Book Review: TOO AFRAID TO CRY: MEMOIR OF A STOLEN CHILDHOOD by Ali Cobby Eckermann

From 1910 to 1970, it was official Australian government policy that Aboriginal children should be removed from their families whenever possible in order to assimilate them into white culture. The children harmed by this practice are known as the Stolen Generations, and author Ali Cobby Eckermann is just one of their number. She recounts the vicious racism, sexual abuse, domestic violence, addiction, and physical injury that she has experienced, but this memoir–told in alternating poetry and prose–is as focused on her return to wholeness as it is on her wounds. Too Afraid to Cry is lovely even when the experiences Eckermann recounts are brutal, and I turned the last page feeling calm and hopeful that even in the face of great injustice, it’s never too late for healing.

You can read my full review below.


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Too Afraid to Cry: Memoir of a Stolen Childhood by Ali Cobby Eckermann

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  • publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation (an imprint of W.W Norton & Company)
  • publication date: March 6, 2018 (first published in Australia in 2012)
  • length: 224 pages
  • cover price: $25.95

I wanted to be by myself and not think about the new school, so I climbed to my favourite place, my old cubby built high in the pine trees, where no one could see me. I watched strips of clouds float through the leaves, and let my thoughts drift with them. Daydreaming had become my new pastime. Mum said daydreaming was an age thing, and that I would hopefully grow out of it soon.

Too Afraid To Cry: Memoir of a Stolen Childhood, page 59

It’s rare that I read a book in one sitting; I’m an easily distracted person with a low threshold for getting overwhelmed and upset, meaning that intense books like this one usually take me a dozen or so attempts to finish. To my pleasant surprise, I finished Too Afraid To Cry over the course of one morning on my couch. It helps that this memoir is short, but that’s not the only reason: Ali Cobby Eckermann is an astonishingly gifted writer who seems to have an abundance of goodwill towards herself and her readers, and though she’s experienced awful things in her life, she grants us all the joys she’s experienced, too.

If you’re not familiar with Australia’s racist assimilationist policies that targeted Aboriginal children (especially “half-caste,” or mixed race children), two good primers come from Australians Together and the New York Times. In short, the policies tried to force Aboriginal culture to “die off” by adopting out these children to white families and forbidding them from speaking and practicing their language and culture. It’s a brutal, white supremacist practice that continues unofficially today, and I was glad that I had researched it a bit before reading Too Afraid To Cry, since Eckermann’s approach to the tragedy is decidedly micro and doesn’t fill in the blanks for the uninformed.

Adopted away from her mother to a white German Lutheran family when she was just a baby, Eckermann grew up ostracized by neighboring white children and warned away from neighboring Aboriginal children, whom her adoptive parents considered a bad influence. Suspended between cultures, Eckermann turned to alcohol and drugs, eventually adopting away the son she had out of wedlock when she was 18–inadvertently continuing the cycle of the Stolen Generations.

The memoir opens with Eckermann recounting the sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of a family friend while her mother was in the hospital, and I braced myself for another Very Difficult Book (I’ve read a string of those lately). Instead, Too Afraid To Cry opens like a flower after that first chapter instead of closing like a fist. Eckermann doesn’t shy away from writing about her pain, whether it’s racist taunts she heard in the schoolyard or the broken leg she got when her foster brother ran over her leg with his car. But she pays just as much detail to to the lovely parts of her life: the joy of beach vacations, chasing camels in the desert, her friends in the pub, her barbecue wedding, and her eventual reunion with her Aboriginal family.

If you’re looking for a book to teach you about the big, overarching facts of Australian assimilationist policy and the Stolen Generations, Too Afraid To Cry isn’t it. Instead, it’s something much smaller, more precise, and truer: Eckermann offers up her life in piercing, unaffected prose, her lack of judgment disarming, her ultimate redemption reassuring.

I always admire writers who pick a small task and then do it to the nines. That’s exactly what Eckermann does here, in lyrical, slightly accented prose that reads just like a good storyteller sounds. Even the poems that alternate with the prose chapters–a technique I often find gimmicky–feel exactly right. (It helps that Eckermann is a renowned poet more than she is a prose writer.)

My favorite part of the memoir was the final quarter, where Eckermann recounts meeting her Aboriginal family for the first time and beginning the process of healing with them. It’s such a hopeful thing to read in a world that feels decidedly un-hopeful. It’s so wonderful to think that despite the trauma Eckermann’s been through, it still wasn’t too late for her to find a measure of peace. I think there’s a tendency in literary fiction and memoir to drive home that the world is a terrible place, and I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to read a book that posits that in fact we are all, at our core, resilient.

