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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

January Reads

A list of the books I read and what I thought of them.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

This 1885 fourth novel by American writer Mark Twain is the story of the rebellious, fearless, shrewd, young Huckleberry Finn. Set in American South during the 1840’s, Huck Finn, escaping his abusive father, runs away from home and shortly after joins Jim, his guardian’s slave who has also run away. The two, united in their secret destiny, embark on an unforgettable journey. Hiding by day, traveling by night, the two face a litany of different obstacles–from bands of murderers, poisonous snakes, feuding families, avaricious grifters, angry mobs, and much more, all the while evading the authorities hellbent on their recapture. At many times, events force Huck and Jim apart, and even more often, it appears that all hope is lost, that all their efforts have been in vain. But young Huck Finn’s unwavering moral determination, his striking ability to improvise, think of his toes, fabricate elaborate backstories, and even impersonate other people, all work to ensure his own survival as well as Jim’s, in turn, ushering forth an adventure of a lifetime against the greatest odds.

It was difficult at first for me to understand how and why this book was labeled, and continues to be labeled, a classic novel of American fiction, as the flagrant racism and phonetic depictions of regional dialect proved a challenge that seemed, to me, to outweigh the content of the plot, even with all the surprises, twists and turns, and unlikely triumphs. However, upon closer reading and critical analysis, I’ve come to the opinion that the novel’s true greatness lies both in the complexity of character and in the subtleties–details, descriptions, and dialogues which one may easily pass over without giving much regard. In the small moments–short interactions between characters, in the innumerable stories they tell themselves, in the curious omissions of their responses, in the various guises they put on and the ruses they create, all of the logic and illogic therein–there are certain patterns that arise, for instance: the near-constant contemplation and infatuation with death, familial fantasies, the clash between ideological state apparatus and a burgeoning sense of morality, insight into the role of family, and the indictment of slavery, to merely name a few. I was surprised to find that this is a deeply psychological and philosophical novel, one which raises countless questions that today still remain culturally, politically, and socially prevalent. Part of me wants to say that I will likely never read it again, but that’s something I cannot say with certainty. But I can safely say that, now having finished the book which took me three weeks to read, I certainly understand why the novel was and still is quite the case of critical controversy.

The Infamous Rosalie by Évelyne Trouillot

This 2003 debut novel by Haitian author Évelyne Trouillot is the searing tale of love, loss, and persistence against unspeakable horror. Set during the mid-18th century on the recently colonized island of Saint-Domingue, the story follows Lisette, a young Creole slave woman who still bears the generational trauma of the Middle Passage, inherited memories which haunt Lisette, affecting her thoughts, feelings, and sense of identity, all of which are made further worse by the dangerous conditions of daily life. A string of deadly poisonings has fueled a dangerous tension between slaves and slaveowners, fomenting suspicion and unspeakable violence in the wake of a rumored revolt. And it’s in this pervasive fear that has struck Saint-Domingue that Lisette struggles to keep alive a fleeting hope. She is in love with a runaway slave and burgeoning revolutionary, Vincent, with whom she meets in secrecy; she cherishes and cares for her godmother, Ma Augustine, whose stories are her only tie to the family and history she never knew. And as the story unfolds, Lisette must confront the life-threatening decision of whether to stand individually and endure pain and anguish in order to survive or stand with those whose lives have been stolen and rise against the dominant powers which oppress them despite the fearsome risk of imprisonment and execution.

Seldom have I come across a novel so breathtakingly moving, so full of pain and anguish that each page turned is like a pierce in the soul, so brilliantly written that the eyes forget their movements, seized by sheer beauty and horror. Morrison comes to mind, but Trouillot, in this short novel, pushes the reader to a truly horrific place–a world riddled by violence and death, immorality and iniquity, a world seemingly devoid of all hope and no chance of escape. And while the atrocities of enslavement threaten to extinguish any glimmer of hope, the tiny flame endures, still flickers, and grows, fueled by love, humanity, and rebellion. But what was most astounding about the novel, for me, was the prose itself–a form, grandiloquent, beautiful, moving, always intertwined with the content of the novel, offsetting and mitigating the horrors in some sections, amplifying them in others. The writing seems a character within itself, one reflection both the interiority of the characters and the exteriority of events, changing and transforming with each chapter. It was painfully powerful, sublime, and completely heart-wrenching. This novel will doubtless stick with me for a long time.

