is TS Eliot? Does it mean something that the cold, unfeeling and repressed leader is named Yeats? For example, when Yeats-the character says this…

“When I experience base physiological needs for food, water, air, sleep, and sex, I follow protocols in order to satisfy them without experiencing desire. Yes, it’s funny.”

“You fucking what?”

“It’s required to maintain a defence against compromise. Desire is weakness. I’m sure I explained this.”

…does it make any sense compared to Yeats-the-real-poet? I’d be grateful for a little bit of insight. I’m afraid I missed some subtext.

Lexicon is the kind of dystopian fiction you want to have on a long plane journey. It’s a page-turner, it’s entertaining and it makes you think.

This is my fifth Max Barry after Company, about the absurdity of corporate life and management methods (anyone in HR should read it), Syrup, about marketing and the launch of a new soda on the market, Jennifer Government, about consumerism, Machine Man, about transhumanism. All books are dystopian fiction and work around an angle of our contemporary societies. My favourite ones are Company and Jennifer Government. A new novel, Providence is expected in March 2020.

For another review of Lexicon, read Guy’s here. Thanks again, Guy, for introducing me to Max Barry. I also read it as my participation to Brona’s AusReadingChallenge. It’ll last the whole month of November.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride – Historical, fun and thoughtprovoking

October 31, 2019 4 comments

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (2013) French title: L’oiseau du Bon Dieu. Translated by François Happe

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride relates the story of John Brown (1800-1859), an American abolitionist who was in favor of armed insurrection to abolish slavery. He’s responsible for the Pottawatomi Massacre in 1856 (Kansas) where his group killed five supporters of slavery. He took part in other battles and his last one was a raid against the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. According to historians, Brown’s campaign and its press coverage were one of the sparks that kindled the Civil War.

The God Lord Bird relates Brown’s story from the moment he arrived in Kansas to the fiasco of Harpers Ferry. (Btw, this is also the story of Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks.) The narrator is The Onion, a young black boy who was kidnapped by Brown when he arrived in Kansas. Kidnapped is a neutral word here, because, depending on which side of slavery you stand, Henry was either “stolen” or “freed”.

This kidnapping happens at the beginning of the novel and McBride introduced an comic effect: Brown (The Old Man) thinks Henry is a girl.

“We have to move. Courageous friend, I will take you and your Henrietta to safety.” See, my true name is Henry Shackleford. But the Old Man heard Pa say “Henry ain’t a,” and took it to be “Henrietta,” which is how the Old Man’s mind worked. Whatever he believed, he believed. It didn’t matter to him whether it was really true or not. He just changed the truth till it fit him. He was a real white man. “

Minding only of his safety, Henry decides to go with the flow and be a girl if need be. He becomes Henrietta, nicknamed The Onion. Henry is our only narrator and of course, he’s unreliable. He’s about 10 when Brown takes him. His only experience with life is living in his master’s saloon with his father. He has no education, a limited vision of the world. But he tells the story from the slave’s standpoint and it’s a way for McBride to give a voice to the people Brown fought for.

We follow Onion from 1856 to 1859, during his nomadic life with Brown and some years in New Orleans. The Good Lord Bird is a multilayered book, tackling the historical aspects of Brown’s combat, Henry’s identity problems since he’s impersonating a girl, the issue of slavery and its impact on the psyche of black people.

I had never heard of John Brown before opening The Good Lord Bird on my kindle. This is one of our Book Club reads, I didn’t really investigate what it was about. Kindle book means no physical book and no glance at the blurb on the back cover. There’s no foreword, which doesn’t matter because I never read them before finishing a book as they tend to be full of spoilers. This explains why it took me getting to half of the book, when Brown meets Frederick Douglass to even think that this crazy religious Brown guy was real and that I was reading historical fiction.

John Brown is a controversial character and McBride depicts a complicated man, a zealot and a humanist, a violent man ready to sacrifice everything to his cause and yet be gentle with his family, a man who can camp in the harsh conditions of the west and hold his own in the salons of the east.

