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Alyssa Cami

The Captivating Voice of an Irish Traveller: Gavin Corbett’s ‘This Is the Way’

This Is the WayOver the past few years, thanks in part to a TLC reality show, many of us have become fascinated with Irish Travellers, a group of unsettled people that moves about Ireland in caravans. For the most part, Travellers are a secretive culture, wary of outsiders, and in turn are viewed with a certain amount of disdain by “settled” people. In his second novel, This Is The Way (Faber and Faber; 230 pages), Irish writer Gavin Corbett explores the trials and tribulations of an Irish Traveller in an increasingly rooted world.

Anthony Sonaghan fears a rekindled feud between the two halves of his Traveller family, the Gillaroos and the Sonaghans. It’s a war so ancient and ingrained between the two families that there are myths about how the feud was started. Scared of getting caught up in the violence to come, Anthony hides out in a bustling tenement house in Dublin, away from his people. One day, the dullness of his life in hiding is upset by the appearance of his Uncle Arthur, who shows up with his hand heavily bandaged, missing a toe and obviously on the run. While taking care of the impish Arthur, Anthony is forced to face the past along with the troubles it presents and the questions it raises about his future.

Corbett’s greatest accomplishment and his novel’s true strength is the voice of Anthony. Nothing he says or does feels untrue, and one could easily imagine him wandering the streets of Dublin and the countryside of Ireland. He is an original, strong, and imaginative protagonist; equal parts beautiful and jolting, he captures the reader’s attention from the first sentence and holds it throughout the work. Through Anthony, Corbett is able to explore the difficulties of a man who grew up a Traveller trying to assimilate into an average life, all while coping with his warring family.

It is because of the strength of Anthony’s voice that it’s possible to forgive Corbett for leaving us at the end with little or no explanation about intriguing episodes of Anthony’s history, such as the death of his brother Aaron and about where the brothers’ mother and sister went after they left Anthony and Aaron with their father. The author’s reasons for doing so, though, are completely understandable and commendable. As Anthony is telling the story, it makes sense the narrator would gloss over these unpleasant memories, only mentioning them in passing.

Corbett’s commitment to Anthony’s voice also means the story doesn’t unfold chronologically. Rather, we’re guided by Anthony’s jittery thoughts, jumping from living with Arthur in Dublin, to the summer before he left his father’s house, to the old myths of the Sonaghans and the Gillaroos. This can make the plot hard to follow, but in the end, whatever little frustrations and confusions that crop up are easily overlooked. Corbett has crafted an amazing storyteller in Anthony and rewards the reader for sticking with him.

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A Refreshing Story Set in a Rundown Town: Michelle Tea’s ‘Mermaid in Chelsea Creek’

Mermaid in Chelsea CreekIn a post-Twilight, post-Hunger Games world, the Young Adult literary scene is fraught with sparkly neutered vampires, teens struggling against the shackles of their dystopian societies, and bland heroines who are somehow sucked into irritating love triangles. This new YA craze has even spawned a Paranormal Romance sub-section in the Young Adult shelves of Barnes and Noble, crammed tight with the types of book covers you cannot help but judge. There is hope, however, and it comes in the form of Michelle Tea’s newest protagonist, a thirteen-year-old, dirt-layered, scabbed-knee girl named Sophie Swankowski.

In her first installment of a YA trilogy, Mermaid in Chelsea Creek (McSweeney’s Books, 333 pages), Tea, the award-winning author of Valencia and Rose of No Man’s Land,  brings us to Chelsea, Massachusetts, a broken-down town that has seen better days. (Tea wrote a memoir, The Chelsea Whistle, about growing up there, which was published in 2002.) There are girls who play the pass-out game, roving groups of aimless teenage boys, and old immigrant women who left everything behind for a better life, only to end up in Chelsea. It is a hopeless place, but there is a story about a girl who will be able to fix their dark and twisted world, a girl who will bring the magic back. Sophie, with her grubby clothes, strange need to eat straight salt, and visions of a foul-mouthed Polish mermaid, might just be that girl.

