The Melody, by Jim Crace****

“We are the animals that dream.”

TheMelodyJim Crace is an award-winning author with an established readership, but he is new to me. Thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, June 19, 2018. Those that love literary fiction should take note.

Alfred Busi is a singer, and he was famous during his prime, but now he’s old, living alone in his villa with just his piano to keep him company. At the story’s outset he hears a noise below late at night and goes down to run the animals or the whoever out of his garbage bins, but instead he is attacked. Something or someone flies out and bites him a good one; he thinks it was a boy, a half-feral child:

“Busi could not say what it was, something fierce and dangerous, for sure…before the creature’s teeth sank into right side of his hand, and, flesh on flesh, the grip of something wet and warm began its pressure on his throat, Busi knew enough to be quite sure that this creature was a child. A snarling, vicious one, which wanted only to disable him and then escape.”

The problem—beyond the injury itself—is that Busi is elderly, forgetful, and occasionally confused. His wife is dead, and he’s grieving hard. The only people remaining in his life are his sister-in-law and her son, his nephew, and they aren’t sure he isn’t delusional. Medical staff question his reliability as well; soon, a truly nasty journalist writes a smear piece making fun of him, and it comes out just as he is scheduled to perform for the last time at a concert where he’s to receive a prestigious award. It’s all downhill from there.

Concurrently there’s discussion among the locals about the homeless people living in the Mendicant Gardens—a place entirely devoid of foliage, where makeshift shacks are erected from cardboard, scrap lumber and whatever else is on hand—as well as the fate of the bosc. I find myself searching Google here because I am confused. I have never heard of a bosc, which turns out to be a wooded area of sorts, and my disorientation is compounded by not knowing where in the world this whole thing is unfolding. If our protagonist lives in a villa, and if we’re not in Mexico, then are we in Southern Europe somewhere? I am following language cues; the names of things and places sound like they could be Italian, or maybe French. Or in Spain. The heck? I go to the author bio, but that’s no help, since Crace lives in the U.S. I try to brush this off and live with the ambiguity, but I continue wishing that I could orient myself. It’s distracting. There’s a social justice angle here involving society’s obligation to its poorest members, but I am busy enough trying to establish setting that the effect is diluted.

Nevertheless, the prose here is sumptuous and inviting. Adding to the appeal is the clever second person narrative; we don’t know who is talking to us about Mr. Busi, and we don’t know whether the narrator is speaking to a readership or to someone specific. For long stretches we are caught up in the plight of our protagonist and forget about the narrator, and then he pops back in later to remind us and pique our curiosity.

I am surprised to see this title receive such negative reviews on Goodreads. To be sure, GR reviewers are a tough lot, but there are some angry-sounding readers out there. What they seem to share in common is that they are Crace’s faithful fans, and if this title is a letdown for them, I can only imagine what his best work looks like; after a brief search I added one of his most successful titles to my to-read list, because I want to see what this author could do in his prime.

And there it is. Many people won’t want to read this, because we don’t like thinking about old age and death. Busi’s whole story is about the slow spiral that occurs for most people that live long enough to be truly old. It’s depressing. Those of us that are of retirement age don’t want to think about it because it’s too near; those that are far from it are likely to wrinkle their noses and move on to merrier things. It’s a hard sell, reading about aging, physical decay, and dementia. And there are specific passages that talk about Busi’s injuries and physical maladies that caused me to close the book and read something else when I was eating. It’s not a good mealtime companion.

Crace is known as a word smith, and rightly so. If you seek a page-turner, this is not your book, but for those that admire well-turned phrases and descriptions as art, this book is recommended.

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi*****

whenbreathbecomesairPaul Kalanithi was a promising young physician who had nearly finished completing ten years of training as a neurosurgeon when he was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. His twin ambitions had been to become a neurosurgeon and to write. When he realized how little time was left of his too-brief life, he decided to spend his remaining time writing this book. Thank you, Net Galley and Random House Publishing House for the DRC. Dr. Kalanithi died in March 2015, but he left this luminous memoir behind as part of his legacy. It is available to the public January 19, 2016.

The memoir starts with fond adolescent memories that left me dumbfounded, not only at the level of privilege he was born into, but the assumptions that go along with that. I was afraid I would fall into the uncomfortable place of not being able to generously review a dead man’s memoir. To make matters worse, I read two other memoirs that bitterly recounted the arrogance of doctors. I set this one aside about a third of the way into it until I could look at it with fresh eyes, and I am glad I did.

