Review: Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

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Stay With Me
by Ayobami Adebayo
Published 2017 by Knopf
$25.95 hardcover ISBN 978-0451494603

By Noah Sanders

At the heart of Ayobami Adebayo’s unsettling debut novel, Stay With Me, there is a common villain: men and the consequences of their prideful ways. This is a book about men being duplicitous with women at the very highest level in order to maintain the masculine identity bore into them, seemingly, from the moment they’re pushed into the world. It is a novel about lying to those you care about—your family, your friends, your wife—to ensure that you are always viewed as the highest order of man, that your self-proclaimed biggest weaknesses are never exposed. The novel, set in Nigeria in the politically fraught days of the early 90s, drops its main characters—strong-willed Yejide and her husband Akin—into the toxic cesspool that is the oftentimes conflicting needs of traditional Nigerian culture, strongly held religious beliefs, and the suffocating presence of a dysfunctional government. Adebayo’s characters are tossed about in the frothy mix of this noxious stew, their actions products of trying to find their own way through the demands pressed upon them by family, God, and country.

Yejide, unhappy product of the traditional polygamist belief system embedded in Nigerian culture, falls hard for Akin and decides to marry him if they live with one rule: no other wives. They will eschew the demands of family and friends and live with, and for, each other only. Yet, Yejide is seemingly barren, and without being able to provide Akin with a child and under the gun of parental pressure, the promise is broken, and Akin secretly marries, pushing Yejide to try and conceive any way possible in hopes of saving their marriage.

It is no spoiler to say that Yejide does conceive successfully (many times throughout the book) and that each child she brings into the world brings its own wash of all-consuming sadness. Yet, in the Nigerian culture of Stay With Me, children and the act of giving birth is not only a woman’s gift, but her duty, and though Yejide’s children, and their invoking of her own past, drive her to depression, near-madness and a clinical coldness, it is assumed by her and those around her, that she will have more. Tradition demands it.

Tradition—cultural and religious—encircle our main characters in Stay With Me, laying a path that leads them toward bad choices and broken relationships. Akin, dishonest to say the least, may truly love Yejide (and his actions, in a skewed, unhealthy way support this) but he has been inundated with the belief that he must be a man of certain type and to achieve that he must bury himself beneath an identity that isn’t his. His actions are driven by the suffocating aspects of the traditional role of men in Nigerian society. He is supposed to provide many women with many children and when he can’t, he passes the guilt of being unable to on to Yejide, regardless of its traumatic consequences. Yejide herself, truly the central character of Stay With Me, is traumatized by tradition as well. Her mother dies in childbirth, and she is stigmatized, nearly shunned by her family because of its implications. She accepts the blame for being unable to conceive, because tradition says it can only be her fault, and as much as she pushes back against the confinement of tradition, she’s born of it, so she accepts the fault. Tradition is a part of her, and her journey, beautifully human in the hands of Adebayo, to free herself from it is the driving force of the novel.

Adebayo uses gaps in her storytelling as a narrative tool, purposefully avoiding explaining certain situations so their eventual reveal will best buoy the growth of her characters. As the book progresses and its secrets are slowly teased out, the characters’ perception of each other and the reader’s perception of them is slowly shifted, until it feels as if everyone involved is looking at entirely different people. As well as it works in terms of the development of Akin and Yejide and the slow dissolution of their relationship, it leaves Adebayo with a lot of loose ends to tie up in a short period of time. This is a well-written debut, but the ending feels cluttered and rife with pages of exposition as the scandals behind Akin and Yejide’s relationship are explained and connected, the gaps filled in.

There is a profound sadness that runs through Stay With Me, a sense of loss and responsibilities thrust upon the novel’s characters, indicative of what might be seen as a depressing novel. Stay With Me is about broken people living in a system that perpetuates their inability to repair themselves, together or separate. These are human beings forced through the sieve of humanity—the very worst of it—and though it isn’t pretty, they come out whole, different but whole, on the other side. Ayobami Adebayo’s debut novel is a book that drags you down to some truly dark places, but in the end, she still manages to find a little light.

