As I listen to the birdsong coming in through the open windows and enjoy my cup of Chai, I am thinking about what I’ve read and listened to over the past week.
I mentioned at the end of my post last week that I had started a new novel by Jonathan Bennett, in the hopes that it would be more interesting than the other book I’d had to put down half-way through because it was not engaging me at all. Well, let me tell you, this next novel, The Colonial Hotel, was all that and more! It is a modern-day recasting of the ancient story of Helen and Paris, about which, I’ll admit, I know virtually nothing, except the bit about Helen of Troy and the Trojan Horse, and only because I think that this is where the phrase, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”, comes from. Helen is a nurse and Paris is a doctor. They are working side by side to provide essential health care in an unnamed third-world country that is on the brink of civil war, though neither of these characters is working for purely selfless reasons. During a short break in their work, as they enjoy a brioche and a café au lait at a public cafe, they are taken hostage and separated in a political coup d’etat. Helen is pregnant and manages to escape with a few other women, while Paris is imprisoned and made to work, alongside others, at various tasks, including building a jail and digging a mass grave, all the while resisting being broken in body and spirit by reliving his time with Helen, and imagining that he is spending time with their unborn daughter as she grows up. As the years pass and political power changes, Paris is all but forgotten in his cell, where his health and will to live deteriorate to near-death. Only when a new political party takes over and relative normalcy is restored is Paris rescued by Oenone, the ex-wife of a former political leader who was instrumental in launching the political upheaval that caused so much unrest in the country between the North and South. As she works with Paris to regain some of his former physical and emotional strength, a new bond forms between them and the story comes full circle. Told in alternating chapters narrated by Paris, Helen and Oenone, this short novel is at once lyrical and brutal, alluring in its spare, elegant prose and shocking in its honest portrayal of the realities of political corruption and duplicitous leadership. Bennett is able to demonstrate the timelessness of the themes of the original story in this contemporary setting, offering both emotional depth and universal truths about the human condition. It is a fascinating exploration of love and forgiveness, the power of parental bonds, and the ravages of war on all that is noble and worthy in our unstable and ever-shifting world. As you can probably tell from my gushing description, I was totally impressed with the novel, and I couldn’t put it down as I looked for opportunities to read amid long-weekend activities. I know nothing about this author, who lives in the village of Keene, just outside of Peterborough, but I believe he’s written several other novels and pieces before this. As boring as the premise may sound to a contemporary reader (retelling of an ancient story, first told in Homer’s The Illiad, I think), I would highly recommend this short novel to anyone who enjoys literature, not necessarily best-selling fiction.
And I began listening to the Young Adult fiction title Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs last week. It started out OK, but lost me a few chapters into it. While I would like to finish it at some point, I think I will read the book, as it may be more engaging for me in that format. Briefly, it tells the story of a teenaged boy, Jacob, who, following a family tragedy, follows clues that lead him to an abandoned orphanage in Wales, a home where his grandfather claims to have lived and which he mentioned to Jacob often throughout his life. As I just found out while writing this post, the book was intended by the author to be a picture book, but was encouraged by his publisher to create a narrative around it. I know the book includes many photographs, so that may be why it is not grabbing me as an audiobook. Anyway, I’ve moved on to something else, so it’s OK – I didn’t waste too much “listening time” to that novel. I’m listening to David Rosenfelt’s novel On Borrowed Time right now, and will write about it when I’m finished.
That’s all for today. Get outside and enjoy the sunshine!
Bye for now…