Cristina Henriquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans (2014)

Book Unknown Americans Henriquez

Bond Street Books – Random House, 2014

It’s risky, fragmenting narration into a large number of voices, but it’s the perfect format for a novel about the experiences of newcomers to the United States, who can have an astonishing variety of experiences.

Readers might expect to face a disadvantage, being unable to attach to a particular character, but Cristina Henriquez balances the introduction of an expanse of characters, some of whom only present a single segment in the novel, with a core set which makes regular reappearances. The connection is slow to build, but particular narrative threads take root in readers and engage them more determinedly.

With a myriad of voices, the emphasis is on the specific experiences each person has. And, yet, there are moments in which broader statements are made as particular voices step out from the crowd.

“Sr. Rivera said, ‘But here? It’s safe, no?’
‘It’s not as safe as it used to be,’ my dad said.
‘But it’s safe,’ Sr. Rivera pressed, like he wanted to be reassured.
‘Yes,’ my dad said. ‘Compared to where any of us are from, it’s safe.’”

The belief that something else will be better has played a role in every character’s experience. This is particularly prominent in the scenes in this novel which focus on family life, fathers and mothers negotiating the stuff of everyday, from school registration to procuring and preparing food in a foreign culture. But even amidst such a variety of voices, from landlords to mushroom farmers, there are some similarities.

“Maybe it’s the instinct of every immigrant, born of necessity or of longing: Someplace else will be better than here. And the condition: if only I can get to that place.”

The core group of characters seems to focus on the experience of two teenagers, whose parents have come to the United States believing that it will provide greater safety for their families than their homelands offered.

Partly because the families are at different stages in the process of acclimatization and partly because the author strives to make characters’ voices distinct, the members of these two families have different perspectives on their lives, not only in terms of current living conditions but also regarding the possibility of a romantic relationship between the young people.

Beyond the everyday tensions surrounding their adjustment to new surroundings, these tensions are at the heart of the novel. The Book of Everyday Americans appears somewhat distanced, almost journalistic in its style initially, but as the colours in the kaleidoscopic view intensify, the events in the novel will carry a greater heft than readers will expect.

Second Story Press, 2014

Second Story Press, 2014

Beth Goobie’s The First Principles of Dreaming (2014)

Beth Goobie has written novels for teens before and now turns her hand to a coming-of-age novel which exposes the complexity of a young woman’s shifting identity.

Mary-Eve Hamilton has already experienced some radical alterations in her understanding of her place in the world before readers meet her on the page.

“From that moment on, I knew my mother could not see me. The landscapes we inhabited were too different – what she saw was not what I saw; what surrounded her disdained and shut me out. By haunting her footsteps, I was able to catch occasional glimpses into her realm, but she wandered a part of the mind I could not enter; I stood on the edge of a world she had passed through to, a world I had been refused.”

Had Mary-Eve’s mother simply withdrawn, that would have been difficult enough, but her main source of communion is a religious fervour which distances her even further from her family and the wider community. The effect on Mary-Eve is dramatic and lasting.

Naming in this novel is crucial and Mary-Eve’s transformation into Jez (Jezebel) presents a swatch of conflict for readers, who understand her inner struggle to test and pass the limits she has felt upon her identity. Readers’ understanding grows as more information about the family’s experiences is revealed and challenges force Jez to grapple with questions about friendship, sexuality and faith, while testing the boundaries of her own self.

The style is intense and highly emotive, which reflects the heightened drama of Jez’s age and stage in life. This is emphasized by a series of dream-like passages which are almost overwhelming and work to depict the intensity of the transformation that she is experiencing.

The novel moves at a steady pace and culminates in a fervour of activity which is unexpected  but, in hindsight, seems inevitable. Much of The First Principles of Dreaming is like a bad dream readers might want to shake, but it is a testament to the author’s skill that scenes perhaps-better-forgotten persist and linger in readers’ minds.

House of Anansi, 2014

House of Anansi, 2014

Lynn Thomson’s Birding with Yeats (2014)

You can mark the places you have been birding on a map, but it is not only about the outer geography but the inner journey as well. Lynn Thomson describes this very well:

“For birdwatching is a place, not just an activity. It’s a place I knew I could go to in my mind when day-to-day life seemed overwhelming. I could remember seeing ducks bobbing on the frozen waters of the outer harbor, for example, and feeling my blood pressure drop. I saw that place in my boy as I watched him go out to heal his spirit.”

Her memoir wanders from talk of doing, to talk of being, and back and forth repeatedly. The passages about working in Ben McNally Books (a family business) nestle up against talk of parenting her son, Yeats, and musings upon bird sightings: it is all-of-a-piece.

The occasion for a memoir presents itself and Lynn Thomson is attentive.

“It felt like I was under notice from the universe to slow right down. It was time to stop doing all the most important things I’d taken for granted – work, writing, exercise, sleep – and figure out who I was once these aspects of my life were taken away. It was time to reconsider everything.”

Among other activities, birding takes on a new significance.

“I imagined that I felt the birds fly past us, felt the small rush of air and the pulse of their wings, but I know I didn’t. It had happened too quickly to feel such sensation. What I felt was this tremendous sense of belonging; that I belonged with these people and on this earth.”

Readers who are not birders will recognize this sense of communion and even if they locate it for themselves elsewhere, Lynn Thomson’s descriptions invite readers with varying degrees of interest in the avian kingdom to participate in her reconsideration of her middle years in Birding with Yeats.

Have you read any of these? Or, are they on your TBR list/stack?