Borders by Roy Jacobsen

The problem with borders is that they’re opportunities.  In his novel, Borders, originally published in Norwegian, but released October 2016 in English by Graywolf, Roy Jacobsen explores the borders as clear distinctions, and also limits to push against.  Traversing the border between past to present, Jacobsen develops strong characters who fight to define their place in time.

The book begins with the story of a bridge over the river Our in 1894.  A miller inquires of the governments on both sides of the river about building a bridge so that he can get between his house and the mill more easily.  Others would find the bridge useful, too.  But bureaucracy delays the project long enough that the miller ends up building a bridge himself.  So starts the story of border people, forging their own paths often contrary to institutional arrangements.

We skip to the same geographical region in 1960’s.  The community now includes the main characters, Leon and Markus, veterans of WWII, Leon’s sister, Leni and her mentor, Maria and Maria’s son, Robert, whose father, a now-absent American soldier and pianist, fought opposite Leon and Markus.  In the bulk of the novel, Markus tells Robert, and through Robert, us, how he lost track of his son during the battle of Stalingrad.  Markus and his son both worked as radio operators with the German army.  Markus, from his post in Command Headquarters, relayed sensitive messages to his son, in the thick of the action, that would affect the outcome of the battle, as well as their relationship.  Meanwhile, Leon loses track of his regiment (defects?) and spends time in a POW camp.  Both men come home to families who accept them, changed as they are.  (Leon is distant and Markus is “blind.”)  Jacobsen sets the two war stories alongside one another.  They do not intersect, but play off of each other and shape Markus and Leon’s relationship.  So, too, Jacobsen inserts stories from the more distant past, about William of Orange and a traveling sword thrower, like wavy, distorting mirrors held up to the main action.

“‘War is mother of all things,’” Markus quotes Robert.  “But what [Carl von Clausewitz] had in mind was state building, constitutions, demarcation of borders and that sort of thing, while my attention is directed toward the little man and the invisible lines within ourselves which we never cross but which move like swaying ribbons, first we’re on one side, then we’re on the other, we keep our word and we keep our peace, but the borders move and the words are changed, the interpreters die and our reason fails us, it’s almost like sitting down at the piano when all hell breaks loose” (206).  After reading his story, I think what Jacobsen means is that war – rifts and destruction, pain and failure – bears the potential for something entirely new and unexpected, perhaps even reconciliation.  In other words, war cannot exist without the chance for not war, without peace and fecundity and creativity.  Borders exemplifies this claim through its border crossing characters, characters at war in themselves.  They are each accused of being traitors.  Markus has to choose between his son’s safety and the safety of the army.  Leon has to decide which army to call his own.  And each has to choose how best to love his own family, however unorthodoxly.  Are they traitors for making the decisions they make or are they simply human for making a decision, crossing a border, at all?   

Borders is not about war and borders so much as it uses these things to make a point about the act of writing itself.  Like war, any story’s conflict is pregnant with possible resolutions.  And we are all stories.  Jacobsen makes this clear as Markus narrates his tale to Robert.  He inserts questions and commentary to Robert, which is really Jacobsen speaking to us from the text.  Just as Markus queries Robert, Jacobsen asks us to take the risk of crossing the border between reality and fiction, to let the story have currency for us.  We aren’t traitors by crossing such a border, rather, it is how we create new worlds, new endings, ones we never would have conceived if not by the help of a gifted storyteller like Jacobsen to give us something to unpack.         




The Principle by Jerome Ferrari

In THE PRINCIPLE, narrator Jerome Ferrari (“I”), addresses physicist Werner Heisenberg as “you.” They play off each other like dueling measuring devices personifying Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: that the more precisely one measures the position of a given point, the less precisely its momentum can be measured and vice versa.  The narrator measures his own momentum as a writer trying to make his way in the aftermath of the discovery of quantum physics and nuclear power, while also trying to understand Heisenberg’s “position,” what his mental state must have been as he discovered what his work could mean.  As the narrator draws Heisenberg forth from the past into his own present, Ferrari explores the enduring fundamentals that shape all our lives, through triumphs and setbacks, controversy and compromise, precision and immeasurability.  