Review: Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard

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Autumn
by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Published 2017 by Penguin Press
$27.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0399563300

By Noah Sanders

“I want to show you our world as it is now,” Karl Ove Knausgaard writes to his unborn daughter in the opening chapter of his new book, Autumn. What follows is just that: short essay after short essay after short essay digging into the author’s ideas about very specific, very mundane objects and abstract concepts. He ponders piss, the labia, mouths, frames, chewing gum, lightning, August Sander, vomit, rubber boots, and much more. The essays, though ostensibly tied to the autumn season and aimed at creating a moment of reflection for the daughter he will soon welcome into the world, are more than anything just an opportunity for Knausgaard to wax philosophical (amongst other things) about his life, his past and the very world that we all live in.

Knausgaard is the internationally acclaimed author of the 7-book My Struggle series—a massive autobiographical undertaking—and is a master, quite possibly the master, of sussing deep, deep meaning from the most banal of things. If the sheer word count of My Struggle is too much to grasp, Autumn is like a condensed primer for Knausgaard’s particular style and way of thinking. Each piece—none longer than three pages—is Knausgaard’s almost stream of conscious mental noodling on a subject, any subject, of his choice. But, Knausgaard’s ability to derive complicated, yet clearly explored, interpretations is thrilling. The reader finds themselves devouring each short entry, trying to see where he’ll go, what tendrils of fascinating thought he’ll form on the subject of say, “Piss.”

In “Piss,” one of the books strongest pieces, he writes, “The little stench in one’s own piss stands in roughly the same relation to the great stench as the single cigarette does to death: it produces a faint titillation.” From there he connects the shame of pissing oneself to the last time—as a 15 year old at camp—that he himself pissed himself and how after he realized he wasn’t going to be caught, he thought, “oh God, how delicious it is to pee yourself.” Knausgaard toes the line of pretentiousness, but never stumbles over it. His pieces are the work of a big time thinker, but he isn’t trying to beat his readers over the head with how smart he is. There’s humor and poignancy strewn throughout, and they only serve to deepen the enjoyment of Knausgaard’s voice and style.

A reader can get lost amongst Knausgaard’s thoughts about such a wide spectrum of subject matter, but there are running themes—if not any kind of narrative. In “Frames” Knausgaard writes, “Identity is being one thing and not the other,” and this concept, of being something born out of comparison to whatever it is you are not, is sprinkled liberally throughout the book. “Lightning” is more memorable than the other components of a storm—wind, water, clouds—because it is framed against the familiar: “Contrary to lightning and thunder, which only occur now and then, during brief intervals which we are at once familiar with, and foreign to, just as we are at once familiar with and foreign to ourselves and the world we are a part of.”

Items only gaining import in context, plays nicely with Knausgaard’s theme of understanding huge concepts by focusing on singular parts. A human to Knausgaard, is too much to consume at once, so he focuses on a single body part, deriving their existence from the contextual clues. Which, though this may be grasping at straws, seems the point of the book: a sort of cliff notes of the entirety of the world for his daughter to be. In “Stubble Fields” he writes, “Since the main thing in the upbringing of children or in living with children is precisely to ensure that they get the feeling that the world is predictable, that it is graspable and at all times recognizable.” Which Autumn helps to do, it shows us the underlying meanings in simple things, making connections—heady but comfortable connections—between, well, everything. Knausgaard has created an abstract map of his own thoughts, and in doing so has crafted a sort of existential “how-to” for his soon to be born daughter.

This isn’t a book to read from start-to-finish, though the bite-size pieces make it somehow, strangely bingeable. Though themes do emerge as you plow through “Infants” and on to “Cars,” Knausgaard’s meandering thoughts can lose a bit of their luster if too much is consumed at once and not every piece is as strong as say, “Piss,” though all of them are at worst food for thought. Autumn is a book to digest slowly, over the course of a month or a year or even a season.

