Once Upon a River
Bonnie Jo Campbell
We find ourselves in the early 1980s in a rural Michigan town that is bracing against the loss of its industry, and the poverty, ferocity, and malaise that comes after it. Margo Crane is a sixteen-year-old girl whose hero is Annie Oakley -- another poor young woman from the woods who had unnerving accuracy with a rifle. Margo takes off on the Stark River with her boat after the violent death of her father, a death charged by choices she made after being raped in a pretend-it-never-happened assault at a Thanksgiving celebration. Margo takes her gun and little else on a journey that is rife with both danger and shine as she searches for a way to live a life that is both free and safe, on the river and grounded.
It will be hard for critics to not describe this as a female incarnation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, though I don't know how much that comparison actually conveys about this book. Campbell's novel is a dark one that nevertheless has a languidness that is hard to shake when you put it down. This book has both the sweetness and the bitterness of heartache. It is a song for the natural world, for quiet and watchful young women, for the brutal breadth of possibilities, and for the brave self that meets what is there to be met. However, I did not fall in love with this novel as I did with Campbell's collection of stories, American Salvage, which I reviewed here and which shares a landscape and sensibility with Once Upon a River. Her fiction simply seems more precise and potent when it comes in short form. Spread out as a novel, the fire burned smaller.
Too Much Happiness
Brilliant, immersive, engaging, jeweled ... it's the usual mixture from Alice Munro in the ten stories that make up this collection. Munro reminds me why I love her every time I read her. Her distilled empathy makes it possible for me to inhabit the characters that live in here, and her stories hinge on having something worth telling. She is, simply, interesting. There is drama here -- adultery, romance, death, murder, childish self-mutilation, accidents, broken hearts, rejection, religion, and, oh yes, a wealthy man asking a college student he just met to read to him while she is naked -- but the stories unfold in a way that is weird in their planspokeness, bright in their subdued ardor.
The stories in the second half are not as impressive; they seem less cohesive and were simply less compelling than the stories in the first half. My avid reading slowed; I put down some short stories partway through and came back to them the next day, which is an unusual way for me to read short fiction. I did appreciate seeing Munro take a few risks with her form and vantage. And with content as well: such as in her title-tale rendering in of Sophia Kovalevsky, a 19th-century Russian mathematician and novelist. Munro risks strangeness in these stories. But it leaves a pattern of weak spots, like bruises in the flesh of an apple, along the way.
Half of a Yellow Sun
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This is Adichie's most celebrated novel, and winner of the Orange Prize: a story of the doomed Biafran war of independence with Nigeria (1967-70) that is told from three point-of-views, as well as an italicised history written by a yet-to-be revealed author-character. This novel is smart, fascinating, and has a fearlessly epic scope. A convincing ensemble cast. An impossibly savvy (and often heartbreaking) fusion of personal and political drama. There is a narrative slump about two-thirds of the way through, where the author seems to be fumbling with all that she's created; the malaise that comes to our war-weary characters also comes to the pages of their novel. I was also frustrated with the character of Baby, whose only purpose seems to be a daughter that Olanna (one of our protagonists) loves and fears losing; she is a generic child who appears (and ages) enough for this to be distracting.