Sunday, March 14, 2010

Beauty of Trevor's voice hampered by bulk of novel

The topic of William Trevor’s novel Love and Summer is made clear by the title. The beauty and fertility of Irish summer is strewn in abundance across the pages but the rousing passions of love remain largely absent. Trevor is a superb author with an incredible command of language and a delicate but rigorous understanding of inner lives. Part of Trevor’s genius lies in his ability to communicate emotions and complicated truths while leaving much unsaid. But in Love and Summer what isn’t articulated is too strongly vague and its saps the life from the novel.

Ellie is the orphaned heroine of the book. She was raised by nuns, and they continue to figure as a warm presence in her life. A position as housekeeper for the widower Dillahan is found for Ellie once she has passed through adolescence. After a few years Ellie assumes the status of wife on Dillahan’s farm. Her husband is a good, if not particularly emotive, man. Ellie has learned her duties well and does them contentedly if not with joy. They are childless but this is her only disappointment. One imagines that the Dillahans have the capacity to carry on indefinitely. But Ellie’s calm is interrupted by the appearance of a stranger in Rathmoye.

The appearance of Florian Kilderry is an entirely random event. There is little reason to pass through Rathmoye. Florian is from a town nearby, his parents have recently died and he has nothing keeping him in Ireland. He and Ellie become acquainted by chance and though he thinks about her afterward, even dreaming of her, his effect on her is much more severe. She falls for him immediately. Routine series of trysts in the open countryside of Ireland unfold but there is never a moment of animation seen between them. Trevor’s discretion is often mesmerizing but the entire absence of romantic detail makes the affair come across as prudish, practically imagined, as opposed to precious and private.

Glimpses are given into the lives of other of the town members. Moments of pity and humor are strongly felt and Rathmoye has the odd, colorful personalities to be expected from a small town. A forgetful madman plays a significant, as do the Connultys, an important family in the town whose final generation is unmarried. Ultimately the cast of characters seems caught in a stupor induced by the haze of summer. Miss Connulty, who herself experienced mistaken love, is the only one who behaves without languor. But her plaintive warnings sound peevish and jealous against the template of those who drift along.

The entrance given into the lives of the characters only reveal the ways in which everyone is making do. The comfort of routine soothes the broken heart and silent admirers are resigned to the precious hour in which they can view their beloved. There is a vague suggestion that history has the tendency to repeat itself, but the characters are so private and reserved that any inclination of exchange or connection remains concealed.

Trevor is one of my favorite author’s, but it is his short stories that are the emblems of his success. He contains loneliness and hope in the spaces of his sentences and the simple gathering of paragraphs. The frame of a novel is too bulky for the bewitching minimalism of the moments he creates. Love and Summer is not without its descriptive brilliance and its deeply affecting moments of solitude but these are lost in the abundance of faintly sketched characters and I found myself yearning for the brevity of After Rain.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Sweetness of love story overshadowed by sour plot

The subject of Jamie Ford’s novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is an unjust piece of history well worth exploring. Narrated from the perspective of a young Chinese boy, Henry Lee, Ford writes about the Japanese internment camps that sprung up in America during World War II.
Henry is the only child of first generation Chinese parents. He is 12 when the novel begins and his father has decreed that he only speak English in the house. Using this as a tactic to improve Henry’s English makes sense. But his parents speak only Cantonese, English words are unintelligible to them and so Henry is locked out of his own family so that he can perfect “his American.” His father’s edict is fueled by the climate of fear that is palpable for Asian immigrants of any kind at the time but it makes his son’s home as uncomfortable as the world outside.
Henry’s parents are depicted as classic immigrants, afraid of the new country and yet determined to earn its rights for their children. Ford’s attempts to deepen the complexity of the Lees only serve to highlight the ways in which he has fallen upon the crutch of stereotype.
The novel depends on the strength of Henry’s relationship with Keiko, a Japanese-American who attends the same white school as he. They fortify each other against the racism of their environment, exploring Seattle side by side. Henry is forced to sport a button reading “I am Chinese” to deter some of the hatred directed his way, while Keiko does not speak a word of Japanese but is ostracized nonetheless. The source of the comfort they find in one another is obvious and with Keiko as a figure to defend Henry is able to act brave. The climate is uncomfortable for everyone and it is clear that things are going to get worse before they get better.
Ford also crafts what is meant to be a pivotal friendship between Henry and a black street side saxophone player, Sheldon. As a result Henry and then Keiko have a winning love for jazz. The search for a particular record fuels a substantial portion of the novel. But like the rest of the characters in Ford’s novel, Sheldon is a surface and his existence too convenient in a series of similarly facile events.
Ford’s narrative alternates between Henry’s blooming friendship with Keiko and the period more than 40 years later when he is recovering from his wife, Edith’s death. Keiko’s absence is painted with mystery, but the importance of her disappearance was hard to swallow despite all the author’s efforts. Part of this failure was due to do with the ages of Ford’s protagonists. The duo is on the cusp of 13. I am not immune to the possibility of true love at the age of 13 or 14, and certainly the atmosphere of war affects the maturity level of its children, but for all Henry’s dramatic gravity he never seems capable of the weighty emotions Ford bestows on him. Keiko and Henry cling to each other because they are both different in a sea of white and beyond that there is little recognition and appreciation of the other’s subtleties.
Ford’s recognition of the maltreatment of fellow Americans in World War II is finally eclipsed by the conveniences of the plot. His turns of phrase and conversation exchanges are so cliché they are amusing until one realizes they are meant in earnest. As much as I hoped to be won over by jazz and love at no point did I find myself rooting for the reunion of Keiko and Henry because I found it impossible to care.