The book both begins and ends overlooking a magnificent landscape.  First, early in his career, on the island of Heligoland, Heisenberg “looks over God’s shoulder,” then, after his return to Germany following WWII, he returns to the mountains and lakes, “a place where it’s impossible for God’s love to lie.”  These bookends link themes present throughout the book, and bind the narrator and Heisenberg.  Chapter titles name these themes – Positions, Speed, Energy, and Time – but the beautiful scenes show how Ferrari develops them.  Coming back again and again to key phrases, such as those about God, as well as “the white rose, the almost inaudible sound of the silvery string,” and “master of Delphi,” Ferrari gives structure where “things have no core.”  The repeated phrases point to the abiding questions prodding the narrator and Heisenberg as they both build careers (or, in the narrator’s case, fail to build) during tumultuous times: what can I accomplish with the elements at hand and what is it all for?  Overlooking Earth’s grandeur provides perspective.

Perhaps, by working on the atomic bomb, Heisenberg undermines the beauty he lives for; Ferrari refuses to let judgement be the last word.  Instead, he tells a story, not unlike a letter, the overall effect of which is a sweeping, panoramic view of both the internal workings of one’s soul, as well as the wide scope of science in modern history, in short, the quantum effect.  On that note, I’ll end with the book’s last line, “I’ve never seen anything more beautiful in my life.”   

The Angel of History by Rabih Almeddine

Early in the book, Jacob says, “I am your angel of history,” to a bartender who’s name he mistakenly reads as Walter Benjamin.  Ironically, since Jacob is raised both Muslim and Catholic, Walter Benjamin is a Jewish Marxist philosopher who said: “this is how one pictures the angel of history.  His face is turned toward the past.  Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling up wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.”  In his battle against depression, Jacob confronts not only his personal past, but that of his namesake from the Koran, Torah and Old Testament.  His recovery is dependent on unshackling himself from Satan and Death, with the help of a cohort of saints.    

Rabih Alameddine brings to life an age old tale in an edgy contemporary setting.  Jacob is informed by Jacob in the Bible, as well as black gay poet, Wayne Corbitt, who died of AIDS in 1997.  Where Corbitt grew up in Indianapolis, Jacob grew up in Cairo whorehouse with his mother and “aunties” as well as in a Lebanese school run by French nuns, under his father’s orders.  But both find their home in San Francisco.  Corbitt dies, like all of Jacob’s friends.  Jacob regrets is that he doesn’t.  Having always been the sickly one, he endures caring for dying friends and lovers and Satan’s voice lodged in his ear.  “Satan was my Iblis, a lonely one with mischievous, insanely blue eyes.”  Satan and the saints want to enlist Jacob to help them fight a mythic battle but Jacob has his own war to fight with inanition.  In the last chapter (not the end of the story), he returns from psychiatric treatment writing poems on street signs and door frames, writing his way into existence, victoriously betraying Satan as Ya’cub, not Jacob.

The story flits from past to present, chapter by chapter.  Clues to our place in the chronology lie in the chapter titles.  Satan’s Interviews are conducted in the present, in Jacob’s apartment.  He enlists one or two co-conspirators at a time to talk about Jacob, always in the presence of Jacob’s beloved cat, Behemoth.  Then there are Jacob’s Journals, written in the present and addressed to his deceased lover, Doc. They contain anecdotes about his childhood as well as more recent past.  At the Clinic, Jacob takes a three day hiatus at a community treatment center shortly after Doc’s death.  He’s not presently in that state again, twenty years later, but is almost worse – taciturn, low libido and ready, finally, to settle (or give up) instead of moving to the next town or the next boyfriend, as has been his pattern since his teens.  Jacob also has Stories, not about himself, but fiction, drawing from his experiences.  As a writer (poet and short story), these are as much a part of his narrative as reality.  Writing, for Walter Benjamin, as well as for Jacob, becomes a way to make sense of the past as well as proceed into a better future.  The book ends not in the present, but at a pivotal point at which Jacob decides for life instead of death, even if it means continued struggle.  

The Cape Ann by Faith Sullivan

In this first of five novels about Harvester, Minnesota, we look through Lark Erhardt’s child eyes.  From first through fourth grade, the Cape Ann house design captures her dreams and desires, shaping how she sees her surroundings.  When her mother decides to move to California, where the Cape Ann will never be built, Lark draws up her own designs that carry her into a new life, a life she over which she has some control.

