literary fiction

Midwives by Chris Bohjalian

by Casee Marie on August 29, 2014 · 1 comment

in Fiction, Reviews

Across the landscape of his career, author Chris Bohjalian has written novels about a murderer’s plight against a privileged family in World War II Italy, about a young social worker driven into Jazz Age Long Island by a homeless man’s photographs, of an American woman’s love for an Armenian man in early-twentieth century Syria, and more. In his contemporary classic, Midwives, he tells the unforgettable story of midwife Sibyl Danforth and a home birth gone tragically wrong. Narrated by Sibyl’s fourteen year-old daughter Connie, Midwives is a chilling and evocative account of what one woman will endure for the sake of protecting her name and standing by her choices. When Sibyl Danforth experienced challenges in the delivery of a client’s child, she would have called the hospital and sent for an emergency rescue squad. But in a small Vermont town in the throes of a winter storm, help is an impossible distance away and Sibyl finds herself the only hope of a helpless, unborn child. After the mother has expired, Sibyl takes matters into her own hands and performs an emergency cesarean section to save the child. But what if, as the prosecutors of her court case are determined to prove, the mother had still be alive when Sibyl cut the baby from her?

With the sort of harsh but deeply emotive freedom that makes his work so singularly compelling, Bohjalian unravels the story of Sibyl’s journey to clear herself of being labeled a murderer. Is she suffering vulgar mistreatment at the hands of others, or did she truly make an atrocious mistake? There’s something quiet and vulnerable about Sibyl as a character, which makes her no less vivid, but where the novel really excels in its character depiction is in narrator Connie. In Connie we see a strong, determined young woman represented with the same clarity and depth as many of Bohjalian’s other memorable characters, whereas Sibyl sometimes seems to be hiding behind a smokescreen (a necessity, I think, if we readers are to form our own judgments of Sibyl’s story).

Much like The Double Bind, Midwives plays very steadily on Bohjalian’s knack for psychological mischief; through a fairly quiet and unhurried story he seems to know how to guide his reader into a false sense of security before sweeping revelations come in to knock us off our feet. Also as with The Double Bind, I’m left to wonder exactly how he manages to know what to put in and what to leave out. For me, Midwives worked really well from beginning to end; it had me riveted, yet never able to guess exactly how the ending would play out – and then thrown for a few final loops just when I thought I couldn’t be caught by surprise.

Additionally, the level of research that Bohjalian undertook to make Midwives such an engrossing novel is quite fascinating. Not only does he explore the details of midwifery in 1980s America with astonishing acuity, but the novel’s two acts documenting the subsequent manslaughter trial include some aggressively researched and impressive court room drama. This is an interesting novel in its many assets and its many areas of strength: once again the narrative carries off of the pages to envelope the reader in the setting, and young Connie – thirty at the time of her narrative, but fourteen in her memories – is as vividly imagined as the midwife at the center of the plot. Bohjlaian has proven himself as a masterful storyteller and as particularly adept at creating multi-faceted, deeply intellectual drama, but Midwives delves also into an element of the profoundly human, glimpsing the vulnerabilities of human nature and exploring the emotional ways in which we deal with those imperfections. At times challenging, often raw in its uninhibited exploration of truth, Midwives relays much heart and determination even amid the most devastating of tragedies.


Midwives was my August pick for the TBR Pile Challenge, and my fourth overall Chris Bohjalian novel. (I’ve also reviewed The Sandcastle Girls, The Double Bind, and The Light in the Ruins.) I’ve enjoyed each of his stories so much, and it consistently impresses me how well he writes stories with so much diversity to them; I can’t think of many other authors who write about such vastly different times, places, topics, and people – and make them all seem realistic to boot!



Title: Midwives
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Genre: literary fiction, mystery
Publisher: Vintage (paperback)
Release date: November 8, 1998 (April 1997, original)
Source: personal collection
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Life of Pi by Yann Martel

by Casee Marie on July 30, 2014 · 4 comments

in Fiction, Reviews

Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s Booker-winning literary achievement, tells the story of sixteen year-old Piscine “Pi” Patel, the son of a zookeeper who, at sixteen, leaves his native India with his family and a menagerie of their zoo animals on a Japanse cargo ship. The Patels are bound for a new life in Canada, but when the ship sinks Pi finds himself the sole human survivor on a lifeboat also carrying a dazed orangutan, a zebra with a broken leg, an ornery hyena, and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger. As the circle of life progresses even in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Pi and the tiger are soon all that remain. What follows is a literary patchwork of magical realism, seafaring survival, and the infinite reaches of faith.

Like so many books dubbed masterworks of recent literature – or simply “modern classics” – Life of Pi is a book that draws reactions diverse in the extreme. As with any novel, some readers will regret their time spent and for others the experience will be in their blood forever. I’m of the latter persuasion; this is the sort of novel that makes me stop to celebrate the sheer magic that a good story can achieve. I certainly count Pi Patel among the most richly-imagined characters I’ve ever read; he and his story of a boy and a tiger in a boat, simple on the surface yet impossibly complex underneath (much like the Pacific itself), will be with me for a very long time.

