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Posts Tagged ‘history’

goldenageThanksgiving, 1948, and Iowa farmer Walter Langdon and his wife Rosanna’s eyes meet over the crowded dinner table: “they agreed in that instant: something had created itself from nothing — a dumpy old house had been filled, if only for this moment, with twenty-three different worlds, each of them rich and mysterious.”

That lovely moment occurs in Jane Smiley’s novel, Some Luck, the first in her Last Hundred Years trilogy. When I wrote about the book last fall, I compared it to a fat family photo album, one spanning the years from 1920 to 1953, with each chapter a snapshot of a year in the life of Walter, Rosanna and their five children. The shifting perspectives — sometimes close-up, sometimes wide-angle — make for a saga both epic and intimate.

The same is true of the second installment, Early Warning, which arrived in the spring. Still, it’s less the family album and more like home movies. Some scenes blur, especially in the beginning, as the Langdon family goes forth and multiplies. It takes awhile to become reacquainted with the characters from the last book, even as more arrive. But Smiley doesn’t pause. The action picks up where Some Luck left off, with the 1953 death of patriarch Walter and the family’s reactions to his loss. Again, change is as constant as the seasons.

By the time Early Warning ends, we’re emotionally invested in the sprawling Langdon clan, as familiar and frustrating as your own kin. Whatever will they do next? Which brings us to the saga’s finale Golden Age (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), in which life continues rich and mysterious — as well as messy and random.

By now, it’s 1987, and there are four-going-on-five generations of Langdons. The family tree at the beginning is a necessity. Even so, some cousins fall by the wayside, moving to other parts of the country, staying in touch with birth announcements, long-distance phone calls, maybe showing up for weddings or funerals. Still, enough Langdons move to the forefront to pull at the emotions as they are touched by history — the Reagan years, 9/11, Wall Street shenanigans, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — that only occasionally feels schematic. Smiley is skilled at melding the personal with the political, everyday life with grand themes,  so it’s not especially surprising that a Langdon great-grandson and Iraq war veteran has a problem with meth, or that his great aunt finally rids herself of a controlling husband in favor of a quiet, kindly man from her hometown. Twins Michael and Richie remain fierce rivals in business and politics, and revenge is, indeed, served cold. Their sister Janet continues to hate her father Frank from faraway, seeking solace in California and training horses.

But Frank, eldest of the original Langdon offspring, surprises by mellowing in his later years and reconciling with ethereal Andy, who turns out to be made of sterner stuff when dealing with a devious son and a domineering daughter-in-law. Frank’s younger brother Henry, a gay history professor, ends up in Washington, D.C., becoming an adoptive father in old age, while brother Joe and his son Jesse struggle to hang on to the family farm back in Iowa.

About the farm. Agribusiness, climate change, genetically modified seeds. The near-future is not kind to the Langdon acres, or, indeed to America as a whole. The post-Obama years trend toward the dystopian. No wonder some Langdons wonder if they’ve already lived through their golden age. But while elderly Claire finds a sheen to her closely held memories of hearth and home, there are young Langdons looking out and ahead. The sun also rises. Did anyone say farm to table?

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buriedCamelot, it’s not. The Dark Ages shadow the setting of Kazuo Ishiguro’s curious new novel, The Buried Giant (Knopf, digital galley), a fable of sixth-century Britain and of myth and memory. The Romans are long gone, King Arthur is dead, and Britons and Saxons share a gloomy land of forest and fens where ogres roam and pixies lurk. A mysterious mist acts like a collective amnesia, shrouding the countryside and whispering rumors of the she-dragon Querig.

Out of this fog emerge a long-married, elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, tender with one another and their frailties. They have vague memories of a long-lost son, and after their hill-warren neighbors take away their single candle, they decide to visit him in his village several days away. Beatrice also seeks help for a nagging pain in her side and wants to learn more of the mist that melts memories good and bad. She has heard of a ferryman who won’t let them cross a river together without questioning their mutual devotion. What if she cannot remember all the intimacies of their life and they are separated?

But Axl, who sometimes recalls flashes of a time when he was perhaps a soldier in the bloody wars against the Saxons, is wary. “Promise, princess, you’ll not forget what you feel in your heart for me at this moment. For what good’s a memory returning from the mist if it’s only to push away another?”

This being a quest tale of sorts, Axl and Beatrice face challenges, be it crossing a bridge or staying overnight in an isolated monastery. They also take on traveling companions — Wistan, a tall Saxon warrior; Edward, an outcast orphan who carries the scar of a creature’s bite; and ancient Sir Gawain, nephew of Arthur, clad in rusted armor and riding an aged, swaybacked steed. Both Wistan and Sir Gawain guard secrets from the past and are concerned with the whereabouts of Quering. A showdown is inevitable.

Ishiguro adopts a mannered, controlled narrative style to suit his subject, but the first part of the book is slowed by tedious, repetitive dialogue as the characters search their memories. Both Wistan and Sir Gawain find Axl’s face familiar from a distant past. Beatrice frets about the future and the ferryman. Too often, explication substitutes for drama, the action happening offstage, as when Wistan escapes from a burning tower that traps the sword-wielding soldiers intent on his death. Ishiguro describes an attack by the grasping pixies in the same even tone as he depicts a grass-munching goat tethered on a hillside as dragon bait. Symbols abound, drawn from history and legend, and allegory is implicit.

Still, the writing can be exquisite. Sir Gawain’s wistful reveries echo with yearning. Taken as a whole, the story is artful, and the ending, although expected, still devastates.

The Buried Giant may be a departure in genre for Ishiguro, but the themes of memory, identity, guilt and forgiveness are familiar from such past works as Never Let Me Go, The Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans. For what are we if not our memories, our stories?

 

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