Thursday, January 31, 2013

There doesn't seem to be a lack of good fiction these days. Here are several novels I highly recommend:

1. Mark Helprin's long and often beautifully written IN SUNLIGHT AND IN SHADOW attempts to give the Manhattan following World War II an aura of glistening hope for the future. Helprin's prose attempts to conjure the magical writing style of F. Scott Fitzgerald who defined a generation in the 1920's and described its and his decline in the 1930's.

Harry Copeland, a World War II veteran who has seen the darkest depths of human depravity, is determined to seize the opportunities of the new Manhattan and achieve personal greatness, not just wealth, but a true mission of personal fulfillment. On a ferry one morning he falls in love with Catherine Thomas Hale and pursues her as if she were a Greek goddess. Along the way he must break up her engagement to a controlling sadist, win over her upper class parents, and fend off the Mafiosas trying to take over his late father's business. Throughout the novel, Harry's actions are propelled by his sense of honor and his overwhelming love for Catherine.

Like Fitzgerald's Gatsby striving for that green light at the end of the dock, Harry pushes forward against almost impossible odds...and we know what happened to Gatsby. Helprin's writing is full of romantic longing, heroic action, and moral imperative, and it is also 200 pages too long. IN SUNLIGHT AND IN SHADOW is a great read, but only if you have time. Fitzgerald had a great editor; Helprin needs one.

Sebastian Faulks' A POSSIBLE LIFE is called a novel in five parts. That designation suggests a thematic or narrative unity among the five longish stories Faulks has crafted. And "crafted" is the operative word. All five stories or character studies are written with grace and sympathy but also with tough and unsentimental reality on occasionally harsh truths. In the first and best of  the tales, a callow young Englishman volunteers for the foreign service in World War II and eventually survives a Nazi death camp. After the war he returns to teaching but never fully recovers from or understands what has happened to him.

Another story examines an illiterate French servant maid whose life is touched by her encounter with a young priest in the 19th Century. The strangest tale takes place in Italy during the late 21st Century as a brilliant scientist discovers how the brain controls emotion but finds she cannot control her own longing for happiness. A third story seems be from Dickens. A poor boy in a beastly workhouse manages to build a life for himself but forgets some of the lessons of charity he learned as he pushes tenants out to further his business. And, finally there is an obvious nod to singers like Judy Collins or Joni Mitchell. They and other "magical muses" are embodied in one mercurial and gifted singer-songwriter who is loved by an English rocker who supports her and is eventually left to wonder why she deserted him.

So, where, Mr. Faulks, is the unifying theme in these five stories? Is it the longing for deeper emotion or answers that all of the five major characters share? Is it their collective striving for betterment in a world that fights against such aims? I'm not sure I cannot agree with Faulks that A POSSIBLE LIFE is really a novel. But I can say that it is a memorable reading experience where we become deeply involved with five beautifully developed characters.

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