Brown’s drive comes from religious grounds. He’s a Christian zealot and his interpretation of the Bible tells him that black people should be free, that slavery is condemnable and should be abolished at all cost. He doesn’t do it for himself but because he thinks it’s right. There’s no personal gain for him in this combat, no political aim, no financial gain of any kind. He fights with words, like here:

I never knowed a man who could spout the Bible off better than Old John Brown. The Old Man straightened up, reared back, and throwed off half a dozen Bible verses right in the Reverend’s face, and when the Reverend tried to back-fire with a couple of his own, the Old Man drowned him out with half dozen more that was better than the first. Just mowed him down. The Rev was outgunned.

But doesn’t neglect more material weapons:

He had more weapons hanging off him than I ever seen one man carry: two heavy seven-shot pistols strapped to his thighs by leather—that was the first I ever saw such a thing. Plus a broadsword, a squirrel gun, a buckshot rifle, a buck knife, and a Sharps rifle. When he moved around, he rattled like a hardware store. He was an altogether fearsome sight.

In passing, enjoy McBride’s playful tone in his descriptions. Henry retells long prayer sessions before battles, when the men wait Brown out because when he starts preaching, there’s no stopping him or knowing when it will end. He’s passionate and gets carried away. He has absolutely no military planning skills. He can lead his men on the battlefield but he’s unable to manage the rest: food, camp, where to stop and when to go, taking weather conditions into consideration and having proper intelligence. And arriving to battle with an army in good conditions is a key success factor.

He’s also an idealist who doesn’t have field knowledge of the slaves’ mind and condition. He’s never lived in the South, he’s certain that slaves will rally his cause quickly because, who wouldn’t want to fight for their freedom, right? He has no clue about the mental barriers that decades of slavery have built in slaves’ minds. They are built out of fear, abuse and being somebody’s property.

Being a Negro means showing your best face to the white man every day. You know his wants, his needs, and watch him proper. But he don’t know your wants. He don’t know your needs or feelings or what’s inside you, for you ain’t equal to him in no measure. You just a nigger to him. A thing: like a dog or a shovel or a horse. Your needs and wants got no track, whether you is a girl or a boy, a woman or a man, or shy, or fat, or don’t eat biscuits, or can’t suffer the change of weather easily. What difference do it make? None to him, for you is living on the bottom rail.

Rallying to Brown is a huge risk. This is also why Henry doesn’t protest when Brown takes him for a girl. He keeps the lie alive even if he could easily prove otherwise. He thinks he’ll be safer as a girl.

I come to enjoy them talks, for even though I’d gotten used to living a lie—being a girl—it come to me this way: Being a Negro’s a lie, anyway. Nobody sees the real you. Nobody knows who you are inside. You just judged on what you are on the outside whatever your color. Mulatto, colored, black, it don’t matter. You just a Negro to the world.

He even enjoys some aspects of impersonating a girl: he doesn’t have to fight on the battle field, he only has ‘light’ chores to do and his condition protects him sometimes. People treat women differently, obviously. He experiences from inside how people treat you differently if they take you for a girl.

On the trail, Chase did all the talking. He talked about his Ma. Talked about his Pa. Talked about his kids. His wife was half cousin to his Pa and he talked about that. There weren’t nothing about himself he didn’t seem to want to talk about, which gived me another lesson on being a girl. Men will spill their guts about horses and their new boots and their dreams to a woman. But if you put ’em in a room and turn ’em loose on themselves, it’s all guns, spit, and tobacco.

In the end, it’s all about people’s preconceived notion about who you are according to the tag that is attached to your person. People see you as a woman, they treat you a certain way. People see you as a slave, they treat you another way. Onion will impersonate a woman during 17 years and then adolescence kicks in, it complicates his life. He’s attracted to women and cannot show or act on it. White people still don’t notice that he’s not a female, confirming that for them, blacks are all the same. Black people notice it right away and it’s harder for him to keep the lie with them.