I can’t recall the last time I’ve read a memoir as cleansing, as purifying, and as hopeful as this one. While reading Too Afraid To Cry, I felt as though Eckermann had extended me a hand, promising me that despite the fear and trauma of the now, we can still build a better tomorrow, one where no child is stolen and everyone belongs. 5/5 stars.


My copy of Too Afraid to Cry: Memoir of a Stolen Childhood came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE by Tayari Jones

About a black man’s wrongful conviction and the shattering effect it has on his wife (and everyone around him), the plot of An American Marriage may feel ripped from the headlines, but Tayari Jones’s gifted and highly personal prose takes it someplace much richer, deeper, and truer. Heartbreaking, unforgettable, and even a little bit hopeful, this novel is something special.

You can read my full review below.


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An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

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  • publisher: Algonquin Books (an imprint of Workman Publishing)
  • publication date: February 6, 2018
  • isbn: 978-1-6162-0134-0
  • length: 320 pages

Looking back on it, it’s like watching a horror flick and wondering why the characters are so determined to ignore the danger signs. When a spectral voice says GET OUT, you should do it. But in real life, you don’t know that you’re in a scary movie. You think your wife is being overly emotional. You quietly hope that it’s because she’s pregnant, because a baby is what you need to lock this thing in and throw away the key.

An American Marriage, page 14

If good historical fiction is always about the time in which it was written (and not about the time where it’s set), then I think it’s also fair to say good contemporary fiction is often about the future: futures the author and readers want, and ones they hope never come to pass.

An American Marriage is an excellent example of good contemporary fiction. Its characters are nuanced, its plot is ambitious, and Tayari Jones’s prose sings on every page. It’s also a book that reckons with past and present but is, above all, about the future–both the future of the marriage at the novel’s center, and the future of a United States that does not change its course, where terrible and frightening injustices continue to happen with alarming regularity.

Celestial and Roy are black, bourgeois Atlantan newlyweds settling into a passionate marriage that’s not quite on the rocks, but not smooth sailing, either. On an ill-fated trip to Louisiana to visit Roy’s parents, Roy is accused of a rape he didn’t commit and sentenced to thirteen years in prison, shattering both his life and Celestial’s.

An American Marriage is the rare book that I don’t think I could spoil for you if I tried, since all of its tension comes from knowing what will happen and being powerless to stop it: Roy’s arrest and conviction will feel depressingly familiar to anyone who pays attention to the news. I felt an especially sharp pang when Roy admits that he feels grateful that at least the cops didn’t just shoot him.

The fact that nearly every (? in fact, perhaps every) character is black and that none of them are surprised by what happens (even if they’re devastated by it) is refreshing in a climate where most novels that touch on racism are preoccupied with convincing white people that racism exists in the first place and not with actually telling a story. It frees up An American Marriage to be much more than something ripped from the headlines.

Jones doesn’t tidily package the lives of Celestial, Roy, and Andre (Celestial’s childhood best friend who becomes central to the plot) to suit the short memory of a 24-hour news cycle, and every single page feels personal, messy, flawed, funny, sad, helpless, and hopeful all at once, even if the balance of those emotions shifts a lot from chapter to chapter. In Jones’s world, everyone is a sinner and no one is a saint, which only amps the novel’s power: if none of us are saints, then this could happen to any of us, and illusions of “deserved it” or “didn’t deserve it” are out the window.

I wondered, often, if the book would have felt much different if Roy had actually done what he was accused of. Of course it would have, at least somewhat–I do think that rape is a particularly horrible and unforgivable crime, and I would have trouble sympathizing with a protagonist who committed it–but I imagine that the novel’s sense of injustice would have remained.

An American Marriage calls into question whether anyone deserves to experience the horror of prison–much less to experience the incessant, creeping fear that you might go to prison–and it seems to ask us to imagine a future without that horror and fear, which brings me around to the beginning of this review:

An American Marriage is a book that asks us things, and while it is not a work of dystopian science fiction, it draws from the same well. It asks: How did we get here? How do we get out? How do we heal?

Jones doesn’t provide answers, but the radical empathy and virtuoso storytelling of An American Marriage do feel like a start. 5/5 stars.


P.S. If you’re as enraged as I am that wrongful convictions happen, The Innocence Project does great work to free the wrongfully convicted. There are also many nonprofits dedicated to sending books to people who are currently incarcerated to help them pass the time and to prepare them for life beyond bars.

