Short Takes

Short Takes

Reviews of novels by Anne Tyler, Chris Abani, and Rodrigo Fresan.

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Digging to America.
By Anne Tyler. Knopf. 277 pp. $24.95.

Toward the end of Digging to America, Maryam, the elegant widowed Iranian-American who forms the emotional heart of Anne Tyler’s excellent new novel, wonders whether “every decision she had ever made had been geared toward preserving her outsiderness.” Tyler has written an acutely observed physiological study of belonging and identity–to country, to family and to one’s own self. In doing so she has created two utterly believable families: the Iranian Yazdans–Ziba, Sami and Sami’s long-suffering mother, Maryam–and the unapologetically white middle-class Americans Brad and Bitsy Donaldson. Their lives unexpectedly intersect at Baltimore Airport as Bitsy and Ziba anxiously await the delivery of their adoptive Korean daughters, Jin-Ho and Susan. This date marks the beginning of a long, occasionally perplexing and ultimately rewarding friendship between the families, one that is punctuated by the annual and hilarious “Arrival Party”–an invented tradition that celebrates the anniversary of both daughters’ arrival in America.

In a style reminiscent of a seventeenth-century novel Tyler shifts perspective between her characters, creating a complex interior landscape that explores the fraught yet rewarding ties of motherhood and family. Underlying Bitsy and Ziba’s friendship is their shared infertility. In one touching moment Ziba tells Bitsy that “her parents believed that people who couldn’t have children shouldn’t have children.” Bitsy covers “Ziba’s hand with her own” and looks up: “Ziba’s eyes had flooded suddenly with tears.”

In Digging to America, her seventeenth novel, Tyler shows us how all people–American, Iranian, Korean–improvise their lives, fashioning a narrative to make sense of the bewildering circumstances in which they often find themselves. And as Maryam realizes, it is through recognizing our own struggle in those of others that we move from a sense of “outsiderness” to one of belonging. –RB

Becoming Abigail.
By Chris Abani. Akashic. 119 pp. $11.95.

“And this. Even this. This memory like all the others was a lie.” So begins Chris Abani’s novella Becoming Abigail, a darkly poetic investigation into the past’s deceptive hold over the present. The Abigail of the title refers to both Abani’s heroine–a young Nigerian girl whose suicidal father sends her to England to live with a “cousin” who tries to force her into prostitution–and her mother, who died in childbirth and whose shadow touches every page.

The author of the novel GraceLand (2004) and an accomplished poet who was imprisoned in Nigeria for his writing and activism, Abani writes in dense, gorgeous prose in Becoming Abigail. Alternating between “Now” and “Then,” the story shifts restlessly between the present moment in London and Abigail’s childhood in Nigeria. Abani follows the trajectory of a woman who has never known the reassuring ceremony of everyday life: “Childhood. It was perhaps the one thing Abigail had never really had, and yet truly needed.” This absence permeates Becoming Abigail, and it compels Abigail to create her own rituals–mapping moments of pain and pleasure in pointillist designs of cigarette burns across her skin. In the absence of memory, she becomes her own cartographer.

Abigail is not a creature of pity but inspiration; she is not diminished by her experiences but strengthened by them. For all the pain that she suffers, she retains a capacity for love. When she does–briefly–find real love, it too becomes a memory. But unlike her earlier imaginings of her mother, this memory is real. In recognizing that the pain of this final loss is irrevocable, Abigail at last takes control of her destiny. –RB

Kensington Gardens.
By Rodrigo Fresán. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 370 pp. $25.

Rodrigo Fresán’s first novel to be translated into English opens just as notoriously weird children’s writer Peter Hook has kidnapped the child star of the film version of his famed Jim Yang series. Over the course of their long night together, Hook tells young Keiko Kai the life story of his hero and obsession, J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan. Bouncing among Victorian England, the swinging ’60s of Hook’s childhood and the present, Fresán beautifully and grandly captures the mind of a madman who’s caught in an all-too-ordinary dilemma: A little boy who didn’t want to grow up, Hook has now become something much more monstrous than an adult. A living ghost, ensnared in the overlap between Barrie’s biography and the trauma of his past, he’s a captive of his own wonderfully twisted psychedelic fantasies. He writes not “in order to be someone” but “to be someone else.” And he can, because memory is “constructed out of what we remember, and also out of what we’ve decided to forget.” Yet like the ticking clock buried in the belly of the crocodile that follows Captain Hook, time, marching on, catches up with him in the end. — CS

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