Review: Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang

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Sour Heart
by Jenny Zhang
Published 2017 by Lenny
$26.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0399589386

By Noah Sanders

The main characters of the loosely connected stories in Jenny Zhang’s debut short story collection, Sour Heart, are, each and all the young Chinese daughters of recent immigrants to New York City. They are all struggling, to various degrees, to make do in the new world they’ve arrived in. They do so without the presence, or influence of adults. Instead, these girls—nine and ten on average—have other kids in similar situations to depend on, to learn from about life lessons. From their parents they garner overbearing, co-dependent support, fear, and the trickle-down effects of the trauma of the past. From their peers they gain the basic foundations of life filtered through the skewed perspective of youth. In the grey area in between, Zhang manages to explore the struggles of young girls who are just grasping what struggle really is. She does so with a dark, biting humor that lays out the small tragedies and the even smaller triumphs that define the lives of these children.

The world of Sour Heart is not an especially pleasant one. Zhang’s New York is a desperately impoverished world. Families dig in dumpsters, apartments collapse, broken cars are pushed into rivers—it is a grim world, one where parents must sacrifice “everything” to make it suitable for those they’ve brought into it. And to do so, they must work two or three or more jobs to put measly scraps on the table. Sour Heart exists in the absent space between their children and them. Zhang’s cadre of young girls are given lives but lives but without standard forms of parental guidance. In “We Love You Crispina” the parents are loving to the point of including their daughter in the petty crimes they commit just to survive. In “Our Mothers Before Them” the parents are drunk and needy, demanding and damaged. These kids are told to “succeed,” as if the unknown outcome of their lives gives sound reason for their parents to flee China. They are asked do so without support, without parents, without anything but their youthful peers to give them meaning.

The parents in Sour Heart, though chronically absent, still pass along their influence. The traumas of growing up, and escaping Communist China, come through as, sometimes, nostalgic memories, but are racked with half-remembered pain and suffering. All of this gets, consciously or not, passed down to the next generations. “I was her receptacle,” the narrator of “Our Mothers Before Them” says of her mother, “and I permitted her to speak endlessly.” There is much talk of “sacrifice” in Sour Heart, and Zhang never allows for it to feel particularly selfless, or beneficial. It is instead, a necessity for survival, no matter the cost.

There is a pervasive, suitably childlike grossness in Sour Heart. Zhang’s characters rarely have set a toe into their teen years, and the curiosity, humor, and enjoyment found in the exploration of body fluids and body parts hasn’t dimmed a bit. There is more than enough descriptions of pooping, farting, and pissing as well as detailed descriptions of the smell of vaginas. The main character of “The Empty The Empty The Empty” spends an afternoon allowing her friend to examine her vagina. She describes the smell as a combination between her sandals and “these fried anchovies my parents ate.”

Zhang is a skilled portrayer of the kid’s point of view and the grossness, though often times overused, isn’t used in vain. The casual obsession with sexuality clashes with their maturity-lacking descriptions because these are little girls being pushed into adulthood without any real guidance. This becomes most apparent in “The Empty The Empty The Empty,” the collection’s best story, the narrator so convinced of her own perfection, so desperate for confirmation, that she allows herself, and her strange young friend Frangie, to be pulled into a particularly sad sexual scenario, authored by a girl just a tad older, a tad more experienced. As a storm crashes outside their small apartment empty of parental guidance, the narrator’s age and inexperience rears its head. She offers whispered promises of Cheez Doodles and shopping trips as she assists in the forced deflowering of Frangie.

It is difficult at times to call the ‘stories’ in Sour Heart ‘short.’ For the most part, these are borderline novellas, long, dense pieces of first-person narration. As good as Zhang is at capturing the voice of a child, it oftentimes feels like the same child, with a slightly different experience but a similar voice. The characters bleed together, and by the end of the book it’s a blur of petulance and fart descriptions. The length can work to her advantage; in “The Empty The Empty The Empty,” the page count gives Zhang time to build up our perception of the narrator, making her eventual turn all the more painful to experience. Mostly, the length of each story feels excessive and exuding of an atmosphere that becomes stale over the course of the book.

