The Caregiver, by Samuel Park*****

TheCaregiverThe Caregiver is one of the year’s best surprises. I read this book free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster. Our protagonist is Mara Alencar, and our setting is split between present day Los Angeles, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in the 1980s. I am drawn to the story initially because of the setting, which I don’t see often; but it is Mara that keeps me turning the pages. Those that treasure excellent, character-based literary fiction should get this book and read it.

Mara is just a kid, and all she really wants is food, shelter, and the comfort and companionship of her mother, Ana. Ana is a young single mother that works as a voice-over actress, repeating the lines of English-language programs in Portuguese. The pay is low, and Ana’s self-discipline is negligible. Life is a constant struggle.

One evening Ana is visited by a group of students that claim they plan to rob a bank in order to fund a revolution. Ana’s job is to distract Chief Lima so that a comrade can be liberated from prison. The comrade will play an important part in the revolution; as for Ana, she will be paid handsomely, and then she will be free to go if she likes. Mara doesn’t like these rough people and their threatening demeanor, but Ana hears the amount they will pay, and once she receives an advance, she’s in.

Everything is seen through Mara’s eyes, both in childhood as these events unfold, and later, looking back during her years working as a caregiver to a manipulative older woman that shares some of Ana’s characteristics. As a child, Mara is often afraid or confused, or both. Her mother reminds her often that she is all that matters, and that the two of them will always be together; in the next moment, she will do something so blindingly selfish, so completely inappropriate that I want to yank the woman into the kitchen and remind her that she has a child and responsibilities. She will tell Mara, not for the first time, that she could never stand to lie to her because they are so close, and she loves her so much; but we turn the page and sure enough, she lies to her child, or she is gone for days on end with no warning or explanation. There are occasions when she seems to lie unnecessarily, and I want to throw my tablet at the wall, I am so frustrated.

The ending is a complete surprise, and it makes perfect sense within the chaotic context of the time and place.

The most admirable aspect of this story is the consistency of the narrator. A writer that can tell a story from a child’s point of view without mixing up the developmental level that affects a child’s perceptions, vocabulary level, and capacity to analyze what she sees is hard to find. A male writer that can do this, and that can also consistently write a woman’s story in the first person without giving himself away is a unicorn. Samuel Park convinces me that I am listening to a woman tell her story, and repeatedly I am pulled under, only to be reminded when I go to make notes at the end of my writing session that this is a male novelist. This doesn’t happen. I am gob-smacked at his level of perception and originality.

I never met Park, but I grieve for him anyway as a reader. Please come back, Mr. Park. One book is not enough; forty-one is too young.

Highly recommended.

Educated, by Tara Westover*****

educatedTara Westover’s memoir has created a lot of buzz, and all of it is justified. It’s the story of one woman’s journey from a fundamentally loving yet untenable home life, to the civilized world she has been raised to fear. Each chapter focuses on one meaningful event in the author’s life, and it’s told with sensitivity, grace, and yes, also a sprinkling of rage, because how can she not? But all told, Westover permits the balm of time and distance to balance her perspective.  This book is for sale now, and it’s going to be read for a very long time.

I received my copy of Educated free and early, thanks to Random House and Net Galley. That said, if you have to pay full jacket price for this book, your money will be well spent.

Westover grows up in a large family that is nominally Mormon (Latter Day Saints, or LDS), but she and her siblings are denied the tight-knit communal bond that most members of that faith experience.  Their father is deeply suspicious of the outside world including other church members, and as his pathology grows, they are increasingly isolated. Basic social expectations such as personal hygiene and clean clothing; inoculations against deadly diseases; a birth certificate; and an understanding of how to navigate within the greater society are denied her, as Dad’s survivalist views kick into gear. She is told the story of Ruby Ridge from the time she is tiny, but grows up believing this is an event that has happened to her own family, and that Federal agents might break into her own home at any time.

Veteran teachers like me are fascinated by the differences in how students process traumatic events, and Westover is a strong case in point. Some students experience the death of a beloved grandparent or divorcing parents, and they come undone and aren’t able to function normally for several years. Then there are remarkable young people like Westover that experience horror after horror exponentially and yet somehow, with little external assistance, they are able to claw themselves free of the rubble and become high achievers.