Martel lays the foundation for the tale with the words, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” So much is encompassed in that one sentence; it seems to tell us in advance that the story we are about to read will either move us or frustrate us beyond definition – as religion often does – and that we will many times find ourselves at a crossroads of faith. Faith is itself a main character, a survivor on that lifeboat, but the shape it takes in here is one of the most beautiful and, I think, most enchanting interpretations I’ve experienced. In the early chapters of the book we learn of Pi’s unconventional spiritual leanings: towards that of Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. He lays his imaginative and ever-loving heart before the reader when, at the furrowed brows of his earthbound leaders – father, priest, imam, and pujari – young Pi simply says, “I just want to love God!” He does; and as his capacity for love transcends religious confines so does it transcend the hopelessness of tragedy and the chaos of desperation. In this alone, Pi and his story would be enough, but through Pi’s narrative Martel explores faith and life and love even further, shifting from witty to philosophical, from real to surreal. Within this intricate tapestry of art is the power to impact a reader’s life, the sort of impact we readers quest for every time we open a book.

Much of the novel exists with only Pi and the tiger (whose name, with an ecstatic sense of rightness, is Richard Parker), but through their interactions, the settings of territory and the solid language of emotion, the two pack more life into several hundred pages than I would have imagined possible. Martel heaps so much love and earnest heart into Pi’s narrative voice that the reader feels locked into this powerful, uneasy friendship of man and beast. Despite the abundance of violence between creatures (some reluctantly inflicted by devout vegetarian Pi), what struck me in the end was that I’ve rarely read such emotional and breathtaking writing about animals. The tremors of a ship rat clinging to safety in fear; the quiet, noble pain of the injured zebra; the gently quizzical nature of a contented meerkat; each comes to exotic life through Martel’s prose, which is fearless in its imaginative daring.

By the end of the book the reader is given a crossroads of belief, an opportunity to take a path obscured by the bramble of imagination, or one that offers the clarity of practicality. As the unforgettable narrator wisely observes, “Faith in God is an opening up, a letting go, a deep trust, a free act of love.” So it is with getting lost in a good story.


Life of Pi was my July pick for the TBR Pile Challenge, and it didn’t disappoint. I’ve kept myself distanced from the book and it’s film adaptation (something I hope to remedy soon) so I wouldn’t have much to influence the experience. When I finished reading I went to its Goodreads page and browsed other reviews – it never fails to amaze me when I see such a wild fluctuation from two- to five-star reviews. Just further proof of the subjective nature of books!



Title: Life of Pi
Author: Yann Martel
Genre: literary fiction, magical realism
Publisher: Mariner Books (Knopf, original)
Release date: May 1, 2003 (September 2001, original)
Source: personal collection
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The Hollow Ground by Natalie S. Harnett

by Casee Marie on July 10, 2014

in Fiction, Reviews

Set against the devastating coal mine fires of 1960s Pennsylvania, Natalie S. Harnett’s The Hollow Ground tells the story of eleven year-old Brigid Howley and her family, a long generation of coal miners, as they wrestle with secrets of the past and fight against nature to salvage the lives they’ve always known. It’s an astonishingly vivid portrait of desperation and the lingering threads of hope when even the ground beneath one’s feet can’t be trusted. Through Brigid’s clever and openly honest narrative we follow the Howleys from their home as they rejoin her father’s parents – known simply and effectively as Gram and Gramp – in the town where her father was raised; a town in which gritty secrets and ominous shadows tie together with a curse placed upon the Howley family’s Molly Maguire ancestor a century before. With precision and power, Brigid gently weaves the story of her struggle to keep her family together as passions rise, grudges give way to liberated feuds, and devastating secrets are revealed.

Harnett writes with eloquence and grit, devotedly tending to the nuances of the story in a way that makes for a remarkably strong debut. Voice becomes a very central focus of the novel’s delivery, whether it’s the narrative voice of the young and preternaturally wise Brigid, who in her pre-teen years thrills at reading the Brontës and Betty Smith, or the distinctively illustrated voices of any number of the novel’s supporting characters: her fierce-tempered and unstable Ma, well-meaning but enigmatic Daddy, and especially her cantankerous and gruffly compassionate Gram. With each character’s unique voice Harnett creates a new layer of intrigue and emotional complexity in her bold story. In a way the characters lend a special sort of detail to the novel’s deeply atmospheric quality, wrapping the reader further in the many folds of uncertainty and devastation that the people of these coal mines experienced.

The coal mine fire itself becomes its own entity in The Hollow Ground as the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning threatens the air and the fire burning in the mines below combines with the earth’s elements, creating deadly sinkholes that can swallow homes and lives in a moment. Based on the true fires of Centralia, Pennsylvania which began burning over fifty years ago and still burn today, the story touches on a tragic piece of recent US history as it explores the impact these fires had on entire towns and the people who inhabited them, people whose determination thrives as they attempt to fight a fire burning below their feet: an unseen and quite deadly adversary. Against this harrowing backdrop, the dramas of Brigid’s family members play out in poignant detail. Much as Brigid struggles with the faults of the grown-ups in her family, the reader too is torn between compassion and frustration, feeling very much what Brigid feels and being drawn even closer to her in that way.