The Good Lord Bird is an interesting book in many aspects and Henry’s voice is genuine, full of humor. He takes us among Brown’s followers and America in the 1850s comes to life under McBride’s pen. Henry made me laugh with his quirky ways. But sometimes I thought that the descriptions of their travelling were too long, too precise, even if they help today’s reader understand what it was to live in Kansas in that time. Just for the fun of it, this is what 1850s GPS was like:

“Circle ’round the cabin and move straight back into the woods, past the second birch tree beyond the corn field yonder,” he said. “You’ll find an old whiskey bottle stuck between two low branches on that tree. Follow the mouth of that bottle due north two miles, just the way the mouth is pointed. Keep the sun on your left shoulder. You’ll run into an old rock wall somebody built and left behind. Follow that wall to a camp.

Given my sense of direction, I’d have died the first time I went out alone, with this kind of instructions.

I really enjoyed Henry’s spoken tone because it sounded more genuine. I toyed with the idea of reading Cloudsplitters right after The Good Lord Bird, as I have it on the TBR. I flipped through the first pages, discovered that the story was told from Owen’s POV (Brown’s son) in a perfect English and it sounded fake after Henry. I’ll read it later, after McBride’s book has faded away in my memory.

My last question is ‘what does McBride think of John Brown’? I think he tried to show his good and bad sides but that in the end, he is grateful for this idealist and his fight. Brown is the Good Lord Bird of the title.

He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a Good Lord Bird feather. “The Good Lord Bird don’t run in a flock. He flies alone. You know why? He’s searching. Looking for the right tree. And when he sees that tree, that dead tree that’s taking all the nutrition and good things from the forest floor. He goes out and he gnaws at it, and he gnaws at it till that thing gets tired and falls down. And the dirt from it raises the other trees. It gives them good things to eat. It makes ’em strong. Gives ’em life. And the circle goes ’round.”

Another Man’s Mocassins by Craig Johnson – Another trip to Wyoming

October 9, 2019 9 comments

Another Man’s Mocassins by Craig Johnson (2008) French title: Enfants de poussière. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.

Another Man’s Mocassins by Craig Johnson is my fourth trip to the fictional Absaroka County in Wyoming. This is where Sheriff Walt Longmire is law enforcement. After his investigation in Philadelphia, he’s back in Durant, Wyoming, with his daughter Cady who is in PT after her accident.

His quiet routine is broken when the Dunningam brothers find a body by the road while they were baling grass. Longmire isn’t thrilled by the news…and not just because it interrups his diner:

“No matter what aspect of law enforcement with which you might be involved, there’s always one job you dread. I’m sure at the more complicated venues, it’s the terrorists, it’s serial killers, or it’s gang related, but for the western sheriff it’s always been the body dump. To the north, Sheridan County has two unsolved, and Natrona County to the south has five; up until twenty-eight minutes ago, we’d had none. There you stand by some numbered roadway with a victim, no ID, no crime scene, no suspects, nothing.

Not a great situation. The body is a young woman with Vietnamese features. She’s scantily clad, has no shoes and lays there without any information about her identity.

When Longmire’s team eventually finds out who she is, they discover that her name is Ho Thi Paquet and that she has a picture of Longmire with her. The photo dates back to 1967 when Longmire was in Vietnam as a marine inspector. He had befriended Mai Kim, a prostitute who worked at a bar full of American customers. This photo of him playing the piano with Mai Kim in the background brings back memories from the war.

What’s the connection between Mai Kim and Ho Thi Paquet? Why did the victim come to Wyoming, apparently looking for Longmire?

The story goes back and forth in time, as Longmire reminisces his days in Vietnam, a particular investigation on drug trafficking and Mai Kim’s death. In a way, it reminded me of The Black Echo by Michael Connelly. Harry Bosch and Walt Longmire both face an investigation that bring back their time in Vietnam. In both cases, they have a connection with the victim.

I enjoyed the fourth opus of the Longmire series. He’s good at picturing Wyoming and life in Durant. I was glad to hear about the recurring characters and what’s going on with their lives. There’s always a lot of humor in his text, like here in the name of the bar in Vietnam, the Fun Boy-Howdy Beau Coups Good Times Lounge. For French speaking readers, there’s no typo. Beau coups is not beaucoup misspelled. It mean good hookups.