The spell of entitlement is broken by the forty percent mark; in fact, when he decides to continue in college simply because he isn’t done learning—a luxury that would never occur to most of us—I find myself interrupted mid-eye-roll when he mentions that in order to afford his apartment, he has to take a part time job. Now we are back in the realm of the real, and I can relate to the author.

With deft pacing and remarkable eloquence, he takes us into the world of the medical student, and we go with him to his first dissection and learn a few basic facts about the brain, including what tumors, both benign and malignant can do, and what priorities are generally set in maintaining its function. He explains why doctors sometimes recommend against heroic measures to continue a patient’s life when the patient inside is forever gone. There is information that should be shared, and information that should sometimes be saved for later; we see this from a much more personal vantage point later on.

And upon Kalanithi’s own diagnosis of terminal cancer, which has invaded his lungs and his brain, he is left “searching for a vocabulary with which to make sense of death.” Once his medical options are gone—oh, so swiftly!–he delves into poetry, philosophy, and even religion in order to come to terms with what he knows will happen, as well as the frustratingly ambiguous aspect of not knowing how long that will take.

Despite the fact that his death interrupted his writing, Kalanithi’s work is eloquent and absorbing, and it really didn’t feel as if it were under length to me. Maybe its brevity is what prevents it from becoming too emotionally taxing for the reader to absorb. It should rank high along with the work of Mitch Albom and Randy Pausch as a story that helps us learn to let go. Because as he points out, death will come for each of us. It always wins; the only question is when.

This book contains an epilogue written by his wife Lucy, but it stands quite nicely on its own.

Recommended for those facing death or dealing with loss, as well as for those who just like a powerful, hyper-literate memoir.

The Guilty One, by Sophie Littlefield *****

Sophie Littlefield, author of the Bad Day series (A Bad Day for Sorry, etc) has hit a new level of excellence with The Guilty One. Many thanks to Net Galley and Gallery Books for the DRC! This book goes up for sale on August 11, and if you love a good novel, this one is for you.

Our chief protagonists are Maris and Ron. Maris is Calla’s mother…or she was. Calla is dead now. The court has convicted Karl of her murder, a heartbroken, enraged loss of control over a bad teenage breakup. Ron is Karl’s father, and as we open our first setting, he is considering jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. At the last minute he decides to phone Maris, and ask her whether to jump or not.

theguiltyoneIt shows a good deal about Ron’s character, weak and lacking in integrity, that he not only phones Karl’s victim’s mother to dump the responsibility on her, but also wears a windbreaker to the bridge because his travel guide mentions that it is cool and windy there, even in warm weather.

The last time I read Littlefield’s work, it was the Bad Day series. The first book won multiple awards and was deeply satisfying, a savvy, witty dig at domestic abuse. The same topic enters this discussion in a more oblique fashion. In her earlier series, she seemed to lose momentum as the series unfolded, and it appeared to me that she couldn’t decide whether she wanted to write a series that was mostly of the detective fiction genre, or mostly romance. Here, she has taken a giant step away from mystery and detective fiction, and this straight-up fictional story is told with grace, maturity, and authority. It’s obvious right there in the first few pages. I was reading a handful of galleys at the time, and my first note to myself was “See now, this is good writing.”

Maris has lost her marriage, and at first it appears to be a consequence of Calla’s death—so few couples can experience the death of a child and stay together—but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that a split was in the works long before this. And Maris makes a decision that resonates with me. She drops everything and everyone, more or less, and without thinking, going purely on instinct, starts over in a new place, with a greatly reduced standard of living. At first I wonder whether Maris is merely slumming, seeing how the other half lives, but deep down, I have to trust Littlefield not to do anything so shabby, and she doesn’t. Maris is the one we root for, the one that drives the plot forward and pulls us in.

Ron and Deb have stayed together as Karl has gone through the trial and been found guilty, but the strain is there. Ron starts out entirely believable and not very likeable. He never becomes the stand-up individual that Maris is, but he is a dynamic character, complicated and interesting. He undergoes a lot of change as the story progresses.

Throughout this riveting novel, there was never a moment when the veil lifted and I recalled that these characters weren’t real. I raced toward the end with a sense that I had to see how it came out, and then when it was over, I felt a sense of loss, wanting to turn another page and find Maris still there so I could check in with her, like a good friend. And that is ultimately the hallmark of great writing.

Get online. Take a bus. Get in the car. Hijack a plane—okay, maybe not—but do what you need to do in order to get a copy of this accessible, compelling new fiction. Littlefield rocks it. You can pre-order it now, so you will be able to read it right away. If you do, you too will want to stand up and cheer!