There is a sense in the length and the blurring of characters over time, that maybe we’re being asked to see the immigrant experience depicted here as a collective one. That each of these girls, different as they are, are living in the same world, dealing with the same issues, struggling just to survive. It’s a strong point Zhang’s writing often times highlights, but too often, it’s buried beneath the weight of so much.

Review: The Misfortune of Marion Palm by Emily Culliton

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The Misfortune of Marion Palm
by Emily Culliton
Published 2017 by Knopf
$25.95 hardcover ISBN 978-1524731908

By Noah Sanders

The opening line of Emily Culliton’s excellent debut novel, The Misfortune of Marion Palm, is a deceptively simple set-up for the rest of the book: “Marion Palm is on the lam.” The book does revolve around the disappearance of its titular main character, but it is equally concerned with the effects—both good and bad—of her vanishing on those around her. Marion Palm, as the book begins, has stolen $40,000 from her employer—an upscale private school her daughters attend—left these same daughters in a CVS, and has taken off for good, leaving her ineffectual husband, Nathan, to sort it all out. This isn’t a book about a grand escape, though. Marion doesn’t roam far and her goals are neither specific nor especially ambitious. She runs because she needs to escape the person she’s become—a mother, a part-time employee at a prep school, a wife. She runs to shed the disguises she’s worn for so long, to rediscover who she once was. Culliton, a writer to keep an eye on, allows Marion’s disappearance to be a catalyst for the entire Palm Family—Nathan and the two daughters, Jane and Ginny. This a story about the people we become, the complex identities we don and what occurs when those identities are removed, voluntarily or not.

“She’s been disguising herself for years,” Culliton writes early on when Marion decides to chop and dye her limp, brown hair, “and this is another round.” Marion is the type of character restricted by her lack of ambition, her lack of knowing just what it is she wants to do. The author paints her as a sponge of sorts, a generally inoffensive person who’s overly helpful, who allows others to spill their hopes and dreams and fears and insecurities, but never exposes her own. Over the course of The Misfortune of Marion Palm—a title that seems more and more relevant the deeper you get into the book—we see the choices, or the lack thereof, that have made Marion’s life. When Marion and Nathan, a clueless trust-fund kid, have sex for the first time, Culliton writes, “In a rush he enters her, and it’s the first she’s had sex without a condom, and the feeling breaks her apart. Nathan’s selfishness courses through her, but she feels entirely required.” Marion, up to her escape, exists only to please others, a job she is quite good at. But the identity, a helpful mother and wife, grows heavier and heavier, her only alleviation the small control she feels when she embezzles. Which she does, a lot.

Even Marion’s escape is small and compartmentalized. She thinks about leaving New York City, but gets worried at the train station and instead books a cheap flop near the park. She dyes her hair and sleeps for long periods: “Marion feels as if she is repairing herself. She administers carefully to her own needs.” It’s hard to say Marion is on the run, because her escape is pockmarked by inertia. She never leaves New York City; she doesn’t even leave Brooklyn. Her escape is an interior one. She sheds the skin of everything she’s done to become the person she always was underneath. If “it’s most likely two children, Nathan, and a decade [that] have altered Marion on a molecular level,” then her familial flight is in pursuit of the whomever she was to begin.

Her disappearance has a similar effect on those she’s left behind. Nathan, a philandering poet with almost no idea how to exist on his own, is suddenly forced into the role of a single father. So consumed by his maintaining his own imagined identities—great dad, great husband, great writer—he never even searches for his missing wife. He simply expects her to come home. It’s a part of the identities they’ve created: Marion the responsible one on whom everyone can depend, Nathan, not so much. In Marion’s absence, he suddenly realizes “he has been making himself up for years” and that the person he’s made himself up to be isn’t that great of a person. His response though, is to barricade himself inside his house, turn even more inwards, to start a blog that paints his life in the rosiest of situations (missing wife or not).

This is an assured debut. Culliton slowly expands from the first page, gaining weight and credibility as the book, and the “search” for Marion, continues. There are a bundle of narrative threads in the piece, but Culliton doesn’t get lost, each character—socialites of varying ethnic backgrounds, a vengeful school board, a detective searching for a missing boy—getting just the right amount of space, until she’s able to, with clear, concise, often beautiful writing, bring their lives back together again. She manages to do so with surprise and humor, and the sort of assured narrative choices writers far more experienced struggle to bring to the page.

