Sunday, July 24, 2011

Ingrid Winterbach’s Book of Happenstance

Ingrid Winterbach’s Die Boek van toeval en toeverlaat, known in Dirk and Ingrid Winterbach’s English translation as The Book of Happenstance, is a satisfyingly busy novel about one Helena Verbloem, a lexicographer working with one Theo Verwey on a list of archaic Afrikaans words. Helena is less bereft about the decline of words, though, than the theft of her shell collection. She even takes it upon herself to search for the perpetrator with a friend. The novel is structurally complex: though Theo is dead on page one, Winterbach tells most of her story in flashback, showing us Theo and Helena as they discuss d words about devils and h words about hearts, and taking us with Helena and her new friend Sof on trips to try to find the shell thief.

Winterbach connects many of her multiple plot and thematic lines with biological metaphors, drawing the reader through pathways that reminded me of a complex maze within a shell. Though The Book of Happenstance initially felt a bit overly complicated—or maybe even portentous?—Winterbach’s tremendous skill at unwinding the story won me over. So did her humor. Sof, for example, gets to say this about her husband, “He is a psychiatrist with as much insight into the human psyche as a mole. For that alone he deserves to die.”

Here’s a sampling of some of the aspects of the book I enjoyed most:

The death and the theft: We don’t learn much about Theo Verwey’s death until the end of the book, when Winterbach’s flashbacks finally catch up with the timeframe at the beginning of the novel. And then, oh my, is Theo’s wake something to behold, with a well-dressed widow and indecorously opulent tables of “edibles, expensive china, heavy silver, crystal glasses, lovely flower arrangements.” There are even descriptions of food; “spinach leaves enfolding mussels” are among the items that sound worth trying. Though we learn little about the fate of Helena’s shells (that would be beside the point), we accompany her on visits to potential perpetrators. Cue up Nabokov and Joyce: Helena passes herself off as Dolly Haze, Sof says she’s Anna Livia Plurabelle, and they claim to be from the Bible Society. I found the deception very funny.

Biological metaphors, particularly shells: My favorite aspect of The Book of Happenstance was Winterbach’s use of the shell metaphor, perhaps because it reminded me so much of a Chekhov story, “The Man in the Case,” which I hadn’t read in years. Early in the story, one character says (in Ivy Litvinov’s translation) that the man in the case “betrayed a perpetual, irrepressible urge to create a covering for himself, as it were a case, to isolate him and protect him against external influences.” There is also a mention of hermit crabs and snails. A century or so later, Helena speaks of the staying power of mollusks, saying they’ve “been around for much longer than vertebrates,” adding that they’ll survive longer than us, “but always wearing their beauty as protection.” After Helena’s shells disappear, someone from her past begins phoning her and she starts reminiscing about dead family members, but we also see her retreat into her own shell, away from her lover. She is very conscious of avoiding pain, telling someone she meets during her “investigation” that “Everything we bind ourselves to excessively will eventually cause us pain—that way lies madness, and grief.” Ouch, that soft tissue! There’s lots more nature in the book: Helena describes the shell secretion process to Sof, and Helena’s curiosity about biology leads to discussion of the history of the universe, including evolution, RNA, and (of course) fossils.

Labels for shells and words for meanings: One of the neatest passages in the book involves Helena’s inspection of a shell storage room in the Natural History Museum—which hosts Theo’s word project, go figure—and discussion of the need for labeling specimens. A conchologist shows Helena shells that lack names, dates, and locations, meaning they’re “of no value for scientific purposes.” The mollusks, Helena mentions, need to be found alive to qualify for a scientific collection… a bit different from the Afrikaans words she and Theo discuss and place on the list for their glossary. I particularly enjoyed Helena’s real-life uses for some of the words they discuss and record, giving them personal, relevant meanings, if only temporarily.


