A new year always seems like a blank slate, full of promise and potential. The books we loved at Five Directions Press this month focus on strong, complex characters who face obstacles of their own and others’ making and cope with them in interesting, unexpected ways. One historical, one contemporary, and one a mixture of both—there should be something here for everyone to enjoy.
Louise Erdrich, The Round House (Harper, 2012)
Spellbinding and compelling, this novel by Louise Erdrich explores the repercussions of a brutal rape and beating on Geraldine, the mother of our narrator, Joe. (The attack is not described in detail.) Though the novel takes place on an Indian reservation in North Dakota, there are echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird, which took place in the Deep South. The novel is written from the perspective of an older Joe, as he reflects back on events at the age of thirteen which changed his life. His father, a patient and measured man, is a judge on the reservation and his mother, a strong and determined woman, works in a bureau registering Indians as tribal members until the attack incapacitates her. When she takes to her bed and falls silent, Joe and his father try to function as a family, and his father takes Joe into his confidence in an effort to solve the crime. Unfortunately, due to laws governing Indian affairs, solving the crime may not lead to prosecution of the attacker, as jurisdiction is complicated, depending on where the crime was committed and whether the attacker himself was Native American or not.
If this all sounds grim, it is not, although the unfairness of the white-made laws that govern Native American reservations might make you angry. Joe spends the summer not only in the company of his Dad but also with a variety of friends and relatives who step in to help. The characters and events are portrayed vividly and with humor; there’s Joe’s granddad Moshoon, who is so old that no one is sure how old he exactly is. While asleep, Moshoon mutters Ojibwa fables about a dark spirit who consumes his victims, which becomes a metaphor for Geraldine’s sadistic human attacker. There’s Joe’s alluring aunt by marriage, a former stripper, who nurtures Joe even as she betrays his trust in order to secure a future for herself, away from her alcoholic husband. There are Joe’s three best friends, who riff on Star Trek: The New Generation with him. And so much more.
A warm look at family, insights into life on the res, and a gripping legal thriller, too—what more could you ask for?—GM
Sigrid Nunez, The Vulnerables (Riverhead Books, 2023)
The characters in The Vulnerables are vulnerable indeed, as are most people who open themselves to acts of kindness that may ultimately expose them to complications in their personal lives. The story takes place at the beginning of the pandemic. The narrator (Sigrid Nunez herself, thinly disguised as one of the characters) agrees to leave her own New York City apartment to care for Eureka, a parrot who belongs to a friend of a friend in another New York City apartment. Eureka’s owners had hired a young man to stay with the parrot while they visited family in California. But when COVID gets so serious so fast in New York, the owners are left stranded on the West Coast, and the young man (the narrator, who gives all the other prominent characters in the book flower names—Lily, Rose, Violet, etc.—calls him “Vetch,” which is a kind of weed) decides to return to his family home. After moving in with Eureka, the narrator is able to offer her own apartment to a doctor who has come from Oregon to New York to help out in area hospitals. This second act of kindness hardly seems a problem, until Vetch, who is thrown out of his family home because of his disruptive nature, returns to care for Eureka, leaving the narrator no choice but to share residency with him for the foreseeable future.
Sigrid Nunez is a master at characterization, and the weed, the flowers, and the parrot are all fascinating to read about. There is much humor here. There is also heartbreak. In addition to the plot, there is Sigrid Nunez herself, who, at various points in the story, steps out of her role as protagonist to share her thoughts with the reader about everything from friendship to writing to the world in which we live. Her voice—both in these instances as well as when she is weaving her tale—is so intimate that she might as well be sitting in the room with the reader, sharing her wisdom over a glass of wine.
Sigrid Nunez may not be for every type of reader, but for those of us who like our plots to be about regular people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, and who cherish narrators who aren’t afraid to step into the spotlight to talk about issues that we as serious thinkers have a great interest in, she is the writer we have all been waiting for. Her novels are very much tied to the times and the big questions they beg us to consider. The Vulnerables in particular could be called a hybrid novel, aimed at (and succeeding in) hitting the sweet spot between entertainment and camaraderie.—JS
Andrea Penrose, The Diamond of London (Kensington Books, 2024)
Andrea Penrose is a successful author of mysteries set in the Regency period—most notably, her ongoing series starring the Earl of Wrexford and Lady Charlotte Sloane, which I featured in a previous “books we loved” entry. Here she takes a break from dead bodies and the complicated plots associated with them to tackle a real-life question: how did a supposedly sheltered nineteenth-century aristocrat defy all of society’s expectations that she marry to suit her family and instead craft a life that satisfied herself?
The titular Diamond of this fictional biography is Lady Hester Stanhope, tagged even today with adjectives such as “notorious” and “eccentric.” Raised according to the tenets of Jean-Jacques Rousseau by her politically radical and mentally unstable father, Lady Hester takes matters into her own hands after he threatens her with a knife and makes her escape to London. There—with the help of Beau Brummell, during a previous visit—she has already acquired a reputation as outspoken, passionate, and “different.” At twenty-four, she is also regarded as almost too old to wed, but her ties to the politically powerful Pitt family, which boasts two prime ministers among its ranks, mean that she is still a “catch” for men of ambition.
Lady Hester wants none of it. She’d rather dress in men’s clothes and sneak out to prize fights with her cousin Camelford, known to society as the “Half-Mad Lord,” or ride hell-for-leather across the moors. And so the stage is set for what will become, over the course of the book, a spectacular and wholly unconventional life.
Penrose’s decision to focus on Lady Hester’s time in England, rather than her later and better-known sojourn abroad, makes sense in dramatic terms because that’s where the character change happens. And the author does a wonderful job of balancing the demands of history against the requirements for a good novel. Lady Hester is herself a diamond: brilliant and multifaceted, but also cutting and razor-sharp. Although not always likable, she is unforgettable—just as she must have been in real life. I rooted for her all the way, even when I wanted to shake her and say, “Can’t you see what will happen if you do that?!”
I will be interviewing the author on the New Books Network around January 23, when the book comes out.—CP