P.P.S. A personal note: I’ve been blindsided with a serious health issue this month and am pulling back from a number of personal and professional commitments while I recover. I will be reading, writing, and blogging less in the meantime, but I promise that I haven’t abandoned this blog! I do plan to return to a regular schedule once I’m feeling better, and hope you’ll stick around till then. (I am still tweeting regularly if that’s your thing.) Thanks!


My copy of An American Marriage came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: A LOVING, FAITHFUL ANIMAL by Josephine Rowe

Josephine Rowe is already a lauded author in Australia, but A Loving, Faithful Animal marks her U.S. debut–and it’s an auspicious one. The novel chronicles one family’s cycle of trauma against the backdrop of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, which is already an interesting story; Rowe’s prose, at once precise and dreamy, elevates this arc into fiction so potent and powerful that I want sing its praises from the rooftops, pressing copies into the hands of everyone I know.

You can read my full review below.


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A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe

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  • publisher: Catapult (catapult.co)
  • publication date: September 12, 2017
  • isbn: 978-1-9367-8757-9
  • length: 176 pages

That was the summer a sperm whale drifted sick into the bay, washed up dead at Mount Martha, and there were many terrible jokes about fertility. It was the summer that all the best cartoons went off the air, swapped for Gulf War broadcasts in infrared snippets, and your mother started saying things like I used to be pretty, you know? Christ, I used to be brave. But you thought brave was not crying when the neighbor girl dug her sharp red fingernails into your arm, until the skin broke and bled, and she cried out herself in disgust. You were still dumb enough to think that was winning.

A Loving, Faithful Animal, page 3

The concept of World Englishes is usually applied to colonized (and neo-colonized) countries and cultures whose variations on English are often considered “broken” and less-than. There’s a growing understanding that these Englishes are no less valid and rich than “standard” British and U.S. English–but World English speakers still find the long arm of U.S. and U.K. cultural dominance difficult to shake.

I define all this because although Australian English is usually considered “standard,” I was struck by how much A Loving, Faithful Animal feels like a work of World English: a working-class, trauma-laden, bitter and acerbic portrait of an Australia that’s impossibly far-flung from its easygoing cultural stereotype.

The Burroughs family is damaged: by domestic abuse, by poverty, by a Vietnam War that Australians wished to be involved in even less than Americans did, and by an intense and painful love for one another that none of them know how to safely express.

Ru quietly seethes, Lani is a rebel on a razor’s edge, and their parents, Evelyn and Jack, are locked in a terrible cycle of abuse. When Jack, a Vietnam War veteran, disappears for what seems to be the last time, Jack’s brother, Les, waits for Evelyn in the wings. The beloved family dog–the eponymous loving, faithful animal–was recently torn to shreds by a wildcat.

Two big questions hang over all of this–Would Jack be an abuser if his draft number had never come up? Would this family still struggle this much? –which Rowe smartly doesn’t answer. Instead, she tells what are effectively linked short stories from the perspective of each family member, all distinct in style but anchored by a single point in time that serves as a dark star at the center of the chaos: New Year’s Eve, 1990.

Rowe’s grasp of language is superhuman, and the act of reading her prose feels rather like watching Mirai Nagasu land that triple axel at the Olympics: jaw dropped in stupefied awe, not quite understanding but certainly feeling. I had to keep my smartphone handy while reading to interpret the Australian slang and cultural references, and this added to the dream-like feeling, as if I were using an interpretation book. (I read the American edition, but Catapult seems not to have made any changes from the Australian one, which is an excellent thing.)

The Burroughs’s dusty, devastated home, full of holes punched in drywall and with redback spiders crawling all over the garage, is nowhere near my world. But in this book, Rowe seems to have pulled up a chair for me, asking if I’d like a glass of water or anything to eat. For a few precious hours, it felt like my home. And though it wasn’t exactly a pleasant place to be, it was still a magical one.

When I’m reading good fiction, I feel infinite, able to explore lives and Englishes far from my own. Josephine Rowe writes prodigiously good fiction–and I hope that A Loving, Faithful Animal is only the start of what U.S. readers will see from her. 5/5 stars.


My copy of A Loving, Faithful Animal came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: THE VEGETARIAN by Han Kang

The Vegetarian has already been so thoroughly acclaimed that it hardly needs my help to spread the word, but I felt compelled to write about this chilling, starkly imaginative novel regardless. Yeong-hye has a terrible dream that causes her to become a vegetarian–setting off a harrowing series of events that irrevocably mark everyone around her, but most especially damage Yeong-hye herself.