Culliton doesn’t give her characters easy outs in The Misfortune of Marion Palm. To rediscover themselves, both Marion and Nathan willingly take on new identities, effectively switching out their old, used up lives for less worn ones. It seems that perhaps we are, from our birth onwards, nothing more than what others believe us to be, our true selves always being minimized, until there’s nothing left. Or until you decide to take it back, to run like Marion Palm. But even then, you’re only running from the identity you were to the identity you’ll become next.

Review: Beast by Paul Kingsnorth

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Beast
by Paul Kingsnorth
Published 2017 by Graywolf Press
$16.00 paperback ISBN 978-1555977795

By Noah Sanders

The story of Paul Kingsnorth’s Beast is a simple one: a man, mythically alone on the moors of England, descends into madness. Beast, the second novel in Kingsnorth’s thematically connected trilogy (The Wake, set 1,000 years in past, the first book in the series) places us into the mind and shoes of recent hermit, Edward Buckmaster. We know almost nothing about Buckmaster. He has departed a life where he was, “an item, an object, a collection of gears, a library of facts compiled by others,” and with it, his wife and children. He has come to the moors to build a new home, a place where he can “wait for the presence,” a place where he hopes an ascetic lifestyle will lead to new revelations. An event happens early in the book—Kingsnorth leaves the specificity of events to reader—and Buckmaster, up to this point a stereotypical, sort of raving hermit, finds himself wounded, unaware of his past (near or far), entirely alone and obsessed with finding the “beast” of the title, which he believes stalks him. As his obsession grows, so does his madness, and we the reader, locked up in his frame of mind, are dragged along with him. There is the sinister paranoia of a madman at work in Beast, a wary paranoia that infuses every moment, every tiny detail, leaving the reader on edge, waiting for Buckmaster to find the Beast, or the Beast to find him. A clear cut conclusion is not Kingsnorth’s aim though, instead, the true enjoyment in the book the author’s beat-by-beat recollection of Buckmaster’s slow, steady, extremely intense decline into another state of being.

To say that Beast is told through the first-person narrative is truthful, but underwhelming in capturing what Kingsnorth does here. Edward Buckmaster is, aside from a few memories, a few more hallucinations and the Beast itself, the only character in the book. The reader spends the entirety of the novel locked in the mind of a man who has chosen extreme solitude and is now paying for that choice. Buckmaster’s obsession with finding the Beast becomes a compulsion-driven search through abandoned towns and the eerie, cloud-covered natural world he’s found himself in. Time and time again, Kingsnorth alludes to the true beast at hand, Buckmaster himself, his old life and family abandoned for a hermit’s existence. “I crawled into the house like a dog,” he says, or “I shuffled like a broken creature,” the primal descriptions casting the narrator as the real darkness at the heart of the book. Though short in page count, Buckmaster’s downward spiral is dense and taxing, rife with wild leaps of emotion Kingsnorth is laudably able to pass directly on to the reader.

Kingsnorth, who’s The Wake was lauded for its use of an invented pseudo-language, clearly enjoys playing with the standard form of the written word. The writing is sparse and impressionistic, the emotional swings of Buckmaster broadcast through his sudden lack of punctuation, his occasional stutter-step in thinking. Words are repeated, topics are leapt between, the thin line between Buckmaster’s reality and a series of visions that grow more frequent and more strange as the book progresses more and more blurred. Kingsnorth’s writing captures all of it, brands it into the reader’s brain, and then leaves them wallowing in it. “there is nothing to eat here” Buckmaster thinks “and i cannot eat anyway until i have looked into its eyes it would bring me terrible bad luck to eat before i have looked into its eyes it would be an indulgence it would take me away.”