Having read the series of novels backwards, starting with the one published last, that ends the series, in this book I saw Harvester anew through Lark’s vision, full of wonder and metaphor.  Lark says, “patches of mystery, like patches of fog, obscured what I ought to know if I were ready to be seven years old.”  What she doesn’t understand as a seven year old allows her to show us readers a world our senses have taken for granted.  For example, she hears the neighbors’ night sounds: “‘More, more,’ he said, but she said, ‘No, it’s time,’ and they began bouncing up and down on the bed like children.  If I bounced on the bed that hard, Mama would come and make me stop.”  The world is exciting when it is new and “foggy,” but when Lark grows bored or afraid of the turmoil going on around her, like when she goes through first confessions or when her father berates her for biting her nails, she “slipped into the garden in the clock and discovered a pair of roller skates beside the dutch door to the cottage….  I was glad to have a cozy place to go.”  Imagination and reality go hand-in-hand for Lark.

Throughout the book, she sorts out fact from fiction.  What Lark knows she can trust is her mother’s plan to build the Cape Ann as soon as the family has enough money.  “If I lived in a house like that, I would develop willpower and be a better person,” she says.  The house, with its dormers and window seats, shrubs and trellis’, represents everything she wants and doesn’t have: willpower, her own room, and perfection such as Katherine Albers, a beautiful classmate, possesses.  She reads the blueprints and descriptions not only to look forward to the house itself, but to give herself goals and ignite the desire to achieve them.  

Her mother shows her how to understand the plans, just as she shows Lark how to take care of herself.  Her mother is a self-possessed woman, set on making a better life for her family with a new house to replace their current living situation in the train depot.  When she’s thwarted by a gambling husband, she leaves him to his own devices.  Meanwhile, her sister Aunt Betty is also at a crossroads with her husband.  Once they decide to set out for California together, they celebrate.  “‘To the three witches,’ Mama toasted, raising her glass and smiling at Aunt Betty and me.  Aunt Betty and I raise our glasses.  ‘To victory,’ Aunt Betty said.”  There is something magical about deciding one’s own fate, especially as a woman at the onset of WWII.  

Other female characters present contrasting examples to Lark.  Stella Wheeler, mom of Lark’s best friend Sally, whose story unfolds in The Empress of One, retreats from the pain in the world, crying and talking less and less.  When her friend Beverly tells her that Santa is pretend, that the parents deliver the presents, Lark runs screaming.  She flees another time when Maria, the healer who helps Aunt Betty during the tragic end to the birth of her first child, tells Lark, “not everything in church is truth… and not all truth turns up in church.”  Lark’s story is a search for whom to trust.

The Cape Ann hints at Lark’s trajectory.  She may not get the house, but is nourished by the hope of it.  From poring over the plans, she practices projecting herself into a picture of what could be.  On the train to California she and her mother have a conversation in the roles of Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Erhardt, respectively.  “It is easy to imagine doing painful things.  Before music class, when I was a child, I always imagined that I would volunteer to sing a solo.  When the time for solos came, like Mrs. Erhardt, I couldn’t breathe.  I couldn’t move at all.  ‘I don’t know how to solve the problem [of breathing again], Mrs. Brown.’  I told her, ‘It’s a long way to California, Mrs. Erhardt.  Maybe we’ll think of something.’”  The novel ends on this upward note, mother and daughter supporting one another as they both imagine and enact a better future for themselves.

The Mark of the King by Jocelyn Green

“You are a child of the King; it is His image you bear.  King Louis marked you with judgment, but the King of Kings covers you with grace.  Whose mark will you now display?”  These are the words the main character, Julianne, speaks to herself at the end of the book, when she’s come to a pivotal opportunity to either kill the man who has caused her grief over the course of the book, or save him.  Her words epitomize the trajectory of the story: Julianne’s life in Paris, then in New Orleans, is marked by decisions she can base either on spite or divine love.  We follow her dramatic adventure charting her course in a new territory, both geographically and in her heart.

Jocelyn Green’s historical fiction is based on the real story of female prisoners and male convicts sent to Louisiana from France in 1720.  In a nonstop series of calamities and graces, she imagines why these vulnerable people were chosen to become the inhabitants of France’s latest claim in the new world and what their experience is like.  