You can read my full review below.


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The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

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  • publisher: Hogarth Press
  • publication date: February 2, 2016
  • isbn: 978-0-553-44818-4
  • length: 192 pages

For an allegory to work, it must also function on a literal level; the reader must always be able to question whether, in fact, it is an allegory at all. The Vegetarian demonstrates this flawlessly. On one hand, it is a novel about the toxic, suffocating effects of sexism. On the other, it is “merely” a novel about a traumatized schizophrenic woman and the many ways her family attempts to contain her.

Both of these threads are equally valid and vibrant, and it’s the interplay between them that gives The Vegetarian its raw, earthy power.

Of course, Han Kang’s poetic wordplay (translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith) also contributes; the imagery here is among the most powerful I’ve ever experienced. In one particularly breathtaking scene, the novel’s protagonist, Yeong-hye, is painted entirely with flowers, basking in the sunshine on an art studio floor as if she is photosynthesizing. I wondered–not for a short amount of time–if she really was.

The Vegetarian is actually series of three novellas, told from the perspective of three people who are not Yeong-hye: her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister, respectively. In the beginning, Yeong-hye is a homemaker, perhaps dimwitted (in the eyes of her husband, at least) but mostly just quiet, and obedient. Her husband laments that she doesn’t always wear a bra; he rejoices that his mediocre wife will never require anything of him but more mediocrity.

Then comes the dream, which triggers both Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism–a surface problem–and her disobedience, which is by far more disturbing to her husband and family. Yeong-hye will no longer be told what to do; she will no longer be dutiful; she will no longer ignore the link between the violence of meat and the violence of men. And that is unforgivable.

The Vegetarian is a horrifyingly violent novel, and if you are squeamish or easily disturbed, then it may not be for you. I am both, however, and still found it a rewarding read, because Kang has found permutations of violence that I’d never imagined before, and in that novelty there is a sort of numbness. Yeong-hye experiences rape by men and then far worse violations by feeding tube; she recounts the gruesome killing of a dog with a dreamy sort of calm; she stands on her head for hours and prays for her crotch to bloom with flowers.

It’s extraordinary and it’s nauseating, like a spinning theme park ride with its speed cranked up one level past safety.

But for me, at least, the violence was not the most extraordinary part. That honor goes to the empathetic, shrewd, and lingering ways in which the novel addresses mental illness. If you are at all familiar with the symptoms of schizophrenia, you will recognize that Yeong-hye is a classic case, especially in her delusions, odd movements, long silences, and even the age at which her break from reality occurs (schizophrenia most commonly onsets in women during their late 20s).

The word “schizophrenia” means “split brain,” and refers to the way schizophrenics often split from reality, slipping further and further out of touch with the rules that govern our normal world.

And yet–is a woman’s break from a violent and unequal reality that surprising? Might we even consider it a moral and necessary act? The Vegetarian says yes. 5/5 stars.


My copy of The Vegetarian came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

If you enjoyed this review, you might also enjoy translator Deborah Smith’s excellent essay–“What We Talk About When We Talk About Translation“–that was recently published in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Book Review: THE RED by Tiffany Reisz

The Red is a stand-alone erotic novel that follows a year in the life of Mona St. James, who swears to do anything to save her late mother’s art gallery from bankruptcy–but when a mysterious stranger offers to purchase a year of sexual carte blanche in exchange for a million dollars’ worth of priceless art, Mona’s definition of “anything” is put to the test. In The Red, Tiffany Reisz has created a near-flawless piece of erotic fantasy that dances right up to the edge of taboo while still maintaining a wickedly funny (and sexy) highbrow sensibility.

Read my full review below–and be aware that because The Red is a work of erotica, my review might get a little, er…spicy. I’ll do my best to keep it PG-13.


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The Red by Tiffany Reisz

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  • publisher: 8th Circle Press
  • publication date: May 7, 2017
  • isbn (trade paperback): 978-1537217765
  • length: 248 pages

I delight in fiction that mixes the highbrow and lowbrow, but I’ve never encountered a novel quite as cleverly subversive as The Red. If you’ve ever wanted a book where Manet and Picasso are referenced as often as the protagonist’s c**t, then this is it.