As Buckmaster waits—for the Beast, for a “presence,” for the meaning of his life to appear—the reader waits as well. We live in the moment with Buckmaster even as his brain roils in dreams and hallucinatory episodes, even as he rants about man’s damage to the Earth, the mundane taxation of modern society. We wait, fists clenched, teeth gritted, for the secret of the Beast and the world in which the Beast lives to come to light, for Buckmaster to meet his demise, for the squinting horror looming just on the periphery to finally make itself known. But we wait in vain. Kingsnorth isn’t interested in drawing conclusions. Like Buckmaster we can wait forever for a meaning to arrive, but it’s in the journey, the waiting itself, microscopic and tinged with mania, where the true meaning lies.

Review: The Lauras by Sara Taylor

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The Lauras
by Sara Taylor
Published 2017 by Hogarth
$26.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0451496850

By Noah Sanders

No matter the literary accolades thrust upon Sara Taylor and her second novel The Lauras, know one thing: The Lauras, at its heart is a classic adventure novel. A story of two anti-heroes, on the run from lawmen and lovers alike, in search of the buried treasures of the past. Hell, there’s even a treasure map, speckled with x’s that most certainly mark a spot or two. There’s monsters to be fought, secrets to be revealed, and in the end, the gleaning of knowledge about one’s self and one’s familial past is worth far more than its weight in gold.

Woken in the middle of the night and thrust into a car by her roguish mother, the narrator of The Lauras—Alex—unwillingly hits the road. One moment a nerdy, outcasted teenager, the next the sidekick and navigator on her mother’s continent-spanning journey through her past. Armed with only a well-worn, well-annotated map, her mother’s ingenuity, and, well, a gun, the pair careen across the United States of America seeking to rectify past sins and tie off the loose ends of a life lived on the run. Each stop is an opportunity for the author to reveal another facet of Alex’s mom’s childhood in foster and group homes, to the reader and to Alex herself. Houses burn, children are kidnapped, guns are pulled—every pit stop presents a new obstacle, mental or physical in which our heroes must surpass. Every break in the road another nugget of the past is revealed. The Lauras is a slow saunter down memory lane, each step forward another step further into the past.

Taylor layers the stories of each sojourn along the road with Alex’s mom’s own recollections of the past, of her interactions with a series of women loosely referred to as “The Lauras,” of her life before being defined as a mother and a wife. The character of the mother is an absolute joy to take in. She’s familiar—you’ve seen her on cracked sidewalks outside of grocery stores, huffing down cigarettes in the humid swamp of a Southern afternoon—but Taylor doesn’t allow her to be a stereotype. The hard shell and predatory sense of being a loner she wears like body armor is softened by her own memories, the stories of her past she passes along to Alex. “I didn’t realize my mother was a person until I was thirteen years old,” Alex says. By the end of the novel, as richly conceived as she is, she might as well walk right off the page. Alex’s discovery of who she is can be likened to realizing that your mother used to be a storied bank robber—Jesse James or Billy the Kid. And when Jesse James is on the road, well, she likes to spin a yarn.

Taylor manages, with writing razor sharp but infused with a soft, colloquial warmth, to add a sense a vulnerability to the character of the mother. She’s tough as nails, but light as air, liable to drift away if she’s not tethered down. Alex is her only root, and the madcap dash across America is not only her way to make good on a few promises, pay off a few debts, but to pass along the family tradition: adventure. “I wonder if that’s how all the great explorers felt,” Alex says on one long stretch of driving, “hungry and sick and just hoping that they could find some land so that they could get that boiling-hot-fit-your-whole-body-in-at-once-bath they’d been madly wanting.” Because as much as she learns about her mother on their trip, it is the love of the road, the quest, the sheer, simple act of setting out for a destination, map in hand that becomes the great lesson passed along.

The Lauras is best when it’s moving, the interaction between Alex and the mother on their long hours with four wheels on asphalt comfortable and well wrought. Small stops along the way can be wonderful—a moment in Minnesota with the gun and a tattoo shop owner is particularly amazing—but when the duo touches down, Taylor lets the story get loose and it loses focus and steam. There’s a lengthy thread about Alex’s gender and sexuality—kept vague throughout—that runs the course of the book that seems to have great meaning for the author, but she never commits, at least on the page, to why it’s important to the story. One could find meaning in Alex’s genderless life—perhaps when you hit the road, your nothing but a traveler, gender and sex left at the first off-ramp—but Taylor never puts it on the page and it seems too big an aspect of the story to be left to a reader’s imagination. It is instead a rare slow-down in book that could only be described as a cracking yarn.