Tea successfully sheds new and loving light on what society usually paints as filthy and less desirable. Indeed, nothing may be what people think it is. A grandmother might be a bad witch, a dog might be a grandfather, and a town floozy might actually be possessed by a Dola, who is attempting to get you back on track with your destiny. Chelsea may be run down, but by the end the reader cares for the pot-holed streets, mangy houses, smelly dump, garbage-filled ocean and pollution-rotted creek. Pigeons, those rats with wings that everybody hates, play an integral role in Sophie’s development through the story, morphing from grey, disease-carrying beasts to beautiful orange-eyed birds more befitting of their other name, Rock Dove.

Even Sophie, as she is first introduced, is a less than desirable as a heroine while she gulps down sludgy creek water in front of her germaphobic best and only friend Ella. She is slightly neglected, with dirty tangled hair, grubby clothes and scabbed knees, but her spunk, curiosity and her genuine heart and ability to care for others endear her to the reader.

Another great strength of Tea’s book is her use of narrator. Sophie, with her spunk, curiosity, genuine heart and empathy for others, endears herself to the reader. And while the point of view stays mostly with Sophie, there are many occasions where the perspective shifts briefly into those of other characters, mimicking Sophie’s own power to read people’s hearts and capture their true feelings. This all goes to deepen the characters, and makes it possible for the reader, much like Sophie, to forgive key protagonists for their failings.

Tea’s novel is a refreshing breath of air in the world of YA, equal parts eerie, heartbreaking and fantastical. This modern fairytale harkens back to the wonderful days when the genre wasn’t all about vampires that could frolic in the sunshine.

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Truth Dressed in Lies: Kristopher Jansma’s ‘The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards’

The Unchangeable Spots of LeopardsIn his first novel, Kristopher Jansma examines the idea of truth and the very nature of writing fiction. The Unchangeable Spot of Leopards (Viking; 253 pages) follows the life of the unnamed narrator, starting from the time he is eight, sitting in an airport waiting for his mother, to well into his adulthood, when he sits in a very different airport and deserts a manuscript on a café table.

The narrator’s name shifts many times through the book. To the members and debutantes of Raleigh’s Briar Creek Country Club, he is Walter Hartright, a soon-to-be Ivy League student; to an audience at a short story reading at Berkshire College, he is Pinkerton; to the students in an Introduction to Journalism class he’s the eccentric Professor Timothy Wallace, and, finally, to the rich boy whose papers he writes for cash, he is Outis. With great skill, Jansma creates within his narrator a character and a voice that both encapsulate the everyman and the “nobody.”

The plot of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards follows the worldwide travels of this expertly crafted, yet hopelessly unreliable narrator and of his two friends: an alcohol-addled collegiate literary rival and a high-society Broadway actress. As the trio globetrots from Sri Lankan mountains and Manhattan jazz clubs to a wedding on the lip of the Grand Canyon, they pursue love and experience success and failure.

But Jansma’s coming-of-age tale is just as much about the nature of truth and the role of lies in writing. He calls attention to the half-truths of the writing life, quoting one of Emily Dickinson’s most famous lines, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” This novel is an exercise in slanting the truth. With each successive chapter, earlier details the reader had taken as fact change slightly, but never to where they truly contradict what had been stated before, so nothing is ever wholly unrecognizable. (For example, at the beginning of the novel the narrator says he was a great golf player in high school, but by the end of the novel he says it was tennis.)

The same can be said for the narrator’s two friends, whose extraneous details, such as their names or the royal pedigree of a spouse, vary but whose core characteristics remain the same. This particular steadfastness among the whirling chameleon changes makes Jansma’s protagonists seem lively and even authentic.

Despite the narrator’s woeful lack of credence, the reader stays with him, following the story as he boards a plane to Dubai, runs from an Internet café to his train in Sri Lanka, and even as he rides in a truck through Africa. That’s because despite the lies, his is an engaging tale and he is honest in his own fashion, dressing the truth up in falsehoods to expose it more poignantly. Jansma’s skillfully crafted novel is the kind of book that stays with you, hovering around the edges of your mind long after you have put it down.

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Discovering L.A., and the Mother She Never Knew: Anna Stothard’s ‘The Pink Hotel’

The Pink HotelIn her second novel, The Pink Hotel (Picador Original, 280 pages), just published in the United States, Anna Stothard tells the tale of a 17-year-old girl’s attempts find out more about the life and death of her party-girl mother, Lily, while on an extended trip to Los Angeles.