Julianne is sent to Paris’ notorious Salpetriere prison, after the mother of a baby she’s just delivered dies.  She’s a new midwife, assisted at this birth by her former teacher, who accuses her of causing the mother’s death.  In prison, Julianne is branded with a fleur-de-lys (the mark of King Louis) given the choice of death or a passage to Louisiana.  Little does she know that a new chance at freedom in Louisiana is nothing less than a different sort of imprisonment.  She is forced to marry a fellow felon.  Luckily, they become endeared to one another over the journey to New Orleans and in their new home, but soon after they arrive, husband Simon dies.  And then their child dies by miscarriage a few months later.  Julianne struggles to cope with her mounting grief: first her parents die when she is young, then the brother she is left to raise emigrates to Louisiana, then Simon and their baby, whom she names Benjamin after the brother she hopes to find in the new colony, both die.  Her friend Denise offers solace.  “Here, there is no church to go to at all.  But this is where I’ve been learning to pray….  Just as slippery elm soothes inflammation, prayer is a balm for a raw and ragged soul.”  Appealing to Julianne’s medical knowledge, she helps Julianne recognize God’s abiding presence.    

Julianne loses Simon but gains Marc-Paul, a French soldier who knew Benjamin and Simon.  When another soldier, Pascal, questions the legitimacy of Julianne’s practicing  midwifery in New Orleans, Marc-Paul defends her.  They marry, vowing to have no secrets.  However, Marc-Paul and Julianne both wait for the right moment to reveal secrets that might call their fidelity into question.  Marc-Paul’s secrets come from a time when law ruled his life.  “He followed the law, he stayed alive by the law, and he punished those who broke it.  But ever since he met Julianne Chevalier, a hunger for something more had grown in him.  Grace.  He craved grace.  For her and for himself.”  Julianne struggles to choose between loyalty to her husband and loyalty to Benjamin.  She loves them both but has reasons to mistrust both, too.

Without giving away the ending, I can say that the truth wins out.  The truth is a directive another of Julianne’s friends gives her: “Love your enemy, Julianne, and that poison in your heart will go away.”  Julianne’s mistrust evaporates as she works to keeps her family together.  God’s grace in her efforts prevails.  And Jocelyn Green’s efforts to move the story along with increasing plots twists, political intrigues and personal scandals makes discovering God’s love exciting!  Through the metaphors she employs (prominently, the mark) and the many chances she gives characters to  each other, she inspires readers to recognize grace in our own experiences.       

Normal by Warren Ellis

Normal is anything but.  Print novels are not what Warren Ellis normally writes (he’s more known for graphic novels and digital works).  The setting for the work is Normal Head, the last safe haven for people who have gone mad thinking about the future for a living.  What’s normal at Normal is what amiss.  

Adam Dearden is the latest arrival to Normal Head, having had a breakdown while working in Windhoek, a remote town in Namibia.  Upon arrival he meets Clough, who finds salvation in Danger Mouse, and Lela, an urbanist who won’t touch people, and Dickson, his aide.  By the time he meets Dr. Murgu, his psychologist, he’s had his fill of personalities.  “He just nodded.  This is how the cycle went.  Emotional incontinence, and then hyper-focused on the environment but drained of words.  No sensory input/output.  Human -shaped camera.  Two facets of terminal panic, he supposed.”  What is meant to be a place for healing wounds brought on by “abyss gaze,” Normal only offers Adam mystery.

The biggest mystery comes in the form of a disappeared patient (inmate).  Clough and Adam are present when Normal staff find not Mansfield in his bed at room check, but a swarm of insects.  Adam imagines what life must be like for such bugs.  To them, humans are “towering blurs of things, terrifying and unpredictable natural disasters on the move.”  Not content to let the staff solve the mystery for them, Adam leads a group of fellows to investigate for themselves.  What they find is that perhaps they aren’t terrible, moving, unpredictable blurs to the bugs, but that the bugs are a clue to a devastating and towering force at work among them.

“The thing about the future is that it keeps happening without you.”  In the midst of an invigorating investigation, during which Clough and Lela have more fun than they’ve had in months, Adam loses the will to live.  He knows too much.  He’s tried to predict and shape the future and has failed.  Does he have the will to try again, in as unconventional a manner as anything possible at Normal?

The short novel ends on a cliff hanger, apt for a book about the future.  What is yet to unfold, whether we’re involved in it or not, has a stranglehold on the present, on our reading experience.  Ellis excels at cinemographic engagement.  (Take patient Jasmin Bulat: “she wore a sports bra that may historically have been white and the ugliest knee-length shorts in the world.”)  The story happens in episodic bursts, less than 150 pages divided into three parts.  Don’t expect the “normal” dystopia woe.  Normal is part warning, part lament, part farce and part silent movie.

