The Light Between Oceans

Tom Sherbourne returns from the World War I and just wants to forget about everything from his time overseas. He signs up to work “on the lights”, that is, working the lighthouses that are scattered across the coast of Australia. He then marries Isabel, but they are unable to have children. So when a baby washes up to shore the couple makes the devastating decision to keep the baby as their own.

I will say I was expecting something else from this book. I had seen the previews for the new movie and figured the book would be sappy and feel-good. While it was sappy in some parts, I would never call it a feel-good novel. Without giving anything away, I was pretty surprised by the ending.

The question that this novel revolves around is essentially an overused one. “How far would you go for someone you love?”

I am curious to see what others thought of this novel, specifically the ending. My only problem with this novel was that I found myself distracted by the sappy tones at times and couldn’t just enjoy the storyline, but maybe that’s a personal problem.

-A

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The Couple Next Door

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena; 2016

Anne and Marco leave their six-month-old baby, Cora, alone one night when they attend a dinner party at their next-door-neighbors’ house. They live in a townhouse and share a wall with their dinner party hosts. When their babysitter cancels at the last moment, they decide to bring the baby monitor with them with the arrangement that the parents will take turns checking on Cora every half hour. Okay, GREAT. Lo and behold, when Anne and Marco return home a little after 1 a.m., Cora is gone.

Cora was safe and sound when Marco checked on her at 12:30, which only leaves a small window of time for the kidnapping to have taken place. There is also no other sign that anyone besides Anne and Marco had been in the house, and how could anyone have known that Cora would be left alone in the house except for the two couples? Granted, things got a little shady at the dinner party. Anne watched her neighbor, Cynthia, outrageously flirt with Marco. They’d all had a little bit too much to drink. And why can’t Anne remember what happened the last time she checked on Cora?

What unfolds is, predictably, a whole untangling of secrets and lies. The catchphrase for many books these days is that ‘every marriage has its secrets,’ but like, hard pass if the average marriage has deception to this level.

Pros: extremely fast-paced and never a dull moment, a few unexpected twists, and overall a fun read.

Cons: the writing style of this book was so bizarre that it completely distracted me from the plot. A fairly outlandish premise and I truly didn’t agree with the ending.

-M

 

The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead; 2016

In what has been a year so far of almost exclusively (disappointing) thrillers, Colson Whitehead’s National Book Award winner, The Underground Railroad, reminded me why I spend so much time reading. Cora is a young slave on the Randall farm, a cotton plantation in Georgia that is a synthesis of every horror ever told about slavery: slaves are beaten and raped for amusement, attempted escapes to freedom are met with public displays of execution, and women are used as breeders for more slaves. Cora bears her own scarlet letter, as her mother escaped the plantation when Cora was young, making her the only slave who succeeded in disappearing from the Randall planation to freedom in the North. Cora lives in a kind of exile in Hob house, a conglomerate of female slaves who have been rejected by the rest. Eventually, a way out arrives in the form of Caesar, an educated slave on the plantation who tells Cora about the underground railroad which can lead them to freedom.

A familiar narrative so far, but in in Whitehead’s rendering the underground railroad is not only a secret network of safe houses and passageways, but a network of safe houses where you can open a trapdoor in the floor and find a functioning railroad with actual steam engines and boxcars running beneath. Although imaginative – and certainly wondrous – Whitehead only shows the railroad occasionally, making Cora’s tale of escape towards freedom more realistic. First, in South Carolina, the state seems to have a more liberal attitude toward former slaves, and Cora and Caesar settle there until more sinister plans for their destiny are revealed. From there, it’s back on the train to several more stops: North Carolina, where they have abolished slavery and are also keen on abolishing the entire race; Tennessee, barren and hostile; Indiana, a temporary safe haven; finally, the North. With each stop, Cora is pursued by the bloodthirsty slavecatcher, Ridgeway.

The timing of this novel – with President Obama’s departure from the White house, with so much social change and unrest – is everything. The Underground Railroad did for me what (sorry, Zadie – I’m still your #1 fan!) Swing Time didn’t. It’s the novel we need right now; it’s more than a novel about race, it’s also highly concerned with narrative authenticity and authority, how the past influences the present and future – similar to Zadie Smith’s past novels, particularly NW. Whitehead’s novel is also about all of the different ways in which black history has been stolen by white narrators. Cora, too, is very aware of her own narrative changing with white hands:

“No slave had ever keeled over dead at a spinning wheel or even butchered for a tangle. But nobody wanted to speak on the true disposition of the world. And no one wanted to hear it. Certainly not the white monsters on the other wide of the exhibit at that very moment, pushing their greasy snouts against the window, sneering and hooting. Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.”

It’s page after page of horror, murder, cruelty. But it’s an important book right now. Whitehead never strikes hard on the parallels between America’s current racial crisis and his slave narrative, but it’s all you can think about while reading it.

Must read, must read, must read!

-M

 

“Black hands build the White House, the seat of our nation’s government. The word we. We are not one people but many different people. How can one person speak for this great, beautiful race – which is not one race but many, with a million desires and hopes and wishes for ourselves and for our children […] All I truly know is that we rise and fall as one, one colored family. We may not know the way through the forest, but we can pick each other up when we fall, and we will arrive together.”