The book opens on the nameless narrator at the wild, drug-filled party that is meant to be a memorial for Lily, exploring her mother’s room in the Venice Beach hotel she owned. Having been abandoned at the age of three, the narrator barely remembers her mother and the other people at the memorial have no idea who she is. With the party in full swing, the narrator walks out of there carrying a pink suitcase filled with some of Lily’s clothes, make up, and letters.

The novel follows the teen girl as she wanders around Los Angeles dressed in Lily’s clothes and trying to piece together her mother’s life. She connects more and more details about her mother’s failed marriages, her changes in careers from a waitress to a nurse to a hotel manager and owner, and becomes entangled with a paparazzo named David, who she is convinced was involved with Lily in some way.

Stothard, a British author, makes L.A. come alive, describing the sweltering heat, the complicated public transportation, and even the bars and nightlife of the city. She does not shy away from the seedier side of L.A.—the excessive use of drugs, self-harm or the destructive draw of celebrity culture. Some of her characters are among the most beaten and downtrodden people in the city, and Strothard brings their gritty reality to life.

The color red plays an important role in the story as well. On almost every page, a shade of red or pink is seen, whether in the form of blood, the suitcase the narrator takes, the pink hotel, a dress of Lily’s, or even the red that appears over and over in the love letters stashed in the suitcase. Strothard’s use of red provokes a sense of urgency in reading her incredibly short chapters, pushing the reader onward. (After this bombardment of red imagery, the narrator’s revelation in the middle of the book that green is her favorite color is almost like a cool breath of air.)

While Stothard is able to make L.A. and her secondary characters vibrant, her unnamed protagonist (who blatantly lies to everyone she encounters, making her highly unreliable) at times falls flat. At times, when Stothard seems to be trying to convey the narrator as tough but engaging, she ends up coming across as mostly cold and rational. And despite everything she experiences journeying through L.A., and she experiences a lot, she doesn’t seem to change or develop. The novel ends almost exactly as it began, with her wandering a now empty pink hotel, wondering about her mother.

Still, Stothard’s work is thoughtful and engaging, and she makes L.A. and its many denizens glow on the page like neon lights. That and novel’s compelling plot make The Pink Hotel a satisfying read.

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Finding Refuge From the End of a Marriage: Joelle Fraser’s ‘The Forest House’

The Forest HouseNature plays an integral part in Joelle Fraser’s new book, The Forest House: A Year’s Journey into the Landscape of Love, Loss and Starting Over (Counterpoint Press, 224 pages), which chronicles her life right after her marriage ends.

Wanting to disrupt the life of her young son, Dylan, as little as possible, Fraser resolves to stay near the small mountain town where Dylan’s father lives. The only place she can find that’s close enough to town, but far away from the gossip (it was Fraser’s decision to leave her husband) and sympathy there, is a one-bedroom home tucked into the forests of the Sierra Nevada. With a dirt road leading up to the forest house and miles separating her from the nearest neighbors, Fraser learns quickly how to become self-sufficient. Her first months in the house take place in the dead of winter, which brings terrible snowstorms, power outages and an increased sense of isolation as she mourns her losses.

Alone, except for when her son visits, Fraser struggles to come to terms with losing half of Dylan’s life because of joint custody and with living hidden away in the wilderness. As Fraser tries to navigate these internal and external landscapes, she probes into her family history, finding similarities to her situation in the story of her great-grandmother, who had to leave behind her six children in Sweden when she immigrated to America with her husband, whom she would wind up divorcing. Time passes, and Fraser settles into her new home, the wild that surrounds it, and her new identity.

The strength of The Forest House comes from Fraser’s ability to seamlessly weave the nature surrounding her into her story. Each chapter begins with an epigraph, dealing with weather, trees, animals, or a type of plant, preparing the reader for the type of encounter that she will be exploring in that section. Each wilderness backdrop, from the harsh snows and winds of winter to the charred remains of an old forest fire, is expertly laid out, drawing the reader into the physical space of the Sierras.

Fraser (whose first essay in print, “Karyn’s Murder,” appeared in ZYZZYVA’s Fall 1998 issue) makes a compelling case for those in need of a new beginning to retreat into the wild. In taking refuge in nature—availing herself of the privacy and the quiet the forest house provided her—Fraser deals with her losses and rebuilds her life.

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