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

This 1918 debut novel by English journalist and author Rebecca West depicts the complex and tragic consequences of the First World War. The novel is told from the perspective of Jenny, a thirty-five-year-old inquisitive woman, living with her cousin-in-law Kitty in England during the mid-1910’s. News arrives that Captain Chris Baldry, Kitty’s husband and Jenny’s cousin who has been fighting on the frontlines of the Great War, has been injured and is suffering from ‘shell shock,’ suddenly unable to remember the past fifteen years of his life. The news is delivered by Margaret Grey, a woman with whom Chris had had a romantic relationship in his youth and to whom Chris had sent a letter. And when Chris comes home, the news is confirmed–he has lost his memory, believes he is still twenty years old and in love with Margaret. What unfolds is a heartbreaking yet beautiful exploration into the psychological trauma of war, the pernicious and complicated dynamics of love, and the moral predicament involved in the revelation of truth.

Written during WWI and published before the war had ended, the novel is often labeled a psychological war novel, and deemed a classic by many scholars. And while such a category seems apt, the label does nothing to lend insight into the virtuosic brilliance which comprises its pages. It’s a short novel, spanning fewer than a hundred pages; but it teems with beautiful sentences, long streams of grandiloquent descriptions, frame narratives, Freudian psychology, philosophical rumination, and the painful portrayal of grief following death. Through the romantic eye of Jenny our narrator, is a world comprised of questions without answers, and yet it is in the tiny details of her unwavering eye that a reader can catch a glimpse into the plausible explanations, coming close to closure, but without ever attaining it. This novel floored me; so beautiful, so heartbreaking, so puzzling, and so unrelentingly captivating. That this was West’s first novel is beyond impressive, and I cannot wait to read more of her work.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

This 1915 novel by English novelist and critic Ford Madox Ford opens with the famous line, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” The story follows four friends over the course of nine years: John Dowell and his wife Florence; and Captain Edward Ashburnham, the “good soldier,” and his wife Leonora. John Dowell, as the narrator, describes the excursions of the upper-class quartet of friends, traveling widely, but spending the most of their time in Nauheim, Germany, at a spa where Florence is supposedly receiving treatment of a heart malady. And as he regales to the reader the details of the story, it becomes gradually clear that beneath the friendly veneer of their relationship lies a sinister dynamic, one comprised of infidelity, deception, and death.

Often regarded as Ford’s greatest work, the novel is also considered to epitomize the “unreliable narrator” – John Dowell being the character through whose biased eyes all events, details, dynamics, and dialogues are filtered. But what is truly astounding about the novel is that John Dowell’s narration inspires a litany of different ways in which the novel can be read. Whether Dowell is being truthful, whether he is lying, whether he has ulterior motives–jealousy, greed–or whether Dowell is secretly infatuated with Edward and is forced to suppress his romantic love; or whether even that Dowell is a murderer, and possibly conspired with Leonora to kill Edward and Florence. Whether John Dowell is the puppet or the puppeteer is the question that invisibly streams through the novel’s 200 pages of text, always lurking quiescently below the surface, tinging each detail and recounted moment, coaxing suspicious and speculation. And that the novel’s structure, a non-linear, flashback upon flashback, meandering sequence of scenes blurred with countless introspective, all the while reflecting the impressionist movement by which Ford was heavily inspired–all work to make this novel a true masterpiece of modernism, and one that I will certainly read again in the future.

Islands of Decolonial Love by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

This 2013 sixth novel by Mississauga Nishnaabeg writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson is a collection of songs and short stories which encapsulate what author Junot Diaz defined as “the kind of love that could liberate them from that horrible legacy of colonial violence” – “them” being, in this case, the indigenous people of Northern America. There are twenty-six sections in total and stories range from surprising romantic excursions between young people; family travels across the American Midwest; messages from parent to child; receiving an unexpected letter, one which inspires fear and anxiety; clashes between external oppressive forces and the internal ties–of family, culture, love–of community; to the historical and spiritual stories passed down through generations of family members. In each of the twenty-six stories, whether conveyed through a narrative or song, there is a permeating sense of love working against great odds to keep those together whom society and external civilization threaten to pull apart, diminish, and erase.

The short lengths and conciseness of the pieces which comprise this collection belie the powerful and, at many times, utterly moving themes and concepts explored throughout. And Simpson writes in an experimental mode, stripped of convention and form. Most of the pieces are structured with multiple running narratives delineated in typescript and italics which force the reader to interpret and analyze as they read–whose voice is this? Is this a memory, or intrusive thoughts? Simpson also writes in both English and her native Nishnaabewomin, offering scant translations of certain words and prompting the reader with contextual clues to decipher certain other words. But most notably in this collection of work is an underlying empathy invoked in the reader, one born of love and communion and resistance, as well as the rejection of pity and sympathy. These are works of protest through the lens of love, of decolonial love, and it was beautiful and heartbreaking and thought-provoking to read.

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