Johnson keeps building his characters, showing Longmire in a new light. There’s his affectionate relationship with his daughter. He supports her during her PT, pushing her with her exercises and disclosing the functioning of their two people family, since Longmire’s wife and Cady’s mother Martha passed away.

Cady never gave up. It was a family trait, and in our tiny family, stories were the coinage of choice, a bartering in the aesthetic of information and the athletics of emotion, so I answered her.

His long-life friend Henry Standing Bear was also in Vietnam in 1967, even if it was in another unit. We know more about the two men’s friendship. I recently learnt that Henry is named after the Ponca Chief Standing Bear (1828-1908), a Native American Civil Rights leader. Chief Standing Bear recently had his statue inaugurated in the National Statuary Hall Collection at the US Capitol. He and Willa Cather represent the State of Nebraska.

Other billets about the Longmire series: The Cold Dish, Death Without Company, Kindness Goes Unpunished

PS: As always, Sophie Aslanides’s translation is impeccable.

Sidney Chamber and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie – Disappointing

September 22, 2019 12 comments

Sidney Chamber and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie (2013) French title: Sidney Chambers et l’ombre de la mort. Translated by Patrice Repusseau.

I have a rule for Book Around the Corner: write a billet about every book I read, even if I don’t finish it. I have a rather long backlog of billets and I see that I only have three months left to catch up before 2020 starts. Phew! Combine the rule and the backlog and you’ll have a quick-and-dirty billet about Sidney Chamber and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie, a crime fiction book I couldn’t finish.

I’d never heard of Runcie but it is published by Babel Noir, a good reference for crime fiction and the cover called to me. It’s the first volume of the Grantchester mysteries, featuring the vicar Sidney Chambers. He plays amateur detective and feeds his friend inspector Georgie Keating with information. I see that there’s a TV series made out of it.

How can I say this? I was looking for a so-British cozy crime mystery, something that smelled of old spinsters, gossips and church ladies. Sidney Chambers is a thirty-two-year of vicar who has been appointed to the town of Grantchester. Runcie draws the setting, introduces us to his main character. At Stephen Staunton’s funeral, a woman approaches Chambers to speak with him privately. She was Staunton’s mistress and she doesn’t believe that he committed suicide. She asks the vicar to dig around, since he can go where the police are not welcome.

I started to get into the story, thought the plot was developing and suddenly, wham, bam, thank you reader, mystery is solved and now we’re off to a New Year’s Eve dinner party where jewelry is stolen. I thought “What?! That’s it?”

I tried to read further but I couldn’t find any interest in the plot or in the characters’ company. I thought that they were caricatures. I disliked the weepy hostess of the dinner party. Why did she have to be a blubbering mess because something happened in her house?

Long story short, I abandoned it and I was disappointed because I expected a light and entertaining read. Has anyone read this series or watched it TV version? Did I read it at the wrong time or was I not the only one unconvinced by Sidney Chambers?

PS: Don’t you think that the title sounds like Harry Potter?

Choke Hold by Christa Faust – sex, drugs and MMA.

September 20, 2019 4 comments

Choke Hold by Christa Faust (2011) French title: L’ange gardien. Translated by Christophe Cuq

Do the things you’ve done in the past add up to the person you are now? Or are you endlessly reinvented by the choices you make for the future? I used to think I knew the answer to those questions. Now, I’m not so sure.

Angel Dare, former porn star is under witness protection. She’s a waitress at a diner in Arizona, hiding away from the men who want her dead. Her old life barrels into her new one when her ex-lover Vic Ventura comes to her diner with his son Cody. They don’t have to really catch up that Vic is shot dead right in front of her.

Angel doesn’t know if the killers are after Vic or her. No time to think, she just takes Cody under her wing and flees the scene as fast as she can.

Cody is 18 and recently reconnected with Vic. He is raised by his single mother who struggles with mental illness. His daily support system consists in Hank Hammer, former MMA champion and Cody’s MMA coach at a local gym.

Cody’s only goal is to become a MMA champion and he’s on the right track to achieve it. The kid is gifted and already participates to underground MMA fights in Mexico, all organized by the owner of the gym he trains at. That’s how Cody got involved in drug trafficking, thinking he was carrying steroids across the Mexican-American border.

