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Serena: A Novel
Serena: A Novel
Ron Rash
Ecco, 2008
384 pp., $24.99

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The Seamstress: A Novel
The Seamstress: A Novel
Frances de Pontes Peebles
Harper, 2008
656 pp., $25.95

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The Wasted Vigil
The Wasted Vigil
Nadeem Aslam
Knopf, 2008
336 pp., $25.00

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The Gone-Away World
The Gone-Away World
Nick Harkaway
Knopf, 2008
512 pp., $25.95

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Reviewed by Elissa Elliott


War Fatigue?

Four novels to read while the leaves are falling.

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It is somewhat telling that post-9/11 war movies have slunk quietly onto obscure theater screens, then crawled off to die a bleak financial death—movies like Jarhead, In the Valley of Elah, Syriana, Rendition, Redacted, and Lions for Lambs. But telling in what way? Do we have war fatigue? Do we feel unabsolved guilt? Are we hankering for something other than the proselytizing propaganda culled from the same channels we can safely watch from the soothing comfort of our La-Z-Boys?

Might we tolerate stories about completed wars because they're safely within the realm of history? This applies to the first two books I mention; the last two are in the uncomfortable category of present wars.

So, let's start with a little history. Ron Rash's Serena is about environmental war—the friction between in-your-face Teddy Roosevelt conservationists (who want a sprawling green national park) and the stubborn Appalachian timber kings of the 1930s (who want to raze the land). There's another aspect, too, of the novel, which undergirds the larger story—the story of Serena, George Pemberton's new wife, plucked from Boston's high society and brought back to George's mill camp in North Carolina's Cove Creek Valley. When George introduces her to his workers as "the equal of any man here," a skeptic "hock[s] loudly and spit[s] a gob of yellow phlegm on the ground." Serena's responds coolly. She takes up her Waterman pen, scribbles a number on her notepad, and hands it to one of George's right-hand men. She says, "I'll make a wager with you. We both estimate total board feet of that cane ash. Then we'll write our estimates on a piece of paper and see who's closest."

Serena deftly directs her husband in business matters, and he willingly trusts her. They're partners. Together, they're invincible.

A parallel story—that of a girl, Rachel Harmon, and her young son, who is George's illegitimate child from the time-before-Serena—heightens the rising tension. No spoilers here: suffice it to say that I can see why 2929 Productions has preemptively optioned the film rights to Serena. Read this one if you have time to savor only one novel this fall.

In Frances de Pontes Peebles' The Seamstress, the old republic of Northeast Brazil (1920s and 30s) is tangled up in political revolution between the Blue Party and the Green Party. The Green Party, led by President Gomes, seeks change (voting power for women and an increased concentration on industry). They send mapmakers and supplies into the interior, envisioning a road called the Trans-Nordestino that would connect the back country with urban centers. But the Hawk and his men—renegade Robin Hood-like cangaceiros of the backlands—thwart them by killing their mapmakers and attacking their trains. The sertão is theirs; they are the champions of the people who live and farm there. Two sisters, Luzia and Emilía dos Santos, work with their Aunt Sofia as seamstresses for Dona Concei&ccedit;ão and her colonel husband in the dusty mountainous city of Taquaritinga do Norte. While Luzia, through circumstances not of her choosing, ends up trekking through the backcountry with the cangaceiros, Emilía marries into wealth and moves to the coastal city of Recife. They are tenuously connected by the Society Section in the daily newspapers, in which they both glimpse each other from time to time. Ultimately, the book is a tender (and sometimes graphic) tale of sister and spousal loyalty and how far we will go to protect our loved ones. It would be my second choice for a fall read.

Now to the present wars.

Nadeem Aslam's The Wasted Vigil is set in post-9/11 Afghanistan, thirty miles from Jalalabad, where extremists still bomb anything remotely smacking of tolerance and where broken people forge relationships out of necessity. The book reads as commentary, shifting at  times to the register of poetry, weaving in references to Greek mythology and the Koran, making for a slow yet satisfying read. The disparate characters—Marcus, an Englishman still grieving the stoning of his Afghani wife; Lara, a Russian girl seeking information on her lost soldier brother; Casa, a Muslim fresh from jihad training who is waiting his chance to serve Allah; David, a former American spy who deals in gemstones; and James, a Special Force agent who deems himself above the Geneva Conventions—collide and interact. Their base is Marcus' neglected perfume factory and his old house, full of remarkable art—which has  survived the Taliban ban on representations of living things only because Marcus has daubed mud over the intricately painted walls.

Perhaps the appeal of The Wasted Vigil is felt most strongly in the questions it asks. For example: Is war always simply about revenge and hate and the raw exercise of power, or can it be about helping a weaker brother? David refers to the Soviet-Afghanistan war at one point: "It's possible that everyone else was fighting the Soviets for the wrong reasons, was mercenary or dishonest, faking enthusiasm due to this or that greed … but my opposition to the principles behind the Soviet Union is … what the Soviet empire did to those who lived in it, those who were born in it." A warning: you will feel conflicted at the end of this book, but that's no excuse not to read it.

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