A quick note on another book, Steve Stern’s The Frozen Rabbi, a novel that sounds like a perfect companion for a trip to Florida last weekend and the recent OMG-it’s-even-hotter-in-Maine heat wave that followed. I loved the premise of the book: a teenage boy named Bernie investigates the freezer in his basement looking for meat to reenact Portnoy’s Complaint but instead finds a rabbi frozen in a block of ice. The rabbi later comes to life during a power outage then establishes himself as (let’s just say) a spiritual advisor in contemporary Tennessee. In parallel, we learn how the rabbi got to America after being frozen in 1889 in Eastern Europe. There’s some funny material in The Frozen Rabbi but it’s an unbalanced book, lacking enough character development to make me warm to long (long!) passages of encyclopedic family history and Bernie’s not-so-interesting relationship with his girlfriend. On the positive side, my passive knowledge of Yiddish is improving.

Disclosures: Standard disclosures. I received review copies of both books: The Book of Happenstance came from Open Letter, a publisher with which I always enjoy speaking about literature in translation, and The Frozen Rabbi came from Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Thank you to both!

Up next: Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. Sometimes, I just need to read a Graham Greene book.

Image credit: Chris 73, via Wikipedia/Wikipedia Commons.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Hazards of Not Shooting Straight: The Singer’s Gun

I almost always enjoy an eerie, existential thriller, so I had fun reading Emily St. John Mandel’s The Singer’s Gun, a sparely told novel about identity, truth, escape, and the law. Mandel tells the story of Anton Waker, a man unhappy to have been born into a family of criminals; he has particular difficulty with his cousin Aria, with whom he’s worked selling false identity papers. Anton is missing and under investigation at the beginning of the book, and Mandel tells much of his story in flashbacks.

There’s lots to admire in The Singer’s Gun, but the highlight for me was Mandel’s combination of clean writing and stripped-down settings: New York City, where Anton lives, felt especially empty and lonely. That may be partly because Anton is banished to a mezzanine-level dead file room early in the book when it seems he’s being fired from a water systems consulting company. That development is devastating for Anton, a guy who saw office work as an appealing alternative to illegal activity, “This will sound strange, I mean, I know it’s crazy, but I always wanted to work in an office.” He admits to having a “corporate soul,” though he won his job based on falsehood.

Mandel gradually reveals Anton’s relationships with his wife, Sophie, and secretary, Elena, uncovering layers of lies. Everybody seems to hide papers that would change how others would perceive them, and most of the relationships – particularly between Elena and her boyfriend, Caleb, dulled by antidepressants – feel wary, dispassionate, and even adversarial in a slow burn way. I suppose it’s a corollary that there’s lots of drifting in The Singer’s Gun: when Anton tries to escape his fate on an island (can any man be an island in our era?), he meets others attempting the same.

Of course Manhattan is an island, too, something Mandel doesn’t let us forget, both through the criminal act that triggers the investigation and the end of a darkly comic scene at a restaurant, where Anton and Aria help celebrate Anton’s parents’ thirtieth wedding anniversary. After a toast and a glance at his chicken parmiggiano, Anton thinks, “Behold the holiness of my family, serene and utterly at ease in their corruption, toasting thirty years of love and theft in a restaurant on an island in a city by the sea.”

Yes, there is a gun, yes, there is a singer, and yes, Mandel does follow Chekhov’s advice: a gun fires. But I won’t say where, when, how, or on whom. I’ve gone light on details because I don’t want to ruin the book for anyone who might decide to read it… but I will say it’s filled with many wonderful touches from Mandel, who beautifully balances harsh realism with a slightly schematic, off-kilter atmosphere as she shows us the painful and strange ways that identity and rules affect our choices in life.

Disclosure: I received a copy of The Singer’s Gun from publisher Unbridled Books at BookExpo America; Emily St. John Mandel signed it for me. I enjoyed speaking with Emily and Unbridled publisher Greg Michalson during BEA. Thanks to both! I should also mention that The Singer’s Gun won an Indie Booksellers Choice Award on May 23, 2011.

Up next: Ingrid Winterbach’s The Book of Happenstance.

Photo credit: mistereels, via