Sunday, January 20, 2008

Short Takes, January 2008

Certainty, by Madeleine Thien
Certainty is a story of love, war, and suffering. Poetic and ethereal, it perfectly captures grief caused by war and loss of a spouse but misses the mark when it comes to the loss of a child.

The novel begins with Ansel, a physician whose wife Gail died of a sudden illness a year ago, but the narrative voice quickly switches to Gail's father, Matthew, and the heart of the story. Matthew had been a boy in Indonesia when the Japanese invaded during World War II. He and his best friend, an orphaned girl named Ani, supported each other through the hunger and the fear. After the war, Matthew had to leave; his father had been a collaborator, and he and his mother were no longer welcome in their village. Matthew sees Ani again when he returns at age 19. They fall in love but again Matthew must leave, because his father's collaboration has not been forgotten.

Ani and Matthew's war experiences profoundly affect their and their families' lives. Their story is compelling, and the changing point of view from which it is told is interesting (we variously hear from Gail, her mother, and Ani's husband as well as Ansel and Matthew). Ansel's story, however, is on the periphery and is ill-fitting, almost unnecessary. Also, Matthew's grief at not being able to stay with Ani is well-rendered, but we hear almost nothing of his grief at the loss of his daughter, and event that should have been just as devastating to him. In the end, Certainty, while beautifully written and well-aimed, misses the mark.

The Wheel of Darkness, by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child
Fans of FBI Special Agent Pendergrast rejoice! He's back, and he's as inscrutable as ever. If you've never read a Preston Child novel, you can start your journey with the Holmsian Pendergrast with The Wheel of Darkness, although the back-story details from previous novels add a little depth that you would miss.

The story opens with Agend Pendergrast and his ward, Constance Green, making their way to a remote Tibetan monastery. They've come to rest and meditate, but they soon learn a rare and dangerous treasure, guarded by the monks for a thousand years, has been stolen. Pendergrast and Green follow the trail to the newly-commissioned luxury steam liner Brittania, leaving on her maiden voyage. What follows is murder and panic on the high seas, all with a supernatural twist.

Agent Pedergrast and Constance Green are superheros more than people; they can be fascinating to watch, but don't expect realism from them. Pendergrast is an intellectual investigator extraordinaire, and Green's mysterious past make her more than the young woman of society she appears to be. The action is fast-paced and just an unbelievable, but does that matter in a superhero story? I'm not sure Preston and Child get all the details right about Tibetan Buddhism, but the picture they paint is vivid and exotic and suits the story well. All-in-all, The Wheel of Darkness is a fine yarn to spend some time away from the world with.

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