Cody is young, idealistic and single-minded. He wants to be an MMA champion and go to Las Vegas to be casted in an MMA TV reality show. After Cody takes Angel to Hank’s trailer, the most sensible thing to do seems to leave Arizona and get Cody to Las Vegas on time for the show.

Our trio of misfits engages into a perilous road trip with a dangerous team of hitmen hot on their trail. Angel, Hank and Cody have all been thrown into the sea of life and have banged themselves on rocky shores. There’s a terrifying scene in My Absolute Darling where Turtle and Jacob are snatched by the rising tide of the Pacific Ocean and struggle for their life. That’s how I imagined Angel, Hank and Cody: taken away by events with no control over what happened to them and coming out of it bruised and battered.

Angel used to be a porn star, famous enough that people could recognize her on the street and that puts her in danger. She has to live with the memories of her former life and how it went to hell. Hank keeps Cody safe and straight and acts as his substitute father. He has a poor health, consequence of too many punches and concussions. Taking care of Cody gives him a purpose and it’s a win-win situation. Cody had a tough childhood with a mother unfit to raise him and forcing him to grow up and take responsibilities at a young age. Hank is his anchor.

And now, the three of them stick together for the better and the worse and despite Angel’s gut feeling that she’s better cut them loose.

Christa Faust’s style is punchy and catchy. (no pun intended) Choke Hold will appeal to readers who enjoyed Freedom’s Child by Jax Miller. Angel is the same kind of kickass heroin, full of sass, of resources and of courage. Faust spent a decade working in peep-shows and for the porn industry. She knows her stuff and her Angel sounds real. Choke Hold is the sequel to Money Shot and while I still enjoyed Choke Hold, I think it’s better to read them in the right order.

Recommended to crime fiction lovers and readers of Virginie Despentes. (In France, published by Gallmeister)

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent – it will leave you breathless

September 15, 2019 13 comments

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent (2017) French title: My Absolute Darling.

Gabriel Tallent was at Quais du Polar in 2018 although My Absolute Darling is not crime fiction. After reading it, I understand why he was invited: this is a novel that walks on the thin line between literary fiction and thriller.

Turtle Alveston is fourteen and lives in an isolated cabin on the Northern California coast with her father Martin. Her paternal grandfather drinks himself to death in a trailer in the backyard. Martin is a survivalist. He believes that the world is going to collapse, he doesn’t trust the system and trains his daughter to prepare for the end of the world. He’s also abusive and a totally unfit parent.

When the book opens, it’s Spring and Turtle is in her last year of middle school. She does her best to keep everyone at arm’s length. She doesn’t engage with other students, donning a coat of aggressivity to push everyone away. Her English teacher Anna isn’t giving up though. Turtle fails at her spelling tests and Anna pokes at Turtle, feeling that things aren’t right at home.

Martin is a lunatic with his frightening theories, a sort of guru with only one attendant to his cult: his daughter. Martin is a damaged man, intelligent, charismatic and powerful. He’s controlling and uses every means in his possession to nail his power over his daughter. He manipulates her with love, he threatens her and he’s violent, verbally and physically. He beats her up and assaults her. Martin loves his daughter in a very sick way, he calls her my absolute darling. He wants to own her. He leaves nothing out to ensure that she doesn’t venture outside of the cocoon he has created for her. Except that his cocoon isn’t soft and nurturing, its walls are made of sea urchin.

Turtle’s mother is dead, her grandpa cares about her but is too deep in his drunkard hole to take action. Martin does everything he can to keep Turtle under his spell. He’s her dad, her only parent, her only figure of authority. They are isolated and she doesn’t know anything else.

Turtle finds solace in the nature around her house. She’s tough, knows how to live off the land, how to avoid dangers, how to build a fire, how to orientate herself in the wilderness. Martin and her grandpa taught her these skills. She’s an expert with guns, Martin makes her practice all the time. She is a warrior, accumulating a lot of survival skills and inner strength.

