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Irene Huhulea

Struggling to Unseal All of the Words Unspoken: ‘Tell’ by Frances Itani

Tell Exploring the emotional gaps created by grief and prolonged silence, Frances Itani’s new novel, Tell (Black Cat Press; 318 pages), is the story of a Canadian family coping with the fallout of the First World War. Picking up the thread from Itani’s 2003 novel, Deafening, Tell weaves an intricate narrative of two couples struggling with things left unsaid. The novel opens in 1921 before flashing back in time, with the bulk of the story occurring in the last two months of 1919.

Tress and Kenan are a young couple trying to reconnect after Kenan’s return from the front; meanwhile, Am and Maggie, Tress’s middle-aged aunt and uncle, are in a marriage that betrays a fragility neither will acknowledge. Itani expertly portrays the intricacies of each character, revealing the similarities among them slowly and deliberately. Despite the tensions in the novel’s romantic relationships, the connections between the two couples are both affectionate and complex. Seeing themselves reflected in their younger counterparts, Maggie and Am offer guidance and advice, hoping to help a marriage affected by Kenan’s wartime injuries.

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Of Hope and Devastation: Michael Cunningham’s ‘The Snow Queen’

snow_queen“A celestial light appeared to Barrett Meeks in the sky over Central Park, four days after Barrett had been mauled, once again, by love.” So begins The Snow Queen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pages), the latest novel from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham. Like his previous novels, The Hours and By Nightfall, Cunningham combines delicate prose with poignant subject matter, exploring the themes of love and mortality through the relationships of his characters.

Beginning in 2004 on the eve of the U.S. presidential election, The Snow Queen tells the story of a group of friends across a span of four years, the narrative winding its way through the shifting dynamics of their lives and friendships. At the center of the story are Tyler and Barrett, two brothers who share a long history and an apartment in Brooklyn. Though seemingly opposite in nature, Tyler and Barrett’s close friendship speaks to the bond of a shared past and also highlights the illusory stability of the other relationships in the novel.

Complementing the brothers’ friendship is Tyler’s relationship with his girlfriend Beth, whose long-term illness is one of the focal points of the story and the glue that holds the group together. The fourth member of the Brooklyn quartet is Liz, a brassy middle-aged retail maven with a penchant for young lovers and a keen understanding of love’s capricious nature.

Shifting perspective between the four protagonists, The Snow Queen traces the path of their lives between 2004 and 2008, using political events to establish chronology and to evoke the frustrations they all share. As the friends suffer through illness, money problems and drug addiction, their parallel struggles interweave, making it impossible to read one against the other. Instead, the novel insists on the characters being considered as part and parcel of each other, the messiness of their lives a testament to a shared human experience.

By turns mournful and anticipatory, The Snow Queen balances on the knife point of faith and despair, repeatedly invoking the celestial light at the novel’s beginning as a way of asking whether magic is indeed possible. Though Barrett vacillates more often between these two states, it is Tyler who truly embodies their delicate balance when he hears a distant song, described as being evocative “of hope and devastation, as if they were the same thing: as if, in the vocabulary of this language, there were only one word to convey the two conditions.”

Created through song and thematically developed, the link between hope and devastation permeates the novel, making itself visible in every interaction. Living up to his literary legacy, Cunningham delivers a beautifully complex story through The Snow Queen, taking the reader on a difficult journey that is tinged with just a little bit of magic.

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Having It All, and Nothing to Show For It: Christine Sneed’s ‘Little Known Facts’

Little Known FactsThe obsession with celebrity is arguably more intense today than it has ever been before. In the millennial years, the somewhat nebulous concept of fame has been democratized, intensified, and extended to those outside of the film and television industries of Hollywood. Yet despite the elevation of everyday people to the status of public figures, the hierarchical nature of celebrity continues to privilege movie stars above all else, using their fame and talent as the benchmark against which all others are judged.

Exploring celebrity through this lens, Christine Sneed’s novel, Little Known Facts (Bloomsbury, 304 pages), tells the story of a family at the center of Hollywood’s fame bubble. Embittered by divorce and dealing with the ennui of a life filled with privilege, Sneed’s characters are by turns selfish, greedy, obstinate, and guilt-ridden, a combination of traits that leaves them feeling confused and unsatisfied.

The family’s patriarch, Renn Ivins, is a famous movie star who has traded his stable family life for a successful career, one punctuated as much by accolades as by moments of intense frustration. His adult children, Will and Anna, are a study in opposites—the former is self-obsessed and perpetually unemployed, the latter self-possessed and intensely hard-working. The complexities of their relationships are highlighted by their interactions, and underscored by a narrative that focuses on what is left unsaid between them.

Well-crafted and character-focused, Little Known Facts consists of layered individual stories working together to drive the plot forward. Offering the viewpoints of both minor and major characters, the story’s shifting perspectives are expertly intertwined and never heavy-handed. These narrative shifts also serve to situate the novel within a long tradition of character-driven stories, and are especially reminiscent of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, another cautionary tale of celebrity and excess.

The solipsism of the central characters—Renn, Anna, and Will— is mirrored by that of the minor characters (such as Renn’s two ex-wives) with a surprising result—the surfacing of a pervasive self-indulgence that causes tensions in their relationships among each other. As Jim, one of the minor characters, reflects during his attempt to define celebrity and his place within the Hollywood landscape:

“They are victims of their own appetites, but I suppose that is true of everyone. They will stuff themselves with junk food before dinner or sleep with their friends’ wives or drive their cars over cliffs because they own ones they don’t know how to drive or else they are desperately lonely. Their nightmares are other people’s daydreams.”

Dark, poignant, and at times disquieting, Sneed’s novel does not offer much in the way of hope. Instead, it reflects on our cultural fixation with celebrity and everything that glitters, shattering illusions and façades in the process. As Sneed writes, there is “so much poetry in sadness, a very different and possibly more potent variety than the kind of poetry you find in happiness.” Despite its bleak moments (or rather because of them), Little Known Facts tells a story that moves beyond the salacious lives of its characters, illustrating the difficulties and obsessions that are as common within Hollywood as outside of it.

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