Brigid is a terrific rendering of a young literary heroine in the vein of Harper Lee’s iconic Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve noticed that young heroines seem to have begun rising through literary fiction over the last few years, and Harnett’s innocent, genuine Brigid is a great addition to that representation. Her moxie is admirable and her emotional stability is at times particularly jarring in the wake of her parents’ poor choices, a fact that boldly illustrates her wisdom and even her superiority over the elders she so painstakingly tries to appease. Ultimately The Hollow Ground is an unflinching portrait of familial struggle and a timeless examination of the treacherous elements that can both strengthen and relentlessly violate a family’s connection. At once contemplative and energetic, Harnett’s debut is a provocative and eerie novel of suspense, intricacy, and profound feeling.


Title: The Hollow Ground

Author: Natalie S. Harnett

Genre: literary fiction, mystery

Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books

Release date: May 13, 2014

Source: Get Red PR (C/O)

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The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

by Casee Marie on June 26, 2014 · 2 comments

in Fiction, Reviews

Creating a provocative sensation upon its publication in 1993 with a film adaptation that became a cult classic just six years later, The Virgin Suicides remains a persistent contemporary classic; a novel at once remarkably elusive, open to perpetual interpretation, and yet with an intensely personal resonance for many readers. It was the debut novel of author Jeffrey Eugenides (winning awards even before its publication), and in many ways it lays the groundwork for the mastery and peculiarity of a seminal artist. The story, of course, is that of the Lisbon sisters – Therese, Mary, Bonnie, Lux, and Cecilia, who range in ages from 17 to 13, respectively – and the year in which they ended their young lives. In a uniquely stylized first-person-plural narrative the unidentified boys across the street, telling the story twenty years later, explore every waking moment of their obsession with the otherworldly Lisbon sisters: beginning with young Cecilia’s first suicide attempt and subsequent completion, and carrying on fixatedly through until the sisters’ tragic dénouement. In between lies an electric, compelling portrait of a doomed search for liberation in the clutch of youthful desperation; of parental extremes warring with teenage angst; and of the grimy secrets hiding in the shadows of 1970s suburbia.

The Virgin Suicides reads like few other books, with Eugenides, then a novelist-newcomer, standing on no ceremony for the ethical or moral niceties that might stand in the way of this intrepid story. He allows the collective narrative to divulge and disturb as it will, weaving into its most grotesque and honest territories without apology. Eugenides explores these territories with perverse curiosity, as do his boy-men telling the story, poking at the short lives of the Lisbon sisters with brazen and indelible devotion. Though dialogue is often scarce, the Lisbon girls come to life, hazily and irresistibly, under the narrators’ ministrations: shimmering reflections of clever, romantic visionaries on the cusp of an unreachable womanhood, girls labeled as “troubled” or “crazy”, but only troubled by the manipulations of society and only crazed by the boundaries in their paths. Throughout the narrative they stay under the surface of the murky glass that encompasses the distance between them and the rest of the world: the narrators, as well as the readers, are never allowed within the sphere of any one Lisbon sister, never granted entrance into the realm of her thoughts and dreams – and, most aggravatingly, never allowed to understand her reasons. What results is the faded picture of five tragic figures set against the more vividly realized surroundings of suburban Michigan in the 1970s; in a way, the haziness of the Lisbon sisters, combined with the anonymity of the unnamed and unnumbered boys across the street, draws an inverted focus. There’s a kind of strangeness to this style that wonderfully echoes the bizarre, thought-provoking, and at times profane story at the heart of the book.

Distracting only slightly from the compelling singularity of the novel and the enchantress-like mystique of the otherwise ordinary Lisbon sisters is Eugenides’s magnetic prose, which soars throughout the narrative with delightful flair and a dry, darkly humorous edge. His ability to weave through the intricacies of language and emerge with art is just beautiful; his writing is rough-hewn and elegant all at once. With inimitable style and boldness, The Virgin Suicides is fascinating and disturbing, drawing an arresting line between the constraints of sexual repression and the inevitability of mortality.


The Virgin Suicides was my June pick for the TBR Pile Challenge; I’ve been meaning to read it since before I can remember, and it was certainly worth the wait. There’s something so incredible about this novel to me; I can’t really put my finger on it, but hopefully I gave voice to it in some degree above. This is one of the rare occasions when I saw the film adaptation before seeing the book, but it didn’t hinder my experience at all. (Actually, everything just seems to look a little more ethereal overlaid with Sofia Coppola’s wonderful imagery, doesn’t it?)


Title: The Virgin Suicides

Author: Jeffrey Eugenides

Genre: literary fiction

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Release date: April 1993

Source: personal collection

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