Fourteen is a pivotal age. Puberty hits. Children start to take their independence, of mind and of action. They start to hike the awkward trail to adulthood and parents do not control as much as before what they are exposed to and who they are in contact with. Their own social circle starts to be more important than the family one. Parents stop to be heroes who know everything and are always right and become mere humans. It’s the age where Martin’s control over Turtle is meant to slip and this father is not about to accept it. He can’t let her go.

Several events arrive in a short time span. Anna is more insistent in her follow-up. Turtle rescues Brett and Jacob, two teenagers from the local high school who went hiking and got lost. The outside world makes a dent in Turtle’s shell and begins to get to her. Martin taught her skills to cope with the end of the world and to be self-reliant. She will use these skills to claw herself out of her abusive father’s large paws. She will use them to put an end to her world.

And we, readers, follow her, silent witnesses to all her failings, her strength and her inner pep talks.

She thinks, you will trust in your discipline and your courage and you will never leave them and never abandon them and you will be stronger, grim and courageous and hard, and you will never sit as he sits, looking at your life as he looks at it, you will be strong and pure and cold for the rest of your goddamn life and these are lessons you will never forget.

We are rooting for her. We are horrified by her home situation and we watch her looking for her way out, trying to get out of the mental maze where her father holds her prisoner. She’s like a princess, hostage of a dark prince, except that this princess doesn’t wait idly for her knight to rescue her. She’s been raised to think that one can only count of themselves. Fortunately. And in a sense, she’s right. Where are the adults in this story?

My Absolute Darling is Tallent’s debut novel and it is truly extraordinary. He manages to insinuate himself into the mind of a fourteen-year-old abused girl. We are in Turtle’s mind, seeing the world through the distorting glasses she wears, courtesy of her father’s twisted education.

The novel holds together in every aspect. It’s built like a psychological thriller but it isn’t one. Things happen, one at a time, each one adding a brick to the story, pushing it forward, building up suspense and threat. Some scenes are extremely intense and disturbing, some at home with Martin and some in the wilderness, along the shore. Turtle’s life is surrounded with dangers, at home and outside. She has no real safe place.

Gabriel Tallent shows us how hard it is to go out of an abusive relationship and even more when it is a parent/child one. Turtle loves Martin and hates him at the same time. He loves her and is the one who hurts her the most. In an interview, Tallent says he used the relationship between Albertine and the Narrator in The Captive to draw Martin. (See my billet here about The Captive. It’s entitled Every breath you take, every move you make, I’ll be watching you.) I can see how Proust could be helpful.

There is no attempt at psychology or psychiatry in My Absolute Darling. Tallent never tries to put a medical name on Martin’s behavior. We only understand that he had a destructive relationship with his own father. Tallent doesn’t dig further, it’s not his purpose. He focuses on Turtle and we really want her to succeed and climb out of this dark world to join ours. Even if we are destroying nature at a frightening speed and if this world is imperfect.

My Absolute Darling is an excellent book, unbearable to read at time. I had to put it down sometimes, to reconnect to my surroundings because I was too far away with Turtle and her bad place. I had to bring my mind back from that hellish cabin in Northern California. And that, ladies and gentlemen, means that we are in the presence of a very gifted writer.

Highly recommended. Of course, in France, it’s published by Gallmeister.n

Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich – Stunning

August 7, 2019 16 comments

Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich (2001) French title: Dernier rapport sur les miracles à Little No Horse. Translated by Isabelle Reinharez.

Things you need to know about Louise Erdrich before you read this billet. This is from her Goodreads bio: “Karen Louise Erdrich is an American author of novels, poetry, and children’s books. Her father is German American and mother is half Ojibwe and half French American. She is an enrolled member of the Anishinaabe nation (also known as Chippewa). She is widely acclaimed as one of the most significant Native writers of the second wave of what critic Kenneth Lincoln has called the Native American Renaissance.”

This is my second attempt at reading The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich. Somehow, last time I knew it was just a question of bad timing because I really loved this piece of literature.

When the book opens, we’re in 1996 and Father Damian is around a hundred years old. He’s been on the Ojibwe reservation since 1912. He’s been sending letters to the Pope this whole time and now, they’re sending an emissary to investigate the life of Sister Leopolda. Her potential sainthood is at stake and Father Damian knows the truth about her.

