Owlcat’s #CBRV Review #10 of The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

This is a story about two adult brothers, a sister who is the twin of one of the brothers, and the relationship of all three as they meander somewhat helplessly through a maze of family history. When the story begins, Susan, the divorced sister, lives in Maine, in the small town where they all grew up.  Both Jim and Bob, the Burgess brothers, are lawyers living in New York City;  Jim is wealthy, partly due to his marriage and partly due to his high profile lawyering, a successful lawyer who relies on his reputation, seemingly happy, self-confident, and contemptuous of his brother, whom he not-so-lovingly refers to as “Slob-dog.”  The incessant belittling got on my nerves.  Bob, on the other hand is low-keyed, somewhat self-contemptuous, and a liberal who works for a legal aid society;  he remains good friends with his divorced wife, Pam. He is basically the conscience of the story but that’s not totally apparent until the end of the novel. Among the siblings is an unwritten rule that no one will speak of the tragedy that occurred when the twins were four and Jim was eight, when Bob disengaged the family car’s gears and rolled over their father, killing him.

The catalyst for the story is Zach, the sister’s 19-year old rather hapless son who commits what the government may decide is a hate crime when he mindlessly throws a pig’s head into a mosque of Somali refugees who have lived in the small Maine mill town for some time but have yet to truly assimilate. As a result of his act, when Susan learns from her son that he is the perpetrator, she reaches out to her brothers, to help with his turning himself in and the resulting legal implications and complications.  Neither Bob nor Jim likes being back in Maine;  each relates better to society in NYC.  What occurs among the siblings in Maine returns to the childish animosities, disputes, and jealousies, in other words, family life as it was when they were growing up.  We see glimpses of their childhood through vague references, in particular their mother’s inability to nurture Susan and the mother’s over-protectiveness of Bob after his accident.  Jim was always the one who would succeed, though.

I found the first three-quarters of the book the most interesting because it told not only the siblings’ stories but also included some individual stories of Somali refugees living in Maine and their reactions to both the incident itself (a Somali child in the mosque at the time it occurred fainted), the distrust and suspicions on both sides, and the realization by one Somali leader that Zach, as he watched him in the initial court proceeding, really was just an uninformed kid who had to understanding of the significance of what he had done, that he really had thought it was “just a joke,” and this leader’s ability to thereby accept and forgive him. There were the townspeople, the police chief, and the lawyers each trying to make sense of the situation, some trying to make it beneficial to themselves, and others truly wanting to help both Zach and his family and the Somali refugees.

I expected more from the story about Zach, in fact, thinking we would get to see him perhaps interact with others more and not be the sad character he was.  Instead, the author has him run away to his father in Sweden where we then see only glimpses of him that his mother sees. His fear sent him there but it gave him an opportunity to mature and develop away from her and her issues.  I was glad he developed into a more realistic character but was sorry we didn’t get to see the process, which is only alluded to.

What we did get to see in the latter part of the book was a reversal of roles between Bob and Jim, the direct result in Bob’s case of Jim’s revealing something from their past.  At first Bob was angry but then goes through a series of developments, coming out of the situation with a better understanding of Jim, himself, and his family in general.  He feels more worthy and begins to appreciate himself and his life more, adding things to make himself happier.  In the meantime, partially as a result of his revelation, but also because he gets caught in self-destructive behavior, Jim’s role turns into one of the underdog, needing Bob’s acceptance, losing his wife and job, and slowly sinking into a depressed, sad caricature of what he used to be.

This is a complex novel, very character driven and very interesting, but I felt it lost its momentum once Zach went to Sweden and once Jim and Bob began to dance around each other in trying to sort out the family hostilities and anger.  I’m not sure I believed the fact that all three of the siblings changed (Susan as a result of Zach’s decision to go to Sweden without telling her), or that it would be quite so dramatic.  At some points, it felt tedious and whiny, particularly Jim’s wife’s reactions to things and his own.  Maybe I’m just cynical.

I think the book is good and worth reading but I did find myself wishing we had spent more time on the Somali story;  maybe her next novel could be about one of those characters.  Again I’m wishing there were a category to check that would be a half-star between 2 and 3 stars. I will go with “a good book.”

ElCicco #CBR 5 Review #8: Basti by Intizar Husain

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Translated from Urdu by Frances W. Pritchett, with introduction by Asif Farrukhi.

Basti is a novel set amidst upheaval in Pakistan, particularly the partition and emigration of 1947 and war in 1971. This classic of Urdu language is not so much a political novel as an existential one. When Basti was published in 1979, Husain, one of the most respected and celebrated authors writing in Urdu, received some criticism for not taking a side or offering any answers. But Husain has written a novel not about war and politics but about man and what happens to communities (basti) in times of upheaval. He examines what is happening to man in the modern world.

The overriding theme can be summed up in a line from the Quran which is repeated throughout the story: “I swear by Time, man is surely in loss.” As the main character Zakir, his family and friends endure political upheaval and war, they both witness and demonstrate how man changes and becomes less generous, less connected to those around him. Husain’s work is filled with references to Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist literary and religious works that touch on these points. While it would help the reader to be familiar with the history of India and Pakistan as well as these works, the translator provides useful detailed notes and a glossary to help those of us who are not. And not knowing will not prevent the reader from understanding Husain’s larger point or enjoying his beautiful writing.

Basti is told from the point of view of Zakir, a middle aged history professor in the fictional city of Vyaspur (which stands in for Lahore). It is late 1971, the time of the Indo-Pakistani war (there have been several; the 1971 conflict led to the independence of East Pakistan/Bangladesh). As Vyaspur suffers the effects of war, Zakir reflects more and more on his past in the small village of Rupnagar, where he grew up and his family home is located. Husain assumes readers would know about the emigration of 1947, when the British partitioned India into India and Pakistan, the new Muslim state. This resulted in massive emigration for Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. Zakir’s family, like many other families, was divided due to partition. Eventually, those family members in East Pakistan were cut off from those in West Pakistan. Husain’s main characters, however, seem not to feel directly involved in the politics of their time. They don’t overtly take a side in politics or war. They seem more like spectators than actors. When Zakir takes tea with his friends, they discuss what is happening without shedding much light on it, as they themselves seem to feel in the dark and unable to have any impact on the situation. At one point, Zakir tries to convince his father that conditions are improving in Vyaspur and beyond, and his father responds, “Son, if conditions improve, it means nothing. People’s deeds have to improve.” It’s not until the very end of the story that Zakir feels that he ought to have done something, that he is somehow responsible. One action that he takes is to keep a diary because, “I ought to preserve the record of my lies and cowardice.”

Husain’s writing has passages involving stream of consciousness, as Zakir takes trips down memory lane and reveals bits about his past and about religious and philosophical thought. This is where some familiarity with Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism would serve the reader well. This is also where some of the loveliest writing is to be found.

The rain poured down all night inside him. The dense clouds of memory seemed to come from every direction. Now the sky was washed and soft. Here and there a cloud swam contentedly in it, like a bright face, a soft smile.

Kudos to the translator for weaving these various threads together into a lovely whole tapestry. Ideally, novels are read in their original language, but few of us will ever know Urdu and it would be a shame to be deprived of Basti and its timely message about man’s disintegrating relationships within his community.