The Empress of One by Faith Sullivan

Sally Wheeler is The Empress of One.  When Sally is five, her father reads her the story of “The Empress of One Hundred,” about an empress who almost loses her whole kingdom when citizens drift away seeking neighboring villages’ monthly parties the empress bans in her own town after a subject is killed by an ogre.  The empress finds the parties frivolous in light of the town’s loss.  At the suggestion of a beloved advisor, the empress reinstates the parties, and with them her own joy.  When Sally is a teenager, her father accuses her of becoming an “empress of one,” of shutting out all her loved ones because of her sadness.  Old friends cajole Sally to find her passion again.  In so doing, she embraces her father’s accusation as a point of pride: she gains command of herself, regal in her bearing as an actress, daughter, granddaughter and friend.

The second of five stories about Harvester, Minnesota, after Cape Ann, this one focuses again on the place of imagination in the process of healing.  Shortly after her father reads her The Empress of One, Sally’s mother is committed to a mental institution in St. Peter.  Sally not only endures her mother’s increasing distance during her grade school years, but then her absence and the taunts of her school mates, as well as her father’s divided attention as he builds a teaching career and cares for her.  She wonders if she will follow her mother’s fate, and, indeed, in high school she almost comes undone.  She falls in love with Cole Barnstable, cousin to Neddy Barnstable, who’s always had a crush on Sally.  Cole is brash and brazen to Neddy’s calm politeness.  “I feel like I’ve known Cole since Day One of the Universe, like we came from the same lump of clay.  When I put my hand on his arm… it’s as if two parts of me that got separated a million years ago are back together.”  But Cole needs more than Sally can give.  When she won’t give up the only thing keeping her in school, he takes revenge.  And in return for Cole’s trouble, Sally accepts Neddy Barnstable’s request to write and act with him and the other Harvest Moon Motleys acting troupe, started by their late speech teacher M. Davis.  She calls her piece The Kingdom of Making Sense.

If not in honor of Mr. Davis, Sally says she wouldn’t have done the play.  Faith Sullivan sets Cole’s revengeful act against Sally’s brave memorial to a teacher who caused a scandal in the town but compelled Sally to recognize her gift for acting.  Before Sally’s debut in acting, narrating the second grade Christmas program, her teacher gets her out on stage, encouraging her to “give everyone a Christmas present… make them forget that the car wouldn’t start this morning, and the dog died last night, and all we had to eat this week was beans and bread….  I chose you for narrator because I knew you could do that.”  Not only does Sally succeed in her narration, she succeeds that Christmas in pretending Santa is real, to please her grandparents.  She waits for them at the tree Christmas morning, calling, “come see what Santa brought!”  It isn’t just presents, but a great actress of a granddaughter, who uses her acting as a gift for others.  

Sally’s acting is as much a gift to others as it is healing to herself.  Mr. Davis casts her as Emily in Our Town even after a lackluster audition.  When he calls her in to tell her, she asks, “you sure this isn’t some kind of therapy?”  He reassures her that, “I’m casting you as Emily because you’ll do the best job.”  Of course, he knows playing the part will heal her from the tragedy of her home and love life, but that that isn’t why she’s compelled to act.  Her mother’s committal and subsequent death, as well as a failing love affair, certainly give her reason to escape into the world of pretend, but they can’t sustain her commitment.  When Cole asks her why she needs to be in Our Town, against his wishes, she answers, “‘because I can die and come back as somebody else.’  She couldn’t think of anything more satisfying, necessary, impossible to explain, or impossible for someone else to understand, than that.”  Propelled into acting against forces in her life from which she runs, acting gives an ultimate gift back to her.

Sally comes of age in this novel, and at the same time becomes tangible evidence of art’s life-giving properties.  Just as Sally finds rejuvenation and purpose in acting, we readers find solace and hope in Faith Sullivan’s novel about her.  We enter the kingdom where ogres roam, wars rage, loved ones die, and where pleasure is still possible, through our own creative acts and experiences.  We further explore such creations in subsequent novels about Harvester: Gardenias, What a Woman Must Do, and Goodnight, Mr. Wodehouse.