As Westover leaves home against the strident objections of her father, she struggles to reconcile the wider world with everything that she has been taught from the cradle, and she also struggles to win her family’s forgiveness and acceptance. As she is battered, sometimes physically, by one cruel rejection after another, a friend asks her, “Have you ever thought maybe you should just let them go?” And yet, for Tara, this is unthinkable.

There’s a lot of gritty material here, along with a number of experiences that are just weird, such as Tara’s brain-damaged mother becoming a local folk hero with her own brand of witch-doctor medicine.  There are also moments of dark humor that break up the misery and terror, along with an occasional kind or enlightening act on the part of a family member or member of the public that is able to wink through for a brief time in Tara’s life. But ultimately the thing that makes it possible to wade through the nightmare that constitutes much of Tara’s childhood is our knowledge, set within the book’s title and author description, that she will emerge triumphant.

Westover tells us that the bizarre system of beliefs and taboos practiced by her family are not typical of Mormon families, and in fact a bishop that counsels her once she arrives at Brigham Young University tries to help her separate herself, to some degree, from the madness that awaits her at home during school breaks.  This reviewer grew up alongside a number of Mormon classmates, and I have to agree that none of the things Westover’s parents brought down on her and her siblings is attributable to that church. That’s not how they work.

I highlighted dozens of passages that range from the wry, to the stupefying, to the outrageous, but when all is said and done, each is better when read within context. Go out and get this book. You won’t be sorry, and at the end of it, you’re almost guaranteed to look at your own family in a gentler light.


Interview with Westover:

The Rule of the Bone, by Russell Banks *****

RuleofBoneBooks by Banks never disappoint. His writing is as harsh and beautiful as a New England winter. Rule of the Bone speaks with a social conscience that cannot be ignored or denied. The voice he uses carries credibility and authority characteristic of the seasoned master of fiction the writer has become.

This story is told in the first person. The protagonist is what those of us who work with poor kids refer to as a “throw-away”, those who don’t run away from home but are simply not welcome there anymore at an early age. Often, as is the case with the fourteen year old boy who renames himself Bone, it is a step-parent who in one way or another initiates the departure of a child who is far too young to make his own way in the world, and the birth parent who is passive and therefore complicit. Without job skills, social or interviewing skills, or any knowledge of how the social welfare system works apart from the fact that it doesn’t, he becomes a feral child, finding indoor shelter wherever he can: hiding in a custodial closet when the mall shuts down for the night; crashing with a biker gang that is dangerous and unpredictable but who tolerate his presence most days because he can find weed for them; and in an abandoned school bus.

Twice he tries to initiate a reconciliation with his mother and stepfather; twice he is spurned. His grandmother is no better. It is appalling, but also realistic. These kids are out there, and I am glad Banks put that fact in front of us. The protagonist points out that once he has been busted and released into the custody of his parents with the stipulation that he remain with them, and once they tell him to get gone (again), his way out of jail is to avoid parents, cops, and school, because each one of them will call another one of them in an effort to pass him to someone else. And the horrible truth is that he is right.

Our unlikely hero realizes that in his quest for survival, he has never actually learned what is right and wrong. None of his parents (mother, departed father, stepfather) has demonstrated any sort of consistent moral code, and he is cast adrift not only materially, but also in terms of his emotional growth and the development of his character. He finds it in a really unlikely place.

Like nearly everything Banks writes, Rule of the Bone is deeply disturbing in places and full of loss and anger. I have struggled with this when reading other books by this writer. Disturbing books are all the more disturbing when they are so well done that we cannot look away.

To other readers who have noted this (in reference to some of the other reviews I have read), I would advise that if you can’t take it, don’t read it. There’s no law saying you have to read this writer. Particularly if you have recently dealt with loss and are tender around the edges, go find another novelist. If you need a feel-good book, there are plenty of them out there.

For myself, I resolved my conflict of wanting to read one of America’s finest novelists versus wanting to avoid the abyss of depression they often inspire, by reading multiple books at a time. I move from Banks, to a nonfiction title, to a cozy feel good title, then back to Banks. Of course, there comes a point in the plot where Rule of the Bone can’t be put down, which is one more way we know it’s excellent literature. At that point, it’s time to dive in and finish.

I’m glad I chose to return to this man’s work. The tone is bleak, and yet in this case, it also carries with it a poignant sense of hope and yearning. Highly recommended.