Aside from its flaws, minor and based in ambition they may be, The Lauras is a fantastic read. Taylor’s way with words and characters and setting revels in the folksy clichés we associate with the South, but her writing never lets them feel forced or lacking depth. “She’d not written the book on how to disappear forever and never be found,” Alex says about her mother at one point, “but she’d read it plenty of times.” It seems Sara Taylor has as well.

Review: The Bear Who Broke the World by Justin McFarr

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The Bear Who Broke the World
by Justin McFarr
Published 2017 by Wheeler Street Press
ISBN 978-0997613148

Memories of childhood often evoke the notion of simpler times, this idea that our lives were much less complicated when we were young. The problem is, our lives weren’t any less complicated then, than they are now. Our memories of childhood only seem simpler because they no longer exist—they’re essentially figments of our imagination, shaded by the setbacks we’ve faced during the years spent trying to understand adulthood. The retrospective nature of looking back, this grappling with the intangibility of memory, is the center of gravity in Justin McFarr’s debut novel, The Bear Who Broke the World. The reader is always reminded how strange childhood is, how unsettling the world of adults can be when seen through the eyes of someone gaining a true awareness of the ways things really are.

The novel takes us through the summer vacation of Daedalus Stephen O’Neill, the ten year-old narrator who wants nothing more than to create the kind of memories he can look upon with starry-eyed nostalgia. “My first memory from the summer of 1976,” he says in the novel’s very first line, “should have been the sound of a school bell ringing like freedom or the sun on my face as I jumped onto my dirt bike.” Alas, that’s not in the cards for Stephen (as he understandably refers to himself). His mother, Rose, works long hours to support him and his brother Demian; his father had abandoned them when Demian was a toddler, running off to New York in order to become a poet. The other adult in their house is Rose’s boyfriend Ken, an overeducated Berkeley grad who’d rather spend his days smoking grass, listening to records, and debating American foreign policy than looking for a job—or after two young boys. Stephen resents Rose, as she seemingly loves Ken more than she cares for her sons, and much of the novel revolves around how the ways the boys try to escape their home-lives, while Stephen tries to understand the root of his mother’s neglect.

Because of the themes of love and abandonment, there are many heartbreakingly sad moments in The Bear Who Broke the World, but McFarr softens much of the tragedy through his loving depiction of Bicentennial-era Berkeley, Oakland, and Fremont. Landmarks like the UC Theater, Moe’s Books, and the Claremont Hotel remind us this is an East Bay story, while details such as Wacky Packages, Claremont/Cockrum-era X-Men comics, and the “Proud to Be” PSA’s that used to run on KTVU place us in a world that no longer exists. Stephen’s world is a sad one, but it’s one rendered with careful precision and populated by a compelling cast, such as Seneca Reed, the object of Stephen’s affections, his one chance at the eventful summer every young boy craves. There’s Stephen’s friend Trevor, and Trevor’s brother Art, the burgeoning punk rocker who helps Stephen find an outlet for his adolescent rage. And then there’s the local drug dealer Kirby Johnson, a mysterious figure who haunts the neighborhood like an inversion of Boo Radley and punctures Stephen’s child-like notions of justice.

This book’s one, true strength is McFarr’s clarity of vision. Because The Bear Who Broke the World is a mostly plotless novel with a lot of side characters and digressions, McFarr firmly places the reader in Stephen’s interiority. Stephen is a sufficiently reliable narrator who exemplifies the horror of a childhood in which adults leave children to fend for themselves. We are taken through every painstaking moment of a young boy’s summer vacation, while he unpacks everything that happens to him, painting a very honest portrait of childhood. In short, the reader is in very capable hands. This is a book that not only knows what it wants to be, but what it should be.