Foregone, by Russell Banks*****

“Oh, Canada!”

Leonard Fife is a legendary filmmaker, his searing social commentary an important part of North American history. But now he is dying, and he has a few things he needs to get off his chest before he goes. My thanks go to Net Galley and Harper Collins for the review copy. This book is available to the public March 2, 2021.

Fife is not a lovable character, and now that the end is near, he wants everyone to know it. With the cameras trained on him, darkness all around him but for the spot shining on him as he speaks, he tells his life’s story, and he spares himself nothing. One relationship after another, abandoned without even a goodbye. Children left fatherless. Lives laid waste in his passing. Banks is one of the most brilliant novelists in the U.S., and his word smithery can turn nearly any terrible story into spun gold, but he never pulls punches. His writing is often painful to read, and here it is true in spades, agonizing. By the halfway mark, I am watching the page numbers crawl by and wishing it over.

But of course, there’s a surprise in store.

I don’t want to give spoilers, but in the last half of the book, the question arises as to whether our narrator is reliable. He says he did all of these dreadful things; but did he really…?

The book flows so seamlessly that the difficulty of writing it is not obvious, but here it is: almost the entire thing is one man’s narrative. There’s very little dialogue. It’s not an easy thing to carry off, and yet, this is Banks, and he does.

As his narrative unspools, we are occasionally reminded of his current circumstances by breaks in the action. Once in awhile he is overtaxed and starts to drift off, or worse, and action has to cease immediately while the nurse does important things quickly. Now and then she has to change his bag, or help him onto the toilet and wipe his butt afterward. There’s not a lot of dignity left to the man. But he doesn’t give a…okay, I’m not saying it.

As he insistently recounts his many betrayals of loved ones, ignoring the more suitable, conventional questions that the people filming him thought were going to provide the framework of the film, he makes it crystal clear that it doesn’t bother him in the slightest, what he is doing to his legacy. Torpedo all of it; hell, he’ll be dead before the film opens. What he wants is to be truthful, and the one person he wants to know the truth is Emma, his wife. He knows he cannot be truthful with her unless the camera is rolling, and he won’t proceed unless she is there. RIGHT there. He calls for her many times, making certain she hasn’t left. And through the occasional things she says, we are aware that Emma is not merely his arm candy, not a sycophant that married him for fame, fortune, or prestige; she’s a respected professional in her own field, juggling her own commitments in order to be present here and now for Leonard.

By the time the story ends, my feelings have changed. Leonard is still no angel, but he’s not the sack of excrement I believed him to be, either. The guy I hate at the end is the filmmaker, once Leonard’s protegee, but now wolfishly eager for his mentor to die on camera for him. The nurse orders the camera turned off, but the director calls over the top of her to keep it rolling, the vulture. I want to smack him!

Ultimately we see that death is a final betrayal, a form of abandonment; but Leonard is at peace, because his goal is realized. And this is the story’s title, but I am not going to tell you how that works.

Get the book and read it. All your own sorrows will feel smaller.

The Girl They Left Behind, by Roxanne Veletzos****

TheGirlTheyLeftBehindI was ready for something that was a little different, and then an online friend recommended this historical fiction for review. Thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the DRC. It’s for sale today.

The story stems from the Bucharest Pogrom of 1941, in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed. And to show you how much I knew about this particular event before I read this book—my ignorance was so painful—I called to my spouse and said, “Honey?  Isn’t Bucharest in Hungary?”

The world-traveled, multilingual expatriate responded, “That’s Budapest. Bucharest is in Romania.”

Ahem. So this corner of my historical education was severely in need of help, and this was a good start for me.  If I were to rate this story solely on its merit as a novel,  I’d call it 3.5 because of some unevenness in the quality of writing, but the educational aspect of it is undeniable, and it makes a big difference.

The story centers on Natalia, a child that is abandoned during the pogrom when her parents flee from what they believe may be their death; they expect to be caught and killed. She is much loved, but her father persuades her mother that the only way the girl will make it out alive is if they leave her in the lobby of their apartment building with a note. She is adopted by a very wealthy couple that lavishes her with every possible comfort, until the regime falls and Romania comes inside of the Soviet orbit. After the coup, the conspicuously wealthy become government targets, and their assets—down to literally the clothes on their backs in some cases—are nationalized. Over the course of time, Natalia learns of her adoption and the parents to whom she was born.

The story uses the author’s family history as a framework, and notes at the end explain what aspects are autobiographical in nature, and which have been altered for the sake of the story.  There are family photos at the back of the book.

The voice is distinctly Eastern European, and that works in the author’s favor because it transports the reader to this time and place all the more effectively than a purely American-sounding voice would do. However, there are occasional lapses where clichés drop in, and it spoils the magic for awhile. The worst, perhaps, is “The walls have ears.”

The first forty percent of the novel is the most engaging, and I love the development of parents Despina and Anton, and little Natalia. The last half of the novel, however, is too busy and at times seems overwrought.

And then we are back to what I said at the outset: there is so much to learn here.  Historical detail is inextricably woven into the story, and our attachment to the characters, particularly at the start, makes the facts themselves more memorable. So when it comes down to it, I do recommend this book to you. If you can find a better work of historical fiction featuring the Bucharest Pogrom, then I may change my mind, but right now I would say Veletzos has cornered that market for those of us that read in the English language.

This book is one of a kind. Don’t miss it.