We soon discover Father Damian’s personal story. He’s actually a woman. He was born as Agnes DeWitt, became Sister Cecilia when she joined a convent. She had to leave her religious community because she liked playing the piano too much and had a sensual relationship with Chopin’s pieces and her beloved instrument. This was not tolerable for her convent. Released from her vows, she lives on a farm with a German farmer, Bernd Vogel. They fall in love and though they don’t marry, they still have an intense and loving relationship.

Fate strikes, Bernd dies, Agnes is wounded and torrential rains devastate the farm and take away her piano. She survives and happens to take on the identity of Father Damian Modeste who died en route to the Ojibwe reservation of Little No Horse.

Agnes becomes Father Damian. The Last Report on the Miracles on Little No Horse goes back and forth in time. It’s split between a few moments in 1996, when Father Jude investigates Sister Leopolda and makes Damian’s acquaintance, and between tales of the people on the reservation.

The story is not linear, it goes in circles or it’s told by theme: one clan at a time, the interactions between people on the reservation, Father Damian’s personal journey with his faith and his adaptation to the life on the reservation. He befriends Nanapush, a traditional Ojibwe that he never managed to convert to Catholicism.

Father Damian loves the Ojibwe people, they become his people. As soon as Agnes knows where she’s headed, she starts learning the Ojibwe language. She’ll never stop. Father Damian will be a good priest, present during harsh time, understanding, open and always lending a friendly ear.

This is a stunning novel that rings true and it reminded me of Aboriginal literature. It’s the story of a people who has to accept the presence of white men who kill them with foreign illnesses, send them overseas to participate to wars they don’t feel a part of, who try to keep their culture and who live on the edge of two worlds. Even if it’s not a manifesto, the reader reads between the lines and clearly see the struggles, the poverty, the abuse of power and the greed of the white settlers. It is said without animosity but it is said.

We see the lives of human beings who are inhabited passions that they have to live through or try to tame. We follow Agnes/Damian’s doubts, his troubles with her/his double identity and her/his strong faith. Agnes/Damian is a wonderful character who experiences passions in her being, through earthly lovers, through her fusional relationship with music. Father Damian is acutely attuned to the people around him, he catches their vibes, absorbs them and finds the best way to interact with them and take care of them. There is no condemnation in his bones because Agnes knows that Father Damian is her creation, her way to do good. She’s flawed and can’t afford to be too preachy.

Louise Erdrich takes us to Little No Horse, this poor reservation in North Dakota, where part of the Ojibwe Nation still lives today. She said that Little No Horse is not the Turtle Mountain Reservation but it inspired it. She shows us the Ojibwe culture through light and lyrical touches. She doesn’t sugarcoat their hard life or makes them all angels or victims of the white colonization. Story after story, little point after little point, she draws a picture of life at Little No Horse. Time is not a straight line and she allows her narration to go in circles, not following a timeline but associations of ideas.

I understood that this is what Aborigines call “yarning” and I like that term. Every strand of story weaved with the other strands ends up creating a vivid tapestry of life. I read Little Not Horse in French translation. The cover of the French edition is brilliant. It’s a painting by Maynard Dixon who mostly painted the South-West of America, including Indians. This painting is the perfect cover for Erdrich’s book. It shows someone hidden in a cape, someone who conceals their identity and looks like a nun. The naked character embodies the sensuality of Erdrich’s prose and reminds us that love in all its forms is celebrated in this novel. The naked lady is followed by this other character who also looks like death, desolation and despair. It’s the constant fear that Father Damian feels: if someone sees him naked, they’ll know he’s a woman in disguise.

This is an absolutely stunning book. I hold my breath until the end because I knew Father Damian had a secret to tell. I enjoyed reading the stories of the Little No Horse community. I was interested in Agnes/Damian’s struggles as a person and as a believer. Thanks to her luminous prose, Louise Erdrich manages to stay on a thin rope, avoiding sermons and intolerance.

Highly recommended.

Sue, at Whispering Gums recently reviewed The Bingo Palace by Louise Erdrich here. Some characters come from the same community as the ones in Little No Horse. They seem to be their descendants.

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