The Round House - Louise Erdrich

ErdrichThe Round House

Louise Erdrich

Harper Perennial

Paperback, 321 pages, 2013

As happens with many coming-of-age novels, as we read The Round House we are lulled by the maturity of the language into thinking that the book is about the adult characters. And yet as the story unfolds we are inevitably drawn into the realization that the novel is, and must be, about the young narrator, about the effects on him or her of the milieu and the events that are being revealed to us, and about how those circumstances have forever altered his or her view of the world.

In this case, the narrator is Joe, a bright and perceptive 13-year-old boy whose mother Geraldine has been brutally attacked as the novel opens — an event that causes Joe’s hitherto safe and comprehensible world to collapse, pulling apart its seemingly secure framework one piece at a time. We see the struggles of Joe’s father –sense his dignity, pain, intelligence and bewilderment — and of Joe himself, and of other members of their closely knit community, as they try to help Geraldine rebuild her life in the aftermath of this horrific event. We recognize the silent agony of Geraldine herself: she will not name the perpetrator of the crime, or share the details; for a long time, it seems that she has decided not to mend, but simply to die.

But the novel isn’t about Geraldine; it is about the effect of his mother’s pain on Joe, and his growing awareness of the inability of the adults to help her ease it.

The Round House, Louise Erdrich’s fourteenth novel, is about justice and injustice, focusing specifically on the hopelessly tangled set of laws that emerged when the Europeans began to decide what property in North America was going to belong to whom – and, in fact, to decide what the word “property” itself would mean in that context. In so doing, they erased the rights and livelihoods of thousands of Native Americans, of which Louise Erdrich is one. In this novel, she has brought to life a community of diverse and intriguing characters who help her build a powerful message and increase our awareness of the history, plight and deep spirituality of her people.

Joe and his friends are wonderful incarnations of the restless balance between angst and silliness, maturity and childishness, that coexist in the minds and bodies of young teenagers everywhere. Joe’s grandpa, Mooshum, is an Ojibwe elder with chutzpah, knowledge, and the links to the past that Joe needs to understand before he can begin to fully realize the extent of the legal no-mans-land in which he and his people have come to live, and the losses they have suffered to get there. Joe’s father, a lawyer and tribal judge, who interprets the laws for Joe (and us), is a proud man who still believes that, given time, the white man’s statutes can be whittled away, eroded and rebuilt until justice for his people at last emerges. Joe does not have that kind of patience: he wants revenge, and he wants it now.

As did several others in the Goodreads group that suggested this book to me (The Literary Award Winners Fiction Book Club: thank you!), I found several essential plot points in The Round House disappointingly convenient, given the scope, depth, and achievements of the novel as a whole.  But Erdrich’s language is so strong, so lovely and precise (“Linda Wishkob was magnetically ugly”) and her characters so compelling that we are drawn forward despite the infelicities of the plot. We want to keep reading and reading, to stay inside this compelling world.

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Skin Lane – Neil Bartlett

Skin Lane

SkinLane

Neil Bartlett

Serpent’s Tail

Paperback, 344 pages, 2007

A Psychological Drama Unfolds into a Mystery

I have no idea where I got the idea that I should read Skin Lane by Neil Bartlett. A few months ago, I was flipping through a book I had purchased about ten years ago that I hadn’t liked very much, thinking of taking it in for recycling, and I found a scrap of paper stuck between its pages that I had obviously used as a bookmark. It contained, in my handwriting, the words

Skin Lane – Neil Bartlett

 

That was all.

I tried to throw this piece of paper into the garbage, but it wouldn’t go there—at least not right away. I could not get the idea out of my head that if I didn’t read that book, I might miss out on the most fantastic novel I had ever had the opportunity to read. So after fiddling with the corner of the little note off and on for a week or so, I ordered Skin Lane from AbeBooks. Then I threw the scrap of paper out.

The book arrived.

I devoured it.

*

Skin Lane is a short masterpiece, a compelling psychological drama with all of the page-turning attributes of a good mystery. Neil Bartlett, its author, is a prolific playwright as well as a novelist, and his focus in this story is a 46-year-old man whom we know mostly as Mr. F. He is one of the last generation of skilled cutters who worked for the 300 furriers who plied their wares on Skin Lane and neighbouring streets in the City of London in the first half of the 20th century. As the novel opens, Mr. F. has lived the same unfulfilling, solitary, virginal life for three decades, going by train to work each day at the same time, home again each night, wandering the city or visiting art galleries on the weekends–his routine unbroken, his mind numb even to its tedium.

It is the mid-sixties and it is London: and we can see that all around him the world is changing. His generation and those who have gone before may be mired in tradition and obligation and doing what is right and proper, but young people are ignoring all the rules, breaking them at every turn. It appears Mr. F. has been left behind, has missed his chance at… what? That is the question he must ultimately answer – although for a long time it seems he doesn’t even know there is a question, and that he doesn’t really care.  But we soon learn that he is watching, from the corner of his eye, from beneath his lowered lids: he sees the life that pulses just beyond his grasp in the taut bodies of the young.

Mr. F. starts having a recurring dream that appears to have its roots in his childhood reading of Beauty and The Beast. The dream, a nightmare really (except that there is something deeply compelling about it too – as there are in so many good nightmares) begins to wake him up to his own sexuality, but in a dark way: intertwining it with the bloody work he does.

Anyone who has dreamed about a specific person and known that he or she must have seen that other person in real life, but can’t remember where or when, as I have done, will recognize the central mystery in this novel: Who is the young man who figures in Mr. F’s nightmares, dead, beautiful, hanging upside down, apparently murdered in Mr. F.’s own bathroom? And what do the dreams portend?

Skin Lane is a gripping read, building in intensity, and while we are compulsively reading forward in spite of our dread of the outcome, we are also absorbing the smells and fascinating facts about a world even now just newly dead – where in a whole “Hidden World” of London, through winter’s cold and summer’s heat, men on the top floors of a narrow building cut the skins of animals to pieces, and sewed them into expensive new skins that men would later use to decorate their most prize possessions: their wives and mistresses.

Bartlett’s clever conversational tone and his apparently infinite capacity for detail draws us in to his confidence. It convinces us that this writer has the inside track on this world, and on the enigmatic man he has created—just one example of the millions of people in the world who lead outwardly unremarkable lives but who (we know) must be capable of anything.

*

I am grateful to my self for leaving myself a note all those years ago, and to my present self for trusting that I knew what I was talking about back then. I am also grateful to whomever it was that recommended the book and made me write its title down on a piece of paper—I’ll never remember who it was. As Bartlett himself might say in the voice of Skin Lane’s narrator: maybe it was you.

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