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Books We Loved, Jun. 2022

Ah, June. Summer is on the horizon, the days in the Northern Hemisphere are as long as they’re going to get, and everything starts to slow down and relax, not least because there’s no other way to deal with nonstop heat and humidity. To get you ready for those halcyon evenings to come, we have three reading suggestions: a romance that revolves around a summer stint at a Renaissance Faire, a journey through contemporary South African history that won the Booker Prize, and a spiritual quest among the nomads of thirteenth-century Tibet, filled with wild horses, yak milking, and Buddhist philosophy. If Covid still has you wary of travel in reality, here are three literary destinations that can fill the gap.

Jen DeLuca, Well Met (Berkley, 2019)

Summer’s pretty much here, which means that as an adult with a full-time job who hasn’t experienced a true summer vacation in more years than she cares to acknowledge, I tend to gravitate toward novels with characters who, for one reason or another, are able to drop their jobs and responsibilities with nary a thought as to what will happen come September. So when I stumbled across Well Met by Jen DeLuca and realized it incorporated two of my favorite things—the memory of summer vacation and Shakespeare’s England (or at least a semblance of it)—there was no way I was going to leave it on the shelf.

Having recently been dumped by both her boyfriend and her landlord, the now-single and homeless Emily relocates to Willow Creek, Maryland, to help care for her niece while her sister, a single mother, recovers from a car accident. Roped into volunteering as a tavern wench for the town’s Renaissance Faire, she meets Simon, a teacher at the town’s high school who’s in charge of the Faire, and sparks—not the good kind—fly. Simon’s kind of rude, not really open to Emily’s ideas about how to make the Faire better, and downright hostile toward her Shakespeare-oriented conspiracy theories, but as soon as she changes into her wench costume, Simon himself changes into someone else entirely.

Unable to determine if it’s an act for the sake of the Faire or if Simon is truly developing feelings he just doesn’t care to pursue, Emily finds herself torn between moving on from Willow Creek at the end of summer like she’d planned and sticking around to figure out just who the real Simon is.

The story is light-hearted and fun, as fizzy and sweet as a wine cooler on the porch as the sun goes down and the day’s heat finally breaks.—CJH

Damon Galgut, The Promise (Europa Editions, 2021)

In The Promise, Damon Galgut tells the story of the Swart family, (mostly) unconsciously bigoted white South African landowners grappling with their personal dilemmas against a political background that marks the end of apartheid and the challenges that follow in its wake. The book is divided into four sections, and each is centered around the funeral of one of the Swarts. The first funeral occurs in 1986, and each of the others follows approximately ten years after the one before it, providing some thirty years of family (and national) history. The promise of the title concerns Salome, the black woman whose adult life has been spent in service to the Swarts. Rachel Swart, the wife and mother in the story—and the first to make her exit—insists that her husband, Manie, promise that he will give Salome the deed to the rough-built house in which she dwells on the Swart farm. Amor, the youngest Swart child—and the story’s moral compass—is the only person who hears this promise being made, and the only one who seems to think it should be kept.

As important and as good as the story is, it is its presentation that really sets this novel apart. Galgut moves fast, taking us from the thoughts of one character to the thoughts of another in the same paragraph, sometimes even in the same sentence. The narration is mostly in third person, but Galgut switches to first as his characters see fit. Nor does he use punctuation to set dialogue apart from narration. In fact he doesn’t even stop to ensure we always know which character is doing the speaking. If we have to back up a line or two, so be it; that’s our problem. And he himself is not above discarding his omniscience in the third-person sections so as to add his own two cents into the mix. He’s not even above admonishing us, his readers, for his failure to give more details early in the story about the condition of Salome’s house. And he’s right; with all the dizzying details he provides about the lives of not only the family (besides the parents and Amor, there are two other siblings) but the people who impact each of their lives, it’s easy to accept Salome as the universal enduring victim and move on. We have done her a disservice by not demanding that he tell us more about Salome upfront. As for the time and space in which the story unfolds, they can and do change as quickly and as erratically as dreamscapes.

All of this makes for a thrilling read. We must run alongside Galgut (it’s like running beside someone flying a kite) in order to keep up—and it’s not unpleasant to realize we are up to the task. This is a sad story—four of the characters we have come to understand if not quite to love must die in it, after all. But its presentation renders it buoyant as well. Galgut, for instance, is gleeful when he showers us with fine points about corpse rot and, later, the necessity for the cremation director to pick through ashes for any metals (fillings, surgical plates) that would otherwise get caught in the machine that turns the last chucks of what was once a person to dust. And not only does he allow his characters to deride one another constantly, and mercilessly—sometimes in their thoughts and sometimes to their faces—but he clearly takes pleasure in it. It’s hard not to keep your hand close to your mouth as you read, so as to be ready to cover what sometimes feels like deliciously inappropriate laugher.

The Promise is energetic, often electrifying. It is also intimate and heartfelt. No wonder it won the Booker.—JS

(Black Peony Press, 2022)

It’s always a pleasure to run across a historical novel that delves into times and places less traveled. The Horse Master’s Daughter, set in Tibet in 1285, is such a book. From the dry mountain plains where nomads roam under pressure from invading Mongol hordes to the north to the (relative) lowlands occupied by horse breeders and traders, the novel explores Buddhist philosophy, restrictions on women, and the perennial problem of finding one’s own path in life, here expressed as a destiny foretold by prophecy but in complete opposition to the expectations placed on the heroine by her society.

That heroine is Nordun, whom we meet at the moment when she has decided to take her vows as a Buddhist nun. Her grandmother, a well-respected elder at the convent, has overseen Nordun’s care for the last decade, but the girl wants to visit the father who abandoned her at the age of six before committing herself irrevocably to the life of a nun. Her grandmother reluctantly agrees, and Nordun sets off south with a pair of novices whom she sees as her spiritual sisters and an elderly warrior to guide and protect them on their journey.

As the group rides south, Nordun encounters one surprise after another: a family she has never met, a prophecy known to everyone at the convent except herself, and a compellingly handsome cousin with the metaphorically perfect name of Karma, the very force Nordun is trying to escape by traversing the Buddhist path to enlightenment. When she at last reaches her father’s estate, she discovers him in a very different position from the one she remembers: still in mourning for her mother, whose death led him to abandon care of Nordun, he has fallen under the thrall of her mean-spirited uncle and cousins. These interlopers, although they have dramatically expanded revenues from the horse farm, have undermined the values her parents once cherished—most notably, by abusing the very animals that supply their wealth. But the only way to stop them is for Nordun to become her father’s successor, which requires her to train a wild stallion and bring it back to the farm.

Once an avid rider, Nordun can barely handle a placid mare, and she’s far from certain that she’s up to the challenge. But she cannot bear to step aside and leave her cruel relatives in control. So she sets off to fulfill the divination cast at her birth, knowing that she may never return to the convent life she treasures. Along the way, she discovers there are many ways to serve the Dharma, and even a young woman can chart her own course.

The language in this fascinating novel is often lovely, but at times it veers into strange, even jarring usage. Both the author and the readers would benefit from giving her books a good proof-read. That said, the characters are so appealing, the settings so beautifully described, and the location so unique that even a stickler like me can still recommend the novel wholeheartedly. I look forward to reading A Pilgrim’s Heart and Echoes of Home, the second and third parts of Nordun’s story, when they come out later this year.—CPL

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