The novel’s premise is more daydream than reality: Mona St. James is a stunningly beautiful art gallery proprietor whose mother’s slow decline and death have driven the gallery–known as The Red–to the brink of bankruptcy. In the first few pages, all seems lost, but of course it is not; the tension serves only to ensure that when the dashing, British, and fabulously wealthy Malcolm sets foot in the gallery late one night, there’s no doubt as to whether or not Mona will agree to his offer to make her his “whore.”

Brooding BDSM billionaires are a dime-a-dozen in the post-Fifty Shades erotic landscape, but The Red gets to the heart of why the archetype is so appealing: with unlimited money comes unlimited safety as well as wish-fulfillment: safety from debt, safety from crummy jobs and unpleasant tasks, safety to follow our dreams.

Reisz mines every drop of erotic power from dynamics of safety and un-safety, whether it’s physical, financial, emotional, or all three. Malcolm is unfailingly caring toward Mona, meaning the sex can get rougher without seeming abusive or exploitative; when Malcolm beats Mona 100 times with a riding crop, it is foreplay for the most tenderly consensual sex scene I’ve ever read, and when he “auctions” Mona off to an audience of strange men, the act feels soul-searching instead of foul.

Why is playing at sexual submission and subservience so erotic, The Red seems to ask, when real-world oppression and chattel slavery are unquestionably horrifying? Of course, this question is secondary to the searingly hot sex that encompasses most of the novel, but its subtle presence ratchets up the tension.

The only false note here–and it’s a very minor one–is the way that The Red’s paranormal element concludes, which is speedily. The paranormal element came as a surprise to me to begin with, so the incomplete-seeming resolution gave me mild whiplash. That said, I can’t feel too jilted, as I do think Reisz was wise to keep the plot to a minimum and the sex to a maximum. On one hand, I was left with a few unanswered questions; on the other, I was rewarded with a novel so tightly strung that even a paragraph or two of extra detail might have spoiled the tension.

Guilt and shame characterize the American relationship to the erotic, but The Red pulls the ultimate magic trick, transforming these forbidden desires into a potent exploration of the human heart. This novel is a marvel. 5/5 stars.


I purchased my own copy of The Red and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: GOODBYE, VITAMIN by Rachel Khong

Rachel Khong’s novel about a quarter-life-crisis is weird, funny, and sneakily devastating. When 30-something protagonist Ruth returns home after a messy breakup to help care for her father, who has recently developed dementia, she finds that her family is quietly falling apart; in response, Ruth begins to keep an aimless diary of her days that’s full of meditations on the meaning of life, love, and memory. (Also, terrible vegetable puns.) It’s utterly delightful.

Read my full review below.


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Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

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  • publisher: Henry Holt and Company (imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: July 11, 2017
  • isbn: 978-1-250-10916-3
  • length: 208 pages

I’m wary of “quirky” books, because I often think “quirkiness” is a cover for sloppy craft that tosses random happenstance together and calls it a plot. If you feel the same, I’m sorry to tell you that Goodbye, Vitamin is very California-quirky. (At one point, protagonist Ruth and her best friend Bonnie get paid to seat-fill for the Oscars.) But I’d also like to reassure you that Rachel Khong knows what she’s doing, and that I am deeply in love with this book, and hope you will be, too.

With a title like Goodbye, Vitamin, humor is to be expected; what I didn’t expect was this novel’s absorbing, infectious charm.

The conceit is that Ruth returns home after painful split with her ex-fiancé in order to care for her aging father who has just been diagnosed with dementia. While she also shares meaningful moments with her mother and brother (and a cute grad student named Theo), Goodbye, Vitamin is squarely a father-daughter novel. The perspective flits between Ruth’s first-person and an almost-second-person–you, Ruth’s father–for whom the reader is a sort of proxy.

There is something uniquely frightening about memory loss, and that fear anchors the novel, epitomized by Ruth’s obsessive search for “dementia-fighting” foods like jellyfish, juice shots, and cruciferous vegetables. She knows she’s prolonging the inevitable, but it can’t hurt, right?

Meanwhile, her father leaves scraps of paper for her to find; his own diary of Ruth’s childhood, full of chestnuts like:

Today you asked me what “Dick” meant, and while I was deciding what direction I should take, you said, “Mom said you were one.”

Ruth’s devotion to her father, despite his faults–she quickly discovers that he was a philanderer and alcohol abuser during her years-long period of family avoidance–is deadly serious, lending credibility to the more whimsical plot points, including the creation of a fake class for her father (a former history professor) to “teach,” complete with real grad students.

Sure, I don’t really believe that grad students would devote so much time to the charade, especially when it involves expensive outings to Disneyland, but Khong’s distinctive prose style–which always feels firmly in media res–left me eager to play along.

