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BETWEEN THE LINES

Recent reads on the faultlines of politics and people

Sometimes I feel like a divided woman, caring fiercely about both social justice activism and literature. On first glance, it might seem easily reconciled: write fiction about injustices and resistance, right? Only – of course – it’s not at all that simple. Sometimes the brain cells, the synapses and dendrites and neurons (all that anatomy I studied years ago and have mostly forgotten) that make connections necessary for activism seem not only very different from those that create good fiction, but also in direct contradiction.

And then, just when I despair that I can’t get it right, I read books that are so good, such exquisite combinations of bearing witness to the world and fine literary work, that I’m inspired to keep working. Three recent books made me feel this way.

Set in war-torn Chechnya, Anthony Marra’s debut novel A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA is incandescent and fierce, giving the reader the most remarkable relationships among a group of characters I’ve read in years. There’s 8-year-old Havaa, who hides in the forest when Russian troops take her father; her neighbor Akhmed, who brings Havaa to Sonja, the last physician in the last hospital; and there are all the family members they have lost but not forgotten. I’m a fast reader, but forced myself to slow down to savor the gorgeous writing and the close-up view of the worst and best in ourselves. It's brutal, and it's dark, and it's frightening. I believed every word.

WHITE DOG FELL FROM THE SKY by Eleanor Morse, set in Botswana and South Africa during apartheid, inhabits the fictional country I most admire – the crossroads of political turmoil and character's lives. Isaac, a former South African medical student, observes the murder of his friend by police. He is beaten and thrown over the border into Botswana, where he is adopted by a white dog and then befriended by an acqaintance who works with the ANC. Isaac is hired as a gardener by Alice, an American woman on the way out of a marriage. All three characters are deeply tested by the tumult of political brutality and human connection in a setting rich with history and natural beauty.

When I started reading Julie Wu’s THE THIRD SON, I had just finished A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA with its which had lush prose and complex non-linear structure. So it took me a couple of chapters to begin to appreciate Julie Wu's straightforward storytelling and spare prose. Soon however I fell in love with Saburo and Yoshiko and began to see the complicated dynamics that shimmer under the surface of this narrative. So many of us have, a generation or two ago in our families, similar stories of immigrants who left the political turmoil and cultural limitations and family conflicts of their homelands in search of opportunity. And I ended up loving this book for Wu’s insights into the political situation in Taiwan and the universal struggles of immigrants, and for these complex and very human characters.

It you love books on the faultlines of politics and people, consider putting these three books on your TBR list.
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