Sunday, August 15, 2010

Three Debuts: A Walk in Broken Glass Park, a Scratchy Gramophone, and Needy People in Suvanto

I seem to be on quite a debut novel streak this summer: this post discusses three, I just finished a fourth, and I’m now reading a fifth. I’ve always had an affection for debut novels because I think (or imagine?) there’s a unique energy in first novels, as if the writer is finally having a say about something important. I love seeing how new novelists handle all that papery space.

Though I don’t think any of the three novels in this post quite achieved what they might have, all three held my interest more than enough to want to finish them. (I am quick to dump anything I don’t like!) Even better, I would happily consider reading each author’s next novel.

Characterization, setting, and an energetic voice are Alina Bronsky’s tremendous strengths in Broken Glass Park, translated from the German by Tim Mohr. Seventeen-year-old Sascha tells why she wants to kill her former stepfather, who killed her mother. Sascha, her family and neighbors, and her run-down German apartment building felt so believable I thought I was with them, but the book’s strong positives had the unfortunate effect of emphasizing the novel’s slight weakness – a lack of forward narrative momentum.

I didn’t think Sascha’s anger and ideas about revenge were quite enough to sustain a novel. Plenty of things happen – a cousin comes to care for Sascha and her siblings, Sascha has sex, Sascha exacts a small revenge, and Sascha learns fear (or admits she learns fear) and has an epiphany about a neighbor – but the many episodes and the anticlimactic ending added up to a book that felt more like a portrait than a story with a narrative arc. Of course this isn’t inherently a bad thing, particularly in Broken Glass Park, which presents a compelling and vivid portrait of not just a person but of cultural and class differences, loyalties, and violence.

Bronsky said in an interview with Marie of Boston Bibliophile that she did no “special research” for Broken Glass Park: “The novel is based on my own experiences and observations.” This felt absolutely obvious to me because Bronsky didn’t cram the book with gratuitous or incongruous details that made me feel she wanted to get in all her research.

Then there is Saša Stanišić’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, translated from the German by Anthea Bell. Many of Stanišić’s descriptions of childhood in Bosnia – such as a party to celebrate the opening of an indoor bathroom – combine humor, cultural specifics, and a sense of impending doom. Reminiscences of grandfathers are very strong, and scenes from the war are terrifying. Form and content are absolutely inseparable here: the narrative itself is as fractured as young Aleksandar’s life. I admire Stanišić’s eye for detail and the absurd, and recommend the book for that and its portrayal of the consequences of war, which Stanišić experienced. Though I liked the book, I thought its shattered structure often detracted from the story more than it reflected or supported it.

Maile Chapman’s Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto feels like a lite mashup: an early 20th-century Nurse Ratched at the Hotel Overlook with the scent of cardamom rolls. I don’t mean to sound flippant: Suvanto is a novel about Sunny, an American nurse and control freak working at a remote Finnish hospital for women. Sunny works on a floor housing emotionally needy “up-patients,” essentially expat wives escaping their lives. Some, like Julia, a former ballroom dance instructor suffering from various female problems, have real physical “issues,” too.

Beyond that, Suvanto is, well, atmospheric; I usually think of “atmospheric” as shorthand for books with lots of weather, seasons, and (maybe) food but little plot. Such is Suvanto: there are mentions of Finnish character (quiet), Finnish cold and ice (Finns know when it’s safe), and Chapman includes some Finnish vocabulary, but I didn’t think the book felt inextricably tethered to Finland. I’m simplifying but, absent a few details, the setting might have been another northern place with ice and quiet people, say, northern Norway or Alaska. (Even my own Maine, where ice, Finnish heritage, the term “people from away,” and the desire for privacy are common, might fit.)

Chapman uses a mannered first-person plural narration and focuses on building up the arrival of Something Evil. The book culminates with several deaths, some mysterious, but little is resolved, and the identity of “we” isn’t revealed. My vote is that a patient is speaking for the group: reviewer Mary Whipple reminded me that Chapman mentions Euripides’s “The Bacchae.” I’ll leave that topic to Whipple’s post, particularly since she includes photos of the sanatorium Chapman visited and used as a model for the place in her book.

Other (re)views:

  • Boston Bibliophile wrote about Broken Glass Park here.
  • Complete Review on Broken Glass Park here.
  • Europa Editions has a PDF sample chapter of Broken Glass Park here.
  • The Black Sheep Dances posted a favorable review of Suvanto here.
  • The New York Times Book Review on Suvanto here.
  • An excerpt of Suvanto is here.

All three books came to me from their publishers: Europa Editions gave me a signed copy of Broken Glass Park at Book Expo America. Grove Press sent me a copy of How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone. Graywolf Press gave me a copy of Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto at Book Expo America. Thank you to all! (Disclosure: I’ve met all these publishers at BEA and asked them about their interest in translated fiction.)

Up next: Yes, it’s more debut novels: Daphne Kalotay’s Russian Winter then Ron Currie, Jr.’s Everything Matters!.

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