For every dose of whimsy, there were also painful moments that cut me to the bone. Ruth’s life is perhaps more off the rails than average, but her anger that life has been nothing like she hoped it would be is universally intelligible. Nowhere is this clearer than in Ruth’s relationship with her mother, who is both an aspirational and pitiable figure; a beautiful, competent woman deeply hurt by her husband’s carelessness and by her daughter’s years-long estrangement.

No family is perfect is a truism, but Khong elevates the sentiment with every bizarre particularity of this family–recognizable not for their actions but rather, for the universal harm and humor they enact upon each other.

The novel is short at 208 pages; consider it an infusion of insight as potent as a cabbage juice shot–but far more pleasant.  5/5 stars.


My copy of Goodbye, Vitamin came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: THERE YOUR HEART LIES by Mary Gordon

Mary Gordon’s wrenching novel of the Spanish Civil War and family secrets that ripple throughout generations is deceptive: each time you expect to settle into one kind of story, whether one of the horrors of war or a more intimate family epic, you are pulled to another. Thankfully, Gordon threads this needle perfectly. There Your Heart Lies is a deeply moral novel that never moralizes; it’s a profound novel absent of profundities; it’s a novel as lovely as it is piercing, and not to be missed.

Read my full review below.


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There Your Heart Lies by Mary Gordon

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  • publisher: Pantheon Books (imprint of Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: May 9, 2017
  • isbn: 978-0-307-90794-3
  • length: 336 pages

When this book appeared in my Friday Bookbag over a month ago, I wrote about how off-put I was by the book’s “Millennial vs. Greatest Generation” jacket copy. The novel follows Marian Taylor, privileged daughter of an Irish Catholic family, who seeks to break her family’s cycle of cruelty by disowning herself and fleeing to 1937 Spain to aid in the effort to quell Franco’s (ultimately successful) fascist rebellion. The novel also jumps 70 years ahead to follow Marian’s granddaughter, Amelia, who knows nothing of this history when she moves in to take care of a dying Marian.

To hear the jacket copy tell it, you’d think this was a novel about Marian schooling Amelia about what real problems are like, but thankfully, Gordon’s moral compass is much subtler and truer than that. At the center of There Your Heart Lies are questions of what it means to be a good person and of what it means to renounce privilege–and of whether the latter is ever possible at all.

Despite my generational trepidations, I picked up this novel because of my own interest in the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s subsequent dictatorship, both rapidly forgotten in the chaos of World War II and in the United States’ own anti-communist fervor. (The Republican government overthrown by Franco was left-wing, socialist if not outright communist.) I was not disappointed by Gordon’s treatment of the material, and can say without a shadow of doubt that There Your Heart Lies is one of the finest historical novels I have ever read, especially in its weaving-in with the present day.

Perhaps the most fascinating element of the novel, particularly in our current political climate, is its refusal to cave to the sort of moral relativism that forgives homophobia, racism, fascism, and other evils by claiming its perpetrators were products of their time who couldn’t possibly have known better. Gordon sharply rebukes this by imbuing Marian and Amelia with an admirable moral fiber independent of their eras.

The tension in the novel doesn’t come from the reader wondering whether or not Amelia and especially Marian will do the right thing–we know they will–but rather from how they will do good works, how they will prioritize the good that must be done, and how they will survive the toll that being a good person in a corrupt world takes.

If that makes the novel sound unbearably moralistic, I can promise it’s not. The effect is more like complex optimism: we see the horrors of the Spanish Civil War through Marian’s eyes, and then Spain’s more peaceful present through Amelia. We see terrible abuses committed in the name of Catholicism, but also the fragile hope present in Catholic rituals. We see Marian’s gay brother go through painful shock treatments that culminate in his suicide (the catalyst for Marian’s rebellion), but we also see the tender queer love between Marian’s best friends in the modern day, a lesbian couple who fled Germany during the Holocaust.

It has been a long time since I’ve read a novel as ambitious as this one–one that asks ambitious questions, plays within an ambitious setting full of rich historical detail, and juggles two ambitiously good characters that are still, somehow, flawed and not saints.

Wise, then, that Gordon doesn’t attempt heroic feats of language, although the writing is beautiful. Her prose is relatively simple, but the story she tells is not. I turned the final page feeling as hopeful as I felt sad. Sad that we have still not learned the lessons of the past; hopeful that we will edge ever closer, day by day, to justice. 5/5 stars.


My copy of There Your Heart Lies came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.